#Mauritania: On The Edge

Harsh Desert Conditions
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Update of an article which originally appeared in Zenith Online in April 2012, when it seemed that all Mauritania’s sources of discontent were erupting at once. But protests are nothing new in this land where a coup has been the answer to every political ill, whether real or imagined, for decades.

Operating in a Constitutional Vacuum

General Aziz

The coup in which the Aziz regime seized power in 2008 created a wave of protest, which continued despite General Aziz switching to civilian garb and claiming a democratic victory in the 2009 presidential election. After a year in which they failed to complete national registration, failed to maintain dialogue with the opposition, and postponed legislative, parliamentary and municipal elections indefinitely, the Aziz government is no longer teetering on the brink of legitimacy: it fell off that precipice back in November 2011 when the mandate of the government expired. The only legally elected official in Mauritania is now the president, Mohammed Ould Abdel Aziz. Many of those who accused the junta of merely paying lip-service to democracy in order to add a veneer of respectability and secure regional and international acceptance (and funding) are now feeling fully vindicated.

Anti-government protests which resurfaced last year gradually increased since February 2012 to become a daily occurrence in Nouakchott, Nouadhibou and other towns further afield. Incidents of strikes have also increased, with actions by fishermen, mining workers, teachers, college professors and students. Even a group of administrators for the national registration programme threatened a strike over pay and conditions. Throughout all this, the junta continues to impose constitutional and legislative changes, and to enter into financial and trade agreements with foreign investors, lenders, and trade partners.

Neighbourhood Watch

Mauritania map

Geographically, Mauritania is a foreign invention. The uncomfortably angular shape of Mauritania’s north eastern borders were decided long ago by colonial powers in London and Paris. There are few links with London now, although last October, William Hague did become the first the British Foreign Secretary to visit. But deep ties with France persist, and many are watching to see how Hollande’s victory in the French presidential election will impact the country. The neighbours who inhabit the other side of those awkward borders are also subject to the vagaries of Mauritania’s fickle nature. Western Sahara lost it’s southern region to Morocco when Mauritania decided to withdraw from occupation after being outclassed by the POLISARIO rebel force in 1979. This land that only time remembers, and which the world tries to ignore, now presses in awkward silence against the north-western border, a permanent reminder of Mauritania’s humiliating defeat, tribal hegemony and political naivety.

During the relatively brief 1989 conflict with Senegal, tens of thousands were forcibly expelled or repatriated between the two countries. The enmity was eventually resolved, but there is no great bond between them, as the April2012 crackdown on Senegalese workers and residents in Nouadhibou demonstrates. While Mauritania worked with the UN HCR to repatriate some of the Senegal refugees, a process which was declared complete only in March 2012, those in Mali were never even counted. In a peculiarly schizophrenic episode, tens of thousands of refugees displaced by the unrest in Mali are now being sheltered in Mauritania. In Mali’s case, there is an almost total lack of respect for its sovereignty: Mauritania maintains close associations with the MNLA (Mouvement National pour la Libération de l’Azawad) and conducts frequent military sorties supposedly targeting AQIM (Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb) – even if those targets turn out to be civilians. With the introduction in May 2012 of a new residency tax for all foreign nationals of 30,000 MRO per person, including children, Mauritania now appears to be in breach of two clauses of its 1963 accord with Mali, which prohibits both taxation on citizens and uninvited military presence.

As a member of the Arab League, Mauritania has always had close relations with the Gulf States, although we are encouraged by unreliable media sources to consider some, for example Saudi Arabia or Kuwait, as being closer than others. Once deeply indebted to Muammar Gaddafi’s patronage, Mauritania was an unexpected choice as chair of the African Union’s special committee on Libya during the 2011 uprising. It was also one of the last of the Arab states to officially recognize the National Transitional Council, and entertained visitors from both sides during last year’s conflict.  This year finds Mauritania playing host to former Libyan intelligence chief Abdullah al-Senussi, after an improbable arrest (which France claimed to have a hand with) and showing no signs of releasing him from “detention” any time soon.

