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 Alsalam Bank Tower under construction in Khartoum. Alsalam Bank Sudan won 'Best bank in Sudan' award for 2008 by Global Finance magazine.

It little known, little realized, and little understood in the West that during the past few years when Western governments have been attempting to put pressure on Sudan because of the events in Darfur that Sudan has not been and is not now just another basket case of an African economy. Throughout the period when it was most strongly condemned by Western governments, the Sudanese economy has continued to grow, and to grow vigorously. Some Sudanese cities are sprouting like oases in the desert, and many buildings are rising in the capital, Khartoum. Needless to say, the Sudanese government can afford its impunity vis-à-vis Western governments under these conditions.

Chinese engineers assemble steel at a construction site in Sudan’s capital Khartoum.

Chinese engineers assemble steel at a construction site in Sudan’s capital Khartoum.

Much of this growth and development has been the result of oil revenue and industries connected with the oil industry. Much of this growth, including the growth of the oil sector, is the result of China seeking energy resources and raw materials for its industries in Africa, including Sudan. There has already been a backlash in some African countries over the high profile of Chinese industrial concerns, but this has done little to slow the involvement of Chinese industry in Africa. There have been some compelling stories and pictures in the Financial Times about this development (not to mention the Korea Times).

Burj Al-Fateh Hotel

The 230 room Burj Al-Fateh Hotel in Khartoum, Sudan.

I like to imagine what it must be like for young Chinese engineers to suddenly find themselves in Africa, working on enormous projects, and in a climate and a society so different from that which they came from. Someday there will be books written about such experiences. I hope they’re taking detailed notes.

Somali factor

I was thinking about economic development in Africa today because of a fascinating article in today’s Financial Times about the Somali diaspora in Kenya. The Financial Times regularly includes extra sections devoted to particular geographical regions or topics. Today’s Financial Times came with an extra section on Kenya, and this included the article Somali factor drives up price of property.


Mogadishu street life.

We all know that Somalia has been without a functioning central government for more than a decade, and that large sections of Mogadishu are in ruins from years of war, but what we perhaps did not know was that the Somali diaspora scattered across Africa has brought its assets to other regions, and they have made a real difference in Kenya. There is a question as to the legality of this money, and we can be sure that at least some of it represents ill-gotten gains. There is in particular the charge that Somali money comes from piracy, and we know that the lawlessness of Somalia has allowed piracy to flourish in some coastal towns.

hawala diagram

A hawala version of informal value transfer systems.

But it seems that the Somalis are also active in the traditional money-lending institutions of east Africa. Because of the interest prohibition in Islamic societies, the banking business operates differently in the Muslim world, but banking services are not absent. There is a traditional form of money transfer that takes place throughout east Africa and the Arabian Peninsula by which a closely associated network of individuals, functioning almost entirely upon trust, move money from place to place for a fee with a simple phone call. This is known as the hawala system. For example, say an individual in Mombasa wants to send money to a relative in Muscat. He goes to a local hawala broker, a hawaladar, gives him the money and a commission, this broker then calls another local agent in Muscat and instructs him to give a like amount of money to the individual in question in Muscat, and the agents periodically settle up accounts. Since there is always money coming into and going out of each agent, the system continues to function with periodic adjustments.

hawala 101

Being in banking is usually profitable. We ought to recall that the renaissance banking houses of Italy made possible the financing of lavish renaissance art financed by wealthy families like the Medici, just as early modern banking houses in ultramontane Europe, like the Fuggers and the Rothchilds, financed the growth of European industry and culture north of the Alps. The Somalis, it seems, are tapped into the banking network “Middle World” (to use Tamim Ansary‘s phrase). These networks are sometimes called “Informal Value Transfer Systems” (IVTS), but they are only “informal” in so far as Western banks are not involved and such networks have no formal charter. In so far as the cultural conventions of the societies who use such networks extend, such networks are part of a formal commercial economy.

