Brian Klaas: Africa’s Catch-22

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Some astute observations in a new article on Good Governance Africa:

Conflict in Africa can result in economic devastation that lingers on far beyond the last crack of gunfire, because aid and trade matter more to the continent’s economic growth than they do to others. The loss of international partners—and foreign direct investment in particular—can drain an African country of its economic lifeblood for years after a coup d’état or a civil war. […]

In research recently conducted for One Earth Future, an anti-conflict think tank based in Denver, Colorado, Jay Ulfelder and this author found evidence that the reactions of Western governments to conflict in other countries can create self-fulfilling economic prophecies. In some cases at least, there is evidence that the economic fortunes of a country after a coup, civil war, or an unconstitutional change of government may be largely dictated by international actors—particularly major powers in the West.[…]

These diplomatic responses are not random. They are carefully constructed with reference to geopolitics. Unfortunately, sub-Saharan Africa is in the geopolitical periphery. As a result, some countries outside of the region may receive more favorable diplomatic treatment in the wake of political violence, thereby ensuring continuity or even an increase in foreign direct investment. Government signals provide an important cue to investors, particularly when sanctions are involved—as they often are—with post-conflict, and particularly, post-coup governments.

I have for some time now arrived at the conclusion that – with very few exceptions – foreign policy responses to crises are made up on the fly, in a high-stress and low-information environment based on historical and personal experiences and reference points. African countries are more at the receiving end of this than any other, because western diplomats and bureaucrats are less likely to be experts on the issues that matter to the continent than for any other region.

There are two basic solutions to this: Either resist the urge to react instantaneously to everything that is happening in the world, if you come to the conclusion that your government doesn’t have the institutional capacity and knowledge to formulate a response on short notice. But this goes against the basic instinct of state departments and foreign ministers everywhere and wouldn’t necessarily be desirable in the first place.

Or governments decide to purposefully and diligently invest in developing the expertise and personnel necessary to make informed and coherent choices, even under pressure. That wouldn’t come cheap, but would probably be cheaper than dealing with the fallout of a botched crisis response.

World Politics Review: In Ethiopia, Post-Zenawi Void Could Create Opening for Reform

My latest piece over at World Politics Review on the continuing absence of Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi:

For 20 years, Prime Minister Meles Zenawi has been the undisputed ruler of Ethiopia. Zenawi was the leader of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which in concert with its sister rebel group from Eritrea toppled the Moscow-aligned dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam in 1991. He led his country in the 1998-2000 war against his former Eritrean allies and oversaw multiple Ethiopian military interventions into neighboring Somalia. An active and outspoken leader, Zenawi is also credited with a pragmatic approach to economic development despite his Marxist roots, resulting in an average of 9 percent GDP growth over the past 10 years.

Now the strong man of the Horn of Africa has disappeared — literally: For almost two months, Zenawi has not appeared in public. Nor has he given any interviews and or any other indication that he is still alive, despite a high-profile summit of the African Union currently taking place in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa.

The country’s ruling coalition, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), has confirmed that medical issues are the reason for Zenawi’s “leave of absence,” but insists that he is recovering well and will resume working in September. But even if he does, Zenawi’s absence is a useful reminder for the governments of Ethiopia’s neighbors and its Western allies that, for the first time in two decades, they would do well to think about a post-Zenawi Ethiopia. […]

Read the rest on World Politics Review!

“The roads are wide and well maintained …”

"Well maintained" road in Ouagadougou. My picture.

I was incredibly happy to see that the African Arguments blog of the Royal African Society published an article on Burkina Faso today. Well researched analysis of political affairs here are few and far between and usually, African Arguments is the place to go for this kind of stuff.

The piece titled “Compaoré’s Continuing Will to Power“, by Michael Keating and Coulibaly Nadoun, showed some initial promise, tackling the dark past of President Compaoré’s 25 year reign over Burkina and delving into the question, if he has the will to push this reign over the constitutional term limit of the 2015 election. But then the article unfortunately degrades quite a bit, with little critical analysis regarding Compaoré’s legacy as a leader of the Burkinabé state and his current involvement in regional politics.

