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America Should Not Overcommit Forces in North Africa

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Nearly two months after four American servicemen were killed by terrorists affiliated with the Islamic State in Niger, there is a growing concern among counterterrorism experts that the collapse of ISIS in the Middle East will result in the group shifting its focus to Africa. An area of particular concern is the Sahel, a semi-arid region south of the Sahara spanning from Mauritania and Senegal in the west to Eritrea in the east, and dipping as far south as Nigeria. While the urge for the American military to pursue ISIS into Africa is heavily embedded within the fabric of its counterinsurgency playbook, the United States would be wise in exercising restraint by not committing significant resources towards targeting terrorists in the Sahel. If the United States is concerned with the rise of terrorism in the Sahel and wants to allocate military resources to the region, Washington should instead adopt a strategy designed to positively empower regional allies while eliminating the systemic problems that create the conditions for terrorism to thrive in the first place.

There are a number of factors that make the Sahel particularly ripe for the Islamic State’s brand of terrorism. Countries such as Mali, Niger, Chad, and Nigeria have long suffered from internal ethnic, religious, and tribal fractures that ISIS has previously exploited to its advantage and incite local Muslim populations to violence. Furthermore, the Sahel is littered with Tuareg and Arab militias who have already proven effective in utilizing their ISIS-friendly interpretations of Salafism as a call to arms, and could follow the lead of Boko Haram and other groups in aligning themselves with ISIS. Finally, the Sahel is home to over forty-one-million people under the age of twenty-five who face significant economic hardship which, combined with growing frustrations towards ineffective and corrupt local governments, could motivate them towards radicalization.

These trends suggest that ISIS may be poised to establish a greater foothold in the Sahel, and it seems as though the United States has taken notice. Not only has the United States already stationed nearly 800 military personnel on the ground throughout the region, but Washington has also recently committed $60 million towards the creation of a UN-backed counterterrorism force in the Sahel—even as it proposes $3 billion cuts in humanitarian aid to Africa. Additionally, the United States has active drone bases in Chad and Niger that are dedicated to American counterterror efforts, and has plans to deploy MQ9 Reaper drones in Niger. These efforts were in place before American troops were killed in Niger, and will likely be accelerated in its aftermath. Sen. Lindsay Graham’s recent comments reinforced the push for  expanding the war on terror to new battlefronts, warning that, “we don’t want the next 9/11 to come from Niger.”

Unfortunately, it is unlikely that expanding American counterterror operations in the Sahel will meaningfully reduce the risk of such an attack. As the past sixteen years of the war on terror have illustrated, combating a force as nebulous as “terrorism” is exceptionally difficult, particularly when both the ideology and practitioners of this form of warfare are so easily transferable across international lines. Just as the defeat of Al Qaeda in Iraq saw many of the group’s members transition their allegiance to the Islamic State, the disruption of terror cells in Mali and Libya has seen members of those groups migrate throughout the Sahel and embed themselves within other extremist groups in the region. Defeating ISIS in the Middle East did not stop them from re-emerging in the Sahel, and there is little reason to believe that disrupting ISIS’ operations in Africa will prevent them from successfully migrating elsewhere.

The problem of migration is particularly pronounced in the Sahel. Millions of Africans cross through the region’s porous borders every year, and local governments have proven largely incapable of providing meaningful border security. The Sahel is not only perfectly designed to facilitate the spread of jihadist fighters from east to west, but, should ISIS gain control of the valuable gold and uranium deposits throughout the region, it could also allow the organization to easily funnel the resources it extracts and sell them in exchange for weapons. The United States, which has historically faced great difficulty in combating terrorist groups operating in the borderlands between Afghanistan and Pakistan, would face similar challenges in the Sahel, which would be exacerbated by our well-documented struggles in sharing critical intelligence with regional partners.

