Sub-Saharan Africa


  • West Africa
    West African Governments Lack Commitment to Reduce Soaring Inequality
    Economic and social inequality is the elephant in the living room of the current American presidential election cycle. It also powers the yellow vest demonstrations in France, and is an important driver of Brexit sentiment in the United Kingdom. It turns out that it is—or should be—an issue in West Africa as well.  Oxfam and Development Finance International (DFI) have developed the Commitment to Reducing Inequality Index (CRI). The index ranks 157 countries by their commitment to reducing inequality through increased spending on health and education, taxing the rich more than the poor, and paying a living wage. On July 9, they released their first CRI Regional Report [PDF]. It is critical of West African governments’ efforts to address social and economic inequality.  The report starts with the arresting observation that six of the ten fastest growing economies in Africa were in West Africa in 2018: Benin, Burkina Faso, Ghana, Guinea, Ivory Coast, and Senegal. Three of them—Ghana, Ivory Coast, and Senegal—were among the ten fastest growing economies in the world. But, despite rapid economic growth there has been little or no reduction in poverty, and huge increases in economic inequality. The report concludes that the top one percent in West Africa own more than the combined wealth of everyone in the region. The top five West African countries on the Index—or those that have demonstrated the highest commitment to reducing inequality—are Cape Verde, Mauritania, Senegal, Ghana, the Gambia, and Ivory Coast. At the bottom of the list are Guinea-Bissau, Niger, and Sierra Leone. At the very bottom of the list is Nigeria, the largest economy of them all, though at present with a low rate of economic growth, unlike the top five. Cape Verde and Senegal are usually near the top of most indexes of African development. The surprise here is the presence of Mauritania and the Gambia near the top of the CRI. Reducing extreme inequality in West Africa will be a challenge even when governments are committed to do so, and, according to the report, not all are. After all, among the most developed economies in the world, like the United States, the United Kingdom, and France, inequality is proving intractable. Only the Scandinavian social democracies have had much success, and they have special advantages not shared in the rest of the developed world, and certainly not in West Africa.
  • Sub-Saharan Africa
    The State of Slavery in Mauritania
    Tyler Falish is a student in Fordham University’s Graduate Program in International Political Economy & Development and a former intern for the Council on Foreign Relations Africa Studies program. The Global Slavery Index estimates that 45.8 million people are currently subject to modern slavery. Modern slavery can take the form of forced labor, domestic servitude, forced marriage, child slavery, and debt bondage, among other forms. Within this definition, it is estimated that India, China, Pakistan, and Bangladesh have the highest prevalence of modern slavery. In Mauritania—a former French colony in the Maghreb—a conservative estimate suggests that 43,000 (just over 1 percent of the population of four million) Mauritanians are enslaved. Although this figure appears to indicate an impressive drop from a 2014 estimate of 140,000, the change may be due in large part to more robust statistical techniques and improvements in survey methodology. Precision aside, thousands of Mauritanians remain enslaved. Slavery in Mauritania is hardly ‘modern.’ It is an institution deeply rooted in the history of the country and region. The ruling minority Beydanes (Arab-Berbers) historically enslaved Haratin (or “Black Moors”). Afro-Mauritanians—black Mauritanians who do not have slave lineage—and the Haratin comprise 70 percent of Mauritanians, and both are largely excluded from political life and severely disadvantaged economically. But ethnic cleavages also exist between these groups, as the Beydane-dominated government used Haratin soldiers to kill and torture Afro-Mauritanians in waves of ethnic cleansing in the early nineties. Further, some Afro-Mauritanians were once slaveholders themselves. In 1981, Mauritania became the final country to abolish slavery. But it wasn’t until 2007 that the government passed a law allowing slaveholders to be prosecuted. However, it is uncommon for slaveholders to be arrested and those who are often see immediate release or are handed meager sentences. The government—led by President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz—largely