Archive for the ‘Africa’ Category
This is a rambling story I began nearly seven years ago on one of the most singularly interesting days of travel I’ve ever experienced. I just now stumbled upon it and felt like putting it up.
Kabul/Dubai/Sharjah-At exactly 9am I arrive at Lt. General Hadi Khalid’s gated, sunlit home on one of central Kabul’s ubiquitous dust and rock backstreets. I’d been put in touch with Lt. Gen. Abdul Khalid by an Afghan friend I’d met during the initial post-9/11 war in the fall of 2001. That friend, Idrees, who now lives in Santa Monica where he works quietly on his PhD, was back in his homeland to visit family and gather material for his thesis. Idrees was a kind of stateless, post-modern intellectual who easily navigated between the corridors of American power and the strictures of his central Asian Islamic culture by which he was bound. He had arranged for me to interview the General for a Washington think tank that I was freelancing for as one of a string of clients I was trying to please under duress during a recent month-long stay in the Afghan capital.
Hadi Khalid had a falling out with President Hamid Karzai the previous summer and was now at loose ends, eager to talk and concerned about his personal security. A sinewy, refined Pashtun from Farah Province, Khalid welcomed me into his home with the best efforts of Afghanistan’s generous social code. We got on like two old friends as we tore into the minutiae of Afghanistan’s political and security relationships concerning the six nation-states that the country borders. Wanting to tackle the most difficult issue first in terms of obscurity, I launched into a line of questioning about the particulars of the Afghan-China border in the extreme northeast and we wound our way counter clockwise around the heart of Asia until we reached nearby Pakistan a short three hours later.
Near the end our time together, we were talking about a pilot programme of anti-insurgent local militias that was being tested in Maidan Wardak Province just west of Kabul. I’d heard from a visiting Indian reporter at my hotel that Obama’s top man in Kabul, the no nonsense General Stanley McChrystal had visited the area to have a look at this attempt at the Afghanization of “Obama’s Viet Nam.” I politely asked my very warm host if he could recall the name of the militia for my notes.
The name in English slipped his mind and he picked up a small, worn Nokia phone and quickly rung a friend of his that was still in government. I watching his face sink as the pace of his Dari accelerated and I picked out a few words here and there. The colleague he phoned to ask about something that was now utterly unimportant was telling him that two mutual friends of theirs had just been killed in an act of suicide terrorism in Laghman Province. It was not news yet, it was breaking reality. Khalid’s eyes winced and he shifted in his plush chair as a white hot sunbeam moved across the floor.
“At first we used to cry when our friends died. After thirty years of war, I cannot cry anymore. I have lost hundreds…thousands of friends.”
“I’m terribly, terribly sorry.” I did not know what else to say. This genteel, intelligent man invited me into his home to talk politics. Politics in the abstract. Politics in Afghanistan were often, most often, conducted at the point of a gun.
“These men were very good friends of mine.”
I felt at once awkward and sad. Afghanistan was tragic culture of neglect and stalled progress that I had developed an emotional attachment to over the years. Abused at whim by its neighbors and used as a hardware parking lot for the power projection of military technology innovators since the Great Game, Afghanistan seemed hopeless in the long term and dangerous in the short. But I grew to love the place nonetheless. It was time to leave.
As a foreign reporter in a war zone, there are psychological Berlin Walls that one builds between self and subject to remain above the fray and justify his presence in a place where in actuality he has no verifiable business and whose justifications are slim on the best of days. Khalid insisted his driver drop me back at the hotel for me to make it in time for checkout at noon. I had a flight to Dubai in six hours and still had errands to run. I told myself that what had just happened to the General’s friends out in Laghman must somehow be normal in context of a decades long, unrelenting jihad with constantly morphing internal and external stressors and that I should not question such things in order to make it out of the country by day’s end.