Additionally, the problems facing American cooperation with regional allies go far beyond poor intelligence sharing. Soldiers from Mali and Burkina Faso were accused of torturing and executing civilians while conducting counterterror operations, while Nigeria left over 100 civilian casualties after it accidentally bombed a refugee camp it mistook for Boko Haram insurgents. These heavy-handed tactics have been criticized for bolstering extremist organizations instead of disrupting them, and the United States has thus far proven unable or unwilling to effectively corral its regional partners. Despite the multinational coalition of forces that have spent years targeting Boko Haram, the region has seen a marked increase in the number of suicide attacks committed by the group this year.

Most importantly, a significant American military presence is more likely to embed terrorism within the fabric of the Sahel than it is to successfully root it out. Opposition to perceived or literal occupation by a foreign power has historically been a leading driver in terrorist recruitment that can spark both nationalist and religious opposition against the occupier—this principle certainly applies to the Sahel. In its founding statements, Al-Murabitun, an ISIS-affiliated militia operating in Mali and Niger, called for the expulsion of the western imperialists that seek to subjugate Muslim lands and cited the need to attack French interests, “wherever they may be found.” The French presence in Mali, the U.S.-led coalition to topple Muammar el-Qaddafi in Libya and existing American military presence in the continent have all served to drive terrorist recruitment in Africa. Increased American counterterror operations would only exacerbate this trend. This is particularly true in light of recent revelations that American drone strikes have resulted in far more civilian casualties than originally thought, indicating that even a limited military intervention would likely result in blowback as civilian casualties mount.

One possible solution for resolving this occupier’s dilemma involves bombarding terrorists with overwhelming military force to significantly disrupt enemy operations, a strategy which was partially responsible for the initial defeat of Al Qaeda in Iraq. However, such an operation would require a massive, sustained deployment of ground troops to adequately secure such a large region and would certainly come with a lofty price tag—neither of which the war-weary American public would likely accept. Additionally, the rise of ISIS after the departure of American troops from Iraq calls into question the long-term effectiveness of such a strategy, as such a significant military presence does little to dissuade the narrative of America as an occupying army.

If America is interested in limiting the spread of terrorism in the Sahel region, it should instead adopt a strategy aimed at addressing the systemic, structural factors that contribute to the rise of terrorism, while assisting regional partners in doing the same. Instead of cutting economic and development aid, the United States should invest in the economic future of the Sahel by providing financial and humanitarian assistance designed to improve the opportunities of local populations. Combined with a reversal of the trend towards a military-first strategy, such a move could combat the image of the United States as a hostile force while giving disaffected communities a viable alternative to terror groups Additionally, the United States should continue to work with local partners and international organizations to address issues such as corruption and the use of overly aggressive counterterror tactics. America has helped Nigeria and Burkina Faso address deep-seeded issues like government accountability and promoting similar initiatives in the region could increase civic participation among local groups and give them a greater stake in the preservation of an improving status quo.

America’s short-term success in uprooting ISIS in the Middle East may give policymakers and generals in Washington the confidence to pursue the organization as it migrates to Africa—but following these impulses would be a significant mistake. The very conditions that make the Sahel ripe for expansion by ISIS will make it extremely difficult for the United States to achieve a decisive victory. America’s desire to stymie the Islamic State’s spread in Africa is admirable, but a concerted effort to address the conditions that allow terrorism to thrive through economic assistance, humanitarian aid, and civil society development programs is far more likely to produce a positive outcome than the expansion of the war on terror to the Sahel.

Image: An army officer stands in a parade during a ceremony marking Nigeria’s Armed Forces Remembrance Day in Lagos January 15, 2013. REUTERS/Akintunde Akinleye
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AFRICA

South Africa’s Private Game Reserves Struggle to Survive

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On March 26, as South African President Cyril Ramaphosa announced that he was closing the country’s borders and shutting down tourism to help curb the spread of COVID-19, Kayla Wilkens thought of only one thing: How was she going to feed the elephants?

