Category Archives: Sub-Saharan Africa

Guinea Debriefing – 2015

Market in the capital of Guinea, Conakry

Market in the capital of Guinea, Conakry

Historically much of western Africa south of the Sahara was broadly referred to as “Guinea” until colonization divided the region throughout the late 19th century. After centuries of rule by various African empires, perhaps most notably the Songhai, the French colonized Guinea in the 1890s. Guinea officially changed its name from French Guinea in 1958 when it gained independence after over half a century under French control. After breaking ties with France, Guinea was led by Ahmed Sekou Toure and his sole PDG party between 1960 and 1984. Toure pursued African socialism and pan-Africanism, initially siding strongly with the Soviet Union, but later courting the US during the Cold War as well. From 1984 until 2008 the country was helmed by military leader Lansana Conte, who like Toure, strongly suppressed political opposition. Guinea, like much of postcolonial Africa, faced tremendous economic obstacles and political strife throughout the second half of the 20th century.

Waterfall in Kindia, Guinea

Waterfall in Kindia, Guinea

Today, Guinea has a population of about 11 million, and its capital and largest city Conakry contains about 1.8 million citizens. About half of Guineans (4.7 million) are from the Fulani ethnic group, followed by the Mandinka (28%) Soussou (10%) and other smaller groups. The Fulani are the largest nomadic group in the world, and follow a code of behavior known as pulaaku that values altruism, patience, self-control, and hard work. Approximately 85% of the country is Sunni Muslim, followed by 8% Christians and 7% of indigenous religion adherents. Many Muslims and Christians in Guinea adopt or incorporate elements of local indigenous religion into their beliefs. Guinea retains French as its official language, and the local languages of Maninka and Fula are prevalently spoken.

In terms of education Guinea is one of the most illiterate in the world, as only 41% of adults can read and write. Primary school is mandatory for six years but the law is not enforced so many children, especially females, work or marry early. Polygamy is officially prohibited but according to UNICEF, more than half of Guinean females are in polygamous marriages, including nearly 30% of girls between the ages of 15 and 19. Guinea has a female genital mutilation rate of 97%, second in the world only to Somalia at 98%. Malnutrition is widespread in Guinea, and over two million Guinean children suffer from chronic malnutrition or anemia (lack of healthy red blood cells). In the 1990s, Guinea took in almost 300,000 refugees from the civil war in neighboring Sierra Leone which has had profound effects on the country to this day.

In 2010 while under the control of an interim military junta, 157 anti-junta protesters were massacred by state security forces in a football stadium. The incident led to international sanctions and widespread condemnation. Later that year opposition politician Alpha Conde was elected president in the first free elections in Guinea though there were calls of fraud and voting irregularities. Conde and his Rally of the Guinean People party maintained power when he was reelected for a second five year term in 2015. Political strife has continued intermittently, and in July 2013 nearly 100 were killed in clashes between the country’s two largest ethnic groups. Conde, a former professor, is a member of the Malinke ethnic group, and has focused on security reform and reform in the key mining industry.

Guineans in support of President Alpha Conde

Guineans in support of President Alpha Conde

Guinea was one of the worst hit by the 2014-2015 West Africa Ebola Virus, third to only Liberia and Sierra Leone. Over 2,800 were killed by the disease in Guinea before the World Health Organization declared the country free of Ebola in late 2015. Between the lack of health infrastructure, poorly developed economy, and intermittent political unrest Guinea has a myriad of challenges looking forward. Unfortunately, these are challenges shared by much of sub-saharan west Africa, and the outlook on regional assistance is bleak. The international community should support local sentiments and goals while assisting the west African nation. Investment in infrastructure, local businesses, and health initiatives will help stabilize and provide opportunity for the people of Guinea.

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Mali Debriefing – 2015

Tuareg Nomad outside Timbuktu Mosque

Tuareg Nomad outside a mosque in Timbuktu

Mali is a landlocked country in central west Africa that has a population of over 19 million, about 10% or around 2 million of which live in the capital city Bamako. Due to its history under French colonial rule, French is the official language, but approximately 80% of Malians can communicate in the most prevalent local language of Bambara. Over 60% of the country still lives in rural areas, and 5-10% pursue a traditional nomadic lifestyle. Malians represent many different ethnic groups, the most prominent of which are the Mande (50%), followed by Fula (17%), Voltaic (12%), Tuareg and Moor (10%) and Songhai. Mali is one of the hottest countries in the world, as more than half the country is primarily Sahara desert, though the three regions in the northeast (the states of Timbuktu, Kidal, Gao) hold only 10% of the population. Mali is 90% Muslim, the vast majority of whom are Sunni Muslim, while about 5% identify as Christians and another 5% ascribe to indigenous African religions.

