Al Qaeda And Drought Drive West Africa's Mauritania Back Into Dire Poverty

A devastating drought has only made matters worse for residents in the northwestern African nation of Mauritania, where Jihadist attacks and kidnappings attributed to Al Qaeda had already killed off the local tourism industry.

In Mauritania, the road is long and dry...and dangerous. (c.hug)
In Mauritania, the road is long and dry...and dangerous. (c.hug)
Isabelle Mandraud

CHINGUETTI -- The innkeeper at the Blue Moor, a hotel perched along the scenic Adrar plateau, looks sad as he waters the plants. "It took so much time to make this garden grow," he says with a sigh.

Here in northeast Mauritania, this innkeeper is alone. He hasn't seen a single tourist arrive for more than two years. Like the other 35 inns in this former medieval trading city of Chinguetti, which was designated in 1996 as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Blue Moor is now closed down.

Located some 600 kilometers from Nouakchott, the capital, Chinguetti is currently in the midst of a serious drought. But its problems began even before that, thanks to a radical militia group known as Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. The group is active in several northwestern African nations, including Mauritania. Like much of the African Sahel, Chinguetti and the surrounding area is now considered highly dangerous for tourists. France's Foreign Affairs Ministry, for example, issues regular travel advisories.

Following several jihadist attacks and kidnappings of Westerners, the Mauritanian government began to take on the threat. But the damage was already done. According to Mauritania's tourism minister, Bamba Ould Daramane, extreme poverty, which had dropped by 50% following a surge in desert-hiking tourism in the early 2000s, has since skyrocketed.

Selling off camels, one by one

A destitute family has taken up residence just in front of the Caravan Hotel, the first hotel to open in Chinguetti in 1989. Children with tattered clothing play in a dirty courtyard surrounded by crumbling walls. Their visibly distressed father says he no longer has the means to feed his children.

"Almost the entire population benefited from tourism: hotel owners, businesses, artisans and camel drivers. You cannot imagine what that meant," says Dadde Ould Slama, the mayor of Wadane, a neighboring town of roughly 4,500 people.

Wadane is 60 kilometers from Chinguetti and has also been dramatically affected by the drop in tourism. "Before, we would welcome 8,000 or 9,000 visitors every year, without counting the Paris-Dakar Rally," says Ould Slama. "Then everything stopped. Today, it is very discouraging."

The Dakar Rally, a daredevil road race with a leg that took racers through Mauritania, was relocated to South America three years ago due to security concerns.

Because of the downturn in tourism, camel drivers had to sell off their livestock, little by little. Hotel employees were let go. Artisans no longer have work. "We cannot even afford to pay our bills to the bank," says Ndel Khairi, the manager of the Caravan Hotel and a cousin of the owner.

The luckiest eke out an existence with small-scale farming. But many Mauritanians, young people in particular, have left to join the already swelling population of the shantytowns surrounding Nouakchott.

Running low on food... and aid

Making matters even worse for the area is a severe drought that struck Mauritania beginning last year. According to the World Food Programme (WFP), nearly 700,000 people are currently in a "state of food insecurity" – three times the number in 2010. In a report made public on Feb. 9, the WFP recommends "urgent action to assist the poorest households and to avoid a major humanitarian catastrophe."

In Atar, the regional capital of the Adrar, Geneviève Courbois knows the situation well. After living more than 20 years in Mauritania, the Frenchwoman is struggling to combat malnutrition as the head of the organization she founded, Children of the Desert. "It is devastating," she says. "People no longer have any resources."

Nor is there much outside aid. The halt in tourism has had additional consequences. International flights no longer touch down at Atar's airport, where protests broke out last September. Volunteer medical professionals from abroad and NGOs now hardly come to the region.

Last Thursday night, in front of Mauritania's presidential palace, a man was tackled to the ground just before he could light himself on fire. Mohamed Abderrahmane Ould Bezeid, a teacher in his 30s, had just been posted to a teaching position in a remote part of the country. When he refused to go, the state suspended his salary.

Read more from Le Monde in French

Photo - c. hug

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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