Mauritania’s Salafi Prisoners: A Release and Some Questions

This week, Mauritanian authorities released two prisoners (Arabic), Bashir Kharashi Sall and Sidi Ould Mamuri (my transliterations), who had been held for five years on charges of links to violent Islamic groups. The Mauritanian press often refers to such prisoners as “Salafis,” and I will too for the sake of shorthand, but it’s worth bearing in mind that Salafi is a theological category whose complexity such shorthand frequently masks.

From my limited research so far, it seems that the two men were held in connection with a gun battle between security forces and Al Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb that occurred on the outskirts of Mauritania’s capital Nouakchott in April 2008 (video report). My evidence is this 2010 list (Arabic) of accused persons from the “Santar Amtir incident” (my transliteration, which is likely wrong – the Arabic is صانتر أمتير), which from what I can deduce refers to the area where the April 2008 clashes occurred. The two men appear on that list.

The issue that the Mauritanian press (see first link above) raises this week in its coverage concerns not violence, however, but dialogue. Sall and Mamuri participated, as have numerous other Salafi prisoners, in government-facilitated conversations with Islamic scholars who attempted to alter the Salafis’ thinking on various issues. The linked article above hints that the dialogues have borne inconsistent or at least opaque fruit: the two men, despite their participation in dialogue, “were kept in prison without release despite the issuance of pardon for tens of prisoners who participated in the dialogue.” Other participants in the dialogue, the article continues, remain in prison today, awaiting pardon or sentencing.

Rehabilitation programs for jihadists raise concerns about how to measure success and prevent recidivism; the architects of such programs presumably wish neither to release potential recidivists nor to detain genuinely reformed individuals, and much less to detain people who were innocent in the first place. If I am right in detecting a critical tone in one Mauritanian press outlet’s coverage of these issues, then it seems segments of Mauritanian society would like their government to communicate more clearly the criteria it uses to keep certain individuals behind bars.

Journalists’ Syndicate Protests in Burkina Faso

In Burkina Faso, state media employees are dissatisfied with their working conditions and the censorship they reportedly face. The Autonomous Syndicate of Information and Culture Workers (SYNATIC) organized demonstrations on July 16 in Ouagadougou (French), the political capital, and Bobo-Dioulasso (French), a major economic center. In Ouagadougou, the journalists staged a sit-in by the Ministry of Communications, and in Bobo-Dioulasso they rallied in front of the regional government building.

From the blog of the Committee to Protect Journalists, which adds that the Association of Journalists of Burkina helped organize the sit-ins:

It was the first time that journalists from state-run media have publicly broken their collective silence over what the public has long believed to be entrenched practices of editorial direction and control by official censors. The show of discontent was the latest in a series of recent demonstrations by various segments of society opposing government policies and protesting the standard of living, according to news reports.

The government tried to dismiss accusations of tampering with news coverage after the sit-in was announced. “I have never given directives to anybody,” Communications Minister and Government Spokesman Alain Edouard Traoré declared at a press conference on Monday, according to RTB. He said the station “operates in total independence” from his office. “We do not constitute a ministry of propaganda,” private news site Burkina 24 quoted him as saying.

During the first half of 2011, Burkina Faso experienced waves of protests and mutinies that drew serious concern from the government of President Blaise Compaore. The current protests have not yet reached nearly the same level of seriousness. Yet when journalists protest in Burkina Faso, it is worth paying attention. For one thing, the assassination of the journalist Norbert Zongo in 1998 continues to cast a shadow over relations between the state, the press, and the people. Protests against censorship, in other words, speak to broader tensions in the country.

Mali’s Elections: SABATI 2012 and Muslim Engagement

For those interested in how Muslim identities figure in the lead-up to Mali’s July 28 presidential elections, the organization SABATI 2012 presents an important case. According to this article (French), SABATI, headed by a man named Moussa Boubacar Bah, is backed by two major Malian Muslim leaders: Imam Mahmoud Dicko, president of the High Islamic Council of Mali, and Chérif Bouillé of the Hamawiyya Sufi order.