I had a ticket for the last flight of the day on a small Afghan airline called Pamir Airways (defunct since 2011). The Pakistani travel agent who sold me the document said, when asked, that the airline was essentially a glorified money laundering operation owned by Kabul Bank.
“Sure. Kabul Bank has one of the only working ATMs in the city, I use it all the time.”
I then asked specifically who owned Kabul Bank. The affable travel agent chirped that a man named Sherkhan [Farnood] whom he described as “Only the biggest drugs dealer in Central Asia.” (Farnood would be jailed in 2014.)
“Oh OK” I replied. Again, normal and justifiable in the context of Afghanistan. Who was I to object to flying on a drugs trafficker’s for-profit airline? I mean, hey, we all need it to get to Dubai. Everyone in Afghanistan is complicit in everything in one way or another. Just by being in the country, you are often supporting businesses run by criminal networks.
After a normal hour’s delay on the tarmac and a short 2 ½ hour flight across the Persian Gulf, I landed back in what passed for civilization. Walking into the immigration queue in the infamous Terminal 2, I spotted several families from Somalia. I had looked at the wikipedia entry for Terminal 2 and remembered that an airline operated flights to the horn of Africa’s perennial basket case. I approach an unusually friendly Emirati immigration officer in his ironed, white dishdasha.
I handed him my passport.
“How long will you be in the UAE?”
“Oh just one day, inshallah. Wow, so you do have flights to Somalia from here. I’d read that you did. I see a lot of Somalis in line.”
He smiles back; “I think those people are from Nigeria. I don’t know anything about flights to Somalia.” Pound, he stamps a page in my passport with little room left.
“Uh no, they are definitely Somali. Don’t you see the women’s distinctive hijab?”
I walk away from the desk and look up at a flat panel monitor. Basra, Baghdad International, Hargeisa, Kish island, Djbouti, Kabul, Berbera, Khartoum, Peshawar and on. Terminal 2, the gate to hell. Jubba Airlines, Jupiter airways, Air Blue.
As I walk over to the baggage carousel, a panoply of people from failing states, outright failed states and nervous economic migrants wait for their twined and taped luggage. Sri Lankan Tamils, Swati Pashtuns, Uzbek elders in embroidered Turkic prayer caps and Terai Nepalis all stand around anxiously. The only other Westerners in the hall look to be mercenaries, often called “Security Contractors” or “PMC’s” (“Private Military Companies”) in the new perverse lexicon of militarized journalism. I see two young men who appear to be Somali with angular cheekbones and gaunt posture. Waiting for my bag, I sit next to them on a bench and interrupt.
“I beg your pardon. Are you guys from either Somalia [proper] or Somaliland?”
“Somaliland” the one with wire rim glasses says with a London accent.
“I see there are flights to your country up on the departures board. May I ask, how does one actually go there? I mean Somaliland is not an internationally recognized state but I see you have an airline. Where do you buy tickets?”
“You can go to any airline office here in Dubai that specializes in tickets to East Africa. A round trip costs maybe $270 US.”
My imagination is set alight. “When I show up at the airport what takes place? Is there a visa for a place doesn’t exist in the eyes of the world?”
“I think you have to pay $20 for a visa when you arrive and then you must change another $50 into shillings.”
“Are they ‘Somaliland’ Shillings as opposed to Somali Shillings they use down in Mogadishu? Do you have a separate currency for a separatist state?”
The two affable young men laugh. “You seem to know a lot about our country” the one in the brand new Asics hi tops says to me.
“Oh well, you know where I’m from, San Diego, is a major refugee resettlement area in America and we have quite a number of your people living there since Black Hawk Down. Plus I like to read a lot.”
Before I could ask their names, they jumped up upon seeing their luggage. “It was nice speaking with you sir but we must be going, you know, with how things are here.” And with that they disappeared into the anxious crowd.