Islamic in Moderation

One of only four Islamic Republics in the world, Mauritania might be expected to enjoy close relations with Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan, but this is not the case. Relations with Iran did seem warm last September, when they received Ahmadinejad and his entourage on the way to and from the UN General Assembly in New York, then seemed to have cooled by March, when Mauritania voted in favour of extending the UN Human Rights Special Rapporteur’s mandate. But by early April, Iran had “repatriated” former Al Qaeda strategist Mahfouz Ould al Walid aka Abu Hafs al Mauritani, who arrived to join his family, already returned from Iran. For company, they have one of Osama bin Laden’s former wives and her children, while Mali is fast becoming the Al Qaeda time-share capital of Africa.

Mauritania is reportedly keeping al Walid in detention and there are unconfirmed reports that he has refused visits and food in protest at being pressured to meet with delegations from “foreign powers”. Such reports have all the hallmarks of a smokescreen intended to dampen observers’ inclinations to link his presence in Mauritania with reports of increasing AQIM activity in the Sahel, or indeed with the recent spate of allegedly successful US drone attacks on Al Qaeda leadership figures. By all accounts, Mauritania is firmly against terrorism, and its preferred brand of moderate Islam is jihad-free. In fact the government has carved out a cosy niche as a player in the global war on terror, with its lucrative funding opportunities. This might get a boost due to the level of hysteria about Mali. For development funding, the EU remains an important source of funds and is joined by Japan, Spain, China and others. All of these donors surely know that their funds are being sieved through a mesh of corruption but they seem unperturbed.

Not Just Desert

Harsh Desert Conditions

Despite it’s massive land area of over 1 million km2, the majority of Mauritania’s population – which is roughly the same as that of Berlin – is concentrated in the capital Nouakchott, and the port of Nouadhibou. These cities lie on the West coast where the Sahara desert meets Mauritania’s vast fishing grounds in the Atlantic ocean. While the sea provides a wealth of fish, not much reaches land: most of it is destined for export after processing in huge factory ships. The European Union recently ordered its fleet to cease fishing in the waters, as the quota has been reached and their agreement expires in July 2012. Meanwhile, China has moved in as another pelagic fishing partner in a deal that was denounced as unfavourable and suspect.

The vast desert, though inhospitable, is also rich in natural resources such as iron, copper, gold and gypsum. One of the major criticisms levelled at the government concerns mining rights sold to foreign companies, such as Canada’s Kinross, on terms which fail to provide a reasonable return. Mining workers appear to be trapped in a cycle of industrial action and broken or half-kept promises, although an unprecedented and costly 5-day strike by 1500 Kinross workers in early June appears to have improved their situation.

Decades of desertification and increasing frequency of severe drought have pushed people from a life of humble self-sufficiency as smallholders in rural villages to the cities. It’s a race for survival, with the edge of Africa as the finishing line. But there are few opportunities for skilled workers or university graduates in the cities, fewer still for semi-nomadic herdsmen and farmers with only a rudimentary education. The towns were not built to cope with such dramatic increase: essential support infrastructure is lacking, and plans to create or improve it are failing to keep pace. This situation is the basis for a raft of social issues – unemployment, poverty, homelessness, healthcare, education, social welfare – a constant source of domestic tension. Another source of social friction is racial discrimination, inescapable in a country with such a mixture of “white” and “black” Moors as well as black Africans and all possible variants. Racial division is a “hot button” and the regime is highly skilled at applying pressure whenever it suits.

