News is emerging that an oil tanker has been hijacked off the Nigerian coast. This appears to be part of a growing trend, and one that was predicted in these pages four years ago (even a blind pig sometimes finds a truffle). Back in December 2008 I wrote of the attractions of West Africa as a venue for piracy, suggesting that its coast ‘has many of the elements that make Somalia a good spot for a bit of buccaneering – rank poverty, lots of underemployed young men, unstable governments, endemic corruption and favourable geography.’ If ships start going the long way round the Horn of Africa to avoid the East African coast, I added, ‘they might be in for a nasty surprise when they reach the opposite side of the continent.’
A few months later I posted this map published by the International Maritime Bureau, showing the global distribution of pirate attacks in the first part of 2009:
You need only compare this with the IMB’s latest 2012 map to see how rapidly the industry has expanded in West Africa:
On a beach in Málaga the other day I asked a Senegalese handbag seller if the collapse of Spain’s economy, whose effect on business has made life increasingly difficult for the many African hawkers who work the sands of the Costa del Sol, had prompted him to consider returning to his native land. ‘No,’ he replied without hesitation. ‘Things are bad in Europe, but they are much worse in Africa. Unless you’re related to a government minister you can’t make a living there. People say Africa is improving, and there is a lot of money there, but only those in power see any of it. Everybody else is still poor.’
Bafflingly, the number of sub-Saharan Africans trying to breach Spain’s defences has mushroomed in the past few months. According to El País the number of migrants amassing at the border between Morocco and the Spanish North African enclave of Melilla has quadrupled this year from a rolling average of about 250 to 1,000. Only last week a group of 450 stormed the six-metre high fence that separates them from the country of their dreams; sixty made it through, and are now beginning the long struggle to find themselves a place in a rapidly shrinking economy.
Those who fail to make it over the fence either flee to the wooded hills overlooking the border or are arrested and taken in coaches to eastern Morocco, from where they begin again the gruelling slog towards Europe. Life in the border forests is hard. The Moroccan police, says El País, have stepped up their searches, rounding up hundreds of hopeful young migrants in recent weeks. Those who slip through the net, fearful of capture and the beatings that accompany every arrest, ‘no longer go down to the market in Beni Enzar at the end of the day to scavenge for scraps of food among the rubbish. Nor do they dare go to Farhana to beg for money and food, or to the springs for water…Survival has become very difficult.’
Spanish and Moroccan officials are perplexed by the sudden increase in numbers. Among the former are some who attribute it to deliberate laxity by the Moroccans, who they suspect of allowing more migrants to gather at the border in order to extract funds or some other political concessions from the Spanish government. Others ascribe the increase to the unrest in the Ivory Coast and Mali, and it appears that a large proportion of those camping out in the forests are from those two unstable nations and from impoverished Niger and Burkina Faso, which are struggling to deal with the fallout from their neighbours’ troubles.
Whatever the reasons, and despite the economic turmoil in Europe, the desperation of those who reach the border shows no signs of abating. ‘Even if it takes ten years and I have to live in this forest for those ten years,’ one Ivorian told El País, ‘I will make it into Melilla.’ A young Burkinabe, meanwhile, who has so far spent eight months sleeping under the trees and living on what he can find in rubbish bins, was equally vehement: ‘You say that Spain’s in crisis? That Europe’s in crisis? Africa’s worse than in crisis; it’s dead. My grandfather was poor. My father was poor. My mother was poor. I am poor. Whatever the crisis in Spain, I can’t imagine it can be any worse than what’s happening in my country.’
Nigeria is not known for strong governance. On the contrary, it is arguably one of worse governed countries in the world, losing hundreds of billions of dollars to corruption and waste over the past four decades. Yet, it has two important governance achievements worth emulating.
First, it has devised a system of decentralization that has sharply reduced ethnic conflict. And second it has a major metropolis that increasingly is acting like one of a handful of city development states–large urban areas in developing countries that are driving progress forward in a way typically associated with well-managed central governments.
In Nigeria’s case, the central government has worked so badly for so long and is so poisoned by its access to and dependence on oil money that state and city led development may be the only way to achieve progress. (more…)
Last Friday, just as West Africa watchers were recovering from the excitement of the coup d’état in Mali a couple of weeks back, little Guinea-Bissau piped up with a putsch of its own. A group of soldiers attacked the residence of the prime minister and presidential candidate, Carlos Gomes Jr, and arrested him and the country’s interim president, Raimundo Pereira. They subsequently declared that they were forced to take action after discovering a secret document signed by Gomes Jr that gave a detachment of Angolan soldiers permission to “annihilate” Guinea-Bissau’s army. Said soldiers had been in the country, at Gomes Jr’s request, for a few weeks, ostensibly to restructure and reform the bloated military.
