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Sahel Region: On Paying Ransom for Hostages

Hostage-taking by a militant Islamist group called Al-Qaeda in The Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) is on the rise in the Sahel region which spans across several countries in the north of Africa. In order to free hostages, governments and companies have put political pressure on the African nations involved, or opted to pay ransoms directly. However, the strategy of paying ransom is often decried as ineffective and dangerous in the long run.

The kidnapping in Niger in September of five employees of French nuclear company Areva and two employees of engineering-firm Satom underscores that this is becoming an increasingly dangerous region. AQIM has claimed responsibility for the seven kidnappings (five French citizens, plus one Togolese citizen, and one citizen of Madagascar).

In August 2010, AFP reported that two Spanish hostages captured by AQIM were freed [fr] when the Spanish government paid a ransom, and the government of Mali facilitated a prisoner exchange with a convicted AQIM kidnapper who was jailed in Mauritania.

Algerian newspaper La Tribune reported that [fr] the admiral heading the French army in the region, Édouard Guillaud said that although France's position is that paying ransoms is “not a sustainable strategy” they would not exclude the possibility if circumstances called for it. In an article entitled “Ransom, a formidable weapon for terrorist group,” columnist Ali Boukhlef argues that payment of ransoms amounts to funding and support for terrorism.

The recent hostage situation leads many observers to pose troubling questions.

On the blog l’Observatoire du nucléaire says:

.., the fact of the kidnapping have to make one wonder about the relative ease with which the kidnapping took place, giving the French authorities a golden opportunity to intervene with the army. In fact, AREVA and the French authorities were alerted by various means that threats were looming on their employees at the Niger uranium mines. Still, little was done to provide the necessary protection and it seems that AREVA even refused the help of the Niger authorities.

Reacting in Algerian La Tribune (via Allafrica.com), Saïda Benhabyles, the president of “The International Federation of Associations of Victims of Terrorism” (la Fédération internationale des associations de victimes du terrorisme) argues that ransom payments are [fr]: “the main source of funding for active terrorist groups in the African Sahel region.”

To counter the activities of the AQIM that are expanding in all the regions at the border of the Sahel, the Burkinabe website San Finna questions if African states should allow foreign military bases on their territories. The article offers two opposite viewpoints on the subject: First, Tomi, who is in favor of some form of international collaboration opines [fr]:

Many issues such as drug trafficking, AIDS, the spread of atomic weapons, pollution and terrorism cannot be resolved without international collaboration, no matter how powerful each individual nation is.

On the other hand, Tozi argues [fr]:

… A few elements (military bases) here and there in Niger, Burkina Faso and Mauritania will not get rid of the terrorism that has taken roots in Sahel. In Somalia, what was achieved against the Shebabs and the members of Hezb al-Islam ? In Iraq and especially in Afghanistan, did we do anything to eradicate the religious fanatics? … The reason this phenomenon grows is because there is a growing number of illiterate, impoverished, desperate people that they can recruit. If we don't give ourselves the necessary means and engage in this war against terrorism, the AQIM groups will hit our infrastructure, they will kill our tourism (about 400,000 tourists in Burkina Faso and 900,000 in Senegal for instance) and it will be the dawn of a whole new range of all kinds of trouble, and multiplied social fractures.

The Mecanopolis blog poses the following question: What exactly is AQIM and who is behind it? and explains:

AQIM started to appear on the scene around January 2007, taking after the Algerian group named “Groupe salafiste pour la prédication et le combat (GSPC)”, this group included many rebellious Tuareg groups in a desert region that spanned from Niger to Mauritania

For Bark Biiga on the Burkinabe diaspora website, Fasozine, the AQIM threat must be addressed heads on :

In view of the worrisome threat of AQIM in the Sahel, we must exit the vicious cycle of violence to find sustainable solutions to provide security for both the population of the region and the foreigners who come to live or work there. Otherwise, when France plays the “Johny-come-lately” doctor, it will only make things worse instead of addressing the roots of the problem.

The latest kidnapping certainly tainted the Malian independence celebration. Bark Biiga again writes in his column:

Isn't it the immense poverty and the lack of administrative presence in the Malian Sahel that made the bed for AQIM in the region? It is not only about freeing the hostages but also to make sure that Mali, Niger, Mauritania, Algeria or Burkina Faso are not a haven for terrorists and do not compromise the development of African population that have already paid a heavy toll to colonisation, bad governance, and under-development

Niger is one of the world's leading uranium producer , yet it has one of the lowest average GDP per capita in Africa. The sharing of revenues from the exploitation of this strategically important mining resource is problematic at many levels.

In Republicain-Niger, H. Adamou says:

The special relationship between France and Niger in the past led to exclusive access for France to the uranium at a ridiculously low cost, thanks to a special accord signed in 1961. A contract with Imounaren was of the same vein that resulted in the state of Niger getting only 33% of the share of the company. Meanwhile, the selling price of uranium is still well below what is currently available on the global market.

Two meetings have been held recently to help develop a strategy, one was a meeting of the major Sahel states on September 26. This was followed by a meeting of the heads of the intelligence agencies of Algeria, Mauritania, Niger and Mali on September 29.

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