Category Archives: Resources & conflict

France in Mali…. le bordel, quoi!


Like every socialist French government of the post-Cold War era, president François Hollande had pledged to set an end to French interference in African affairs, to end “la Françafrique”. Like it happened with every socialist French government, it took merely a couple of months to set an end not to Françafrique but to pledges of ending French fumbling around in their African “précarré”. But even if this intervention is consistent with France’s general interference in this region, the question which concrete motives have pushed the president to send in the troops now comes up (in this interview the former Director of the Collège Interarmées de Défense Vincent Desportes speaks of 3000 men to be in the region soon).  In the French media, there is a lot of speculation but little confirmed information. The president’s declarations are not very elucidating or helpful, either, as he speaks of helping a befriended country (“pays ami”) or forestalling an islamist threat on Europe, both of which are not only contradictory motives to invoke (wouldn’t there be the risk that French islamists get upset over their government right now?) but also not very convincing. The armed conflict in Northern Mali has been dragging on since almost a year, the Malian government is barely legitimate as it has come to power by a coup d’Etat and what kind of islamists actually are involved in the conflict, where they come from, how many they are and what their goals are is, for the time being, still cloaked in dust and vagueness. As for the other motive invoked, namely “saving French citizens” one wonders if a simply evacuation operation would not be more appropriate, cheaper and less, how to say, raising dust?

Several analysts speculate that the motives of securing and maintaining access to valuable natural resources in the triangle Northern Mali, Mauritania, Niger are the most important. Indeed, a large part of the uranium of French nuclear power plants comes from this region and French companies are heavily involved in the extraction of gas, oil and minerals. A propensity of supporting conservative but secular authoritarian regimes like Boutelfika’s Algeria suits well with such a strategy of using French military to secure the access to mineral resources as the past has shown that these governments rely heavily on the export rent and are, consequently, “manéable à merci”. Like the US, France always had much better relationships with authoritarian dictators in Africa than with popular or even democratic regimes, and in the case of Algeria this is certainly the case since the Algerian people were unfortuante enough to vote for the FIS (Front islamique de salut) in their first and subsequently stolen elections in 1991. Indeed, France’s schmoozing with Algeria has since always been disquieting given the latter’s way of fighting its own “war on terror”. For Algerians, the regime’s friendliness with whatever French government must have been even more disheartening given the latter’s sometimes hysterical immigration policies, growing and ever more visible islamophobia and mischievous treatment of anything related to its colonial past, whether apologizing for the Parisian “ratonnade” of 1960 or the compensation of Algerian harkis. For both, taking action against long-declared ennemies of the state, the Touareg and its new allies, must be a most useful propaganda campaign.

The islamist threat is another route to go down if one is looking for reasons of this intervention and it is the reason French defense minister Jean-Yves Le Drian had put forward in an interview with radio “Europe 1”. Yet, what remains largely unclear is what is actually meant by “islamism” in this context. Of course, the one-size-fits-all label of “Al Qaida” appears now and again, and, of course, all these islamists are all salafists. The problem is simply that both labels don’t tell us an awful lot about what these people want, who they are, where they come from, what they are fighting for or against and so on and so on. The British anthropologist Jeremy Keenan goes that far to simply deny that radical islamism exists in the Sahara and claiming that this is all a set-up of the Algerian secret services.

This is, obviously, an unevidenced and hardly provable conspiracy theory yet it points to the utter ignorance and confusion once more serious questions about the programme, identity, organisation, or even nationality and support of these so-called islamists are asked. Some of them seem to be Touareg, some not. Some seem to have been financed by Qatar, some not. Some seem to be “left-overs” of the Lybian war, some are coming apparently from Algeria, and others are “Malian” by name although not by allegiance. Indeed, as this analysis makes believe there internal dissensions and distinctions make these groups appear less unified.

Since In Amenas it is obvious that some of these groups do represent a major threat to econmic interests in the region and to the people and living in their way, yet, even with the claim of  Mokhtar Belmokhtar to be representing Al Qaida. According to Jeremy Keenan’s “The Dark Sahara”, Belmokhtar was in the past rather involved in smuggling and trafficking than in radical Islam although he has been listed in 2003 on the UN black list of Al Qaida members. As of most terrorists, very little is known of this man, his intentions and workings. Al Qaida also does not seem to be the principal group in Northern Mali that promotes the instauration of Islam as political system but Ansar Dine which up to now has not been engaged in fighting and killings. How are the two related, if at all? No clear information available on this.

