Blogging the road 2 Timbuktu
Security in North West Africa
This article was written in 2009. I will update it soon.
Rather than lifting Africa out of the realm of myth and placing it on a more real, transparent and honest footing with the rest of the world, international politics and specifically the “war on terror” have encouraged a new mythology around security in “the dark continent”.
Travel to a western country in the current world climate poses many more issues of security than traveling to the far flung forgotten places to which I will take you. When travelling the western world you don’t need anyone to tell you about looking after your belongings or to overstate the risks of terrorist attack when you get on a plane or on public transport. You know that any major western city could be the target for an Al Qaeda attack. But you are at home, your risk assessment faculties are in tact, your BS sensors are tuned, you know that there is constant balance to be maintained between selling us the war on terror but not jeopardising too much our desire to fly around the world. We want the war but not the economic downturn.
What follows is intended to put the risks of travel to Africa in a more realistic context.
Personal security (theft or aggression to your person)
African society is built around the community and as a guest you are highly valued wherever you go. It is this ubiquitous community of people which guards your welfare.
Of course when traveling anywhere you have money and luxury goods on you, more in value than many African people will ever see in their hands in a lifetime, so normal vigilance is required. If you provide temptation at some point someone may be tempted.
In terms of threats to your person, I don't know of a single case. Urban myths perhaps, but no evidence or first/second hand knowledge.
The risk of terrorist attack
Which of these places are you most likely to find yourself in the wrong place at the wrong time?
- the World Trade Centre, New York
- the railways in Madrid;
- the public transport system in London
- a tourist bar in a popular tourist destination in Bali
- the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania
- a naval barracks in Algeria
- outside the French Embassy in Mauritania
- the house of a government official, Timbuktu.
You run a bigger risk of terrorist attack at the airport you fly from to reach Africa than anywhere on the continent.
International travel advisories
My view on the British Foreign Commonwealth Office and other government travel advice is that it is hard to know what to listen to and what to treat with a pinch of salt. So much of it is politically motivated, over generalized and more to do with covering bureaucrats’ and insurers’ backs than protecting citizens. For regular travellers it is actually dangerous because of the cry wolf syndrome.
A couple of anecdotes:
1. Before my first trip to Mali in 2006 I looked up the FCO page for travel advice. It said “High risk of terrorism. Attacks can be indiscriminate.” My BS sensors were alarmed by the latter phrase - surely that is the nature of terrorism anywhere, it is indiscriminate! So I googled “terrorist attacks Mali”. Not one incident came up.
The same thing was written on the FCO Mauritania web page before my first trip there in 2008. The first ever terrorist incident in Mauritania was in 2009 when a lone suicide bomber blew himself up a few hundred yards from the French Embassy in Nouakchott killing one other person.
(A little task for you: find an African country on the FCO where it does not say:
There is a general threat from terrorism in *****. Attacks could be indiscriminate, including in places frequented by expatriates and foreign travellers. You should be aware that there is a threat of kidnapping in the immediate and wider regions and particular care should be taken in remote regions and border areas. You should have confidence in your individual security arrangements and maintain a high level of vigilance. See the Terrorism section of this advice for more details.
(Well that covers them!! so if you travel without "individual security arrangements" i.e the army - and drop your "high level of vigilance" i.e guns pointing out for a moment you can't blame the FCO!).
Now trawl through the news pages of the BBC and see how many incidents of terrorism you can find in Africa outside regions of serious conflict like Sudan or Somalia.
2. Two days before the Festival In the Desert 2009, with 14 tourists already in Timbuktu eagerly awaiting the festival, I was alerted by a friend about an FCO travel warning which had just been posted on the Mali page. It stated that the Festival In The Desert was going to be targeted by Al Qaeda. The inference was that they were linked to Tuareg rebel groups. A few things didn’t stack up.
- Why would Tuareg rebels attack their own festival?
- How come there was no overt security presence in Timbuktu?
- How come the organisers and Malian officials seemed completely in the dark?
I went to the FCO Mali page. I sent emails to the email address listed for British consular services in Bamako. I called the various telephone numbers listed and left messages saying that I was taking 14 tourists (mainly British) to the Festival and needed more information. I even got hold of the consul’s private mobile number and left a message there. Oddly, at this time of crisis for Mali’s premier tourist attraction, nobody seemed to be looking into emails or answering phones or responding to messages on answer machines. Perhaps the British consulate was inundated by all the British tourists in this francophone country or perhaps they were concentrating on the only other British company that takes tourists to the Festival. In the end I put the case to my tourists. Having experienced a bit of Mali by this point, and feeling very secure, they opted to go to the festival and of course we had a trouble free time with no special security presence.
Unfortunately for the festival organisers 50% of the tourists already in Timbuktu pulled out, to the bafflement of the Malian government and the festival organisers.
