Africa News Roundup: Meles on Sick Leave, Anniversary of Somalia’s Famine, Protests in Mauritania, and More

The New York Times has a photo essay on skateboarding in Uganda.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi takes a leave of absence after his recent hospitalization.

The Nigerian government has lifted a state of emergency in Borno and other states, but violence by Boko Haram continues.

In other Nigeria news, “government revenue increased 32 percent to 763.6 billion naira ($92.7 billion) in June from the previous month, boosted by company and oil taxes.”

The BBC and the United Nations mark the one year anniversary of Somalia’s famine.

Anti-regime demonstrations continued this week in Mauritania.

What will President Macky Sall do?

The International Court of Justice on Friday ordered Senegal to prosecute the former president of Chad, Hissène Habré, who has lived comfortably for two decades in Senegal despite indictments in connection with political killings, torture and a host of other brutalities.

As Sudan and South Sudan negotiate in Ethiopia, the South accuses the north of bombing one of its villages.

Three Europeans kidnapped in Tindouf, Algeria last October were freed (in Mali) this week. The government of Burkina Faso helped negotiate their release.

What else is happening?

Political Shifts in Northern Mali [Updated]

This post is more a roundup of overlapping events than an attempt to produce a coherent narrative about the political situation in northern Mali, but the events do share one broad trait: they all instantiate political change, underscoring how fluid the situation remains.

The rebellion in northern Mali was launched in January by the Tuareg-led group the National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad (MNLA, where “Azawad” refers to the three northern regions of Mali). The MNLA’s stated goal has long been independence for that territory. Starting in April and especially since June, the MNLA has lost political and military ground to Ansar al Din (Arabic: Defenders of the Faith), a group that seeks to implement shari’a law across all of Mali. Ansar al Din’s coalition of Islamists includes fighters from Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and an AQIM offshoot called the Movement for Unity/Tawhid and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA).

One recent political shift has been in the MNLA’s stated goals. On Sunday, the MNLA announced that they were (my term) downgrading their quest: instead of seeking full secession, a spokesman said, they now seek “cultural, political, and economic independence.” Their spokesman referenced Quebec as a model. The MNLA further declared its resolve to fight Ansar al Din. The implications of this change in rhetoric regarding secession may be quite serious. Big questions arise: Would the MNLA help the Malian army or outside forces reclaim the north from the Islamist coalition in exchange for guarantees of future autonomy? Does this change of rhetoric signal the MNLA’s desperation (and decreasing political and military relevance)?

Another apparent political shift could benefit Ansar al Din. In June, a trio of northern Malian militias announced the formation of a coalition to “liberate” northern Mali from the rebels. Now it appears that some fighters from one of those militias, the ethnically Songhai group Ganda Koy, have broken ranks to join Ansar al Din. The reasons for this (alleged) shift are unclear to me.

On other political fronts, Ansar al Din is not faring as well. Throughout the spring and summer, there have been reports of protests in northern cities, but it was not always clear whether the protests were targeting the MNLA or Ansar al Din. Now that Ansar al Din is more firmly in control of key northern cities, it seems clearer that recent protests are against the Islamists. I have long argued that Ansar al Din has gained some popular support from its attempts to establish law and order and to provide aid, and I stand by that, but the protests are a sign that significant elements of the local population want the Islamists gone. Ansar al Din’s harsh response to protests last weekend, moreover, could generate further backlash.

Finally, there are outside attempts to split the Islamist coalition. The African Union stated yesterday that Ansar al Din, in Reuters’ words, “can be part of a negotiated political solution to reunite the divided West African country if it breaks with al Qaeda and its allies.” This offer seems unlikely to tempt Ansar al Din so long as they have the upper hand in the north, but it is possible that continued efforts at putting wedges into the Islamist coalition could induce cracks later on if Ansar al Din finds itself on the defensive. It is also possible that the AU’s talk will fall on completely deaf ears.

[UPDATE]: Peter Tinti (in the comments) provides us with a link (French) to an interview with MNLA spokesman Moussa Ag Assarid, in which he denies that the Movement has renounced its goal of independence. He claims the earlier news was misinformation spread by the Movement’s “detractors.” According to him, the MNLA is “ready to have talks with the Malian authorities” under international supervision, but they “have never renounced [their] demand for the independence of the Azawad.”

The spokesman quoted in the piece above on MNLA’s renunciation of secession demands was a different figure, Ibrahim Ag Assaleh, identified by Reuters as “a senior member of the MNLA.” The contradictory rhetoric either indicates that one of the two men (likely Ag Assaleh) does not genuinely speak for the MNLA, or that the movement is divided over how to proceed.

