When I returned from Nigeria at the end of February, it was at the tail end of the Harmattan, a season when the winds from the north deposit the finest sand from the Sahara onto Lagos’s every surface. The city was hot and dry, and the markets were bursting with life.
I’m not a vegetarian, but in Lagos, nutrient-dense produce surrounded me, inviting me to cook with it. I was grating coconut flesh to extract its milk, pickling star fruit and replenishing the salad bowl with bunches of palm-sized spinach greens straight from the backyard.
Back in Brooklyn, I am still cooking, but mostly from my pantry, using staples and hearty vegetables that I am stretching as far as my imagination allows. I first made this spicy vegetarian yam and plantain curry on a hot night in Lagos, but I now find myself revisiting it again and again. It is a brothy version of asaro, a rich stew made in kitchens and bukas, or roadside restaurants, across the south of Nigeria, and it is my ultimate comfort food.
Built around long-lasting hearty greens and root vegetables, the core components are West African yam and plantain, but you can substitute at will. No yams? Use any potato that’ll hold up in a soup. Yellow plantains instead of green? Use them, but drop them in toward the end of cooking. And there is room for herbs, greens and any alliums you have on hand. It is gluten-free and vegan, but it doesn’t have to be; add a little crayfish or bacon to give it heft, or a little flour to thicken the broth.
This asaro is a one-pot meal that makes plenty, so several meals will come of the washing, trimming and chopping required. It’s the kind of stew you can heat and reheat, and the flavors intensify each time. If you hold off on adding the greens until you’re ready to serve, you can refrigerate it up to a week, and it freezes beautifully, too. The real joy is that it is a lighter, warm-weather kind of stew that is a meal on its own or paired with any grilled meat or fish.
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It’s a dish that reminds me of the last trip home I’ll be making for a while, and one that lends comfort in the meantime.
These reports come against a backdrop of pirate attacks against merchant ships in West Africa, particularly in the Gulf of Guinea between Côte d’Ivoire and Gabon. They have also led to attention-grabbing headlines about a “piracy surge” or even “waves of terror”.
In 2019, kidnappings of seafarers in the Gulf of Guinea reached an unprecedented number. Attacks against merchant ships were recorded off Togo, Benin, Nigeria, Cameroon and Equatorial Guinea. The area is often described as “the world’s most dangerous seas”.
Piracy is a significant threat for shipping companies operating in the region. Industry organisations have pointed out that urgent action is required and that seafarers should not be “exposed to such appalling dangers”.
The human cost is significant and hostages aren’t the only victims. Representatives from seafarers’ unions have pointed out that their members are at considerable risk for just doing their jobs, and even crews on ships that are merely transiting are on edge.
Based on a thorough analysis of attack patterns and overall maritime activities in the region, I am convinced that it will be impossible for navies and other security agencies to improve maritime security as long as root causes are not addressed. Many security incidents at sea, and notably kidnappings of seafarers, are merely an extension of land-based issues.
At the heart of the problem are activities by criminal groups based in the Niger Delta where kidnappings on land have long been a security challenge. Unless the massive security problems in the Delta are resolved, no significant headway will be made at sea.
Beyond attention-grabbing headlines there’s no consensus on figures. Not even the reports mentioned above include the same numbers. That matters because shipping companies make commercial decisions based on official statistics, and budgets for security agencies are allocated depending on the scope and scale of the problem.
For example, the International Maritime Bureau reported that 121 seafarers were taken as hostages during attacks in the Gulf of Guinea in 2019. This represented more than 90% of global kidnappings at sea recorded by the centre.
At the same time, the organisation only reported 64 attacks in the Gulf of Guinea last year. This was a decrease of 19% compared with 2018.
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The US Maritime Administration highlighted a similar trend in a recent advisory even though the overall numbers are much higher. It reported that there were 129 attacks in 2019 after 145 attacks in 2018, representing an 11% drop.
The French Navy’s Mica centre, on the other hand, reported a 20% increase in attacks against ships across the Gulf of Guinea between 2018 and 2019 (from 90 to 111 incidents).
Overall, numbers differ due to reporting standards and categorisations aren’t comparable. Similar events are often classified in different ways. For example, the IMB recorded four hijacked ships in 2019, the US Maritime Administration noted six, and the MICA centre classified 26 incidents as hijackings.
Annual statistics are further complicated by increased awareness. Incidents that would not have been reported a few years ago are now included in publicly available data, even though they may be linked to other criminal activities at sea.
During my own research, I have come across many cases where such activities were linked to incidents broadly described as “pirate attacks”, without a detailed analysis of individual circumstances.