SABATI is intervening in two important ways in the campaign: it has released a document outlining its policy recommendations to the new government, and it is preparing to endorse a candidate.

SABATI’s memorandum requests that the new government make policy changes in several sectors, among them “justice, the crisis of the north, security, health, religious, our ethical and moral values, education, agriculture, sanitation, and governance.” In the religious domain, SABATI calls for greater funding of religious institutions, the establishment of new centers for training religious professionals, the incorporation of Qur’anic schools into the state education system, and the creation of a national agency for Islamic schools. It is noteworthy both that SABATI makes relatively specific requests regarding government action on religion and that SABATI is deeply concerned with ostensibly non-religious sectors like agriculture (though, some might argue, everything is a religious matter).

Regarding SABATI’s endorsement, several articles (French) suggest that Ibrahim Boubacar Kéïta (Wikipedia page here) is the preferred candidate of the organization and its purported backers. From what I can tell, however, the official endorsement has yet to appear.

For religious leaders, endorsing candidates carries rewards but also risks. Successfully mobilizing portions of the electorate (SABATI promises to mobilize more than 15% in Mali [French]) can oblige elected politicians to heed religious leaders’ demands, and can moreover bind followers and leaders more tightly together. On the other hand, giving an endorsement but failing to mobilize followers can make religious leaders appear impotent and ridiculous in the eyes of both politicians and their own followers. In Senegal, major Sufi leaders largely discontinued the practice of giving explicit endorsements after the late 1980s and early 1990s, when youthful disciples’ voting and rioting made clear that they were rejecting their shaykhs’ commands.

In Mali, some religious leaders, notably Cherif Ousmane Madani Haidara (French), have stated that they will not give specific voting instructions to their followers; indeed, though SABATI has sometimes claimed to have Haidara’s support, press accounts suggest that Haidara’s followers have largely held themselves apart from the organization and its plans. We will see how SABATI and its backers manage the endorsement process, and how it affects their political and religious reputations.

Continued Rejection of the ICC in West and East Africa

It is not new to read of African governments ignoring or rejecting the International Criminal Court (ICC)’s claims to jurisdictional authority. But two stories this week reinforce the idea that many key players on the continent are willing to cross the Court.

First is Sudanese President Omar al Bashir’s attendance at an African Union summit in Abuja, Nigeria. The ICC issued a warrant for Bashir’s arrest in March 2009, in connection with war crimes in Darfur. His travel itinerary since then charts a map of ICC rejection across Africa and beyond. While Nigeria is the first West African nation to host Bashir, it joins a trend that includes several other countries and the African Union itself. From the BBC:

Mr Bashir has visited numerous African countries since the arrest warrant was issued – including Ethiopia, Kenya and Djibouti.

Only Botswana and Malawi have threatened to arrest him.

In May, the AU called on the ICC to drop war crimes charges against Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta after accusing it of “hunting” Africans because of their race.

Mention of Kenya brings us to the second news item from this week: Yesterday, the ICC rejected another request from Kenyan Vice President William Ruto, who like Kenyatta faces charges at the Court, to hold his trial in Africa.

The election, in March of this year, of Kenyatta and Ruto seemed a rebuke to the Court. Both men have been under indictment since March 2011 in connection with election/post-election violence in 2007-2008. David Bosco, writing shortly before Kenya’s most recent election, spelled out some potential consequences that a Kenyatta victory might have for the Court. One of these is particularly noteworthy in light of the Court’s decision on Ruto’s request for a trial location change:

That a freshly elected African head of state will bear the burden of ICC indictment would likely worsen already poor relations between the court and African officialdom. Many African leaders have argued that the ICC, which to this point has indicted only Africans, systematically ignores crimes committed in other parts of the world. At various points, African leaders have discussed withdrawing en masse from the treaty that created the court or, more likely, empowering a regional court to investigate atrocities, thereby displacing the ICC.

The ICC’s decision to keep Ruto’s trial in The Hague may strengthen such sentiments among some African leaders.

