In the wake of the violent overthrow of the Gaddafi regime in Libya, members of the Gaddafi family, regime loyalists, and hired mercenaries fled Libya and scattered themselves throughout North Africa and the Sahara Desert. This is petty obviously a potential source of trouble for the places that these defeated and discontented refugees have sheltered. I wrote about this situation and its potential for destabilization of region in several posts:

The Gaddafi Diaspora

David and Goliath

Cognitive Dissonance Among the Apologists for Tyranny

The Survivor: Saif al-Islam Qadhafi

Trouble Brewing in the Desert

Several recent articles on the BBC document the trouble that has particularly come to affect Mali, where many Tuaregs who once fought for Gaddafi fled and reignited an insurgency against the Malian government:

Sand and fury: Mali’s Tuareg rebels

Mali clashes displace nearly 130,000, UN warns

Tuareg rebels make troubled return from Libya to Mali

Gaddafi’s influence in Mali’s coup

Mali soldiers loot presidential palace after coup

The trouble brewing in the desert has now claimed its first nation-state casualty: there has been a coup in Mali. Most interesting in this situation is that the government in Bamako has not been overthrown by Tuaregs or others in active insurgency, but rather by government soldiers who felt that they were not receiving the resources that they needed to combat the resurgent Tuaregs in the north of the country, far on the periphery where the Tuareg nomads know the desert and the writ of the government in Bamako is difficult to enforce.

There is reasonably detailed account of events in Mali at Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN), MALI: Rebellion claims a president, that gives some background to the story.

The situation in Mali is as perfect an instance of unintended consequences as one could find. The BBC article cited above, Gaddafi’s influence in Mali’s coup, quoted Abdul Aziz Kebe of the University of Dakar in Senegal much to this effect:

“Western powers have underestimated that getting rid of Gaddafi would have severe repercussions in the Sahel region.”

There is no need to qualify this statement with “Western powers,” although Kebe may have intended to emphasize that it was Western intervention that made possible the defeat of Gaddafi. This may well be true, but we cannot prove that this is true, because the Libyan rebels may have overthrown Gaddafi without Western assistance. As a counter-factual condition this isn’t very stable ground for an argument, and neither is its implied contrary, as implied by Kebe.

The coup in Mali could yet fail. Portions of the military remain loyal to the president. But succeed or fail, the coup demonstrates that the Sahel has been destabilized by the overthrow of Gaddafi and the diaspora of his family and followers. The destabilization of the Sahel will not end with Mali, and, in any case, the trouble in Mali is only beginning.

The BBC article cited above, Tuareg rebels make troubled return from Libya to Mali , quoted Bazoum Mohammed, Foreign minister of Niger, as saying:

“We’re upset that the Malians have allowed this situation to get out of control.”

Of course the government in Niger is concerned about destabilization in the region, but they have contributed to the situation by allowing Saadi Gaddafi to speak publicly on television, announcing that he would lead a counter-revolution against the Libyan rebels.

Every actor in the region — whether state or non-state actor — has its levers to apply pressure to the situation in hopes of a result more to their liking, but since everyone is employing their levers in their own interest and without regard to the regional outcome, the result is chaos in the strictest sense of the term. No one can say what comes next in the Sahara.

Ironcially, it was Gaddafi the visionary (not Gaddafi the thuggish dictator) who saw this problem and pressed for a United States of Africa. A regional hegemon that could impose its will, or a voluntary association of states surrendering security arrangements to a binding trans-national security regime could bring peace at a cost, but neither the peace nor the cost is possible at this time.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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The aftermath of the fall of Gaddafi and the violent transfer of power in Libya is beginning to make itself felt through the region. Several stories have come out of Libya itself of conflict between tribes and factions within the country over predictable issues of power sharing, the division of spoils, and acts of revenge and reprisal, as well as conflicts between and among these groups. The transitional government is weak and inchoate, if it could even be said to exist at all. Weakness means vulnerability in the state of nature than exists among nation-stats, and it is inevitable that outside powers will seek to influence events in Libya. One must suppose that spooks and spies from all over the region have been dispatched to Libya, and that some of the disorder in the country is the work of agents provocateurs.

On 11 February 2012 the BBC story Libya’s Saadi Gaddafi threatens to lead uprising reported that Muammar Gaddafi’s son Saadi Gaddafi (who had previously tried to flee to Mexico) appeared on television on Niger threatening to lead a rebellion against the transitional government in Libya. The next day there was a much more detailed story in the Financial Times by Borzou Daragahi in Tripoli, Libya on alert after warning from Gaddafi’s son, which had some interesting information on the strained relations between the transitional government in Libya and the nation-states of sub-Saharan Africa. Muammar Gaddafi had curried favor in the region by spreading Libya’s oil money around; that largess has come to a screeching halt, with the predictable consequence that nation-states in the region are suddenly sentimental for the ex-Libyan strongman.

