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A modest proposal for a new approach to the analysis of the Mali and SaheloSaharan Crisis

Carina Perelli. 1st. February 2013. Because it is not somebody else’s problem… In the old maps of the Mariners, Finisterre was marked by the legend “Here Be Dragons”. That label spoke to the magma of the fearful unknown, but also to the potential for expeditions to transcend it, to incorporate the Finisterre into the map of the known world. It feels as though the motif “Here Be Dragons” can today be applied to the whole map of the Earth, with layers of uncertainty and strange phenomena that even practitioners with a trained eye for the unfamiliar can no longer totally recognize. This modest proposal aims at exploring the new Finisterre by rendering the new magma of uncertainty more manageable. We are in a world post Iraq; post Afghanistan; post COIN; post nation-building; post democracy promotion; post and past the wall of certainties that make the world predictable; a world where casualties are no longer the price of victory and where war is waged without body bags; in the midst of an economic crisis that has ravaged societies and economies and mesmerized and sapped the confidence of most national populations. With less money and less clarity, more fear, hopelessness, and helplessness, populations around the globe, and particularly in the West, are turning inward, and growing impatient. Moods are getting ugly; institutions are in flux and political elites and bureaucratic establishments at the helm of States are questioned and challenged. In this context, in the aftermath of the wild, dashed hopes epitomized by the Arab Spring (whoever expected instant democracy there is most surely a willing drinker of instant coffee), that the conflict of Mali emerges, a conflict that cannot be understood in isolation from the rest of the Sahel-Sahara Arc. The Sahel-Sahara is defined by toxic combinations and tensions that make it the perfect stage for such a crisis. Often compared to an ocean because of its vast expanse, its imprecise and uncontrollable borders, its routes, “ports” and “pirates of the sands”, the Sahel-Sahara is a demographic time bomb mired in poverty. It is an expanding desert, with consecutive droughts that affect the “children of the

clouds”, the nomadic tribes that crisscross its immensity. A criminalized space, the Sahara is the locus of old/new tensions between nomadic trans-border tribes and modern State boundaries artificially imposed upon the desert; the historic tensions between former slavers and former slaves; between Arab and Touareg and Black Africans; the theater that frames the eternal dance between resentment and humiliation, feelings of pride and solidarity, and the nostalgia for a Golden Age that probably never existed. Finally, the Ocean Sahara is not only a land of Islam but also a land of bandits, pirates and outlaws. It is there that AQMI, Al Qaeda and probably other radical Islamic groups chose to pursue their combat. They grafted themselves onto legitimate claims and local organizations: military experts now agree that radical Islam is localized, jihadism assumes local notes and flavors allowing its exponents to penetrate their target constituencies (the French talk about “la Sahelisation de la mouvance islamique”). Experts in Jihadism and Islam now discuss whether Wahabism or Salafism (as opposed to the Islam des confreries) provides the force and flexibility of this type of movement. Coming from Latin America but having spent part of my professional life in Palestine, Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan, Afghanistan, I will not join that discussion. For me, it is uncannily similar to the discussions over the ideological roots of Shining Path in Peru or whether Tupamaros or Montoneros or the FARC were MarxistLeninist movements, Marxist or none of the above. Without being an expert, I know that the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt looks remarkably similar in its methodology and organization to the Bolshevists in Russia and in its use of religion as a mobilizing tool for the masses to endless movements and fronts from Latin America after the Cuban Revolution, in the dark ages of the Cold War. Hence my modest proposal: sometimes, we concentrate on meticulous analysis of the parts, while letting what is essential escape us. So, for a second, let’s strip this particular reality of the details, leaving just the basics and remove our lenses distorted by too much knowledge. After all, once Fidel Castro removed the fatigues of the revolutionary, what was left behind was a frail old man in a track suit: still powerful, still dangerous, with the accumulated experience of years of tradecraft, but without the mystical aura of the invincible father of a revolution whose reverberations shook the region and the world for twenty years.


