Quick Items: Mauritania’s Islamists, Jeffrey Gettleman on African Wars, Al Shabab Offensives in Somalia

Three quick items may interest readers.


First, a report I authored on Islamists in Mauritania was published yesterday by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. The PDF version is available here. If you read the report, please stop back by and let me know your reactions in the comments section.


Second, a piece in the New York Review of Books by Jeffrey Gettleman, “Africa’s Dirty Wars,” received a great deal of attention yesterday on Twitter and elsewhere. The reviewed work is Warfare in Independent Africa, by Professor William Reno of Northwestern University. Reno (whom I believe I have never formally met, though we are both at Northwestern) is a distinguished scholar of rebellions and conflict in Africa, with a tremendous amount of fieldwork experience and publications on Sierra Leone, Liberia, Uganda, Nigeria, and elsewhere. You can view his vita here (.pdf). I have not read his latest book, but I intend to. What I have to say below is not a reaction to Reno’s work.

What interests me about Gettleman’s piece is how much of his own views and experiences he injects. Without having read Reno’s book yet, it seems to me that Gettleman’s line differs somewhat from Reno’s. Reno, as quoted and summarized by Gettleman, is keen to historicize African rebellions (particularly by assessing the impact of the end of the Cold War) and to subdivide them into different categories; Gettleman, for his part, seems keen to generalize patterns of conflict and to suggest that the nature of violence in Africa today mostly has to do with what he sees as the pettiness of the actors involved:

This is the story of conflict in Africa these days. What we are seeing is the decline of the classic wars by freedom fighters and the proliferation of something else—something wilder, messier, more predatory, and harder to define. The style of warfare has shifted dramatically since the liberation wars of the 1960s and 1970s (Zimbabwe, Guinea-Bissau), the cold-war wars of the 1980s (Angola, Mozambique), and the large-scale killings of the 1990s (Somalia, Congo, Rwanda, Liberia). Today the continent is plagued by countless nasty little wars, which in many ways aren’t really wars at all. There are no front lines, no battlefields, no clear conflict zones, and no distinctions between combatants and civilians…

Today, we see dozens of small-scale, dirty wars in Congo, Somalia, the Central African Republic, Burundi, Sudan, South Sudan, Chad, Niger, and Nigeria, from east to west, from some of Africa’s mightiest nations to its smallest and least significant. The specific situation in each of Africa’s fifty-five different countries varies widely. But it is safe to say that many of the rebels are simply thugs.

The adjectives he chooses – “nasty” “dirty” “little” etc – merit further scrutiny, as does his decade-by-decade style of categorization. And the caveat that “the specific situation in each of Africa’s fifty-five different countries varies widely” deserves expansion. Is it the case that all of the conflicts going on in Africa now are slight variations on the same theme? I think not, but I would like to know what readers think too.


Third, Somalia’s rebel movement al Shabab is showing that it can still go on the offensive. The BBC reports on a “surprise attack” the movement perpetrated against Garbaharey (map here), “a south-western town used by Ethiopian and Somali government-backed troops as a base to launch assaults.”

BBC Somali Service analyst Abdullahi Sheikh says the Garbaharey attack was a major military operation – and a strong indication that the movement’s retreat from key positions does not mean it has given up the fight.

He says al-Shabab, which recently announced it was joining al-Qaeda, may be weakened – but it is far from a spent force and still controls swathes of territory in south and central Somalia.

IRIN, meanwhile, details the complex situation in Mogadishu, where al Shabab’s withdrawal has not meant an end to violence – some of it allegedly committed by “defectors” with ambiguous loyalties.


11 thoughts on “Quick Items: Mauritania’s Islamists, Jeffrey Gettleman on African Wars, Al Shabab Offensives in Somalia

  1. Alex, I assumed since you and Reno were both at Northwestern that you would be collaborating since you have so many common interests. Reno has spoken at some trainings I have been to and I interviewed him while in grad school. He is a great resource I hope you tap into.

