On President Trump’s Call with Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari

On February 13, President Donald Trump spoke by telephone with Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari. Many observers, including me and Nigerian analyst Muktar Usman-Janguza, were impatiently awaiting for the White House to post a readout of the call, which it finally did yesterday. The delay, I should note, was offensive to some Nigerians in and of itself.

The main news coming out of the call was when Trump “expressed support for the sale of aircraft from the United States to support Nigeria’s fight against Boko Haram.”

There is a backstory here, dating to 2014, when the Obama administration blocked sales of US-made helicopters to Nigeria due to concerns about human rights violations by Nigerian security forces. As recently as December 2016, Nigeria purchased military aircraft from Russia and Pakistan after growing impatient with Washington.

Another part of the backstory, as former Ambassador to Nigeria John Campbell explains here, is that US security cooperation with Nigeria has also been limited for many years by the Leahy Amendment. The amendment prohibits US security assistance to foreign security force units that the US government believes have committed human rights abuses.

Some will see Trump’s offer to Buhari, then, as a change in policy, but I think this reflects more the momentum of the War on Terror (or whatever one is supposed to call it now) and the tendency of that momentum to wear down or override human rights concerns in the long term.

After all, in May 2016, the Obama administration expressed its willingness, pending Congressional approval, to “approve a sale of as many as 12 A-29 Super Tucano light attack aircraft to Nigeria.” (You can watch a demonstration of the Super Tucano here.)

The sale does not seem to have gone forward but, as the New York Times has reported, the willingness to approve it reflected a wider change of attitude in Washington toward Nigeria’s fight against Boko Haram. I believe two key moments that prompted that change: the kidnapping of the Chibok girls in April 2014, and the election of Buhari in March 2015. Those two events boosted those voices in Washington who argued that the US should ease its restrictions on security cooperation with Nigeria. Trump’s offer to Buhari is not a complete break with older policy, then, but rather a demonstration that those voices are continuing to win out over those who favor more restricted security cooperation.

This is the logic of the War on Terror, I believe: when policymakers or human rights organizations raise concerns about security force abuses, they will tend, over the long term and often in the short term, to be overruled by those whose primary concern in places like Nigeria is with killing jihadists. I would bet that a hypothetical President Hillary Clinton would have also eventually approved the sale of military aircraft to Nigeria. I say all this not to let Trump off the hook or to somehow praise him – I oppose Trump unequivocally – but to point out that some policy dynamics are bigger even than Trump.

“Tribal Dynamics” and Wannabe Gordian Knot-Cutters

Reading Crisis Group’s latest report on Yemen, two sentences jumped out at me:

Western analysis tends to explore [al-Qaida]’s relationship with local tribes but less often examines the group as a tool for Yemen’s political elite to resort to subterfuge for financial and military gain. Yemenis, by contrast, view domestic political dynamics as fundamental to understanding and countering AQ and similar jihadist groups.

This observation about Yemen can be broadened to discussions of “counterinsurgency” in general. At policy-oriented conferences and in my reading, I’ve repeatedly run into the idea that attending to “tribal dynamics” is the key to understanding and solving conflicts, particularly in terms of stripping away local support from jihadists. Western analysts who glom onto the “tribal dynamics” hypothesis tend to speak as though they’re Alexander ready to cut through the Gordian Knot – as though they can slice through complexity with a single analytical tool.

It’s also remarkable how superficial the analysis of “tribal dynamics” often is. Whether the subject is Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, etc., the template such analysts like to apply is simple and generic: a lot of talk about “honor and shame,” “revenge and feuds,” pre-modern societies, and so forth. Funny: if we’re talking about ultra-local dynamics, then how come the same framework can supposedly be applied in extremely different places? Are all tribes fundamentally the same? If analysts know the “local” so well, why do they so rarely provide any details about the specific tribes, situations, and customs involved? Analysts in this vein talk as though all you need to do is show up, find an old shaykh under a tent, remember not to eat with your left hand, butter him up about honor, and you can magically solve the world’s worst conflicts.

