Sahel Sahara: Darkening skies
In this period of the year, dark clouds over the region are generally welcomed as they may bring with them much needed rain. However, this season the darkening skies bring also other things as well: a decline in remittances and consumers goods from Libya and an increase in migrant returnees and undesirable additional weapons.
To those familiar to the situations in Afghanistan or Somalia, the continued hostage-taking and killing, the ransom payments as well as other traffics in drugs and cigarettes and the international communityâ€™s response are a striking reminder of how serious the problems are in the Sahel.
Ten years after September 11, the Sahel is less safe and even appears ripe for more armed confrontations as radicals seem to have the upper hand. Just one year ago seven French workers were kidnapped from their mine in Arlit, northern Niger. Except for three, freed against substantial payments, all are still in the hands of their captors deep in the Sahara. These developments call for a particular attention to the complex issue of hostages, a key component of the Sahel crisis
In the Sahel Sahara, taking Westerners hostage and other acts of violence have increasingly become a political message while at the same time remaining a lucrative business. A British citizen, Edwin Dyer, and a Frenchman, Michel Germaneau, were assassinated in the hands of their kidnappers in May 2009 and July 2010, respectively. It is also known that, in 2010 alone, two Italians and three Spaniards kidnapped in Mauritania were freed in Mali against handsome payments – close to 10 million Euros for the Spaniards. Italy was silent on the price it paid to get its citizens out. The amount for ransoms paid in 2010 and 2011 are higher than the police intelligence budgets of Mali, Mauritania or Niger.
Freeing prisoners may not have a price, but doing so in this manner perpetuates the cycle of hostage-taking and ransom payments.
The question then is how to get out of the dilemma: paying ransoms and perpetuating the status quo or leaving innocents to a certain death? Moreover, the question is also how to protect the economies of the region – trans-border trade, tourism, and mining exploitation â€“ which are so vital to the survival of the local population and to the effectiveness of the governments.
Working together to re-establish security and the free movement of people and goods in the Sahel would provide the best solution. That policy is possible if the most concerned governments – Algeria, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger – mobilize their people and resources to make the Sahel a safe area, as it used to be just one decade ago.
The Sahel is a vast region encompassing many states, with often porous borders, large lawless areas and subsequent administrative deficits. In addition, insecurity in the Sahel Sahara has an ideological dimension claimed by its Aqim perpetuators. It has obvious linkages with the 1990â€™s civil conflicts in Mali, Niger, and especially that of Algeria. Insecurity is also closely interconnected to the criminal economy with trafficking in drugs from Latin America to Europe, in cigarettes, irregular migrations and probably to mineral resources in the region.
Overall, the present insecurity threatens fragile states, a region rich in mineral and energy resources and situated on the fault line between the North and South of the continent.
Today, local and regional threats quickly develop into international security risks because of their contagious effects. Therefore, how can one bring an end to armed violence, criminality, and fear â€“ the main objective of extremists is to instil terror with these means – before they can take deep roots?
Three proposed measures, outlined below, should return stability to the Sahel if implemented effectively.
First, leaders of the most affected countries â€“ Algeria, Mali, Mauritania and Niger, must take more seriously the threat, or in other words, the determination of the extremists and their proclaimed association to international terrorist networks. The number of armed activists is still relatively small, but it increases after each successful publicized operation. To address recruitments by extremists, economic priority should be given to investments in physical infrastructures and youth employment. In addition, political coalitions should be established to enlarge further the bases of national governments. Moreover, security forces should take a more professional rather than tribal approach in their recruitment and promotion, and their budgetary spending should be more transparent.
Second, security cooperation between concerned governments should be treated as being of vital national interest. Its aim should be the protection of the States, their institutions and their populations and not only the immediate interests of the current governments. To be successful, cooperation between governments should be frank and open as it should be between partners facing a major challenge. Algeria, with more experience, stronger institutions and larger resources than its southern neighbours, could take a lead role by being also patient and generous with them.
In September 2009, an Inter State Military Committee was established in Tamanrasset, Algeria. This Committee should be more operational than the existing sub regional groupings. Security of citizens and economic activities, including mining and mineral exploitation as well as tourism, should be the priority.
Three, multilateral assistance is essential in technical areas. However, it cannot replace fully national and regional efforts. Moreover, its volume, often insufficient, is seldom delivered on time and is associated with many conditionnalities, which, in time of emergency weaken its effectiveness. Bilateral cooperation is much more efficient in the first phase of cooperation. In any case, it is crucial to avoid internationalizing further the situation in the Sahel. Extremists would be the first beneficiaries of such a development. The whole Sahel would become the new destination for all disgruntled youth from the region and beyond. And God knows there are many angry young men around. Internationalization would constitute a trap that would strengthen the extremists with free publicity and weaken local governments, which would need to spend more on defence, thereby becoming vulnerable to corruption. Rather than containing or resolving the conflict, it could become intractable.
Finally while condemned by the AU in July 2009 and the UNSC in December of the same year, continuing ransom payments is unacceptable. These payments constitute a major source of funding of violent activities, including acquisitions of vital equipment â€“ cars, communications, arms and salaries for the ranks and files. They also provide an important political visibility to the extremists through negotiations and televised handovers of the freed captives.
In the past few years, I have seen extremists, with multiple objectives and agendas, capable of manipulating public opinions successfully. I have also witnessed the limits and the lack of coherence of the international community in confronting extremism. Therefore, only those governments most exposed to the problems will be able to address them successfully. The present crisis in the Sahel is still a regional problem that its neighbours, confronted with a common threat, have a common interest in combating it. They are able to use simultaneously all traditional and modern means to tackle a situation which, if left unresolved, would quickly take deep roots. International support is always welcome but should remain an additional input to the engagement of Algeria, Mali, Mauritania and Niger, the countries directly concerned. Others states in the Sahel are also interested and should be able to join join in the search for a lasting solution.
Once again, freeing hostages should remain a priority. But ending the kidnappings is a much better policy. However, as demonstrated, just one year ago with the hostage taking in Arlit, continued ransom payments will only lead to new hostage taking and to new ransom payments, perpetuating the cycle. A determined collective action by concerned and interested governments in the region is certainly the most appropriate response to the situation in the Sahel.
The coming end of the Libyan crisis and the return to stability in Cote dâ€™Ivoire as well as the progress in freedoms resulting from the Arab Spring, give hope for a more stable Sahel Sahara.
Darkening skies will be then bringing clear messages.
Ahmedou Ould Abdallah
President Centre 4S
Ahmedou Ould Abdallah President Centre 4S