Map showing the regions of Mali including the claimed state of Azawad

Map showing the regions of Mali including the claimed state of Azawad

Mali has a considerable amount of natural resources including gold and uranium, but simultaneously is one of the least developed and poorest nations in the world. Over 80% of Malians are involved in the local agriculture industry, and the country’s biggest trade partner is France. Perhaps the most significant reason why so many Malians are stuck in a cycle of poverty is because of the failures of its education system. Malian primary school enrollment is low at 61% (ages 7-13) but secondary school enrollment (ages 13-18) drops even more to only 15% despite school being compulsory until age 16. The literacy rate is estimated between 27-46% and both enrollment and literacy rates are alarmingly worse for girls and women.

The Malian government is becoming more pro-Western over time, though it has retained an ambivalent relationship with France especially in terms of newer security threats. Since 2012, unrest in the north has persisted between various Islamist groups, Tuareg rebel militants, and the Malian government backed by the French and other international organizations. The November Radisson Blu hotel attack by terrorist group Al-Mourabitoun in conjunction with the region’s Al-Qaeda affiliate underscored the fragility of the west African country in particular.

Mali2

Mali’s president Ibrahim Boubacar Keita

Mali celebrated its independence from France in 1960, but did not hold its first democratic elections until 1992. Amadou Toure served as president from 2002 until 2012 and made significant progress in public health initiatives including efforts against Guinea Worm, AIDS, and polio during his tenure. From the mid-late 2000’s, there were numerous brief ceasefires between the government and Tuareg rebels interspersed with periodic clashes and violence. Toure was criticized especially in the later years of his presidency for this failure to stem increasing unrest in the country’s northeast which led to a military coup and his resignation in 2012. After the military coup the country transitioned back to democracy in 2013 which has since led by Ibrahim Boubacar Keita (commonly referred to as IBK). IBK’s party seeks to promote a secular, social democracy, and is a member of the Socialist International organization.

  • 2011: Rebellion reignites after Libyan Civil War due to Tuareg militants returning  to northern Mali
  • March – April 2012 Tuareg rebels effectively control north half of Mali including Timbuktu, Kidal, Gao. Rebels self-declare independent state of Azawad
  • March 2012: African Union suspends Mali’s membership following military coup
  • Late 2012: UN and African Union back West African regional grouping ECOWAS in military expedition against rebels/various Islamists in north
  • January – April 2013: Mali asks for and receives French military help. French rapidly defeat rebels and retake key cities.  
  • 2013-present: Sporadic clashes and incidents
  • April 2015: Upsurge in fighting via clashes with UN peacekeepers
  • November 2015: Islamists storm Bamako’s Radisson Blu hotel, taking 170 hostages and killing 20 civilians

The unrest in the northeast has strengthened calls for a stronger security state while diverting attention to basic economic development and job creation. Security assistance offered by the French military, UN peacekeepers and resources, and the African Union have been critical in rolling back successes from rebels and jihadists, though their involvement has come with its own issues as well. On the ground, many Malians are distrustful of the French in particular, seeing their return to the country as a reminder of European influence and colonial control they have tried to move away from. A balance between counterterrorism and anti-rebel activities must be struck with initiatives to develop the country from the ground up. If development is ignored at the expense of short term gains against extremists, then the region will continue to harbor anti-government sentiments.

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Mr. President, Here’s How You Prevent A Coup D’état

Protestors in Burundi following the coup attempt

Protestors in Burundi following the coup attempt

By William Akoto

Major General Godefroid Niyombareh, a high-ranking general in the Burundian army led a failed coup attempt against president Pierre Nkurunziza this past week.  Things came to a head after protests over the constitutional court’s decision to allow President Nkurunziza to seek a third term in office. The constitution allows only two terms but the president argued that his first term did not count because he was not elected but appointed by parliament. Thus, the court rule technically establishes his current term as his first, but Burundians weren’t buying it. Memories of the civil war, which killed 300,000 people and displaced millions, are still fresh in the minds of many, so when recent protests became violent, over 50,000 fled to neighboring countries. And who can blame them? Better to get out while you still can. President Nkurunziza scrambled to calm nerves, even promising that elections will be held in a free and fair atmosphere with no intimidation. Didn’t work.

