Professor Leonardo Villalón, who is effectively the dean of Sahel studies, has edited and published the brand new Oxford Handbook of the African Sahel. There are no less than forty chapters (and an introduction) by a slate of incredible scholars, including a number of mentors and colleagues of mine. I played a small part by contributing one chapter, entitled “Negotiating Secularism in the Sahel.”
Last week French authorities, including President Emmanuel Macron, announced that French forces had killed Adnan Abu Walid al-Sahrawi, head of the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS).
A good account of what’s known about the hunt for al-Sahrawi is at Jeune Afrique.
I was on NPR briefly to give my comments.
Yesterday, December 2, Mauritania’s Minister of the Interior Muhammad Salim Ould Marzuk announced an initial 10-day closure of schools in the country amid concerns about a looming second wave of COVID-19 cases. Other measures include a reduction of personnel in government offices, and a more intensive schedule – meeting every 48 hours – for the ministerial committee charged with tracking the pandemic. Also on December 2, the Health Ministry announced that there had been 153 confirmed cases and 2 deaths during the previous 24 hours.
Per Google’s results, the first peak of COVID-19 in Mauritania came on June 24 with 227 cases in one day. Even by July, the country was mostly out of triple digits, and it was only recently that the numbers began to spike again.
The first lockdown, which ended around July, had significant effects on mobility and the economy. The government provided support and covered some expenses for some of the most vulnerable households in the country, and NGOs stepped in as well, but many households were forced into debt as pastoralism and other sectors suffered. This article, from early November, gives a stark portrait of the pandemic’s secondary effects in the Assaba region of southern Mauritania. I’m pro-lockdown, of course, but one can be pro-lockdown and also worry about all these secondary impacts. With that said, the government’s approach to this nascent second lockdown seems to be sober and, more important, fairly clear and straightforward.
There’s a lot of news and reports coming out that probably each deserve their own post, but given end-of-the-semester stress, it’s wiser for me to just do a roundup today. A few things that have caught my eye recently:
- Dan Eizenga and Wendy Williams, “The Puzzle of JNIM and Militant Islamist Groups in the Sahel,” Africa Center for Strategic Studies, December 1. An excerpt: “JNIM’s structure functions as a business association on behalf of its membership, giving the impression that it is omnipresent and inexorably expanding its reach. The characterization of JNIM as a single operational entity, however, feeds the inaccurate perception of a unified command and control structure.”
- Danielle Paquette and Henry Wilkins, “An American moved to Burkina Faso for ‘a better life.’ He was shot dead outside a military base,” Washington Post, December 1. This is a very sad story, and some of the saddest parts actually relate more to the United States than to Burkina Faso.
- AFP reports (December 1, French) on a tenuous peace initiative in Ménaka, Mali.
- France24 has a roughly 16-minute video report (November 27, French) by the journalist Cyril Payen, who embedded with Nigerien special forces.
- This is a good interview (November 24) with Guillaume Soto-Mayor about Sahelian security issues.
On November 27, at a meeting in Niamey, Niger, foreign ministers from member states of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) elected a new secretary-general for the organization, Chadian diplomat Hussein Brahim Taha. He will begin a five-year term in November 2021.
The OIC, formerly the Organization of the Islamic Conference, was founded in 1969. As is often noted, it is the second-largest multilateral organization in the world, after the United Nations. It is headquartered in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, but the general secretariat has not been a Saudi Arabian preserve – of the 11 people to hold the office so far, only two (albeit the most recent two) were Saudi Arabian nationals. Strikingly, the Sahel has been quite well represented on the list, with a Senegalese national serving as secretary-general from 1975-1979 and a Nigerien national serving from 1989-1996 (term lengths, it seems, have been variable). As noted above, moreover, the Council of Ministers meeting that elected Taha took place in the Sahel as well.
