Nigeria: Options for Freeing Ibrahim al-Zakzaky?

I am in Kano this week for a conference, and last night I had an exchange (off the record, I believe, so I won’t mention my interlocutors’ names) about the Islamic Movement in Nigeria, or IMN, a Shi’i group. The IMN’s leader Ibrahim al-Zakzaky has been detained since 2015, following a clash between the IMN and the Nigerian military in Zaria. Al-Zakzaky’s detention has sparked numerous IMN protests.

My interlocutors mentioned two potential ways to resolve the problem: exiling al-Zakzaky to Iran, or placing him under house arrest. Each path would have pros and cons, of course. The voice favoring exile said that one benefit of that path would be clarifying the nature of al-Zakzaky’s relationship with the Iranian government; if Iran tried to use him for propaganda purposes, the speaker said, Nigeria could respond by asking for international diplomatic support.

For my part, the issue of due legal process is vital. He should get a fair trial. But in terms of the ultimate outcome, the Nigerian government has options beyond the binary choice of letting al-Zakzaky go completely free or detaining him until he dies. The government would be wise, in my view, to choose a path other than indefinite detention.

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New Report: “Mali’s Tragic But Persistent Status Quo”

I have a new report out with Rosa Luxemburg Foundation. The report, “Mali’s Tragic But Persistent Status Quo,” looks at why some politicians – especially in Bamako and Kidal – have maintained power and influence for years, even amid Mali’s multi-faceted crisis. The report is based on field research trips I took to Bamako in January and March of this year.

Here’s an excerpt:

The report makes two, interrelated arguments. First, armed conflict in Mali benefits certain politicians and does not typically threaten manyother politicians’ survival or interests. The central state would almost certainly prefer to end the conflict, but its limited means prevent it from doing so. Thus the central authorities seek ways to manage and shape the endemic violence that they cannot eliminate. The management of violence in both northern and central Mali revolves around controlling regional capitals (or making deals with the de facto administrative authorities there) and accepting that state authority progressively diminishes as one leaves the regional capitals and moves into the surrounding areas.

[…]

The report’s second main argument is that the formal, externally- backed mechanisms intended to stabilize Mali and resolve its conflicts are implicated in perpetuating violence. The peace process envisioned by the 2015 Algiers Accord has been rocky and problematic. Alongside implementation problems, the design of the Accord unwittingly encourages ambitious politicians and violent entrepreneurs to create new militias as a means of seeking representation in the structures established through the Accord. Nevertheless, foreign powers appear comfortable with both the Bamako-based political class and the Tuareg hereditary elite in Kidal, occasionally contemplating sanctions against members of the latter but showing no appetite to displace either group. Moreover, as two experts put it, “In some ways, Bamako’s elites are more connected to the realities of cities outside Mali than to what is happening in the centre or north of the country.”

I welcome any feedback you have on the report.

Comment on the NYT Article on Post-Tongo Tongo Reprimands

Earlier this month, the New York Times published a report on the American military’s internal investigation and accountability efforts following the ambush of American soldiers in Tongo Tongo, Niger in October 2017. Commentators, and the NYT itself, have rightly called attention to the ways the punishments reflect hierarchy and protect senior officers:

To me, though, there is another criticism to make. The reprimands handed down all related to technical issues: training, approvals, oversight, etc. The implication becomes that had these technical issues been handled better, such disasters would not occur.

Maybe that’s true. But it seems to me that the problem is not just technical but political and conceptual. Why should villagers near the Niger-Mali border, under regular pressure from nearby jihadists and other militias and connected through social ties to some of the jihadists themselves, welcome intermittent government and foreign patrols with open arms and share vital intelligence with them? Why should American soldiers assume that conceptual frameworks focused on transnational jihadism will help them understand hyper-local complexities? Do – and here I am guessing a bit, although I would call it an educated guess – hackneyed and simplistic trainings about “local culture” truly prepare soldiers to win over local populations and move safely through their territory? Has the military really prioritized language training – what was the level of French proficiency of the American soldiers on this patrol, let alone their proficiency in Fulfulde or other languages that would have been crucial to their understanding of the environment they were in? How blunt are American military strategies with themselves and with the government of Niger about the fact that these two governments’ interests do not completely align, no matter how much good will there may be between them? How well do American soldiers understand villagers’ feelings toward the Nigerien state? To me, as an outside observer, it seems that the military has not grappled fully with these questions, preferring to use models transplanted from Afghanistan and Iraq (or, one might say, a semi-imagined Afghanistan and a semi-imagined Iraq) to the Sahel and other parts of Africa. All the intelligence, training, and oversight in the world might help prevent bad decisions and thus might have prevented this Tongo Tongo debacle, but technical fixes do not remove political problems. American soldiers operating in environments they do not seriously understand, on missions that blur the line between peace and war to the point where intentions become ambiguous to all involved, are at inherent risk of fatal miscalculation.

