Regional Interconnections and Conflict in the Sahel

I am curious to hear readers’ reactions to two pieces that have appeared in recent weeks. These pieces, inspired by the recent bombings in Niger, treat interconnections between crises in different Northwest African countries, specifically Libya, Mali, and Niger.

  • AFP: “With its weak government, porous borders and proliferation of weapons, Libya has been accused of destabilising its southern neighbours, but analysts say it is wrong to point the finger at Tripoli alone. Niger’s President Mahamadou Issofou has said those behind two suicide attacks in his country on May 23 came from southern Libya. He also said the same groups had been planning another attack on Chad…Western diplomats and analysts believe that southern Libya has become a regrouping area for jihadist groups pushed out of northern Mali by a French-led offensive launched in January.”
  • Similarly, from Reuters: “Suicide attacks on a French-run mine and a military base in northern Niger have shown how an Islamist threat is spreading across the weak nations of the Sahara, meaning France may be tied down there for years to come. Regional rivalries are aggravating the problem for Paris and its Western allies, with a lack of cooperation between Saharan countries helping militants to melt away when they come under pressure and regroup in quieter parts of the vast desert. Security officials say lawless southern Libya has become the latest haven for al Qaeda-linked fighters after French-led forces drove them from strongholds in northern Mali this year, killing hundreds.”

Analyses of such interconnections are important. Just as I think the civil war in Libya played some part in intensifying the ongoing crisis in Mali, I think the fallout from war in Mali has been one key motivation for (or, at the very least, a rhetorical image invoked by) jihadist movements attacking Algeria and Niger in the first half of this year. Indeed, I would like to see deeper reflection about the unanticipated consequences of external military and political interventions in this part of the world (and in general). At the same time, I think it is important to weigh evidence carefully, to preserve awareness of how localities differ from one another even amid regional interactions, and to minimize analogical thinking (i.e., understanding one place by comparing it with another).

What do you think?

Africa News Roundup: Kenyatta and the ICC, Niger Bombings, Northern Kenya, Libya, Algeria, and More

AP:

With the help of French special forces, Niger’s military on Friday killed the last two jihadists holed up inside a dormitory on the grounds of a military garrison in the desert town of Agadez, and freed at least two soldiers who had been held hostage by the extremists, according to French and Nigerien officials.

See also Reuters on a claim of responsibility for the attack by Mokhtar Belmokhtar, who was reported killed in March. Opinions may vary as to whether Belmokhtar is still alive or not.

VOA:

South Sudan President Salva Kiir said Thursday that he would “never accept” the International Criminal Court. He spoke during a visit from new Kenyan president and ICC indictee Uhuru Kenyatta, who pledged the creation of roads, rail and pipelines to deepen economic ties between Kenya and the new nation.

[...]

“We have talked about these problems of the ICC, that the ICC, whatever has been written in Rome, has never been used against any one of their presidents or heads of states. It seems that this thing has been meant for African leaders, that they have to be humiliated,” said Kiir.

Reuters:

African nations have backed a request by Kenya for charges of crimes against humanity by its president to be referred back to the east African country, African Union documents show.

President Uhuru Kenyatta and his deputy, William Ruto, are both facing trial in the International Criminal Court (ICC), accused of masterminding ethnic bloodshed in post-election violence five years ago that killed more than 1,200 people. Both deny the charges.

One minister, who asked to remain anonymous, told Reuters that the African Union specifically avoided calling on the war crimes tribunal to drop its prosecution, but he acknowledged that the request for a local process amounted to the same thing.

AP: “Violence in Somalia Scares Investors, Aid Workers.”

Two headlines on Libya give a mixed picture of the country’s trajectory:

  • AFP: “Libya Economy Surges Following Revolution: IMF” (The IMF’s Libya country page is here).
  • Al Jazeera (video report): “Libyan Armed Groups Refuse to Cede Power”

World Politics Review: “With [President Abdelaziz] Bouteflika Still Sidelined, Algeria’s Challenges Mount.”

IRIN: “Restive Northern Kenya Sees Shifting Power, Risks.”

Information on Niger’s Food Crisis

Via Reuters, the United Nations’ Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (view the latest Niger report here, in French .pdf – I could not find the English version) says that around 800,000 people in Niger will need food aid between now and the summer. Niger faces cyclical food crises – famines in 2005 and 2011 were particularly bad – meaning that the challenges are both short- and long-term. This year, elevated cereals prices and Malian refugees are contributing to the crisis. From Reuters:

[OCHA] cited problems with supplying food to markets in some areas, such as the northern mining regixon of Arlit and Tahoua in central Niger and Tillabery in the west, which had driven up cereals prices.

Recurrent shortages in recent years have forced pastoralists to sell livestock, including valuable young females normally kept for breeding, reducing their resistance to food shocks.

The presence of some 60,000 refugees from Mali – where a French-led international mission has battled Islamist rebels since January – has exacerbated the food shortages in Tillabery [map] and Tahoua [map], OCHA has said.

