French Researchers Balk at Limits on African Travel

Off-limits. Niamey, the capital of Niger.


French scientists are up in arms about the freeze their universities and research organizations have placed on field work in Mauritania, Mali, and Niger in response to the deteriorating security situation in those countries. An online petition launched recently asks the groups to relax the measure, which the petitioners say is an overreaction.

In recent years, French citizens in the Sahel have increasingly become targets of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the terrorist group suspected to be responsible for last week's bomb attack on a café in Marrakesh. AQIM, which has demanded the French withdrawal from Afghanistan, is holding four French nationals hostage after kidnapping them in northern Niger in September; two other Frenchmen were abducted from a restaurant in the usually tranquil capital of Niger on 7 January and killed the next day during a botched rescue operation across the border in Mali. In response to travel warnings from the French ministry of foreign affairs, many universities and research agencies have placed Mauritania, Mali, and Niger off-limits for their scientists.

France historically has strong scientific ties with the three former colonies, and the freeze is a severe blow to research in diverse fields such as agriculture, medicine, and linguistics, says Sébastien Boulay, an anthropologist at the University of Paris Descartes, who started the petition. So far, it has drawn more than 650 signatures, including many from African scientists.

Boulay, who lived in Mauritania from 2004 to 2009, says researchers can still safely work in the Sahel countries provided they take certain precautionary measures and operate discreetly. Besides, terror is just one of the many risks researchers face abroad, says the petition: "A scientist has to fear for his life much less in [the capital cities of] Nouakchott, Niamey or Bamako than in African cities with high crime rates, such as Johannesburg, Nairobi, or Lagos."

Joseph Illand, a security expert for the National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS), says that his agency has not issued an absolute ban; exceptions are still possible if scientists can justify the importance of their mission and have a detailed security plan, Illand wrote in an e-mail to ScienceInsder. Any applications for an exception—which have not yet come in—would be discussed with the ministry of foreign affairs and the French embassy concerned, says Illand, who adds that the petition "completely ignores the serious problem" of CNRS's responsibility for the safety of its staff members. AQIM's terrorist activity shows not sings of letting up, and "the death of Osama bin Laden won't contribute to pacification in the short term," he says.

A spokesperson for the Institute for Research for Development, a French government agency with many projects in Africa, declined to answer questions about the ban but says that IRD generally follows recommendations from the ministry of foreign affairs. IRD has also suspended field work in Burkina Faso and Syria.