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North Africa in the Twenty-First Century

ISSUE:  Winter 2010

This issue owes its origins to a day—last Easter, in fact—spent watching the cable news networks report on the fatal shooting of three Somali pirates who had kidnapped Richard Phillips, captain of the MV Maersk Alabama. The airwaves were filled with breathless descriptions (and later, slow-motion, 360-degree computer animations) of how Navy SEAL snipers had scored three simultaneous headshots on Phillips’s captors, despite the rolling waves off the shores of Eyl. Perhaps with two foreign wars on a seemingly endless track, a short, precise military victory was emotionally satisfying. Or, maybe, for those who had worried that Obama would be indecisive in such situations, it was reassuring to know he had given the kill order. Whatever it was, the media couldn’t get enough of it—and, yet, there was the nagging necessity to explain the many complicated details to viewers who may have only tuned in once the engagement was won: who were the pirates, what was a failed state and why was Somalia one of them, who were the warlords, and what was this organization calling itself al Shabaab? Answers were offered to all of these questions, but many of them were shockingly incomplete—or obviously colored by the afterglow of victory.

The first detail, one that would soon curtail our initial ooh-rah attitude, was the revelation that the pirates were what Secretary of Defense Robert Gates described as “untrained teenagers with heavy weapons.” In fact, there was hot debate over the exact birth date of Abduwali Abdukhadir Muse, the one surviving pirate. He was born in 1990, said the United States government; 1992 or 1993, said his parents. Was he old enough to be tried as an adult? Either way, the exact date was lost in the chaos and destruction of the civil war touched off by the overthrow of military dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991. Nearly two decades later, Somalia still has no functional government. Instead, the country is controlled by a network of warlords, who run things according to the rule of force, rather than the rule of law. With no central government to rely on, many Somalis were forced into strict subsistence lifestyles, and with drought making nomadic herding even more difficult than normal, many turned to marine fishing. Unfortunately, the lack of a government also meant the lack of government enforcement, and international ships, unchallenged by any coast guard, started showing up in the Gulf of Aden to fish until Somali waters were nearly empty. Into this vacuum stepped still more warlords and emergent terrorist networks like al Shabaab.

Troubling as this scenario is, it is familiar. The same storyline has played out in West Africa and along the Mediterranean coast of North Africa. That’s why, in assembling this special issue, we have chosen to examine North Africa in the broadest sense—encompassing the Horn, traditional North Africa, and West Africa. By looking at the continent north of the equator as it is affected by the internal pressure of Saharan growth and the external encroachment on fishing territories, we hope to show how the larger region faces similar challenges and similar emerging threats, but also holds similar prospects for a hopeful future.

There is little doubt that climate change has expanded the Sahara, as Anthony Ham vividly describes in this issue. It has pushed traditional nomads toward sedentary existence on lakes and rivers but also all the way to the coasts; there, however, overfishing has left them without a ready livelihood. Jason Florio documents this phenomenon on the Gulf of Aden in the Horn, Jori Lewis describes the same trend in Senegal, and Joe Sacco illustrates the influx of refugees into Malta after their fisheries have been destroyed from Libya to Eritrea. Most troubling of all, while Somalia has received considerable attention because of its pirates and suicide bombings (as described here by Nicholas Schmidle), many of the same terrorist networks have moved into places like Guinea-Bissau, as harrowingly documented by Marco Vernaschi, and Nigeria, as explored in another gripping tale by VQR Contributing Editor Helon Habila.

It’s tempting to despair, to think that Africa’s problems are unsolvable. After all, the nations of Africa that lie north of the equator dominate lists of the world’s poorest and most corrupt countries. In this year’s Failed States Index, as compiled by Foreign Policy and the Fund for Peace, only four nations in the region were not categorized as “critical” (a designation that includes officially failed states) or “in danger.” Nearly half the list of the twenty most threatened nations came from North Africa. Yet, there are hopeful signs in the region, if the international community will have the courage to support self-rule, even when it does not match our short-term economic interests or our Western conception of democracy. In this issue, Tyler Stiem recalls the struggle in Liberia to reestablish a functioning government after the fall of Charles Taylor, and Nathaniel Myers and Tristan McConnell detail the current efforts in South Sudan and Somaliland to break away from their respective failed states.

This may seem like a faint glimmer of hope, but it should be remembered that much of the region was only freed from colonial rule (more or less at once) in 1960. The first seventy-five years of our own post-colonial era was mired by six wars—including a war with our former colonizer, a war with a neighboring country, and a long and bloody civil war. The critical difference between our national emergence and the one ongoing in North Africa is that the world is more globally connected than ever before. When a power vacuum opens in a place as seemingly remote as Guinea-Bissau (a place few Americans could locate on a map), it creates a potential shipping route for the Mexican drug cartels, a funding source for Hezbollah, and a recruiting territory for the Maghreb affiliates of al Qaeda. There are no more remote regions, no more distant shores, but too often we have chosen to ignore these sorts of countries until their problems have no diplomatic solutions.

No less that Secretary Gates himself, not long after the end of the incident with Maersk Alabama, warned the future policymakers at the Marine Corps War College in Quantico, Virginia, that “there is no purely military solution” to the emerging threats in North Africa. He stressed that the Somali pirates are overwhelmingly poor fishermen, many desperate young men who have nothing to lose. “As long as you’ve got this incredible number of poor people and the risks are relatively small,” Gates explained, “there’s really no way, in my view, to control it unless you get something on land that begins to change the equation for these kids.”

Therein lies the hope—not only for Africa’s future but for our own. Soon, it will be impossible to manage all the military threats in the region, but there’s still time for us to seek economic and diplomatic solutions. To be clear: I’m not arguing for more traditional aid; Africans themselves seem to have tired of endless NGOs and governmental aid organizations. Many do good, to be sure, but many also fuel the culture of corruption and rampant greed. It’s time to stop arriving in Africa with our rote solutions and to start listening to the problems that each individual region and nation faces—in all their frustrating specificity and intricacy.

It’s not going to be easy, and the road will be long. This issue, we hope—by sharing these vital, brutal, eye-opening stories—is a small step along the way.


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