Sowing Division, Reaping Chaos

In April 2011, when the new population census and biometric registration programme was launched, there was an outcry over allegations of racial prejudice against citizens of black African heredity.  This year, it was the turn of slavery to grab headlines.  Recent media focus on slavery actually garnered little attention inside the country until a Saudi cleric suggested Muslims could seek atonement by purchasing the freedom of slaves, who he said  were readily-available in Mauritania. This was followed by a comment from the cleric Cheikh Dedew, who is also the patron of the Islamist party, Tewassoul. Dedew made a statement along the lines of “slavery does not exist in Mauritania”. In turn, this provoked Biram Ould Abeid, president of anti-slavery group “IRA” to hold his own Friday prayer meeting on 27 April, and afterwards burn several volumes by Islamic scholars which he said condone slavery through Islam.

Aziz goes Trad

The response was immediate and significant, some might even say orchestrated. Angry protesters marched to the Presidential palace the next day, and president Aziz came out to meet them in full traditional dress instead of the usual couture suit, promising to defend Islam. Biram Ould Abeid and 9 of his associates were arrested that evening. Protests against Biram’s act continued for a time, with demands ranging from an apology to expulsion, and even execution for apostasy. Mauritania does include some precepts of Islamic “Sharia” law, but has not actually executed anyone for many years. Whether knowingly or not, Biram Ould Abeid’s attempt to demonstrate a link between Islam and slavery provided a golden opportunity for Aziz to stifle the slavery debate and restore his flagging reputation by championing the one thing all people in Mauritania have in common: Islam.

As the indignation began to wane, regular Saturday protests by supporters of Biram and his fellow-prisoners began, and were immediately and repeatedly repressed by police with customary violence. Biram’s wife Leyla was attacked several times, and on one occasion shot in the face with a tear gas grenade. On 9 June 2012, a young man – who was not part of the protest, but a shopkeeper on one of the roads where police were clashing with the unarmed protesters – died from tear gas suffocation. As has been the case with previous incidents, officials denied any wrongdoing and claimed the youth died from a pre-existing medical complaint. Biram has in fact published an apology but he and six others, including a journalist, remain in custody.

Now Mauritania appears to be entering a new phase in its ever-evolving struggle. Last week there was a visit from the UN representative for West Africa, fresh from talks with ECOWAS* about the situation in Mali. He met with leaders of the the political opposition coalition for about half an hour before meeting with Aziz. Former transitional leader Ely Ould Mohammed Vall, a cousin of Aziz, provided some distraction by allowing himself to be quoted making outlandish and insulting comments about the 1989 atrocities. This got the abolitionists and anti-racists nicely worked up, while Massoud Ould Belkhair, leader of the more compliant opposition, worked on COD leaders by making overtures about dialogue. For the hat-trick, the failed group which was created last year to call for a national unity government was brought out of cold storage.

Former Chief Justice Ould Ghilani

In the background, the illegal Aziz government pressed on with its agenda. Unqualified diplomats have been dispatched to various international locations. Unqualified candidates have been assigned to a new Electoral Commission, and the former Chief Justice Ould Ghilani was removed from his post and replaced by a very junior and inexperienced jurist. Legislative elections are still not scheduled, but the country’s jurists are forming a union of sorts, just to keep themselves occupied. Next for the arbitrary chop could be the Chief of the Bar Association, Ould Boubehna, who is talking far too much sense these days, echoing constitutional law expert Lo Gormo’s 3 March pronouncement on the government’s  lack of legitimacy.

Eventually, all these issues must be resolved. It is not possible to continue like this indefinitely. The lack of comment or concern over this constitutional imbroglio from international partners, and their willingness to enter into legal agreements, provide aid, and accept and extend invitations to a government which has remained in power through a “coup by default” is at best puzzling and at worst hypocritical.

*Mauritania is not a member of ECOWAS.

