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‘Whether you liked him or not, Gadaffi used to fix a lot of holes’ – Tuareg insurgencies in Mali and Niger and the war in Libya

This blog, by Frédéric Deycard and Yvan Guichaoua, was first posted on African Arguments’ African Politics Now Blog on 8 September 2011. It is reproduced here with the permission of the Royal African Society.


In the early days following the rise of the insurgency in Libya, it was widely reported that Col. Gaddafi was making an extensive use of foreign mercenaries to defend his regime. Tuaregs from Mali and Niger, and, more specifically, ex-rebels, featured prominently among those suspected to enlist behind the Guide of the Libyan Revolution. Clearly, sensationalising Col. Gaddafi’s recourse to mercenaries was part of the insurgents’ propaganda aiming at denying him any support among nationals. No reliable estimates of the size of Gaddafi’s mercenary troops have been circulated yet their use is acknowledged. That Tuaregs from Mali and Niger were among them is also true. In early March this year, elected representatives from northern Mali alarmingly reported that youths from their community were joining Gaddafi’s forces. At the same time, Aïr-Info, the well-informed newspaper based in Agadez, Niger, signalled that potential young recruits were offered €400, a gun and ammunitionsto join the front. As researchers studying the region for several years, we also gathered anecdotal evidence through personal ties confirming the above statements. However, reports diverge on whether recruitment was primarily organised from the top or resulted from spontaneous initiatives from below among well-connected would-be combatants.

Evidence on the magnitude of pro-Gaddafi’s mobilisation in Mali and Niger is uncertain. Several sources indicate that roughly 1,500 Tuareg fighters from these two countries have taken an active part in the six-month conflict. But most of them were actually already in Libya for several years when the rebellion kicked-off, whether being immigrants attracted by the economic perspectives of the oil-rich country or former rebels of Niger and Mali who had chosen to reside permanently in Libya after the failure of the implementation of the peace agreements in their country of origin. Those combatants had obtained rights to live and work in Libya and other privileges in the recent years. Hence, one important view we disagree with is that of Malian and Nigerien Tuareg recruits conforming to the archetypical image of ruthless mercenaries, whose loyalty is solely dependent on the immediate material rewards they extract. The profiles and behavioural logics of those among the Malian and Nigerien Tuaregs who supported Gaddafi’s counterinsurgency effort illustrate more the centrality of Gaddafi’s well-entrenched role in the political economy of the region than the alleged greed of its armed supporters. As a Nigerien ex-rebel pragmatically put to us in a recent interview: ‘Whether you liked him or not, Gaddafi used to fix a lot of holes’. And Tuaregs were not the sole beneficiaries. Here are some of those holes Gaddafi’s fixed since his coup, in 1969.

As soon as the early 1970s, severe droughts coupled with political marginalisation have affected the already scarce resources available for the Tuaregs of Northern Mali and Niger, forcing them into exile. Algeria and Libya, in part due to the presence of Tuareg populations on their soil, have become a destination of preference for this generation of youths in quest of employment.  Taking the route to Libya has never since ceased to be a defining moment in the life of the so-called ishumar (derived from the French ‘chômeurs’, the unemployed). Some of them have developed activities on both sides of the border, whether for seasonal employment or for informal, and sometimes illegal, trafficking (cigarettes, gas, and material goods among others). Those economic opportunities have permitted Northern Mali and Niger to survive difficulties through the financial and material flux allowed by the Libyan leader.

This intense cross-border activity had a strategic dimension, too. In the 1980s, as Gaddafi’s pan-Arab then pan-African projects expanded, his Islamic Legion trained militarily and sent hundreds of ishumar to various theaters of ‘anti-imperial’ struggle (mainly in Lebanon, then Chad). The expectation at the time in the ishumar ranks was that their newly acquired military credentials and Libyan support would help them start their own war of independence in Mali and Niger. But Gaddafi did not deliver the expected assistance. Poorly-equipped Tuareg rebellions were launched nonetheless in Mali and Niger in the early 1990s. Their vanguard was composed of fighters exiled in Libya who deserted the camps where they were kept on check. Low-intensity violence lasted almost a decade until Algeria and Libya intervened as peace-brokers. As the implementation of peace accords were dragging, Libyan authorities took critical measures to prevent the conflict from resuming. In Niger, they became a major sponsor of the UNDP-operated Programme of Peace Consolidation in the Aïr and the Azawak (PCPAA), designed to accommodate economically the low-level combatants of the rebellion. In 2005, in a move typically illustrating the patronage system locally established by Gaddafi, those among the rebels who showed reluctance to participate in the PCPAA were offered Libyan nationality and integration in the Libyan Army.

