Good Articles on U.S. Africa Policy by Eric Silla and Jon Temin

Dr. Eric Silla of the National War College and Jon Temin of Freedom House have both recently published good articles on U.S. Africa policy. Reading them, I realized that I have a basic test for whether a piece on Africa policy is substantive or not – does the author make any serious criticism of existing policy, beyond (a) arguing that Africa should be a higher priority in Washington in general* and (b) proposing some addition to existing policies? In other words, does the author disagree concretely with some element of the (largely static) Africa policy in framework in Washington? There are, after all, a ton of pieces titled something like “Rethinking U.S. Africa Policy,” but a lot of them are fluff, even if they say generic things I agree with like “don’t cozy up to authoritarians” and “don’t freak out about China so much.”

Both of these pieces, however, do offer specific critiques and departures from orthodoxy.

In his article (gated, p. 234), Silla takes Djibouti as a case study and argues that maintaining a military base there is, on balance, likely not worth it:

In sustaining geographic force projection for its own sake, [the] United States would risk taking on a burden in Africa with ambiguous strategic benefits…Given technical advances in naval and air warfare, a base in Djibouti might be an unnecessary expense for future tactical force projection requirements in Africa and other geographic regions. While a diminished permanent U.S. military presence might result in increased attacks by al-Shabab or other groups on Somali or regional targets in the near term, the United States nonetheless has the capacity to respond promptly to specific regional threats to the U.S. homeland and other U.S. interests should they present themselves in the future.

Temin, meanwhile, gives a concrete example of when the U.S. government made the wrong call on an issue connected to democratization:

Survey data also shows that a majority of Africans share many of the values that the Biden administration seeks to emphasize, such as support for democracy, free and fair elections, freedom of association, and freedom of expression. In many cases, it is their leaders who don’t believe in these values. Too often, the United States has sided with the authoritarians because of short-term uncertainty about who will succeed them, fear of chaotic transitions, or the desire to preserve security partnerships. Such was the case when Mahamat Déby, the son of Chad’s longtime strongman Idriss Déby, seized power upon his father’s death earlier this year contrary to the succession plan laid out in the country’s constitution. The United States chose not to call this what it was—a coup—presumably in order to preserve its long-standing counterterrorism partnership with Chad.

Temin goes on to make explicit criticisms of how successive administrations in Washington approached – and over-personalized – their relationships with leaders in South Sudan, Ethiopia, and Guinea. That kind of specificity is very helpful, I think, and I hope policymakers in DC are paying attention.

*Note too that many who argue for making Africa a higher priority do not say which region/s of the world should be made a lower priority as a result. Maybe it doesn’t have to be completely zero-sum, but any re-ranking of priorities must necessarily involve downgrading some as others are moved up the list.

My Contributions to a New E-Book on Salafism and Post-Salafism

Théo Blanc and Olivier Roy have edited and published a new collection of short essays. The volume is called Salafism: Challenged By Radicalization? Violence, Politics, and the Advent of Post-Salafism. It’s available here. I contributed two pieces: an original essay called “Salafism and Violence in the African Sahel and Northern Nigeria,” and a reprint of an earlier piece (originally published at The Maydan) called “An Emerging Post-Salafi Current in West Africa and Beyond.” Other chapters in the volume come from numerous top-notch scholars, treating case studies of Algeria, Syria, Cambodia, France, Turkey, and more.

Piece on Mali and the Wagner Group for Quincy Institute’s Responsible Statecraft

Along with nine colleagues, I’ve joined the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft as a Non-Resident Fellow, which is a real honor – Quincy is doing a lot to advance alternative and less militaristic thinking in U.S. foreign policy. As part of this new role, I’ll be contributing from time to time to their online magazine, Responsible Statecraft, where I’ve written a few pieces in the past. My newest is about Mali and the Wagner Group. Here’s the conclusion:

Whether it is a calculated threat or an imminent deal, part of what gives Mali’s Wagner Group negotiations such power over Western governments is the mantra of “great power competition” in Washington and beyond. Russia is a second-rate power, with a gross domestic product for 2020 ($1.5 trillion) than was considerably less than that of France ($2.6 trillion), to say nothing of the U.S. economy. Despite all the talk of misinformation on Russia’s part, Western capitals have deluded themselves about Russia’s strength, including in Africa — and that perception blinds Paris, Washington, and others to the harms of the status quo. Mali’s trajectory under current policies, local and Western, is a bigger problem than Russian influence, real or imagined.

A New Handbook on the Sahel (with one chapter from me)

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.”

Al-Sahrawi’s Reported Death/Brief NPR Appearance

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.

Mauritania Moves Toward a New Lockdown Amid Rising COVID-19 Cases

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.

Roundup on Conflict Issues in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger (12/2/2020)

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.

A Chadian Secretary-General for the Organization of Islamic Cooperation

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:

First Thoughts on Burkina Faso’s Legislative Elections Results

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.

Malian Labor Threatens a General Strike, and Seeks a Different Kind of State

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.