By Kent R. Kroeger (Source: NuQum.com; June 28, 2021)
DUBAI, June 22 (Reuters) — The U.S. Justice Department said on Tuesday it seized 36 Iranian-linked websites, many of them associated with either disinformation activities or violent organizations, taking them offline for violating U.S. sanctions.
Several of the sites were back online within hours with new domain addresses.
Writer’s note: It should be acknowledged that the websites blocked by this U.S. action were on servers owned or controlled by U.S. companies — hence, a violation of U.S. sanctions against Iran. __________________
There was a time when another country — the Soviet Union — had the genuine ability to, for all practical purposes, destroy my country in an all-out nuclear war. [That ability, in what is now Russia, still exists today — but somehow the threat doesn’t seem as palpable as it did before the downfall of the Soviet Union.]
The Soviet Union was a legitimate superpower, hostile to the U.S. and its allies, and armed with around 5,000 nuclear warheads in the late 1970s (with a good number pointed directly at the U.S. mainland).
As a teenager at the time in Cedar Falls, Iowa, I was able to connect my Heathkit shortwave radio receiver to a 120-foot antenna running in a slope from my bedroom window to an old ceramic insulator attached to a pole at one end of my family’s clothes line.
Thin strips of colored tape identified frequencies where I could listen to worldwide radio broadcasts of stations such as the BBC’s World Service, Deutsche Welle (West Germany), Radio Peking, Radio Havana, Voice of the Arabs (Radio Cairo), Radio Berlin (East Germany), Radio Budapest, and last, by far from least, Radio Moscow.
Some of the broadcasts were in English, but most of the them were in languages I couldn’t understand. But it didn’t matter. It was the thrill of hearing something far away (and slightly forbidden) that made me listen to that radio for hours on humid summer nights, long after my family had gone to bed.
Listening to Radio Moscow was my feeble, teenage attempt at defiance at a time when U.S.-Soviet relations seemingly were getting worse heading into the Reagan-era of American politics.
But it was more than defiance. I honestly believed it was my right (even civic duty) to hear news and opinions from the perspective of other countries — especially our “enemies.”
And it wasn’t that I found Radio Moscow more informative or trustworthy — quite the opposite, its news stories were often brazenly optimistic:
April 4, 1980: “…the Supreme Soviet Presidium ratified the treaty between Afghanistan and the Soviet Union on the conditions for the temporary stay of a limited contingent of Soviet forces in Afghanistan territory.” [Note: The size of the Russian occupation force would peak around 65,000 and they didn’t leave until 1989.]
or comically understated:
April 29, 1986: “An accident has occurred at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant as one of the reactors was damaged. Measures are being taken to eliminate the consequences of the accident.”
But that was part of Radio Moscow’s charm…and its importance.
Why would an American not want to know the mindset of an adversary? How could anyone honestly call themselves informed without knowing the official views of other governments?
“It’s disinformation!…It’s propaganda!,” is the cry we hear now from both the left and right of the political spectrum — particularly with respect to Iran or Palestinians.
Even if the Press TV (Iran) or al-Masirah TV (Yemen Houthis) or Palestine-Al Youm websites were merely publishing official propaganda, why would I want the U.S. government, or a private U.S. company, to decide for me whether I can read or hear their content?
The thing I remember about the Cold War…
One of distinctive aspects of the U.S. government during the Cold War was its irrepressible sense of superiority and invincibility.
We had, after all, soundly beaten the fascists in Germany and Japan in World War II (OK, I realize the Soviet Union was a rather important part of that victory) and economically we were second-to-none in the decades immediately following the war.
From a U.S. citizen’s perspective, while we understood our homes and city could be evaporated by a single Soviet thermonuclear device, there was a Dean Martin-like boozy confidence among us — at least until the Vietnam War and Watergate— that the American ideology of ‘freedom and capitalism’ were intrinsically superior to authoritarianism and communism.
We may have been afraid of the Soviet war machine, but we were not afraid of the Soviet way of life. It was inferior and we knew it. My mom and dad worried more about inflation than anything the Soviet Union could do to them.
Evidence of our nation’s confidence is how it addressed Soviet propaganda on platforms such as Radio Moscow. Though the Kremlin may have jammed Western broadcasts by radio services like the Voice of America and the BBC, we did not return the favor.
It wouldn’t have been cheap, but we could have done it.