The OIC’s secretaries-general have not been clerics/shaykhs, but rather professional government bureaucrats. The outgoing secretary-general, Yousef Bin Ahmad Al-Othaimeen, holds a Ph.D. in Political Sociology from American University and came up through the Ministry of Social Affairs. Chad’s Taha spent most of his career in the Chadian Ministry of Foreign Affairs where, notably, he served as Chad’s ambassador to Saudi Arabia from 1991-2001 according to this profile. He has also served as Minister of Foreign Affairs and as deputy secretary-general of the Chadian presidency.
The sketches of Taha’s biography that I’ve seen indicate someone who is (a) close to Chadian President Idriss Deby and has his confidence, and (b) deeply familiar with Saudi Arabia. Being familiar to or even close to Saudi Arabia, however, should not lead one to the automatic assumption that Taha is a “Wahhabi” – not all of the institutions headquartered in or associated with Saudi Arabia are “Wahhabi” to the same degree, although that’s a longer discussion that goes beyond the scope of this blog.
Turning to that first point, about Deby, I want to expand on something I said on Twitter, namely that to me it is striking that Deby has now placed three of his top diplomats in three key posts at the regional, continental/African, and now global levels:
- Mahamat Saleh Annadif, Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Mali and Head of the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) since 2016;
- Moussa Faki Mahamat, Chairperson of the African Union Commission since 2017; and
- Hussein Brahim Taha, incoming Secretary-General of the OIC.
I take a few, admittedly somewhat speculative, conclusions from this. One is that Deby has a pretty solid network of people he trusts and has given space to develop the kinds of resumes that major multilateral organizations take seriously. I assume that no Chadian could take a major diplomatic position like these without Deby’s backing. So on the one hand Deby, like many other long-ruling African heads of state, is infamous for refusing to signal who his successor might be, for reshuffling his cabinets frequently, for playing with term limits and constitutional structures, for creating new posts (a vice president soon, perhaps?) while eliminating others (the prime minister-ship, in 2018). Yet on the other hand, Deby is clearly not so jealous of power that he would cripple others’ careers – and perhaps in particular would not be threatened by professional diplomats who can rise to serious heights without becoming rival politicians per se. Ultimately all this reinforces his power, of course: thrive with the Deby-dominated system and you can have a literally world-class career. This is not me excusing him or praising him, except to say that he has a talent for authoritarianism – he is not as crude or just straight-up dumb about it as many other authoritarians are.
Then there is the question of how Deby positions Chad and Chadians to take these roles. A lot of those dynamics are out of my view, at least. A large part of the answer is the role that Chad has taken on as (one, would-be) guarantor of security in the Sahel and the Lake Chad Basin, and that goes a long way to explaining the MINUSMA and African Union Commission appointments. But that role as security guarantor, on its own, is not sufficient to explain an appointment like the OIC’s secretary-general. Another factor there may be the way that the Sahel is a recurring zone of interest for Saudi Arabia, on and off from the 1960s to the present; Chad, additionally, has a number of Arabophone and/or Arab diplomats, and that may be attractive to OIC members as well (see below, where Taha gives his remarks in Arabic). And, finally, perhaps Deby is also skilled at various forms of behind-the-scenes negotiations. I wonder if he committed to anything in exchange for this OIC appointment.
Here is the video of Taha’s acceptance speech:
Burkina Faso held presidential and legislative elections on November 22. Incumbent President Roch Kaboré won the presidential elections, but I need to gather a bit more data (and gather my thoughts a bit more) before attempting to say anything substantive about that side of the results. So today I’ll speak briefly to the legislative picture.
Heading into the elections, according to Wikipedia, the three largest parties in the 127-member unicameral legislature were as follows:
- Kaboré’s People’s Movement for Progress (French acronym MPP): 55 seats
- Zéphirin Diabré’s Union for Progress and Change (UPC): 33 seats
- The former ruling Congress for Democracy and Progress (CDP): 18 seats
The results from the 2020 legislative elections leave the MPP’s share of seats effectively unaltered – the party gained 1 seat for a new total of 56. The CDP gained 2 seats and also moved into the second spot in the National Assembly, because the UPC lost 21 seats, falling to just 12 seats, and actually slipped into fourth place in the legislature. The new third-place party is called New Time (or perhaps New Era or New Moment) for Democracy, NTD. It won just 3 seats in the previous elections in 2015, and now has 13. No other party holds more than 5 seats.