This only postponed the resumption of rebellion in Niger though: an insurgent movement, called the Mouvement des Nigeriens pour la Justice (MNJ), was launched again in 2007. It only lasted two years, after Gaddafi summoned the rebel leaders in Tripoli and coopted the most opportunistic among them, hence blowing up the fragile cohesion of the rebellion. At the same time, a camp financed by Libya was hastily erected near Agadez that any youth loosely connected to the rebellion could visit to receive $400 in cash: the price of a temporary return to calm that Nigerien authorities were happy not to pay. Unsurprisingly, in the recent months, prominent leaders of the MNJ have been said to activate their rebel networks in Niger to recruit fighters in support of the Guide. The same names, such as Aghali Alambo, now circulate as notables of the overthrown regime seek refuge in Niger.

Throughout the years, the ties between the Tuaregs and Gaddafi have grown stronger in multiple dimensions. Gaddafi’s Libya did play a stabilising political role for Mali and Niger through a series of favours it granted to Tuareg communities as well as central regimes. Gaddafi has been the banker of most political and relief campaign in critical times for those countries. As many Tuaregs now seem exposed to victimisation by supporters of the National Transitional Council (NTC) in Libya, the enlistment of Tuaregs from Mali and Niger into Gaddafi’s army of mercenaries resonates like a tragic bet stemming from the inertia of historical necessities. The losses incurred by those who chose the wrong side of the battelfield might exceed by far the losses incurred by those, in the West or elsewhere in Africa, who, after years of close compromise with the autocrat, swiftly jumped on the anti-Gaddafi’s bandwagon.

Most of the Tuareg combatants have now returned to Mali and Niger. They have most probably helped themselves substantially in the Libyan Army’s arms stockpiles and even managed to divert part of the weapons parachuted by France to help the NTC. The political dynamics this situation will engender in the already complex Saharan political context may be nefarious. Al Qaeda in Maghreb (AQIM) has established durable bases in Northern Mali and may benefit from complicity among criminalised state actors interested in the lucrative business of hostage-taking, as well as the massive cross-border trafficking activities the region has become infamous for. In the same way Gaddafi imposed himself as a munificent patron in the area, AQIM is now buying loyalties among locals, including Tuaregs, which have little to do with fundamentalist activism. At the same time, some Tuareg political leaders have repeatedly called for means to fight terrorism and insecurity in the form of forces placed under decentralised command, which they were denied. While Gaddafi never was a benevolent Samaritan toward the Saharan countries, he occupied a strategic position in the region’s subtle political interactions, a position now left empty at a time of high vulnerability.


What can decision makers learn from people living in violent conflict?

Almost one third of the world’s population are affected daily by violence yet policies addressing conflict still focus on the ‘big picture’ and do little to place people at the centre of interventions. How could a more ‘micro’ approach which understands how people are affected by conflict lead to policies and peace agreements that are more effective on the ground?

MICROCON, a five-year research programme which focuses on the micro-level analysis of conflict will be holding a conference this week week to debate this issue. Among the topics being covered, participants will explore household coping strategies, how living with violence affects people’s health and the ways in which people in areas of violence adapt to survive.

Delegates, who are expected to be drawn from across the development sector, will also discuss the role that research has to play in informing policy and practice in these contexts.

During the conference, MICROCON will be unveiling their latest research findings to reveal what they believe will lead to innovative policies, more effective interventions and whether an emphasis on evidence-based policy is making a difference.