From both Nigeria and Kenya, then, I see fresh examples of the difficulty the Court is having in achieving legitimacy and recognition in Africa.

On Appraising Threats

Yesterday I published a piece at World Politics Review on assessing the threat that armed West African Muslim movements like Boko Haram might pose to the West. The piece is a sequel, in some sense, to two posts from earlier this month. The general stance I’m going for is anti-alarmism: I’m arguing for a perspective that takes these movements seriously, but that weighs evidence and probabilities carefully.

I had a very challenging time striking my own balance in writing the piece. To some extent a part of me will always feel that it is still 2001-2004, when some Americans, claiming to speak with a kind of super-patriotism, sought to shut down any nuanced discussion of terrorism’s causes and implications. Whenever I write anything anti-alarmist, I still brace myself for the possibility that one of my countrymen will accuse me of being an intellectual traitor to my country. But I hope that the parameters of the conversation on terrorism are wider in 2013 than they were in 2003. A cautious and judicious approach to questions of terrorist threats to the United States is, in my view, a truer form of patriotism than the alarmism that seeks to send US soldiers and dollars chasing after every possible threat or source of instability.

In terms of evaluating threats, the issue of weighing evidence is crucial. Murky events in Niger bring that home this week:

An inquiry into shooting at a military police academy in Niger’s capital Niamey found no evidence of an attack on the camp, suggesting it could have been an over-reaction by nervous guards, the foreign minister said on Sunday.

Niger’s government had said its security forces had repelled an overnight assault by gunmen on the academy on Tuesday, stoking concerns over an Islamist threat in the West African nation.

The incident followed a June 1 assault on a prison in the capital, during which more than 20 prisoners escaped including several Islamists, and twin suicide bombings at a French-run uranium mine and military barracks in Niger’s desert north in May.

“An investigation was not able to establish if anyone opened fire (on the camp),” Foreign Minister Mohamed Bazoum told Anfani radio. “There was no trace of bullet holes or cases. Nothing.”

This, too, may not be the final version of the story. The problem is when we simplify the murkiness inherent in events like these, which analysts (including me) do sometimes merely to meet word counts. Simplifications can reduce the descriptions of such events from paragraphs (as above) down to phrases like “Muslim militants’ alleged attack on a Niger police academy” and then to “Muslim militants’ attack on Niger police” (removing any trace of doubt) and finally to “a string of Muslim terrorist attacks in Niger,” where not only does doubt disappear, but the disputed incident gets folded into an alleged trend. There is a danger, in other words, of allowing language to play such tricks on us that we wind up with exaggerated constructs through which we read future events.

Nigerian critics may charge that I am downplaying the seriousness of Boko Haram. Not so. The question is who Boko Haram really has in its crosshairs, and in my opinion the answer is the Nigerian state, Nigerian Christians, and a host of other Nigerian targets. Western targets are secondary, from everything I can tell; perhaps the UN bombing proves me wrong, but Boko Haram’s aim there seemed to be, in part, to embarrass the Nigerian state and strike at its allies.

Nigeria’s Experimental Steps Toward an Amnesty for Boko Haram

The Nigerian government, amid a military crackdown against the Boko Haram sect in the country’s northeast, is experimenting with measures that may lead to an amnesty for the group. These experiments seem like an effort to build good will with the group in hopes of striking a more comprehensive deal later. We’ll see what fruit they bear.

Nigeria’s Guardian:

The military Joint Task Force (JTF) in Yobe State on [June 13] released Hassana Yakubu, one of the wives of the wanted Boko Haram sect leader, Shiekh [sic] Abubakar Shekau.

[...]

Hassana was released along with seven other wives of top commanders of the Boko Haram sect. Fifteen of their children, aged between five and eight, were also released.

In the PCDR member’s words: “Hassana was released last week alongside Malama Zara, wife of slain leader of the group, Mohammed Yusuf, and seven other wives of top commanders of the Boko Haram sect who have been in detention for 10 months.”

[...]

The women were told to reintegrate themselves into the society and also take part in the peace process initiated by the Federal Government with active support of both the Borno and Yobe state governments.

