“The most distant place imaginable”

Timbuktu. A place only talked about in stories; a figure of speech. Yet, suddenly it is talked about on the news, in serious discussions. But overseas conflict is one of those things we never seem to get. They are the items that appear towards the middle of the news, after the headlines but before the feel good stories, just when we are not paying attention. They talk of conflict and loss of life yet for some reason, the information never really penetrates. It takes a mass hostage situation, like that in Algeria, to pinch us awake. Headline News. Once again it comes down to the fact that we don’t know enough about it. I don’t know about you, but my knowledge of historical African politics is severely lacking.

I think this is the simplified gist of what happened.  Throughout the 20th century, the vast swathes of Northern Africa, colonised by western countries, began to claim back power. It seemed an optimistic time for these nations, who felt this was the way to shape their futures. However, given a blank canvas, there were too many ideas, too many different opinions for a single country, so most ended up being ruled over again, just by a slightly more localised power. This wasn’t appreciated by many of their people as they tended to be run by a very select, not always honorable group of people, who didn’t improve conditions. Unemployment grew as living standards fell and as the century turned, North Africa became agitated. In the case of Egypt or Libya, the educated, well-connected youth inspired their nation to rise up against their oppressive rulers. They finally over-threw the regime they had known all their lives. But unfortunately it wasn’t all shooting in the air and uplifting graffiti.

The fighting across Africa has brought countless casualties and changed the shape of thousands of lives. In most cases it has just given way to a different group of arguing men. There are many groups who don’t agree with the values of the west or feel the west could have done more to help them. It is these people who have the local knowledge to trade firearms between boarders. These people who retreated into the Saharan desert to escape their own civil wars and conflicts, and are now the people with expertise in desert warfare. They have known little of political stability and their religious views tend to be extreme. It seems these groups have lost ties with their country of origin, feeling a closer bond to those with similar causes elsewhere in the desert.

These factors have an influence on the Algerian situation. One theory is that once the French got involved in reclaiming the area of northern Mali that has been held by rebels for the past year, these extremist anti-west groups decided to make their feeling on the subject known. Algeria was widely criticised for their rapid military intervention, many western countries argued that they would have be able to end the situation more successfully. But Algeria kept them at arm’s length; after all they had been trained by the west. Many people made it out of the situation safely, but lives were lost. As the west criticised further from afar, hostages fresh from their ordeal, praised the Algerian forces. We still don’t really know what happened.

Now, news has come out that the French assault appears to have been fruitful. They have taken a number of key cities Goa, Hombori… with troops from Niger and Chad are supporting them, the offensive is moving quickly. Next city on the list? Timbuktu: the perfect symbol for our limited knowledge and influence in Africa. As the dictionary defines it; “the most distant place imaginable”, a place that for generations has describe somewhere unknown and out of our reach. It’s worrying that these are the places that are seen as an ever increasing threat in the future. Yet with British nationals ordered out of Libya and Somalia, the danger feels somewhat more imminent. The ripples of the North African conflicts are starting to reach us but will we be sucked in to them too? Something to keep an eye on, I think.


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