So, this is an invitation to de-construct this reality, remove Islam – as a religious, ideological, and political practice – from the equation and look at what is left in terms of tradecraft, actors and institutions. What I see is a vast region historically under the control of everybody in name, but nobody in reality, because the notional authorities are fragile States with poor governance, ripe with corruption, weak State apparatuses applying centralized bureaucracy instead of flexible solutions responsive to the needs of the population. I see a criminalized space long employed for smuggling, kidnapping, piracy and trafficking, and thus fit to become the new drug corridor to Europe, when the routes of the Caribbean were closed by the combined military action of the US and European forces. And bandits, traffickers, pirates and outlaws, awash with cash from their illicit trades, ready to extend their trafficking, and create a para-State with networks of solidarity, enforcement, and fear and hope mixed in equal parts. All this was in existence long before the attempted secession of Northern Mali and the arrival of the Islamists. I see small local movements of social and political protest that existed long before the AQMI landed in force. And I see hard-core professional revolutionaries erupting on the scene and co-opting those movements, grafting themselves onto their structures, reaching opportunistic agreements with bandits and warlords, traffickers and pirates, allowing them to rule by fiat and fear over a cowed population, and to attract young followers dreaming of inclusion and prosperity. Latin America and the narcos, anyone? Anyone familiar with the narco-corridos of my part of the world can see the similarities. You only have to substitute insurrection for Islam… The advantage of recognizing this is that, all of a sudden, the rich experience of Mexico, Central and South America is at our disposal, allowing us to learn from past mistakes, share experiences, and craft solutions. If we lift the Islamic veil of the Sahara-Sahel and demystify what we can see, we can understand that the crisis in Mali in particular, and the Sahara more generally, has been created by the confluence of professional revolutionaries, local traffickers, and legitimate small local organizations protesting appalling conditions of misery and exclusion. This opportunistic alliance has been forged in the frame of fragile States ripe for collapse, imploding from the inside because of corruption, bad governance and weak institutions. Like Fidel Castro in his track suit, the situation is still dangerous, and the actors still powerful, but the problem has lost its mystical aura of intractability.


Let me bolster this modest proposal to change the analytical perspective with a few common sense recommendations stemming from years of experience as a practitioner who has seen many crises. 1. The front cover of The Economist was disturbing in its simplicity; against the graphic backdrop of a scene of warfare in Mali a simple question: Afghanistan? The metaphor of the intelligentsia reflecting the fear of decision-makers is the potential ‘Afghanization’ of the crisis of Mali. The military intervention was commissarial in character: the operations sought to restore order and contain the crisis. They will accomplish their objective: now is the time for Statecraft. What is the plan? 2. Never confuse retreat with defeat. If the causes of the problem are not addressed, the crisis will not be resolved. Identifying the problem correctly is a prerequisite for its solution. If they are to survive for more than one new cycle, such solutions can only be reached by dialogue and consensus. 3. Once you have reached agreement on a shared vision, stay the course! Albert Hirschman spoke magisterially about the dangers of “the hyperinflation of diagnosis”, a form of political impatience that leaves behind geological layers of white elephants and half-baked plans. Be patient, listen to everybody that can exercise voice, reach a consensus and stick to the plan. A large part of the failure in Afghanistan was due to the disturbing bipolarity of an international community that, in the words of one of my Afghan counterparts, “confused red lines with red carpets”. 4. The days that follow the military victory are crucial in setting the tone of the process that follows, and winning or losing the battle of perceptions about the viability of a shared future. The animus of those who were subject to the paralyzing culture of fear imposed by the ‘other’ is often inevitably vindictive. This is a means of compensating for earlier passivity, or opportunistic accommodation to allow for survival. If one wants to preclude a further cycle of resentment, shame, humiliation and alienation, one must prevent the mob from taking revenge against members of tribes or groups seen to be associated with those who oppressed them. Finding means to effect closure of the past is and essential part of enabling a political exit from the crisis.


Mali and the Sahelo-Saharian Arc Toxic Combinations and Tipping points to destabilization and violence.

Summary The crisis in Mali is but a symptom (and a peculiar but not exclusive manifestation) of a deeper series of crises affecting what the French military calls the Arc Sahelo-Saharian.

It emanates from the confluence of serious political mistakes and vulnerabilities from the past (namely, poor governance, corruption, fragility of the State, presence of organized crime, bandits and traffickers in the desert, and a weak and inefficient security sector with an inverted pyramid of ranks), in a context of food insecurity caused by the persistent drought and leading to a humanitarian crisis, and endemic poverty.

The Arab Spring and, in particular, the Libyan Revolution (stockpiles of weapons poorly controlled, return of the Malian/Touareg mercenaries serving Ghaddafi with modern weapon systems) served as the tipping point towards violence.

The resentment of local populations was used by AQMI and other radical elements to infiltrate legitimate political groupings protesting social and political conditions; more importantly, AQMI and other radical groups associated themselves with bandit and smuggler/trafficker organizations already operating in the region (localization of jihadism phenomenon).

