Security update for the Caravan of Peace and The Festival In the Desert

In consultation with the Burkina Faso government, the organisers of the Festival In the Desert have announced that the Festival In the Desert in Exile slot on the Caravan of Peace, 20-22 February 2013, has been moved to a location close to Ouagadougou to better guarantee the security of the festival.


The festival was to be held at Orsi in the north of Burkina Faso. 

While the islamists hold the region in Mali north of the Burkina border, an incursion into Burkina Faso for an attack on the festival itself is unlikely (see below). However, Orsi was felt to be too close to the border with Mali for comfort and so to safeguard the security of the festival it has been moved to a site close to the capital.


This is a good move. Of all the sites of the caravan, Orsi was the closest to islamist territory. This keeps the route of the caravan from Bamako to Segou and down to Burkina Faso for the Festival itself very secure all over.


Of course I get asked by friends and family why I am bothering to go to Mali and run a trip given that Mali is in political chaos and that a band of Al Qaeda affiliated islamists who have had a history of kidnapping westerners control the north of the country.

The simple answer is that I am not going to the north of Mali and where I am going I feel safe because civil society is functioning.


What is the threat?

Western tourists are warned not to go to the Sahara/sahel region of west Africa because there has been a threat of kidnap by islamist groups who currently occupy the north of Mali. Since 2008 until November last year 20-25 westerners have been kidnapped. Currently there are 10 hostages still being held.


I believe the caravan will be safe because:

a) the caravan is not going into risky areas.

b) I don’t see that there is a motive for the islamist groups to take more hostages as ransoms have dried up.

c) The islamist focus is now on holding down what they have got rather than venturing into territory they do not control.

d) They have never attempted to attack festivals or fight through security lines to take hostages, and I still don’t think they can. Hitherto nearly all the kidnappings have taken place in remote regions with no security, places where a couple of vehicles can go in and quickly take the hostages and flee back to the desert.  


Beyond the threat of kidnap there is no other significant threat to western tourists on the caravan of peace. Civil society throughout the route of the caravan is in tact, despite there being no real government in Mali and there has been no significant civil unrest.


Background to the kidnappings

I break the kidnappings that have taken place in the region since November 2008 into two groups. 


1) French nationals.

Roughly half of the hostages have been French. When French nationals are taken hostage the primary motive seems to be political. There are currently 7 French hostages. There have been 4 or 5 other French nationals who were either ransomed or they have died in botched rescue attempts.


The circumstances around French nationals being kidnapped are always murky and to do with the complicated relationships that France has in the region.


If I was French I would not be travelling in the region of the Caravan of Peace.


2) Other nationals. 

When other nationalities get taken hostage the motive seems to be overridingly financial not political. It is this ransom money that has enabled these groups to amass weapons to be doing what they are doing now. Some European governments (Spain, Germany, France, Switzerland) have paid large ransoms. European nationals were reasonably high risk because of this before the crisis but because the ransom money has dried up I think they are less so now.


UK, USA and Australian nationals

These nationals are, in my view, the safest in the region as their governments do not pay ransoms. The UK has had one national taken – Edwin Dyer – in one of the first groups taken January 2009. A ransom was demanded, Britain refused and then the demand became release of prisoners in the UK, and still they refused, and Mr Dyer was executed. Edwin Dyer is the only hostage to have been executed. At this stage AQMI wouldn’t have known perhaps that Britain wouldn’t pay, and to save face they had to go the distance as this was the beginning of their campaign. Since Dyer AQMI seem to have been more careful in who they take and no UK national has been taken. No USA or Australian national has ever been taken. 


I don’t think this is coincidental. Together these nationalities, at a guess, probably make up easily half of the tourists and ex-pats in the region, so if the kidnappings were random or ideologically motivated then more of these nationalities, their governments being in the fore front of the war on terror, would have been taken one would have thought.