I jumped into the taxi of an angry, exhausted Malayali man in the sweltering blast of stagnant heat that hits you as you exit air condition world. It seemed the majority of the UAE’s taxi men were Malayalis, that is Malayalam-speakers from coastal Kerala state on India’s far southwestern coast. The Malayalis were required to drive in 12 hour shifts, 6 or 7 days a week without a break. Many of them told me they could be fined simply for the infraction of stopping to relieve themselves. These men are disconnected from the young families they leave behind in their villages and live in constant fear of their Arab overlords, who were often migrant traffic police with the power to issue steep fines from Egypt and Jordan but as native Arabic speakers, they thus remained at a higher echelon in the UAE’s rigid ethnic migratory hierarchy.
Sitting in the dim dining area of what I thought was a completely empty hostel, a sullen looking man in a white dishdasha shuffles in with a small laptop and seats himself at the next table. I asked him if he wanted me to turn down the Simpsons DVD on my MacBook Pro so that he could watch an Arabic telenovela.
“No, no, I am fine” he said as he cranked up the volume on the TV overpowering my small speakers.
I gave up and shut my DVD application down and began a conversation. His name was Majid Hizam Rabie Alshamari and he was an Iraqi national who escaped Basra in 1997 to look for a better life anywhere but Clinton sanctioned Iraq. Educated as a chemical engineer during Iraq’s drawn out secular Ba’athist nightmare of the late Cold War epoch, Majid got a working in the United Arab Emirates Environmental Agency. He travels the length of the UAE’s desert border with Saudi Arabia checking in bound vehicles for hazardous and prohibited chemicals. It’s a dull position but Majid performs his task dutifully. But Majid was not fulfilled in any way. He begins tell me that in 2006, his family received a night letter from one of the Iranian-backed roving Shia street militias controlling most of majority Shi’ite Basra. The letter, issued at the height of the salafist -induced intra Islamic civil war in Iraq, stated in no uncertain terms, that as Sunnis, they were no longer welcome in Basra and they were gifted with the choice of flight or death.
The Alshamari’s were able to make it to Yemen and gain political asylum in Sana’a. Majid’s wife had divorced him some time ago and they had no children. The only thing keeping Majid in the UAE was his steady income and dynastic political stability. He wanted his family, he needed them but he told me he could not get a visa to be reunited with them in Yemen. He stayed in the few youth hostels that dotted the Emirates when his job required him to travel along the seven emirates’s customs posts.
When I half-heartedly suggested perhaps Basra was stable enough to make a grand return, Majid scoffed at the idea.
“There is nothing there for me or my family to go back to. No house, nothing. I want to go to Yemen and I want to then go to another country. I want to go to Canada.”
“Can I play something for you on my iTunes” I asked.
I swiveled around an opened up my laptop and scrolled down for some recordings I’d made over six years before that I dreamed of having translated. In May of 2003, I was running low on money in instantly exorbitant Baghdad. I saw a sign in the lobby of the Palestine Hotel that if I could make it to Najaf there was free accommodation for foreign journalists who wish to cover the Imad ul-Nabi (celebration of the birthday of the Prophet Muhammed) undoubtedly underwritten by an Iranian-backed Shia party. I’d made crude recordings that I’d later digitized but had never had interpreted. I played them for Majid thinking, naively, that he would be surprised to hear something from his country on a random Westerner’s computer. He had a pained look about him. The thumps and slaps of a million plus Shia men pulsating through Najaf’s tiny lanes reverberated through the Sharjah Youth Hostel’s common area.
I understand a modicum of Arabic but was curious about one track I’d recorded in particular. I turned up the volume.
“They are saying “Haider, Haider, Haider” Majid piped up.
Haider was another holy nom of Imam Ali around whose shrine the men were marching toward. Imam Ali was the spiritual fountainhead of Shi’ism. Shia derives from Shiat’Ali or partisans of (Imam) Ali, the fourth caliph in orthodox Sunni Islam and the first Caliph in Shia Islam. The veneration of Ali ibn abu Talib and the martyrdom of Imam Hussein was the birth of Islam’s great schism over the succession of the caliphate in Islam’s volatile formative years.