Wilkens, the general manager of the privately-owned Fairy Glen safari resort, about 115 km outside of Cape Town, knew that the park’s budget depended on tourism. Without that income, taking care of the lions, rhinos, zebras and antelope that populate the 500-hectare reserve would be difficult. That night, Wilkens, an avid conservationist who can tell the arrival or birth story of almost every animal on the property in loving detail, sat down with her partner and Fairy Glen owner, Pieter De Jager, to map out the future.

If they gave up their own salaries, laid off all but two of their 30 staff, stopped the security patrols and put off repairs, they figured they just might make it a couple of months. Her entire life savings would buy them enough food and supplies for a further month, if they didn’t need to bring in the vet. After that though, they would have to prepare for the worst. “We had to force ourselves to think about maybe having to put down our animals rather than let them starve to death,” she says, her voice cracking at the thought. “We can’t just put them outside and expect them to look after themselves.”

The elephants, rhinos, buffalos, lions and leopards that make up the classic safari “Big Five” checklist may be wild animals, but in South Africa’s private game reserves, the illusion of wilderness is built upon a scaffold of costly maintenance. Reserve managers spend several hundreds of thousands of dollars a year to buy, feed, breed, care for and protect the animals in their parks, money that they recoup through safari drives and luxury accommodations on the property. It is a privatized form of conservation that not only keeps endangered species alive, but also guards vast tracts of biodiverse wilderness from development. The precipitous drop in tourism has brought many of South Africa’s 500 or so private game parks to their knees, according to a survey conducted by a local tourism agency, which reported that some 90% of safari-related businesses believed they would not survive even if international borders opened immediately.

A giraffe is seen during a guided safari tour at the Dinokeng Game Reserve outside Pretoria, on Aug. 7, 2020.

A giraffe is seen during a guided safari tour at the Dinokeng Game Reserve outside Pretoria, on Aug. 7, 2020.

Michele Spatari—AFP/Getty Images

A crisis of animal welfare

Africa’s great national parks, such as South Africa’s Kruger, Kenya’s Masai Mara, or Tanzania’s Serengeti that are the safari qua non of African destinations, are equally at risk. For decades African governments have resisted calls for the exploitation of wilderness areas because conservation and tourism promised to be even more long-lasting and lucrative. According to the World Travel and Tourism council, wildlife-based tourism in Africa is worth approximately US$71 billion a year. Now, with safaris at a standstill, funding for both private and public reserves is drying up, even as they face the ongoing expense of keeping their animals alive. A survey of over 340 tour operators in southern and eastern Africa conducted by the online safari travel platform Safaribookings.com in August reported at least a 75% drop in income over the past six months.

“Spending by safari tourists is the single biggest funder of conservation in Africa,” says Kenya-based conservationist Max Graham, the founder of Space For Giants, an international charity that protects Africa’s elephants and their landscapes. “That money has disappeared, leaving everyone struggling to pay wildlife rangers, maintain security, or support community programmes. People who lose jobs or whose small businesses collapse could turn to farming or bushmeat hunting to make ends meet, accelerating the loss of biodiverse natural habitats and driving the illegal wildlife trade.”

In the short term that means that veterinary care, endangered species rehabilitation programs and community education efforts have been curtailed. But if tourism numbers don’t pick up, and wildlife stops paying its way, the temptation will be to convert some of Africa’s 8,400 protected areas into more immediately lucrative enterprises, such as oil extraction, logging, mining or agriculture. Locals will be less willing to put up with the predations of lions and elephants rampaging through their fields if there is no compensation in the form of jobs and tourism revenues. “When you have lost your income because of COVID, and you depend on your vegetable patch for survival, you are not going to tolerate an elephant tearing it up,” says Jake Rendle-Worthington, an animal psychologist who runs a small elephant rehabilitation program near Zimbabwe’s Victoria Falls. Police in his area have reported the deaths of several wild elephants from cyanide poisoning; just last week he found a bag of poison-laced oranges hanging from a tree not far from his elephant sanctuary.