The problem for AQMI etc with taking one of these countries’ citizens is that there’s no money and it all becomes a lot more serious. The reality is take a Portuguese guy, no one hears about it, the money gets paid. Take an American and you’ve got a big issue on your hands. Not only can UK/USA/AUS not be seen to be paying ransoms to Al Qaeda affiliated groups, but it takes the game to another level politically and potentially militarily. 


When your shelves are well stocked but nothing is shifting why add stock?

AQMI’s focus before the Mali crisis was moneyto build up their strength to what it is today.

Their focus now is holding what they have got against the likes of the MNLA (Tuareg rebels) from the desert, the Malian army and/or ECOWAS to the south and east, the Mauritanian army from the west, a potential Ansar Dine split from within and complicated internal divisions.


Currently they have 7 French nationals, a Dutchman, a Swede and a South African. 

The last group (non French) taken was the Timbuktu three last November 2011, just before the crisis began. No negotiations are going on for their release. European governments have wised up that it doesn’t pay in the long run and the game has changed as these groups now control half a country. No western government wants to be seen funding or further arming islamist groups we could end up fighting.


Why open your hand when you have all the cards?

If AQMI/MUJAO do want a battle they seem to want what they may well soon get: ECOWAS and/or Malian military. These forces are still completely unprepared, ill trained and unmotivated for a fight with mafia/islamists. It will not come in until at least September 2013, probably later. 

The only force that could seriously damage their position/interests would be a US/EU backed force? 

Why do anything that could bring about the one scenario you don’t want?


Real security lies in the community

My father asked me how, with no effective government in Mali, I could say I was safe on the streets of Bamako. I could only explain by comparing to the massacre of children in Newtown in America. Of course I am comparing apples and oranges, but I’m looking at our perceptions of risk.


12,000 people a year get killed by guns in America and yet the place is not in crisis. Mali is in crisis and only a couple of hundred people have been killed, mostly military in rebel attacks at the beginning. The presence of good government does nothing to protect Americans from gun crime. The non-presence of government does not turn Mali to chaos. My point being that governments are not our fundamental source of security.


Throughout the crisis, despite rebellion, coup d’etat x 2, islamist invasion, no functioning government, no one clearly in control, a divided and bruised military, civil society has held together and zero crime rates pretty much maintained because the community has remained in tact. 


In terms of gun crime statistics, America is a very unsafe country to visit – as many people get killed by guns in a year in the UK as do in a day in the US, and yet it has a functioning government and a functioning society and none of us would really think twice about going there. But the gun crime comes out of the community,it has to do with the guns in that community.It is in the community that the threat lies. Whenever we travel to another country we put our trust, first and foremost, in the community that we are in. 


Clearly the threat of being kidnapped in west Africa and the threat of coming across gun crime in America are very different sorts of risk, but in terms of our assessment of the risks we take when we travel they are the similar. For both, the risk is of being caught up in the wrong place at the wrong time. Which is the greater risk of stumbling unwittingly across a problem? If 12,000 people die a year in America I’d guess that one.


The risk of kidnap in west Africa does not come out of the community. In all my life in Africa I have never seen a gun  that was not in the hands of military or police. I have never seen a vehicle full of armed bandits. I have never heard a gun shot in anger. I have never been threatened, I have never seen conflict. Of course these things exist and can always happen anywhere, but they are not wandering around areas I go to and long before I have ever reached an area that is unsafe I am warned away.


Bamako still has loads of expats there and they don’t wander around with concern or extra security, there is no extra military presence on the streets, and yet the UK FCO will tell you Bamako is unsafe. Tthis is not based on any statistics or realistic threat. If it was really the case these expats would have left. This advise, as ever, is not about informing the traveller but about protecting the government from being responsible for its citizens abroad.


Real security anywhere is not in the hands of the authorities or governments, but in the hands of the community. This is what makes Mali fundamentally safe away from the north, and what best assures the security of the caravan of peace.