Let’s start with his frantic efforts at mediating in every conflict in the wider region, which are internationally “much appreciated” as Keating and Nadoun assure us. Clearly, the region has plenty of those and everybody would be happy to have a skilled and capable mediator bringing the parties to a table and negotiating a peaceful solution. The post-election violence in Côte d’Ivoire and the current rebellion in North Mali come to mind. But while Compaoré has jumped at every opportunity to involve himself with these conflicts, his success must be questioned. With regard to Côte d’Ivoire, he is hardly a neutral power, having organized financial and military support for the northern Rebels, as well as allowing them to recruit fighters in Burkina, basically helping to “resolve” a conflict he helped to create. In Mali, he has been involved in negotiating a settlement for the 2007-09 Tuareg rebellion. This basically followed the pattern of all settlements in this conflict before it: money and army positions for the fighters, hollow promises of political participation and development for the population. Needless to say that the “peace” held only a good two years.

I would argue that President Compaoré follows one objective in these negotiations and one only: To secure a maximum of regional political cloud, so as nobody (western donors included) gets funny ideas like supporting the domestic burkinabé opposition. He has without doubt succeeded in this, though I fail to see how the resulting length of his term – bought through marginalizing all local opposition and keeping outside intervention at bay – “in some sense confers legitimacy” on him, like Keating and Nadoun would have it.

Which brings us to the question of Compaoré’s legacy of bringing development/wealth/health/enter-your-favourite-indicator-here to his people. Keating and Nadoun concede that “the poverty needle for the majority of citizens has not budged” during his 25 years in office, but they argue that the feeling of Ouagadougou (the capital) “is different from neighboring capitals” and that “the streets are wide and well maintained”, building the argument up to the crescendo that Compaoré deserves to be called a “benign” dictator.

Regarding the streets: Wide they are, but you may judge the typical level of maintenance on the picture on the top of this article. I took this ten minutes ago, stepping out of my front door. The house of the local mayor is two houses down on the same street. Every street in Ouagadougou looks more or less similar, safe the main arteries and some streets in the city center (but not even there all are paved). Those which are paved have often been patched over many times, making for a bumpy ride on a Scooter, which becomes downright dangerous due to the many ginourmos potholes.

I honestly fail to see how you would have something positive to say about President Compaoré in the department of development. After 25 years in office, only every fifth Burkinabé is literate. After 25 years in office, almost 40% of all children under the age of five are underweight. In 2015, when his current term ends, Burkina Faso will likely not reach a single Millenium development goal.

Meanwhile, years of subtle but deadly (ask the children of murdered journalist Norbert Zongo) suppression has left Burkina without a political opposition to speak of. The government is filled with relatives and cronies and the army is so undisciplined and incapable, that nobody even mentioned them when it was discussed who should provide the troops for an intervention in Mali (this is probably on purpose, as Compaoré knows the danger of a well organized army, having used one in two coup d’États himself).

The only possible nice thing to say about Blaise Compaoré is that he has kept his country from the all-out civil wars that some neighboring countries descended into. If that is really enough to describe an African statesman as reasonably successful in an article on a respected blog on African affairs, (West) Africa is in a sorry state indeed.

I could go on about how the article left out some important aspects of the coming 2015 power struggle in Burkina, like the role of Blaise Compaoré’s brother as a possible successor. But I have already written enough. If you are interested, I will cover this in a future post. Interested?

World Politics Review: The Origins and Consequences of Tuareg Nationalism

World Politics Review has brought out a new special on “peoples without borders”. They look at Kurdish, Basque and Tuareg minorities in their respective countries, and I am happy to tell you that I contributed a feature article on Tuareg nationalism for the issue:

At the beginning of April, after a loose coalition of Tuareg rebel groups forced the Malian army to abandon Timbuktu, one of the armed factions involved in the fighting didn’t lose much time in announcing its ultimate objective: “We, the people of Azawad declare irrevocably the independence of the state of Azawad,”read the communiqué issued by the National Liberation Movement of Azawad — known by its French acronym, MNLA — five days after the ancient city fell.