Hence, there is much more speculation than secure knowledge about the various armed groups, their finances and financiers, the sources of their armement, and their goals and aims. Even more confusing is the question whether they are allied with the Touareg forces, namely the MLNA (mouvement pour la liberation nationale de l’Azawad), or not, and if this is an alliance of convenience or of a more durable kind. Just now the MLNA anounced that it would fight back the “islamists”.

Given that little is known about these groups and that they are rather represented as terrorists in order to make up for this little and uncertain knowledge,  the argument that they represent a threat to Europe is, to say the least, surprising. The right wording does seem to be rather that they are threatening European economic interests in the Sahara. They are also threatening a political order which is certainly not democratic or free but determined to protect their “good relations” with France. And this is why they are considered dangerous by the French government. Hollande is leading a very simplistic, post-colonial and short-sighted intervention, that’s all. And that will probably soon be too much. Just as other operations of this kind, France is actually risking to make the situation more complicated and to engage in a much more protracted and long-lasting war of attrition than they expect.  Critical and notably self-critical reflections on how and why France has contributed to “terror” in the world are indeed not the most obvious characteristic of this or any other French government. It is dragging other countries like the Chad into this operation, thereby legitimizing their anything but democratic governments, it is polarizing even more the antagonism between the Touareg and the Southern Malian population making any political solution to the Touareg’s claim to autonomy (or even independence) move far away, it is conferring unwittingly a legitimacy to the radicalization of Islam in the region, it is reinforcing fears of islamist terorrism in France and in Europe hence playing into the hands of its own right-wing xenophobic parties and probably generally intesifying islamophobia in France, it is intensifying the guerilla tactics of those armed groups hence offering more opportunities for small arms circulation and, if Stathis Kalyvas “Logic of violence in civil war” is to be believed creating more situations of brutal exactions as uncertainty of the population’s loyalty is increasing, and as one common consequence of most assymmetric and guerrilla wars of attrition is the mushrooming of camps and detention centres with their practices of surveillance and torture, it is pushing even more the war in the shadows…in short it will be creating a much bigger mess than what it can fix.




Where are the histories of the colonial mining companies?


At the moment I am working on a paper on the United Nations Mission in the first Congo Crisis, 1960-1964. In this context I’m reading left and right about the decolonization of the Congo whose chaotic and disastrous nature predestined much of the country’s later wars and violence. However, that is not what strikes me at the moment. Rather I’m surprised to find very little historical research on the such ominous organisations as the Union Minière du Haut Katanga, the Belgian mining cartel that financed Katanga’s secession in July 1960 and was probably also responsible for large parts of the violence in this conflict. I had noticed this lack of historical research already in my research on Sierra Leone where there is also very little about the Sierra Leone Selection Trust, the mining company that had been exclusively licenced by the British in the 1930’s to mine diamonds and which had already employed private mercenaries to keep Africans away from the diamond fields. There is also not very much research and literature on the role of contemporary mining companies in Africa’s politics in general and its wars in particular. The reference to the use of private military companies for instance in the Sierra Leonean war (Sandline International, Executive Outcomes) is frequent yet not much is known about their concrete dealings and doings. With the focus on “greed” of much of the civil wars literature this omission of Western “greed” is quite striking. In his article “Natural resources, Conflict, and Conflict Resolution: Uncovering the Mechanisms” Macarthan Humphreys mentions what he calls the “greedy outsiders mechanism” in impacting on civil war dynamics but just as one potential hypothetical causal mechanism amongst others (he mentions six mechanisms about the outbreak of war and seven on the war dynamics). Certainly, this is not another sign of eurocentric blindness where greed and violence is only the feature of the black man?????

The lack of interest is certainly an interesting point to note for itself. It is also probably one reason why these companies can hand over their archives to public institutions all the while making sure that they keep control over what will be known and what not. The Union Minière du Haut Katanga has passed their archives to the State Archives in Belgium but the inventary warns “Ces archives avaient été triées à plusieurs reprises dans les années 1980, la société n’ayant conservé que les dossiers qu’elle estimait les plus intéressants” (these archives have been sorted (meaning weeded) several times in the 1980s; the company only kept those files they thought would be the most interesting). I guess the company did not think that anyhing on their contacts to mercenaries, the Force Publique or even the assassination of cumbersome politicians like Patrice Lumumba is “le plus intéressant” for the wider public…