Major General Godefroid Niyombare

President Pierre Nkurunziza

It wasn’t long before some sections of society began looking to the army to intervene. Usually, it is at this point that things start getting dicey. As the aftermath of the Arab Spring in Egypt and Libya taught us, the president’s rule may be bad, but life under the army could be far worse. Once the army takes over, getting them to hand over power becomes an issue, usually requiring foreign intervention and months of negotiations. Coups also often come with curfews, roadblocks and general disruptions to businesses which could dampen GDP growth, plunging the country into a cycle of economic and business crises that are totally avoidable. Fragile developing countries like Burundi can ill-afford such disruptions and President Nkurunziza knows this. So when the leaders of the East African community called a meeting in Tanzania to address the developing crisis, Nkurunziza was all too willing to attend. And that is where he erred because the coup plans kicked into gear almost immediately after his plane took off.

Nkurunziza is not the first president to have a coup attempt made against him while he was out of the country. In December 2014, Yahaya Jammeh, Gambia’s long time strong man saw a similar attempt made against him while he was away in France. Like the Burundi attempt, that failed when forces loyal to the president rallied and fended off the poorly planned coup attempt. Other leaders were not so lucky. Deposed presidents are often thrown in jail or summarily executed. The lucky ones barely escape with their lives and have years in exile to look forward to. It is therefore not only in the interest of the incumbent but also that of the entire country for such coups to be effectively prevented. However, academics and other analysts who have examined the problem have yet to come up with a fail-safe way to insure a regime against coups. As events in Burundi have demonstrated, there are two general guidelines that incumbents should religiously stick to.

Map of Burundi in relation to Africa

Map of Burundi in relation to Africa

Firstly, the president should generally avoid significant travel outside the country when his hold on power is tenuous. This is especially the case when there are protestors on the streets. The protests could be about anything – the economy, high inflation, unemployment or some other grievance. It doesn’t matter. What matters is the signaling effect that these protests have. They show that at least a section of the public is unhappy with the status quo and wish to see it change. That is all that potential coup makers need to embolden them to put their plans into action. Leaders should instead attempt to address such issues before they arise.

Coup makers need to displace the president either by capturing him or incapacitating him in some way. To do this, they need to get past the presidential guard.  This is where the president travelling outside the country does them a huge favor because it takes both the president and a large chunk of the presidential guard out of the equation. Once this happens, taking over the presidency becomes significantly easier. Many would rather live than risk death fighting the coup makers, especially when it appears the coup is on the verge of success.

Which brings us to the second point. While the coup is underway, propaganda is king. He who controls the media controls the narrative and that is critical because once the coup attempt is launched, fear spreads and rumors abound. It’s difficult to ascertain which forces are loyal to whom, who is winning or who is in charge. This is where the media is key – and not just any media but state radio and TV. State radio and TV are often seen as the mouthpiece of the government, so control of that mouthpiece is an important symbolic indication of who is in charge. Coup makers can use propaganda on state media to demoralize loyalist forces, exaggerate the extent of their control or coerce support from the general public. The objective is to strike fear into the hearts of loyalist forces and possibly convince them that resistance is futile. So the president should ensure that security is beefed up around key symbolic state institutions such as the presidential palace and state TV and radio when things get tenuous.
Its not much but with any luck, these could help thwart any coup attempts that may be made and ensure that the president can hold on to power and prevent the negative consequences of coups.

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Boko Haram Fighting for their Last Territorial Stronghold

Nigerian Defense Forces celebrate after a victory over Boko Haram in Gwoza

Nigerian Defense Forces celebrate after a victory over Boko Haram in Gwoza

Following a series of strategic victories over recent months, the Nigerian military announced it has initiated an offensive against Boko Haram’s last conventional holdouts within the Sambisa Forest. The area has been recognized as the militant group’s headquarters since the recapturing of the town of Gwoza in March. Alongside the armies of Chad, Niger, and Cameroon, and backed by fighter jets and irregular volunteers and mercenaries, the coalition effort has successfully won back much of the area previously held by the radical Islamist group. These victories have come after months of setbacks brought about due to rampant corruption, lack of resources, and disorganization on the part of the Nigerian government.

Boko Haram, which can be translated to “western education is forbidden,” has waged a radical Islamist insurgency in northern Nigeria for over five and a half years. The group has claimed responsibility for the 2014 Chibok kidnappings of over 200 schoolgirls, and the conflict has sparked a regional humanitarian crisis.

Map of attacks carried out by Boko Haram throughout Nigeria

Map of attacks carried out by Boko Haram throughout Nigeria

As recently as January, Boko Haram militants were able to besiege the town of Baga and massacre civilians indiscriminately as estimates of the death toll ranged from several hundred to over 2,000. In such instances, the minimal military presence crumbled instantly and tens of thousands were displaced. As a result, over a dozen villages or towns like Baga were completely destroyed and wiped off the map altogether.

