When the UK and other countries decided to protect the Libyan rebels and assist their revolution a year ago, the Prime Minister, Foreign Secretary and other leaders promised that the lessons of Iraq would be learned; and that plans would be in place to deal with the aftermath.
Those promises are ringing hollow in Mali and Niger today.
It was shocking to learn that the President of Mali, Amadou Toumani Touré, had been ousted in a military coup. After all, for twenty years, Mali has been recognised as one of the more successful democracies in Africa.
The soldiers who carried out the coup say that they did so because of Touré’s handling of the Tuareg rebellion in the north of the country – a rebellion that many in Africa, including the ousted President, attribute to the impact of the Libyan revolution.
Raymond Yoro, the National Executive Secretary of CAFOD partner CADEV Niger, recently told me:
“The fighting in the north of Mali today is a direct consequence of what happened in Libya. People left Libya with arms: they brought millions of tonnes of arms into Mali, and that is why there is a problem at the moment.
“I met President Touré recently, and he said to me that people should stop thinking of the fighting in the north of his country as a Tuareg rebellion, because it is the people who came from Libya that brought the arms.
“Today the rebels say that they are fighting for independence, but they are not the only people who live in the north. There are several other tribes who don’t want independence, and there is a large group of Tuareg who are not in agreement with the ones who want to separate the region.
“The President was annoyed that it’s not more widely recognised that the rebellion in the north of Mali is a problem that came from Libya. He said it’s like someone cleaning his courtyard, throwing all the rubbish into his neighbour’s courtyard and then coming back and saying to his neighbour: ‘Your courtyard is very dirty’. The fighting in Mali is happening because of Libya. That’s the true problem.”
Adding to the food crisis
The fighting in the north of Mali has, according to UNOCHA, so far driven 200,000 people from their homes. More than 25,000 people have been forced to cross the border into a near-desert region of neighbouring Niger that is already facing severe food and water shortages. With CAFOD’s support, CADEV has been providing emergency aid to the refugees, but there is no sign of the crisis abating.
“I’d be astonished if the refugees can return to Mali soon,” said Raymond. “There’s no solution in sight, and one isn’t going to happen overnight. We just hope they will be able to go back to their own land during the rainy season, so that they can farm.”
That was before news of the military coup in Mali emerged, which has reduced the prospect of the refugees returning home and made it more likely that thousands more will join them.
The revolution in Libya has also had a devastating effect on Niger itself: hundreds of thousands of Nigeriens were forced to leave Libya in 2011 because they were being targeted during the fighting.
“I know that people in Europe see the revolution in Libya as a good thing, but for us it was very bad indeed,” said Raymond. “Hundreds of thousands of people from Niger were working in Libya. They did all sorts of work: building work, housework, often the jobs that Libyans didn’t want to do. They were working to support their families back home. The remittances they sent home were very, very important to the economy of Niger.
“But during the revolution, people in Libya lost their heads. They went completely mad. They seemed to think that all Sub-Saharan Africans were mercenaries who would take arms to support Gaddafi. People from Niger working in Libya were attacked and even murdered. They had no choice but to flee: they had to run for their lives.”
Today, millions of people in Niger and neighbouring countries are facing devastating food shortages.
The shortages have principally been caused by a disastrous harvest last year. But the loss of remittances from Libya, and the influx of refugees from Mali, has undoubtedly made the situation worse.
Right now, Mali and Niger are having to deal with the aftermath of the Libyan revolution with barely any help from Western governments. However unwittingly, our countries helped to create these crises; we cannot now look the other way.