 

 

More on Mauritania’s New Cabinet and Succession Dynamics

As I’ve been writing about a bit recently, Mauritania has a new, technocratic prime minister (Mohamed Salem Ould Bechir), a new defense minister (longtime presidential right-hand man Mohamed Ould Ghazouani), and a new cabinet. Many observers, including me, have seen these changes in the context of the approaching end of President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz’s second term in 2019 – although, to me at least, it is not at all clear what these changes portend in terms of succession.

The Arab Weekly (h/t Judd Devermont) has a fascinating, if speculative, piece that raises doubt about the view that Ould Abdel Aziz is positioning Ould Ghazouani as a successor – instead, the author suggests, new speaker of parliament Cheikh Ould Baya might be a contender. More on Ould Baya here. Not mentioned in the Arab Weekly piece is new presidential spokesman and former ruling party head Sidi Mohamed Ould Maham, whose name has also been floated as a presidential successor. And of course there is still the strong possibility that Ould Abdel Aziz will simply seek a third term.

Meanwhile, as Ould Ghazouani moves to the defense ministry, the military has a new Chief of Army Staff, Mohamed Cheikh Ould Mohamed Lemine. This is an orderly transition – he was most recently Ould Ghazouani’s deputy, and he and the president attended the Military Academy of Atar together in the 1980s. So a lot of folks get promotions or make essentially lateral moves (the former PM has moved over to the presidency), but it’s unclear yet what it all means for the medium-term.

Islamic Movement in Nigeria Leaders Beyond Ibrahim al-Zakzaky

The Islamic Movement in Nigeria (IMN), the country’s mass-based Shi’i organization, is back in the news amid a crackdown against it by Nigerian security forces. The current cycle of conflict between authorities and the IMN revolves around the imprisonment of the IMN’s founder and longtime leader Ibrahim al-Zakzaky. But with al-Zakzaky in detention since 2015, who leads the IMN?

In a sense, the IMN is so closely identified with al-Zakzaky that there is not room for another leader of his stature within the movement. If you go to the movement’s website, the only biography listed under the “biography” tab is al-Zakzaky’s, and his image is plastered across the website. The group’s Twitter account primarily foregrounds al-Zakzaky or ordinary followers who have died, rather than other group leaders.

I’ve made a preliminary effort to find names of other leaders. It’s surprisingly difficult, given the extent to which the press has associated the IMN almost exclusively with al-Zakzay. Here are a few names I found, though:

  • Ibrahim Musa, IMN spokesman and president of the Media Forum
  • Abdullahi Musa, secretary of the Academic Forum
  • Dauda Nalado, chairman of the Academic Forum, whose daughter was killed in 2017; he is also on the faculty of technology at Bayero University Kano
  • Sanusi Abdulkadir, Kano-based IMN leader
  • Kasimu Tawaye, Sokoto-based IMN leader who reportedly died earlier this year
  • Sidi Munir Sokoto, another Sokoto-based IMN leader
  • Adam Tsoho Jos, a Plateau-based IMN leader

 

Notes on the Carter Center’s Second Report on Mali’s Peace Process

The Carter Center is the independent observer designated to follow the implementation of Mali’s peace process as envisioned by the 2015 Algiers Accord. The selection of an independent observer is itself one part of the Accord’s implementation. The Carter Center released its first report in May 2018, and released its second report on 26 October.

Here are my notes on the latter. To me the most striking passages involved (a) the Carter Center’s concerns about the Accord Monitoring Committee (CSA) and (b) the report’s observations about the Operational Coordination Mechanism (MOC) and civilians’ negative perceptions of it in Gao. Here are some key excerpts:

  • The overall tone is mixed, leaning cautiously optimistic. From p. 3: “The observation period was marked by modest but real progress as well as by a significant pause in implementation caused by the presidential election. While progress has been made in disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration (DDR), other obstacles remain, particularly the establishment of the Interim Authorities and the Operational Coordination Mechanism (Mécanisme opérationnel de coordination – MOC) as fully operational. Despite their continued commitment to the agreement, this mixed record underlines the fact that the Malian parties (government of Mali, Coordination des mouvements de l’Azawad [CMA]), and the Plateforme des mouvements du 14 juin d’Alger [Platform]) remain reluctant to advance quickly.”
  • After noting implementation challenges related to the structures created by the Accord and the signatories’ postures, the report goes on to note other challenges to peace. From p. 4: “Two challenges external to the agreement itself impede progress – the crisis in central Mali and criminal economic activity. The crisis in central Mali could overtax the resources initially earmarked for the execution of the agreement, while the ‘criminal economy’ – whose link with the implementation of the agreement has been sufficiently documented by the report of the group of experts established pursuant to United Nations Security Council Resolution 2374 (2017) – slows and discourages implementation.” For background on the crisis in central Mali, this report is a good place to start for Anglophones; for those who read French, I would add this report as well. The report of the UN group of experts can be found here, and my own notes on it are here. Finally, the Carter Center report discusses these two issues (central Mali and criminal economic activity) a bit more on p. 13.
  • The report makes numerous critiques of the Monitoring Committee/Comité de suivi de l’accord (CSA). From p. 6: “Normally scheduled monthly, only three CSA sessions were held during the five-month observation period, due in large part to the presidential election. These sessions lasted only a single day, and sometimes just a few hours. During these sessions, a blockage on a particular topic occasionally led to the suspension or end of a session. The CSA ratifies, often without discussion or formal decision, the actions or agreements made by the parties…The appointment of the minister of social cohesion [see here – AT] is a significant clarification of thegovernment’s presence in the CSA. At the same time, the Independent Observer notes that senior officials of the CMA, based in Kidal, regularly call into question the conclusions or decisions negotiated by representatives in Bamako. The Platform coalition is often marked by wide differences between its members, which impact and slow decision-making.”
  • The report also focuses in on the difference between the formal installation of the interim authorities in northern areas and their actual functioning. From p. 9: “At the regional level, Interim Authorities have been established officially in Kidal (February 2017), Gao and Ménaka (March 2017), and Timbuktu and Taoudéni (April 2017). However, none are in fact operational because they lack budgets to carry out their missions, including the provision of basic services…Over and above these specific obstacles, the Independent Observer expresses concern about the lack of initiative shown by the government to empower the Interim Authorities. Because of the absence of a budget and activities, the Interim Authorities are gradually being undermined and the government’s good faith called into question.”
  • The report has strong words about the MOC, writing that it is operation but deeply hamstrung in Gao, and “not operational” in Timbuktu and Kidal (p. 10). Significantly, the report notes that in Gao, “the population complains of growing insecurity and tends to attribute the increase in banditry and crime to the presence of MOC members.” In other words, the issue is not just about budgets and technical implementation but also about perceptions. The dynamic the report notes is a very dangerous one.