Additionally, as the quoted passage suggests, the emphasis on “tribal dynamics” is almost always a de-politicizing maneuver – a conscious or unconscious flight from the messiness of politics. It would convenient if conflicts could be solved just by appealing to shaykhs under tents, because that would eliminate the necessity to sort through the incredible complexity of state failures, elite infighting, ethnic and sectarian conflict, historical memory, etc.

At the end of the day I don’t think there’s a sword that can cut through these Gordian Knots. Conflicts are complicated. Societies are complex. Power is fickle and diffuse. Sometimes you don’t get a sword: you just have to try to pull the strings you can find. And sometimes you can’t even do that.

Peter Mandaville and J.M. Berger on CVE, Past and Present

The Centre on Religion and Global Affairs has published an interesting interview with Professor Peter Mandaville of George Mason University, who recently left the US State Department’s Office of Religion and Global Affairs. (There’s no relationship between the Centre and the Office, despite the overlap in names.)

One exchange stood out to me:

There is a tendency for the topic of religion to be only seen through the lens of a Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) focus. Does such a starting point help, or should governments take religion seriously beyond CVE? 

Well this question takes us directly into an area that has been more challenging. With respect to groups such as ISIS, I think the default assumption of many national security policymakers is that the U.S. government should be partnering with religious leaders who can create and disseminate something like “theological antidotes” designed to discredit Salafi-jihadi interpretations of Islam. I think this betrays a fundamental misunderstanding both of how religious authority works in Islam and also a faulty analysis of the extent to which the “correctness” of how ISIS interprets Islamic teachings bear on the calculus of those looking to join or support such groups. There’s also just a basic credibility problem here insofar as I suspect that a religious scholar whose views are supported or promoted by the U.S. Government would have close to zero legitimacy in the eyes of many young and politically conscious Muslims. The Office of Religion and Global Affairs has therefore tried to emphasize instead the idea that religious actors who want to play a role in countering violent extremism are likely to be more effective by making their voices heard in the context of initiatives that deal with some of the underlying societal causes of terrorism – such as localized violence and conflict, corruption and other deficits in governance, and certain forms of socioeconomic deprivation and societal alienation.

Recently, there has been some well-placed concern the Trump administration’s plans to change CVE to focus entirely on Muslims. As J.M. Berger wrote earlier this month,

Theoretically, up to now, [CVE has] been targeting all forms of violent extremist ideology, from radical Muslim groups to domestic white nationalists. In practice, though, even under Obama, the focus was almost entirely on Muslims, aside from a tiny handful of mostly invisible grants and programs.

But there was still a powerful symbolic statement behind saying the government wanted to fight all extremists, no matter what ideology they espoused. And it would be an equally powerful symbolic statement if the Trump administration decides to drop all non-Muslim interventions and rebrand the effort as Combating Islamic Extremism…The administration is taking advantage of yet another opportunity to ratify white nationalism and white supremacy.

I see Mandaville’s and Berger’s points as entirely compatible. One might even sum it up as “old CVE, naive; new CVE, dangerous.”

Mbaku on the Challenges Facing Moussa Faki Mahamat at the African Union Commission

Earlier this month, I discussed the process whereby Chad’s Moussa Faki Mahamat was elected chair of the African Union Commission.

Over at the World Policy Institute, John Mukum Mbaku has a smart post on the challenges Mahamat and the AUC will face now. Mbaku identifies five: the Western Sahara issue (now that Morocco has been readmitted to the AU); the International Criminal Court; poverty; “sectarian conflicts”; and terrorism. Here is Mbaku’s conclusion:

During the last decade, the AU has failed to confront major issues threatening peace and security in various parts of the continent. There is hope that Faki, who has gained significant experience dealing with terrorism during his chairmanship of the council of ministers of the G5 Sahel, which has been quite active in the war against terror, can provide the leadership needed to move the AU in the right direction. Some observers believe that Faki’s close working relationship with the EU and the United States in the fight against religious extremism in the Sahel could help him, as AU Commission chairperson, to secure resources for the continent’s peace and security efforts. Although he is Francophone and will be viewed by those countries as representing their interests, he is fluent in English, French, and Arabic and will be able to reach out to virtually all of the continent’s stakeholders. This is critical because dealing with the continent’s multifarious problems would require significant levels of consultation with all relevant groups. Nevertheless, some critics question whether he has the political will to democratize the AU and the continent, especially given Chad’s increasing authoritarianism—Déby has ruled Chad with a strong hand since 1990 and was reelected in April 2016 to a fifth term as president in an election that was considered by many international observers as not fair, free, or credible. Nevertheless, Faki has promised to prioritize development and stability and to undertake necessary reforms to render the AU more responsive to continental crises.

The whole post is worth a read.

A Roundup of Arguments Against Designating the Muslim Brotherhood a Foreign Terrorist Organization

An extremely important debate is occurring in Washington now: whether to designate the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization, or otherwise use the powers of the U.S. government to constrain the Brotherhood’s operations. The main debate now concerns a bill (.pdf) by Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) that would ask the State Department to either designate the Brotherhood a Foreign Terrorist Organization or provide an explanation as to why not. There is also talk of a presidential Executive Order demanding a designation. As I wrote on Twitter, I oppose the designation of the Brotherhood for various reasons.

Here are some experts weighing in on why the designation would be a bad idea:

  • William McCants and Benjamin Wittes: “The Brotherhood as a whole, in several different respects, does not meet the criteria for designation under the statute. That’s why, despite pressure from governments like Egypt and the UAE over a protracted period of time, it has not been designated to date under any of the previous three administrations. Barring a change in statute that would almost certainly render the material support law unconstitutional, a designation, notwithstanding the ferment for it, would not be lawful today either, even under a Trump administration.”
  • Nathan Brown and Michele Dunne: “There is no single thing called the Muslim Brotherhood, but instead a number of organizations, movements, parties, associations, and informal groups that take some inspiration, sometimes direct and sometimes remote, from the original movement founded in Egypt in 1928 and the core texts its founder produced. Brotherhood-inspired movements long ago concluded that their circumstances were so distinct that each would follow the path it saw as appropriate in its own society. And there are many organizations that have been formed with varying degrees of participation from Brotherhood members, but their ties to any Brotherhood organization are often informal and vary in scope. Nor is their use or espousal of violence, a key aspect of the terrorism designation, a given, even if one branch of the Muslim Brotherhood that has unarguably used violence in recent years is the Palestinian organization Hamas, which the United States declared to be a foreign terrorist organization in 1997.”
  • New York Times Editorial Board: “It is wrongheaded and dangerous to tar all Brotherhood members with one brush. The Brotherhood is associated with political parties in Indonesia, Pakistan, Morocco, Jordan, Iraq, Kuwait, Yemen and even Israel, and runs schools and hospitals. Many of those parties are America’s partners. The governing party in Turkey, a NATO member, also has connections to the Brotherhood. If the group is named to the terrorism list, how will Washington continue these relationships without violating the law?”
  • Arjun Sethi: “If the Brotherhood is designated a foreign terrorist organization, the government could bring criminal charges against [American] Muslims, Arabs and their institutions by invoking dangerously broad and expansive material support of terrorism laws. They could be criminally prosecuted for providing support, services, resources, expert advice or assistance to the Brotherhood without any intent to support terrorist activity. These laws can be easily exploited and manipulated for political gain, as even the most remote connection to the Brotherhood could pass muster in a court of law.”
  • Georgetown Bridge Initiative: “If the US designates the Muslim Brotherhood as an FTO, the signal sent to masses of Muslims is that the United States welcomes autocracy, but not democratization. A controversial review of the Muslim Brotherhood by the UK government, somewhat similar to a requirement under the Republican proposal, could not arrive at evidence of complicity in violence. The Muslim Brotherhood has long been a strong opponent of oppressive dictatorships and radical Muslim extremists…Putting the Muslim Brotherhood in the same general category as the so-called Islamic State (ISIL) would be a victory for the extremists because it would take away from the United States an important resource in the battle against ISIL.”
  • Andrew March: “There is a hidden danger for academics and journalists lurking within congressional legislation introduced by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) to designate the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization. Most of the discussion has focused on whether the legislation’s premise is correct about the Muslim Brotherhood’s relationship with terrorism and the potential impact on Muslim American organizations. There is another threat more specific to academic researchers and analysts: Those who conduct research on the organization could find themselves at risk of prosecution for “material support” of terrorism.”

