Wanderlust…

The International Reporting (and Life) Adventures of Vivian Salama

Archive for the ‘North Africa’ Category

Letter from Kampala: Museveni’s Oil Bet

Posted by vmsalama on February 20, 2014

Letter from Kampala

Foreign Affairs
FEBRUARY 20, 2014

Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, January 30, 2014. (Tiksa Negeri / Courtesy Reuters)

Feeble and gaunt from the illness that has eaten away at his body, Fideli Donge wobbled onto the porch of his mud-and-straw home, which is hidden by short palm trees off an isolated, craterous dirt road used mostly by barefooted pedestrians and the occasional bodaboda, an East African motorbike taxi. He’s in his 60s, he thinks, but a lifetime of hard labor and poverty has left him looking closer to 90. A few months ago, as Donge lay bedridden, and as his children and grandchildren — he has 52 altogether — worked the 20-acre farm that his family has owned for nearly half a century, men from the local municipality in his western Uganda village knocked at his door. 

“They told me that all the residents here have to leave and that they will give me a house or money,” Donge said. He and his family will have to abandon the land that they rely on for their own food and livelihood; they make pennies from the sale of maize, sugar cane, and cassava, a staple crop across Africa. “We don’t know when we will go, or where,” he said. The municipality promised Donge a new home, one large enough to accommodate his family, with soil rich enough to farm, but he hasn’t heard anything since the officials came to his door. “Until now, we are just waiting.”

Since 2008, more than 7,100 residents in surrounding villages have been given similar offers as part of the Ugandan government’s grand scheme to build an 11-square-mile oil refinery in the Lake Albert basin, along the country’s disputed border with the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The government hopes that the project will transform the downtrodden and war-torn nation, which just barely cracks the top 20 African economies by GDP, into the continent’s fifth-largest oil producer. The Ugandan government, in partnership with London-based Tullow Oil, discovered commercial reserves eight years ago, but production has been slowed by technical challenges and, especially, bureaucratic hang-ups. In early February, after years of protracted talks, the Ministry of Energy finally announced that it had signed deals with China’s CNOOC, France’s Total, and Tullow to build the estimated $15 billion worth of infrastructure needed to develop the oil fields. If successful, the government estimates reserves of up to 3.5 billion barrels of crude oil — enough to finally make this nation of 36 million people self-reliant for its energy needs.

The Lake Albert refinery is an ambitious venture, particularly for a government plagued by corruption allegations and with a history of empty promises. (Last year, the government’s auditor reported $100 million missing from the national budget.) But, perhaps, this time is different. The refinery is a pet project of President Yoweri Museveni, who has ruled the country for 28 years; he has repeatedly gone on record calling the reserves “my oil.” Uprooting Ugandan farmers to make way for a refinery might seem like a surprising move for Museveni, who spends so much time out of the capital of Kampala, at his own cattle ranch in southern Uganda, that he earned the nickname the Gentleman Farmer (it’s one of many). But the refinery plan is, ultimately, the perfect way to shore up a presidency for life. (click here to read more)

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The Battle Over Western Sahara Heats Up Over Controversial Development Plans

Posted by vmsalama on October 22, 2013

By Vivian Salama

The Atlantic

Oct. 22, 2013

Off of Africa’s northwest Coast, a long causeway leads from the Moroccan city of Dakhla to a fisherman’s wharf packed with dozens of heavy-duty ships. Men in red overalls soaked in fish innards come and go, carting with them the catch of the day— sometimes crab; sometimes mussels; sometimes 3.5-pound sea bass. Nearby, the fluffy white sand and calm waters of this ocean-front Western Saharan city have been a well-kept secret of European and Australian wind surfers for nearly a decade. The trickle of tourists pales in comparison to cities in the north like Fez and Marrakesh, where visitors from around the world flood the streets to indulge in heavenly cuisine and unique textiles.

Fisherman off the coast of Dakhla, Western Sahara (photo by Vivian Salama)

Fisherman off the coast of Dakhla, Western Sahara (photo by Vivian Salama)

The Western Sahara, a region that’s been locked in a four-decade battle for sovereignty, has long been off the radar of even the most intrepid travelers. The region, which is known to some as “Africa’s last colony,” is at the heart of ambitious development plans by the Moroccan government, which is seeking to boost investments, create jobs, and appease the indigenous Sahrawi population that has long sought independence. “When we do an urban development plan, we do it for the people,” said “Wali” Hamid Chabar, governor of Morocco’s southern-most region, part of the disputed Western Sahara. “Sustainable development cannot happen if you focus on some and leave a segment of the society behind. A development plan that only caters to the elite will not help anyone.”