The Famine Early Warning System Network’s Food Security Outlook (.pdf) for Niger gives further detail on the rise in cereals prices. From p. 1:

Increasing millet and maize prices, already well above average in April, will overshoot seasonal norms between now and the height of the lean season and the end of
Ramadan in late August due to market disruptions
triggered by last year’s floods in Nigeria. Central and
Eastern Niger will be most affected.

P. 7 of FEWS Net’s outlook, which lists factors that could affect food security, is worth reading. Notably, they list the elections in Mali (scheduled for July) and conflict in Nigeria as possible risks.

The World Food Programme has more (.pdf). An important paragraph from p. 2:

Close monitoring of food markets and the food security situation is necessary. There are indications of recent decreases in the terms of trade of pastoralists. In March, the terms of trade between goat and millet reached alert levels with a goat trading for much less than 100 kg of millet, a threshold indicative of inadequate purchasing power for pastoralists.

Available casual labour opportunities and incomes
generated by cash crops (horticulture and onions) so
far contain the deterioration of the purchasing power
among other livelihood groups. As the lean season
reaches its peak in July-September, further increases
in cereal prices will reduce vulnerable households’
economic access to food.

As far as the solutions that Niger and various aid agencies are seeking, readers may find the following resources helpful:

  • IRIN on President Mahamadou Issoufou’s $2 billion Nigeriens Feeding Nigeriens initiative.
  • WFP on Norway’s donations.

Portraits of Malian Refugee Camps in Niger, Mauritania, and Burkina Faso

Alongside armed conflict in northern Mali, Mali and its neighbors are experiencing a refugee crisis. I keep bringing this up in an effort to ensure that the scale of the crisis will not be ignored. UNHCR’s country pages for Mali and Mauritania show that massive numbers of people have been displaced: over 200,000 inside Mali, 70,000 Malian refugees in Mauritania, 50,000 in Niger, and 40,000 in Burkina Faso. Those numbers are all expected to rise by year’s end, to a total of approximately 540,000.

A few portraits from camps:

Niger:

The Mangaïze camp was officially created in May, following an influx of a large number of Malian families fleeing to Niger, said Idrissa Abou, a member of Niger’s National Commission for Refugees.
Besides a monthly food ration, refugees have access to drinking water from three small boreholes and primary health care. There are sanitation facilities with 250 showers and toilets, and a household waste management system. Refugees also have access to administrative services, a school and, with the opening of a police station, a security service.

“At the moment, there are 1,522 families, which amounts to a population of 6,037 mainly made up of Malian refugees, but there are also Nigerien returnees,” Abou told IPS, adding that an overwhelming majority of the refugees are from Ménaka, the closest Malian town to the Ouallam municipality in south-western Niger. He added that the numbers in the camp had increased in February after some 1,700 refugees from the nearby Bani Bangou camp were transferred to Mangaïze.

Mauritania:

Nearly 67,000 refugees—mainly women and children—have arrived in the border town of Fassala, Mauritania, since January 2012. “At the border crossing at Fassala, Mauritania, people are arriving thirsty and showing signs of fatigue,” explains Karl Nawezi, MSF project manager in Mauritania. After being registered by the authorities, refugees wait in a transit camp before being transferred to Mbera, a small, isolated village in the Mauritanian desert, just 30 kilometers [about 19 miles] from the Mali border.

The refugees in Mbera are totally dependent on humanitarian aid. An insufficient number of tents has been distributed, however. Families are assembled under large tents called “meeting points” that leave them exposed to the elements. Fed up with waiting, some construct their own makeshift shelters out of straw mats and pieces of fabric to protect themselves from sand and dust storms. “In Mauritania, as is the case elsewhere [in the Sahel refugee camps], people are suffering from diarrhea, respiratory infections, and skin infections because of the poor conditions in the camps,” says Nawezi.

And France24 has a video report from Burkina Faso here.

Anti-Corruption Efforts in Niger

As the crisis in Mali has unfolded, one reads periodic warnings in the press and the policy sphere that violence and instability could spill over into Niger. Meanwhile, analysts and scholars continue to examine the fall of former Malian President Amadou Toumani Touré’s government; many have identified regime corruption as a key factor in undermining the regime’s legitimacy and preparing the ground for its collapse. Given these two trends – concern about Niger, and analysis of corruption in Mali – it is important to track anti-corruption efforts in Niger.

In July 2011 (French), shortly after Nigerien President Mahamadou Issoufou took office, his government created a High Authority for Fighting Corruption. Issoufou has stated that combating corruption is one of his top priorities. The High Authority has investigated allegations of misappropriation of funds during the regime of the country’s last civilian president, Mamadou Tandja. This body’s mission, as its President Issoufou Boureima explained in a December 2012 interview (French), is to identify and correct financial abuses in different sectors of government. The High Authority has experienced some turmoil; in May 2012 (French), its Vice President Mahamane Hamissou Moumouni resigned after protesting “opacity” in the institution’s management of resources.

All this is a preface to mentioning a story that a reader recently told me about. In February (French), Nigerien authorities (the article I found does not mention whether these officials came from the High Authority or not) arrested some twenty doctors on charges of embezzling funds at the NGO GAVI Alliance. The Alliance has reportedly suspended its programs in Niger. The Alliance’s website is here.

