A look ahead to 2014: The question of stability in Mali and Nigeria

The link between the state and organised crime must be addressed if the process of rebuilding a unified Mali and countering Islamic militants is to succeed.

There are likely to be many flashpoints of political violence erupting in 2014 – such as sectarian rumblings in Iraq, not to mention ongoing conflicts, most notably the brutal civil war raging in Syria. However, the political risks and concomitant violence likely to break out in Nigeria, Sahel and North Africa next year will not only keep international media outlets busy with news of the devastation wreaked by the violent upheavals, but will negatively impact businesses, local and global, operating in these regions. This volatility could have the knock-on effect of hampering intra-African trade, something vital to securing long-term stable growth across the continent, and possibly destabilise its neighbouring states – a contagion that could have far-reaching consequences.

Political risk and political violence in Nigeria will worsen in the second half of next year. The 2014 primaries and early 2015 general elections will fuel regional and sectarian tensions in a context where President Goodluck Jonathan, a southern, is an increasingly polarising figure in the north. The ruling party, which has prevailed since 1999 by holding together a national political umbrella against regionally-based opposition parties, now faces a unified opposition coalition (APC) that has the advantage where the PDP is weakest, including much of the north and the economic heartland around Lagos in the southwest. Should the PDP's splinter faction hold together as a third-way alternative-and especially if it gains more defectors - the Jonathan administration will find itself increasingly on the political defensive in the north as it carries out a controversial and bloody counter-insurgency against Islamist militants Boko Haram.

Terrorist attacks will rise as Boko Haram exploit this dynamic and step up its attacks in the north, the restive middle belt states (a likely swing region in the elections where sectarian and ethnic tensions run high) and if possible in the capital Abuja and economic capital of Lagos.

Further polarisation along regional lines is not inevitable but the rising polarisation, winner-takes-all political culture, and armed rebel movements pose a threat to the overall investment picture. Elections provide the most direct link to outbreaks of political violence across Africa and Nigeria’s contested gubernatorial primaries and elections are another source of potential unrest, with some candidates likely to enlist support from armed allies to gain an edge.

Terrorism in the Sahel and North Africa will increase in 2014, with the French draw down of troops in Mali. While the activities of Islamic militants in the Sahel and Sahara has grabbed the attention of Western governments, too little attention has been paid to the criminal networks, smuggling groups and historical trade routes across the region in which al-Qaeda and other groups have embedded themselves and which have enabled them to flourish. State complicity in organised crime enabled the growth of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and was a driver of the conflict in northern Mali.

Sahel governments use organised crime as a political resource by allowing their allies to benefit from such activities. Changing this dynamic will be a slow process as there are few alternative sources of income in the region and none that generate wealth at the rate of organised crime. The crisis in the region is about more than the activities of jihadists, it is about rivalries over the control of smuggling routes, the complicity and involvement of government officials and the willingness of Western governments to pay hostage ransoms that fuel the kidnapping industry.

While there is no quick way to break up deeply entrenched criminal organisations, the link between the state and organised crime must be addressed if the process of rebuilding a unified Mali and countering Islamic militants is to succeed. In the absence of this, 2014 will prove to be a profitable year for the regions’ smugglers, kidnappers and terrorists. 

Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita (L) speaks during a joint press conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel on 11 December, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.

JLT Head of Credit & Political Risk Advisory

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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser