Authoritarian Africa beyond Guantánamo: Freedom in Captivity

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Africanists struggle with Mohamedou ould Slahi's story for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that the Saharan region is often considered a space betwixt and between. Not only does the Sahara lie between the Maghreb and the Sahel, but Slahi's experience illustrates how the military and political histories of counterterrorism and the intellectual and social histories of Islamist calls for religious reform are imagined as occurring elsewhere. The upswing in violence in Burkina Faso and Mali, the continued disruptions of Boko Haram, and the deep military involvement and investments in the Sahara remind us that the African continent has been an important site in the global war on terror (Thurston 2017). American and European foreign assistance, often in the form of military aid, has helped expand the surveillance capacities of African states, especially after 2001. In the case of Mauritania, American counterterrorism funds contributed to the consolidation of power in the authoritarian regime of Maaouya Ould Sid'Ahmed Taya, who ruled from 1984 to 2005, while the Mauritanian government ignored demands for democratization from its own citizens and instead pursued repressive policies that accused political opponents of Islamist activity, limiting their freedom of expression (Jourde 2007). Slahi's story, then, can be seen as part of a much longer history of foreign incursion and neocolonial intrusion into African affairs, as the war on terror has led to a similar bolstering of authoritarian governments, an influx of military aid and funds that encourage corruption, and worrisome increases in weapons at the expense of other needed projects and investment, as happened during the Cold War (Schmidt 2013). Rather than promote economic development and democracy, these policies undermine Africa's future.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)411-416
Number of pages6
JournalAfrican Studies Review
Issue number2
StatePublished - Jun 1 2020


  • Guantánamo
  • Islam
  • Mauritania
  • Sahara
  • politics

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Cultural Studies
  • Anthropology


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