The next afternoon before I headed out on a frivolous post-war zone party trip to the Greek Islands via a $100 flight from Sharjah to Athens, I waited in the hostel for Majid to come back from work. He gave me a sizable set of documents from his vast family in Sana’a. There were thirteen people in all. There faces gazed from a set of long expired asylum letters from the UNHCR’s head office in Yemen. In the middle was a photocopy of his recently deceased father’s passport. Majid looked on helplessly as he recounted how his father in another part of the world from the Alshamari’s ancestral home and that he could not even be there in Sana’a for his burial. The next document was what I guessed to be his Yemeni death certificate.
Over the course of 24 hours I’d engaged men from the globe’s then three most talked about war zones. This was a post-bipolar world incarnate.
New York- After what media attention was paid to the disgusting al-Mourabitoun attack on the Cappuccino Café and the Splendid Hotel in Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso, a story seeped out that I found disturbingly relatable. Among those killed was a vivacious Franco-Morrocan portrait photographer called Leila Alaoui. She had been in Burkina on assignment for Amnesty International and had been a patron at the cafe that morning when more young salafi-jihadi men launched another attack in West Africa where French and local forces have a large anti-terror operation underway (more on that later). Ms. Alaoui, who once lived here in New York, perished of her wounds well after interest in terrorism in an utterly obscure African country had piqued.
I had never heard of her or her work but when I saw it I was immediately moved by its depth and genuineness. Rich, finely toned portraits of ordinary Moroccans jump to life from 72 dots-per-inch. To make something interesting about a place so trammeled by mass tourism is an accomplishment in and of itself. I’ve often been motivated by trying to break through bureaucratized geographical borders and cumbersome cultural boundaries to obtain images others either cannot or have not. Ms. Alaoui turned her lens on a very accessible land yet on a people wary of intruding photographers with unclear intentions. Her work is sumptuous and inspiring to me. It stands alone in its beauty.
Many questions have been asked about the Ouagadougou siege such as the possible context of a global ideological competition between al-Qaeda, in this case AQIM and al-Mourabitoun, and IS or whether such an incident would have occurred at all if former President Blaise Compaoré had still been in power. Compaoré had links to terror organizations in that he inserted himself as an interlocutor in the conflict in northern Mali to put it succinctly. Ouagadougou had welcomed leaders of Ansar Eddine at one point during futile negotiations back in 2012.
But for myself, I must ask another question, one that has been bothering me for years. What happens when an incredible writer, photographer or analyst is cut down in the midst of their prime? It reminded me of when Alexandros Petersen, the then young author of The World Island: Eurasian Geopolitics and the Fate of the West–an ode to Sir Halford MacKinder– was killed in the Taverna du Liban attack in Kabul two years ago, a restaurant in Wazir Akbar Khan I recall having a great night at with fellow journos during the heated 2009 presidential election. The work of victims like Alaoui and Peterson lives on of course, but they do not. I find this a difficult reality.
These images push me, they make me want to rush to B&H before departing to Burkina in defiance. Posted here without permission, posted with admiration.
New York- A quick street story…
Sometimes late at night, I like to talk to people about where they’re from. If I were an economist, statistician, or think tank wonk I suppose I’d refer to them as ‘economic migrants.’ But in an increasingly borderless world they are simply people, people from other places. About a month ago, a rasta from Ghana hit me and my friend up for something at about 4am. I forget whether it was cash, smokes, or whatever. I ended up giving him a piece of pizza I’d just bought that wasn’t as meatless as my eyes had mistakenly led me to believe. Then as I often tend to do, I began what was essentially an interview about how and why he came to Barcelona.