For all the viral photos of lions lounging on empty roads and reported spikes in reproduction for animals spared the disruptive presence of safari paparazzi, the tourism slowdown heralds an animal welfare crisis for some of Africa’s most threatened species. Nowhere is that more visible than in the small private game reserves that make up the bulk of South Africa’s tourism industry, which indirectly employs some 1.5 million people and contributes 7% of GDP.

When De Jager decided to convert his family’s dairy farm into a nature reserve 20 years ago, his idea was to reintroduce the game and predators that once roamed South Africa’s Western Cape, before the area was taken over by vineyards and fruit orchards with the introduction of colonialism. Noah-like, he brought a pair of rhinos, a pair of elephants, a pride of lions and several species of antelope, along with ostriches, zebras, buffalo and a donkey into his secluded mountain paradise. His vision was to preserve as well as educate: Fairy Glen is—or was, before COVID—a regular stop for school groups from the area, and one of the few places where students can see South Africa’s iconic wildlife up close—most of the country’s game reserves are in the northeast, near Kruger park, which is either a two-hour flight or two-day drive away. But 90% of the paying visitors come from abroad, and they cover 100% of the reserve’s running costs, says Wilkens. In South Africa at least, laid off employees at privately owned reserves can apply for unemployment benefits, but that doesn’t help animals that need constant care and attention. Nor does it help with the ongoing expense of finding meat for the lions and forage for the elephants, who consume some 300kg of grass and vegetables a day.

Tourists take part in a guided safari tour at the Dinokeng Game Reserve outside Pretoria, on Aug. 7, 2020. Visitors have flocked from the capital Pretoria and financial hub Johannesburg since the government allowed South Africans to travel for leisure within their provinces last week, bringing a small sliver of relief to the country's tourist industry.

Tourists take part in a guided safari tour at the Dinokeng Game Reserve outside Pretoria, on Aug. 7, 2020. Visitors have flocked from the capital Pretoria and financial hub Johannesburg since the government allowed South Africans to travel for leisure within their provinces last week, bringing a small sliver of relief to the country’s tourist industry.

Michele Spatari—AFP/Getty Images

“They are expensive animals to look after, and that doesn’t change, even in the middle of a pandemic,” says Wilkens, who says her monthly running costs easily surpass a half-million rand a month, or $30,000. As of early September, she has been able to stave off her worst case scenario. Unusually heavy rains mean there has been enough forage for the browsing animals. And when a couple of the bucks died in a bad storm, Wilkens was able to feed the carcases to the lions. A local poultry farm is donating chickens, as well.

But cutting staff numbers and security patrols has had consequences. On the night of July 27, one of the rhinos went missing. Wilkens searched the entire property and surrounding area for days, aided by police investigators and a K9 team. A week later, she had to accept that he had been stolen. But why? The rhino, known as Higgins, was something of a local celebrity: in 2011 he had been attacked and blinded by poachers who hacked out his horn with a machete, presumably to sell on the international black market, where rhino horn is nearly worth its weight in gold (or cocaine). Did poachers mistake Higgins for his mate, who was also attacked, but who still has some of her horn left? Was it some kind of revenge for laying off the staff? The experience has left Wilkens, who has a special bond with Higgins, shaken. “I can’t help but feel like we as owners have let our animals down because we couldn’t provide the security they needed because of a loss of income,” she says.

Overall, poaching for animal parts such as pangolin scales, rhino horn and elephant tusk has declined in African game reserves over the COVID period, largely due to international travel disruptions that prevent criminal syndicates from getting those products to their markets in China and Vietnam. But according to conservation organizations, killing wild and endangered animals for their meat, so called ‘bushmeat poaching,’ is on the rise. The Uganda Wildlife Authority has recorded a 125% increase in wildlife crime cases between February and May 2020, the majority of which are for bushmeat cases. Kenya’s Wildlife Service recorded a 51% increase over the same period.