The secret document is quite likely to be a fabrication, but it seems probable that the coup happened because the army had had enough of Gomes Jr’s meddling and wanted to re-establish its authority. Indeed, the Transitional Council it has set up to run the country while the putschists decide its long-term future includes 22 opposition parties but has explicitly excluded Gomes Jr’s ruling party, the PAIGC.
The invitation to the Angolans was a provocative move. Downsizing the military would reduce its access to the lucrative drug trade which for the past few years, as Guinea-Bissau has become a staging post on the cocaine route from South America to Europe, has filled the coffers of the country’s top army, navy and air force officials. It is not known whether Gomes Jr was himself involved in the trade and wanted to weaken the competition (his late predecessor Nino Vieira almost certainly enriched himself with a spot of narcotrafficking on the side), but his removal from power – and he was very likely to win the presidency in the second round of voting later this month – leaves the way clear for the army to continue to profit from the cocaine boom.
Who is behind the coup is not clear. My immediate thought was that army chief-of-staff Antonio Indjai, a shrewd operator who has sidelined rivals such as former navy boss Bubo Na Tchuto and who a couple of years back briefly arrested Gomes Jr and labelled him a criminal, was masterminding things, and it seems Indjai attended the first two post-coup meetings between the junta and opposition leaders. Guinea-Bissau’s leading blogger, Antonio Aly Silva, was of the same opinion, and was arrested shortly after posting that the army chief was in control (he was later released after receiving a beating and having many of his valuables stolen).
But reports have recently emerged that Indjai himself has been arrested, and that his number two Mamadu Ture Kuruma is in control. This made me wonder if Bubo Na Tchuto, a popular and influential figure who has attempted at least two coups in the recent past, was taking his revenge on his former ally, and at the same time eliminating another rival in Gomes Jr. Investigating, I found a single article from the Spanish news agency EFE claiming that Bubo, who has been described as a drug kingpin by the US, had indeed been released from prison over the weekend, that “military sources” said he had been collected from his cell by a group of uniformed men. This, I thought, confirmed my suspicions, but just as I was congratulating myself for my detective work I was shocked to read the last few words of the article, which stated that ‘according to unconfirmed rumours, Bubo was executed in the early hours of the morning.’
So we still do not know who is really in charge. Guinea-Bissau’s foreign minister is convinced that Indjai holds the reins and has dismissed rumours of his arrest as ridiculous. Bubo may or may not be alive, and may or may not be the coup mastermind. Indjai’s number two is also on the list of suspects, as is opposition presidential candidate Kumba Yala, who looks like benefiting from the political agreement (although at least one source says he too has been arrested).
But although speculating is interesting, to a large extent it does not matter who planned the coup. The real power in the country is held by the drug barons from South America, and this coup, like several before it and no doubt many more in the coming years, is really a squabble over who gets access to their gifts.
Update: Kumba Yala has denounced the coup and refused to join the “Transitional Council“, which coup leaders say will run the country for the next 1-2 years.
Update #2: This report (in Portuguese) suggests that Antonio Indjai had threatened to attack Angolan troops on 5 April, at a meeting of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) in Abidjan. Indjai complained that the Angolans had heavy armaments, including fourteen tanks, and warned ECOWAS that its emergency forces would soon have to go into Guinea-Bissau as well as Mali.
The radical Islamist group Boko Haram obviously does not like Christmas:
Five bombs exploded on Christmas Day at churches in Nigeria, one killing at least 27 people, raising fears that Islamist militant group Boko Haram – which claimed responsibility – is trying to ignite sectarian civil war.
Gun battles between security forces and the sect also killed at least 68 people in the last few days in northern Nigeria. Earlier this year, the Islamists struck the capital, Abuja, twice, including a suicide car bomb attack against the United Nations headquarters that killed 26 people.
Nigeria has stark ethnic and religious divisions and a history of Muslim-Christian violence. Such attacks are unlikely to improve matters.
Unfortunately, the country’s weak institutions make it ill-prepared to deal with threats like this. It is unlikely to have the capacity to meet the challenge. Expect more attacks in the coming months.