Black Tuesday in #Mali – Ansar Dine Attack Tuareg Women in Public

Tin Hinan is the name given by the Tuareg to a 4th-century woman of prestige whose monumental tomb is located in the Sahara at Abalessa in the Ahaggar or Hoggar region of Algeria. The name means literally “she of the tents”, but may be metaphorically translated as “mother of the tribe” (or “of us all”) or even “queen of the camp” (the “camp” maybe referring to the group of tombs which surround hers). She is sometimes referred to as “Queen of the Hoggar”, and by the Tuareg as tamenoukalt which also means queen.
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Tin Hinan is the name given by the Tuareg to a 4th-century woman of prestige whose monumental tomb is located in the Sahara at Abalessa in the Ahaggar or Hoggar region of Algeria. The name means literally “she of the tents”, but may be metaphorically translated as “mother of the tribe” (or “of us all”) or even “queen of the camp” (the “camp” maybe referring to the group of tombs which surround hers). She is sometimes referred to as “Queen of the Hoggar”, and by the Tuareg as tamenoukalt which also means queen. [afrikanwomen tumblog]

Now they’ve torn it. No man, not even the allegedly brutal soldiers of the Malian army (you remember, the ones 300,000 refugees reportedly fled from in terror?) has apparently raised his hand against a woman in public for sixteen hundred years. For it was in the 4th century that Queen Tin Hinan ruled the tents of this land, and no violence against women is tolerated, that’s how the story goes. The old gal will be spinning in her tomb, unless that too has already been desecrated by Ansar Dine militants.

Not once, but twice, the Ansar Dine thugs attacked a protest in the centre of Kidal staged by women who refuse to be cowed by their rules. The first time, the shocked observer reported, was in broad daylight. Unspeakable and unconscionable barbarity! Well done ladies for coming out again in the evening to show those opportunistic interlopers what’s what. As for Iyad ag Ghali, he already has a bad rap for being a corrupt diplomat who got booted out of Saudi because of his passion for whiskey. Well, the hard-drinking hypocrite’s really up against it now. Pressuring women to submit to rules about dress codes, and trying to bar them from employment was the cause of the protests, but publicly shaming and disrespecting women is going too far. Kidal isn’t Cairo!

Word now is that Ansar Dine has outstayed their welcome and been advised to pack up their unwelcome ideology and get out of Kidal.

I refuse to conceal my glee at this news. Forget ECOWAS, the African Union or NATO; the prospect of bataillions of angry Azawad women kicking disrespectful militant butt from .. oh wait, it can’t be “from here to Timbuktu“. Well, from Gao, Kidal and Timbuctu back to the Tunisian camps or wherever they hatched their stupid plan to hijack the rebellion while licking their wounds after Libya will have to be far enough for now. Please, oh please let this be a true story. It was reported on Sahara Medias website [ar], a generally reliable source. ;)

How the Arab World Uses Facebook and Twitter

TwitterArabCountries
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Social media has been often touted for the role it played in the popular uprisings that have spread across the Arab world since December 2010. Despite the buzz, you may be surprised that only 0.26% of the Egyptian population, 0.1% of the Tunisian population and 0.04% of the Syrian population are active on Twitter.

Of all the countries in North Africa and the Middle East, Twitter is most popular in Kuwait, where 8.6% of the population is active users, defined as those who tweet at least once per month. Facebook’s more popular throughout the region. In its most popular country, the U.A.E., some 36.18% of the population is on Facebook.

Khaled ElAhmad (who goes by the Internet alias Shusmo) created these two infographics, exploring Facebook and Twitter trends in the Arab world, using Visual.ly. His data comes from a Dubai School of Government report on Arab Social Media.

Take a look through the two infographics, which also show growth of the social networks by country and overall membership stats. Did you expect more people to be active social media users? How do you think your country’s habits compare? You can also check out infographics on how China and India do social networking.

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via How the Arab World Uses Facebook and Twitter [INFOGRAPHICS].