According to Mark Winek, an expert on Cold War-era propaganda efforts, it demonstrated the West’s confidence that we didn’t feel the need to jam Radio Moscow in response to Soviet jamming. In contrast, the Soviets had every reason to fear Western influence:
“While Radio Moscow’s signals were rarely jammed by other nations, the Soviet Union actively jammed the broadcasts of Western stations such as the BBC and the Voice of America. The purpose of this was to prevent Soviet citizens from being able to tune in the Western broadcasters, fearing ‘Western cultural infiltration’. Indeed, they may have had cause to worry: the Voice of America estimated 8 million Soviet citizens listened into Western broadcasts.”
That is the difference between a confident, secure country and one that is not.
How times have changed.
At present, I see my country becoming fragile and increasingly paranoid towards anyone who says something mean — particularly against our two establishment political parties. We are now so delicate, our enemies aren’t just somewhere in some faraway desert or arctic tundra, they are among us. They might be one of your work colleagues or even in your own family. We now believe this so deeply that few Americans blinked when President Joe Biden asked them this month to turn these suspected ‘domestic terrorists and extremists’ into the nearest law enforcement or FBI office.
At least in the Cold War, we feared actual scary things like 15-megaton thermonuclear warheads and bureaucratic group-think. Today, some Americans turn into a mush puddle at the sight of a bare-chested man wearing a furry hat with horns and holding a Qanon sign.
We are not the same country that once stood nose-to-nose with the Soviet menace without blinking. Today, our current administration openly prosecutes a publisher who published whistleblower document leaks regarding U.S. war atrocities (Julian Assange) and recent administrations have unapologetically monitored the communications of journalists deemed hostile (i.e., published administration leaks).
The day the U.S. Department of Justice shut down the Press TV website, the stories on its home page included stories on:
Iran’s military top brass expressing a willingness to cooperate with President Biden (the kind of story that makes state-run news agencies relevant to foreign diplomats and journalists),
The Taliban making gains in Afghanistan (undeniably true),
Iran’s President-elect receiving congratulatory calls from world leaders (also undeniably true),
and a feature on Israeli settlers attacking Palestinians in Sheikh Jarrah (a fact the Biden administration has acknowledged).
Is there propaganda on Press TV’s web pages? Of course. It is a state-run news organization after all. Does it print misinformation and promote conspiracy theories on the Qanon-level of a cadre of U.S. elites running a child slavery ring out of a pizza parlor on Connecticut Avenue? Nothing I’ve ever seen on its pages has come close to being that far removed from the sanity train.
Press TV is the English-language service of the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting, the Iranian government’s news organization — which includes the Tehran-based internet radio station World Service 4 (which is also being blocked by the U.S. government).
I recently listened to a story on World Service 4 (before it was blocked) in which the Iranian government accused U.S. sanctions of directly causing unnecessary COVID-19 deaths among Iranian civilians. I don’t necessarily agree with that statement, but why would the U.S. government prevent me from hearing or reading that? Because I might believe it? That is what a government does when it is insecure about its own honesty. That is the same frame of mind behind the Iranian government suppressing Western ideas about women’s rights or press freedom. They do it because they are insecure.
It should be beneath our country to do such a thing — particularly against such a minor threat to the U.S. as Iran.
They all do propaganda — the trick is knowing how to separate the facts from the b.s.
On our own home front, we must dispense with the grammar-school-level belief that U.S. news organizations are objective and bound solely by the “truth” when crafting their daily headlines and newscasts. Most American journalists serve their economic interests as well as their social and economic class. The “truth” comes somewhere after that.
I.F. Stone famously wrote that “all governments lie.” The same can be said for all news organizations. They don’t do it all the time — not even most of the time — but when they do, they will bamboozle you like a cheating lover.
In a country where Facebook and Google appear to be suppressing news stories and social media conversations related to the generic drug Ivermectin, an antiparasitic drug with known antiviral uses and which has shown enough promise as a COVID-19 treatment to warrant the recent start of large-scale clinical studies on its effectiveness, it is myopic to suggest U.S. news and social media organizations don’t peddle in propaganda too. Sometimes propaganda is not in what is said or written, but in what is not said or written.
So, in the end, I would rather take my chances with my own capacities and limitations. Which is to say: I don’t need the U.S. government protecting me from Iranian or anyone else’s propaganda. Over 40 years of digesting content from the U.S. news media has made me a bit of an expert in picking out fact from nonsense.
