Stop stereotyping Northwest Africa

The events of recent weeks, in both Algeria and Mali, seems to have surprised many globe watchers. A militant Islamist force with somewhat inevitable links to Al-Qaeda suddenly began to threaten Bamako, the Malian capital, forcing the ex-colonialist power, France, to intervene and save the city from harsh sharia law. In retaliation to such an ‘invasion’, another force attacked a BP-run oil plant in Algeria, taking hostages and then killing many foreign workers. At a first glance, the continent seems to have taken a dramatic turn for the worse. It took Western media about a day to dub the area ‘the new Middle East’.

But surely the threat was obvious before it became overt? This is a region with problems which hardly anywhere else has to deal with to such extremes – tribalism, vast ungovernable areas, debt, poverty and political instability. Any of these factors would be cause for alarm, taken together it is astounding that Britain’s government is only now focusing on intellegence gathering in the region. The realities which make life for many Africans so hard also breed religious fanaticism. We cannot just be noticing the relationship between cause and effect.

At best, certain recent events have made things worse and caught our attention. The Arab spring has turned countries which once acted the region’s police force (Egypt, particularly) into political quagmires. The Malian rebels grouped together in neighbouring Libya. At worst though, it is only the direct threat to Western lives and interests which has made us care about the world’s most vulnerable nations.

Leaving this debate over the reasons for the West’s unpreparedness for you to mull over, I want to examine why the press’s comparison of Northwest Africa to the Middle East is flawed. And flawed it is.

One of the central causes of Middle Eastern Islamism in recent years has been systematic repression and abuse by entrenched militarist regimes. This hasn’t been the case in Africa. Here, although political freedom has been scant, there has not been any stable regimes. If the Middle East has suffered from overbearing power, northwest Africa has suffered from a vacuum of it. The West would do well to remember this crucial difference as it attempts to help liberalise both regions. It should also keep in mind that its aim is not just fighting terrorism directed at its shores, but also securing the safety of its southern neighbours.