A Public Relations Balancing Act Amid Burkina Faso’s Counterterrorism Operation

The Burkinabé army released a communiqué (.pdf, French) on 18 July describing counterterrorism operations that units of the Groupement des Forces Anti-Terroristes (Grouping of Anti-Terrorist Forces) have been conducting since 8 July in the northern frontier zone of the country. According to the communiqué, around 100 people were interrogated in the north, of whom sixty were transferred to the Gendarmerie for further questioning. The communiqué also states that anti-terrorist units dismantled bases and seized explosives, contraband, and other materials.

The communiqué takes pains to state that the soldiers “act with strict respect for International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights.” This emphasis comes on the heels of public comments by Burkinabé President Roch Kaboré about the importance of human rights – comments that in turn were responding to allegations of human rights abuses by Burkina Faso’s security services. In particular, a recent Human Rights Watch report really appears to have gotten authorities’ attention.

Here is an excerpt from that report, one relevant to the official descriptions of the current operation:

Community leaders complained of numerous instances in which the security forces appeared to randomly detain men en masse  who happened to be in the vicinity of incursions, attacks or ambushes by armed Islamist groups. Gendarmes released the majority of detainees after preliminary investigations which often lasted several days, but others have been detained for months.

The security forces, then, have at least two public relations objectives that are now in tension: on the one hand, they want to demonstrate their efficacy (“we got a lot of bad guys”); on the other hand, they want to demonstrate their professionalism (“we’re not just detaining any fighting-age men”). Amid this public relations balancing act, ascertaining the truth of what is happening is hard, especially in the moment.

In related news, RTB (French) reports on the recent killing of the chief of Hocoulourou, a commune in Burkina Faso’s Soum Province (Sahel Region).

 

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A Police Census in Chad, With Encouragement from the World Bank and the IMF

Chad is conducting a census (French) of its police. Every officer must present himself or herself to be physically counted – otherwise, they will not receive their salaries.

The move makes sense on its face – who wants ghost workers, especially ghost police? – but it may provoke some real discontent. Viewed in context, this census seems like the latest in a wave of state measures that have upset public employees. Different groups of employees have been striking over the past few years, often over issues of pay but sometimes over broader complaints alleging a lack of basic fairness in the country. If the police do not see the census as fair or as fairly executed, further strikes may be in the cards. The police census, moreover, is apparently a kind of test exercise for a full census of all public employees.

Another part of the context is that according to RFI (see link above), this move comes with the encouragement of the World Bank, while according to VOA (French) it comes with the encouragement of the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The World Bank pledged $1.1 billion in loans to Chad back in September 2017, which will support the implementation of Chad’s three-year National Development Plan (.pdf, French). The IMF pledged $312 million back in June 2017 under a three-year Extended Credit Facility. (Chad also obtained other large pledges from various donors and investors at a September 2017 roundtable in Paris.)

I could not find any language about the census in World Bank documents, but here is one brief mention in an IMF document (see .pdf available through this link, p. 3).

On the expenditure side, a key priority for the authorities has been to exercise stricter control over current spending. As part of these efforts, the authorities are committed to reducing the wage bill to a sustainable level in line with staff recommendations. In this regard, they have implemented several measures to contain the wage bill, including by introducing a hiring freeze in civil services, limiting wage increases, and reducing bonuses and benefits. Partly, as a result of these moves, social tensions have exacerbated, but have subsequently weakened following agreements reached between the government and unions that helped preserve positive prospects for reducing the wage bill. Going forward, they are planning a civil service census, while exploring avenues for modernizing the payroll management system and reforming the civil service to achieve increased cost efficiency and transparency.

Am I missing something, or is this just another round of structural adjustment?