“In our complex society, affected by both sophisticated communication technology and unequal allocations of resources and skills, the marketplace’s inevitable bias supports entrenched power structures or ideologies. Most reform proposals do little to help the marketplace reach its theoretical potential. Instead, such suggestions perpetuate the marketplace’s status quo bias or result in unacceptable levels of governmental interference and regulation.” (p. 85–86)
But Ingber’s view of our information ecosystem doesn’t require a conspiracy among economic and political elites to explain its biased effects:
“…the New Left presumed that this effect resulted from a conspiracy of established groups. Their view of the system as a construct of devious, manipulating elites seems overly simplistic. The elites need not consciously create and impose a system in order to benefit from it. The bias or skew toward established groups and dominant value perspectives instead may be unavoidable in a high-technology society in which resources and skills are distributed unequally.” (p. 85)
To Ingber, inequities in what facts, ideas and opinions most prominently make it into the information bloodstream stem from systemic inequities, not the coordinated actions of a small cadre of elites — which is why he dismisses popular freedom of speech reforms, such as The Fairness Doctrine and federal election campaign laws, that he said “easily could decay into formal systems of governmental censorship or popular indoctrination.”
“If we intend to design a social and political system open to the development of diverse perspectives and values, we must first understand how an idea initially outside the community agenda of alternatives becomes accepted within it.” (p. 86)
While Ingber rejects leftist assumptions that the system is the product of “devious, manipulating elites,” he may have been equally naive in believing powerful interests don’t have a demonstrable, independent impact on existing imbalances on what information gets promulgated within the mainstream news media. Nonetheless, Ingber’s analysis from 40 years ago remains brutally relevant to today.
Ingber argued some legitimate perspectives, outside mainstream thought, are denied access to a sizable audience because of structural barriers within the system.
In rare instances, such as when ecological realities profoundly change — like in the Great Depression or the Vietnam War — do novel perspectives become integrated into the mainstream discourse, according to Ingber. “There is little doubt that a change in the ecological setting necessarily creates new interests and needs which in turn alter perspectives,” he wrote.
So we must wait until the next great economic recession or counterproductive U.S. military intervention to see substantive changes in status quo thinking? Ingber offers another path:
“In addition to ecological change, new perspectives and values may be nurtured in a society that encourages, or at least permits, the development of new interests and experiences. Consequently, the status quo bias of the marketplace can probably be neutralized only by protecting a greater liberty of action — allowing people to choose among lifestyles offering differing roles and relationships — rather than merely supporting the freedom of speech.”
Homogeneous sourcing: A case study using a New York Times story on ISIS in Africa.
At the heart of the Ingber argument is that a diversity of perspectives is critical to minimizing the ‘status quo bias’ of the marketplace of ideas: An informed, free-thinking society, empowered by experiential diversity, is capable of navigating contradictory ideas (including falsehoods) when given the necessary information needed to weigh them against one another.
Ingber’s 1984 essay came to my mind recently as I waded through hundreds of news articles about the alleged growing strength of jihadists on the African continent — articles like the following:
ISIS attacks surge in Africa even as Trump boasts of a ‘100-percent’ defeated caliphate (Washington Post, October 18, 2020)
Is Africa overtaking the Middle East as the new jihadist battleground? (BBC, December 3, 2020)
In bid to boost its profile, ISIS turns to Africa’s militants (New York Times, April 7, 2021)
With few exceptions, these articles and many others like them rely heavily on official government sources and U.S./European-centric think tank analysts, who, by training and financial support, back a common thesis: Islamic extremists are turning to Africa to continue and expand their war against Western institutions and influence.
Keep in mind, we are talking about a continent with over 1.2 billion people (of whom 44 percent are Muslim), and more racial/ethnic/genetic diversity than any other continent on the planet. Almost any hypothesis regarding Islam can find anecdotal support somewhere within its vast geography.
On one hand, Islamic jihadists are on the rise (Ansar Dine in Mali) ; and, on the other, Islam and democracy are not antithetical (Tunisia).
Africa and Islam are too complex to summarize in pithy headlines.
And, yet, that is exactly what our most prestigious news organizations do every day, and they do so while generally depending on a relatively narrow range of sources and perspectives.