denies the existence of slavery in Mauritania (by referring only to “vestiges” of slavery), a stance that in and of itself hinders progress toward the elimination of the practice. Abolitionists, such as Biram Dah Abeid, leader of the Initiative for the Resurgence of the Abolitionist Movement (IRA), have risked much to keep pressure on slaveholders and the government, increase awareness abroad, and advocate for both freed and enslaved Mauritanians. On August 19, thirteen IRA members were handed prison sentences from three to fifteen years, after being found guilty of rebellion, among other things, for organizing a protest against the forced relocation of an informal settlement. According to their attorney, they were all tortured while in custody. A Mauritanian blogger, who had written posts criticizing the country’s caste system, remains on death row after his 2014 conviction for blasphemy. Slavery in Mauritania is sometimes justified by an aberrant interpretation of Islam, though perhaps more importantly, it is largely an economic and psychological institution. Enslaved Mauritanians are often bound to their “masters” by economic necessity and a sense of loyalty. A dearth of economic opportunities inhibits the ability of freed slaves to support themselves and their families. While abolitionists like those of the IRA attempt to create the space necessary for enslaved Mauritanians to envision and seize a life outside of bondage, the government’s continued denial of the existence of slavery perpetuates the institution and the caste system, from which the ruling elites benefit. Despite the efforts of the abolitionists and human rights groups, it is unlikely that President Abdel Aziz’s government will change tack. Abdel Aziz is an ally to the West in a region threatened by terrorist groups, which likely insulates him from any intense pressure from foreign governments. He recently expressed interest in a proposal for a referendum on constitutional changes that would allow him to remain in power for at least a third term, if not longer.
  • Sub-Saharan Africa
    UNHCR, Mali, and an "Arc of Instability"
    Syria dominates the news cycle and is probably the principal preoccupation of foreign ministries, just as Libya previously was, and is once again following the murder of U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens.  Yet UN agencies, especially the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the World Food Program, have, with only limited success, repeatedly warned of the potential humanitarian catastrophe in the Sahel. On September 4, UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres published a thoughtful analysis of the crisis in Mali in the New York Times.   It goes beyond a wake-up call. His central argument is that the current crisis in Mali and the Sahel is the result of an "intersection of trends," including food insecurity and desertification, "incomplete democratization…marked by  social exclusion," and rampant youth unemployment. He also places the current radical Islamic groups who control northern Mali in the context of a century of Taureg rebellions and a smuggling trade that ranges from narcotics to weapons. He cites the attraction marginalized and disaffected youth in the region have of Malian radical Islamic groups . The bleak statistics he cites are not surprising, but dire nonetheless:  eighteen million Sahelians affected by, or at risk of, food shortages; 266,000 Malian refugees–mostly in Mauritania, Niger, Burkina Faso, and Algeria; and 174,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Mali. Guterres warns that the Mali crisis could morph into an "arc of instability" from Mauritania in the West to the Gulf of Aden in the East, with weak state authorities and active transnational criminals.   To forestall this, Guterres urges the international community to support those in the region working for a political settlement. The high commissioner’s warning is well placed. Once aroused  –admittedly often a slow process that is  influenced by the degree of media attention– the international community will write the necessary checks, the food will be delivered, and tent cities established.  Assisting in achieving an internal political settlement in Mali  will be much more difficult than meeting immediate humanitarian needs. For example, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has tried to play a leading role in Mali.  But two of Mali’s closest neighbors, Mauritania and Algeria, are not ECOWAS members and are likely to be distinctly unenthusiastic about an ECOWAS military presence in territory adjacent to their borders.