Muammar Gaddafi liked to dress the part: here he is seen with other now-deposed North African heads of state, who chose the Western business suit look. Is Saadi Gaddafi seeking the constiuency once served by Mubarak, Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, and others?

Interestingly, in this television appearance Saadi Gaddafi is wearing an expensive-looking Western business suit, sitting in a large overstuffed leather chair, and surrounded by symbols of wealth, opulence, and power. He looks, to put it plainly, like he is seated in an office of executive power. This is clearly meant to send a signal, and that signal is this: I’m alive, I’m in control, I have money and backers and influence and you can’t touch me. While this is a powerful signal, it is also not exactly what I would have expected. His father made much of cultural appeals, often dressing the part with theatrical panache. when the elder Gaddafi wanted to appeal to Arabs, be positioned himself as a Arab and dressed as one. When he wanted to appeal to Saharan and sub-Saharan Africans, he positioned himself as an African and dressed the part, and would engage in heated anti-Arab diatribes. So what is Saadi Gaddafi’s intended constituency when dressed as a Westernized businessman? The obvious answer would be “western businessmen,” but in this case I do not think that the obvious answer is the correct one. I will wait for more clues before I hazard any more guesses on this head.

In the map above I have put numbers in the nation-states indicating the number and location of Muammar Gaddafi’s surviving children: Saadi Gaddafi is in Niger, Saif al-Islam is at home in Libya, a prisoner of the transitional government, and in Algeria there are Muhammad al-Gaddafi, Hannibal Gaddafi, and Ayesha al-Gaddafi. Interestingly, the Gaddafis in Algeria have been quite silent, whereas Saadi in Niger is in front of television cameras — precisely the reverse of what I expected. And then I put a star in Mali to represent the clashes there.

Meanwhile, elsewhere in the Sahara, Tuareg tribesman who served as Muammar Gaddafi’s mercenaries for many years (read: well-trained and well-armed) have returned to their native regions, mostly in Northern Mali but, being nomads, they travel across Algeria, Niger, Chad, and Libya as well, and are reinvigorating an old insurgency of Tuaregs against the Malian government based in Bamako. I say, “based in Bamako,” because if you look at a map you will see that there is a lot of desert between Bamako and the Mali-Algerian-Niger border region. It will be extraordinarily difficult for the government of Mali to effectively project power in this periphery, and especially so against desert nomads who call the region home. Strategic Forecasting has published an excellent analysis of the Tuaregs in Mali, Mali Besieged by Fighters Fleeing Libya, which details some of the problems that Malian government is having and will have.

The government of Mali claims that the Tuareg rebels are affiliated with al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), while the Tuaregs make the counter-claim that they will be a bulwark against AQIM. In other words, AQIM is in play in Mali. At the same time, other al Qaeda identifying representatives have urged support for the rebels against the Syrian government. The relationship of this to North Africa is distant, but, I think, still significant. Notwithstanding the fact that Syria is ruled by the minority Alawites, who are Shia, and al Qaeda affiliated groups tend to be predominately Sunna (which would make the al Qaeda support of Syrian rebels comprehensible under any circumstances, and therefore not surprising), one can see this as a preemptive move by rump al Qaeda elements to get back in the game after having had most of their apex leadership killed. The relation to the Sahara is that a similar dynamic could emerge here, with al Qaeda shifting its focus from its traditional preoccupations to supporting the overthrow of regimes of all kinds, so that the ensuing chaos might be exploited. With this stance comes the popular sympathy and street cred of having sided early with rebels who are ignored by other powers, and therefore being in a position of disproportionate influence should those rebels prove successful.

We now recall, in this context, that the elder Gaddafi himself tried to play both sides of the al Qaeda card, at one moment warning the Western powers (essentially), “Après moi, le déluge,” while at another moment trying to hijack popular Islamic sentiment by seeming to align himself with the goals of al Qaeda. Thus one message that Saadi Gaddafi’s business suit may be intended to send is that, “I’m not al Qaeda,” but, of course, he could change that with his next television appearance. And, also of course, there is a diplomatic advantage to being unpredictable, especially when acting against the predicable purposes of established nation-states.

In The Gaddafi Diaspora I suggested that:

“…North and Central Africa are complex crossroads, made all the more complex by recent events. With all these forces in play, the Sahara Desert may become a periphery that decides the fate of the political centers of the region. The momentum of history, at least in Africa, has passed into the vast emptiness of the interior of the continent. This will be a theater to watch in coming years.”

I continue to think that the Sahara may yet prove a disruptive theater in future African affairs.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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