This Somali access to capital has had unintended consequences, especially for the Eastleigh neighborhood of Nairobi, where property values have been on the increase due to the influx of Somali money. The Somalis have also employed their access to capital to become among the most successful traders in east Africa, sourcing goods directly from east Asia. It is an impressive achievement for a people whose homeland has been devastated, not unlike the feat of the Jews in Western Europe in creating a wealthy diaspora community cut off from its traditional homeland. I personally find it counter-intuitive that these apparently wealthy Somali traders don’t find a way to establish order and security in Somalia, but history is like that sometimes. The only thing one can be sure of is that further unintended consequences will follow.


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A rare early color photograph of WWI: the machine gun was one of the transformative technologies of the First World War.

A rare early color photograph of WWI: the machine gun was one of the transformative technologies of the First World War.

The First World War is one of the great catastrophes of Western history. This is insufficiently appreciated today. The Second World War appears to be the pivot of the twentieth century, occurring near the center of the century, a war fought on a larger scale and with more advanced technology and over a greater swath of the world. And while all of this is true, and the Second World War was the pivot of the twentieth century, the First World War was the pivot of something even larger than the twentieth century.

Along with the machine gun, barbed wire shaped the combat of the First World War.

Along with the machine gun, barbed wire shaped the combat of the First World War.

The First World War was contemplated as a brief war, planned as a brief war, and started (or triggered, if you prefer) with the intention of being a brief war. Instead, it lasted years and consumed the lives the millions. Unlike the Second World War, the dead and wounded were overwhelmingly soldiers, and the war was primarily fought in the countryside of Europe, not in its cities. Thus the First World War was, in a particular sense, less destructive than the Second World War. But that particular sense is a material sense; in a moral or social sense, it could be maintained that the Frist World War was the more destructive.

The tank was another transformative technology, but it had to wait for the Second World War for its successful exploitation.

The tank was another transformative technology, but it had to wait for the Second World War for its successful exploitation.

We all know that with the outbreak of the First World War, weapons and technology had changed while tactics had not yet caught up. And we have all heard that these innovations in warfare favored the defense and thus resulted in the static trench warfare for which the First World War is notorious.

Industrialization came late to war as compared to other aspects of life in Western civilization. It transformed the technology of war with machine guns and barbed wire, and it took several decades for the social technology of war to fully exploit the hardware technologies of war. The exploitation of the social technology of modern war was to be felt with the onset of the Second World War and the use of Blitzkrieg. (I have written briefly of this in The Dialectic of Stalemate.)

In my Social Consensus in Industrialized Society I suggested that the Industrial Revolution forced society to change in response, and that the Western world had responded twice with social arrangements attempting to accommodate the changes forced by industrialization and was still groping toward a third paradigm of social organization following the collapse of the earlier attempts. The social technologies of war — what military thinkers call “doctrine,” as in “armor doctrine” — exhibit a similar pattern of groping for an effective way to utilize hardware technologies. The trench warfare and mass assaults on fixed positions of the First World War represents the first attempt to incorporate novel military technologies. Blitzkrieg represents the second attempt. The challenge posed by unconventional, asymmetrical, and guerrilla warfare, and the responses to these threats on the part of conventional military forces, represents yet a third attempt to converge upon a military doctrine adequate to contemporary hardware technology.

One aspect of social technology and organization that made the First World War such a catastrophe was an ethos of industrialized society that found its expression in universal conscription and mobilization. In the pre-modern and early modern world, war was a business for professional soldiers. There was a nearly absolute social division between the mass of the population and professional soldiers. This division was effaced by the emergence of popular sovereignty as the sole form of political legitimacy after the American and French revolutions.

With industrialization, urbanization, and democratization, all men were asserted to be equal, and in some rare cases were actually treated as such. If all men were equal before the law, all men were equally obligated to fight for “their” country, for the masses now had a stake in the political outcome that they had never had in the pre-modern era. Thus emerged the idea of every man a soldier.