Opaque not pure: Global Witness and the Kimberley Process


In December 2011, Global Witness left the Kimberley Process with a shouting letter from the NGO’s chairman: “The Kimberley Process’s refusal to evolve and address the clear links between diamonds, violence and tyranny has rendered it increasingly outdated”, writes Charmian Gooch in the press statement on the NGO’s webpage. She then goes on to list all the failings of the Kimberley process, from governments who have used violent means to extract diamonds to companies who haven’t put in place decent labour conditions for miners and are benefitting from the violent coercion of governments. This all sounds very right and righteous. Obviously, a NGO which is supposed to monitor the good practices of an agreement must withdraw if it esteems that these good practices are not kept to. There is only one hitch in Mrs Gooch’s outrage; it was never the objective of the Kimberley process to restrict governments or government licenced companies to brutally exploit diamond mines. Actually, it was never the violence of diamond mining as such that was at stake but only violent mining by some, namely those which were in standard narratives of international agencies and Western governments labelled as “rebel” or even “terrorists” (and which keep being reproduced for instance in the Uppsala Conflict Encyclopedia, see my post). Those “rebels” were those, who deprived both, governments and big international companies from huge profits, and it is this the only reason why they agreed to the Kimberley Certification Scheme.

The program of certifying diamonds had been started on the distinction of legitimate and illegitimate diamonds (see for instance here), and all UN resolutions, whether of the General Assembly or the Security Council, whether on Angola or Sierra Leone, argue that certificates shall stop “conflict diamonds” or “rebel diamonds”. Never, anywhere, was diamond trade as such in question! The foundation document of the Kimberley Certification Scheme is even more explicit: “CONFLICT DIAMONDS means rough diamonds used by rebel movements or their allies to finance conflict aimed at undermining legitimate governments”. The Certification Scheme was never about the methods of mining, the fairness of governmental concessions, labor rights or the like but solely about the question who has the right to exploit diamond mines. And the answer is unambiguous: governments and the companies concessioned by them. By the fiat of this text, those governments additionally become “legitimate governments” although one could believe that the shere fact of having a major rebellion in the country could mean that these governments are anything but legitimate.

The entire logic of the Kimberley Process Certification Scheme is, in an essential and fundamental way, built upon two constitutive beliefs. First, an absolutely unquestioned liberal belief that the diamond industry is an industrial activity, which is as legitimate as any industry and ultimately creating wealth for a larger group than solely the immediate stakeholders, i.e. that the diamond industry will benefit the country in question (as illustrated in a number of overly optimistic reports of Western development agencies like DFID or USAID). In this belief mining is the exact contrary of that activitiy which, by its very conception, can only exist because it brutally exploits people and the environment for the sole and exclusive benefit of a couple some. Yet, mining was not beneficial for those countries  before the wars and there is little reason to believe that it would be so after. Diamonds have little, or actually no use value. The only reason people are willing to pay thousands of dollars for them, is that they have become pricy tokens for “eternal love” as they symbolize rarity, purity and exclusiveness.  However, diamonds are, in fact, abundant and they are, contrary to other mineral resources, easy to produce as large quantities can be found on the surface and do not need large upfront costs of prospection. It often needs only a shovel and sieve to dig for diamonds. Consequently, diamond traders have a strong, indeed a very strong interest to control the quantity of diamonds available on the market in order to artificially create scarcity– this is what De Beers has understood very early on, and why they have in fact built up a powerful cartel through which they control the entire chain from production to polishing passing by several stages of trading. Although De Beers has lost market shares to competitors over the past 20 years, they still control the large majority of the market and have kept the number of competitors low. The Kimberley Process Certification Scheme is a formidable tool to exclude potential competitors from the big deal. Additionally, the huge profit margins of several 1000% percent in the diamond industry are only possible if all costs at the very beginning of the production chain remain significantly low. Diamond miners in Africa are paid commonly between 1 and 4 US Dollars per day…A 1-carat engagement ring at Tiffany‘s is sold for anything up from 9,000US Dollars. Obviously, it would be a pity to loese those formidable profits just for some labor rights or environmental protection costs…

