It is not too soon to ask why Mali underwent multiple coups and joined Nigeria in hosting an Islamic separatist movement; it might, however, be too late. In order to understand the situation in the Sahel – that undefined landmass of desert shared amongst the countries of West and North Africa – we have to consider the historic build-up of conflict drivers in the post-colonial era.
Three Decades of Organized Crime: Thirty years ago Nigeria started to record high levels of organized crime activity, ranging from drug running, to weapons and natural resource smuggling to human trafficking, prostitution and the supply of ready-to-deploy mercenary armies to the highest bidder. At the time, Nigeria was viewed as a nuisance nation and the response of the international community was a half-hearted program of strengthening policing and customs training in that country. Over the last 30 years, the disease of organized crime has grown to maturation, not only infecting national governance structures and security forces but also engulfing whole nations in West Africa in its corrupt embrace: Guinea, Cote D’Ivoire, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Guinea-Bissau, Mauritania and now Mali. Allowed to fester and coupled with growing socio-economic disparities between the majority poor and the privileged powerful few in these states, organized crime networks have come into their own now, working as shadow of the official governance structures all over West Africa, providing an alternative governance structure, model and living modality to those many folk that have never known good governance. The structural weakness introduced by these phenomena leaves little room for speculation as to how and why weapons and assets (human and financial) can get easily transferred between nations and continents. In this sense, organized crime in West Africa has created an alternative financial, trading and valuation system from the global official world, one that thrives on and feeds chaos.
Post-Colonialism and Franchised Elite Structures: Cote D’Ivoire and Mali both former colonies of France have dominated the last 10 years of news from the region. The two decades before were dominated by Sierra Leone and Liberia former British colonies. In the case of both colonizers, franchised elites were educated, trained and nominated to take over the leadership of these countries upon independence. Organized along religious, tribal and socio-economic lines, the continued empowerment and support from former colonies to these elites sets us up for the conflicts of the region: some pitching marginalized areas occupied mainly by Muslim majorities against significantly more developed urban populations that trended to also be more Christian and universalist. External support and interference in West African countries also curtailed the development of a more democratic body politic in these countries and in the region, most often characterizing non-franchised and non-elite political voices as rebels, troublemakers and insurgents. With the lack of viable representational equity and voice for swaths of population, organized crime and religion took on added significance as methods of organization.
The Gains and the Losses: Over the decades, the ex-colonizers have gained markets to export their trained and semi-skilled labour, retained the semblance of “EMPIRE” in organizations such as the Commonwealth and the Francophonie, and also retained access to and control over lucrative and developing natural and mineral resources that define the rich economy of West Africa. It is no wonder that France took action in Mali; at stake were its lucrative plutonium and uranium mines in the north in Gao and also a mainstay of input into France’s continually ailing economy. Both Britain and France, like the USA, gained natural and mineral resources at cheap rates to fuel their economies. The losers have been the majority of the people of these states that have not benefited from the income and proceeds from the rich resources mined and extracted from their soil. Thus for many West African countries, economic, social and political usury never ended but in a real sense continued to the present. Where it did not, in countries like Ghana, a stronger and more representative elite structure was evident from the beginning of its independence as a state.
Movements and Revolutions: West Africa has been a hotbed of revolution and conflict. Some rebel movements like the MNLA in Sahel have been sponsored and financed by France as a means of maintaining command and control over all their former colonies; a control valve. However, what has sparked the collapse of northern Nigeria and the coup and conflict in Mali was the manner in which, some powerful countries like the US and organizations such as NATO, handled the liberation of Libya. I do not take nay exception with the oust of Gadhafi or the role that the Coalition played in this revolution. I do take exception with the lack of support to a fragmented Libya during and after the revolution in controlling what we knew were hoards of weapons stockpiles. This single misstep has resulted in the activation and escalation of conflict in a span of the African continent from Mauritania to Somalia, with the potential for many more countries and the Middle East region also to be supplied with a steady and efficient stream of weapons. The potential for multiplying conflict on the African continent as a result of Libya has increased significantly, while the attention now being given to redress some of these factors are limited to anti-terrorist strategies and very superficial governance work through the UN. What this implies is that we are at the beginning of a series of conflicts and upheavals involving Islamic extremists and others – anyone who has legal or illegal money to invest in mayhem and chaos.
Islamic extremists: The incubators for Islamic insurgents remain Saudi Arabia and Yemen while the training ground remains Pakistan. Iraq and Afghanistan are now rivals to Pakistan in the growing cottage industry of terrorism. These individuals once trained are highly mobile, highly dedicated, highly competent and also highly skilled – they are not ignorants sporting beards with bad attitudes – they can appear to be westernised and neutral. The game change in the world of terrorism is leapfrogging the image we carry of the so-called terrorists into a modern, up-to-date, westernized individual who might even look emancipated and westernised, but that in his or her heart, hears the call of revenge against the West and its lackeys all over the world. Africa is just the most vulnerable place to strike and take advantage of weak governance structures, easily corruptible systems and large-scale disenfranchisement amongst the local population. In this fight, we are at the beginning.
So Mali is the beginning of a tend that has been growing unchecked for three decades or more and threatens more countries and more chaos before being controlled. The recommendation is for all to consider deeper programming and medium to long terms initiatives to try to support the national populations, and not just the elites, to emerge from these eminent challenges with a semblance of democracy, representation and dignity. This will require long terms investment and a laissez-faire attitude when building assistance and support programs. Ignoring challenges and not plugging gaps in the aftermath of revolutions have done a lot of harm and now we are entering the stage of reaping the fallout.