The spike in bushmeat poaching, says Graham, of Space for Giants, is largely due to the collapse of wildlife tourism. When guides, rangers and resort employees no longer have the income to buy food, some will have no choice but to turn to hunting in the areas they once protected. Tumi Morema, a wildlife crimes investigator who has worked for private anti-poaching security agencies around South Africa’s Kruger Park for the past 20 years, calls it poaching “for the pot” as opposed to poaching for cash. In his area, the young men who used to find day labor jobs in town now head to the reserves in search of game. “These days, when a man comes home with meat, he’s not a thief or a poacher, he is just a hero.” Even Wilkens, at Fairy Glen, suspects that some of her antelope may have ended up as someone’s dinner. “It’s devastating for us,” she says, “but it is also understandable. They have children to feed. If I were in the same position, I most probably would do the same.”

Craig Spencer, the head warden of the semi-private, 52,000-hectare Balule Nature Reserve on Kruger Park’s western flank, says he hasn’t seen much bushmeat poaching yet, but he warns that if the economy doesn’t rebound quickly it is just a matter of time. In 2013 Spencer founded the all-women Black Mambas anti-poaching team, which combines community education with boots on the ground presence patrols that have been instrumental in protecting the reserve’s rhinos and other animals. He worries that once bushmeat poaching takes root, it could be even harder to eradicate, with long term consequences for wildlife. “With rhinos, we are fighting proper criminals. But as soon as it becomes a subsistence level thing, you have a robin hood syndrome, and you can’t stop it. The police will be sympathetic, the courts will be sympathetic, and gangs of bushmeat poachers will sell it in the community, and the people will have to buy from them.”

Bushmeat poaching for survival is unlikely to threaten whole species, but as a practice, it could contribute to the very factors that launched the pandemic in the first place, setting humanity up for a new cycle of viral outbreaks, says Graham. “It’s important to note here that it’s people over-exploiting natural environments—logging, farming, bushmeat trading—that caused the jump from animals to humans of diseases like COVID-19, SARS, and Ebola.” One of the leading theories of COVID-19 is that it originated in bats, then jumped to pangolins (small, reptile-like mammals) before infecting humans. Pangolins, whose scales are sought after for use in traditional Chinese medicine, are the most widely trafficked animal in Africa.

A pride of lions at Thanda Safari Lodge, a 14 000-hectare Big Five private game reserve owned by Swedish IT entrepreneur Dan Olofsson in northern Zululand, South Africa.

A pride of lions at Thanda Safari Lodge, a 14 000-hectare Big Five private game reserve owned by Swedish IT entrepreneur Dan Olofsson in northern Zululand, South Africa.

Leisa Tyler—LightRocket/Getty Images

‘I can’t keep this up.’

As lockdown restrictions eased, there were signs of light at the end of the tunnel for safari park operators. On August 15, five months after he implemented one of the strictest lockdowns in the world, President Ramaphosa announced that while international visitors are still banned, domestic leisure travel would be permitted, including guided tours in open safari vehicles. But domestic tourists are unlikely to make up the difference for venues that largely cater to foreigners. Once-in-a-lifetime safari packages at private reserves can range from $200 to $1800 a day, per person, far beyond the reach of most South Africans, especially in the worst economy the country has ever seen.

Spencer, of the Black Mambas, has already pivoted to alternate sources of funding, spending most of his days canvassing for donations from international supporters. A German NGO has promised to cover his veterinary bills, and an Australian zoo is helping with salaries. But there is little left for other expenses. Members of the anti-poaching patrol, who live on site for their fortnightly rotations, are down to a food budget of $57 a week, for a team of six. “I can’t keep this up,” says Spencer. “It’s not sustainable to be begging money here there and everywhere.”