The second necessary belief is the conception that the civil wars in those countries — Angola and Sierra Leone foremost, but also Liberia, Congo and others — were not political struggles which were caused by social grievances but in any respect “diamond-fuelled” as Charmian Gooch herself asserts — the “greed” wars that World Bank economists Paul Collier and Anke Hoeffler had fuzzed about in the 1990s (and whose oh-so statistic proves have been, nowadays and luckily, widely disavowed even by their fellow positivist friends); as they claimed,  the wars were not financed by diamonds, they were basically and firstly fought for diamonds. Yet, as many area experts have already pointed out during the wars, “greed” has, if ever, been only a marginal motive. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Sierra Leone emphasizes (a quote worthy to be reproduced in full lenght): “There is a widely held belief in the western world that the conflict in Sierra Leone was initiated and perpetuated because of diamonds, the country’s most important mineral resource. According to this version, the RUF, backed by Charles Taylor and the NPFL, initiated an armed rebellion in Sierra Leone to gain control of its diamond resources. In the years following the initial attack, it is alleged, the proceeds from an illicit diamond trade enabled the RUF to finance its war effort through the purchase of weapons abroad. In the Commission’s view, this version of the conflict is simplistic. It fails to capture numerous complexities, the reasons for the decay of the state in Sierra Leone and the role minerals played prior to and during the conflict. It also does not reflect what unfolded on the ground in Sierra Leone. There were multiple causes of the conflict and reasons for the involvement of Liberian and other foreign actors. Although it is true that the RUF partly financed its war effort through diamond trafficking, diamonds did not yield significant revenues for the movement before 1997.”

Rather these countries had been caught in complex social conflicts, which had been fuelled by a large variety of sources, not least by the agendas of third states like the former colonial powers, neighbouring states or the US. Ironically, one of motives in these wars has been, at least in Sierra Leone, the fury of young men and women who had been brutally exploited in a largely dysfunctional state and difficult economy (see here for this argument). Yet, if diamonds were not in any way causes of the wars but merely a way of financing them, then, of course, there is no reason to expect that a certification scheme would set an end to the conflict or to violence.

Charmian Gooch, who prides herself of the extensive research she and Global Witness did for the Kimberley Process, and her colleagues know all this, of course. So, why now this indignated hue and cry? Did they really think that this scheme would set an end to the exploitation of diamond mining or end civil wars in Africa? Difficult to believe, maybe true, and yet hardly convincing. It rather seems that this is just one more case where a NGO has found for some time an wonderful topic to build its reputation and existence with a nice cocktail of cheap morality (who would not pity diamond mining boys, whether in war or peace?), glamour (blood diamonds and Leonardo di Caprio) and pompous talks (norms and world politics), all of which needs just as little regard for what is really happening on the ground as do all those other celebrity projects like Live Aid or Angelina Jolie’s UNICEF ambassadoring. For sure, the Kimberley Process was hailed by researchers (also here) and politics alike as huge step in global corporate responsibility and the new governance of the world. Since its foundation in 1993 the organisation has grown to over 60 members and has offices around the world. Members of Global Witness were regular guests at the meetings of the World Diamond Council (which certainly were not hosted in Johannesburg’s YMCA hostel). Global Witness and Partnership for Africa were also consultants on the Hollywood blockbuster “Blood Diamond”. And Charmian Gooch was elected “Young global leader” by the World Economic Forum. All that red carpet and fame, however, have faded as media and public eyes have turned to other humanitarian horror shows and that neither child soldiering nor blood diamonds are really flashy anymore. Charmian Gooch’s sudden realization that this scheme is a bad joke now sounds like a hollow pretext to get rid of this issue which now, as the glitter has come off, is nothing but ugliness and misery.


It’s the weather, stupid! Hsiang, Meng and Cane on El Niño and conflict in “Nature”


Since a decade or so, large-N studies on the causes of war have appeared everywhere. They have this pretention of certainty around them, making believe that we could analyse wars like epidemics and find the cures through so-called “scientific” methods. But, well, yes,  uhm, hm, they might prove things but they are still a far cry from explaining anything as this recent high-profile publication shows.

One common claim of large-N studies is that their evidence goes beyond “anecdotical evidence” by which they obviously mean case studies, historical studies and other qualitative “stories”.  Solomon M. Hsiang’s, Kyle C. Meng’s and Mark A. Cane’s paper in the November 2011 “Nature” (online August 2011) are no exception to the rule. In their eye-catching article, the authors claim to provide a systematic evidence that changes in climate provide a higher risk of armed conflict. Their prove is a significant correlation of what they call “Armed Conflict Risk” with incidences of the El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) affecting local weather. Yet, as commonly the case with over-aggregated, large-N studies the authors are incapable of offering an explanation for this phenomenon beyond highly speculative guesswork. So, their final concluding call is for more detailed, in-depth studies on how ENSO affects local conditions as to heighten the risk of war…to the anecdotes, isn’t it?

