How coups in Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso have further destabilized Africa’s Sahel belt

The number of migrants trying to reach Europe from North Africa has surged since July’s coup in Niger. (AFP)
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Updated 06 October 2023
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How coups in Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso have further destabilized Africa’s Sahel belt

  • Collapse of EU-Niger cooperation has caused a sharp rise in migrants crossing the Mediterranean
  • Latest deadly ambush of troops makes Niger look like the new soft underbelly of Sahel

TUNIS: North African states have seen an uptick in the number of migrants arriving and risking the perilous Mediterranean crossing to Southern Europe since a military coup in Niger severed cooperation between the West African nation and the EU.

Migration emanating from the Sahel, a belt of nations stretching from Mali in the west to Sudan in the east, has had major repercussions for Arab countries including Libya and Algeria, where gangs of smugglers are exploiting the crisis.

Following the coup in Niger in July, analysts say there has been a notable transformation in the latitude afforded people smugglers, who appear to be operating with a heightened sense of impunity in the region.

“Smugglers have found alternative routes and methods to cross into the country,” an expert on migration and illicit economies in North Africa and the Sahel told Arab News.




The EU had planned to allocate $200 million in assistance to Niger to address the country’s various security challenges. (AFP)

“The new Nigerien authorities seem to tolerate these bypass routes, enabling migrants to continue their journey to Algeria and Libya.”

The Nigerien crisis began in late July when the country’s presidential guard mounted a coup against President Mohamed Bazoum, replacing him with their own commander, Abdourahamane Tchiani.

Niger was swept up in a spate of military coups that began in 2020 and has since toppled governments in Mali and Burkina Faso. The takeovers were partly driven by frustrations among the military and citizens over lack of security in their countries. But violence has soared as the juntas kick out foreign troops that were previously helping to fight militants, and UN peacekeepers begin to leave.

All three countries are battling militants who have killed thousands and displaced more than 2 million people in the Sahel region. Despite signing a security pact last month promising to defend each other against rebels or aggressors, at least 29 Nigerien soldiers were recently killed in a reported ambush near the country’s border with Mali. According to one estimate, Daesh militants slaughered about 100 Nigerien soldiers in multiple attacks over five days.

Violent extremists, many with links to Al-Qaeda and Daesh, have grown particularly active in the “three-borders” area since French and UN troops departed from southeast Mali, ending vital air reconnaissance support.

Niger has long been used by migrants aiming to reach North Africa as a jumping off point for Europe. Bazoum’s government had been working with the EU to help control the flow of migrants, and with the UN to facilitate their return.




The Nigerien crisis began in late July when the country’s presidential guard mounted a coup against President Mohamed Bazoum. (AFP)

In exchange for its cooperation, the EU had planned to allocate $200 million in assistance to Niger to address the country’s various security challenges.

“Some migrants were moving through Niger due to its relatively open borders compared with neighboring countries, which had their own conflicts, mainly with terrorists,” Aneliese Bernard, an independent consultant working in the fields of stabilization and counterinsurgency in West Africa, told Arab News.

However, the EU’s decision to halt cooperation with Niger’s new rulers in the wake of the coup has raised fears over threats to regional security, uncontrolled migration flows, and the possibility of more drownings in the Mediterranean.

As stated already, there has been a sharp rise in the number of migrants crossing the Mediterranean, with more than 12,000 people arriving on the Italian island of Lampedusa in a single week.

With a population of approximately 6,000, Lampedusa’s local authorities have declared a state of emergency.

Italy’s Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen rushed to the island to discuss the migrant crisis, with Meloni calling for an EU mission to block boats carrying migrants across the Mediterranean.

Experts have questioned the effectiveness of the European approach to the migration challenge.

INNUMBERS

• 43% Increase in violent events in Niger during 2022. (Africa Center for Strategic Studies)

• 10m People in Niger, representing 41.8% of the population, living in extreme poverty in 2021.

• $2bn Official development assistance provided to Niger per year.

Source: World Bank

Mukesh Kapila, a senior humanitarian activist previously with the UN, who recently visited refugee camps in Greece, pointed out that many people migrate for economic reasons, and are not refugees as defined in the 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees.

