A Look Ahead at the Sahel and the Horn in 2013

What will 2013 hold for the Sahel region and the Greater Horn of Africa?

For the Sahel, the year begins with intense concern about northern Mali and northern Nigeria. The United Nations Security Council (UNSC)’s resolution of December 20 greatly strengthens the prospect of an external military intervention in Mali, in the form of the “deployment of an African-led International Support Mission in Mali (AFISMA) for an initial period of one year.” The UN, the United States, and others are also placing pressure on Malian leaders to, in the UNSC’s words, hold “elections by April 2013 or as soon as technically possible.” Holding credible and inclusive elections, as well as retaking the north by force, may prove difficult to achieve in the time frame allotted. The anniversary of the northern rebellion’s launch, which will come on January 17, reminds us that Mali’s conflicts have lasted longer, and worsened further, than many initially expected – and may last for quite some time still.

In northern Nigeria, meanwhile, recent attacks by Boko Haram and battles between sect members and authorities suggest that instability in that region will continue in the new year. If last year’s trends are any indication, the combination of mistrust between the government and the sect, human rights violations on both sides, and the shifting nature of the sect’s tactics may make the conflict difficult to resolve either politically or militarily. 

One challenge for analysts and policymakers in 2013 will be to consider interconnections between crises and conflicts in the Sahel without falling into simplistic narratives depicting the region as an “arc of instability.” So for example while Niger is not Mali, what happens in Mali affects Niger, and vice versa. At the country level, I would urge analysts and policymakers to avoid suggesting that complex problems can be solved with variants of the “vote, then shoot” or “shoot, then vote” models. So, for example, would holding elections in Mali just three or four months from now really produce a legitimate and inclusive government? Or would elections turn out to be deeply flawed, and risk generating further discontent?

The crises in Mali and Nigeria, moreover, should not overshadow other challenges and important trends in the Sahel. In the category of challenges,  there is first and foremost the looming threat of renewed hunger. IRIN tells us, “Despite good rains across much of the Sahel this year, 1.4 million children are expected to be malnourished – up from one million in 2012, according to the 2013 Sahel regional strategy.” The numbers are grim, and the problem of food insecurity a long-term one – a challenge that requires more than just reactive, year-by-year responses. While men with guns battle for control of territory, drought and starvation will be claiming lives by the thousands.

Turning to the Greater Horn (for which I use quite a broad definition), four areas I’ll be watching are: (1) the efforts of the new government in southern Somalia to consolidate military and political control, with help from African and other partners; (2) the status of negotiations over border demarcation, security, oil, and other issues between Sudan and South Sudan (as well as the trajectory of rebel and protest movements within each country); (3) the shape of the ongoing political transition in Ethiopia in the wake of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi’s death last year, and the shape of relations between the state and the Ethiopian Muslim community, which has been protesting alleged government interference in Muslim affairs since late 2011; and (4) the Kenyan elections of March 4. If one broad theme connects these cases, it is the interactions between transitions taking place in the realm of formal politics (elections, successions, agreements) and forms of dissent and contestation (rebellions, protests, ethnic violence) occurring alongside these transitions.

I have no predictions to offer beyond my warning about the risks in holding premature elections in Mali. I should also reiterate what I wrote yesterday about the shocking capacity of chance to affect larger trajectories, and the ways in which the effects of small actions can escalate beyond their authors’ intentions. None of us can tell what the future holds for the Sahel and the Horn, but I do think it will be an eventful year, including in ways we might never have guessed. Here’s hoping that one surprise will be less tragedy and bloodshed than expected, greater opportunities for peace, and successful transitions for countries from Senegal to Kenya.

A Look Back at the Sahel and the Horn in 2012

2012 ends, for the regions of Africa this blog covers, with considerable uncertainty and tragedy for some countries, and cause for cautious optimism in others.