Two initial observations:
The first observation is that although the MPP does not hold a majority, its near-majority and the fragmentation of the opposition should make it relatively easy for the presidency and the MPP to pass major legislation. Several indicators – among them the lopsided 107-9 vote in favor of a revised electoral code last August; as well as the speed and apparent equanimity with which opposition candidates congratulated Kaboré following his win – suggest to me that the MPP’s strength in the legislature and in Burkinabè politics goes beyond what the numbers alone might indicate.
The second observation, and this requires more data and analysis to flesh out, is that the MPP held its own, electorally, in Burkina Faso’s conflict zones. Just looking at the Sahel Region, the deadliest conflict zone in the country, the MPP did not do too badly. Sahel has four provinces, and here is how the MPP did (based on numbers aggregated here, which may be an unstable link since it’s a live results roundup):
- Ouadalan: 1 out of the 2 seats
- Séno: 1 out of the 2 seats
- Soum: 1 out of the 2 seats
- Yagha: 0 out of the 2 seats
The MPP did better in the Sahel Region than any other party (NTD won 2 of the Sahel’s 8 seats, the UPC won 1, and minor parties won 1 each). If, again, the Wikipedia page is to be trusted and if I am reading it correctly, then in 2015 the MPP won 1 seat in each of the 4 provinces of the Sahel Region, meaning that in 2020 it held 3 seats and lost 1 (in Yagha). I can’t speak yet to the impact of voter disenfranchisement (de facto or de jure), potential issues of fraud, etc., but on superficial examination the conflict does not appear to have cost the MPP electorally in 2020. And recall that even if the MPP lost 1 seat in the Sahel Region, it held 3 there while gaining 2 elsewhere in the country.
The 2020 legislative results deserve much deeper examination but one implication could be that electoral politics is not, in the Sahel (now referring not to one region in Burkina Faso but to the wider, multi-country region of Africa), generating the incentive structures it is theoretically supposed to around the world: the MPP, it seems, has no major electoral incentive to pay closer attention to the conflict zones.
On November 23, the National Union of Malian Workers (French acronym UNTM) sent a 6-page letter to the Minister of Employment and Civil Service threatening a general strike from December 14-18. The letter lays out an immense range of demands. Rather than trying to summarize them all, I’ll just evoke a few that caught my eye:
- “…the implementation of measures and structures appropriate for relaunching the railroad, the Post Office, and for evaluating privatizations, contracts, and the mining code, in addition to the exploitation of gold, to put Mali back in its rights…”
- “…compensation of workers who have been victims of the crisis in Mali since 2012…”
- “…immediate measures for reducing the high cost of living…”
Whether or not the strike happens, and regardless of what it achieves or doesn’t achieve, the letter is a reminder that for many Malians, the country’s crisis goes beyond insecurity and beyond questions of coups and elections – the letter evokes a sense of a citizenry experiencing a socioeconomic crisis that the union leaders, at least, understand as a result of both short-term “political inertia” in 2020 and long-term consequences of privatization and the hollowing-out of the state. There is a short paragraph on the first page summarizing the UNTM’s role in Malian history since 1960 and I don’t think that’s idle; the letter’s authors suggest that the problems they are responding to are deeply embedded in the entire arc of Malian history. I also got the sense that the letter’s authors see almost total continuity between Mali’s pre-coup problems and post-coup problems; if there was a honeymoon for the junta or for the transitional government, that honeymoon definitely seems to be over now in the eyes of the UNTM – and the UNTM sees the transitional government as being fully on the hook for past, unfulfilled agreements with labor made in 2019 and earlier. With the phrases I highlighted above, the letter seems to be calling not just for a resolution of labor’s demands but also for a much more muscular and assertive Malian state.