Every economic migrant who is not deported from the EU blocks the space for an individual who genuinely qualifies for protection.

“This shows that the EU migration and asylum systems are overwhelmed,” Kapila told Arab News. “They are simply not working.”

“(Before the Niger coup) the same military leaders who grabbed the power had effectively implemented the EU’s anti-migration policy in Niger. Now, they might be abandoning it,” Kerem Schamberger, an expert on migration issues at the German human rights organization Medico International, told Arab News.

Moreover, there has been a discernible relaxation of restrictions at checkpoints for migrants en route to northern Niger. This stands in stark contrast with the pre-coup environment, where migrants encountered substantial obstacles and stringent controls.

Schamberger highlights the consequences of the anti-migration legislation, known as Law 36-2015, which made it illegal for migrants to travel from southern Niger to the north.




Supporters of Niger’s CNSP protest outside the Niger and French airbase in Niamey. (AFP)

“This law made migration routes through the Sahara Desert more perilous as migrants were forced to take dangerous routes through the desert without adequate protection, leading to a significant increase in deaths due to thirst and starvation.”

Beatrice Bianchi, a Sahel expert with the Italy-based Med-Or Leonardo Foundation, said that if the government of Niger were to repeal Law 36-2015, “it could have an immediate impact on migration cooperation with Europe.”

She told Arab News: “Repealing this law would likely lead to a resurgence of the original migration routes through (Niger’s) Agadez, potentially increasing the number of migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean.”

Niger’s pre-coup government was not a completely reliable partner, however.

While it played a central role in the EU anti-migration strategy in the West African region and received large sums of money as development aid, “there has been a significant disconnect between this funding and its actual impact on the ground, with people accusing the government of stealing those funds,” said Schamberger.

“In the eyes of many, the funds seemed to flow into the pockets of influential politicians, the military, and economic elites, rather than supporting the local economy or the people.”

And this is not the first time that allegations have emerged about EU funds, provided in exchange for help on the migration issue, being misused by recipient nations.

In 2019, The Associated Press news agency reported that EU funds given to Libya to stem migration were frequently stolen or misappropriated.

From 2016 to 2018, the EU allocated more than $200 million in funding to Sudan, resulting in migrants being forced to take increasingly dangerous routes out of the country, according to a 2018 report by the New Humanitarian.




General Abdourahamane Tiani speaks on national television in Niger after the ouster of President-elect Mohamed Bazoum. (Télé Sahel/AFP)

The UN’s International Organization for Migration, or IOM, says that border closures and airspace restrictions resulting from the coup have placed hundreds of thousands of migrants and displaced persons at risk.

The closure of land borders by Niger’s neighbors in response to the coup provided a temporary break in the flow of migration.

Despite these measures, Schamberger says “migration from Niger to Algeria and Libya never completely ceased, even with the anti-migration law in place.”

He added: “The routes through the Sahara, however, became increasingly dangerous for migrants while Algeria continued its policy of deporting migrants to Niger. This policy led to a growing number of migrants returning to the city of Agadez through the border crossing point of Assamaka, exacerbating the city’s already crowded conditions.”

Against this backdrop, the Economic Community of West African States, ECOWAS, sought support from EU foreign ministers at an informal meeting in Toledo, Spain, at the end of August.

ECOWAS has reacted to the Niger coup by imposing sanctions on the junta leaders and threatening to use military force if they fail to restore constitutional order.

Support from European powers for ECOWAS appears unlikely, however, with France announcing that it will end its military presence in Niger by the end of 2023.




Niger junta’s supporters hold rally to demand the French army leave. (Reuters)

Following the reported deadly ambush of troops in Niger, the country is being viewed as the new soft underbelly of the Sahel region as well as a major impediment to the implementation of the EU’s migration strategy.

“The EU has been working toward preventing the small fraction of the overall big number of migrants from reaching its borders for the past eight to 10 years, while the majority of African migration is internal,” Franck Duvell, a senior researcher at the University of Osnabruck in Germany, told Arab News.

Diplomatic sources say the EU has been evaluating the establishment of a search-and-rescue area in Tunisian waters to enhance its ability to manage and coordinate rescue operations at sea.