(4) ExTrac — a private, data-driven intelligence service (based in the U.S.) which combines “real-time attack and communications data with artificial intelligence (AI) to provide actionable insights for counterterrorism and Common Vulnerabilities and Exposures (CVE) policymakers and practitioners,”
(5) The International Crisis Group — a non-profit, non-governmental organization used by policymakers and academics “working to prevent wars and shape policies that will build a more peaceful world,” though described by journalist Tom Hazeldine as a group that “consistently championed NATO’s wars to fulsome transatlantic praise,”
(7) “Experts and officials in the U.S. and Europe,”
(8) “American and United Nations counterterrorism officials.”
These aren’t necessarily disreputable or dishonest sources for knowledge about Islamic State (IS)-related militant activities in Africa, but they are demonstrably linked to the U.S.-European security and foreign policy establishment — with the exception of the Mozambican Research Institute, which was one of the few sources in the Times article saying Islamic State jihadists are not well-liked among rural Mozambicans.
Most of the Times’ sources represent a bounded range of viewpoints on the strength of Islamic militants in Mozambique and the continent overall. To the Times’ credit, alternative viewpoints were elicited in their story — the problem is that it took until the 30th paragraph in a 36-paragraph story to hear them:
“People in Cabo Delgado (Mozambique) have come to realize this group is not a solution, it’s destroying the local economy and it’s become very, very violent with the population,” said João Feijó, a researcher at the Mozambican Observatory of Rural Areas. “Nowadays the group is pretty isolated.”
That represents status quo journalism in a nutshell: Rely almost entirely on establishment sources and declare the story balanced because an alternative opinion was cited somewhere near the end of the story.
It is not a conspiracy — it is merely the result of journalists taking the path of least resistance by emphasizing expediency and ‘what is publishable’ over healthy intellectual curiosity.
What should international affairs journalists be doing instead? My answer would be something told to me in my first journalism class by the late Hanno Hardt, Professor Emeritus in the University of Iowa’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication:
Seek as many points of view as necessary to tell the whole story.
The Times story on the Islamic State in Mozambique or the other ‘rise of IS in Africa’ articles, all offer one dominant perspective — that of the U.S.-European defense and security community.
However, scratch the surface of this narrative — Islamic extremism is rising in Africa and the U.S. and Europe must somehow intervene — and the story becomes more complicated and less open to easy solutions.
We can start by looking at overall trends…
A little data sheds a lot of light on African violence
Figure 1 shows the number of disorder events occurring in Africa since 1997, according to The Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED), a widely used real-time data and analysis source on political violence and protest around the world.
The topline finding is that violence is on the rise in Africa and it is happening in more than Muslim-majority or near-majority countries — it is happening throughout the continent.
Figure 1: Disorder events in African countries since 1997
Not as easily discernible in the above time-series graph, however, is what may be causing this surge in violence.
One of the first and largest year-to-year increases in African violence (i.e., disorder events) occurred from 2010 to 2011, which coincides with a series of key events in north Africa and the Middle East: (1)The Arab Spring, beginning with protests in Tunisia on December 18, 2010 in Sidi Bouzid, (2) the practical end of the U.S. occupation of Iraq, (3) the start and end of the First Libyan Civil War, and (4) the start of the (still on-going) Syrian Civil War.
Through the first five months of 2021, five African countries — Nigeria, Dem. Rep. of Congo (DRC), Algeria, Somalia, and South Africa — account for nearly half (46%) of all disruptive events on the continent, according to ACLED, of which two are predominately Christian countries (DRC and South Africa).
It does not minimize the present threat of Islamic extremists in Africa (which is real) to acknowledge that a significant amount of the current violence is not related to Islam. And where Islamic extremism is the issue, it is fair to recognize that Western powers played a crucial role in events leading up to Islamic extremism’s rise in Africa.
The Arab Spring in Africa’s Maghreb and the First Libyan Civil War
A common conclusion among Western analysts about rising African violence is that it is partially a byproduct of ISIS’ defeat in Syria, 2011’s Arab Spring, and the return home of foreign fighters from Libya’s First Civil War.
The ACLED data on African violence in Figure 1 is also illuminating on how the 2011 Arab Spring, along withthe end of the First Libyan Civil War in that same year, may have impacted subsequent violence in Africa’s Sahel region.