Shortly after Spanish colonists began to withdraw from Western Sahara in 1975, the region was annexed by Morocco (and briefly, by Mauritania as well), making it the world’s largest and most populated “non-self governing nation,” according to the UN. Morocco says the Western Sahara has always been an integral part of the kingdom and Sahrawis are just as much Moroccan as the rest of its citizens. However, Sahrawis, backed by the Polisario Front liberation movement, have since called for independence from the rest of Morocco, claiming that they are living under occupation. In 1976, as Moroccan forces clashed with Polisario fighters in a bloody guerilla war, the rebel group and its supporters were virtually pushed out of the Western Sahara and into Tindouf, Algeria, where as many as 90,000 people are still living in refugee camps today.

Not all Sahrawis chose to leave the disputed territory, and many have since returned from the camps—the population of the Western Sahara now reaching over 530,000. While clashes between pro-autonomy activists and Moroccan forces still occur in spurts, the region has remained relatively calm since a 1991 UN-brokered ceasefire—with other regional conflict and turmoil often stealing the Polisario’s thunder.

But when Tunisians sent their longtime president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fleeing into exile in 2010, and millions of Egyptians took to the streets to overthrow Hosni Mubarak, the Moroccan monarchy paid close attention. Within months, the young King Mohammed VI proposed sweeping constitutional reforms with substantial human rights guarantees (although with no limits to his own powers). One significant change recognized Amazigh, the Berber language, as one of the kingdom’s official languages. The new constitution also placed prohibitions on torture, inhuman and degrading treatment, arbitrary detention, and enforced disappearances.

Only six months later, despite efforts to placate the opposition, Morocco’s Islamists achieved a historic victory in the legislative elections, signaling discontent even close to the seat of power. Today, Sahrawis living in the disputed territory continue to sound alarms over unfair treatment and persecution, saying that little has changed since the constitutional amendments were implemented. The government has since redirected its efforts toward economic development as a means for extinguishing any discontent. “Hundreds of our Sahrawi people are missing or were taken into custody by the police without reason and we don’t know anything about them,” says Khalili Elhabib, a Sahrawi human rights lawyer who spent 16 years in a secret northern Morocco prison.  (click here to read more)

Fishing Boats off the coast of Dakhla, Western Sahara (Photo by Vivian Salama)

Fishing Boats off the coast of Dakhla, Western Sahara (Photo by Vivian Salama)

Posted in Algeria, Arab, Arab Spring, corruption, discrimination, Economy, Education, Employment, Foreign Policy, Human Rights, North Africa, Sahara Desert, United Nations | Tagged: , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Rolling Out the Red Carpet: Arab Gulf States Embrace Egypt’s Coup

Posted by vmsalama on July 11, 2013

by Vivian Salama

Vocativ

A year ago, as stragglers in the streets of Cairo continued to celebrate Mohamed Morsi’s presidential inauguration, Dubai’s Chief of Police, Dahi Khalfan, lashed out at Egypt’s president and his Muslim Brotherhood supporters, calling them “thugs” who had threatened his life.

“The number of phone threats I have received demonstrates that we are facing a criminal organization,” Khalfan tweeted, claiming in separate posts that he had received as many as 2,000 calls over a 72-hour period. “[Morsi] will come crawling to the Gulf, and we will not receive him on a red carpet.”

Fast forward to the present, and roughly a week after the Egyptian military deposed Morsi in a controversial coup that was precipitated by mass protests, both the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia have, figuratively at least, rolled out the red carpet for the new Egyptian government. This week, as the military engaged in a bloody face off with thousands of Morsi supporters looking to reinstate the fallen leader, the U.A.E pledged to give $3 billion in grants and loans to the cash-strapped country, while Saudi Arabia committed $2 billion in central bank deposits, $2 billion in energy products, and $1 billion in cash—a significant jump from the $2 billion promised last year when Morsi was elected president.

“The U.A.E. intended to send a…signal that it will not accommodate the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood, be it at home or abroad,” said Ayham Kamel, Persian Gulf analyst for the Eurasia Group, a New York-based research and consulting firm.

The reasons go well beyond the alleged threats made to Khalfan. The rocky relationship between the Muslim Brotherhood and the two Gulf states dates back to the 1950s and 1960s, when Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser cracked down on political dissent, forcing a number of Islamists to flee. Many settled in Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E., where they found jobs and assimilated, but along the way, imparted their religious ideologies on the surrounding community. (click here to read more)

Female supporters of deposed Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi shout slogans as they rally at the Raba El-Adwyia square where they are camping in Cairo

