Mali: Amadou Kouffa’s Opening Bid for Negotiations

Mali’s “Conference of National Understanding,” which concluded in April, recommended that the Malian government open negotiations with two prominent Malian jihadists, Iyad Ag Ghali and Amadou Kouffa. Both men are part of Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wa-l-Muslimin (The Group for Supporting Islam and Muslims, JNIM), which is formally part of al-Qaida. After the conference floated the suggestion to negotiate, the French and Malian governments quickly rejected the idea. The suggestion, however, continues to evoke debate in Mali.

Apparently the jihadists are, at least theoretically, willing to consider the idea of negotiating. Recently, two emissaries from Kouffa (who is ethnically Fulani/Peul) approached (French) a prominent Peul politician, Alioune Nouhoum Diallo. Kouffa’s men outlined three preconditions for negotiations:

  1. The withdrawal from Mali of France’s Sahel-wide counterterrorism mission, Operation Barkhane;
  2. The withdrawal from Mali of the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA
  3. The appointment of Diallo as mediator.

Needless to say, the first two preconditions are extremely unlikely to happen. Neither the government of France, nor the government of Mali, would agree – indeed, many would see those demands as a trap that the jihadists are attempting to lay.

But the very fact that Kouffa’s people approached Diallo bespeaks a willingness to negotiate, I think. Moreover, I think it bespeaks willingness not only on Kouffa’s part but on Iyad Ag Ghali’s, who is reportedly very close to Kouffa and who is, in a formal sense, Kouffa’s superior in the jihadist hierarchy.

Is there anything that could be negotiated? At the level of ideals, no – Mali will not become an Islamic state, Mali will not formally allow the creation of an autonomous jihadist emirate within its territory, Mali will not expel the international community, etc. But more pragmatically, perhaps Ag Ghali and Kouffa could be swayed by the offer of a path back to normalcy: a deal whereby they renounce al-Qaida in return for a seat at the main negotiating table, or whereby they could enjoy a comfortable exile somewhere far away from Mali (exile beats dying in the desert).

To me, the reason to start talking is to allow some room for creativity – the talking itself, I think, could uncover an area where genuine negotiations are possible. You can’t necessarily determine in advance exactly how the talks would go, or what the areas of compromise would be. You have to hear at least a little bit of what the other side thinks.

The counter-arguments to negotiations are, of course, serious and compelling. Some observers and players justifiably worry that opening negotiations could empower the jihadists politically or even militarily. But I don’t see negotiations and military pressure as mutually exclusive. You can still hunt these people even as you talk to them through intermediaries.

Finally, a bit on Diallo: he is a major figure, both within the Peul community (where he heads an umbrella body of Peul associations) and nationally. He was president of Mali’s National Assembly from 1992-2002, i.e. during the first decade of Malian democracy.

Last month, he gave a fascinating interview (French) where he discussed, among other things, the roots of Kouffa’s appeal – in Diallo’s view, Kouffa has benefited from his own eloquence, but also from broader socioeconomic problems such as unemployment among people educated in Arabic, rather than in French. In that interview, Diallo explained why he favors negotiations with jihadists:

Every time that the State really put itself forward, the State succeeded in halting the rebellions. So I think that a State that decides to talk straight, to speak the truth to all who are rebelling, and to speak with them, cards on the table, and to only commit itself to doing what it can do, that State can totally recover authority in central Mali, in eastern Mali. And that’s why you heard that heartfelt cry from hundreds of participants at the Conference of National Understanding who are sorry that the Peace Accord is not able to stop the bloodshed.

So, let’s talk with those who are presumed to be responsible for the bloodshed today. Let’s talk with Iyad Ag Ghali, let’s talk with Amadou Kouffa. Let’s try to know what’s necessary to do, without losing sight of the fact that the former president of the National Assembly, which I am, can only wish for a secular State, a democratic State, a State that will commit to the path of being just, being upright.

 

Senegal: Details on Dakar’s Urban Rail Project

Bloomberg:

Senegal closed finance arrangements for a $1 billion urban rail project for its capital after finalizing an agreement with the African Development Bank.