This paper epitomizes the fundamental problems of overaggregated, large-N studies. They look extremely sleek and fancy with their large data, colourful tables and complicated statistics but if someone would like to know more about the causes of armed conflict she will not receive an answer. At a closer look, when the glitter comes of, a number of serious questions arise over the methodology, the ontology of conflict and the political implications of such type of research. And most importantly, there remains a shallow taste of disappointment as we do not learn very much we haven’t known already from other studies, usually those diffamated as “anecdotical”.

If we look at the methodology – the alleged strong point of the essay – we can examine a bit closer the claim that the results reflect a global approach to the question whether weather and climate affect civil war risks. The authors argue that they can capture the global effect by grouping all countries over the world which are affected by ENSO climate changes. ENSO spreads indeed all over the world through so-called teleconnections. Yet, in order to construct one group of ENSO affected countries, we need to assume that these countries are affected by it in the same manner, for instance that it creates in all countries a particularly dry weather. However, this is not the case. There seems to be general agreement that teleconnections are non-linear and that El Niño-Southern Oscillation does not affect all regions in the same way.

Whereas in some regions ENSO creates a particularly dry and warm weather, other regions see a rise in precipitations and cold air. If the effects of ENSO on local weather is different in different parts of the world, then it becomes very unclear how we can compare these regions with each other beyond simply saying that their weather changes but it does not do so in the same way, so in the end we cannot know if it is the dry weather (droughts) or the rain (floods) that affect the countries in question (see for instance: Hoerling, Martin P., Arun Kumar, Min Zhong, 1997: El Niño, La Niña, and the Nonlinearity of Their Teleconnections. J. Climate, 10, 1769–1786.doi:<1769:ENOLNA>2.0.CO;2; Vera, Carolina, Gabriel Silvestri, Vicente Barros, Andrea Carril, 2004: Differences in El Niño Response over the Southern Hemisphere. J. Climate, 17, 1741–1753. doi:<1741:DIENRO>2.0.CO;2) . The analysis also does not adequately summarize the many possible differently interacting variables, at least not in this research where different effects of ENSO are lumped together in one group.

This is, of course, not very reassuring as to understanding what actually happens when particularly dry or particularly wet weather hit a country. The authors are, indeed, entirely at loss when they need to twist the correlation into an explanation. The authors present, in fact, a joly shopping list of possible causal mechanism (I absoluteley do not like the term “causal mechanism” as human society does not work like a machine but for the sake of simplicity I will use it here.) In their own words (p. 440):

  • “Generalizing our results to global climate changes other than ENSO will require an understanding of the mechanisms that link conflict to climate. ENSO has a proximate influence on a variety of climatological variables, each of which may plausibly influence how conflict-prone a society is. Precipitation, temperature, sunlight, humidity and ecological extremes can adversely influence both agrarian and non-agrarian economies.” Right! So, ENSO influences potato chip and micro-chip production in the same way? And with the same effects? How very interesting…
  • “In addition, ENSO variations affect natural disasters, such as tropical cyclones, and trigger disease outbreaks.” Well, well, and I always thought that diseases are caused by bacteries and viruses…
  • “All of these have adverse economic effects, such as loss of income or increasing food prices…” Which only matters if you spend more than 2/3 of your income on food and not on your iPhone or Gucci bag…
  • “Furthermore, altered environmental conditions stress the human psyche, sometimes leading to aggressive behaviour. We hypothesize that El Niño can simultaneously lead to any of these adverse economic and psychological effects, increasing the likelihood of conflict.” – of all these suppositions this one is certainly the most outstanding for its unabashed remininescence of good ol’ colonial malthusianist views of the savage…
  • “…and it is thought that economic shocks can generate civil conflict through a variety of pathways” – say, say…
  • “Furthermore, the influence of ENSO may exceed the sum influence of these individual pathways because it is a global-scale process that generates simultaneous and correlated conditions around the world.”

Well, isn’t that exactly the reason why we need micro-studies to know whether ENSO has impacted on cacao crops, potato and cabbage production, micro-chip production, financial markets, the inventiveness of Haliburton to sell their weapons or on the mood of parliamentarians and generals etc.? But if we would find that factor X has only been influenced indirectly by ENSO, let’s say that bad crops are only a problem because there are no other sources of income for peasants because their labour has been squeezed to starvation by extremely inequal landowning and exploitation structures? Wouldn’t that be exactly the kind of “anecdotical evidence” the authors think is not very useful for the study of the impact of climate on civil wars?