Posted in Abu Dhabi, Al Jazeera, al-Sisi, Arab, Arab League, Bahrain, Constitution, Coptic, corruption, Coup, dictatorship, Dubai, Economy, Education, Egypt, Elections, Employment, Foreign Policy, Freedom of Speech, Human Rights, Islam, Kuwait, Media, Middle East, military, Mohamed Morsi, Mubarak, Muslim Brotherhood, North Africa, Oman, Protests, Qatar, Religion, Salafi, Saudi Arabia, State of Emergency, Terrorism, United Arab Emirates, United States, Washington | Leave a Comment »

The Dashed Revolution: The Cost of the Arab Spring

Posted by vmsalama on January 25, 2013

Vivian Salama

Newsweek Magazine (click here for original link)

January 25, 2013

Ismail Ahmed passes much of the day sitting on a small wooden chair outside his grocery–cum–souvenir shop in Giza, on the outskirts of Cairo, watching the cars drive by while smoking Cleopatra cigarettes, which crackle loudly with each drag. Gone are the days when busloads of tourists would pour into his shop near the Pyramids to pick up bottled water and $3 statues of the Sphinx. Since his fellow countrymen rose up against President Hosni Mubarak in January 2011, Ahmed’s business has dwindled. Gone are his hopeful expansion plans for the tiny shop, and his son Mohammed, who used to work alongside him, is looking for other jobs, because income from the store has become but a trickle. “Now if I see two tourists in a day, it means it’s a good day,” Ahmed says as he lights another cigarette. “The tourists are too scared to come to Egypt now. My store is not receiving enough income to support the family.”

Dashed RevolutionTwo years after revolutions unsettled and redrew the political map of the Arab world, the hope that inspired so many has not brought the desired change. Across the region, economies are unraveling, opposition groups splintering, and promises for establishing democratic secular governments now seem like a pipe dream.

War rages on in Syria, with more than 60,000 people killed so far. On one single day recently, more than 100 people were shot, killed, stabbed, or burned to death by the brutal security forces taking orders from President Bashar al-Assad. Many Syrians lucky enough to have survived the fighting are on the run, and with no end in sight, the 22-month-old conflict threatens to reshape the region. Some 2 million people—more than half of them children—have already fled Syria for Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, and beyond. Already there has been trouble in Lebanon, which has its own bloody history, easily recalled and ignited, and regional observers fear political and sectarian grievances will follow the flow of refugees.

Gomaa, a 35-year-old restaurant owner who prefers to go by one name for security reasons, believes his country was better off before the uprising, and certainly his family was. His hometown of Idlib, an opposition stronghold, has been battered hard by the government, and after snipers moved into his apartment building, his family’s life turned into a nightmare punctuated by volleys of gunshots. Fleeing to Egypt with his wife and two young boys, he found that work was scarce and impossible to come by for a foreigner, though eventually he found a lead on a job as a restaurant busboy in Morocco, where he’ll be living with a large group of men in an apartment in Rabat. With little money to his name, he has arranged for his wife and kids to stay for free with family friends in Algeria. “Of course, I wish to be with my family, but I thank Allah that we are alive.”

In Tunisia, where, in despair over government injustice, vegetable seller Mohamed Bouazizi set fire to himself, inspiring the wave of protests that came to be known as the Arab Spring, demonstrators flooded into the streets earlier this month. Marking the two-year anniversary of the ouster of former president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, this was no celebratory gathering, but rather a show of frustration by people who fear their new government is corrupt, religious, and self-serving. “Where is the constitution? Where is democracy?” they chanted, as police fired tear gas to disperse the crowds. Tunisia has recently been rocked by a scandal dubbed Sheratongate, which centers on allegations that Tunisia’s foreign minister, Rafik Abdessalem, abused public funds to pay for rooms at the five-star Sheraton hotel in Tunis, where he would meet his mistress for illicit trysts. “There are fewer jobs, and corruption and crime is worse than before,” complained Yazid Ouerfelli, 19, a university student from Tunis. “The country is also more divided now because of religion—it didn’t used to be like that.” (click here to read more…)

Posted in Algeria, Ali Abdullah Saleh, Arab, Arab Spring, Bashar Al Assad, corruption, Economy, Education, Egypt, Elections, Employment, Europe, Foreign Policy, Hosni Mubarak, Iraq, Islam, Israel, Jihad, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Media, Middle East, military, Mohamed Bouazizi, Mohamed Morsi, Mubarak, Muslim Brotherhood, Newsweek, North Africa, Oman, Persian Gulf, Politics, Protests, Qatar, Religion, Salafi, Saudi Arabia, State of Emergency, Succession, Syria, Tourism, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates, United Nations, War, Yemen, Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali | Leave a Comment »

Americans Kidnapped as Islamist Violence in Mali Spills Into Algeria

Posted by vmsalama on January 16, 2013

Jan 16, 2013

By Vivian Salama

The Daily Beast (click here for original link)

An offshoot of al Qaeda in the Islamist Maghreb is claiming responsibility for the kidnapping of 41 foreign nationals at a gas field Wednesday, as the violence in northern Mali spread across the border. Vivian Salama reports.