This story reminded me a little of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria’s decision to suspend several aid programs in Mali in March 2011 over concerns about corruption. This affair led to the June 2011 arrest of former Health Minister Ibrahim Oumar Toure.

I am not saying that the arrest of the doctors in Niger means that Niger is following Mali’s path. The paths of the two countries are different. But the story does highlight the fact that corruption can have far-reaching consequences, including undermining the confidence of external donors. How Niger handles cases like these will shape how domestic and foreign actors view the country and its government.

A Cross-Border Educational Venture in Nigeria/Niger

Daily Trust:

Kano State governor Rabiu Musa Kwankwaso said at the weekend that the state government is building a mega secondary school in Niger Republic to boast industrialization.

[...]

“We have so far built 400 houses for teachers in junior secondary schools, especially the [ones] outside the city of Kano to encourage them. As we are sitting here today (Saturday) the deputy governor is in Niger laying the foundation of the mega secondary school which we intend to run together with the government of Niger Republic, and our children who will go there will be trained in French so that when they graduate, they will stay there and complete their degree courses or go to other French speaking countries to do other programmes,” he said.

As the article and others detail, this initiative is part of a broader agenda on the governor’s part to strengthen education in Kano State. But the cross-border aspect of the school is particularly interesting to me. I have four initial reactions that may prove more or less relevant when and if more information emerges about the school:

  1. Assuming the school will be located in southern Niger (in Zinder or Maradi, perhaps?), this initiative could reinforce the shared Hausa cultural and linguistic zone that transcends the border. As William F.S. Miles’ Hausaland Divided shows, the border and the colonial legacies it reflects have separated Hausa in Niger and Nigeria in profound ways. Yet Nigerien and Nigerian Hausa communities have also remained tied to each other through migration, trade, religion, marriage, and, in this context, education and politics. It is significant to me that this partnership is not between Niger and Nigeria per se, but between a particular Nigerian governor and the government of Niger.
  2. The school’s emphasis on French is noteworthy. As Kwankwaso suggests, graduates of the school could work not only in Niger and Nigeria, but also throughout West Africa. More schools like these could strengthen regional integration efforts from the bottom up, by producing skilled workers capable of moving throughout the whole region.
  3. Is the school partly meant to retrain itinerant Qur’anic students? Various states in northern Nigeria have experimented with different models for absorbing these students into government-run schools, partly due to a fear that such boys and young men might otherwise become targets for recruitment by radical groups. Some in northern Nigeria also complain that many Qur’anic students are not Nigerian at all, but rather come from Niger, Chad, and elsewhere. Does the school represent an effort to train some of Kano’s Qur’anic students while simultaneously repatriating some of the students who come to northern Nigeria from Niger?
  4. Does some of the funding come from Niger’s oil profits? I have heard the complaint that despite Nigeria’s oil wealth, northern Nigerian localities sometimes import fuel from Niger. Perhaps this school represents an attempt by a northern Nigerian governor to benefit from Niger’s (mini) oil boom.

Africa News Roundup: Kenyan Elections, Bamako Mutiny, Niger’s Tuaregs, and More

Human Rights Watch: “High Stakes: Political Violence and the 2013 Elections in Kenya.”

Reuters:

Malian government soldiers fought mutinous paratroops in the capital Bamako on Friday in a clash that threatened to undermine a French-led offensive against Islamist rebels which has moved up close to the Algerian border.

In the southern capital, local residents fled in panic as heavy gunfire echoed from the Djikoroni-Para paratrooper base on the Niger River and army units with armoured vehicles surrounded the camp. At least one person was killed, state media reported.

Smoke rose from the base, where mutinous members of the ‘red beret’ paratroop unit loyal to deposed Malian President Amadou Toumani Toure, who was toppled in a coup last year, started firing with their weapons to protest attempts to redeploy them.

After several hours of firing, calm returned at the camp.

French troops took the airport at Tessalit, northern Mali yesterday, and a suicide bomber attacked a military checkpoint outside Gao.

RFI: “Mauritania’s Oil Minister Discusses Mali Conflict Fallout.”

Magharebia: “In Amenas Attack Magnifies Belmokhtar, AQIM Rift.”

An open letter (French) from a Nigerien Tuareg to President Mahamadou Issoufou:

Since the beginning of the conflict in northern Mali, Tuareg groups in Niger have stood out by their silence – this, in order to give a chance at Peace, and to save our country Niger, over which hangs the specter of an armed uprising which would feed into that of Mali, compromising all the efforts already agreed to by your government and ex-rebels. And this despite the inertia of authorities from the 5th, 6th, and 7th Republic who have not found ANY SOLUTION to the armed rebellion that ended in 2009, and so to the 4,000 ex-combatants still awaiting reintegration!

Magdi el Gizouli on the Sudanese preacher/activist Yusif al Koda and his interactions with Sudanese rebel movements.

Reuters: “Gunmen Kill Nine Polio Health Workers in [Kano,] Nigeria.”