According to the ACLED data, in 2011, the Arab Spring saw the number of disorder events increase exponentially in Muslim-majority countries of Algeria (+187%), Libya (+13,220%), Morocco (+1,300%), and Tunisia (+1,964%).
However, the real story may be how violence spread into Africa’s Sahel after the fall of Col. Muammar al-Gaddafi’s Libyan regime in October 2011, when foreign fighters, who had been supporting Gaddafi’s government forces, joined other militant movements or returned to their home countries, well-armed, relatively well-trained and unemployed.
In 2012, of the 12 nations making up the Sahel, nine saw a significant increase in disorder events: Central African Repubic (+90%), Chad (+33%), Ethiopia (+94%), Mali (+923%), Mauritania (+143%), (Nigeria (+161%), Senegal (+83%), South Sudan (+291%), and Sudan (+120%). The three Sahel countries that didn’t see significant rises in violence in 2012 (Burkina Faso, Eritrea, and Niger) did experience increases in 2011 (Burkina Faso and Eritrea) or in 2013 (Niger).
But while most of the Sahel violence has occurred in Muslim-majority countries and many of the rebel groups involved, such as Mali’s militant Islamist sect Ansar Dine, are ideologically linked to al-Qaeda or ISIS, it would be a mistake to assume this rise in violence is only rooted in an Islam versus the Secular World paradigm. In fact, among the 19 African countries with the largest Christian majorities (70 percent+) and Muslims representing less than 20 percent of the population, 13 witnessed significant increases in disorder events in 2011 and 2012 (Angola, Botswana, Democratic Republic of Congo, eSwatini, Gabon, Ghana, Kenya, Lesotho, Liberia, Namibia, South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe).
Violence is rising throughout Africa. That is a fact. As to its sources, any causal model depending solely on the proximate role of Islamic jihadists fails to consider other important factors. Furthermore, it is somewhat laughable to presume there is a “model” that can reliably explain violence (disruptive events) for an entire continent of 1.2 billion people.
Nonetheless, the exercise in trying to build such a model is worthwhile, even if a bit futile in the end.
Possible factors in the rise of violence in Africa
ISIS and other Islamic extremist groups: ISIS is no doubt part of Africa’s violent mix, particularly in northern Africa. But is this marginally cohesive organization really the threat to stability on the African continent, an extraordinarily big place with more linguistic, religious and genetic diversity than any other continent in the world? Considering Sunni jihadist groups have, in the past, been highly dependent on financial support from countries like Saudi Arabia and Qatar, is it perhaps short-sighted to focus on a symptom (such as the Islamic State) rather than a root cause (the Saudi funding and promotion of Sunni Wahhabism)?
U.S. and European interventions: It is also defensible to recognize the role U.S.-European interference in creating African instability. Academics and analysts have documented the contribution of Libya’s post-Gaddafi instability to the weaponizing of rebel groups in northern Africa and subsequent rises in violence. Once one of the wealthiest African nations prior to NATO’s coordinated military effort to destabilize Gaddafi’s government, the Libyan economy was shattered after his fall (see Figure 2 below where the top line tracks Libya’s GDP per capita since 1999), which had a direct impact on Libya’s poorer neighbors whose economies partially depended on monetary influxes from Libya.
Figure 2: GDP per capita for Libya and selected north African countries over time
Any argument supporting U.S.-European interventions in Africa must contend with the reality that such interventions have a checkered record in terms of bringing stability — and that is probably too generous an assessment.
Falling oil prices and economic stagnation: The first 15 years of the 21st-century witnessed an historic economic boom in sub-Saharan Africa, with GDP per capita rising over 42 percent (see Figure 3). At the same time, a relative surge in oil prices also contributed to economic prosperity in oil-producing countries like Libya and Nigeria (see Figure 4).
Figure 3: GDP per capita in Sub-Saharan Africa since 1960
Figure 4: Oil rents (as a % of GDP) since 1970
Unfortunately, the African economies stagnated after 2011, in part due to falling commodity prices and, more generally, the weakened world economy that followed the 2008 world financial crisis.
In their influential research paper, Ethnicity, Insurgency, and Civil War, Stanford political scientists James D. Fearon and David D. Laitin, who analyzed 161 countries between 1945 and 1999, concluded that:
The factors that explain which countries have been at risk for civil war are not their ethnic or religious characteristics but rather the conditions that favor insurgency. These include poverty-which marks financially and bureaucratically weak states and also favors rebel recruitment-political instability, rough terrain, and large populations.