The AfDB agreed to offer 120 billion CFA francs ($212 million) for the project that will link Dakar with its main airport, which is 46 kilometers (29 miles) to the east, Economy and Finance Minister Amadou Ba told reporters in the city on Friday. The deal followed after pledges of 197 billion francs from the Islamic Development Bank and 133 billion francs from France, Ba said.

From the AfDB:

This 36 km long railway line will connect the heart of the capital with the new and growing city of Diamniadio. Some 113,000 passengers are expected to borrow it every day by 2019.

In Dakar, 80% of the 13 million daily trips are made on foot due to lack of efficient and cheap public transport. Dakar and its suburbs nevertheless concentrate nearly a quarter of the population of Senegal and contribute to more than half of the national GDP. In this ever-expanding conurbation, the future regional express train will play an essential role, facilitating the daily life of the inhabitants, enabling them to travel smoothly to their work and access to the working areas, as well as to reduce traffic congestion on the road network.

“The project should unleash the growth potential of Dakar and its region,” said Mohamed Ali Ismaël, transport economist at the AfDB, especially since it must be linked with other existing or future modes of transport, such as the Transit Rapid Transit (BRT) project, which will effectively serve the suburbs.”

A few other relevant documents:

  • Overview of the Islamic Development Bank’s projects in Senegal
  • Overview of the Senegalese government’s “Plan for an Emerging Senegal,” of which the regional express train is a part
  • A one-page factsheet (French) on the regional express train
  • Jeune Afrique’s report (French) on the project launch in December. The report mentions that three French firms – Alstom, Engie and Thales – are participating in the project. According to official press releases from those companies, Alstom is providing trains, while Engie and Thales will build the rail system and specifically “will direct the engineering group, provide overall management, and conduct all integration testing.”

Libya: What Next for Derna?

With a near-complete victory in Benghazi, Libya’s eastern strongman Khalifa Haftar is “eyeing” Tripoli. But he and his Libyan National Army (LNA) are also eyeing other sites closer to Benghazi, among them Sirte (to Benghazi’s west) and Derna (to Benghazi’s east).

Sirte is where the Islamic State was defeated in a long campaign waged in 2016, waged primarily by forces from the western city of Misrata rather than by the LNA.

Derna was partly controlled by the Islamic State in 2014-2015 (which was finally forced out in 2016), but since then the most prominent force there has been a jihadist, anti-Islamic State coalition called the Consultative Council of the Mujahideen of Derna (Majlis Shura Mujahidi Darna, often abbreviated DMSC in English sources).

The state presence there is weak and may consist effectively of freelancers: One security official recently described Derna, as paraphrased by a reporter (Arabic), as “outside of the legal authority of the state,” and added that “a number of officers in Derna conduct their affairs without a tasking from the Ministry of the Interior or any legitimate section of the state.”

With regard to Derna, here are a few developments worth noting from May-July:

  • Airstrikes in May: The most recent airstrikes I’ve heard about on Derna were by Egypt (the Egyptian government is an ally of Haftar’s) in late May, in response to an attack inside Egypt. “Libyan National Army spokesman Colonel Ahmad Messmari told reporters in Benghazi…that Haftar’s forces were coordinating with Egypt’s military in air strikes and the weekend raids targeted ammunition stores and operations camps.” The DMSC, at the time, denied (Arabic) that the airstrikes were targeting them specifically, and also denied any involvement in the attack in Egypt.
  • Haftar’s/LNA’s advance (reported July 17): “Units of the Libyan National Army led by Khalifa Hafter claim to have moved to within 20 kilometres of Derna, removing earth barriers mounds and cement blocks at Kirissah, west of the Mujahideen-controlled town…The commander of the Omar Mukhtar Operations Room, Brigadier Salim Al-Rafadi, announced that talks were taking place with elders from the town over surrendering it without bloodshed. As a result operations were temporarily being delayed. However, he insisted that one way or another, the army would enter the town.”
  • The possibility (Arabic) that the DMSC will join the LNA (reported July 20): According to one of Derna’s members of the House of Representatives, the eastern-based Libyan parliament, the DMSC “wants to dissolve itself and join the army.” Alongside possible discussions between the DMSC and the LNA, discussions are also reportedly occurring (Arabic) between the DMSC and various notables within Derna, who are keen to avoid a full-scale war with the LNA for control of the city. The city is also suffering from various shortages of electricity, food, and other essentials. For now, however, the DMSC and the LNA remain enemies, and the DMSC continues to accuse the LNA of having abetted (Arabic) the Islamic State’s flight from the city.

