Sahel Blog Goes Dark, at Least for a Time

Today will likely be the last time that I post on this blog for about a year; as readers have likely noticed, the pace already slowed considerably over the summer.

This month marks two major transitions for me. The first transition is that I’ve finished my Ph.D. in Religious Studies at Northwestern University (it was awarded yesterday, in fact). And the second transition is that on Monday, I will start a new position as an International Affairs Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. I am grateful to the Council for this opportunity, and I am excited to begin this new chapter in my career.

During the 2013-2014 academic year, I will not be blogging. I am sorry to take this pause, but also grateful. I am grateful first for the opportunity to have interacted with so many people through the blog, especially regular commenters here and conversation partners on Twitter and elsewhere. I am grateful too, however, for the chance to step back a bit from this medium. I’ve mentioned some of my struggles with blogging before; here I’ll rehash them.

For most of the time I’ve spent on this project since I started in 2009, I was enthusiastic about the ways in which blogging could provide rapid, timely analysis of events, sometimes even as they unfolded. I think it is vital that at least some academics take up blogging. Through this medium we can showcase some of the things we have to offer: language skills, analytical skills, historical perspective, knowledge of cultural and religious traditions, etc. In a country (America) that often despises intellectuals and asks what they’re good for, blogging gives us a chance to demonstrate our value. (For the record, I don’t think intellectuals need to “justify their existences” to anyone – but it’s easier for all of us if some of us make the effort.) Blogging also allows academics to circumvent some of the barriers that often stand between us and the public. Finally, and most importantly, it gives scholars a chance to counter some of the narratives that dominate in media and policy circles. For me, that has meant trying to present one critical region of Africa in its complexity, and to write about it in a way that seeks to recognize the dignity of the real people who live there. So many “foreign policy” writers seem to view the people they talk about with contempt – an attitude that makes it easy for such writers to recommend the use of violence against those people. Hopefully I have provided some antidote to that point of view here.

During 2013, however, I’ve increasingly felt that my style of blogging – which is highly reactive to events, as well as highly scattered – does little more than skim the surface. I live in dread of making factual errors, translation errors, and sloppy analytical judgments, all of which are strong possibilities if I blog every day, hopping from topic to topic. I have also grown concerned that what I write doesn’t build toward anything, and that staying wedded to the news cycle constrains my ability to work on topics in depth. Writing my dissertation in 2012-2013, as well as trying my hand at a few journal articles, I came to appreciate traditional scholarly formats even more than I did before: in 10,000 words, or 100,000, based on meticulous research over a period of years, the potential for insight and depth vastly exceeds the potential of a rushed, poorly researched blog post of 700 words. Therein lies a dilemma: how much time to devote to the long but relatively isolating intellectual quests that might yield a truly powerful contribution to knowledge, and how much time to devote to the kind of engagement that brings me into dialogue with a greater public? The answer must be some combination of both, but I haven’t gotten the proportions right yet.

In this vein I’ve been experimenting with different writing formats. This month is also an important one for me because Northwestern’s Institute for the Study of Islamic Thought in Africa (ISITA) has released a working paper I co-wrote with Andrew Lebovich. The paper is entitled “A Handbook on Mali’s 2012-2013 Crisis” (.pdf)* and it aims to be exactly that: a comprehensive guide to the events, actors, and institutions that have interacted in Mali over the past twenty-one months and more. I hope the Handbook will be a valuable resource for anyone interested in Mali.

I also have another intention for it: I** want it to showcase how empty of empirical content so much writing about the Sahel is. Does the world need more reports that tell us about the “dangers of ungoverned spaces” in the Sahel and the “nexus of terrorism and trafficking” there, or some other tired phrase like that? I don’t think so. I think people need information they can sink their teeth into, and some way to contextualize it that goes beyond stock narratives.

This year I won’t be doing much blogging or traditional scholarship, so perhaps that will give me a chance to reflect on both media, as well as on what kinds of new analytical projects are becoming possible. I welcome readers’ suggestions.