A final thought from me, Sahel-specific: a designation would complicate U.S. relations with two countries this blog covers, Mauritania and Sudan. With Mauritania, the effect could be to constrain political space for the opposition. With Sudan, the effect could be yet another source of conflict and tension, given that the Muslim Brotherhood is, at least in some loose sense, the ruling party in Sudan.

An Economy-Focused Cabinet Reshuffle in Chad

Recently, Chadian President Idriss Deby reshuffled his cabinet. Part of the reshuffle was prompted by the departure of Foreign Affairs Minister Moussa Faki Mahamat, who is going (with Deby’s blessing) to become the new chair of the African Union Commission.

Another factor in the reshuffle, however, was the less amicable firing of Finance and Budget Minister Mbogo Ngabo Seli (French), who had only been in his post since August 2016. Seli, it seems, had been unable to maintain a good relationship with Deby’s inner circle and had been equally unable to manage a crisis resulting from the “non-payment of salaries” to civil servants and other key personnel. That “non-payment” is a core part of the budget/austerity crisis that has evoked recurring protests in Chad in recent months, an issue I discuss here (.pdf, p. 13).

In December, there was another firing: Mines Minister Gomdigué Baïdi Lomey (French). In that case, no reasons were given.

The new government promotes Hissein Brahim Taha, the Chadian ambassador to France and a veteran diplomat, to the post of Foreign Affairs Minister. Other new and key appointments include the promotion of three senior technocrats, Christian Georges Diguibaye, Ngueto Yambaye, and Ahmat Mahamat Hassan, to the posts of Finance Minister, Minister of the Economy, and Minister of Justice, respectively. The new government also includes the famous Chadian filmmaker Mahamat Saleh Haroun to the post of Minister of Touristic, Artisanal, and Cultural Development.

The reshuffle did not affect ministers in the security and defense sphere, suggesting that the move was more about dealing with the country’s economic crisis than anything else.

Gambia’s Next Major Political Milestone: Parliamentary Elections in April

This week, the Gambian and Senegalese (French) press both reported that the Gambia’s Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) has confirmed 6 April 2017 as the date for the country’s National Assmebly elections. Municipal elections are confirmed for 12 April 2018. I have not been able to find the IEC’s statement online, but its website does feature a countdown clock for the elections.

The Gambia’s constitution (.pdf, Chapter VII, Part 1) mandates that National Assembly should have fifty-three members, forty-eight of them elected and five appointed by the president. The National Assembly’s website lists fifty-one current members.

The final days of former President Yahya Jammeh’s rule, in January, saw mass resignations from the cabinet but not from parliament. Indeed, the National Assembly remained strongly loyal to Jammeh, approving a ninety-day extension of his tenure as well as a ninety-day state of emergency.

By my count, forty-four of the fifty-one members listed online belong to Jammeh’s Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction. It will be interesting to see how that party fares without him, and how new President Adama Barrow gets along with an APRC-dominated parliament for the next two months.

To conclude, it’s worth revisiting this comment that Peter Penar made to Deutsche Welle last month:

In previous parliamentary elections, Jammeh’s party held all but one parliamentary seat. So he has a lot of loyalists in parliament. In the up-coming legislative elections, there is a chance that he could come back in some sort of form. This would be very destabilizing. So ECOWAS would be very concerned about Jammeh’s potential return to politics.