The bold declaration is of course mostly wishful thinking. No state or international organization has recognized the independence of Azawad, as the Tuareg refer to the border-spanning region they inhabit, and it is unlikely that this will change in the near future. The situation in northern Mali remains chaotic, with various armed groups, criminal networks and terrorist organizations competing for influence, while the Malian government and army still reel from the effects of a coup d’état that shook the capital of Bamako in March.

But the Tuareg bid for independence does not come from out of thin air, nor does it come at a normal time for the countries of the Sahel region and North Africa. Tuareg minorities in Mali and Niger have fought for self-determination for more than 100 years. And following the fall of Moammar Gadhafi in Libya last year, regional political dynamics are evolving rapidly, which may yet prove to be either a boon or bane for those Tuareg rebels interested in independence.

Tuareg nationalism as a political ideology is rooted in the effects of colonization. It was sharpened by decades of marginalization and oppression, and has since become a useful tool in the hands of regional powerbrokers. Yet today, even as the MNLA makes the boldest bid yet for Tuareg self-determination, many Tuareg have actually come to accept the countries they live in as legitimate, making the future of Tuareg nationalism as well as its implications increasingly difficult to discern. […]

World Politics Review is a subscription journal. It’s well worth your money, but you can read the rest of this article for free, if you follow this link.

Why counter-terrorism failed as a foreign policy objective

Soldiers from Senegal and Mali train with US instructors. US army photo.

When news of the coup in Mali hit the airwaves last week, much was made of the fact that the apparent coup leader, Capt. Sanogo, received US army training. The captain, who used to be an English teacher before assuming leadership of Africa’s latest junta, proudly sports a US Marines pin on his fatigues and generally likes to brag about his several trips to the US for various trainings.

Commentators who noticed this generally questioned the US military aid in the sense of if it is good that the troops which were trained then proceed to topple democratically elected governments. This is an interesting question, of course, but it is also a bit beside the point.

While I’m critical of US policy, I don’t assume that they teach partnering militaries to stage coups. And it is highly unrealistic and patronizing to assume, that you need US military training to successfully chase your president out of his palace. So far, the amateurishness of the coup in Mali should probably make US military trainers more concerned, if their students didn’t take a nap during some lessons.

But we should take the opportunity to review some other aspects of US (and increasingly EU) counter terrorism foreign policy. Namely: does it succeed in solving the problem?

I would argue that instead of solving the problem (of terroristic/criminal behavior in the Sahel region), counter terrorism foreign policy has helped create and sustain it.

Take the example of Mali: despite Millions of Dollars that the US poured into training of the Malian army, AQIM activity in the remote desert north has only risen. No tourist ventures out into Timbuktu nowadays for fear of being abducted. Smuggling of weapons and drugs is common and the criminal groups running these schemes have a strong overlap with AQIM.

But what is most worrying is that the government of Mali, which counter terrorism foreign policy is supposed to support, seems to be deeply implicated in these criminal activities. Army commanders and politicians all take their share, happily cooperating with extremists they are paid and trained by western militaries to fight.

In one infamous episode a Boeing 727 (!) full of cocaine landed close to a remote desert town (happened to be governed by a close associate of the president), where the load was distributed upon trucks and send on its way towards Europe.

Meanwhile, the political establishment of Mali has been happy to put the blame for these kind of incidents squarely on the Tuareg, which of course comes in handy if one is fighting (and loosing) against a rebel group of this ethnicity.

Financial and military counter terrorism aid seems to result in the perverse incentive for the ruling class to get involved and profit from exactly these criminal  activities. This makes sense of course: by cooperating with AQIM and smuggling networks, politicians and army generals not only profit from kickbacks and corruption, but also ensure that the problem stays around and more aid flows into the country (and their pockets).

Western powers should wake up to the fact that transparent and legitimized governments are the best antidote against extremism and criminal groups, not military professionalism.