“The impacts to people living in violent conflict have been ignored for too long.” says Programme Director Dr Patricia Justino. “MICROCON hopes to change the way decisions are made about conflict so that these individuals aren’t forgotten. Development agencies and policy makers need to remember that ordinary people matter.”

This is a pivotal moment in research into violence and conflict, and MICROCON are keen to share the forthcoming debates beyond the conference walls. Highlights from the two day event will be captured in a number of ways. Visit the MICROCON website for live tweeting, video, podcasts and more.

‘Policy and practice in violent contexts: What can the latest research teach us?’ runs from 30 June – 1 July at the Institute of Development Studies, UK.

Education Does Not Save Lives So Why Should We Care?

Posted by Patricia Justino

Education is one of the hidden costs of conflict and violence. Almost 750,000 people die as a result of armed conflict each year, and there are more than 20 million displaced people in the world. Violent conflict kills and injures people, destroys capital and infrastructure, damages the social fabric, endangers civil liberties, and creates health and famine crises.

What is less known or talked about is how violent conflict denies million of children across the world their right to education. The reasons are multiple. Armed violence often targets schools and teachers as symbols of community leadership or bastions of the type of social order that some armed factions want to see destroyed. Children are useful in armies as soldiers, as well as to perform a myriad of daily tasks from cooking and cleaning to sexual favours. Children need to work when members of their family die or are unable to make a living, and families remove children from school fearing for their lives and security.

Should we care about this loss of education? Several studies report that aid and reconstruction efforts are quick to re-establish basic education structures. What is missing in this argument is an adequate understanding of the profound long-term effects of educational losses amongst those exposed to conflict.

In particular, relatively minor shocks to educational access – even as small as achieving one less year of schooling – can cause long-lasting detrimental effects on the children that are out of school, as well as on the human capital stock of whole generations. These effects persist well after the conflict has ended, with long-term intergenerational consequences in terms of school achievement, health outcomes and future earnings.

Children that lose out on school earn less, have worse job opportunities and poorer health than those that stay in school. This not only affects their living standards, but also the opportunities available to their own children, creating cycles of hardship and deprivation that persist for decades after the end of the conflict. We observe these effects still amongst those that were at school age during WWII, as well as in children that have lived through modern conflicts in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

These long-term effects are difficult to measure and therefore easy to dismiss in post-conflict planning traditionally concerned with the immediate recovery from war. But human capital is the backbone of successful economic and social recovery. Ignoring these long-term consequences will endanger any attempts to rebuild peace, social justice and stability.    

Results mentioned in the blog are analysed and discussed in Justino, Patricia. 2010. “How Does Violent Conflict Impact on Individual Educational Outcomes? The Evidence so Far”, background paper to the Global Monitoring Report on Education for All 2011, UNESCO.  

This blog post originally appeared on the Education for All World Education Blog.

The Art of Clinging to Power: Laurent Gbagbo and the Post-election Crisis in Côte d’Ivoire

Posted by Morten Bøås and Anne Hatløy


After a few relatively quiet years in West Africa, the region has once again returned to international headlines due to conflict and political violence. This time it is Côte d’Ivoire, and the turmoil started when the opposition candidate Alassane Ouattara won the presidential election on November 29 last year. This election was supposed to contribute to peace and reconciliation, but it clearly did not. There is no doubt that Ouattara won the election, and Gbagbo must know that he lost it, but he also unfortunately seems to believe that if he just clings to power long enough, sooner or later ECOWAS, the United Nations and the international community at large will rest its case and allow him to remain in power: as the ‘rightful’ president or in the worst case, in Gbagbo’s eyes, forcing on him a national unity government solution of the same type as the one negotiated in the aftermath of the Kenyan post-election violence in 2007.