 

 

US Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Tibor Nagy in Europe and West Africa

It took the Trump administration an unusually long time to appoint an Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs. When the nominee was ultimate chosen, it was Tibor Nagy, a retired Foreign Service officer who had served as ambassador to Guinea and Ethiopia. His swearing-in took place in September (see his remarks from that ceremony here).

Nagy is now on his first trip overseas (I think) since taking his post. Lasting from 29 October to 10 November, the trip will take him to the United Kingdom, France, Togo (November 1), Guinea (November 2-4), Mali (November 4-7), and Nigeria (November 7-10). From the official statement, let’s just excerpt the part about Mali and Nigeria:

In Bamako, Mali on November 4-7, Assistant Secretary Nagy will hold meetings with Malian government officials, host a trade and entrepreneurship roundtable, and meet with YALI alumni.

The final stop on the trip will be Abuja, Nigeria. Assistant Secretary Nagy will have meetings with government officials, members of the American business community, religious leaders, civil society organizations, youth groups, and he will deliver a speech at Baze University on U.S.-Africa relations.

I was not previously familiar with Baze University, which is located in Abuja. Its website is here.

Nagy laid out more of his agenda in a blog post. After describing his past experiences in/with Africa, he wrote:

On this trip, I have set out four themes as part of my engagement. The first is to promote stronger trade and commercial ties between the United States and Africa by creating a level playing field across African markets for all companies, regardless of where they come from.

This means placing an emphasis on rule of law, transparency, recourse for investors, and fighting corruption.

My second priority is harnessing the potential of Africa’s youth as a force for economic ingenuity and prosperity.

[…a section on demographics follows…]

My third goal is to advance peace and security through partnerships with African governments and regional mechanisms. The transnational challenges of terrorism and extremism in the Sahel, Northern Nigeria, Somalia, and now in Central Africa, and the rise of Boko Harem [don’t blame me – AT], Al Qaeda in the Magreb, ISIS West Africa, and Al Shabaab, require new, determined regional approaches to counteract these groups. This includes better-trained and paid African security and law enforcement.

I look forward to engaging productively with the African Union, the Economic Community of West African States, and what I hope will be an inclusive and re-energized Intergovernmental Authority for Government.

Finally, I want to set the record straight – the United States has an unwavering commitment to the continent and its people. From the President’s Emergency Plan For AIDS Relief to Power Africa, to the African Growth and Opportunity Act, Feed the Future, the Young African Leaders Initiative, and numerous other development and exchange programs, the United States has stood side-by-side with African nations since de-colonization to improve livelihoods, increase life expectancy, open our markets to African exports, promote democracy and human rights, and elevate Africa’s place in the world.

If you’re eager too more information on the trip, Jeune Afrique interviewed Nagy about his intentions for the trip, and about his views on the recent Cameroonian presidential elections, the upcoming presidential elections in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the role of China in Africa, and other issues – but honestly, I found nothing of great interest in the interview.

Nagy has gotten some good will from the Africanist community in Washington so far, including this glowing write-up of his swearing-in remarks. That write-up was penned by former a Ambassador to Botswana and Senior Africa Director at Obama’s National Security Council, Michelle Gavin, who almost certainly would have had a high Africa-related post in a hypothetical Hillary Clinton administration. For me, though, this is part of the problem – U.S. Africa policy is often so blandly articulated, and so focused on the recurring themes of stability, security, and development, that it can seem like a mere technocratic exercise, rather than a set of political choices. Those choices should be controversial (it’s politics!), but somehow U.S. Africa policy (more than for other regions, I think), seems to be structured around cliches. So I don’t have high expectations for what this trip will yield.