He had gone from Ghana through southern Burkina Faso, then southern Mali and into Mauritania where he’d gotten stuck in the Atlantic port of Nouadhibou on the border of Western Sahara for a about a year when Moroccan security forces who control the disputed territories coastal border caught him trying to enter. Finally he got into Western Sahara where he reached Laayoune and organized the trip to Gran Canaria, EU territory off the coast. After lots of time in limbo in the Sahel and Sahara regions, he finally reached what her termed “Babylon,” a derisive term for the collective West in rastafarian ideology. Babylon embodies godless decadence and innate corruption. It is the opposite of what a utopian Zion embodies.
From Gran Canaria he received what he termed his “Babylon papers” which allowed him to board a flight to Madrid where he then lived in a Ghanian expat scene for nine years before heading for the seaside hustle that is my beloved city of Barcelona. He told me in Barcelona he wandered around the Gothic quarter late at night working with (ie hustling) tourists.
The conversation then took what for me was a bit of strange turn in the rasta claiming the Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie who is hailed as a veritable god-king in what is a staple meme in rastafarian music was in fact a white man. I’d never heard this particular line before but digging around a little, I think he was referring to a somewhat infamous quote where the doomed Emperor told a noted Nigerian nationalist that Ethiopians (meaning Amharas perhaps) were in fact a Hamito-Semitic people akin to the inhabitants of ancient Egypt. Hamito-Semitic certainly isn’t a ‘white’ ethno-linguistic identity but the rasta may have meant that anything not explicitly African is therefore white by default. Where the rasta and I parted ways was when I stated that the twin poles of rastafarian culture were Jamaica/the Afro-Caribbean and Ethiopia and he said that his homeland was of much more importance to it than the previous two place names. I digressed. It was 4am after all.
New York- It’s such an obvious thing to say but it’s really hard to believe it’s been two solid decades since the Oklahoma City bombing on April 19, 1995. I viscerally remember sitting in the dormitory at San Diego State University when a friend had the news on. He was from Fontana but had Oklahoma roots and was deeply saddened. I remember that one crackpot analyst being so sure that it was Islamist (Salafist in today’s speak) in nature and how incredibly wrong he was.
That vast tragedy overshadowed the 1993 World Trade Center bombing in terms of both the number of casualties and the fact that it forced–for a time–a paradigm shift about how we think about terrorism. With the East Africa bombings in August 1998, the threat of domestic terrorism was once again diminished in the face of an external threat. Al-qaeda with its obscurantist worldview was seemingly more easily interpreted from a national security standpoint than those in league with Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols. Those whose duty it is to protect the land from attacks must be analytically agile and intellectually nimble in order to reevaluate the constantly shifting threat landscape.
The memorial is beautiful yet somber. It is a symbol of tragedy and renewal.
New York- With Khalifa Haftar suddenly very relevant again after his initially notable reappearance in Libya in March 2011, Libya’s littoral is once against thrust into turmoil in both Cyrenaica and Tripolitania. Haftar is leading a fight against Ansar al-Sharia and Derna-based salafis in the east and has forces loyal to him attack the General National Congress complex in the west. Whether he can indeed overthrow the enfeebled elected government in Tripoli remains to be seen but thus far his efforts appear to be destabilizing what is already a highly fissiparous state structure with its revolving door of prime ministers. For Haftar’s staunchly anti-Ikhwan stance, the BBC is even referring to him in a loose analogy as “Libya’s Sisi” I profiled Haftar in 2011 which was picked up by Reuters at the time.
This week I am quoted by McClatchy D.C. in an article on Haftar’s newly relevant role in the Libya militia polity as well as Yahoo! Noticias España. My work was also obliquely referenced on the Middle East Institute Editor’s blog last week.
NATO helping to tip over a tin pot dictatorship during Operation Unified Protector and its U.S. precursor Operation Odyssey Dawn was one thing, but state building in Libya in that aftermath of all that is quite another. Simply put, it has not happened in any meaningful way.