COVID-19 has exposed a serious flaw in conservation’s funding strategy, says Graham, pushing wildlife managers to accelerate existing moves to diversify away from tourism. “There are many ways to fund conservation without the need for a single safari tourist to visit,” he suggests, listing carbon offsets, wildlife bonds, and endowments as alternatives. Large parks like Kruger and Masai-Mara are carbon sinks as much as they are biodiversity reserves, he says. Increasing numbers of large companies are committing to offset their carbon emissions through forest protection and regeneration, and wildlife reserves could be the first to benefit. “Carbon conservation could be their future.”

Spencer is not so sure it will be enough. “I agree that all of our eggs were in this one basket called tourism, and we realize now how fragile that economy was, but if we are going to start talking about alternatives, then the landscape might be subjected to death by a thousand cuts.” Setting up reserves as carbon capture zones without a focus on animal welfare —or even human welfare—could lead to other emissions reduction goals which might see the installation of wind turbines or solar panels that would be just as destructive to wild animals. Tourism at least preserved the landscape, he says, because even as tourists expect luxury, they demand a facade of true wilderness, no matter what goes on behind the scenes to keep it up.

Still, Spencer adds, the past few tourist-free months have been a blessing in disguise for wildlife. The rhinos are breeding, he says, and so too are the hyenas. Without the constant pressure of on the landscape, the animals have regained a sense of freedom he hasn’t seen for decades. “It’s like they own the place again,” he says. “If we could find a way to run these national parks without the need for this mass tourism intervention, it would be obviously ideal, but I don’t think that is doable. I think we need the tourism, whether we like it or not.”

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AFRICA

S. Africa’s Ramaphosa Introduces New Bills Against Gender Based Violence

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President, Cyril Ramaphosa looks on during the Pre-World Economic Forum (WEF) Breakfast, which takes place ahead of the WEF Annual meetings in Davos, at the Hilton Hotel in Sandton district of Johannesburg, Jan. 18, 2018. Getty Images/Gulshan Khan

Battling South Africa’s “second pandemic”, President Cyril Ramaphosa steps up the fight against gender-based violence, announcing what he calls the country’s most far-reaching legislative overhaul against femicide. Also, record downpours in Senegal kill at least six and leave thousands homeless. The government says it has launched an emergency plan to help those in need, but residents say they’re still waiting for assistance. And we tell you more about a shepherd-turned-musician from Lesotho whose tunes have captivated audiences from Africa to Europe. (France 24)

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AFRICA

Egypt Unveils More Than 40 Ancient Mummies

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They are more than 2,000 years old but remain in “good condition”: Egypt on Saturday unveiled over 40 mummies dating back to the Ptolemaic era at a burial site in the centre of the country.

Journalists clambered down a ladder and through an underground chamber beneath the sandy soil of Tunah Al-Gabal, 260 kilometers south of Cairo, to glimpse the recent finds.

Archaeologist Rami Rasmi told AFP that 12 children and six animals were among the more than 40 mummies, while the rest were adult men and women.

The remains were found laid on the floor or in open clay coffins in the crumbling chamber in Minya governorate.

While mummification is mostly associated with ancient Egypt, the practice continued under the kingdom founded by Ptolemy, a successor to Alexander the Great, which lasted from 323 BC to 30 BC.

The Minya graves, discovered during an excavation that started in February last year, are in a communal tomb “probably belonging to a petty bourgeois family”, the antiquities ministry said.

Archaeologist Mohamed Ragab said two tombs were discovered nine meters underground and contained more than six rooms.

The presence of mummified pets — mostly dogs — showed how important they were for the dead.

“These animals were so dear to their owners that they buried them… in their tomb,” Ragab said.

Shards of pottery and pieces of papyrus found at the site helped researchers to determine its date, the head of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities Mostafa Waziri said.

Ancient Greek rulers reached the height of their power between the conquests of Alexander the Great and the rise of the Roman empire. AFP


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