Gao was once the centre of the universe.
It was from here, on the sandy shores of the Niger River in what is now north-eastern Mali, that the Songhai Empire ruled West Africa in the 16th century, its domain stretching from Nigeria to Timbuktu, from the great riverbank towns of the Niger River to the Aïr Mountains deep in the Sahara. Within its borders were the richest gold deposits in the world and its emperors once marched across the desert to Mecca bearing 300,000 gold pieces.
Such largesse was nothing when compared to the Songhai Empire’s predecessor, the Empire of Mali, whose kings set out to search for the Americas 200 years before Columbus. Ruling West Africa for almost 500 years, the emperors of ancient Mali transformed Timbuktu into a city of legend with vast universities and streets paved with gold. Their extravagance caused the world gold price to slump for almost 20 years.
But Gao is now little more than an impoverished and dusty frontier town 350km beyond Timbuktu which has become a byword for the end of the earth.
As the leaders of the world’s richest and most powerful countries gathered in St Petersburg, a few hundred activists were meeting in Gao to hold what they called ‘the Poor People’s Summit’. Rather than flying to the conference first-class and meeting in lavish banquet halls, participants at the Gao summit travelled overland along rutted roads and by public buses for up to 1000km to reach the summit which was held in an abandoned secondary school.
That it should be Mali which hosted the summit was appropriate. According to the UN, Mali is the fourth poorest country in the world. Almost one-third of Malians suffer from malnutrition, while 90 per cent of the population survives, barely, on less than US$2 a day. Most Malians die before their 48th birthday.
That it should be West Africa that should hold such a summit is similarly apt. Sierra Leone, Niger and Burkina Faso – the latter two are neighbours of Mali – are the only countries who fare worse than Mali on the UN’s Human Development Index. Representatives from these countries also attended the Gao summit.
Put simply, the land once so rich it could afford to de-value gold is now the poorest place on earth.
Although more than half of Malian territory is consumed by the Sahara Desert, Mali is not without its natural resources. Mali is Africa’s third-largest gold producer and sub-Saharan Africa’s largest exporter of cotton, which provides 40 per cent of the country’s exports.
The failure of such a resource and agriculture-rich land to provide a better life for its inhabitants has, however, more to do with the meeting in St Petersburg than the summit in Gao.
Despite promises of debt relief made at last year’s G8 summit, Mali’s government still spends more on servicing its massive debt than it does on health or education. In a country where there are just 4.4 doctors for every 100,000 inhabitants (compared to 249 in Australia) and where adult literacy stands at just 19 per cent, these are more than merely statistics.
Mali’s ability to fight poverty through self-reliance founders on the fact that US government subsidies to US farmers ensures that it is cheaper to produce cotton in the US than it is in Mali. As a consequence, many Malian farmers must go into debt–as for the country, so too for its individual inhabitants–in order to compete with US and other Western producers.
'The cotton producers of Mali cannot benefit from their production,' Dao Dounantie, one of the participants at the Gao summit, told the BBC. 'Our cotton farmers are victims of unfair trade and we are fighting for fair trade.'
With the notable exception of the BBC, the world’s media barely mentioned the Gao summit in passing, if at all. It is indeed true that this remote meeting of activists in the Sahara Desert could only point to the problems, while the solutions could only come from those meeting in Russia.
But the issues of chronic poverty and inequality that the Gao summit highlighted are ones that refuse to confine themselves to Africa.
Already, West Africans – Malians primary among them – make up the majority of illegal immigrants to Europe. In the past year alone, illegal immigrants from the region have stormed Spain’s African enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla and arrived in their thousands on Spain’s Canary Islands. On one day in March alone, 796 such immigrants arrived in boats on the islands – and hence in Europe – while more than 8000 have made European landfall this year.
The response by European governments has been to set up rapid repatriation agreements with African governments, and to pay massive sums in military aid to assist West African governments and Morocco in patrolling their shores. Even as the journeys to Europe – many of these journeys begin in Gao – are made ever more dangerous by such measures, the numbers of boats arriving have not fallen at all. The only impact has been the death of up to 5000 would-be immigrants in the last eight years.
The difficult truth seems finally to be dawning on European governments. Spain has launched a three-year aid and diplomatic offensive in West Africa, while President Chirac warned on the eve of the G8 summit that, 'If we do not develop Africa, if we do not make available the necessary resources to bring about this development, these people will flood the world.'
Such sentiment was given added urgency by a British government report on the 13 of July, that by 2050 – by which time Africa’s population is expected to soar to two billion – most of West Africa’s agricultural land will have been reduced by 20 per cent as a direct result of global climate change.
Further reasons why the leaders of the G8 countries should heed the warnings of the Gao summit can be found in Gao’s hinterland.
Western intelligence agencies have become increasingly concerned that al-Qaeda has begun to use the region’s obscurity to set up terrorist training camps in the Sahara Desert of Mali and Algeria. There have even been whispered rumours among Western diplomats in the Malian capital of Bamako that al-Qaeda affiliates are developing a secret nuclear weapons facility in the desert.
The rumours stem from four visits to Mali and Niger by Abdul Qadeer Khan – the disgraced former head of Pakistan's nuclear weapons programme – between 1998 and 2002. On his last visit, he was accompanied by Pakistani nuclear scientists. It is now believed that Mr Khan made contact with al-Qaeda representatives while in Mali. The arrest in Mali of Pakistani missionaries on charges of preaching support for Osama bin Laden has also increased concerns in Western policy circles.
In particular, the remote region of Kidal north-east of Gao-the former headquarters of a rebellion against the Malian government by Tuareg nomads in the '90s and the scene of an aborted rebellion in May – is seen as a potential flashpoint. The region has been awash with guns since 2003 when a northern division of the Malian army was discovered selling its weapons on the black market. Reports have also emerged that the ongoing opposition to the Malian government among former rebels and the desperate poverty of the region has provided fertile ground for an estimated 2000 Saudi and Pakistani missionaries thought to be operating around Kidal.
The US government – which has been involved in training the armies of West African countries in counter-terrorism operations since 2004 as part of its 'Pan-Sahel Initiative' – is taking the speculation so seriously that in August last year they conducted their largest military exercise in Africa since World War II. Operation Flintlock 2005 involved more than 1000 US personnel, and the armed forces of seven countries chasing a fictional terrorist group across the desert from Mauritania, through Mali, Niger and Chad.
Just days before Operation Flintlock began, 15 Mauritanian soldiers were killed in an attack on an army camp on the desert's fringe. The Algerian Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC) claimed responsibility for the attack on what it called an 'apostate and puppet army' of the US.
The GSPC, which has declared its support for al-Qaeda, came to international prominence in 2003 when it kidnapped 32 European tourists in the Algerian Sahara. After several months, the hostages were released in Mali, reportedly after the German government paid the GSPC's ransom demands. That ransom money, along with people and cigarette-smuggling rackets which the GSPC operates across the region's porous borders, is reportedly providing funds for al-Qaeda in a region that impoverished African governments do not have the resources to combat.
Thus it is that Gao, forgotten for centuries by the world’s powers, may again take centre stage in the great issues of the day. And thus it is, too, why the G8 leaders who issued a communiqué promising support for 'a democratic, prosperous and peaceful Africa, would do well to heed the warnings of those who gathered in their dusty robes in an abandoned school on the fringe of the Sahara.