I also welcome their contributions. Some guest writers may pass through here during the coming academic year. And in 2014, if I decide to resume this project, I will likely want to do so in a more expansive and ambitious way. If you have an interest in contributing here – and if you understand and agree with the point I’ve tried to make about recognizing other people’s dignity – then I urge you to contact me.

In the meantime, thanks to everyone for reading!

*The hyperlinks in the current version do not work, but ISITA plans to post an updated, corrected version next week.

**In this post I speak for myself alone.

Africa News Roundup: Mali, Algeria, Senegal, and More

Reuters: “Mali’s interim government has removed General Amadou Sanogo, who led a coup last year, as head of a military committee tasked with reforming the West African country’s armed forces, a government statement said.” For more on Sanogo’s promotion to general, see here.

On Friday, Mali’s President-elect Ibrahim Boubacar Keita visited Cote d’Ivoire (French).

Magharebia: “Algeria is offering pardons to thousands of armed extremists, provided their hands are unstained with citizens’ blood…Army units are distributing leaflets and flyers in Tlemcen, Sidi Bel Abbes and Ain Témouchent, urging extremists to lay down arms and benefit from the 2005 Charter for Peace and National ReconciliationEnnahar daily reported this week.”

Imams in Touba, Senegal (French) complain of a lack of water, electricity, and other amenities, and cast blame on political authorities.

Reuters: “Nigerians Seek Refuge in Niger.”

Moulid Hujale: “My Journey Back to Somalia.”

What else is happening?

Niger: Droughts, Floods, and Locusts

This year, as last year, a cruel cycle has taken shape in the Western Sahel: drought, floods, and locusts. This cycle affects Niger strongly, with rainy seasons bringing floods and pests after months of hunger. For overviews of the Sahelian food crisis, see here and here. In this post I look quickly at the problems of flooding and locusts.

As IRIN writes, “In 2012 Niger experienced the worst floods on record since 1929, with almost half a million people displaced and at least 68 deaths, affecting 70,000 households in total.” This year’s rainy season brought renewed flooding:

Severe flooding since the start of August in drought-prone Niger has killed at least 20 people and left around 48,000 homeless, the United Nations and local media reports said Wednesday.

The central Maradi region [map showing location of Maradi city] is the hardest-hit, with nine deaths and 19,425 people displaced.

Last year, heavy and premature rains contribute to a locust infestation in Mali and Niger.

Swarms of locusts encouraged by early rains are breeding in the north of Mali and Niger, bringing a second generation of insects that could increase 250 fold by the end of this summer and put the livelihoods of up to 50 million people in the region at risk.
The new generation is expected to spread from rebel-held northern regions of the two West African states, where pest control is difficult, to neighbouring countries.
The locusts migrated to Mali and Niger in June from Algeria and Libya, and rains that began in the region in May, almost two months earlier than usual, are helping spawn a fresh lot of desert locusts whose numbers are expected to significantly increase by October.

The United Nations now predicts that this year, too, will see a locust invasion. For a primer on locusts, see here.

As these problems recur on an annual basis, they became chronic if not permanent. And the untreated human toll from one year – the displaced, the hungry, the sick – exacerbates the toll from the next.

A Northern Nigerian Prediction about Syria, Validated

In late 2011, in Kano, I was talking about Syria’s crisis with a friend of mine. “Soon America will bomb them,” he said. At the time, I thought his prediction was wrong. But his tone – which conveyed his sense that the bombing was inevitable – stayed with me. Time has proven him right, and me wrong.

I am not a pollster and I cannot say how a billion Muslims feel about anything. But I think my friend is not alone. I think that many Muslims, and not just Arab Muslims, look at American military actions in the Middle East as habitual, predatory, and destructive. My friend also said that “men with long beards” would eventually rule Libya, and that the U.S. had not understood this when it intervened there. We’ll see if he is right about that as well, and we’ll see what unintended consequences stem from American strikes in Syria.

Mauritania’s Legislative Elections: A New Date, and a New Delay

On August 3, Mauritania’s Communications Minister Mohamed Yahya Ould Hormah announced that the country would hold legislative and municipal elections on October 12 of this year. The government has repeatedly delayed elections, originally scheduled for 2011, due to disagreements with the opposition. Unless I am mistaken, the last time Mauritania held parliamentary elections was in November/December 2006 for legislative and municipal seats, and January/February 2007 for senate seats. If this is correct then Mauritania has not held legislative elections since the military coup of August 2008 that brought current President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz (who won election as a civilian in July 2009) to power.

This month’s attempt to schedule an election also met with a delay. Parties within the Coordination of Democratic Opposition (COD) coalition swiftly announced their plans to boycott the October elections. Among those threatening a boycott were the left-leaning Union of the Forces of Progress (UFP) and the Islamist National Rally for Reform and Development (Tewassoul). Tewassoul and others cite concerns about transparency and fairness. Their stated concerns resemble those raised by other COD parties in August 2011. For those interested in further details, Tewassoul’s website features an August 12 COD statement (Arabic) entitled “Why is [the COD] Boycotting the Elections for Which the Regime Calls?”

In response to the boycott threat, the government on August 22 postponed the elections until November 23. A second round may follow on December 7.

The government’s responsiveness to the opposition’s boycott threats is noteworthy. What do you think? Does it bespeak fear, or political savvy, or both?

In Niger, a Divided Unity Government

On August 13, Niger’s President Mahamadou Issoufou authorized a cabinet reshuffle in order to create a government of national unity. The new cabinet comprised thirty-seven ministers, up from twenty-six, and dismissed ten members while bringing on eighteen. Jeune Afrique (French) profiled Issoufou’s first cabinet here.

The unity cabinet includes members of opposition parties, but Issoufou retained key officials such as Prime Minister Brigi Rafini, Foreign Minister Bazoum Mohamed, and Defense Minister Karidjo Mahamadou. One source reports, “Among the prominent opposition leaders who joined the government are Albadé Abouba, who becomes senior minister assigned to the President’s office, Wassalké Boukary as minister of Water and the vociferous Alma Oumarou, now minister of Trade.” An official list of the new cabinet members can be found here (French). The government’s formation, in Issoufou’s words, responds to heightened regional and domestic insecurity, especially the crisis in neighboring Mali and the bombings of May 23 in northern Niger.

Division appeared swiftly. On August 17, seven ministers from the Nigerien Democratic Movement (French: Mouvement Démocratique Nigérien, or MODEN), a party allied with the ruling Nigerien Party for Democracy and Socialism (French: Parti Nigérien pour la Démocratie et le Socialisme, PNDS) suspended their participation in the government, complaining that their party had received sub-optimal posts. Six posts (French) remain in the hands of new cabinet members from the opposition. On August 23, MODEN announced its withdrawal from the entire governing coalition, called the Movement for the Renaissance of Niger (MRN). In the wake of these disruptions, Issoufou on August 26 (French) gave some ministers additional portfolios and made several new appointments. What long-term effect MODEN’s withdrawal will have on Issoufou’s government I cannot predict, but in the short term the partial collapse of the unity government is a defeat for the president.

Open Thread for Reflections on Mali’s Elections

Yesterday, Mali held the first round of its presidential elections. I have not yet seen results, and I know that many analysts expect the contest to go to a second round on August 11.

I am most interested in two issues connected to the vote. First, the issue of refugees: see here and here on refugees and the elections, and here on the separate (but no less important) trend of refugees beginning to return to Mali. Second, the issue of Kidal, a northern Malian city whose administrative status was a point of contention during the pre-electoral period between the Malian government and Tuareg-led separatist National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad (MNLA).

What is your view of yesterday’s vote? Are you hearing any results? What from the coverage has struck you?