From the Tuareg-cum-salafi revolt in northern Mali that began only months after Libya-based Tuareg fighters exited their evaporating sanctuary and returned home via Niger to the Toubou clashes in the Fezzan in the spring of 2012, the ripple effects of the downfall of North Africa’s most caricatured dictator have been felt across the region ever since.
Perhaps Haftar sees himself as a future Libyan military strongman in the fashion of an Egyptian-style military leader. As an old school CIA asset with Nasserist origins, it remains unclear whether he can oust those administering nascent post-Qaddafi state with whom he violently disagrees or defeat the salafi-jihadi militias flying the black flags in troubled Cyrenaica.
It should be remembered that Haftar was gone from Libya for decades before returning there when opportunity struck in 2011. What he does have doing for him is access to heavy weapons–including aircraft–to smite his opponents coupled with the element of surprise.
New York- With the immediacy of the tactical success of the French military campaign in northern Mali beginning in mid-January combined with the aggressive Nigerian offensive in that country’s northeastern Borno State that began in mid-May, the Republic of Niger is wedged between two presently expanding salafi-jihadi conflicts. Niger with its vast uranium reserves, chronic food insecurity and immense poverty has emerged as the newest locale to suffer salafi martyrdom operations a.k.k.a. suicide bombings. I published a report in late June for Jane’s Islamic Affairs Analyst looking at the extension of kinetic militancy into Niger. While Niger is accustomed-like its neighbor Mali-to intermittent Tuareg rebellions and a minor degree of homegrown Islamism while having had several high profile kidnapping incidents in the last several years, neither Niamey or Bamako was adequately prepared for the ramping up of ideologically-driven insurgencies as compared to the veteran (in relative terms) security apparatuses helmed in Algiers and Abuja.
While most of the conflict in Mali in 2012 consisted of a series of rebel advances and government retreats followed by a drawn out stalemate period, it seemed certain that once some form of military intervention was inevitably launched, the jihadis would surely begin a more asymmetric campaign that would feature suicide bombings and fidayeen-style raids on the forces of state actors be they indigenous, regional, or Western.
Less than a month after Operation Serval began, Mali experienced its first suicide bombing in Gao Region when on February 8 militants attacked a Malian Army checkpoint on the Gao-Bourem road. The attack was immediately claimed by MUJAO’s spokesman Abou Walid Sahraoui. As if the first explosive message was insufficient, it was immediately followed up by a second attack on the same checkpoint the following day.
Then on February 10,MUJAO jihadis launched a rather reckless raid on Gao’s centre ville. Despite MUJAO’s aggressive asymmetry, most of its operations resulted in tactical failures in terms of what were presumably hoped for mass casualty events. The strategy-at least in terms of branded messaging-was, however, somewhat successful. The two nodes of salafi-jihadism in North and West Africa i.e. Algeria to the north and northern Nigeria to the south, were being bridged with the gradual expansion of militancy in the broader Sahel region.
The Sahel has traditionally served as a natural geographic and cultural buffer zone which is being eroded by rapid advances in mobile technology and social media which have the means to both disseminate radical thought among susceptible populations that are woefully underserved by feeble central governments as well as connect militant groups with traditionally localized or divergent agendas to one another. For several years analysts have speculated whether there were or could be links to AQIM in Algeria-Mali and Boko Haram in Nigeria.Even the head of AFRICOM stated: “linkages between AQIM and Boko Haram are probably the most worrisome.”
These claims were oft criticized by what were believed to be the very different aims of AQIM and Boko Haram. AQIM which is firmly rooted in the GIA and GSPC of Algeria’s 1990s civil war was an Algerian movement (albeit a quite fissiparous one indicated by the GIA-GSPC split) seeking mostly to create an Islamic state within Algeria’s borders-although undoubtedly some of these salafis were adherents of a borderless ummah ideology. But when the GSPC renamed itself AQIM in 2007, in the form of AQIM as a matter of strategic survival it broadened both its operational geography–which the GSPC had already begun in its final phase–in places like Mali and Niger while making inroads amongst those populations who harbored their own long-held grievances against their respective central governing institutions.