We do not have to look far to find chaos. Mali’s trajectory, whether in terms of political arrangements in the south, the future of the north, or the future role of external actors in reuniting the country by force, remains unclear. Violence in northern Nigeria continues, not only in the form of attacks by Boko Haram but also in intercommunal conflicts and abuses by security forces. Fighting continues along the border between Sudan and South Sudan. The rebellion in the Central African Republic may end with the formation of a coalition government, or perhaps rebels will take the capital. In Somalia, recent attacks in Puntland hint that al Shabab, while weakened by losses of territory in the south, will remain a source of violence.

Yet we also do not have to look far to find causes for hope. Senegal experienced a democratic transition from one party to another earlier this year. On December 21, the Lagos-Kano railway reopened in Nigeria. Somalia completed a political transition and has a new government. There are always reasons to feel gloomy – perhaps Senegal’s new President Macky Sall will prove incapable of dealing with the country’s problems, and Nigerian society will fragment further, and the tenuous political and territorial gains by Somalia’s government will vanish – but it is worth thinking about what went right this year in various places. About the institutions that endured, the plans that worked, the macro and micro changes that improved or protected people’s lives.

It is also crucial to go beyond reductionist paradigms of African tragedies on the one hand and African “success stories” on the other. Writing the above paragraphs reminded me how easy it is to fall into the superficial trap of juxtaposing the positive with the negative and calling that complexity, or calling that “Africa.” The real complexity is all the stories that don’t fit into neat categories of tragedy or triumph. Thus as Sall turns to the task of governing Senegal, we find him struggling to resolve a conflict with a religious leader and his partisans. In Nigeria, we see a state attempting to balance religious and political constituencies in the wake of a governor’s unexpected death. In what some consider unmitigated tragedy we also find complexity – one brother who was sentenced to have his hand amputated for taking up arms against Islamists in northern Mali and another brother who, seeming to endorse the Islamists’ vision of a religiously pure society, carried out the sentence of amputation himself. We can always find heroes and villains in events if we choose; but sometimes we can’t grasp the complexity of a situation until we stop looking for heroes and villains, and just look for people.

So 2012 has given analysts of the Sahel and the Horn a lot of material to digest. Events this year certainly surprised me in various ways. I was surprised by how rapidly the situation in Mali deteriorated, especially between January and April. But I was also surprised to see Senegal’s President Abdoulaye Wade step down amid relative calm after months of tension around his bid for a third term of questionable constitutionality, and what at times had looked like his willingness to secure that third term at great cost. These surprises encourage us to question received narratives, like that of Mali as a “democratic poster child,” or the idea that an “African strongman” can always cling to power. The surprises also encourage us to remember that events are fluid and contingent. Sometimes events are shaped, to a shocking extent, by chance. Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz was shot in October, but lived – had the bullets killed him, who can say what the repercussions might have been for Mauritania, for Mali, for the Sahel? It is strange to think that one low-ranking soldier’s aim could influence outcomes for a whole country, even for a whole region.

I listed five “stories to watch” at the beginning of this year. The ideas were safe enough, and broad enough, that they all did prove relevant to the course of events, though not always in the ways I might have expected – for starters, Mali’s democracy certainly underwent a severe test, but not at the ballot box. But the value in comparing the perspective looking forward in January 2012 with the perspective looking backward in December 2012 is not primarily in asking who got what right, but in determining what changed and how analysts can do better in grasping the causes and effects of those changes. The methods I use for this blog – aggregating and synthesizing news in the hope that what emerges is more than just the sum of its sources – will remain basically the same in the coming year. But 2012 reminds me to ask a broad array of questions, to look beyond politicking in Bamako or Dakar or Khartoum or Mogadishu. To think about the potential of so-called “marginal” actors to affect an entire country’s trajectory (and not to forget ethnic, religious, or political minorities in a rush to analyze “Tuareg rebellions” or a “Muslim Northern Nigeria”). To think about the webs of relationships – between individuals, between communities, between countries – that are activated, and reshaped, in the course of conflict and cooperation.

I plan to post a look forward at 2013 tomorrow. I’m thinking I’ll go more with the idea of “themes to consider” rather than “stories to watch.” In the meantime, what struck you the most in 2012 about the Sahel or the Horn? What was expected and unexpected about how this year played out?

