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.

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.