On November 21, the journalist Wassim Nasr shared advance clips from a video by al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghrib’s (AQIM’s) media outlet Al-Andalus Foundation. The full video is now available for registered users at Jihadology. It is narrated by an AQIM cleric, Qutabya Abu al-Nu’man al-Shinqiti.
Roughly the first half of the video commemorates AQIM’s past emir, Abdelmalek Droukdel/Abu Mus’ab ‘Abd al-Wadud (1970-2020), who died in a French raid in northern Mali on June 3 of this year; this segment also briefly mentions three other fighters who died alongside Droukdel (more on the raid here). Interestingly, one of those mentioned is a Malian national identified by AQIM as ethnically Dogon.
Roughly the second half of the video (see around 12:25) includes several items. The first and most important of these is AQIM’s announcement (news broken, I should emphasize, by Nasr) that Droukdel’s successor as emir is Abu ‘Ubayda Yusuf al-‘Annabi.* This portion of the video also discusses and celebrates the recent prisoner exchange in Mali (October 2020) and issues various threats, boasts, and supplications. The final minutes of the video (see around 17:30) revisit the main themes – commemorating Droukdel and celebrating the prisoner release. There is a strongly anti-France theme throughout the video as well.
What is known of al-‘Annabi? On the one hand, analysts of jihadist media have been quite familiar with al-‘Annabi for some time. For example, the BBC’s Mina al-Lami, identified al-‘Annabi as the obvious choice as soon as Droukdel’s death was reported:
On the other hand, piecing his biography together is a bit challenging, at least for me. According to his entry on the United Nations Security Council’s al-Qaida sanctions list, he was born in 1969 and is from ‘Annaba, a city in northeastern Algeria (map). This would make sense, given that “al-‘Annabi” means “from ‘Annaba.” Regarding his early life, only one small biographical detail is given in the video itself: according to the video, al-‘Annabi became a jihadist in 1413 hijri (1992/1993 miladi) after obtaining a license degree in economics. This suggests a path at least vaguely similar to Droukdel’s; Droukdel studied mathematics at university before joining the Algerian jihadist ranks at almost exactly the same time. Here we might recall Diego Gambetta and Steffen Hertog’s Engineers of Jihad and the striking propensity for jihadist leaders to come out of the hard sciences (insert joke about the value of the humanities here).
By 2010, al-‘Annabi was identified in jihadist media as the head of AQIM’s “Council of Notables,” and he reportedly took over temporarily for Droukdel during a period where the latter was absent from public view. For at least a decade, then, he has been a key face of AQIM propaganda, especially when addressing political developments in post-Arab Spring North Africa. See, for example, the first document here, from summer 2011.
Al-‘Annabi appears to have really come to the attention of Western policymakers with a 2013 statement in the immediate aftermath of the French-led intervention in Mali. He was blacklisted by the United States government and the United Nations in 2015 and 2016, respectively, and the U.S. listing mentions that 2013 statement.
The Council of Notables is a structure dating back to the days of the Salafi Group for Preaching and Combat (French acronym GSPC), an earlier name for AQIM prior to its full incorporation into al-Qaida in 2006-2007. Notably, the last three emirs of the GSPC/AQIM have, at the time all their promotions, been the heads of the Council of Notables: Mustafa Abu Ibrahim/Nabil al-Sahrawi in 2003, when Hasan Hattab was ousted; Droukdel in 2004, when Abu Ibrahim/al-Sahrawi was killed; and al-‘Annabi in 2020.
The GSPC’s/AQIM’s bureaucratic structures, in my view, helped give the GSPC/AQIM a degree of internal cohesion and durability in the early 2000s as it grappled with three challenges: (a) how to avoid repeating the mistakes of the Armed Islamic Group (French acronym GIA), an Algeria jihadist movement that descended into rampant internal and external bloodshed in the mid-1990s, driven partly by capriciousness and a lack of accountability at the top; and (b) how to survive in an increasingly unfavorable environment in Algeria; and (c) how to manage rapid turnover at the top in 2003-2004. The Council of Notables is the most visible and perhaps the most important of these bureaucratic structures.