Meanwhile in the Hausa-dominated states of northern Nigeria, Boko Haram–Ahl al-Sunna li al-Da`wa wa al-Jihad for those in the know–maintained as its primary goal the formal introduction of sharia law throughout Nigeria. But when Ansar Eddine, AQIM, and MUJAO gained power in northern Mali in 2012, locals who had fled Gao described to TWD the presence of Hausa speaking, Anglophone militants operating alongside MUJAO in Gao ville and its immediate environs. For Boko Haram to be present in Gao it would likely have had to pass through southwestern Niger, skirting around its capital Niamey. But several Malian intellectuals who spoke candidly with TWD in 2012 stated that they firmly believed Boko Haram already had a presence in southern Niger including with Niamey itself and therefore the movement of Nigerian militants into Mali was not as improbable as some Westerners might assume just by looking from afar at perceived vast distances on a flat map.
As nation-states occupying transition zones connecting the dry Sahara to the more verdant sub-Sahara, Mali and now Niger have manifested clearly as conduits between these what are often thought of as disparate regions of Africa. When movements like AQIM, MUJAO and Boko Haram graft themselves onto deeply held provincial tribulations beyond their traditional realms, the threat to the respective wobbly regimes squeezed in the middle is heightened more so. Thus we may see suicide bombing spread even farther to poorly protected targets in N’djamena and Nouakchott, perhaps even Dakar. None of these movements appears to pose a specific threat to the West itself–at least for the time being–but they threaten Western interests and allies which may pull Paris and Washington in only deeper into a widening crisis.
Though the jihadis were forcefully ejected from Mali’s northern and central cities mostly by French air strikes followed by ground columns and Abuja is touting that it has reached a truce of sorts with Boko Haram, the troubles for Niger and Mali, and possibly Mauritania, Chad and other regional states may be far from over.
With all the grim talk of relgio-political or inter-communal violence and such mentioned above, I thought it would be good to balance out this post with something a bit more relaxed. I attended a fantastic concert on June 21 where Bombino, a mezmerizing Tuareg guitarist from Niger’s uranium rich, politically troubled Agadez Region. Bombino sings in Tamasheq, the language of the Sahara-Sahel area’s indigenous Tuareg people who refer to themselves as the Kel Tamasheq.
I have no clue if there was any intention of this by the concert’s organizers but it was great to hear Saharan Tuareg rock in the same venue as the venerated Amadou and Mariam who sing in Bambara, the predominant language of southern Mali and in the areas surrounding its capital Bamako, but it seemed symbolically poignant if it the result was unintentional. One of the more simplistic perceptions of Mali’s internal war-which has since affected Niger as the salafi-jihadi militants sought safe ground from French air strikes-is that it had an implied north-south dynamic in which impoverished or resentful northern ethno-linguistic groups felt underserved by and underrepresented amongst the southern-dominated political circles in Bamako. Some of the same can be said for Niger where northerners feel Niamey is a far off kleptocracy that undermines their own economic and political interests.
Amadou and Mariam
New York- While it’s memorial day here in the United States, this past Saturday it was the 50th anniversary of the African Union [formerly the Organization of African Unity until 2001]. I visited the AU/OAU’s original headquarters in 2011in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia after the hectic melée’s of Egypt, Libya and Bahrain when I needed a bit of a break.Upon reading of the AU’s 50th anniversary festivities, I thought a short photo essay was in order.
I initially ventured to the AU’s grounds from my hotel on Churchill Road to try and gather information on the possible creation of Jubaland astatelet in southwestern Somalia as well as the doings of African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) and the Dolo Odo refugee camp on the Somali border. But I quickly discovered that a Chinese government construction outfit was building a gleeming new AU conference hall and tower on the adjoining lot which captured my attention.