Cholera in the Sahel

News of an outbreak of cholera in Islamist-held Gao, northern Mali (map), has focused some international attention on the problem of cholera across the Sahel region. You can read about cholera’s causes, symptoms, and treatments here.

UNICEF (via VOA) released a statement this week expressing concern about the recent uptick in cholera cases in the western Sahel sub-region:

Since mid-June, the number of people affected by the deadly highly infectious water-borne disease has shot up in the Sahel, especially in Niger’s regions bordering the Niger River, where the Ministry of Health reports nearly three times as many cholera patients over the first half of 2012 compared to the same period last year.

Niger is home to about 400,000 children who are expected to require life-saving treatment for severe malnutrition this year.

Cholera is a recurrent threat throughout the Sahel. Last year, over 67,000 cholera cases were reported mainly around the Lake Chad Basin countries (Chad, Cameroon, Nigeria), with 2,153 deaths and an average case fatality rate of 3.2 per cent.

But this year, the outbreaks appear to be concentrated further to the west around Niger and Mali, where its impact is aggravated by massive displacement of people fleeing the conflict in northern Mali and puts more strain on the children already affected by an acute nutrition crisis. While cholera cases appeared in Cameroon, Niger and Nigeria earlier this year, several other Sahel countries are now facing significant risks, with a sharp increase of cases expected with the onset of the rainy season.

As IRIN summarizes, the number of cases in parts of the Sahel, such as the Lake Chad basin, is lower than it was in 2011, but in Mali and Niger the number is set to rise between August and December, which is peak cholera time.

Decreases in cases this year in countries like Chad and Guinea are due to a combination of acquired immunity, prevention methods, and vaccines.

The Red Cross has worked near Gao to prevent the spread of cholera there, supporting “a treatment centre set up on the spot by the health authorities to prevent the disease from spreading…Local radio stations have begun to broadcast warning messages and recommendations, and Mali Red Cross volunteers are going door to door to distribute treatment products and water.” The Islamist group the Movement for Unity/Tawhid and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA) has also reportedly “told people not to drink the river water or bathe in it in a bid to contain the outbreak.”

Nevertheless, ongoing violence in northern Mali between various rebel groups could complicate efforts at prevention and treatment, potentially allowing the disease to spread. Cholera’s spread would add to the burdens Mali, Niger, and other countries in the sub-region already face, including displaced persons and lack of food. UNICEF, the Red Cross, and other organizations are stepping up their efforts to monitor and contain outbreaks, but the present chaos in northern Mali may well work against them.

Africa Blog Roundup: Polling from Mali, Boko Haram, Lesotho’s Elections, and More

Bruce Whitehouse on some recent polling from Mali.

The United States Institute of Peace has released a report, “What Is Boko Haram?” by the journalist Andrew Walker.

The Moor Next Door on the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA).

Charlie Warren:

History has not borne out [predictions of] “coming anarchy” of terrorism, and West Africa is not rife with international extremism. Alas, the region is not beyond terrorism’s grasp either. This means several longstanding arguments about extremism in West Africa need to be carefully revisited.

Emily Wood, “The African Diaspora in the Indian Ocean World.”

Focus on the Horn looks at the Islamic Movement in Sudan.

Earlier this month the Shura (Consultative) Council of the Islamic Movement, an extended central committee of four hundred members, held an extraordinary meeting to discuss a draft new constitution of the Movement to replace a set of ad hoc rules to which only its members had access. The new constitution identified the Movement, the parent organisation of the ruling National Congress Party (NCP), as a cultural, social and religious organisation and effectively surrendered its political mandate to the ruling NCP. News of the 11 May Shura only reached the media in the form of a concise communiqué. In fact, the Islamic Movement itself can be considered a semi-clandestine organisation; it has neither headquarters nor a legal personality. A private citizen in Sudan can only access the Movement as a member, and it rarely demonstrates its existence when not in crisis.

Baobab on Lesotho’s elections:

IN A blow for African democracy, Pakalitha Mosisili, leader of Lesotho’s ruling Congress Party (CP), agreed on May 30th to step down as prime minister after 14 years in power despite his party’s having won the most seats in parliamentary elections five days earlier. A group of opposition parties, led by Thomas Thabane’s All Basotho Convention (ABC), is expected to form the mountainous kingdom’s first coalition government.

The 67-year-old Mr Mosisili’s resignation came as a surprise. Many newspapers had already declared him the winner after his party picked up 41 of the 80 constituency seats, an absolute majority. But after a further 40 seats were awarded based on proportional representation, the CP ended up with a total of only 48 seats out of a possible total of 120. That left it still the biggest party, but without the absolute majority required to form a government.

It is not clear to me that this result is indeed a “blow to African democracy.” What do you think?