More recent cross-national research, focused on Sub-Saharan African countries between 1986 and 2004, concluded that the onset of civil conflict is more likely in regions with (1) low-levels of education, (2) strong relative economic deprivation, (3) strong intraregional inequalities, and (4) the combined presence of natural resources and relative deprivation.
Even 2013 research on Boko Haram, a Nigerian Islamist group, by the quasi-governmental U.S. Institute of Peace concluded that: “Poverty, unemployment, illiteracy, and weak family structures make or contribute to making young men vulnerable to radicalization. Itinerant preachers capitalize on the situation by preaching an extreme version of religious teachings and conveying a narrative of the government as weak and corrupt. Armed groups such as Boko Haram can then recruit and train youth for activities ranging from errand running to suicide bombings.”
Striking throughout the quantitative literature on civil wars and regional insurgencies is the lack of significance among ethnic and religious variables in explaining the outbreak of violence.
Contrary to the security establishment sources in the Times article who argue that U.S.-European military support is essential to stemming the rise of militant Islam in Africa, a broader, more objective canvass of sources would have found as many experts arguing the most effective approach to ending the violence would be for increased investments in education, infrastructure, poverty alleviation and good governance initiatives by African governments.
Both arguments can be true, of course. But one would never know that such a contrast in solutions existed if all one had was the New York Times to rely on.
In previous posts I’ve lamented the many blind spots that seem to define mainstream journalism today. More disturbing (to me) is the propensity of the national news media to uncritically repeat the opinions of the U.S. national security industry.
If you want to understand why elite media organizations like the New York Times or Washington Post can get so many stories wrong, just look at the sources they continuously canvass for quotes (not to mention their documented willingness to use other journalists as “independent” sources).
How is it possible that the most prestigious, best paid journalists in the U.S. get so many stories utterly wrong?
Nowhere is this problem more apparent than news coverage of international affairs when news organizations incestuously recirculate the same quotes from the monolithic U.S.-European think tank brigade — an insular cadre of career policy analysts and former defense and intelligence officials from places like the Council on Foreign Relations, Human Rights Watch, The Brookings Institute, American Enterprise Institute, Center for American Progress and the Center for Strategic and International Studies — or when they lazily depend on anonymous “intelligence sources” and nameless government officials.
The last place to go for an objective analysis of African defense and security issues are these aforementioned sources. Yet, that is the source of most all mainstream reporting on the topic.
By Kent R. Kroeger (Source: NuQum.com; June 3, 2021)
“We have not yet finished our mission. But we do not foresee staying indefinitely. Once the sovereignty of Mali is restored, once MISMA (a UN-backed African military force) can replace our own troops, we will withdraw,” the French President told a news conference in Bamako, Mali.
Those were the words of French President François Hollande in February 2013, days after a French-led military offensive had driven Islamist rebels out of the country’s north, except for the city of Kidal.
Eight years later — French troops remain in Mali.
And in that time since President Hollande’s optimistic appraisal of the situation, Mali has weathered two coup d’états — the last occurring a little over a week ago when the Mali military, without resistance from the French military in Mali, detained the country’s president, prime minister, and defense minister. Though widely condemned in formal communiques by the European Union (EU), U.S., African Union and U.N., the likely result of this latest coup is that Mali (with the help of the French) will remain in a constant state of war.
It isn’t just Mali experiencing political instability. Since the 2011 NATO-backed revolt that brought down Colonel Muammar Gaddafi’s dictatorship in Libya, six of Africa’s 10 Sahel countries have seen at least one coup or attempted coup (Mali, Burkina Faso, Nigeria, Chad, Sudan and Eritrea).
But it is not just Africa’s Sahel countries that are in turmoil. Since 2011, 30 coups or attempted coups (hereafter, what I call ‘coup events’) have occurred in 17 countries across the African continent.
In fact, in the post-World War II period, coup events are on the increase in Africa, in contrast to the rest of the world (see Figure 1). Today, on average, Africa witnesses around three coup events per year; whereas, the rest of the world will have about two. Indeed, even if we remove the outlier year of 2013 from the equation, Africa has seen an increasing trend of coup events since 1946.
Figure 1: Trends in Coup/Coup Attempts since 1946
What is going on in Africa that might explain this troubling trend?