This would be a bad solution as it will set the democratic agenda in Africa several decades back, and therefore attempting to ‘master the art of clinging to power’ should not be rewarded. What is the point of an election if a losing incumbent president only needs to be as stubborn as possible to be allowed to continue to rule? It is possible that the ‘national unity government’ option was the correct solution in Kenya in 2007, but Côte d’Ivoire is not Kenya and the Kenyan solution should not in any case be seen as the leading principle for how such situations should be solved on the African continent. In that regard, it is gratifying that both the ECOWAS and the AU so far has been quite firm in their support for Ouattara. This stand should be encouraged and supported by all parties in the international community more broadly that want a more democratic African continent. However, it is also obvious that Gbagbo’s strategy is to wait for splits among African countries. He already seems to have some tactical support from Angola, not only in diplomatic terms, but also resource-wise. The South African support for the ECOWAS/AU line is reluctant, and even if Ghana has stated that it will stand by any sanctions imposed by ECOWAS, it has also made it clear that it will not contribute to any ECOWAS-led military intervention against Gbagbo. It is therefore of primary importance that the international community at large gives its unconditional support to the hard line against the Gbagbo regime that Nigeria and its president Goodluck Jonathan has taken. In this regard, important donor countries and foreign investors should make it clear that any attempt to break the international line against Gbagbo will have consequences for the country that undertake such actions. So far, the international community has not communicated this clearly enough to African countries such as Angola, Ghana and South Africa and they should do so.

It should also be noted that the crisis in Côte d’Ivoire also shows that the conduct of multi-party elections is not a prerequisite for peace and reconciliation. Elections alone do not create anything but winners and losers, and in a polarised society such as Côte d’Ivoire elections may be as equally conflict-enhancing as conflict-reducing. This is not an argument against democratic elections per se, but elections in a place such as Côte d’Ivoire should only be one of several measures adopted to ensure peace and reconciliation. Well in advance of such elections, substantial investments must be made to ensure civil society organisations that can reach across well entrenched political cleavages. Investments must be made in the institutionalisation of the political rules of engagement so that they or those that lose forthcoming election knows that such a loss will not dramatically alter their basic political and economic rights. In addition, the international community must have a backup plan when things go wrong. Unfortunately none of this seems to have been the case in Côte d’Ivoire. This is not only embarrassing, but tragic. Events as they unfold on the ground are no surprise. Rather, it was a high probability that exactly what we now see would happen if Gbagbo should lose and Ouattara win and the international community should have been aware of this.

It is therefore important both for the people of Côte d’Ivoire and the African continent that confrontation with the kind of destructive political forces that Gbagbo represents continues, insisting that the actual winner of the election also is allowed to assume power. If we let Gbagbo succeed, we will most likely see this kind of stubborn clinging to power in a number of other places on the continent in the near future, as there are a series of crucial elections forthcoming in Africa this year as well as in 2012.

This is the blog of the MICROCON research programme, featuring the reflections and opinions of MICROCON’s 60-strong team of researchers. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the opinion of MICROCON as a whole.

Introducing the MICROCON blog: Understanding violence and how it might be overcome

Posted by Patricia Justino.

Welcome to the MICROCON blog! MICROCON, or ‘A Micro Level Analysis of Violent Conflict’ is a five-year research programme funded by the European Commission, which takes an innovative micro level, multidisciplinary approach to the study of the conflict cycle. It is a five year programme, and has recently entered its final year.

Over the next 12 months, members of MICROCON’s 60-strong research team will be reflecting on the latest conflict research from around the world, as well as recent developments in countries affected by violent conflict. MICROCON is founded on the belief that micro-level analysis – at the level of individuals, households and small groups – is vital in understanding conflicts, how they can be prevented or curtailed, and how their effects can be mitigated.

 An important overall insight of MICROCON’s findings to date is that in each conflict there is a variety and combination of motives for engaging in violence – it is not possible to just talk about one that applies across conflicts. There are differences between leaders and followers; and also between individual motives and group motives. There are differences across conflicts, and causal factors also change over the course of conflicts. Given the complex range and combination of factors involved, strategies to prevent the (re-)emergence of violence need to be based on a micro-level appreciation of people’s strategies for coping with vulnerabilities to both socio-economic disadvantage and violence

This blog will seek to bring the micro-level expertise of our team of researchers to bear on current conflicts and to discuss the latest developments in conflict research, with a view to stimulating debate and engaging with anyone who is interested in discussing violent conflicts and how they might be overcome. So please do add your perspectives ‘below the line’ in the coming months, and please do get in touch to let us know what you think of the blog!