The commissioner added that the eight women were also immediately enrolled into the skill- acquisition programme of the state government; while the state Ministry of Women Affairs gave them five sets of wrappers and 10 yards of brocade for each of the children.

Besides, he added, the sum of N100, 000 was also approved for each of them.

This move followed earlier releases of women and children allegedly affiliated with the sect.

The Nigerian Tribune:

The Federal Government has said it will soon commence the process of disarmament and de-radicalisation of repentant Boko Haram members as well as ensuring that they are well rehabilitated.

[...]

Speaking in his office in Abuja, on Friday, the Chairman, Presidential Committee on Dialogue and Peaceful Resolution of Security Challenges in the North and Minister of Special Duties and Inter-Governmental Affairs, Alhaji Kabiru Tanimu Turaki, stated that it was only a matter of time for total peace to be restored in the region.

[...]

He recalled that the committee, last Thursday, had a dialogue with 104 Boko Haram suspects detained in Lagos prisons and expressed confidence that the initiative would achieve the desired goal.

Background here.

Niger Has Received at Least Four Streams of Refugees Since 2011

Yesterday, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees announced that some 6,000 refugees have arrived to Niger from Nigeria, fleeing the Nigerian military’s offensive against Boko Haram. Reuters provides additional context.

Refugees from Nigeria add to existing and recent refugee influxes into Niger. I can count four major streams since 2011:

  1. Refugees from the 2011 post-electoral crisis in Cote d’Ivoire.
  2. Refugees from the Libyan civil war of 2011. In May 2011 AFP put the combined total of refugees from Cote d’Ivoire and Libya at 93,000. Some 60,000 of these were probably from Libya – more here. The final total from Libya, given that the war lasted for months after May, was undoubtedly higher. It is difficult to know how many of these refugees have been successfully resettled, but I would imagine many of them continue to live in precarious conditions.
  3. Refugees from the 2012-2013 crisis in Mali, whom UNHCR counts at 50,000-60,000.
  4. Refugees from northeastern Nigeria.

Throughout the crisis in Niger’s neighbor Mali, it has often been tempting – including for me – to examine Niger’s “success.” More accurate than calling Mali a failure and Niger a success would be to say that Niger faces its own problems and vulnerabilities, including refugee streams from multiple other countries in the region, and limited resources to give those people.

Media and Nigeria’s 2015 Elections

Professor Attahiru Jega, chairman of Nigeria’s Independent National Electoral Commission, at a recent event:

INEC Chairman Prof. Attahiru Jega, in Abuja on Monday attributed the success of the 2011 general elections to the commitment of the Nigerian media.

[...]

The chairman said that voter education had become imperative as the nation approached the 2015 general elections, noting that there was need to deepen democracy through credible elections.

Jega said that INEC also benefited from inputs by all stakeholders which resulted in substantive achievements.

He said that the commission was determined to ensure that the 2015 elections were more remarkable than those of 2011.

“The success of credible elections is not the responsibility of INEC alone, but the joint responsibility of all enlightened citizens in the electoral process,’’ he said.

Prof. Jega made somewhat similar remarks approximately one year ago:

Speaking at the opening ceremony of a two-day confer­ence on ‘New Media and Gov­ernance: Tools and Trends’ held at the Shehu Yar’Adua Centre, Abuja, he said in­ternet platform “provided a vehicle for the unprecedented mobilisation of the emergent generation of youths in the political process.”

The INEC boss said this was “crucial because youths between the ages 18 and 35 constituted 62.4 percent of the 73.5 million people registered by INEC during the voter reg­istration exercise conducted early in 2011. There is no doubt that the level of interest shown by the younger gen­eration in the 2011 elections was never before witnessed in Nigeria’s political history. But I believe that the most gratifying dimension of this development is the patriotic zeal demonstrated by corps of young technophiles who volunteer to man our new me­dia platforms every time we open the Situation Room for election. They did that during the 2011 general elections and they have done so for all the state governorship elections we have conducted this year.”