  • Mauritania
    LYMAN: Impact of Mauritania Coup Unclear
    A group of military officers staged a coup in the oil-rich western African nation of Mauritania August 3, deposing President Maaoya Sid’Ahmed Ould Taya and declaring they will hold power for two years and then hold elections. Princeton Lyman, the Ralph Bunche senior fellow in Africa policy studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, talks about the coup’s impact.What has happened in Mauritania? Well, when the president went to the funeral of King Fahd [bin Adbul Aziz, who died August 1] in Saudi Arabia, military officers staged a successful coup and took over the government. Taya, the former president—the president who has been overthrown—himself came to power in a coup in 1984, [and] he has been elected since then a couple of times.Elected in free elections?I think that’s the source of part of the problem. In recent years, President Taya has accused his opposition of being extremists and terrorists, and has either jailed them or put them on trial or driven them out of the country. So the system was clearly not [open] there.Will the new leader [Colonel Ely Ould Mohammed Vall, 55, chief of the national police since 1987] take Taya’s place?Well, what the military leaders of the coup are saying is that they plan to be in power for two years and then stage elections. Now, it raises a very serious question for the African Union and for the international community, because the African Union has said it will not recognize any government that comes to power through unconstitutional means. So the Africans will put a great deal of pressure on the coup leaders to stage elections a lot earlier than two years [from now].Did the African Union recognize Taya’s government?Yes, they did.But he came to power through unconstitutional means.And we—the United States—are in a delicate position here, because we have been engaged with Mauritania as well as other countries in the region on a major antiterrorism program: training forces to go after largely Algerian terrorists, who have been using that area of Africa as a safe haven for recruiting and training. I think Mauritania—as well as Chad, both of which participate in that program—raises serious questions about our approach, because we were dealing with governments that on the one hand were controversial and, to some extent, unpopular. And in particular in Mauritania, Taya seemed to be driving the opposition more and more into an extremist Islamist corner. That was a worrisome thing beforehand, and now it’s, of course, exploded into a coup.Do you feel that the opposition was leaning toward Islamic extremism itself, without Taya’s pressure?I think the opposition is more Islamist [and against] some of the steps the government [was taking]. Mauritania is one of the few Arab League members to have relations with Israel [the two countries established full diplomatic relations in 1999]. But I think the issue is much more [about] domestic power than it is anything else.Do you think the new government will ally itself with al-Qaeda or other extremists?No, I don’t think so. I do think that we will have to sit down very carefully and review with them their policy on general terrorism, but I would be surprised if they moved over to supporting al-Qaeda or any [other] such extreme organizations. But the [new] state may be a little less cooperative [with the U.S.] antiterrorism campaign if they perceive it as having supported oppression of the legitimate opposition [during the Taya regime]. Will the new leadership change Mauritania’s relationship with Israel?So far, it’s unclear. The coup leaders have said that they are going to respect all existing international agreements, etc. The Israelis have said they have no plans to evacuate their embassy, so we’ll just have to see. It’s unclear at this point. Will there be violence?So far, there has not been. Some celebrations in the city [the capital Nouakchott], but modest, and so far it’s been quiet. One last thing, of course, is that Mauritania is on the brink of becoming a significant oil producer. [Mauritania has about one billion barrels of oil reserves and some 30 billion cubic meters of natural gas reserves, according to government estimates.Experts say Mauritania stands to receive $400 million dollars per year from oil and gas, almost half of its current $1.1 billion gross domestic product (GDP).] And how will this change of government affect that?I think it might slow down some of the arrangements, but no one in charge of a government would not want to get the revenue from oil. And although the production is just getting underway, the revenues won’t come in until 2007. Still, I think oil exploration and production will go forward.It’s very early to say, but what are the chances this government will actually hold power for two years and then have elections? What’s the precedent in this part of the world?Well, I think the prospects are good, because of the pressure [from] the African Union and the general trend toward not recognizing military governments. So they will be under a great deal of pressure to do so. The question is, will they be under pressure to do it much sooner than two years? How fair would the elections be?It’s unclear at this point how closely this military group, which took over, is linked to the former opposition. I haven’t seen any signs yet that they either were encouraged [by], or they’re sympathetic to, the opposition. They didn’t say anything about that in their statement. They simply said there was oppression and it was ruining the country, etc. So I’m not so clear on that, and we’ll have to see whether this group really wants free and fair elections, or wants to stay in power one way or another.