Such differences underline that annual statistics are not necessarily a valuable tool for understanding issues in the Gulf of Guinea. Rather, security agencies have to gain a broad understanding of all maritime security challenges. Based on such knowledge, a transparent analysis of incidents is possible, providing the necessary background for commercial decisions or law enforcement operations.
Extension of a land problem
Attacks at sea are generally conducted by criminal groups based in the Niger Delta. Throughout the region, there is an ample supply of foot soldiers and camps in remote locations where hostages can be held during negotiations, the prerequisites for a lucrative business model.
Highlighting the direct link with Nigeria is important. On the one hand, neighbouring countries are unable to solve the problem unless security on land in the Niger Delta improves. On the other hand, spikes in attacks are possible at any time. For operators of merchant ships, the threat level can change within weeks, depending on factors such as weather, changes in traffic patterns or naval operations as well as the general situation on land in certain areas in the Niger Delta.
Furthermore, insecurity at sea is an overarching problem for regional governments. Pirate attacks may be particularly visible. But other concerns, such as fuel smuggling, illegal fishing or unregulated shipments of pharmaceuticals like Tramadol, are usually more pressing for government agencies.
The West and Central African region has made significant progress in fighting all types of illicit activities at sea. Various types of maritime security issues are mentioned in the Yaoundé Code of Conduct, adopted in 2013 and aimed at improving maritime security in West and Central Africa.
However, human and financial resources are scarce and maritime security is generally regarded as less important than land-based security challenges which directly affect domestic populations.
But insecurity at sea has a significant economic impact by hurting activities related to the maritime environment. Maritime business plans therefore must include security-related expenditures for navies, coastguards and other government agencies. These are needed to maximise the potential of the maritime environment. This, in turn, would show that better maritime security has direct benefits for economic growth and development.
France’s president and his counterparts from the Sahel region are due to meet to discuss military operations against Islamist militants in West Africa. We look at the figures behind the conflict, which is slipping out of control.
France summit: Sahel crisis in danger of slipping out of control
Attacks on army positions and civilians across the region are occurring with increasing regularity, despite the presence of thousands of troops from both the countries affected and France. Last year saw the highest annual death toll due to armed conflict in the region since 2012.
The Sahel region, a semi-arid stretch of land just south of the Sahara Desert, has been a frontline in the war against Islamist militancy for almost a decade.
However, it is increasingly clear that the problem facing Chad, Niger, Mali, Burkina Faso and Mauritania (known as the G5 Sahel) is not just the presence of armed groups, and that more than military action is urgently needed to address a worsening humanitarian crisis, climate change and development challenges.
The overarching worry is that the crisis could spread further across West Africa.
1. A fast deteriorating crisis
The security crisis in the region started in 2012 when an alliance of separatist and Islamist militants took over northern Mali, triggering a French military intervention to oust them as they advanced towards the capital, Bamako.
A peace deal was signed in 2015 but was never completely implemented and new armed groups have since emerged and expanded to central Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger.
Casualties from attacks in those countries are believed to have increased fivefold since 2016, with over 4,000 deaths reported last year alone.
2. The most deadly places
A stretch of land covering the border areas of Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger is at the centre of the insurgency and counter-terrorism operations.
Armed groups, including some linked to al-Qaeda and others the Islamic State group, have expanding their presence and capabilities.
The reasons behind their expansion are multiple:
Porous borders and little state presence in some areas
They have set up lucrative money-raising activities, such as imposing taxes, and trafficking drugs, weapons and people, which help fund their activities
Soldiers fighting the militants appear to be under-trained and poorly equipped, despite the regional and international support they receive
In addition to the joint G5 Sahel countries, which have an estimated 5,000-strong force battling the militants, the French have had 4,500 soldiers deployed in the Sahel since 2013.
The UN also has over 12,000 peacekeepers in Mali, while the US has two drone bases in Niger, providing intelligence and training support throughout the region.
Amid the rising insecurity, so-called self-defence groups have been formed. In Mali and Burkina Faso, these militias are believed to be behind a number of massacres.
3. Not just jihadists behind the violence
Most attacks on civilians remain unclaimed but the main armed Islamist militant groups in the Sahel are:
Al-Qaeda affiliated Jama’a Nusrat ul-Islam wa al-Muslimin – JNIM
Islamic State Group in the Greater Sahara – ISGS
Other armed groups with ethnic or political affiliations have also emerged
Ethnic tensions and economic rivalries have become mixed up with the Islamist insurgency, with accusations that members of the mainly Muslim Fulani ethnic group are linked to Islamists, which their representatives deny.
In addition, expanding deserts and climate change have magnified long-standing conflicts between mainly Fulani herders and pastoralists.
All this has led to the creation of ethnic militias on both sides, which have also been responsible for a horrific cycle of tit-for-tat mass killings.
