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Extremism and political instability in North and West Africa

/ Image via Flickr

The Foreign Affairs Select Committee discussed extremism and political instability in North and West Africa on Tuesday. / Image via Flickr

On 21 May 2013, the Foreign Affairs Select Committee met in the Wilson Room of Portcullis House for the first evidence session in their investigation of extremism and political instability in North and West Africa. Members of Parliament present were: Richard Ottoway MP (chair), John Baron MP, Mike Gapes MP, Rt Hon Sir John Stanley MP and Mark Hendrick MP.

The Witnesses before the committee were; Professor Paul Rogers, Professor of Peace Studies, University of Bradford, Imad Mesdoua, Political Analyst, Pasco Risk Management and Jon Marks, Associate Fellow, Middle East and North Africa Programme, Chatham House.

The following is a note summary of what was discussed, conclusions reached and points raised. The points commented on here are not reflections of AOAV policy or position.

Is Mali a textbook example of a good intervention?

The jury is still out on this question, some progress is being made, but we are approaching the hottest part of the year where very little movement is made. Success will depend on the result of elections in July and whether the Mali people will have a free and a fair election that will result in effective institutions. The UK and other intervening nations could underestimate the situation in Mali, whilst Islamic militants are quite embedded and there are now paramilitary elements from other nations in Mali.  Some views are that the crisis in Mali is isolated to northern Mali. However, it should be seen in a more general context.  The problems are far reaching and include borders security, famine, drought, economic disparity and smuggling.

Is Islam under attack?

Al Qaeda has been written off as a military force for now, but the narrative spun by some of the Islamic media presents the situation as Islam being generally under attack from the west.  This is a mirror image of the view in the west that Islam is the threat. Social media is playing a big role in this. Intervention in Mali will be a key narrative in Islamic propaganda, along with intervention in Syria. Western-intervention, it was discussed, leads to the promotion of the militant idea of West/East as being Dar al-Islam and Dar al-Harb (the House of War and the House of Peace) – where Islam is the House of Peace and the West is the House of War.  The west should not forget that Al Qaeda is an idea, a business as it were. Al Qaeda is a potent franchise, one that can be applied in different areas around the world and can be highly appealing to a disenfranchised population.

Can Mali be turned into a state, which is stable and democratic, or could it be the next Afghanistan?

Whilst there are reasons to be positive, all will depend on the outcome of the elections and the process – whether they are free and fair.  The problems of identity and neglect of the North will be the key elements to creating a stable state in Mali. The conclusion of the panel was that there needs to be a fairer distribution of the nation’s wealth and that this needs to be corrected by the transitional government.  The UN presence, which will not be focussed on Islamic insurgency, will be vital to creating a stable state. Malian problems need Malian solutions as well. The MNLA also needs to be involved in the solution to the problem.  You have to include every key activist in the north, especially the MNLA as these insurgents have been able to topple the state.  Some of the Mali military have reportedly also been causing some of the problems in the state. The Malian army have, it was said, a bad reputation for atrocities.  Reports allege that people have been killed and thrown in wells to poison the water supply.  A long term, successful plan for a secure nation is not in place at the moment.

There is a failure to create a UN emergency peace force, which can be called upon to help in nations such as in Mali.  There isn’t a lack of political will from ECOWAS but there is a lack of funds in what is an expensive exercise, Western partners failed to provide real funds to ECOWAS and the African Union.

Could a Mali situation occur in any of its neighbours?

The US has recently established a drone base in Niger.  Said initially to be for reconnaissance, it will, the panel deemed, soon be seen by the Islamic insurgents as a ‘gift’ due to the history of drones in Pakistan and other areas.  From a western perspective it makes military sense but from the other side it is a distinctive propaganda boost.  The drones could act as a deterrent to groups who freely move throughout these desert territories.  They go into Libya and Tunisia to get weapons and then move them into conflict zones.

The factors that are present in Mali that caused the conflict are present elsewhere. Niger and Mauritania are fragile states that have fragile institutions and the problems of identity are also in existent there.  The conflict may spill over into Chad and other areas.  Another issue is that these states are under stress to deal with the number of refugees that they are unable to cope with alone.  Free flow of arms is another problem, which these nations cannot deal with.

If you had a hit list of objectives to achieve in the region, what would they be?

Criminality needs to be tackled, especially in terms of the drug roots from South America.  Also there exists the socio-economic divide.  Terrorism doesn’t come from the poorest of the poor. It is the problem of relative deprivation, where you think you are poorer than others.  It is not necessarily a radical religious threat.  In areas of North Africa, the problem is unemployment and political oppression.  Tunisia with a population 10 million has 140,000 unemployed graduates.  A great number of highly educated people exist on the fringes.  You can get a conviction that there must be a more radical way to solve local issues.  This is what is feeding the Salafi movement.

The removal of the Gadaffi regime in Libya contributed to the current situation.  There were a great number of arms available, which are being sent all across Africa, and there are a growing number of Islamic militants in Libya.  Lack of control over boarders and ineffectual government ruling has meant that Libya became an arms bazaar in the aftermath.  This adhered to the law of unintended consequences.  Arming the rebels seemed like a good idea in Libya, but any decision at the local level in any state can influence issues in another state.  The borders are poorly policed and the geo-political problems across the continent can expedite these issues, especially in areas where the seeds are already planted, such as in Mali.

Libya went on a large-scale arms buying policy from Europe during the seven years preceding the civil war, up to the week before the beginning of the arms embargo. These weapons are now being used in areas like Mali because there is considerably easy access to them in the aftermath of the conflict.

The committee will continue to hear evidence once Parliament returns from recess. It is apparent that the problems in Mali have deep local roots, which have been worsened by the geo-political situation in much of North and West Africa. There are several states that are unstable and have ineffectual governments and the presence of Islamic militants causes situations where conflict is able spark up with little precedent.

Intervention can now be seen as a short-term solution to a much larger problem. The removal of the Gaddafi regime for instance was an important objective once the National Transition Council looked like a serious force that had the support of the Libyan people. However, it created a scenario where weapons are now more available to insurgents to enable them to spread conflict.