We can rule out one of the standard explanations of African political instability in the 1970s and 80s: government debt.
As seen in Figures 2 and 3, the African countries with significant coup events in the past 10 years exist across the entire indebtedness spectrum. While the most indebted country — Sudan, at over 250 percent of GDP — has also been one of the most politically volatile, some of the least indebted countries have likewise seen significant coup events in this period: Burundi, Comoros, Benin, Burkina Faso, Nigeria, Guinea-Bissau, Mali, Chad, and the Central African Republic.
Figure 2: Gov’t Debt to GDP Ratio (%) for African countries (2019/2020)
Figure 3: Change in Gov’t Debt to GDP Ratio (%) for African countries
Extreme debt financing burdens to foreign creditors can stunt economic growth and compel governments to divert money from critical social services, leading to increased social instability. But that does not seem to be the major driving force today — at least not the debt part of the equation.
Figure 4: GDP per capita growth in Sub-Saharan Africa since 1960
In his 1970 book, Why Men Rebel, political scientist Ted Gurr introduced the concept of relative deprivation, which he defined as the discrepancy between what people think they deserve, and what they actually think they can get.
“The potential for collective violence varies strongly with the intensity and scope of relative deprivation among members of a collectivity,” wrote Gurr.
Though Gurr’s thesis since has been significantly modified — with a society’s capacity for political violence being one major addition to the model — it still offers useful insights.
It is well-known that Africa is resource rich (see Figure 5). The African continent accounts for 20 percent of the world’s land mass, 17 percent of its population, and 3 percent of the its GDP — but contains 30 percent of the world’s remaining mineral resources.
While it is inaccurate to assume Africa’s resource wealth is the only reason for the continent’s strong economic growth in the 2000s, it was a major factor in China’s strategic decision to invest heavily there in the past 20 years (see Figure 6).
Figure 5: Mapping Africa’s Natural Resources
Figure 6: U.S. and Chinese Foreign Direct Investment to Africa since 2003
Yet, as of late, China’s investment in Africa has waned, which has played a role in Africa’s dampening economic growth.
Taken together, stagnate growth amidst rising expectations caused by the 2000s economic boom period cannot be discounted when explaining Africa’s current political instability.
“The destruction of Libya was key to the refugee flows that destabilized the European Union in 2014, and led to the loss of one of its richest countries (United Kingdom) with Brexit in 2016,” contends Morris. “The effects Of Gaddafi’s killing on the Sahel were both immediate, and long lasting. The financial network that had come to underpin the prosperity of much of North Africa disappeared. Gaddafi’s African soldiers dispersed back to their countries and took their weapons with them. Mali was the first to fall.”
It should be reminded also how many of the weapons from the 2011 Libyan revolt found their way to Syria and its civil war. Over 400,000 Syrians have died in Syria’s ongoing civil war and the U.S. remains entrenched in the country’s northeastern sector, presumably to protect Syrian Kurds, but as we know from Trump’s irrepressible candor, the purpose is largely to control much of Syria’s vital oil and gas reserves and thereby control Assad’s ability to rebuild his war-torn nation.
In the final analysis, the West’s weaponizing of the Libyan civil war had a direct and indirect relationship to coup events in Africa’s Sahel, the Syrian civil war, and the refugee crisis in Europe.
Those results alone establish how bad Obama’s Libya policies were during the Arab Spring of 2011.
As unstable as Gaddafi may have been, Libya under his leadership was becoming an economic powerhouse by African standards. Up to 2011, oil money from Libya was spreading throughout Africa.
And then came the Arab Spring of 2011 and, more importantly, the West’s interference in its progress.
“NATO scooped out North Africa’s economic heart and set it on fire,” argues Morris. “After Libya’s destruction, every economy in the Sahel came to a screeching halt.” Before 2011, Libya’s GDP per capita exceeded European Union countries such as Romania and Bulgaria, notes Morris. Today, Libya struggles to reestablish political stability so that it can, once again, become one of Africa’s most prosperous countries.
Trump’s troop withdrawals are a direct threat to African stability, moaned more than a few media elites and foreign policy analysts, who conveniently ignored the fact that today’s growing instability in Africa correlates to the increased engagement of the U.S. military on the continent. When the U.S. military stood up USAFRICOM at the end of the George W. Bush presidency, one of its first operations under Operation Enduring Freedom (“The Global War on Terror”) was a joint effort by the U.S. and NATO to “stabilize” the Saharan and Sahel regions of Africa at the start of the Libyan civil war in 2011 (U.S. military activities in the Sahel also fall under Operation Juniper Shield).