It will be interesting to see whether this standoff over Derna is resolved politically or military. A political resolution allowing the LNA to take control might be a bigger sign of Haftar’s power than a pitched battle for the city – if various eastern factions are putting their fingers to the wind and deferring to Haftar’s growing strength, he would gain more momentum than if he has to fight for every inch of territory.

Some Arguments for Easing U.S. Sanctions on Sudan

In January, the outgoing administration of U.S. President Barack Obama issued an executive order that would have triggered, six months later, the easing of some U.S. sanctions on Sudan. Before that six-month marker arrived on July 12, the new administration of President Donald Trump promulgated its own executive order putting in place a three-month delay.

I’ve seen two major reports from think tank/advocacy groups arguing for a rethink of the sanctions, as well as for a removal of Sudan from the State Sponsors of Terror (SST) list.

One report (.pdf) comes from the Atlantic Council’s Sudan Task Force. The report argues that sanctions have hurt ordinary Sudanese people rather than decisively affecting the ruling regime (p. 8). The report doesn’t quite come out and say “lift the sanctions,” but that’s the message I got from it. The report adds that “Continuing to maintain the SST designation without any evidence of sponsoring terrorism – and, in fact, with plentiful evidence of Sudan’s cooperation in countering terrorism as well as various commendations from members of the intelligence and diplomatic communities – undermines US credibility and leverage in Sudan, the region, and on wider US counterterrorism efforts” (p. 10).

From the perspective of actual Trump administration policy, it may be significant that the Atlantic Council’s Peter Pham, himself a member of the Sudan Task Force, is rumored to be a top candidate for Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, a position the Trump administration has not yet filled.

Another report comes from the International Crisis Group, and it’s a bit blunter:

Sudan’s government has gone some way toward meeting U.S. criteria for sanctions relief. But its progress, particularly on humanitarian access and ceasing hostilities in its internal conflicts, at best is partial and President Omar al-Bashir’s government remains autocratic, corrupt and abusive. To lift sanctions would reward a regime that must do much more to improve governance and end its wars; not to do so could lead to a reversal of advances made and discourage further cooperation. On balance, lifting sanctions is the better of two imperfect options, particularly if coupled with clear signals that far more is needed for the government to escape those sanctions that will remain in force and obtain debt relief. The U.S. should also make clear that it stands ready to impose new targeted financial sanctions should Khartoum renege on its commitments.

Personally, I’m swayed by the arguments that Atlantic Council and Crisis Group make. No one should deny the abuses that the Sudanese government perpetrates, but the current approach does not seem to be working, and maintaining the sanctions unchanged could undermine U.S. leverage and even engender backsliding on the part of the Sudanese government.

Global Observatory Piece on Chad and Its Western Allies

I’m up at Global Observatory with a piece on Chad. Here’s an excerpt:

The Chadian government is also asking Western and African donors for more development funding. Chad will hold a roundtable in Paris in September to seek contributions for its newly adopted national development plan. Potential partners have already shown a willingness to participate: Deby recently hosted the vice president of the African Development Bank, which is financing projects in Chad’s electricity sector; the Bank confirmed that it will attend the Paris roundtable. The adoption of the development plan was one factor in the IMF’s decision to grant a new loan. The IMF did not make any allusion to Chad’s role in regional security, but other actors are clearly aware of the bargaining power that Chad has with donors because of its security role. Meeting the committee organizing the roundtable, France’s ambassador to Chad asked the Chadian government—according to the paraphrase of a Chadian news site—“to avoid playing the security card.” But the card has already been played, and with effect.

I welcome any comments you may have.

Niger: Two Local Critics Address Structural Issues

Two articles on Niger recently caught my eye. One is Jeune Afrique‘s interview (French) with civil society activist Moussa Tchangari (or Tchangary); the other is an article (French) by a professional civil administrator, Soumaila Abdou Sadou. Readers of this blog may be familiar with Tchangari, whose 2015 arrest I briefly covered.