New York- I have an article out today on the French-led external military intervention in central and northern Mali which began in mid-January. I woke up this morning excited to have a new piece out only to see that there had been a double suicide bombing in neighboring Niger. MUJAO spokesman Abu Walid Sahraoui claims to have carried out simultaneous attacks in the distant towns of Arlit and Agadez.
UPDATE-Today Mokhtar Belmokhtar released a statement that the attack was a joint operation by MUJAO and his Signatories in Blood katiba (unit) “in the name of [the late] Abdel Hamid Abou Zeid.” He then said that his salafi-jihadis had decided upon a “military withdrawal” in response to the French intervention.
The attack on Nigerien troops and the French uranium mining consortium AREVA does not come remotely as a surprise for several reasons. As I noted in a post on this blog last spring, Nigerien President Mahamadou Issoufou was coming out as particularly vocal among regional heads of state in West Africa–obviously concerned that the instability in northern Mali would likely affect a vulnerable Niger that has already been saddled with its own internal challenges for many years.
Like Mali, Niger has faced its own bouts of Tuareg rebellion-most recently with le Mouvement des Nigériens pour la justice-MNJ led by former Qaddafi ally Aghaly ag Alambo. Ag Alambo was arrested in Niamey in March 2012 over a June 2011 Libyan arms explosives episode he was accused of being involved in as Qaddaffi’s regime crumbled in Tripoli and war materiel began flowing in much larger quantities throughout the wider Sahara.
Though certain conspiratorial-minded critics have speculated that France’s intervention in Mali was motivated by crass economic interests in that country (often with scant data on the true value of untapped resources in Mali’s north), in terms of French industry at home, Niger is far more important.
China likely has a larger economic stake in Mali than does France if not in aid than purely large scale in infrastructure projects.Beijing may even put PLA boots on the ground in the name of UN peacekeeping as it presently has in Sudan’s Darfur region.
France does have genuine interest in Niger’s uranium resources and which local communities of Tuareg, Toubou, Arabs and Fulani feel they should be genuinely benefitting from economically. There is deep resentment among Niger’s ethnic minorities in the country’s north over economic grievances and environmental degradation related to French doings in their bomeland as well as a startling lack of development in the Agadez Region and its Arlit Department.
And like Mali, Niger has been suffering from a persistent food crisis in recent years but to a much more severe degree than Mali to the west whose whole “Azawad” region has been deemed a humanitarian emergency by a host of NGOs. Not to mention that Nigerien citizens crossed the border into Mali to take part in MUJAO’s foothold in Gao Region. One of the lower tier MUJAO commanders in Gao Ville was reportedly a Nigerien national.
Secondly there were the reported developments of the U.S. setting up a drone facility in Niger that was very much welcome by Issoufou and word that French Special Forces were coming into their spartan former colony to protect the uranium extraction operations that would both make poorly defended targets while stoking jihadi ire. The Arlit AREVA mine is estimated to provide 40% of metropolitan France’s nuclear energy which is 80% of the power consumed in France.
On top of all that Nigerien troops are stationed in Mali as part of the AFISMA intervention force in towns like Ansongo and Menaka. Then there is the fact that French and Chadian troops have pushed the jihadis out of their camps in Kidal Region in the Ametetai and Terz valleys and in the overall Adrar des Ifoghas area (although the Elysée does not want independent observers up there on the ground apparently-and hasn’t allowed an journalist embeds with non-French passport holders as far as I know). So the surviving men of MUJAO and AQIM who were not killed in French airs strikes will have to have gone somewhere, non?
Lastly on this though, AQIM has breached the Nigerien capital of Niamey in the past with a bold kidnapping of two Frenchmen in January 2011 which ended with the hostages being killed rather than ransomed. In the wake of a disastrous rescue attempt by French Special Forces, it seemed as if the kind of trouble we see in that country on this day was well on the horizon.
French troops may have merely been the catalyst for such salafi-jihadi expansion rather than the sole driver of today’s tragedy that killed 26.