Some security forces have been accused by human rights groups of unlawful killings during counter-terrorism operations.
Last week, a coalition of NGOs said that the “military response in the Sahel is part of the problem”.
Action Against Hunger, the Norwegian Refugee Council and Oxfam estimated that the army operation in Mali had forced more than 80,000 people to flee their homes – about 40% of all those displaced in the country.
4. Humanitarian crisis
As the population in the region is set to double over the next 20 years, the violence is exacerbating development challenges.
Growing enough food for everyone will become increasingly difficult and this is not being helped by the numbers of people who have been forced to flee their homes.
In Burkina Faso, the number of people internally displaced has risen from 40,000 at the end of 2018 to more than 500,000 at the end of 2019 – that is more that 2% of the population. In Mali, the number has practically doubled.
The violence is also storing up problems for future generations as some of the Islamist groups deliberately target schools and teachers, leaving hundreds of thousands of children without access to education.
They then become even more vulnerable to sexual exploitation, forced labour or recruitment into armed groups.
Five West Africa Countries have topped the energy access status in the ECOWAS region with their population having access to electricity, the ECOWAS Regional Centre for Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency (ECREEE) says.
Mahama Kappiah, Executive Director, ECREEE, disclosed this during his presentation at the ongoing Second Ordinary Session of the ECOWAS Parliament on Monday in Abuja.
He said that Cape Verde, Ghana, Senegal, Nigeria and Cote D’ivoire were leading in the region while Gambia, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Togo had the least status.
According to Mr Kappiah, only 42 per cent of the total ECOWAS population had access to electricity while only eight per cent of the rural population had access to electricity.
He said that more than 175 million people are without access to electricity services in the region, adding that more needed to be done to improve the statistics.
The ECREEE director said that about 1.7 million people would benefit from the introduction of the Regional Off-Grid Electrification Project (ROGEP).
He said that the estimated budget of the project was 223 million dollars, which was aimed at enhancing electricity access in West Africa and the Sahel region through stand-alone solar systems.
Kappiah added that the project would also benefit solar companies and local entrepreneurs from the ECOWAS, Mauritania, Cameroon and Chad.
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“The next phase of ROGEP under ECREEE leadership is Ghana, Guinea, Nigeria and Senegal, which are targeted because the countries are the major providers of candidates for emigration.
“The status of readiness of these countries to host the proposed activities is acceptable, given the political institution and technological environment.
“The implementation will create one million jobs, self employment for youths in the region, enhance various agriculture value chain as fundamental of the West Africa economy.”
The executive director added that the extension to all ECOWAS countries would follow recommendations by the ECOWAS Parliament.
The News Agency of Nigeria (NAN) reports that the mandate of the ECREEE is to sustain development and cooperation in the region with the objective of promoting cooperation among member states for the development of a viable regional infrastructure.
In particular, it has the specific sub-objectives of promoting provision of efficient, reliable and competitive energy sources to member states through the common exploitation of traditional and alternative energy sources.
It also promotes rural access to affordable energy in the region. (NAN)
Abuja — The United Nations yesterday reviewed the growing spate of criminal activities in West Africa and declared that $35 million worth of small arms are imported to the sub region yearly.
It also disclosed that about 10 million illicit small and light weapons circulate in West Africa.
Special Representative of the Secretary-General and Head of the United Nations Office for West Africa and the Sahel (UNOWAS), Mohammed Ibn Chambas, stated this in Abuja, at a Parliamentary Conference on legislative action for the containment of Small Arms and Light Weapons (SALWs) proliferation and terrorist financing, in Abuja.
The programme was jointly organised by the ECOWAS Parliament, National Institute for Legislative Studies (NILS), Africa Capacity Building Foundation (ACBF) and the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC).
Chambas who served as President of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Commission from 2006 to 2009, traced the root causes of conflict which give effect to small arms proliferation to deficits in governance at community and state levels.
These, he listed, to include exclusion, lack of respect for the rule of law, lack of accountability, corruption as well as unconstitutional changes of government.
The diplomat and lawyer harped on the need for practical action in tackling illicit small arms proliferation and violent extremism within a holistic, human security-centred approach.
He also called for effective coordination between the various initiatives and structures established to tackle violent extremism.
He said: “West African states are therefore necessary but not sufficient in addressing the governance of security, including illicit small arms and financial flows. Non-state actors are playing more prominent roles in the proliferation of SALW in West Africa. Ethnic militia groups, private security companies, arms smugglers, criminal gangs, bandits, mercenaries, and vigilante groups all play their respective roles in the proliferation of SALW in West Africa. Indeed, a defining character of small arms proliferation in West Africa is the increasing difficulty of states to provide and guarantee public security. There is a palpable gap between government and governance in the security space.