#Mauritania Headlines 29 May 2012

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A quick round up of news and opinion from Mauritania:

  • Fuel prices have been increased for the fifth time this year.
  • Residents of three villages near Kaédi  will be marking this as the date it was announced they will be getting electrical power after waiting more than 50 years.
  • Russia’s envoy for African affairs, Mikhail Margelov, has expressed concern that Azawad’s bid for independence creates security concerns for Niger and Mauritania. He is dead right there, but Nigeria and Mauritania governments are no doubt well aware of this. More interesting would be to discover what is it they have been promised that persuaded them to comply with this scheme?
  • Abu Hafs family issued a statement complaining that the former Al Qaeda visionary had been given all sorts of promises about being allowed freedom to be with his family – presumably as part of the deal which brought him home to Mauritania from Iran – and asking all concerned to honor their word, and to stop pressuring him to meet with “foreign delegations” despite his refusals.
  • Condemnation of manipulating student rights Once again students are complaining about unfair treatment and unnecessary delays in applications being processed, especially of concern is the situation of those studying abroad.
  • Mauritania police to resume previous traffic control role The Army will be deployed to the increased border security checkpoints with Mali (and presumably, Senegal, where tensions are mounting due to the Aziz  administration’s heavy-handed treatment of Senegalese nationals. and..
  • This recent renewed talk about an Arab Maghreb Union is eyewash says this op-ed. What about Western Sahara, the Amazigh, the Tuareg, “Azawad”?
  • Palestinians are demanding Ould Abdel Aziz to expel their ambassador in Nouakchott after he refused to meet them because they are “Gazans”
  • The signing of six agreements for cooperation between Mauritania and Gambia on education, culture, oil, energy, air transport and tourism was a prelude to Aziz and his Gambian counterpart – both former military men who ousted their respective governments and went on to be elected — calling for a return to constitutional order in Mali and Guinea-Bissau.
  • Questions directed to the opposition Op-ed, basically asking how they keep managing to switch horses mid-stream without getting the hem of their dara’a wet
  • Aziz vows not to harass Chinguetti TV channel It’s been a year and this Egypt-based independent Mauritanian channel has still not been granted a licence, so maybe Aziz means he’s not going to harass them “any more than usual”. Fact is, he has prior issues with the major investor, a businessman. Some like to imply it’s because Aziz was told Chinguetti TV is supported by “Islamists” – but that is to be expected.
  • Unemployed graduates return to storm the Ministry of Employment this is the group that stormed the grounds of the presidential palace and were eventually arrested, then later freed. Disappointing part: no attempt to align themselves with other protest movements or indeed, the many thousands of other unemployed people in the country.
  • Democratic Party meeting in Nouakchott remarked on the Doha fire of Monday 28 May 2012 and sent condolences to the victims
  • Differences within COD opposition alleged. We get a lot of these rumours. Many hands stirring that pot.
  • Background gossip surrounds the dismissal of Supreme Court Chief Justice Ghilani Bottom line is he and Aziz are very much alike – authoritarian and dictatorial – which worked out fine for a while but now the honeymoon is well and truly over. Aziz appointed a rookie to replace the Chief Justice, who took office Monday 28 May. Tuesday saw the former Commissioner of Human Rights, illegally detained for 9 or 10 months now, finally appear in court on charges of corruption. The accountant for the HR commission resigned last month. Other legal tangles include the impending trial (or not) of Abdulah Senussi, the former head of Libyan Intelligence under Gaddafi, currently evading an international arrest warrant from the ICC, and another from France, by dint of being held in Mauritania on charges of entering the country illegally. All very Mrs Bin Laden. Closer to home, Libya’s NTC is saying that their relationship with Mauritania relies on the outcome of the Senussi case. The other key case is that of anti-slavery campaigner Biram Ould Obeid, illegally detained after causing massive and embarassing controversy after almost a month, along with 10 supporters. His wife Leyla was among weekend protesters in Nouakchott demanding Biram’s release. She got injured in the face (I read somewhere it was a tear gas grenade) for her trouble and wound up in the Emergency Room.
  • Women from poorer neighbourhoods of the economic capital, Nouadhibou, protested Monday 28 May about the dire lack of facilities, incuding provision of water, electricity, education and shops.
  • Nouakchott University expelled the head of the Student Union in response to ongoing student protests, and he retaliated by making a very loud, very public announcement in which he catalogued their many issues and failures. As he put it – he displayed their dirty laundry on the street.
  • Activists @medabdou and @bhourma from Mauritania joined Egypt’s onTV channel by Skype (a technical triumph considering their poor internet reliability) for a live discussion on Monday 28 May. Video here.
  • The onTV invite came in the wake of an item about Mauritania’s “overlooked” Arab Spring in the Guardian, written by the same guy from Arab Media Watch who was in Press TV’s discussion last week, Sharif Nashashibi. As is so often the case, the comments are far more interesting and revealing than the blog post. It did put me in mind of Al Jazeera’s token piece “Mauritania’s overlooked uprising – what happened to the Feb 25 Movement?” from January 28th.
  • Note: Most links are to Arabic sources