The group transformed from a rogue radical group of militants to a serious military threat when it captured the town of Gwoza around August of last year, sparking a territorial rampage across the northeast of Nigeria. At the peak of their control, Boko Haram controlled over 14 districts and frequently unleashed terrorist attacks in cities across the country. Now thanks to the concerted regional military effort, their ability to exert authority has dwindled and the extremist group’s conventional forces are arguably on their last legs.

Estimates put the number of deaths as a result of the insurgency within Nigeria at over 15,000 in the past three years alone. Last month, Boko Haram’s leader Abubakar Shekau’s declaration of allegiance to ISIS was accepted by the militant group based in Iraq and Syria. Boko Haram previously had indirect ties with al-Qaeda affiliate in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), but the declaration of loyalty to ISIS reflects a distancing from al-Qaeda. ISIS and al-Qaeda have been at odds since their official split over a year ago.

Unlike their counterparts in the Middle East, Boko Haram has been reduced to a fraction of their former power in a short amount of time thanks to regional powers banding together. Unfortunately, they will likely still be able to operate in a dangerous capacity even if they are to lose the Sambisa Forest and their conventional control. Nonetheless, forcing Boko Haram out of such areas can initiate the process of reestablishing local and government control to limit the resurgence of the group and further terrorist attacks.

Muhammadu Buhari, newly elected president of Nigeria

Muhammadu Buhari, newly elected president of Nigeria

Also important to note, Muhammadu Buhari succeeded Goodluck Jonathan as president of Nigeria on March 28th, pledging to spare no effort in countering the Islamist threat. A former military strongman, General Buhari defeated Jonathan in the first instance of a sitting president losing an election in Nigeria. Buhari proclaimed his commitment to democracy for the country, yet he has been frequently criticized for his poor human rights record. Himself a Muslim from the north of Nigeria, Buhari takes up the leadership reins during a critically contentious moment for Africa’s most populous country.

In all certainty Boko Haram will not disappear after a significant military defeat. Eliminating the control of extremist groups is only the first step in a return to normalcy. The brutal wake that Boko Haram has left as they have lost towns and territory will likely share many similarities to victories won over affiliate groups like ISIS in Iraq and Syria. It is critical to address the circumstances that allow such groups to operate and resolve them even after military goals are achieved.

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West Africa: Ebola in Town

Ebola1

Aid workers preparing to treat Ebola victims, Guinea, West Africa

The international reaction to this year’s Ebola outbreak followed a similar pattern to previous deadly transmittable diseases. Initially downplaying or ignoring the problem eventually shifts into media overreaction and fear for the worst. The international community has been slow in such instances to take notice unless the death count reaches an alarmingly high number, or, more commonly, the chance that it could spread abroad and affect anyone becomes a possibility. Another typical pitfall is that the disease is viewed as a singularity, rather than a cause of a combination of other factors. Lack of education and awareness; an inadequate response from institutions; poor access to medical and basic services; all clash to create an environment where the spread of a virus can happen quickly. Above all, the reaction to an outbreak usually seeks to address the potential effects close to home while glossing over the broader issue.

 

Map of areas most affected by Ebola

Map of areas most affected by Ebola

What is Ebola? Ebola is an infectious disease with an 80-90% mortality rate first documented in 1976. The current iteration has killed over a thousand and infected twice as many, the vast majority of cases recorded in the West African countries of Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone, though several cases have also been reported in Nigeria. It is thought to be spread through the consumption of carrier fruit bats and other bushmeat and at present has no known cure or treatment. The two American missionaries who contracted the virus in West Africa attracted significant media attention upon being quarantined in US medical facilities in Atlanta. The disease is not easily transmitted under monitored conditions, but it is can be contagious upon contact with infected blood or other bodily fluids.

The outbreak occurring at present is not the first, but it is the largest and deadliest Ebola outbreak on record. Comparatively, Ebola is miniscule in fatalities and scope, but as it kills more directly than other diseases and because a lack of information on treatment has persisted the outbreak has stirred many fears. Because of passengers feared to carry the disease abroad, border points have been closed in Liberia and flights have been limited in West Africa. Furthermore, “if it recedes, it does not mean it is not present. You will see more outbreaks. It will be recurrent,” declares Stephen Morrison, director of the Global Health Policy Center at CSIS. The greater problem is not containing the newest outbreak, which will be eventually accomplished, but rather addressing the issue at its source so that we are better equipped to handle the next virus outbreak, Ebola or otherwise.