Duvell added: “The cooperation with Tunisia and Niger reflects the EU’s broader strategy of externalizing migration controls beyond its borders.”


Military court in Somalia sentences 6 Moroccan men to death for membership in Daesh

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Military court in Somalia sentences 6 Moroccan men to death for membership in Daesh

MOGADISHU: A military court in Somalia’s northeastern semiautonomous state of Puntland sentenced to death six Moroccans believed to be foreign fighters for the Daesh group in Somalia.
The individuals entered Somalia to cause harm to Muslims and Somalis and incite unrest in the country, the presiding judge in the Puntland region, Col. Ali Ibrahim Osman, said late Thursday.
The six men, identified as Mohamed Hassan, Ahmed Najwi, Khalid Latha, Mohamed Binu Mohamed Ahmed, Ridwan Abdulkadir Osmany, and Ahmed Hussein Ibrahim, can appeal and if they are unsuccessful they will be shot to death by firing squad.
Additionally, an Ethiopian and a Somali were each sentenced to 10 years in prison, while another Somali defendant was acquitted due to lack of evidence.
It was not immediately clear if any of the men had access to legal representation or where they were being held Friday. The eight men claimed they were misled into joining the group and expressed a desire to be repatriated, Osman said.
According to Osman, the six Moroccans were accused of receiving training with Daesh at its base in the Cal-Miskaat Mountains in northeastern Somalia, which serve as a stronghold for the group.
The Moroccans were apprehended in the mountain range, located to the east of Bosaso, which is the commercial hub of the Puntland region.
The Somali branch of Daesh was established in 2015 by a group of defectors from the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Al-Shabab group, which is the most prominent militant group in Somalia.
The group is notorious for extorting locals and primarily carries out small-scale, sporadic attacks. This marks the first time that authorities in the semi-autonomous Puntland region have charged or sentenced foreigners for joining Daesh.

Armenia, Azerbaijan to continue peace talks after Berlin meet

Updated 01 March 2024
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Armenia, Azerbaijan to continue peace talks after Berlin meet

BERLIN: Armenia and Azerbaijan have agreed to continue peace talks after a new push in Berlin this week to resolve their decades-long conflict, the German foreign ministry said on Friday.
Armenia’s Ararat Mirzoyan and Azerbaijan’s Jeyhun Bayramov held two days of talks in Berlin hosted by German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock, who hailed their “courageous steps” toward a peace agreement.
A German foreign ministry spokeswoman on Friday said the two countries had “a great interest in continuing to clarify outstanding issues together and to meet again for this purpose.”
The foreign ministries of Armenia and Azerbaijan had also said in a statement on Thursday that they wished to “continue negotiations on the open issues.”
The German spokeswoman hailed the agreement to pursue talks as “a very good sign” and said the two parties wanted to work “step by step” toward a peace agreement.
Armenia and Azerbaijan fought two wars, in the 1990s and in 2020, before Azerbaijani forces last September retook control of the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh in a lightning offensive that ended three decades of Armenian separatist rule over the enclave.
Tensions have remained high since the Azerbaijani operation that triggered the exodus to Armenia of most of the enclave’s entire ethnic-Armenian population of more than 100,000 people.
The dialogue in Berlin built on a surprise direct meeting between the two nations’ leaders on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference last month.
Under German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s mediation, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev agreed in Munich to push on with peace negotiations.

Manila cafe sheds light on Palestinian heritage in wake of destruction

Updated 01 March 2024
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Manila cafe sheds light on Palestinian heritage in wake of destruction

  • Cafe Habib is run by Palestinian national Mahmoud Habib and his Filipino-Iraqi wife Nadia
  • Their menu is based on recipes from Habib’s mother in Gaza

Manila: Mahmoud and Nadia Habib opened their cafe in early 2023 to bring a piece of Palestine to the Philippines. Little did they know that the place would soon turn into a center of Gaza heritage and a hub of solidarity in Manila.

Located on Mabini Street, Cafe Habib is light, warm and informal with its white tables, grey sofas and ochre walls showing maps, photos and symbols of Palestinian heritage.

From the beginning, the husband — who is a native of Gaza — and the Filipino-Iraqi wife wanted their restaurant’s ambiance to make Filipinos feel as if they had stepped into a place in Palestine.