There is a sense in which this is truly ludicrous: not every man is suitable to be a soldier; not every man is fit for killing. But the newly industrialized armies were like an enormous machine constructed to consume vast numbers of men, as the newly established factory system drew vast numbers of men from the countryside into the city and consumed them in factories and machine works and workshops.

Mass man emerged in a terribly real sense during the First World War. With urbanization and concentration of vast populations rapidly mobilized by industrialized social infrastructure, the generals had literally millions of men at their disposal. Not knowing any better, they launched mass attacks that achieved little except mass casualties.

The idea of every man a soldier is as unrealistic as the idea — once advanced as the inevitable result of industrialization’s increasing living standards and decreasing work hours — of every man a man of leisure or every man an artist, or, for that matter, every man a wage earner (the present paradigm of industrial society), every man a yeoman farmer (Jeffersonian democracy), or every man a peasant (the reality of pre-modern, pre-industrialized civilization).


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With special reference to design theories

Few people read this blog; fewer still comment on it. Thus it is an event of some moment when I receive a comment. A few days back I received a comment on Seeking Symmetry.

If I had regular readers, they would know that I frequently express my debt to evolutionary theory. Seeking Symmetry was an elaboration of some of the ideas in Selective Communities, both of which sought to apply a selective paradigm to the understanding of matters commonly conceived teleologically. It is precisely the adoption of an unorthodox perspective that makes this an interesting exercise.

The nameless commentator on Seeking Symmetry gave me the title of a book (The Design Matrix) and the address of a blog ( with the suggestion that I might find some insights from the approach they represented.

Human intuition naturally favors teleological explanations. There are, not surprisingly, both teleological and non-teleological explanations for this. Whatever the explanation (and however rare serious thinking may be in human experience), non-teleological thinking remains the more difficult exercise, hence unusual and unfamiliar. And it is the unusual and unfamiliar exercise of thought that yields insights otherwise unobtainable.

Thus there was little of interest to me in the recommended book and blog, though the admittedly pseudonymous author did give me an idea. Those familiar with the drama of explicitly teleological thinking in our time will know the evolutionary progression from creationist to cdesign proponentsists to intelligent design. It occurs to me that this evolutionary succession could well have further unintended consequences (hence non-teleological consequences).

Suppose, under political pressure to present teleological thinking in a non-theological form, the creationists come up with a theory (however daft) sufficiently purged of theology that, even it if isn’t a science, it does qualify as a non-theological theory. This theory might then be chanced upon by someone innocent of the controversy that generated it, and, finding in it the teleological thought that answers to their intuitive needs, uses the theory to formulate a religion. Needless to say, this religion would not be identical to that which inspired the original formulation of the theory. One can easily imagine sincere worship of intelligent designers, as one finds sincere worship of John Frum among cargo cults.

All this may sound a bit odd, but the history of heresy is filled with fascinating oddities. And this is what we are now witnessing: the evolution of a new heresy. Intelligent design is not only not science, it is also not orthodox, and as orthodoxy is under considerable pressure at present, it seems irresponsible in the extreme to be generating novel heresies, however well intended.

So the preceding reflections bring me to the following insight, which I will not attempt to explain in detail at present: two components are necessary to transcending the theological (hence the teleological) conception of history — a naturalistic conception of history and a formalistic conception of history. To that end, naturalization of the supernatural and formalization of the informal both point toward a rigorous conception of history free of teleology.

Given that religion has historically been understood as the vehicle of transcendence par excellence, it is ironic that we now stand in need of conceptions that allow us to transcend religion. Although I have conceived an extreme dislike for the term “spiritual,” given its present use for the facilitation of mauvaise foi, we might nevertheless observe that, if that which serves as a vehicle of transcendence is spiritual, then those scientific and philosophical concepts that allow us to transcend religion and teleological thinking constitute a “higher” form of spirituality than that which they supersede.


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