Some superficial thoughts about goings on in the region in general based on some recent reports and articles.
This week’s issue of The Economist has two interesting articles: one on the Sahel countries (minus Mauritania and mostly interested in Tuaregs) and the aftermath of recent events in Libya and another optimistic piece on Libya’s relations with the NTC’s wartime allies (Qatar, it reports is the ‘worst offender’ in meddling in the country’s internal politics; many Tunisians angry about an-Nahdah say the same).
The big picture on Chad is also interesting: ICG put out a good report on Chad a few weeks ago, ‘Africa without Qaddafi: The Case of Chad‘. This is especially worth reading after looking at ICG’s March 2010 report on Libyan-Chad relations (‘Beyond Political Influence‘).
From The Economist:
Some Tuareg acquired high-tech weapons during Libya’s civil war, and may have taken them home. At least 13 died in a shoot-out with government forces in Niger on November 9th. Gold dished out by fleeing Qaddafi officials could pay for insurgencies. Fighters might also link up with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, a regional terror group. This comes at a time of growing radicalism in Mali and Niger, with illiterate and disillusioned citizens finding solace in mosques.
Yet talk of Tuareg uprisings is often overstated. For all their swagger and Star Wars-style dress, the Tuareg are not numerous. Mali has 75,000 in a population of 15m. Some rebel groups may contain no more than a few dozen fighters. The main threat from the Libyan revolution to its southern neighbours is the economic impact. Idriss Déby, Chad’s president, owed his strongman role in part to Qaddafi’s largesse. He is not trusted by Libya’s new rulers, who are unlikely to continue the colonel’s open-purse policy. Chadian oil revenues are also in decline.
Mali is more stable, but President Amadou Touré is stepping down next year and elections may be combustible. Another concern is the new Libyan government’s lack of interest in Qaddafi’s investments in Malian agriculture, which this year produced bumper harvests. In Niger the government has had to work hard to distance itself from dozens of Qaddafi loyalists, including at least one son, who have taken refuge in the country. Furthermore Tuareg returning from Libya are mostly from Niger. An estimated 200,000 Nigerién migrant workers have suddenly come home as well. President Mahamadou Issoufou, who came to power this year after replacing a caretaker military regime, is already dogged by coup attempts.
This seems reasonable. There is a lot of talk about the Tuaregs rising up, hardened warriors ready to kill (in the worst accounts, some of which talk about single ‘tribe’ controlling all the smuggling in the region and the like) or to widespread dissatisfaction and alienation on their return to their home countries. Smart people in the area generally agree that yet another uprising would have disastrous consequences for the Tuaregs and Mali and Niger and probably Burkina Faso, too. They do not always agree on the likelihood of another conflict. Many variables are at play and leaders in some Tuareg factions, tribes and movements say different things. The atmosphere is agitated in Mali especially, based on the news reports and impressions of others. Young people have turned out to demonstrations for independence for the Azouad region in northern towns, and in Niger the treatment of Qadhafite loyalists taking refuge there is supposed to be a major variable. Many fret over the weapons issue, whether Tuaregs have gotten lots of technicals and other hardware and, of course, what has been picked up by AQIM. It is extremely important to note that the Tuareg issue(s) are not best understood in terms of AQIM (or even the Libya file) and looked at as part of the local political context and an element AQIM would love to make better inroads but has thus far been generally (not totally) unsuccessful especially ideologically (in passing AQIM’s objectives seem totally divorced from any of ideological and political movtives driving Tuareg autonomy, independence and land movements).
Mohktar Belmokhtar recently told an interviewer he considered AQIM the main beneficiary of the Libyan war but was also relatively modest in his boasts about weapon procurement and the group’s spread in the region. He did not, for example, play up the group’s links to Boko Haram in Nigeria and he could have said more on the group’s presence in Libya. Perhaps Mr. Belmokhtar is downplaying his group success to avoid making his small group a bigger target; it is also notable that he acknowledges differences between himself and another AQIM leader, Abu Zeid. The Algerian newspaper Ech-Chorouk al-Youmi had an article discussing the arms trade spilling out of Libya (note that much of Ech-Chorouk’s coverage of Libya has been, well, exaggerated and reflects part of the official Algerian view. The English page features a number of articles claiming that Algerians fought along side rebels at the battle of Tripoli and it was sharply critical of the Libyan rebel fighters; a story from 27 October had a headline that was something like ‘rebel extremists destroy centuries old Islamic shrine’). One dealt with abandoned arms caches in Libya and another talked about a ‘lengthy’ report for the Algerian Prime Minister which outlined the extent of clashes on the Algerian borders with smugglers and others moving weapons out of Libya (that one is interesting because it discusses some of the smuggling networks and how they relate to official corruption on the borders and so on). 28 October had a long report on the arms trade and went into some detail though such reports should be treated with a grain of salt as mentioned. Based on those reports the next confrontations between the Mauritanians and or other Sahel militaries will deserve particular attention. Recent fighting in northern Niger with an unknown convoy suggest quite a lot of weaponry is out and moving about. Traffickers likely have their hands on a number of more advanced weapons a group AQIM would love to have and likely has the funds to purchase and multiple sources in Niger have told news reporters AQIM has been a major customer. As yet this blogger has not seen recent AQIM propaganda featuring surface to air missiles or similarly advanced technologies (readers may have or may have seen something else pointing the opposite direction). One would assume they would put new and fancy weapons from Libya on display (‘bulls on parade,’ as they say) and would brag about them, unless — as mentioned before — they are attempting to hide their strength in that sense and downplay their strength (deception?). Comrades at The Wasat have looked at these issues in greater depth: readers should see Comrade Zelin’s writing (the piece linked there is especially interesting) as well as Comrade Lebovich’s.
Concerns about these sorts of things has driven the recent flurry of visits by representatives from Sahel states to Algiers for bi-lateral and multi-lateral talks on security, migration and economic cooperation (the Mauritanians most recently and a higher level visit from Mali before that and so on and the recent meetings in Washington and soon in Algiers). The visit to Algiers by Mauritania’s Foreign Minister yielded some economic aid and agricultural cooperation but many of the Algerian (and Mauritanian) reports emphasized the FM’s meetings with Abdelkader Messahel and security cooperation. Alex Thurston at the Sahel Blog has a round up of these regional meetings. Everyone seems eager to boost military cooperation but also apprehensive about what increased contact with AQIM or with other armed groups (potentially but not inevitably Tuaregs or others in Azaouad) would mean for political and economic stability generally, and, as Thurston points out, suspicion and distrust in regional capitals remains a potential barrier to more active cooperation.