“We came up with the concept to create a special place where when customers come in, they will not think they are in the Philippines anymore. We wanted to spotlight Arab culture,” Mahmoud told Arab News.

For Nadia, it is also an attempt to “bring a piece of Palestine to the Philippines” to share its rich heritage, traditions, and flavors.

“The Palestinian-themed cafe became our platform to introduce the Filipino people to the beauty and depth of Palestinian culture. We believed that by immersing them in a unique and authentic experience, we could foster understanding and appreciation,” she said.

Their menu features authentic dishes such as falafel, shawarma, and the iconic Palestinian knafeh — crispy filo dough with cheese soaked in syrup and topped with pistachios — all based on recipes that have been in the Habib family for generations.

“These recipes all come from my mother,” Mahmoud said, adding that Nadia also learned to make them during their trips to his home in Gaza.

The last time they visited was in September, just two weeks before Israel launched its latest deadly onslaught that has since killed at least 30,000 people, wounded tens of thousands more, and displaced about 1.5 million.

They saw the destruction and hid from daily bombardment, only managing to return to Manila when Philippine authorities evacuated some of the Filipino-Palestinians from the besieged enclave in November.

Nadia was born and raised in the Philippines, while Mahmoud has been living in the country since 2013, when he arrived to study architecture at the National University.

Upon their return to Manila, they have been trying to reunite with Mahmoud’s family, but until now, it has been to no avail.

“I tried to bring them, but it is very hard,” he said.

It is their cafe, a reminder of Palestine, that keeps the couple strong and gives them space to spread awareness among Filipinos on what is happening in Gaza.

“Speaking up about Palestine is a crucial aspect of our mission, as it lies at the core of why we established this cafe. If customers initiate a conversation about … Palestine, we wholeheartedly engage in the discussion,” Nadia said.

They also helped facilitate the efforts of Filipino peace activists who organized a Gaza solidarity march in November.

“They gave me more power. This shows that our voice goes out to the world, and everyone really has a huge heart,” Mahmoud said.

“I am proud of (this cafe). I am really happy because I’m showing people what Palestine is, who the Palestinian people are.”


Ex-government adviser urges UK PM to apologize to London mayor over Islamophobia

Updated 01 March 2024
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Ex-government adviser urges UK PM to apologize to London mayor over Islamophobia

  • Faith expert Colin Bloom calls remarks against Sadiq Khan by MP Lee Anderson ‘offensive’ and ‘disgusting’
  • Rishi Sunak is ‘not showing the leadership the country needs’

LONDON: UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has been urged by a former government advisor to apologize to London Mayor Sadiq Khan over comments made by a suspended Conservative MP.

Colin Bloom, who advised the governing Conservatives on faith matters, told the BBC that Lee Anderson’s remarks were “offensive” and “disgusting,” adding that Sunak is “not showing the leadership the country needs.”

Anderson was suspended last week for refusing to apologize after he said in a TV interview that Khan had “given away” London to Islamists who had “got control” of the mayor.

While admitting his words were “a little bit clumsy,” Anderson said he has received “lots of support privately in WhatsApp groups and messages” from Conservative colleagues. He denies that he or his words were racist or Islamophobic.

Bloom, a former executive director of the Conservative Christian Fellowship and director of Christians in Politics, was made a government advisor by former Prime Minister Boris Johnson in 2019.

Bloom told the BBC’s “Newsnight” program that the “vast majority” of British Muslims are “kind, decent, generous, peaceful people,” and that Anderson’s rhetoric and the muted government response to it are putting people at risk.

Bloom said Sunak needs to apologize to Khan and it is “clearly wrong” for Anderson to have equated the Muslim mayor with being a religious extremist.

Khan has publicly called on Sunak to denounce Anderson’s words as Islamophobic, but while admitting they were “wrong,” the prime minister has so far failed to do so.

A government spokesperson told “Newsnight” that Sunak is “clear there must be zero tolerance for any form of extremism, racism or hatred” in British politics.