Jega said there was no doubt that new media tools have added value to Nigeria’s electoral process, noting that new media has the potential to deepen Nigeria’s democracy.

Nigeria’s 2011 elections have been called the “best run, but the most violent.” (For more on these issues, readers may be interested in reports from International Crisis Group and Human Rights Watch.)

What role will different media play in 2015? There have been high hopes that media can enhance transparency and accountability, for example by allowing civil society groups to rapidly share – with the entire world – photographs and reports from polling places. Can media help reduce violence in 2015 by promoting accountability – or are social media activists themselves potential targets of violence? Or both?

Trajectories of Islam in Mali

I’ve written an article (.pdf) for the summer 2013 issue of the Fletcher Forum of World Affairs. The piece is entitled, “Towards an ‘Islamic Republic of Mali’?” I analyze trends in Malian Muslim leaders’ public religiosity and political participation. An excerpt from pp. 46-47:

Islamist rule at gunpoint seems unlikely to return in the short-term. The end of armed Islamist control, however, does not mean that Islam will recede as a political force in Mali. The public roles—plural—of Islam in Mali have expanded and diversified from the time of the French colonial conquest to the present. This expansion has been especially pronounced since 1991, when a military coup set the stage for two decades of multiparty elections and political liberalization. While Islamists hold few elected offices, liberalization facilitated the expression of diverse Muslim identities in Mali. Mass movements and mass media are two powerful channels through which Muslim activists shape values, influence politics, and contest the meaning of Islam. The 2012-2013 crisis occurred in the midst of this ongoing reevaluation of the role of Islam in public life in Mali. The crisis further expanded opportunities for Muslim leaders to expand their participation in politics and intensified debates over what it means to be Malian and Muslim.

Post-war Mali will likely not be an “Islamic state” in the sense of a state where micro-policies are explicitly based on specific references to Islamic scriptures and traditions. But Islam already has a greater public role in Mali than before the war began. As Mali emerges from conflict and re-imagines its political system, Malian politicians and outside partners hoping to restore an idealized “status quo ante,” in which Islam supposedly played no public role in a democratic and “secular” country, may have to acknowledge the increasingly powerful influences Muslim activists and movements wield in Malian society and politics.

If you read the article, please stop back by here and share your thoughts.

Niger and Libya on the Recent Bombings

(Somehow I goofed and didn’t post this on May 28th, the day I wrote it. It’s still relevant, so I thought I would post it today. – Alex)

Following the May 23 bombings in northern Niger, the country’s president, Mahamadou Issoufou, charged that the attackers had come from southern Libya. Libyan Prime Minister Ali Zeidan denied this claim.

I do not know who is right. But Issoufou and Zeidan’s statements interest me in large part because of the views they reflect on what post-Qaddhafi Libya has become.

Issoufou:

Libya continues to be a source of destabilisation for the countries of the Sahel…I had already warned from the beginning of the Libyan crisis…that it was necessary to avoid solutions after Kadhafi’s defeat that would be even worse, and I had said that if the Libyan state turned into a Somalia or fell into the hands of fundamentalists, the solution would be worse…Today the situation is very difficult, the Libyan authorities are doing their best to control it, but the fact is, Libya continues to be a source of destabilisation for the countries of the Sahel.

It’s noteworthy that Issoufou frames the problem as a regional one and not just as an issue for Libya and Niger.

Zeidan:

It was Gaddafi who exported terrorism…The new Libya will not tolerate that.

Issoufou depicts the bombings as the work of foreigners, Zeidan depicts Libya’s problems as being the fault of Qaddhafi.

Libya and Niger have had some tension since Qaddhafi’s fall. Niger was relatively slow to recognize the new Libyan government, and the two countries have not reached an agreement on the extradition of Qaddhafi family members and lieutenants from Niger back to Libya (Zeidan raised this issue again at his press conference). Issoufou calling Libya a “source of destabilization” is strong language, and suggests that he (and possibly other Sahelian leaders) are deeply unhappy with their northern neighbor’s trajectory. Issoufou’s concerns about Libya, in other words, go well beyond the latest bombing.