“We should pay particular attention to border communities, resident in our extensive and often porous borders, who are often the farthest from our capital cities and often with minimal state presence.”
On his part, the Speaker of Nigeria’s House of Representatives, Yakubu Dogara, called on Nigeria and The Gambia to join other ECOWAS members in the creation of National Commission on Small Arms Convention. He called on ECOWAS member states to enact laws that make “gun possession difficult.”
Dogara stated that the illicit circulation and illegal possession of small arms and light weapons have contributed to nurturing hotbeds of tensions and conflicts in Africa.
In her remarks, the Director General, NILS Ladi Hamalai, said the objective of the conference is to create a forum for dialogue among parliamentarians towards effective implementation of security policies.
Morocco’s admission to the African Union (AU) was a mistake. In one move, the AU squandered a chance to discourage the north African state’s aggression against Western Sahara. It also showed how the body struggles to enforce the implementation of its own standards and directives.
Morocco easily met the AU’s admission criteria. It’s geographically located within Africa and was voted in by more than a simple majority.
These are soft requirements, and they are a problem. The AU doesn’t make any real effort to determine whether applicants are genuine democracies before it admits them. No steps are taken to ascertain that an applicant state has the capacity to implement democratic policies and norms.
This isn’t the first time the AU has admitted a country to its ranks without due diligence. It took a mere 18 days from South Sudan’s independence to its admission into the AU. At the time South Sudan lacked even the most rudimentary physical and human infrastructure to implement AU rules. It has since become a burden to the union.
It’s time for the AU to look beyond geography and a simple majority vote. It must start demanding strict adherence to fundamental democratic values.
Morocco’s smooth ride
From the time Morocco submitted its application until its formal admission, the question of Western Sahara was swept aside.
The African Union has a poor disciplinary track-record. So there’s no guarantee that it will take any serious action against Morocco – beyond its ineffective suspension procedure – if it intensifies its aggression against Western Sahara.
The issue of Western Sahara aside, the AU has made no effort to assess the ability of Morocco’s domestic institutions to implement the union’s democratic and economic policies. Had the AU subjected Morocco to a proper due diligence exercise, it would have found that its occupation of Western Sahara violates the principles stipulated in articles 3 & 4 of the AU’s Constitutive Act which are territorial integrity, respect of borders, and non-interference in the internal affairs of a member state.
In addition, the AU would have found that the Moroccan government is notorious for forcing dissidents serve long prison terms after unfair trials for purely political reasons.
The consequences of lax admission rules
The failure to consider democratic values as part of the AU’s admission process continues to have a number of negative effects. The absence of strict pre-conditions for membership has made it difficult for the union to manage errant behaviour among member states.
Member states not only routinely disregard the AU’s basic democratic norms, they have also refused to agree on a common understanding of these norms.
Even in cases where AU organs have recommended sanctions for serious violations of human rights, as in the case of Burundi, some member states refused to vote in favour of collective military intervention.
Member states have shown a reluctance to strengthen the democratic functions of the AU. And, there’s no common position on how to move the union beyond the rhetorical plane.
With a strict pre-admission process, issues of compliance with AU rules and regulations could be easily determined, and the necessary measures to address violations adapted.
Which way forward?
It’s not naive or idealistic to suggest that the AU needs stricter admission criteria. The union has strong democratic foundations which are espoused in the Constitutive Act.
These were the democratic values championed by African states as the union transitioned from the Organisation of African Unity in the year 2000.
That little attention has been paid to upholding the continental organisation’s democratic ethos remains one of the key drawbacks of the AU.
It missed the opportunity to push its democratic agenda during the processes that admitted first South Sudan and then Morocco. Thankfully, the AU can still redress this position by amending its Constitutive Act for future applications.
I am proposing a fourth condition for admission: the strict adherence to democratic norms as stipulated in articles 3 & 4 of the Constitutive Act.
The prospect of enlarging the AU to include the African Diaspora presents the union with an opportunity to enforce a stricter admission process. Haiti is likely to apply again for AU membership and if it’s admitted this could open the door for other countries in the Caribbean and Latin America.
If this happens, then the AU should subject each applicant state to a process that assesses its ability and willingness to comply with the union’s democratic norms, the likely obstacles to that compliance, and the feasibility of assisting the applicant state to redress its democratic shortfalls.
That could ideally be done through a strengthened African Peer Review Mechanism. Such process should be tailored to assess the political and economic readiness of an applying state to fulfil AU obligations.
Edition first published by Babatunde Fagbayibo , Associate Professor of International Law, University of South Africa/ The Conversation