Economic Opportunity and Rebellion in the Sahel

“Aren’t you scared of getting kidnapped?” he asked her. ‘He’ being a participant of CIPE’s capacity-building workshop on association management, in Nouakchott, the capital of Mauritania. ‘Her’ was a CIPE consultant, based in Romania, who had flown in to Mauritania to facilitate the workshop.

The question was posed to her as I was giving the welcome address to the participants, while she was seated and preparing to address the participants for the first time. A few months prior, her Romania-based colleague cut short her Mauritania sojourn due to security concerns based on the unrest prompted by an anti-Islam video that was circulating on the Internet. The Sahel region has been experiencing a spate of kidnappings for ransom in recent months, by groups such as Al Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM), the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), and Ansar Dine. Besides human-trafficking and kidnapping , these groups also engage in the illicit trade of arms and drugs. The point being that the location and the time were inappropriate for such a question, particularly for individuals who had barely said “hello” to each other.

My sense is that the participant who posed the question was being jocular in a rather morbid manner — the running joke on me in Mauritania, until that point, had been that my price in the “kidnapping market” was below zero. In other words, by virtue of being an African male, kidnappers would suffer a net loss from kidnapping me for ransom — with an economics background, I chuckled at the thought of myself as a human version of a U.S. Treasury bond currently bearing a negative yield. But I understood that my colleague from Romania could not afford to be as lighthearted as I had been, and so our local consultant and I made sure to address the issue with the participant in question.

That “joke,” however, speaks to one current reality about Mauritania, namely its proximity and exposure to radical movements from across the African Sahel region. It is a reality that highlights how precarious the situation in Mali is, and why Mali is but a symptom of a greater malaise across the region.

Analyses of the situation in Mali are not as comprehensive as they should be. An elemental analytic exercise, to begin to understand the complex nature of the situation, is to look at a map of Africa. One realizes that huge swaths of the Sahel cut across most of Mauritania and Sudan, and the northern halves of Niger, Chad, and Mali. The peoples in these regions share cultural and traditional ties that predate colonialism and have been sustained through present day. The bonds between them have been solidified through inter-marriages and the arbitrary boundaries of post-colonial nation-states have not weakened them. They share cross-border empathies, and it shows.

In Mauritania, many people will tell you that they disliked Mali’s democratically-elected president Amadou Toumani Touré, who was overthrown in a coup d’etat in March. They never forgave him for the battles that he waged against northern Malians decades ago, when, as a southern Malian army commander, he was tasked with pacifying militant separatists in the north.

The coup that overthrew him, along with the ensuing take-over of the north by militant groups, was met with silent approval and schadenfreude in many Mauritanian homes. It would not be far-fetched to think that this sequence of events prompted similar reactions in Sudan, northern Niger, and Chad. After all, the heavily-armed contingent that returned to northern Mali from Libya after the overthrow of Gaddafhi was granted laissez-passer through Niger. These nearby countries are also the most reluctant to support an international military intervention in northern Mali, such as the one proposed by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) after the rebels officially declared independence for the north.

Mauritania, Niger, and Algeria have made public their unwillingness to play any part in a military intervention. The conventional wisdom in Mauritania is that movement in and out of northern Mali is hassle-free for indigenous people — for a Mauritanian, Algerian, northern Chadian, or Nigerien, movement across northern Mali is never an issue. At my current market price in the “kidnapping market,” I could even be a qualified member of this Schengen-like free travel zone.

One inadvertent consequence of this is that foreigners — at least those “of value” — who venture too near to the border areas of northern Mali are at risk of being kidnapped and handed over to the militant groups inside Mali for a fee. An industry is taking form. We are witnessing negative consequences in neighboring countries even before any concerted military efforts are made against the militant groups in northern Mali. It appears that the governments of the neighboring countries have credible reasons for desisting on military intervention; the situation could abruptly fall into a downward spiral, and they would be the worst affected. Tens of thousands of refugees have already fled the fighting in the north to neighboring countries, creating a growing humanitarian crisis.

There is a strong economic undertone to the current predicament. The northern halves of Mali, Chad, and Niger have been economic backwaters for decades — an enduring French colonial legacy. Since independence, each of these regions have experienced militant secessionist movements rooted in economic marginalization  The situation in northern Mali is only “where the puck is” at the moment. The bigger point is that the “game” has been unfolding across the entire ice-hockey rink that is the Sahel region for decades. The apparent single-minded focus on military intervention will bear huge negative consequences in the region for decades to come.

Typically, people do not fight when they have enough to eat. Conversely, I am yet to meet the man who’s been willing and able to ponder the merits of democratic principles and governance on an empty stomach. We should not be so zealous in our pursuit of a functional democracy in a united Mali that we neglect the fact that the provision of economic opportunity is as effective a pacifier as is military intervention.

Certain events are revealing:

On a 4-hour drive from Nouakchott to Nouadibhou, Mauritania’s economic capital, Abdel Rahman, my driver, was behind the steering wheel, dressed as the proper Tuareg that he is. As we darted north across the Sahara, speeding past troops of camels and uncountable donkey carts, he insisted that we keep his favorite Celine Dion CD going in an endless loop. And whenever track #7 came on, the volume had to be turned up a bit higher, regardless of how high it may have been before … and he would proceed to hum along to Celine Dion and Peabo Bryson’s “Beauty and the Beast.” The entire cycle of events was so unexpectedly beautiful that i felt my eyes moisten up a few times.

There is no telling how much good economic opportunities can do.

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