North Africa’s Troubles: The Gift that Keeps on Giving
The North Africa Journal | By Arezki Daoud | North Africa is in an accelerated downward spiral, and the bottom is nowhere near. All indicators, whether they are economic, political, and social point clearly to the the fact that the entire region has sunk to a new low. While it would be easy to equate today’s North Africa to yesterday’s American wild west, there is a massive difference and that is there is no “Sheriff in town” in North Africa. The region and its populations are left to fend for themselves, abandoned by their politicians, abused by their business leaders.
In many cases, the protagonists use violence and intimidation against those seeking or saying the truth, using a repressive police system. Some use the ultimate measure of assassination, as it was the case for the anti-Ennahda crusader in Tunisia, Chokri Belaïd. Mr. Belaïd was gunned down because he did not agree with the people in power, namely Rached Ghannouchi and the agents of the Salafism and Wahabism in his country. These were the same sort of things ex-dictator Ben Ali did to his opponents. These acts of violence are meant to force people to forget about democracy, justice and the rule of law, so that officials in power and their allies in the Gulf and the West do their business without scrutiny.
Evidence in the region prove almost beyond reasonable doubt that government officials there tend to be utterly corrupt, and sometimes outright dangerous. Global corporations doing business with these rogue officials are facilitating and even enhancing the act of corruption, and the general public and the tax payers are left holding the bag. Ironically, even the flamboyant ex-Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has recently suggested to decriminalize bribery so that Italian companies pay for favors in third-world nations without being bothered.
The latest accusations of wrongdoing allegedly involve Algeria’s ex-Oil Minister Chakib Khelil, and an obscure intermediary the nephew of ex-Foreign Minister Ahmed Bedjaoui.
These cases are just the tip of the iceberg in what could be the massive fleecing of North African economies. These acts of theft, corruption, and abuse of power, if proven to be the case, involve a network of solid global corporations. Those implicated in the Sonatrach and East-West motorway scandals include Italian oil servicing firm Saipem, its parent company the giant ENI, and now one of the protagonists, Farid Bedjaoui, the nephew of the “respectable” Minister is dragging Canada’s engineering firm SNC Lavalin into yet another PR headache. This company is not new to scandals. Not too long ago, it was involved in so many bad things in Libya, even seeking to help one of the Gaddafi sons to flee his country amid a civil war. This time, fresh allegations of wrongdoing in Algeria are surfacing, with the company accused of paying bribes via Farid Bedjaoui to secure contracts there.
Corruption is endemic in the entire region. The case of Saipem, ENI and SNC Lavalin surfaced because of a diligent judiciary in Italy and Canada, and a very aggressive media system that allows reports to cover such cases and the public to know about them. They happen to be high-profile companies so the media is very interested. In Algeria, these cases have been dragging for years. The intelligence services have long known about these wrongdoings but Judges, which happen to have their hands tied due to a broken legal system, have been prevented from doing anything at all. They are now trying to play catch up, but they are afraid to move further in fear of finding deep ramifications and links going further up along the pyramid of power.
Elsewhere in the region, the situation in no better or different. In Morocco, where the economy is struggling, partly because of an economically depressed Europe, and largely because of structural rigidities, ideologues in government, aided by the Islamists of the PJD party of Prime Minister Benkirane launched an initiative to reform the audio-visual sector (TV and radio) by pushing for a set of laws that have not been subjected to public debate or third-party scrutiny.
For them, what the Moroccan voter thinks is irrelevant. Another symbol of a broken government controlled by a few came in the form of the release of a list of individuals who were granted licenses to operate public transportation lines. The list was never vetted, discussed or pre-published for public comment. It was simply imposed by the monarchy without the normal public tender process. Interestingly, the list contains names of powerful individuals, including the father of Fouad Al-Himma, a close friend and ally of the King, who often oversees security matters on behalf of the monarchy. Many others who are in no need of running a transport business and are known to be wealthy were granted lucrative licenses. Prime Minister Benkirane may not have been behind the list, but his inaptitude to stop it shows how deeply dysfunctional the governance system is.