West African “Terror Threat”: After Decades, Anarchy Hasn’t Arrived

2009 travel advisory raised the threat in and around Mali's oft-quoted oasis town of Timbuktu to "high" Photo: REUTERS
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While riddled with weak states, West Africa has not become the international terrorist playground some feared it would. That does not mean warnings about extremists should be overlooked however.

By Charlie Warren for ISN Security Watch


In 1994, journalist Robert Kaplan wrote a controversial Atlantic article, “The Coming Anarchy,” warning of West Africa’s ungoverned spaces, disease-ridden slums, weak borders, and impoverished masses. Kaplan declared that “we ignore this dying region at our own risk.” In 2004, Douglas Farah and Richard Shultz published a Washington Post op-ed that picked up the argument where Kaplan had left off. West Africa had become a terrorist sanctuary. Three years after the 9/11 attacks, the authors proclaimed, “weak and corrupt governments, vast, virtually stateless stretches awash in weapons, and impoverished, largely Muslim populations make the region an ideal sanctuary…The now-identifiable presence of al Qaeda in other countries shows that these once-marginal wars and regions matter. We ignore the warnings at our peril.”

2009 travel advisory raised the threat in and around Mali’s oft-quoted oasis town of Timbuktu to “high” Photo: REUTERS

History has not borne out this “coming anarchy” of terrorism, and West Africa is not rife with international extremism. Alas, the region is not beyond terrorism’s grasp either. This means several longstanding arguments about extremism in West Africa need to be carefully revisited.

Global extremism versus local grievances

Conventional wisdom separates transnational, Salafist-inspired terrorists from local, politically marginal insurgents. However, the available evidence in West Africa suggests one ought to view things differently. Even the most well connected Al-Qaeda affiliate in the Sahel and West Africa, Al Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM), has a variety of influences. AQIM’s predecessor, the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, wanted to depose the Algerian government. The group officially aligned itself with Osama bin Laden in 2006 and changed its name to AQIM in 2007.

Boko Haram, a Nigerian insurrection founded by Mohammed Yusuf in 2002, has even more opaque influences. The group’s actual name provides one such example.Boko Haram is Hausa for ‘Western education is sinful,’ yet the group’s members seldom, if ever, use it. Adherents instead prefer Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati Wal-Jihad(‘People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet’s Teachings and Jihad’)—hardly a name conducive to the pithy labels preferred by governments or journalists alike. Northern Nigeria has also witnessed extremism in the recent past, so Boko Haram’s emergence is not groundbreaking either. During the early 1980s, millenarian uprisings led by Alhaji Muhammadu Marwa (also known as “Maitatsine”) left over four thousand people dead and included some similarities to Boko Haram’s rhetoric related to wealth, Western education, and the alleged graft of other northern Nigerian Muslims. Not unlike Boko Haram, Maitatsine’s revolts appealed to the young, disenfranchised northern Nigerians in cities like Kano, Kaduna, and Gombe. Thirty years after those uprisings, Boko Haram has played upon distinctly local concerns—including corruption, political isolation, and northern Nigeria’s relative poverty—with alarming success. While Boko Haram’s aims may be unique and ever evolving, its regional and religious contexts are not.