Roundup on the Recent Boko Haram Attacks in Borno and Yobe

Two significant Boko Haram attacks occurred in recent days, one in Borno State and the other in Yobe State. Amid conflicting accounts, it’s difficult establishing exactly what happened.. In place of an analytical post, then, here’s a roundup:

Borno (Bama Local Government Area, likely 13 July)

Reuters: “About 20 Nigerian soldiers are missing after a clash with Boko Haram militants in the northeast of the country, security sources said on Monday, though the military denied reports that some troops could not be found. The confrontation between militants and troops took place on Saturday in the Bama area of Borno…An army spokesman said suspected Boko Haram militants had tried to seize military vehicles in an attempted attack on troops in Bama but they had been repelled by troops backed by the air force.” For more statements from the Nigerian Army, see here.

Daily Trust: “One of the sources told Daily Trust on Sunday that the troops who were based in Bama town in central Borno, were ambushed around 2pm Friday near a village called Bulagallaye,  while moving in a convoy  of 16 Hilux trucks loaded with soldiers  and vigilantes. ‘They were on their way for an operation in Bulagallaye along Bama /Dikwa axis when the assailants ambushed them…You know this is raining season and operations along that axis are increasingly becoming tough because of the terrain. One of the trucks in the convoy got stuck in the muddy area and while efforts were being made to pull out the truck, the terrorists attacked’.”

Punch: “A source close to Bama, said, ‘The update is that 10 corpses of soldiers ambushed in Borno have been recovered. The army is still looking for the rest of them. The terrorists are said to have links with ISWAP [Islamic State West Africa Province] and they are from the [Abu Mus’ab] Al-Barnawi faction. The army cannot sweep these attacks under the carpet because there were eyewitnesses to the two attacks in Borno and Yobe which happened on Saturday and Sunday.’ But the army spokesman, [Brigadier General Texas] Chukwu, said the troops repelled the terrorist attack on Bama, adding that only two personnel were injured. He said, ‘The army wishes to state categorically that the report is not true. There was an attempted attack on troops at Kwakwa and Chingori communities in the Bama area by suspected Boko Haram terrorists as a result of the difficult terrain where our vehicles became bugged [sic] down’.”

Yobe (Geidam Local Government Area, 14 July)

Punch: “ ‘Boko Haram terrorists attacked troops of the 81 Division Forward Brigade at Jilli village in Geidam district. The terrorists came in huge numbers around 7:30 pm (1830 GMT) and overran the base after a fierce battle that lasted till 9:10 pm,’ said the military source. ‘The base had 734 troops. Currently the commander of the base and 63 soldiers have made it to Geidam (60 kilometres away) while the remaining 670 are being expected,’ he said.”

Daily Trust: “A soldier who survived the attack told our correspondent that the terrorists went to the military facility in fleet of military painted vehicles with camouflage colours. ‘There was trench around the base, but they confidently approached the gate and we opened it thinking they were troops from Gubio. They started shooting and we engaged them before they overran us,’ he said. ‘About 10 of us ran to Ngilewa village where a Good Samaritan drove us to Damakarwa village and handed us to the troops from Geidam,’ he said.”

Blueprint: “The Chief of Army Staff, Lt.-General Tukur Buratai yesterday held a crucial meeting with the Theater Commander of Operation Lafiya Dole and other top military officers at the Military Command and Control Centre, Maiduguri, Borno state.
Although the outcome of the meeting was not made public, a military source said the meeting was to review and re-strategise the ongoing operations, especially Operation Last Hold in Northern Borno and Lake Chad fringes.”

For further context, it’s worth reading this thread from Ahmad Salkida and this report by Omar Mahmood and Ndubuisi Ani, and it’s worth watching this video from al-Barnawi’s faction.

World Politics Review Article on Nigeria’s 2019 Elections

Yesterday I had a piece out with World Politics Review, looking at the approaching February/March 2019 elections through the lens of intra-elite shifts and some of Nigeria’s multi-faceted problems. The piece amplifies some of the themes from this post, and it would be well worth reading Matt Page’s latest for Quartz, which deals with some of the same developments.

As always, comments welcome below.

The New Mauritanian G5 Joint Force Commander and His Chadian Deputy

Late last week French and Mauritanian media that the new G5 Sahel Joint Force commander will be Mauritanian General Hanena Ould Sidi. He replaces Malian General Didier Dacko, whose removal was one outcome of the 2 July meeting of Sahelian and French heads of state in Nouakchott, Mauritania.