I think now, though, that the choice of al-‘Annabi is a sign of AQIM’s weakness. As I noted when Droukdel was killed, talk of him as “the last of the Algerian terrorist leaders” was premature. Yet al-‘Annabi is better-known (to me, at least) as a propagandist and pseudo-cleric than as an operational figure – so even though the bureaucratic structures held intact, tapping someone without the same operational background as Droukdel and Abu Ibrahim/al-Sahrawi would seem to me to be a sign of a weak bench. I also think that if clear lines of bureaucratic succession can be an asset in times of uncertainty, those same bureaucracies can equally become a kind of prison, stifling change. I noted too that after Droukdel was reported killed, much of the media reporting argued, in my view accurately, that Droukdel’s death compounded and symbolized the shift of northwest African jihadism’s center of gravity from North Africa to the Sahara-Sahel and particularly to Mali. I’m not too big into fetishisizing the iconography of jihadist videos and seeing big meaning in every image, but it did strike me that the video took care to prominently feature Malian national Iyad ag Ghali, leader of AQIM’s subsidiary Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wa-l-Muslimin (the Group for the Supporting Islam and Muslims, JNIM), which in my view is more powerful than its parent organization.
To restate things a bit more bluntly, in AQIM’s shoes, I would not have gone with a visibly aging northern Algerian cleric as emir, even if he was next in line to Droukdel. Two of those three characteristics in combination – age, geographical origin, and profile – might not have been problematic together. But in al-‘Annabi they suggest an organization fighting for relevance and lacking in charismatic authority. Droukdel and al-‘Annabi are of the same generation, but it’s a different optic having a ~34-year-old former bomb maker and battalion leader becoming emir in 2004 than having a ~51-year-old spokesman and pseudo-shaykh becoming emir in 2020.
*This is a pseudonym. A lot of media outlets are reporting his given name as Yazid Mubarak, but what I heard in the video I would transcribe as Yazid Mibrak.
Burkina Faso will hold the first round of presidential and legislative elections on November 22. If no candidate clears 50%, then there will be a second round within about six weeks, if I understand correctly, based on the electoral code’s provisions pertaining to various steps regarding the validation of the first round results.
There are thirteen candidates for the elections, including incumbent President Roch Kaboré, the last election’s runner-up Zéphirin Diabré, the former ruling party’s candidate Eddie Komboïgo, and the former transitional Prime Minister Yacouba Isaac Zida. I expect Kaboré to win, possibly on the first round.
For general background, see International Foundation for Electoral Systems, “Elections in Burkina Faso – 2020 General Elections – Frequently Asked Questions” and the Trans-Saharan Elections Project‘s country page for Burkina. The website of Burkina Faso’s Independent National Electoral Commission is here, and the Constitutional Council’s website is here.
Here are a few recent analyses and reports:
Ornella Moderan, “Burkina Faso’s Voters Should Be Offered More Than Security,” Institute for Security Studies, 18 November. A quote:
The electoral campaign was an opportunity for parties and candidates to clearly articulate their plans for addressing the full range of problems affecting millions in Burkina Faso. But most of them missed the boat. Their inability to confront the complexity of the situation and propose holistic responses doesn’t bode well for the policy changes the country needs. Rather it reveals the piecemeal mindset that has underpinned government’s overly securitised responses to the crisis for years – an approach that has shown its limits.
See also, from ISS, Ibrahim Maïga and Habibou Souley Bako, “Lessons from Mali as Burkina and Niger Head for the Polls,” November 10.