In the recent interview, Tchangari makes some interesting comments about Nigerien democracy, the role of political parties, and the role of civil society. An excerpt:

Tchangari: Power is more and more captured by only one man! [i.e., President Mahamadou Issoufou]

Jeune Afrique: But there are free elections, an opposition?

Tchangari: Niger is still a very superficial democracy, which is not completed. The opposition is struggling, it tries to fight, but the regime tries to divide it.

Jeune Afrique: So the opposition is civil society?

Tchangari: No. We just have a role of vigilance. We are not there to replace the political parties with ourselves, but to propose ideas and to defend human rights.

 

 

Later in the interview, Tchangari rejects the idea that he himself become the head of the opposition. At least for now, he seems keenly interested in a real division of labor between political parties and civil society. At the same time, he alludes to a key problem for opposition parties: ruling regimes (in the Sahel and elsewhere) are often able to divide and rule, offering incentives to some opposition members while marginalizing others.

Abdou Sadou, for his part, directs criticism at the senior bureaucrats of the Nigerien state. An excerpt:

The “affairism” [one might translate this as “greed” or “commercialization,” but there is also a sense of turning one’s bureaucratic post into a business] of the agents of the state is piercing. In fact, these many affairist bureaucrats spend more time outside their offices for the attentive monitoring of their own affairs, instead of devoting themselves to the daily tasks of administration. Public service has henceforth become the site par excellence of affairism. The site most favorable for making his business grow with free capital.

In serving the state, many bureaucrats have become excessively rich, an ostentatious wealth that they do not even bother to camouflage, feeling certain of the cover and understanding of politicians.

Abdou Sadou’s critique is somewhat generic – there is little in the piece that is specific to Niger – but reading the two pieces together, it’s clear that some Nigerien intellectuals and activists are profoundly unhappy with the political direction of the country. Their criticisms go beyond electoral politics or a criticism of the Issoufou administration specifically, and extend to structural issues: the unequal relationship between government and opposition parties, and the vulnerability of public offices to private manipulation.

Opposition to Mali’s Proposed Referendum Continues

Reuters:

Thousands of Malians took to the streets on Saturday to protest against a planned referendum on constitutional changes that would give extra powers to President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, create new regions and recognise the Tuareg’s ethnic homeland.

Mali’s government has delayed the vote, which was originally planned for last week, but still plans to go ahead with it this year. Activists are unsettled by provisions that would enable the president to nominate a quarter of the Senate and remove the prime minister at will.

I’ve been following the referendum here on the blog – the opposition and protests it evoked last month, the decision to delay it, and the new court order to rewrite it and remove certain ambiguities. The latest protests underscore two things – the way in which the referendum fight is becoming a dress rehearsal for next year’s presidential election, and the current of opposition against the idea of going much further in the direction of giving the north a special status.

For a government, pro-referendum perspective, it’s worth reading this interview (French) with Minister of Justice Mamadou Ismaël Konaté. In one exchange, he gives three reasons for supporting the referendum. Here are two (the third has to do with public accounts and decentralization):

First of all, this Constitution is running out of steam and it showed obvious signs of “non-performance” when, after the overthrow of the regime in 2012, it was not capable to make a clear distinction between the interim period and that of transition…Next, the two-term presidential limit was not very precise with regard to the possibility for a president of the Republic, having undertaken two consecutive terms, or even alternating ones, to come back, at a later time, to ask for a third term.

I don’t know the mind of the opposition, but I doubt they will be swayed by such arguments – the minister’s points do not touch on the most hotly contested issues, namely those having to do with presidential powers, the creation of a senate, and autonomy for the north. The minister goes on to make a case that the referendum can and should be held as a democratic exercise, and that there is something anti-democratic in the opposition’s choice of protests, sit-ins at the Constitutional Court, etc. I doubt the opposition would be swayed by such arguments either – they might respond that such actions are part of democracy writ large, part of the exercise of free assembly and protest. At the same time, one could read the opposition’s protests as a signal that they fear they would/will lose the vote, once it is held, and so they are seeking to block it from ever coming to a vote.