Africa News Roundup: Mali Kidnapping, Abdel Aziz’s Expected Return to Mauritania, Boko Haram, Eskinder Nega, and More

First, most readers have likely heard that the Movement for Tawhid and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA/MUJAO) claimed responsibility for the kidnapping of a French citizen in Diema, Kayes, southwestern Mali (map – other versions have the kidnapping taking place in Nioro). The Kayes region is not part of the territory held by the Islamist coalition. The kidnapping, it seems to me, will ratchet up security concerns in southern Mali and increase the perceived threat to Western interests posed by the Islamists.

Mauritania’s President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, who was shot on October 13 and spent the last weeks recovering in France, was reportedly expected to return to Mauritania today. Yesterday he gave an interview (French) to RFI and Le Monde on Mauritania and Mali.

AFP: “Suspected French jihadist Arrested in Mauritania.”

Reuters: “Sudan’s information minister had one clear message after security agents moved in to arrest their former spy chief – that a plot had been uncovered, the culprits caught and the situation in the country was now ‘totally stable.’ Khartoum did appear quiet a day later on Friday – but on the desert city’s dusty streets the detention amplified a debate about the future of the country’s leader, and posed new questions about who might one day unseat him.”

Two items on Boko Haram:

  • Al Jazeera: Nigerian “security services have released a list of Boko Haram’s ‘Most Wanted’ men. The list is published with corresponding bounties on offer for the capture of the men, and appeals to members of the public who wish to come forward with information leading to the arrest of the wanted men, to do so…First on the ‘Most Wanted’ list is Abubukar Shekau, the self-styled leader of the group…The other 18 men on the Boko Haram’s ‘Most Wanted’ list, who have bounties ranging from $155,000 dollars down to a more meagre $60,000 dollars upon their heads, names and faces are hardly known to the public or the media. This may make their capture much more difficult.”
  • This Day: “Boko Haram kingpin arrested in Adamawa, Bomb Factory Closed.”

VOA: “Ethiopia’s Federal Supreme Court has postponed hearing an appeal of the conviction of prominent Ethiopian journalist Eskinder Nega and opposition leader Andualem Arage.  But the court gave its first indication Thursday that charges brought by prosecutors under the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation may not be that strong by demanding that prosecutors justify the June convictions.”

IRIN on reintegrating returned refugees in Senegal.

Africa News Roundup: ECOWAS and Mali, French Commanders in Mauritania, Muslim Protests in Ethiopia, Karim Wade, and More

Details on the Economic Community of West African States’ battle plan for Mali:

“International forces will not do the ground fighting, that role will belong to the Malian army,” a military officer familiar with the plan, who asked not to be named, said on Friday.

“Air strikes will be the responsibility of the international force,” he said, adding foreign partners would also provide logistical and intelligence support and soldiers and police to secure areas captured by the Malian army.

Military planners from Africa, the United Nations and Europe in Mali’s capital Bamako last week drew up a battle plan that would involve a foreign force of more than 4,000 personnel, mostly from West African countries. It remains unclear how much of the force would come from Western nations.

The plan covers a six-month period, with a preparatory phase for training and the establishment of bases in Mali’s south, followed by combat operations in the north.

Top French military commanders visited Mauritania this week to discuss Mali and terrorism.

The ongoing Muslim protests in Ethiopia merit a full post, but two items of note are the announcement of new members of the Islamic Affairs Council and a statement by the US Commission on International Religious Freedom expressing concern “about the increasing deterioration of religious freedoms for Muslims in Ethiopia.”

In other Ethiopia-related news, “Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan have agreed to resume jointly working on organizing sustainable management, utilization and development of the Nile waters under the Eastern Nile Basin. The agreement was reached after water Ministers and representatives of the three countries held a meeting in Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, on Thursday.”

VOA:

The United Nations warns survivors of Nigeria’s worst flooding in five decades are at risk for waterborne and water-related diseases.  Nigeria’s National Emergency Management Agency reports the heavy rains have killed 363 people, affected 7.7 million and made more than two million people homeless.

Reuters: “Somalia’s al Shabaab, Squeezed in South, Move to Puntland.”

Senegalese police will again question Karim Wade, a former minister and son of former President Abdoulaye Wade.

What else is happening?

Senegal: A Cabinet Reshuffle and the Continuing “Bethio Affair”

On October 29, news broke that Senegalese President Macky Sall was reshuffling his cabinet. A partial list of changes is here (French). The key changes are the removal of Alioune Badara Cisse as minister of foreign affairs and the transfer of Mbaye Ndiaye (Wikipedia page in French here) from the ministry of the interior to a post as the director of the President’s cabinet. At Interior, Sall has replaced Ndiaye with Pathe Seck, a retired general.

Senegalese and international media sources (see the first two links above) state that the reason for Ndiaye’s transfer was the criticism the administration has faced for its handling of the “Bethio affair.” In April, Senegalese authorities arrested Sheikh Bethio Thioune, a popular youth leader within the Mouridiyya Sufi brotherhood and an outspoken supporter of former President Abdoulaye Wade. The arrest followed the death of two men at one of the Sheikh’s houses.

The Sheikh’s imprisonment, first in Thies and now in Dakar, has evoked massive outcry from his disciples, including rioting in Dakar from October 19 to around October 22.

The president now faces criticism on at least three fronts: Wade’s Senegalese Democratic Party (PDS) charges (French) that the administration has treated Sheikh Bethio unfairly and targeted him for political reasons; some commentators in the press have expressed alarm (French) over the government’s inability to prevent the riots; and some commentators say (French) that the president is unfaithful to his friends – the two dismissed ministers were seen as particularly close supporters of Sall (French). Regardless of how one rates the fairness of these criticisms, I would say that the “Bethio affair” has become one of the biggest political crises Sall has faced since his inauguration in April. And as the author at the previous link writes, perhaps Sall has also “lost two friends” – if not more – in this affair.

Coda: This video shows Sheikh Bethio’s disciples (called “Thiantacones”) visiting him during his imprisonment in Thies, as they have apparently done every Thursday since his arrest.

Burkina Faso Debates Its Family Code

Several former French colonies in West Africa have witnessed major struggles over the content of “family codes” and “personal status laws,” statutes that deal with marriage, divorce, inheritance, and related matters. These struggles have pitted ostensibly secular governments (influenced by legacies of French secularism or laicite) against constituencies from what you might call “Muslim civil society.” One such struggle occurred in Senegal in the 1970s, while another broke out in Mali from 2009 to 2011.

In 1990, Burkina Faso* implemented a “Code for Persons and the Family,” the text of which I have been unable to locate. Recently the country’s Ministry for Women’s Advancement commissioned a study (French) on amending the Code. A new debate concerning this law has begun. It will be important to see who joins the debate and how it proceeds. Here are two perspectives from the Burkinabe press:

One author (French) says, “Even though perceived as being an advance in favor of the rights of women, it is noticed more and more that this text includes clauses that discriminate against women and girls” with regard to inheritance, property, and other matters. She goes on to cite discrepancies between the Code and the international statutes on women’s rights that Burkina Faso has ratified. The article, quoting an official from the Ministry for Women’s Advancement, suggests that the age of marriage may be a key focus of debate.

Another commentator (French) focuses on the renewed debate in the country concerning polygamy, which remains legal. The author questions whether such a debate is “opportune” for the country at a time when “the worries of Burkinabe women are far from this [issue].” Women have more pressing material and economic concerns than polygamy, the author continues. “How can one find this debate on polygamy opportune when female circumcision, obstetrical fistulas, and the weak attendance at maternity wards are still a reality?” The author goes on to discuss the issue of indigenous versus foreign cultural values, suggesting Burkina Faso must rely on its own values.

The portions of the Burkinabe press that are accessible online give us only a limited glimpse into popular opinion in the country. But it is noteworthy that neither of the linked articles discusses religion at length, focusing more on questions of national culture and its interaction with international norms. We will see if Muslim associations and constituencies (or Christians and other non-Muslim groups!) begin to put forth arguments with a specifically religious character.