Instead of stabilizing the region, the U.S. and NATO further weaponized it. There are currently about 40 million guns and light weapons circulating among civilians in Africa, according to one UN report (https://www.un.org/africarenewal/magazine/december-2019-march-2020/silencing-guns-africa-2020). Government entities hold around 11 million guns and light arms, according to that same report.
Since the start of his presidential candidacy, Joe Biden has hinted at a more active U.S. role throughout the world (not just Africa), and if the past is prologue, this will mean deeper U.S. military engagements.
Evidence of his intent came in April when the Biden administration tapped Jeffrey Feltman, a former senior U.S. and United Nations diplomat known for his advocacy of robust U.S. interventionism, to be the U.S. special envoy to the Horn of Africa — an area where Islamist groups remain a palpable threat to regional stability and where growing tensions between Ethiopia and Sudan threaten to further add volatility to the region.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken highlighted the latter issue when announcing Feltman’s appointment: “Of particular concern are the volatile situation in Ethiopia, including the conflict in Tigray; escalating tension between Ethiopia and Sudan; and the dispute around the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.”
Where Trump made few promises to African leaders and they responded by not asking for many, Biden has invited the opposite dynamic.
The Biden administration hadn’t moved in yet when former Somali Prime Minister Abdi Yusuf openly pleaded to the Biden administration to recommit to “protecting Somalia” from al-Shabab and other Islamist groups.
Feltman’s appointment and other policy signals from the Biden administration, such as recent State Department allegations of human rights abuses in Ethiopia and designating insurgent groups in Mozambique and the Republic of the Congo as terrorist organizations, shows the U.S. wants once again to be the world’s school hall monitor, or in less snarky terms, “an international voice of conscience.” Consonant with the State Department’s declaration on Mozambique-based terrorist groups, the U.S. military is now actively training Mozambique security forces.
But before assuming only altruistic motives by the U.S., the French oil and gas company Total (TOTF.PA)recently announced it will restart construction of its $20 billion liquefied natural gas project in Mozambique given the improved security situation, having withdrawn its workforce from northern Mozambique in January because of security concerns. Total’s demand for a 25 kilometer secure buffer zone around their project site has been accepted by the Mozambique government, in part due to U.S. security assistance.
These U.S. (and French) policy moves in Mozambique have led some Africa watchers to warn of the “Iraqification” of Africa. In other words, the U.S. is creating an expanding, self-justifying military presence with open-ended mission goals tracked by fuzzy performance metrics.
Africa policy observer Jasmine Opperman says of U.S. and French current policies in Mozambique: “The worst…would be an intervention, direct or not, of the great powers.”
Yet, that is exactly what the Biden and Macron governments are in the process of doing.
There are still reasons for optimism in Africa
But despite the Biden administration’s predictable ramping up of U.S. involvement in Africa’s most intractable military conflicts, many foreign policy analysts, like Morris, remain optimistic for Libya and other African countries.
For starters, after years in which rival groups in Libya asserted their legitimacy as the country’s rightful government, the parliament approved a national unity government on March 10, headed by Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dabaiba. The transfer of power was peaceful. Something that can never be taken for granted.
Due to Libya’s oil wealth, when it is stable, it is central to all of the Sahel economies, including Tunisia, which still has a functioning (though fragile) democracy. Prior to the Libyan civil war, money sent home from migrant work in Libya was a big part the economy of all Sahel countries. That source of stability may soon return.
“Libya’s population is rich and educated enough, that it’s easy to imagine Tunisia’s experiment spreading there if stability can be preserved,” asserts Morris. “Algeria and Morocco are both relatively rich, fairly well organized places that are very ready for a new system. With a stable Libya, Tunisia could lead a North African block into democracy. This stability wouldn’t just shut down refugee flows, it would provide a new platform for cooperation and economic development, which would, in turn, lead to stability and prosperity for the whole of the Sahel.”
“The Sahel can be a resource for the world’s diplomats and business people again, instead of just a profit center for the French and U.S. militaries,” says Morris. “This isn’t just possible, it’s the most likely result if Libya manages to stabilize.”
Now if only the U.S. and France don’t find a way to screw up this progress.