Peter Jones: We must tread carefully in west Africa

EVERYONE cheered when Colonel Muammar al-Gaddafi’s foul regime was brought to an end by the Libyan uprising in October 2011.

EVERYONE cheered when Colonel Muammar al-Gaddafi’s foul regime was brought to an end by the Libyan uprising in October 2011.

Now, however, in the bloody end to the hostage-taking in Algeria and in the intervention of French troops in strife-ridden Mali, we are seeing an unintended consequence of Gaddafi’s demise.

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This fact alone – that the people causing the trouble in Algeria and Mali are heavily armed with looted Libyan weaponry – should tell outside powers that they should tread very carefully in west Africa. Rushing in is likely to make fools of foreigners and victims of very many innocent Africans.

The origins of the present conflict are, of course, much more complex than just an exodus of arms and, to some extent, trained mercenaries from Libya. That has served to amplify existing tensions. Although Algeria is closer to dictatorship than democracy on the political spectrum and, indeed, its rulers are distant supporters of the noxious Assad regime in Syria, the Arab Spring has left the regime largely unscathed. There were plenty of protests, including self-immolations of the Tunisian type that kicked off the whole Arab revolt, but they failed to spread.

In part, that is because the regime moved to defuse much of the reason for the protest by reintroducing food subsidies. But the main reason is that memories of the 1990s civil war (known as the black decade) between Islamist groupings and the Algerian victors of the war of liberation against French rule are still strong.

Estimates of the death toll range between about 50,000 and 200,000. Hardly a family was untouched by the conflict and, therefore, there was little enthusiasm for a renewed bout of blood-letting, especially as the 187,000-strong Algerian army, part of the ruling clique, earned a reputation for ruthlessness in its suppression of the Islamist factions. An amnesty offer to militants in 1999 brought an end to most of the fighting, but some elements vowed to carry on. Amid some splintering and division, the most extreme grouping, the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, changed its name to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (Mauritania, Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia and Libya) or AQIM.

It has grown powerful through the smuggling of drugs and cigarettes and ransom payments for its kidnap victims. It has also been responsible for many bombings which, somewhat gruesomely, has increased its allure – as was highlighted yesterday with the announcement that Canadian Islamists were among the hostage-taking terrorists killed by Algerian forces.

Some of these elements are among the insurgents who have provoked the French intervention in Mali, and to which the taking of the BP gas plant in Algeria was a response. The rest are mostly Tuareg, the nomadic people of the west Sahara who have suffered perhaps a century of oppression at the hands of French imperialism and the post-imperial governments of west Africa.

Mali is a shambles of a country, in the hands of squabbling politicians and military types who hardly merit the “government” description. The Tuareg, some of whom have settled in the north, resent the fact that they get nothing from the country’s powers that be. This month, perhaps 2,000 armed men swept down from northern towns, including the fabled Timbuktu, seizing more towns and threatening the capital Bamako where about 1.8 million people, and most of the 6,000 French citizens in Mali, live.

French president François Hollande, belying his reputation for indecision, promptly deployed troops who, fighting alongside Malian forces, have pushed the insurgents back. The jihadists seem to have responded by vanishing, either into the desert or into the local population whence many of them came.

The threat is still clearly there, as it is across much of north-west Africa. And, in Mali especially, they know the land a whole lot better than do any troops, including Malian ones, who might be deployed to contain insurrection.

This, plus the fact that many of the jihadists are veterans of wars against the infidels in Iraq and Afghanistan (giving rise to the clumsy but perhaps horribly accurate soubriquet for the region as Africanistan in some western circles) makes finding solutions that end the threat of uprisings, murder and kidnapping no easy task.

Prime Minister David Cameron was certainly not exaggerating when he said that providing stability and security in the region will take decades. The importance of the task is that AQIM has threatened to take its terrorism abroad, particularly to France, where security forces have stepped up their vigilance.

But as should now be abundantly clear from Iraq and Afghanistan, it cannot be a western-imposed solution, many of the problems being reverberations from the history of imperial intervention.

Western action has so far been limited to American provision of satellite observations and intelligence to the Algerians and to the French commanders in Mali, plus British assistance in transporting French soldiers and weaponry to Mali. Mr Hollande has said the French intervention, which may rise to 2,000 men, is aimed at reversing the insurgency (completed), helping the Malian army retake towns in Islamist hands (mostly done), and then handing over to an international force (getting under way).

The institution through which this international effort is most likely to be channelled is the 15-member Economic Community of West African States. At a weekend summit in Nigeria, a commitment to sending 3,500 troops from ten countries was made.

Some have already been dispatched, but establishing a command structure plus a presence that reassures the Malian people, and does not merely perpetuate the country’s chronically decayed political institutions will be more difficult. This pinpoints the dilemma that American/European Union governments have. To what extent should west African governments which – while not as despotic as the Gaddafi/Assad regimes – are clearly unsatisfactory in that they perpetuate rather than address local grievances which feed extremism, be supported?

A reason that Algeria has escaped external scrutiny of its many democratic failings is that its monitoring and suppression of Islamist extremism has made it an ally of western governments.

It looks to be now time, especially as Algerian president Abdulaziz Bouteflika is ailing and due to step down in 2014 in any case, to start nudging his potential successors along a reformist path, perhaps on the Tunisian model which, so far at least, has been a reasonable success.

The same encouragement needs to be given to the Malian people so that they can have the confidence in themselves to establish a coherent government in which the country can have some trust. But what a job that is.