In Libya, global corporations and shadowy contractors are back with a vengeance, seeking multi billion dollar contracts to rebuild the battered nation. Although in normal circumstances I would say “good for them,” all this is happening when the country has no laws to protect it and an efficient judicial and security system to enforce the laws. The constitution does not exist yet, and so politicians are making arbitrary decisions based on their ideological allegiances and whomever is paying them. Consider the illogical and arbitrary ruling from the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court that allows a husband to marry a second wife, or additional wives, without the consent of his first wife (wives). This arbitrary call is meant to overturn laws that were in place during the Gaddafi era. Although I understand the need to distance oneself from the era of the dictator, it makes no sense to promote a law that completely demean women and do it in contradiction to Sharia teachings that require the first wife's permission. This is a return to a medieval era in the hands of men who abide by no law but their views only.
As North Africa's politicians and businesses destroy their countries with their bad behavior, they are aided by very powerful outside forces that are in there to advance their own interests. The West usually comes to mind with its centuries of meddling. France's recent intervention in Mali is the latest episode of a war where the endgame is not clearly defined. But there is also the so-called emerging powers that are using their money to buy influence, sometimes in deadly ways. Perhaps the most devastating competition for influence is the race between Qatar and Saudi Arabia to insure that their ideologies dominate the region. Fueling the radical religious movements in the region, their competition within North Africa is illustrated by the very fights that we are witnessing between the moderate Islamists (perhaps Tunisia PM Hamadi Jebali was one of them) and the more extremist voices that resort to violent actions such as the killing of opponent Belaïd. In this Saudi-Qatar competition, Analysts believe that Qatar carries the Wahabist ideology, formerly driven by Saudi Arabia, which is now said to be promoting the more aggressive Salafist faction. Infightings in political Islam in places like Egypt, Tunisia, and elsewhere are proxy fights on behalf of these rich and dangerous regimes of the Gulf. Their fight has apparently extended to beyond North Africa and into the Sahel/Sahara, which is home of many shadowy organizations from MUJAO to Ansar Eddine and Ansar Sharia, and Al-Qaeda proper. Relatively new in this game, and first emerging as a central player during the Libyan civil war, Qatar is now front and center in many international crises, and is accused of pushing a religious agenda all around. When the Islamist rebels took control of Gao, Timbuktu and other Mali towns, all NGOs left, and were immediately replaced by Qatar-based "charitable organizations."
But Qatar is not alone and Saudi Arabia has billions of dollars to spend pushing its agenda. These Gulf countries are also facing new competition. While Mali is sinking in despair with no government or authority to make proper decisions, China has been showering it with free money and donations, making sure that the corrupt trade officials of Bamako endorse a complete removal of custom taxes on 95% of goods imported from China. The decision to establish a free trade-zone to the benefit of China was made in July 2012, as Mali was in the middle of one of its worst political crises. In other words, China bought Mali’s favors long before it even has a functioning government. While it is easy to be suspicious of the Chinese motives of engaging in “business as usual” with a dysfunctional Mali government, the case of Turkey is both alarming and puzzling. Turkish religious interests, in the person of the Mufti of Eyyub, accompanied by his colleague from Istanbul, has decided to build a brand new grandiose mosque in Mali to also act as the headquarters of the High Islamic Council, Mali’s highest Islamic authority. Charity and solidarity with other people are always good things. But pushing for these types of initiatives when a war is being waged is highly suspicious. China and Turkey should be working to influence stability in Mali and not just free gifts to advance their own strategic agendas.
There are plenty of bad cases to report and not too many good ones. But one glimmer of hope comes to mind that certainly might have positive implications on the region and its people in the longer run. In the face of bankrupt governments, dysfunctional legal systems and corrupt practices is the emergence of new technologies that allow individuals to talk, exchange ideas, share information and keep track of events on the ground. The explosion in the use of smartphones, equipped with cameras and Internet access, the proliferation of civil society groups on Facebook and other web platforms, the massive use of communications tools like Twitter are relatively new factors that are likely to change some of the old behaviors practiced by the regimes. It is unclear how this will reshape the political landscape exactly, but at least these tools are providing a platform for the average citizen of the impoverished Ain-Leuh in Morocco, Djanet and the Kabylie mountains in Algeria, Ghat in Libya and Siliana in Tunisia to tell their stories. As for the rogue politicians and their business allies, they can run for a short while, but they cannot hide.
These topics and more are discussed in our latest report. Please go here to download full copy.