  2. Alex, your mauritanian paper is quite accurate for the islamist political organization but it lacks of real insider’s point of view, specially when il comes to the (bloody) racial issues or (surpringly absent) to the sufis brotherhoods; the Quadiria , the Hamaouiya and the Tidjania (senegalese but with a real influence). Maybe could it be an additional paper?

    • Thanks Franz, this is an important critique. Maybe this should not be an excuse, but I struggled to stay within the word limit, and one of the trade-offs I made was addressing racial issues in a really abbreviated form. An additional paper on the Sufis would make sense, you are right that I should have mentioned them.

  3. There’s a lot of literature written on Africa’s liberation wars by many foreign analysts. What is not on record is the view of the participants of such wars. Former Somali Transitional Federal Government President Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed published early this year his memoir ( struggle and conspiracy). This 428 memoir, is the first such memoir written by a living Somali president. He chronicles  a riveting personal account of over 60 years, including his early army training ( Italy: 1954 and Moscow: 1965), the establishment in 1960 of the Somali National Army, the 1964 ( during Emperor Selassie) and 1977 ( during the Dergue)  Somali-Ethiopian wars in which participated with gallantry, the assassination of the democratically-elected Somali civilian president, Shermarke,  his refusal to take part in the 1969 Siyad Barre coup, the failed 1978 counter-coup, the formation of Somalia’s first armed opposition group ( SSDF), his 16 years of solitary confinement without charge, first 6 years under the Barre regime ( with General Aideed as his cell mate) and later under  Mengistu  ( in the dudgeons under the armed forces headquarters), his release from prison as the last detainee in Addis when the EPRP/EPLF of Zenawe/Afawerke entered Addis in 1991, his return to North-East Somalia 5 months after the Barre regime fell, his battles with Al-Iittihad over there, his participation of countless fruitless reconciliation conferences held outside and, because of those failures, his formation of PUNTLAND STATE OF SOMALIA with the idea behind it being reconstituting of united but federal Somali State, since one of the causes of anarchy was concentrating all power under one city at the expense of the regions. Unlike Somaliland, Puntland considers the unity of Somalia sacrosanct but wants power to be devolved ( bottom-up approach), his election as TFG president and wars with al-Shabaab as well feuds with Mogadishu warlords,  his reasons to resign, his views of the obstacles to Somali peace, his no-stone-unturned, say-it-like-it-is-Ethiopian/Kenyan/Djiboutian/Egyptian and other’s  policies towards Somalia and lots and lots of eye-witness records of over 60 years.

    New York Time’s Jeffry Gettleman may put under one basket all of Africa’s wars until you read this one of a kind eye-witness account from one it’s longest participants. 

    Unfortunately, the memoir is now written in Somali. Wait till you see it translated into English.


    • Unfortunately autobiographies have to be treated cautiously. It’s a rare man who admits that he was motivated by money or hatred for a certain opponent and a rarer one still who can impartially analyze his own psychology to see if a certain massacre or recession influenced his opinions of other groups*.

      *Not to suggest that Mr. Ahmed is any of these, simply that we should check every assertion made.

  4. On Al-Shabab and other Islamist movements in Africa, I think that we should understand that just like Evangelical Christianity, Fundamentalist Islam thrives where poverty and hopelessness is prevalent.

    Many Westerners and Western analysts are yet to come to terms with this simple fact – as long as these conditions persist, security challenges will continue. And the simple escapist US policy of using drones to “eliminate terrorists” is bound to fail both in Yemen, Somalia and (if they are stupid enough to try it) Northern Nigeria.

    The only solution will be economic, but this is where the problem lies – fifty years of Western aid to Africa hasn’t worked and there is no indication that it will work in future. On the other hand, the only world power that has a shot at lifting Africa economically are the Chinese, but the West is loath to working with the Chinese.

  5. Pingback: Jeffrey Gettleman’s continent – Africa is a Country

  6. Pingback: Jeffrey Gettleman’s continent « Afronline – The Voice Of Africa

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s