Market worker selling bushmeat

Market worker selling bushmeat

Misunderstanding of the disease has resulted in worsening the problem. In Liberia, young men with clubs attacked a medical facility allowing 17 to escape. Superstition, government mistrust, cultural practices, and a lack of education have underlined and encouraged the transmission of Ebola. Many West Africans disbelieve the virus exists and will likely continue consuming bushmeat, thus increasing the chances of greater transmission. Addressing the roots of the cause such as the extremely low socioeconomic conditions that allow for such a disease to spread is the best long-term solution to preventing such problems in the first place.

Reacting to Ebola and other deadly transmittable diseases only if there is a chance it will affect one’s home country only further serves to isolate much needed attention and aid. On one hand ignoring a virus like Ebola will definitely worsen the problem, but treating it like an apocalyptic disaster before getting all the facts can be just as deleterious. Both domestically and internationally, people should familiarize themselves with the problem itself, but also the wider issues at hand. Treating Ebola in a vacuum and ignoring the socioeconomic, cultural, and political antecedents that allow for the setting for Ebola to spread is shortsighted. A comprehensive effort to assist both those affected and those under threat of infection should be undertaken, and a long-term approach to educating West Africans and dispelling myths on disease should help counter the obstacles that have slowed aid thus far.

 

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The Central African Republic’s Crisis in the Center

CAR1On February 12th, the President of the Central African Republic Catherine Samba-Panza declared war on the Christian militias, known as the anti-balaka (anti-machete) for their reprisal wave of targeted killings of Muslims that has plunged the country into a humanitarian crisis. The current violence was preceded by 10 months of attacks on Christian communities by Islamic militant groups known as the Seleka. Amnesty International declared that the present offensive by the Christian anti-balaka has amounted to ethnic cleansing and has caused “a Muslim exodus of historic proportions.” Altogether there are 8,000 troops, (6,000 African Union and 2,000 French) who are trying to stop the sprawling and brutal sectarian violence with another 1,000 incoming from the European Union. Tens of thousands have been killed thus far and over a million people, nearly a quarter of CAR’s population, have been displaced.

CAR2The Central African Republic is a resource-rich but financially poor country that has endured five coups and numerous smaller rebel conflicts since its independence from France in 1960. CAR is about the size of France and is located squarely in the heart of Africa on line where Muslim and Christian cultures intersect that is becoming increasingly pronounced. The country is majority Christian (estimates vary from 55-80%), and the Muslims account for approximately 15% of the population living primarily in the northeast. The exodus of such a high percentage of the Muslim community, which constituted a significant portion of the merchant class, has devastated the country’s domestic economy. Additionally, the country’s neighbors have had more than their own fair share of conflict over state control, resources, and religious schisms presenting more challenges to the refugees fleeing CAR.

The hand-to-hand brutality of the violence and ensuing chaos that has destroyed villages and communities has justifiably attracted the attention of the international community. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon remarked that the situation has created a de facto partition of the country, and a UN force of 12,000 peacekeepers with a broad mandate has been proposed to augment the existing units in place. Though specific militia groups on both sides have undoubtedly been motivated on religious grounds, the violence has also been perpetrated for control over local areas and resources. The International Criminal Court opened an investigation into possible crimes against humanity and war crimes committed by various groups in CAR, though the legal process is incredibly lengthy and limited in who may be prosecuted.

The location of CAR takes place in a fragile region already rife with existing issues, from the northeast and east Sudan-South Sudan tensions, to instability in the Democratic Republic of the Congo to the south, to weak states like Chad which do not have the funds nor ability to adequately assist with such a refugee crisis. Holding the perpetrators of violent crimes responsible cannot be accomplished without some degree of stability, and the incoming peacekeeping mission aims to provide a departure from the sprawling and incessant attacks.

It will not cause a domino affect if one country in the region faces such a devastating problem as the Central African Republic currently is, but rather a ripple effect that will undoubtedly strain the stability surrounding states nonetheless.  The issues of religion and ethnicity are not being properly addressed and are too often the cause or justification of revived violence. The threat of genocide is a very real possibility if violent groups retain the ability to act with impunity, but with the consent of the government and the mandate providing further troops to stop the killings, it may very well be prevented from spreading further out of control.

In looking ahead, any and all militia groups need to be held to the same standard by the international forces, else the back-and-forth struggle of retaliatory action will continue. The proposed UN force should be approved given the severity of the situation and the potential for such heinous crimes to continue. President Samba-Panza has shown she will not tolerate obvious attacks on Muslim groups, and along with the CAR government the protection of civilians and de-escalation of conflict need to remain as top priorities. The international community should fast-track sending the necessary forces in order to quell the violence, and needs to play the vital role of investing in the refugees and infrastructure so the Central African Republic may rebound from this blight that has struck at its core.

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