I was in Africa from March 2010 through early April 2011. The political and/or security situation has changed in many of the countries I visited. Here are some examples:
EGYPT (obviously) — As it turned out, I was in Egypt during the final days of the Mubarak regime. I was physically present in Tahrir Square for the first demonstration of Egypt’s “Arab Spring” uprising, on 25 January 2011, and I left Egypt, purely by coincidence, three days later. Today, the political situation in Egypt is still not very stable, and the security situation has deteriorated. Terrorism still doesn’t seem to be a problem there, thank God; but, disturbingly, street crime, which was absolutely unheard-of in Egypt until the collapse of the Mubarak regime, has become a problem. I’d still go to Egypt today if the opportunity presented itself, but these days one cannot expect to walk the streets late at night in perfect safety, the way one could in the “old days.”
KENYA — Since I was in Kenya, the nation has gone to war with Al-Shabaab in Somalia. Terrorism is a problem in Kenya today, with IEDs and grenade attacks happening on a regular basis, and there have been a few incidents of tourists being kidnapped and/or killed around the Lamu area. Again, I would not think twice about going back to Kenya, but it’s not quite as safe as it was while I was there.
UGANDA — The situation in Uganda itself hasn’t changed much since I was there, but the M23 rebellion in neighboring DR Congo has found its way right to the Congo-Uganda border. It looks to me like another full-scale war in eastern DR Congo is brewing, which is going (once again) to have repercussions throughout central Africa’s Great Lakes region.
TOGO — There’s a sort of “Arab Spring” popular movement going on in Togo right now, under the auspices of the group Collectif “Sauvons Le Togo.” Of all the eleven countries I visited on my journey, Togo was the one that felt most like an obvious, repressive, out-and-out dictatorship. Togo was the only nation I visited where it was completely normal for one’s taxicab to be stopped multiple times by rifle-toting soldiers, demanding to see the driver’s papers, when driving through the capital city at night. All the Togolese people I met hated their government, and hated it more passionately than anywhere else I went. Today, the Togolese government is quashing these demonstrations with teargas and truncheon blows, and several people have died, but things could get much worse: the government will start killing people, absolutely without scruple, if it feels seriously threatened.
(If you’re interested in the Togo situation, and you can read French, follow the Twitter hashtags #OccupyTogo and #tginfo. To get caught up, you could look at my bundle of Togo news links at Bitly.)
MALI — I really loved Mali, my favorite country in West Africa (with Togo coming in a close second). I enjoyed my time in Bamako, even though I didn’t do much of anything there and didn’t see much of the city at all; my trip to Djenné, Mopti, and Dogon Country was just fantastic, one of the top three highlights of my entire 13-month journey. I dream of going back and spending more time there.
Unfortunately, Mali has completely fallen apart. Here is a very simplified summary:
First, the government was overthrown, in a classic old-school African military coup, in March 2012. Next, a Tuareg independence movement (the MNLA), which had recently been rejuvenated by weapons and soldiers returning from Libya after Qadhafi’s downfall, took over the northern two-thirds of the country and declared it the independent state of Azawad. The MNLA was working together with various Islamist groups (notably Ansar Eddine and MUJAO), but they’ve had a major falling-out: MNLA wants an independent secular state, while the Islamists say they want the entire Republic of Mali to be an Islamic state under a strict interpretation of sharia law.
The Islamists took over, kicked the MNLA out of the cities, and are now in complete control of the northern two-thirds of the country. They have perpetrated various ugly depredations against citizens, and have also recently shocked and appalled the international community by destroying shrines and mausoleums in the city of Timbuktu. The regional group ECOWAS, as well as the AU and the international community, have been talking for months about what to do about the situation in Mali. It appears that an ECOWAS military intervention, backed to some degree by Western powers (notably France), is in the offing. The instability of the situation there is already having repercussions throughout the Sahel, and things are going to get much worse.
I could have gone to Timbuktu while I was in Mali, but I didn’t. While I was involved in the lengthy process of negotiating the price of my trip to Dogon Country, the cost of going all the way up to Timbuktu just seemed astronomical, so I forgot about the idea. Then, while I was in Djenné on the way back to Bamako, I met a French-Canadian couple who wanted to go up to Timbuktu, and they ended up hiring the services of my own tour guide (with my blessings: I did my tour guide a solid, by both recommending him to the couple and telling him I had no problem whatsoever with me taking the bus back to Bamako alone, rather than insisting we stick to the letter of our agreement that he accompany me back to Bamako). I could easily have tagged along with them, saving myself some cash in the process by splitting the cost three ways. But I didn’t. I felt no real sense of urgency, figuring I’d be back in Mali within five to ten years anyway (God willing), and that Timbuktu would still be there, it wasn’t going anywhere, so to speak. Well, that was dumb. The city of Timbuktu will “always be there,” of course, but now it’s in the hands of thuggish barbarians who are practicing corporal punishment in the streets (lashing citizens for “crimes” such as adultery and cigarette-smoking) and destroying priceless UNESCO World Heritage sites with hoes and shovels while shouting “Allahu akbar.” It’s sickening.