France´s Overstrechted Military Not Enough to Stabilize the Sahel

More than any other outside power, France is currently investing the most military and political resources to combat terrorist groups in West Africa and the wider Sahel. Driven by a perception of a clear and present danger, French security policy in the region has undergone a fundamental shift in recent years, but not in the direction that many policymakers in Paris had hoped at the beginning of the century.

Instead of slowly decreasing its military presence and political involvement in its former colonies’ internal affairs, France has stepped up both amid new realities and interests. Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian outlined those in a speech in September that heavily emphasized stability. “To preserve the security and defense interests of France also means to work on the stability of our strategic environment,” Le Drian declared. “It is a fact that this stability is threatened, including by crises that appear falsely distant—because their consequences know no borders.” …

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Voice of America: Food crisis in the Sahel

Not much happened here on the blog for some days now. That’s mostly because I was busy actually working on stuff, which will be published over the next days/weeks. First up is a short news clip for Voice of America about the Sahel food crisis, for which I researched video and story, while David Axe did production and voice:

Sahel food crisis: The situation in Burkina Faso

Recipients of an Oxfam Cash-for-Work program in North Burkina Faso wait for their payment. Peter Dörrie photo.

This is part of a series of posts, looking at the state of the Sahel food crisis. You can also find a regional overview and a report on the situation in Chad on this blog so far.

On Tuesday, I was invited by Oxfam to look at one of their projects addressing the current food crisis in the wider region. A car took us from Ouagadougou, the capital, north to Kaya and from there to several surrounding villages.

The dry season has the country in its hot and dusty grip now. Temperatures are above 40°C every day and it hasn’t rained for weeks. The ground is barren and doesn’t look like it could feed anybody, not to speak of the thousands of people who live here dispersed over several villages and small towns.

And indeed, the last agricultural season brought serious shortfalls: officially, the national harvest has been 5% below consumption, but nobody knows if this figure is correct and shortfalls here in the North were greater anyway. One of the beneficiaries of the Oxfam project tells me later, that she only harvested three sacks of millet instead of the normal eight to nine, which she needs to feed her household of nine persons. One sack comes at five kg.

Oxfam reacted early and with money from ECHO started a Cash-for-Work program in the region: The villagers were shown how to enhance their fields with a simple trick; Many small holes dug into the earth would catch and hold more water once the rain comes, increasing the next harvest. Everybody applied the technique on his own field and was now paid for this work.

This creates a theoretical win-win situation. The villagers will have some money to buy food on the market until the next harvest arrives, which will be larger due to the increased productivity of the fields.

To maximise the effect, Oxfam wants the villagers to buy subsidized millet, which the government currently sells as part of its food crisis emergency program. This program has received lots of acclaim by the UN and other donors. Subsidized millet costs 11,000 Franc CFA (ca. 16.5 €)per sack, which is less than half the usual 25,000 FCFA price tag.

Anticipating this price, Oxfam paid the villagers 25,000 FCFA each, enough for two sacks of subsidized millet and some necessary condiments like cooking oil and sugar. Therefore, the consternation was great when the villagers told us that they wouldn’t buy subsidized millet and instead buy the normal stuff at the considerable higher price.

Recipients leave their fingerprints as proof that they received the money. Peter Dörrie photo.

The reason for this is of course not that the Burkinabè hate a bargain or are not aware that one sack of millet won’t bring them over the lean period. But during the last delivery, the government provided only seven sacks of subsidized millet for the village in question, which has over 4,000 inhabitants. Nobody knows when the next delivery will happen, but it is already clear that there won’t be nearly enough for everybody. And the people need the additional food now, so they have little choice.

Once the food runs out again, they will take out a loan to buy more. This way, between NGO relief programs, the government emergency aid and going into dept, there will probably be enough food for everybody to survive the hunger crisis in Burkina this year. But that doesn’t mean that it won’t have very negative effects on many people.