The French military intervention and the deployment of peacekeepers from other African countries is a commissarial intervention based on a series of military “coups de main”. However, there is no military solution to the crisis: the French-led counter-attack aims only to restore the government to the cities and contain the radical elements.

We should not confuse retreat with defeat. Insurgency under the banner of radical Islam will re-emerge either in Mali, or in other favorable environments in the region. The threat is displaced but not eliminated. The jihadist movement has wider regional aims: military sources highlight proven links between AQMI and Bokko Haram in Nigeria and the Shabbab movement of Somalia, pointing to the recent attack of Bokko Haram against Nigerian soldiers preparing to deploy into Mali.

The presence of transnational organized crime in the region exacerbates the challenge. Drug trafficking has found new routes (after the traditional paths into Europe from Colombia through Mexico and the Caribbean, were closed by the combined action of US and European militaries): Latin American cocaine enters Africa via the Gulf of Guinea (in particular through the ports of Guinea Bissau, totally controlled by the narcos) and makes its way via the Sahel into Europe. The Sahel is an air terminal for the drug trade (confirmed report of a Boeing plane full of drugs landing in the desert, for instance). Crime syndicates use these routes to traffic people, stolen vehicles, weapons, cigarettes and alcohol. A cottage industry of kidnapping using the vast, uncontrolled spaces of the Sahel/Sahara to hold hostages until ransoms are paid fills out this bleak panorama. Before the putsch and the war in Mali, it was estimated that ransom monies exceeded Mali’s military budget. The weapons stockpiled in Libya may not be that critical therefore; there are adequate funds to buy modern weapons in the black market.

Toxic combinations in the region:

1. Demographic Time Bomb: 115 million people live in the region. Population will double in approximately 15 years. Average number of children per woman: 6 (7 in Mauritania). 3% population growth per year. Youth bulge: 60% of the population is less than 25 years old.


2. Poverty: 54% of the population lives with less than a dollar a day. 90% of these poor are in the North Sahel. 3. Drought and Desertification: Severe drought for 3 consecutive years has created a serious humanitarian crisis. With climate change affecting weather patterns, the environmental crisis will affect the human ecology of the desert, among nomadic groups called “children of the clouds”. The desert advances 4 mts/per year. 4. Weak governance and fragile States: Political and military sources confirm that several senior politicians and military leaders in the Sahel were receiving bribes from AQMI and crime syndicates. Corruption is a major factor, reinforcing weak governance. The security forces cannot control the territory: with an inverted pyramid of 65 generals commanding 25,000 underpaid men in the Malian army, it was impossible to control a territory of the size of Spain and France together. The problem of nomadic transnational tribes has not been resolved in the context of the “modernized” States that compose the Sahel-Sahara space and is likely to be compounded with “la chasse au Touareg” after the displacement of the AQMI. The announcement by the Malian interim President at the African Union Summit in Addis Ababa that elections will be held in Mali before 30 July could be, if not properly managed, a further catalyst of violent conflict. 5. A criminalized space: Organized Crime, Trafficking and Kidnappings: A vast uncontrolled space is good for illicit business. With the closing of the drug trade routes through the Caribbean, traffickers now use the “Sahelian Ocean” for trafficking of drugs, cigarettes, weapons, cars and people. The pirates of the desert also use the territory to move hostages around until they are ransomed, establish temporary bases of operations for banditry, and centers for recruitment and training of “conscripts” to their ranks. There are military voices today that propose going further in applying the formula that has proven successful in recent fights against piracy. The French military intervention has checked (for the time being), the extension of the criminalized space from the Sahel into West Africa. However, the situation is far from resolved and the correlation of forces in the region gives cause for concern.

6. Humiliation, Fear and Resentment: Radicalism breeds in environments characterized by these three notes. The recruitment process into radicalized organizations is well known, and used in religious and nonreligious contexts. Today we speak of the “Sahelization of Islamic Radicalism” because such movements are based in private and local rationales. With the end of conventional hostilities, the population reacts predictably by taking revenge on Touaregs (there are also more sinister and opportunistic mobiles that enter into play). This, in turn, will increase the resentment of Touareg populations and make them more prone to radical approaches. From the point of view of AQMI, the process is hence a net gain. Recommendations  Organizations should be particularly careful in deploying personnel in the Sahelo-Saharian arc. The risk of kidnappings has increased exponentially.  Violence is a language. Hence, spectacular attacks are to be expected in the next quarter.