Rida Lyammouri, “Burkina Faso Elections, Another Box to Check,” Policy Center for the New South, November. An excerpt (p. 7):
The November 22 national elections take place in a context marked by the increased importance and expansion of vigilante groups, namely the Koglweogo and the newly formed VDP [Volunteers for the Defense of the Homeland]. Representatives of both groups stated in interviews conducted in August 2020 that they are apolitical, and their objective is to secure areas [where they are present] and to help establish peace in the country. Simultaneously, they also pointed out that each member is free to support a candidate or a political party of their own choice. One of the key criticisms of Koglweogo and VDP is that they are ethnically based and don’t necessarily represent all communities. Participants in the interviews agreed that ethnic affiliation has a significant influence when it comes to choosing the political leader and/or political party. When asked if presidential and parliamentary candidates would use ethnic affiliation to generate support, the answer was automatic: “Of course, ethnic affiliation matters. We have parents who are running in the different elections, we are not forcing our communities, but the majority of our votes will go to these people. They know our realities and our challenges and will therefore know how to defend them for us”.
Sam Mednick, “Burkina Faso moves ahead with vote despite extremist attacks,” Associated Press, November 18. Two few key paragraphs:
The National Independent Electoral Commission (CENI) used helicopters to reach places inaccessible by road and registration was extended after coronavirus movement restrictions temporarily halted the process in March. Despite the challenges, Yacouba Bambyam Ouedraogo, communications director for CENI said that 95% of the country was covered adding more than 1 million voters.
But local officials say the more than 1,000 villages that were not reached, is where most of the population lives. Four of 11 communes in Sanmatenga province weren’t fully covered and a lot of people were missed, Youssouf Ouedraogo, president of the municipal electoral commission in Kaya told the AP.
Sophie Douce, “Elections au Burkina Faso : en « zone rouge », une campagne sous le signe de la menace terroriste,” Le Monde, November 18. A translated passage:
Several days out from the elections, the candidates hold more and more meetings across the country, a third of whose territory is in a state of emergency. Mined roads, risk of kidnapping or targeted attack… Certain sectors remain inaccessible to the authorities. On November 8, the driver of a candidate in the legislative elections was killed on the Gorom-Gorom route (in the north). “When you move from one zone to another, you find yourself in a no man’s land and if you don’t alert the authorities in advance, what happened before could happen again,” warned Ahmed Newton Barry, the president of the Independent National Electoral Commission, after the attack.
Amaury Hauchard, “In Jihadist-Hit Burkina Areas, No Elections — and No State,” AFP, November 18.
“The victory of the jihadist groups is not so much a military one as having installed a fear that makes people’s lives extremely difficult,” Rinaldo Depagne of the International Crisis Group said.
“It’s only around the towns that the soldiers are present. In the camps in the bush, there are none left, everybody has gone,” [Burkinabè analysts Mahamoudou] Savadogo said.
“The state has no more control there. Whole tracts of the country will be unable to vote.”
My new book, Jihadists of North Africa and the Sahel: Local Politics and Rebel Groups, is now out. It’s my regional history of a certain brand of violent politics. The description:
Jihadist movements have claimed that they are merely vehicles for the application of God’s word, distancing themselves from politics, which they call dirty and manmade. Yet on closer examination, jihadist movements are immersed in politics, negotiating political relationships not just with the forces surrounding them, but also within their own ranks. Drawing on case studies from North Africa and the Sahel – including Algeria, Libya, Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, and Mauritania – this study examines jihadist movements from the inside, uncovering their activities and internal struggles over the past three decades. Highlighting the calculations that jihadist field commanders and clerics make, Alexander Thurston shows how leaders improvise, both politically and religiously, as they adjust to fast-moving conflicts. Featuring critical analysis of Arabic-language jihadist statements, this book offers unique insights into the inner workings of jihadist organisations and sheds new light on the phenomenon of mass-based jihadist movements and proto-states.I also just appeared on an episode of Derek Davison’s Foreign Exchanges podcast to talk about the book. Derek is an amazingly sharp and knowledgeable interviewer, and he structured the conversation in a way that I think will give listeners a very good sense of what the book does.