The debt will have to be paid back after the next harvest. If this again fails or only stays average, many people won’t be able to fully pay off their loans and keep enough food to not hunger again next year. To safe money, kids will be taken out of school to work on the gold fields of the region instead. And not dying of hunger of course doesn’t mean that one can’t get ill or malnourished, which has a range of disastrous consequences of its own.

In conclusion, Burkina will be one of the least impacted countries of this year’s hunger crisis. This is due to its geographical advantages, but also the early and relatively comprehensive reaction by the government and NGOs. Still, many people will be off worse after the crisis than they were before. Lets hope that they won’t be forgotten as soon as the crisis is declared over.

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.

Sahel food crisis: a roundup

Farmer in Burkina Faso. Oxfam photo.

This will be the first of a series of posts, looking at the current state of the food crisis in the Sahel. In this post, I will provide a short history of the current crisis and a general overview of the situation in the region. In future posts, I will analyze the state of various countries and their reaction to the upcoming famine.

Forecasting a food crisis is no rocket science or guessing game anymore. All areas considered to be at risk of facing periodic food shortages are constantly monitored by regional and local early warning systems like the US based Famine Early Warning System Network (FEWSNet).

These systems have become fairly reliable over the last years. The recent famine in Somalia was forecasted months before the first refugees started arriving in Kenya and southern Ethiopia. And that the Sahel region would face severe food shortages this year was clear around the end of 2011 already.

Currently, NGOs like Oxfam estimate that about 12.000.000 people in Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger face severe food shortages. Food security is already stressed in some parts of the Sahel and the situation will deteriorate fast from now on, as the first harvests will only come in July, assuming that sufficient rain will fall this year.

The point of early warning systems is of course to give governments and organizations sufficient time to head of a crisis, before it can result in death and suffering. Food aid usually needs months to arrive where it is needed most and the logistical networks needed to distribute are also not springing up overnight. With the famine in Somalia last year, this chance was obviously missed, which can probably be contributed largely to the ongoing civil war in the impacted areas.

In the Sahel region, the situation looks a bit different. As early as February, international donors began committing money for the preparation of relief operations in the region. More than $150 Million were pledged by mid-February, while the financial tracking system of relief-coordinating organization OCHA currently lists about $200 Million pledged for Chad and Niger alone.

This early level of support is certainly positive, but considering that estimates of the total costs of relief operations are as high as $654 Million, donor countries still have to step up their commitment. NGOs are also lamenting that the focus of donors is again mostly on short-term disaster relief, while the underlying reasons of the recurring crisis are not adequately addressed.

At least as important as financing is the support of local governments for relief operations. In the past, famines were often denied by African governments, as they feared outside meddling in internal affairs or were even themselves partly responsible for the outbreak of a food crisis.

Luckily, this seems to have changed in at least some countries. The government of Niger was quick to demand help from the international community and Burkina Faso is currently implementing a dry-season agricultural campaign, for example.

In general, I think that we can be cautiously optimistic that a great catastrophe like last year in the Horn of Africa can be circumvented. But there are still many hazards, like how the ongoing conflict in Mali and insecurity in Nigeria and Libya will impact the situation. This will be analyzed in more detail in upcoming posts, looking at the state of the food crisis in the various countries of the region.

World Politics Review: Mali’s Tuareg Rebellion Puts Region at Risk

As the fighting between the Tuareg rebels of the National Movement for the Liberation of Awazad (MNLA) and the Malian army enters its third month, there are few indications that the conflict will be resolved in the near future.

On a military level, the advantage lies with the well-equipped and experienced Tuareg fighters, many of whom are veterans of earlier rebellions and the Libyan civil war. Using long-range guerrilla tactics, mainly surprise attacks launched over distances of hundreds of miles with four-wheel-drive pickup trucks, they have sacked at least seven Malian garrison towns so far, including one this past weekend.

The human costs of the rebellion are mounting: Up to 160,000 people have been displaced by the fighting, according to Oxfam, about half of them fleeing into neighboring Niger, Mauritania, Algeria and Burkina Faso. […]

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