Since 2011, however, Boko Haram’s members have acquired some international practices: they recruit and deploy suicide bombers; they successfully bombed UN headquarters in Abuja; they carry out other mass casualty attacks; and they are alleged to have met with, and perhaps trained under, AQIM.

Analysts have spent a great deal of time attempting to draw the line between ‘Boko Haram the local insurrection’ and ‘Boko Haram the global extremist group.’ Splinters of Boko Haram may have contacted other terrorist organizations in an effort to engage in training, but it’s difficult to trace individual actions to truly coherent international ambitions. Worse still, it’s a distraction. Boko Haram is better understood as a diffuse group, ill-suited to international terrorist labels, including the US designation as an official Foreign Terrorist Organization . The false dichotomy surrounding Boko Haram not only narrows our definition of the violent extremist sect, but it also constrains our ability to find measured, evidence-based solutions.

Think-tanks label al-Shabab a “terror threat” but they are doggedly domestic. Photograph: Feisal Omar/Reuters

Borders and illicit Flows

At least four cross-border flows facilitate terrorism in the region. Weapons of varying types pervade West Africa, making the tools of violent extremism readily available. Semtex explosives can be purchased, and Nigerien authorities recently seized 1,420 pounds of the material and 445 detonators. As many as 15,000 of Muammar Gaddhafi’s stock of man-portable air-defense systems (MANPADS) are unaccounted for; some speculate that AQIM possesses stockpiles. Although MANPADS have brought down at least eight passenger planes in Africa, small arms have led to far more casualties. Perhaps millions of Kalashnikovs flooded gun markets following the Cold War, and Boko Haram has become yet another group to use them during its hundreds of deadly attacks since 2010.

Illicit transfers of money via remittances and cash happen, and there is little capacity to monitor all transactions in largely unbanked countries. With mobile money transfers, cell phones could also send and receive illicit funds, but the services are not yetwidespread.

West Africa’s drug smuggling routes provide opportunities for terrorist organizations to generate revenues. At least fifty tons of cocaine (worth $2 billion in Europe) travels through West Africa per year, with over one ton heading through the ‘narco-state’ of Guinea-Bissau every night. Colombia’s FARC and AQIM already traffic drugs across the Sahel and into Europe.

People also move across borders. Militants have fled Libya for the Sahel in large numbers. Kidnapping has proven to be a lucrative funding stream for AQIM, and they have made a business of capturing Westerners. AQIM has fetched ransoms as high as $6 million in one instance and acquired tens of millions of dollars in kidnapping fees since 2006.

Although weak borders may aid terrorists, two distinctions are essential. Smuggling and banditry are hardly new to the region: for years illegal goods have traveled over the Nigeria-Cameroon border and similar flows cross the Nigeria-Benin border. International boundaries are not completely leaky either. West African states may not exercise a uniform rule of law along their boundaries, but they do have an intricate web of roadblocks, some physical and others more bureaucratic. Analysts should not overstate Africa’s porous boundaries.

Political instability and terrorism

West Africa’s poverty and crime have preoccupied policymakers concerned with terrorism, but few have examined the role of political instability. The relationships between terrorism and a more common scourge in the region—electoral violence—are not well known. However, one can reason that prolonged election conflicts could create space for terrorist groups in more stable countries or, at the very least, distract politicians and security services. Nigeria’s tragic post-election violence of April 2011 provides one possible example. The strife thankfully stopped short of prolonged conflict, but it did sidetrack diplomatic approaches to handling Boko Haram.

