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

Getty
Show Hide image

The struggles of Huma Abedin

On the behind-the-scenes story of Hillary Clinton’s closest aide.

In a dreary campaign, it was a moment that shone: Hillary Clinton, on the road to the caucus in Iowa, stopping at a Mexican fast-food restaurant to eat and somehow passing unrecognised. Americans of all political persuasions gleefully speculated over what her order – a chicken burrito bowl with guacamole – revealed about her frame of mind, while supporters gloated that the grainy security-camera footage seemed to show Clinton with her wallet out, paying for her own lunch. Here was not the former first lady, senator and secretary of state, known to people all over the world. This was someone’s unassuming grandmother, getting some food with her colleagues.

It might be unheard of for Clinton to go unrecognised but, for the woman next to her at the till, blending into the background is part of the job. Huma Abedin, often referred to as Clinton’s “shadow” by the US media, is now the vice-chair of her presidential campaign. She was Clinton’s deputy chief of staff at the state department and has been a personal aide since the late 1990s.

Abedin first met Clinton in 1996 when she was 19 and an intern at the White House, assigned to the first lady’s office. She was born in Michigan in 1976 to an Indian father and a Pakistani mother. When Abedin was two, they moved from the US to Saudi Arabia. She returned when she was 18 to study at George Washington University in Washington, DC. Her father was an Islamic scholar who specialised in interfaith reconciliation – he died when she was 17 – and her mother is a professor of sociology.

While the role of “political body woman” may once have been a kind of modern maid, there to provide a close physical presence and to juggle the luggage and logistics, this is no longer the case. During almost 20 years at Clinton’s side, Abedin has advised her boss on everything from how to set up a fax machine – “Just pick up the phone and hang it up. And leave it hung up” – to policy on the Middle East. When thousands of Clinton’s emails were made public (because she had used a private, rather than a government, server for official communication), we glimpsed just how close they are. In an email from 2009, Clinton tells her aide: “Just knock on the door to the bedroom if it’s closed.”

Abedin shares something else with Clinton, outside of their professional ties. They are both political wives who have weathered their husbands’ scandals. In what felt like a Lewinsky affair for the digital age, in 2011, Abedin’s congressman husband, Anthony Weiner, resigned from office after it emerged that he had shared pictures of his genitals with strangers on social media. A second similar scandal then destroyed his attempt to be elected mayor of New York in 2013. In an ironic twist, it was Bill Clinton who officiated at Abedin’s and Weiner’s wedding in 2010. At the time, Hillary is reported to have said: “I have one daughter. But if I had a second daughter, it would [be] Huma.” Like her boss, Abedin stood by her husband and now Weiner is a house husband, caring for their four-year-old son, Jordan, while his wife is on the road.

Ellie Foreman-Peck

A documentary filmed during Weiner’s abortive mayoral campaign has just been released in the US. Weiner shows Abedin at her husband’s side, curtailing his more chaotic tendencies, always flawless with her red lipstick in place. Speaking to the New York Observer in 2007, three years before their marriage, Weiner said of his future wife: “This notion that Senator Clinton is a cool customer – I mean, I don’t dispute it, but the coolest customer in that whole operation is Huma . . . In fact, I think there’s some dispute as to whether Huma’s actually human.” In the film, watching her preternatural calm under extraordinary pressure, you can see what he means.

In recent months, Abedin’s role has changed. She is still to be found at Clinton’s side – as the burrito photo showed – but she is gradually taking a more visible role in the organisation overall, as they pivot away from the primaries to focus on the national race. She meets with potential donors and endorsers on Clinton’s behalf and sets strategy. When a running mate is chosen, you can be sure that Abedin will have had her say on who it is. There’s a grim symmetry to the way politics looks in the US now: on one side, the Republican candidate Donald Trump is calling for a ban on Muslims entering the country; on the other, the presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton relies ever more on her long-time Muslim-American staffer.

Years before Trump, notable Republicans were trying to make unpleasant capital out of Abedin’s background. In 2012, Tea Party supporters alleged that she was linked to the Muslim Brotherhood and its attempt to gain access “to top Obama officials”. In her rare interviews, Abedin has spoken of how hurtful these baseless statements were to her family – her mother still lives in Saudi Arabia. Later, the senator and former Republican presidential candidate John McCain spoke up for her, saying that Abedin represented “what is best about America”.

Whether senior figures in his party would do the same now remains to be seen.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad