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?

Guest Post: Some Observations on the Electoral Campaign in Mali

[I am delighted to share today's guest post, which comes from Dr. Leonardo A. Villalón of the University of Florida. As his biography attests, he has been a leading expert on the Sahel for over twenty years. He has also been a generous mentor to other scholars, including me. He writes from Mali to share some impressions and findings regarding the upcoming elections. As always, readers' comments and reactions are welcome. - Alex] 

The comments below were written on 20 July during a visit to Bamako in the midst of the presidential electoral campaign. The observations are impressionistic, based on conversations and interviews with a range of actors, but necessarily limited primarily to people from what is known locally as “la classe politique.” No doubt sentiments on the street and in the popular neighborhoods are somewhat different.

Bamako is plastered with campaign posters and billboards. Even the huge iconic hippopotamus statue at a major roundabout in the center of town is covered in posters for competing candidates. With 27 contenders—one dropped out a couple of days ago—in the first round of presidential elections scheduled for Sunday 28 July, the entire city seems to be caught up in the elections, on the surface at least.

As many analysts have reported, there is no shortage of reasons to worry about the process, and lots of well-founded trepidation about what could go wrong in the aftermath of these elections. But at the same time it is very clear that many Malians have a real sense of hope that the nightmare that began with the coup of 22 March 2012, and led to the occupation of the country’s northern half, first by Tuareg separatists from the National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad (MNLA) and then by the assorted jihadist groups who displaced them, just might be drawing to an end. The French intervention in January 2013, enthusiastically welcomed at the time, has lost much of its luster, particularly over France’s handling of the MNLA in the remote northern region of Kidal. But complaints are muted and there is still a general sense that the French intervention is what opened the door to a way out of what many describe as the “black hole” into which the country had fallen.

Most importantly, the intervention seems to have marginalized the military actors who led the coup. Following a ceremony last month to mark a “reconciliation” between two competing branches of the military, the coup leader, Amadou Haya Sanogo, formally asked the country’s forgiveness for what he had launched. His gesture is read cynically—and almost certainly correctly—as being motivated by fear of what might await him after the transition, given that he has clearly lost control or even any real influence.

The candidates include three former prime ministers, a number of other well-known figures from Malian politics, and some newcomers, including one woman. Many local analysts insist the election is wide open, but if any candidate seems to many to be the front-runner it is Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, known as IBK. His campaign plays on his image as a strong and decisive leader, forged in his time as prime minister in the 1990s, and portrays him as the one man capable of reestablishing order and authority. Many think it likely that he will be among the top two in the first round, who will then go to a runoff two weeks later, on 11 August. His weakness, however, is that his popularity is not matched by the degree of party organization demonstrated by some of the others.

It is still very much an open question as to which other candidates could make it to the runoff. Speculation turns around several, including Soumaïla Cissé (a former minister and president of the West African Economic and Monetary Union—UEMOA); Modibo Sidibé (a former prime minister), Dramane Dembélé (candidate of the one-time dominant ADEMA party), or perhaps Cheick Modibo Diarra (former head of Microsoft Africa, who served for a time as prime minister in the interim government). In any case, it seems unlikely that with such a large field anyone could win outright in the first round, and there thus seems certain to be an extremely intense period of political maneuvering and horse-trading to secure endorsements by the losing candidates in the two weeks between the first and second rounds. And if IBK is not in the top two, some worry about whether his followers—or even IBK himself—will accept the results.

The scheduled date for the elections has been controversial, and in the lead-up many suggested that the timing would be impossible. Indeed, the president of the Independent National Electoral Commission (CENI) announced shortly before the opening of the campaign that it would be extremely difficult to stick to the date. The International Crisis Group and other observers also called for a postponement. But the “international community”—code words for the French, with American backing, and UN blessing—made it clear that there would be no going back on the date.  The issue is now moot. As one African Union expert working with the CENI puts it: “We don’t talk about that anymore.” The campaign is on and elections will be held, and importantly it will be with seemingly very wide popular support. In conversations with Malians from the political class, people acknowledge the difficulties and imperfections in organization, but no one has doubts about the fact that they will happen on the scheduled date. The dominant sentiment is that there is an urgent need to move forward to get out of the current situation, that elections thus need to happen as soon as possible, and that any delay would only make matters worse. The withdrawal of one presidential candidate on 17 July, over what he claimed was inadequate preparation, certainly reflects some anxiety, but both the other candidates and the broader public have shrugged their shoulders, and gone on with the campaign.

There is strong sentiment among Malians that they are an occupied country. “We are under tutelage” (sous tutelle) says the president of the NGO Network to Support the Electoral Process in Mali (APEM); indeed he goes further, “we are once again colonized.” In addition to the UN patrols that occasionally circulate in the city, all the major hotels in the city are full to capacity with technical assistants and specialists of all sorts who have come to supervise and observe the transition. The large Nord-Sud hotel has been rented in its entirety for the next two years by the French military, which has taken over managing it. And the towering Hotel de l’Amitié has been completely booked by the United Nations. The hint of resentment among Malian actors about the large number of outside experts adds to the sense of urgency to carry out the elections, and to restore a constitutionally elected government.

The material preparation for the elections has also been a major source of concern. Indeed, in the buildup to the elections that were to have been held in 2012, before the coup intervened, the issue of the electoral lists and voter identification remained highly problematic and unresolved. With the goal of moving forward with elections now, an amendment to the electoral code on 21 May 2013 prescribed a revised system that has been widely accepted. Based on a general census of the population that had been carried out in 2009 for the purpose of establishing a biometric civil registry (including photos and fingerprints), national identity cards have been produced, and will serve as voting cards. This census was significantly better than any previous effort in Mali to identify voters.

One unsolvable problem is that, given the timing of the census, the list does not include people who turned 18—the legal voting age—this year. But no one seems particularly concerned about that fact. The resulting “Cartes NINA” (for Numéro d’Identité National) are being distributed across the country, and while there is variation in some regions, the general trend suggests very broad popular mobilization to collect the cards; in some areas the figure is already as high as 80%. In Bamako, kids circulate among the traffic selling plastic badge-holders like those used for nametags at conferences, which they hawk as “Carte NINA protectors.” Some people are wearing them. Voters will be allowed to retrieve their cards until the eve of election day. One lingering concern is that the cards do not indicate the actual voting place for each voter, but the electoral administration insists lists will be published in advance, and has additionally instituted innovative systems for find a polling site via free text messaging. There is good reason to think that we might actually witness the highest voting turnout in Mali’s history with this election. Historically turnout has been extremely low, even by regional standards.

The major source of concern which all acknowledge is what will happen in the remote northeastern region of Kidal, the MNLA stronghold and an area where the French presence has complicated the return of the state, and hence the organization of the elections. There are conflicting reports about the extent to which the logistics are in place for the elections to go forward. And there are many fears that there will be violent efforts to disrupt the process on election day. It is true, as people quickly point out, that Kidal represents a very small portion of the electorate, and it is in addition the region where turnout has always been the lowest. Whatever happens in the region on election day will thus not determine the outcome of the elections—results will be declared regardless of what happens in Kidal—but the perception of whether the region took part in the process will very much shape the enormity of the task facing the new president in trying to rebuild national unity. The political stakes in the region are thus very high, and there is a huge symbolic importance to whether the elections go smoothly there. That is very hard to predict. While TV coverage of the campaign in the past few days showed Tuareg youth greeting a candidate with cries of “Mali! Mali!”, violent clashes in Kidal between Tuareg and other residents allegedly left one person dead, and the situation is clearly tense. News sources on 20 July announced that five election workers had been detained in Tessalit, in the far north, in an apparent effort to disrupt the process.

The other major issue at stake in this election, and one that provokes unease and some evident discomfort among many, is the issue of religion. Mali is a deeply religious country, some 95% Muslim. Over the twenty years of Mali’s democratic experimentation the role of religion in the public sphere of an officially secular state had been a source of controversy and some tension. The massive mobilization of religious forces in opposition to a proposed family law in 2009, forcing the president to back down, was widely read as an indication of the rising power of religious actors. In this context the intrusion of religious actors into the electoral campaign has raised significant worries. While this is not really unprecedented, it certainly has never reached the scale it seems to have attained in this campaign.

At the same time, the religious sphere itself seems to be divided on both the extent and the role it should play in the process. A network of Muslim associations calling itself “SABATI 2012” [for more on SABATI 2012 see here - Alex] has organized to promote candidates reflecting Muslim values in the campaign, and has declared that it will make an official endorsement of a candidate. With the support of the president of the High Islamic Council of Mali, Mahmoud Dicko (often described as a “Wahhabi”) and his somewhat unlikely alliance with the Sufi shaykh of Nioro du Sahel, the group met recently to discuss an endorsement. It is widely understood that the preferred candidate of many in the Muslim religious community is IBK, but no official endorsement has yet been made. And the subsequent discussions of an endorsement in mosques produced tensions, and even some violence. There is no common Islamic front, therefore, and the religious figure in the country with the broadest popular following, Shaykh Cherif Ousmane Madani Haidara, has clearly indicated he will not endorse any candidate. Various candidates, nevertheless, have begun to make religious appeals in their campaign speeches. And Soumaïla Cissé’s campaign has put up a large billboard near the Islamic Cultural Center in Bamako announcing his support for promoting “Islamic finance.” Many factors will determine whether the electoral process will translate into greater religious influence in post-transition politics in Mali, but the door is certainly open to that possibility.

On Saturday 20 July 2013 the APEM Network held a press conference to present and discuss the report (French) of the “pre-electoral observation” mission they had carried out, in all regions of the country, from 1 June to 20 July. The report focused on five issues: 1. The elaboration of the electoral lists; 2. The distribution of the NINA cards; 3. The filing and validation of candidacies; 4. The conduct of the electoral campaign at mid-point; and, 5. The logistics of getting the electoral materials in place.  In each area the report discussed the state of affairs, and in each noted some number of problems or issues, mostly minor. The overall conclusion of the report is that the elections are on schedule to take place as planned, across the country. Imperfections are there, the APEM officers noted in their comments, but they are limited, and they are not such as to favor one candidate over another. The press conference ended with the projection of some photos of one persistent flaw APEM had noticed: Bamako is plastered with campaign posters, many of them placed illegally.

In the soul-searching mood that characterizes many discussions with Malian intellectuals about the country’s current state, one keen observer told me: “These elections are only a bandage on an open wound. They cannot themselves heal the problems in Mali, but they may at least allow some protection from further infections while the wound heals.” But the wound is deep, and it may take a long time and much more substantial remedies before it can really heal.

Africa News Roundup: Nigeria, Mali, South Sudan, Somalia, and More

Africa Review:

Senegal’s Attorney-General Serigne Bassirou Guèye has began a probe into one of the biggest drug scandals ever to rock the country’s police force.

As a first step, he ordered on Wednesday the arrest and detention of a Nigerian believed to be behind the whole scandal.

The issue came to a head after a top Senegalese police was accused of having connections with the detained Nigerian.

Reuters:

Malian troops deployed in the northern town of Kidal on Friday after attacks by light-skinned Tuareg separatists on black residents killed at least one, a week before elections meant to unify the fractured nation.

Nigeria reportedly plans to withdraw some 850 of its 1,200 soldiers from Mali following the elections there.

Garowe:

At least two persons including an African Union soldier (AMISOM) in the southern Somali port of Kismayo were killed in a roadside explosion Wednesday.

Human Rights Watch: “South Sudan: Army Making Ethnic Conflict Worse.”

Nigeria:

Nigerian governor Rotimi Amaechi and four of his northern counterparts have been pelted with stones by opponents in his home state.

Their convoy was attacked as it left the airport of Port Harcourt, the capital of his oil-rich Rivers state.

The northern governors [of Niger, Kano, Jigawa, and Adamawa] were visiting to show their support for Mr Amaechi.

He was suspended from the ruling party for what analysts see as his opposition to President Goodluck Jonathan.

What else is happening?