As French troops step up their air campaign against Islamist rebels in Mali, a new kidnapping is intensifying fears that jihadists affiliated with al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb have already penetrated parts of the vast Sahara Desert.

algeria hostageAt least seven Americans were among the 41 foreign nationals taken hostage Wednesday at the In Amenas gas field in the remote province of Illizi, Algerian state media reported, citing unnamed rebel leaders. A group known as Katibat Moulathamine—or the Masked Brigade, an offshoot of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb—reportedly contacted the Mauritanian news outlet ANI and claimed responsibility for the attack.

State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland confirmed on Wednesday that Americans are among the captives but declined to give further details in an effort to protect their lives. “By all indications, this is a terrorist act,” said Defense Secretary Leon Panetta at a meeting with Italian government officials in Rome.

Algerian officials said the attackers threatened to blow up the site and kill the foreigners if their demands were not met. Japanese, British, Norwegian, and French nationals were among the kidnapped, and at least one Briton has been killed, according to state media. Some 300 Algerian workers also were captured but have since been released, according to the state-run Algérie Presse Service.

Algeria “will not meet the demands of terrorists and refuses any negotiation,” Interior Minister Daho Ould Kablia said in a nationally televised address.

Just over Algeria’s southern border, French and Malian troops have been targeting Islamist positions in northern Mali since Jan. 11, attempting to win back territory seized by rebels in April. Turmoil in Mali has intensified in recent years, after a handful of militant groups linking themselves to the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, an ethnic nationalist group linked to the Tuareg tribe, made considerable gains against the government following a short-lived coup. Amid the confusion and chaos, the MNLA declared the independence of three of Mali’s northern regions, considered the Tuareg homeland, and declared sharia the official law of the land.

According to local reports, the militants have sent child soldiers to reinforce their positions in northern Mali, as well as using the local population as human shields from the French-Malian raids.

“The situation in Mali is in part driven by poverty and extremism, but also by weapons flows from Libya,” said Paul Sullivan, a North Africa expert and professor at the National Defense University. “The Tuareg and others who fought in Libya and then moved back to Mali are a hardened bunch and fairly well-trained. The Algerian government warned the French that it may spill over. It has.”

While Algeria has refused to take part in military action against Mali or any other foreign nation, it has taken precautions to protect its vast border with Mali, sending troops to guard against any cross-border incursions. Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, the North African affiliate of the terrorist network, initially emerged as a radical opposition group in the days of the Algerian civil war of the 1990s but has since expanded its foothold in Mali’s vast ungoverned northern region. Its initial goal was to overthrow Algeria’s government and establish an Islamic state, but experts say its regional ambitions have since expanded to target much of North Africa, as well as Europe and the United States.

“AQIM exists in Algeria and in Libya,” said Sullivan. “They are looking for a safe zone. Mali looks most likely. Libya is pretty much the Wild West in the desert regions. Huge swaths of Algeria are open desert. The borders are porous.”

“The Obama administration needs to have a clear and focused policy on eliminating the threats that diverse, al Qaeda-affiliated groups pose to the United States and to Americans working abroad off of the usual battlefields,” said Rep. Mike Rogers, the Republican chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.

The report in Mauritania’s ANI links Wednesday’s attack to Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the Algerian-born radical jihadist who has been linked to some of the most dramatic and high-profile kidnappings of the past decade. In 2002, French intelligence called him “uncatchable.” In 2008, Algerian media reported that Belmokhtar and 15 of his men had surrendered to authorities, a claim later disputed by the group. Belmokhtar, who lost an eye in combat, also has been reported dead on more than one occasion. Experts on jihad note that Belmokhtar maintains allies in the Malian government and has won the support of various extremist elements in the region.

Mokhtar Belmokhtar

“Algeria is also home to Tuaregs, and any fire erupting in one corner of the Sahara involving a Tuareg tribe could ignite a reaction elsewhere,” said Arezki Daoud, an Algerian political analyst and editor of the North Africa Journal. “This is dream come true for al Qaeda. They want that regional instability.”

The In Amenas field is a joint venture of the Algerian national oil company Sonatrach, BP, and Statoil. In a statement on its website Wednesday, BP said that “contact with the site is extremely difficult, but we understand that armed individuals are still occupying the In Amenas operations site,” adding that there is no confirmed information available on the status of the workers.

—With reporting from Eli Lake

 

Posted in Al-Qaeda, Algeria, Egypt, Foreign Policy, France, Insurgency, Intervention, Islam, Jihad, Mali, Middle East, Negotiation, North Africa, Politics, Terrorism, United Kingdom, United States | Leave a Comment »