*where Muslims represent a smaller proportion of the population (60%) than Mali (90%) or Senegal (94%).

Rioting and Rivalry as the “Affair of Sheikh Bethio” Continues in Senegal

In April, Senegalese authorities arrested Sheikh Bethio Thioune, a popular Muslim leader in the country, following the deaths of two men at one the Sheikh’s homes. Commenter Brendon Butler pointed out over the weekend that the “Bethio affair” is back in the news: last week, the Sheikh was transferred from Thies, the region where he was arrested, to the capital Dakar. Starting last Friday, after authorities forbade the Sheikh’s supporters from visiting him (French) at the Rebeuss prison, some of his followers (called “Thiantacounes”) rioted, burning two buses and causing what the linked article calls “indescribable disorder.” In a reminder of the increasingly transnational scope of the Mouridiyya Sufi order to which Sheikh Bethio belongs, his supporters also rallied outside Senegalese diplomatic missions in Paris and Marseilles (French) on Friday.

Rioting continued in Dakar on Monday:

Police fired teargas to break up the protesters who moved through the capital smashing the windows of parked cars as well as those driving past using rocks, sticks and other objects found on the road.
[…]
Street traders hastily swept up their wares and ran off as the angry protesters swarmed Independence Square in the heart of the capital, causing chaos as cars reversed and swerved to avoid projectiles.

As I said in the spring, one point to emphasize is that international English-language sources often oversimplify Sheikh Bethio’s role within the Mouridiyya brotherhood. To say that he has a large following and that he is an important figure in the country’s religious arena is accurate. To call him a “senior Mouride leader” blurs the distinction between Sheikh Bethio – who is not a descendant of the Mouridiyya’s founder Sheikh Amadou Bamba (d. 1927) – and the brotherhood’s hereditary leadership, which is based in the order’s holy city of Touba. The order’s highest living authority is Sheikh Amadou Bamba’s grandson Sheikh Maty Lèye Mbacké (biography in French here), who became the seventh Khalifa of the Mouridiyya in 2010. While the existence of religious leaders like Sheikh Bethio indicates that the brotherhood has powerful figures outside the Mbacké family, it is important not to exaggerate Sheikh Bethio’s position within the formal hierarchy of the brotherhood.

In the “Bethio affair,” both the state and the Thiantacounes have sought the support of the Mbacké family, with President Macky Sall telephoning the Khalifa (French) in April, Sheikh Bethio’s son visiting the Khalifa (French) in August, and Prime Minister Abdoul Mbaye journeying to speak with Sheikh Saliou ibn Saliou Mbacké (French), the son of the late fifth Khalifa of the Mouridiyya, in the Mbour region this weekend. The position of the Mbacké family and the “Bethio affair” is complex, and I may be misunderstanding it, but my current interpretation is that the family wants the affair to end, but is not calling for any exceptional treatment for Sheikh Bethio in the judicial process.

If the complexities in the religious realm were not enough, there are the ways in which party rivalries enter into the affair. Sheikh Bethio was a strong supporter of former President Abdoulaye Wade, whom current President Macky Sall defeated in March. Relations between Wade’s Senegalese Democratic Party (PDS) and the Sall administration have been tense since the election as the administration investigates allegations of corruption and the PDS moves from ruling party status to opposition status. Some voices in the Senegalese press (French) have read statements by the Sall administration as implying that the PDS is behind the riots. The PDS, meanwhile, accuses the administration (French) of creating “tension” through its handling of the affair and implies that the state’s treatment of the Sheikh flouts judicial norms. The Bethio affair, then, has become a forum for party rivalry and struggle.

On a final note, those who read French may be interested to read the reactions of Senegalese bloggers who decry the violence, assess the actions of the Thiantacounes in light of Mouride teachings, and castigate the Senegalese state as weak. These bloggers, of course, do not represent the full range of perspectives among the Senegalese. Nonetheless it is noteworthy how the affair has shaken the confidence of some Senegalese writers in the state’s capacity to maintain law and order.