Thousands attend as Navalny laid to rest in Moscow

Updated 01 March 2024
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Thousands attend as Navalny laid to rest in Moscow

  • The anti-corruption campaigner, President Vladimir Putin’s most prominent opponent, was buried after a brief candle-lit funeral service in a nearby church
  • The casket was left open in accordance with Russian Orthodox tradition

MOSCOW: Late Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny was laid to rest on Friday in a Moscow cemetery where thousands of mourners had gathered, two weeks after he died in an Arctic prison.
The anti-corruption campaigner, President Vladimir Putin’s most prominent opponent, was buried after a brief candle-lit funeral service in a nearby church.
The casket was left open in accordance with Russian Orthodox tradition but was quickly closed after the religious service where Navalny’s parents could be seen.
At the cemetery, Navalny’s coffin was lowered into the grave to the soundtrack of the film “Terminator 2” which his spokeswoman said was the 47-year-old’s favorite movie.
Navalny’s death has been condemned by Western leaders and his supporters have accused Putin of murder and of trying to prevent a dignified public burial.
The Kremlin, which has denied involvement and dismissed the accusations as “hysterical,” warned against “unauthorized” protests around the funeral.
“We won’t forget you!” and “Forgive us!” some mourners shouted, applauding as the coffin arrived for burial.
Thousands then filed past the grave to pay their last respects.
Nearby, a few hundred people could be heard shouting anti-war slogans.
His widow Yulia Navalnaya, who has promised to continue his activism, paid tribute on social media.
“I don’t know how to live without you, but I will try my best to make you up there happy for me and proud of me,” she wrote.
She thanked him for “love, for always supporting me, for making me laugh even from prison, for always thinking about me.”
Earlier this week she said she feared the funeral could be disrupted by arrests.
Some 400 mourners have been detained at Navalny memorials since his death, rights organization OVD-Info has said, and more detentions were feared at the funeral where a heavy police presence could be seen.
“Any unauthorized gatherings will be in violation of the law and those who participate in them will be held responsible,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said, according to TASS news agency.
“What are they afraid of?” one mourner, Anna Stepanova, told AFP outside the church.
“They are so afraid themselves,” she said. “The people who came here, they are not scared. Alexei wasn’t either.”
“People like him shouldn’t be dying: honest and principled, willing to sacrifice themselves,” she added.
The French, German and US ambassadors were seen among mourners outside the church, as were some of Russia’s last free independent politicians.
Navalnaya has blamed Putin for her husband’s death, which has sparked outrage among Western leaders and within the opposition.
Western governments have been quick to hold the Kremlin responsible but have stopped short of making direct accusations of involvement.
Putin’s spokesman Peskov has criticized the accusations made by her and some Western leaders as “vulgar.”
On the day of the funeral, Peskov said he had “nothing to say” to the family of the deceased.
Navalny shot to prominence through his anti-corruption campaigning, exposing what he said was rampant graft at the top of Putin’s administration.
Some mourners mentioned the huge influence Navalny had on their own political activism.
“Because of him I began to get involved in politics... He was the first public person that I listened to,” said 26-year-old Denis, a volunteer at a charity.
Navalny was arrested in January 2021 when he returned to Russia after being treated in Germany for a poisoning attack.
“Alexei was tortured for three years,” Navalnaya told lawmakers in Brussels.
“He was starved in a tiny stone cell, cut off from the outside world and denied visits, phone calls, and then even letters.”
“And then they killed him. Even after that, they abused his body,” she said.
His body was held in a morgue for eight days before being returned to the family, which Navalny’s team believed to be a bid to cover up responsibility for his death.
His family and his team have also accused authorities of trying to prevent a dignified public burial, fearing it could turn into a flashpoint for dissent.
Navalny’s team said local investigators had threatened to bury him on the prison grounds if his mother did not agree to a “secret” funeral.
Once the body was released, allies struggled to find a place that would agree to hold a funeral ceremony, as well as hearse drivers.
And a civil ceremony allowing the general public to pay their respects to the body — common in Russia — has not been allowed.
Navalnaya has vowed to continue his life’s work and urged to “fight more desperately, more fiercely than before.”
In the crowd near the church, some seemed to agree.
“A person has died, but his ideas will live on thanks to those who have gathered here,” said Alyona, a 22-year-old archaeologist who came to pay her respects.