I have been reminded of the 1997 targeted attacks on tourists in Luxor, Egypt when on two separate occasions a total of 70 tourists were gunned down. That is unheard of! Imagine if 70 tourists were killed in Britain! Shortly afterwards tourists going to Egypt were warned by the FCO to “be careful”.
Of course we have close political relations with Egypt, it is better placed strategically so we don’t want to trouble relations there.
The upshot of FCO advice for seasoned travellers is that rather than protecting us it is quite dangerous because of the cry wolf syndrome. When they blanket safe countries with overstated security alerts, it is hard to gage, in a country where there are problems, where are the real danger spots.
Always in my experience it is local, on the ground knowledge which is the most reliable. If an area of a country is seriously at risk of attacks on tourists the police and military would prevent any tourists travelling through. Obviously there is always the threat of one off attacks anywhere in the world, but realistically less likely in far flung remote places than big tourist resorts. As with most crime, more likely at home than abroad.
Mali update October 2010
You may have come across some security alerts for Mali in your research. So I wanted to put them in context for you so that you can make a more informed decision in case these alerts are worrying you.
The first thing to say is that whatever security issues there are in Mali, contrary to western government travel advisory bodies' advice, they do not affect the southern part of Mali from Timbuktu south - so the areas covered by my Festival In The Desert and Festival On The Niger trips. The issue currently troubling the Sahara is very much confined to the remote borderlands of Mali near Algeria and Niger, over a 1000 miles of empty desert north east of Timbuktu. So really it is like warning people not to go to the south of Spain on holiday because there is the Basque separatist movement of ETA operating in the north of the country, or not to go to London because of the Irish troubles. Actually it is less risky than this as ETA or the IRA could operate throughout the country, the group responsible for the security alerts in Mali can only operate in the very remote border regions. There has never been an incursion into Mali, Algeria or Niger proper as the interior is well policed. Nearly all hostage taking incidents have been against NGO workers or westerners living in the country and working in remote districts as their movements can be better surveyed and an attack planned. Tourist movements are less predictable.
The second thing to assure you about is that I keep myself well abreast of security issues through my local contacts. And I would never compromise on your security - if I felt an area of one of my trips was too dangerous I would cancel the trip without question, as I have done this year with my Tuareg Festival Safari.
Of the 25 African countries I have visited Mali is my favourite for the combination of its varied and stunning landscapes, the humour and hospitality of its people, the diverse and colourful cultures, its extraordinarily sophisticated music which is like a constant theme tune throughout any trip and the sense of security I feel there. When I travel to Mali from any of the other countries I visit I always feel a relief, a sense of homecoming.
So there is always a strange irony when every year I have to counteract the security warnings about Mali (and they do come every year) when I don't have to do this for any of the other countries in which I operate, some of whom have more cause for security questions.
I know quite a bit about the region affected as it is near where my Tuareg community is where I run my Tuareg Festival Safari trip. Because of my Tuaregs' concern I have had to cancel this trip this year. It is actually much more of an Algerian issue than a Malian one, which has been pushed outside Algeria's borders. The full politics of it all are far too complicated to go into now, but I will give a brief account.
As ever at its base this issue is really about resources - oil and uranium. I have never come across an Islamist point of view in Mali or indeed anywhere in West Africa. All mention of Al Qaeda by western governemnts is disingenuous and really serves to give France and the US the excuse to put in place a military presence whose real aim is to protect their interests in the resources. And the regional powers play along with the game for domestic reasons - they lap up the "counter terrorism" finance they receive and they can keep the Tuareg (the people who live in the desert and are sitting on the valuable land in Mali, Algeria and Niger) sidelined internationally by suggestion that they are involved. I have a particularly close affinity with Tuareg in the region in question at the moment and I can assure you that this has nothing to do with them. They are exasperated by it because it is destroying their livelihoods as they have always relied on tourism. Whatever "terrorist" presence there is in the desert it is not being orchestrated by the Tuareg.
The thing I find most strange is that I could lead you tomorrow to the place where this group that we are calling Al Qaeda (really a bunch of bandits who have been bigged up by the Al Qaeda label) are hold up. If I can take you there then so could the US and French military who have a presence in the region, and all the national militaries of the region. It is a small band of bandits, lightly armed and everyone knows where they are. It all begs the question, if this group really is affiliated with Al Qaeda and given we are supposedly in the middle of a War on Terror to eradicate Al Qaeda, why aren't they taken out? There would be no risk of collateral damage, the group could easily be seiged and the problem quickly eradicated. The US have claimed that the Sahara could be the third front on the War On Terror - if so why don't they deal with this issue now before it takes hold? And I can assure you it hasn't taken hold, as for this to happen there needs to be some sort of support for islamist ideology in the people/politics of the region and there is not.
But as I say, for your purposes the main thing to state is that this issue does not affect the area of Mali I cover in my Festival In The Desert Trip and the Festival On The Niger trip.
Mali is really like two countries, the north and the south, the desert and the sahel. And this issue does not creep into the southern part of Mali (Timbutku and south).