Although scholars have not tested the relationship between electoral strife and terrorism, coups d’état and terrorism may have some connections. Recent anecdotal evidence from Mali and Guinea-Bissau suggest that coups can help terrorists. Mali’s March 22 overthrow of President Amadou Toumani Touré’s government was not a one-off event but rather the culmination of a northern Tuareg rebellion. (The coup’s leader, Capt. Amadou Haya Sanogo, received military training in the United States.) Evolving power struggles among the FLNA, MNLA, Ansar Eddine, AQIM, and MUJWA make Mali’s future uncertain. Moreover, the coup set back counterterrorism efforts in the country, not to mention precipitated a democracy and human rights rollback. AQIM may have more control than ever before.

Meanwhile, Guinea-Bissau’s April 12 coup has worsened the security situation and diverted attention away from efforts to stem a growing drug trade. (In almost 40 years since independence, no president of Guinea-Bissau has finished a continuous term in office.) While it is difficult to predict the country’s future, its counternarcotics efforts show no signs of improvement in the near term.

However, if one overemphasizes the impact of recent government overthrows in West Africa, one ignores an important trend. Coups have declined steadily for decades. According to the Center for Systemic Peace’s dataset, there were twelve successful coups in West Africa from 1980 to 1990, ten from 1990 to 2000, and six from 2000 to 2010. Africa’s civil wars are also declining, and the region is not predisposed to conflict.

Efforts to combat terrorism in West Africa

Many analysts perpetuate the image of West Africa as a blank slate for counterterrorism experiments. Yet efforts have been ongoing for decades, and international, regional, and local frameworks already exist. UN Security Council Resolution 1373 (2001) established the Counter-Terrorism Committee (CTC) in an effort to stop terrorism in all of its forms. UN Security Council Resolution 1624 (2005) is designed to improve border security and encourage member countries to submit updates to the CTC. Unfortunately, West African countries provided irregular reports to CTC and even fewer reports per UNSCR 1624.

Other policies to stop terrorism predate the UN resolutions but have proven equally ineffective. The Organization of African Unity (OAU) first addressed terrorism in its 1992 Dakar declaration, and its 1999 Algiers agreement determined to “eliminate terrorism in all its forms and manifestations.” Regional groups include the West African Police Chiefs Corporation, the African Centre for the Study and Research on Terrorism, and ECOWAS’ Inter-Governmental Action Group Against Money Laundering in West Africa as well as its Committee of Chiefs of Security Service. Numerous challenges confront counterterrorism teams in West Africa, ranging from poor coordination among different bureaucracies, to limited access to INTERPOL records, to regional language barriers, to the failure to incorporate international terrorist financing regulations into local laws.

Understandably, many countries have volunteered to train West Africa’s police and security services. The US-led Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership (TSCTP) provides military assistance while the African Union’s Defense and Security Division undertakes some technical evaluations; special forces from Canada and other countries [AH: Libya, France,  Spain] have trained Malian security services in the past.

Although developing capacity among local forces may be necessary, many West Africa security services have human rights records ranging from inconsistent to abysmal. In some egregious cases of extra-judicial violence, security services’ brutality may anger the same extremists that they seek to stop. More broadly, international support creates what one analyst described presciently in 2004 as “rent seeking” for counterterrorism funding: Countries depict themselves as victims of transnational extremism—not local terrorism—with the hope of receiving increased aid flows in return. When the Nigerian government depicts Boko Haram as an ‘international‘ terrorist organization in letters to foreign governments, it really seeks security aid and counterterrorism funding.

Despite reasonable evidence to the contrary—terrorist groups have diverse influences, weak borders are never totally porous, political instability may influence terrorism in complex ways, and security solutions can backfire—elements of Kaplan’s argument persist. In March 2012, New York Times Africa correspondent Jeffrey Gettleman wrote a book review entitled “Africa’s Dirty Wars.” Gettleman described most African rebels as “thugs” but positioned Boko Haram as a global threat. He further cautioned that “some of the most organized, disciplined, and ideologically sophisticated rebels are the Islamist extremists.” However, after decades of similar warnings, the “coming anarchy” of international terrorism has yet to arrive in West Africa. There is good reason to believe that it never will.