Ould Sidi is Mauritania’s Vice Chief of Army Staff. He is mentioned in a few brief news items at the Mauritanian Army’s website (example), but other than that I can’t find much information about him, either in French or in Arabic (here is the Arabic spelling of his name, for those curious).

La Tribune reports that at the G5 Sahel Joint Force, Ould Sidi’s deputy will be Chadian General Oumar Bikimo Jean, whose French-language Wikipedia page (which is pretty well sourced) is here.

Tired Clichés from The Economist about Jihadism in Africa

The Economist is out with an article, more or less about Boko Haram, that contains all the clichés one expects in a piece like this.

  1. The conflation of diverse conflicts: “Nigeria’s main north-eastern city is at the centre of a series of jihadist campaigns stretching in two broad belts across Africa on either side of the Sahara. The northern one hugs the Mediterranean, from Egypt through Libya and Tunisia to Algeria. The southern one extends from Somalia and Kenya in the east through Nigeria and Niger and on to Mali, Burkina Faso and Senegal in the west.” Aside from the bad writing – how can Nigeria be at the center of campaigns in “two belts” if one of the belts does not include Nigeria? – the conflict in Nigeria is not equal to the conflicts in Mali, Burkina Faso, etc. Hell, even Mali’s conflicts (plural) have different characteristics, and the insurgency in northeastern Nigeria has many, many local wrinkles and permutations.
  2. Amplifying the voices of anonymous, cynical Western military officers while making various other actors sound like credulous idiots. “A retired general who once held a senior post at AFRICOM, America’s military command for Africa, puts it thus: ‘If Nigeria goes down it would make a giant sinkhole that would suck in six or seven other countries.'” What a weird metaphor. And what would it mean for Nigeria to “go down”? Is this person saying that Boko Haram is about to march into Abuja and overthrow the government?
  3. Sloppy summaries about causality that read like guesswork: “In each country, conflict may be fuelled largely by local grievances. But the insurgents share some ideological traits. Many have been strengthened by the breakdown of Libya after the downfall of Muammar Qaddafi’s regime in 2011. Weapons spilled out of Libya’s armouries, and smuggling networks for everything from people to drugs developed across the Sahara. There are signs that the jihadists are learning from one another and sucking money and support from militant groups in the Middle East.” So basically, conflict “may be” local (is there no way to find out, or at least decide?), Libya might be a factor, and “there are signs” that Arab money is a factor. Also interesting to learn that Qadhafi’s fall was what birthed Saharan smuggling. Thanks for wrapping things up so neatly.
  4. Acknowledging that increased militarization won’t work, but pushing it anyway: “Some think that, far from cutting back the military effort, it needs to be stepped up. A Western air campaign could inflict heavy casualties and knock back ISWAP’s ability to organise by a year or more. But air strikes alone would probably not be enough to defeat the group. ‘We could knock out the leadership, but would that make things any better?’ asks one British officer. Western officers talk of the need for a long-term commitment to train, equip and assist local forces, and to give them air support when needed.” Like there has been no training or air support before – hell, if you believe al-Barnawi (.pdf, p. 268), “We see the airplanes of those countries, fighter planes and reconnaissance planes, hovering over us densely.”
  5. And no article on jihadism in Africa would be complete without the inevitable comparison to Afghanistan: “General Hicks compares the rise of jihadism in Africa to that of the Taliban in Afghanistan in 1993. The threats they pose to the West ‘are still in a nascent stage and can be dealt with at a price that’s affordable in both blood and treasure,’ he says. Leaving the danger to fester might allow the threat to grow until Western forces are compelled to intervene directly and massively. But the experience of the West in Afghanistan since 2001 holds another lesson: military intervention alone cannot solve the problem. It can disrupt jihadists and buy time to win back the allegiance of the disgruntled and marginalised. For the most part, that is a job for Africa’s beleaguered rulers—if they are up to it.” Sure thing – it’s always the venal local elites who are the problem, and never the counterinsurgency doctrines. And are we sure a quick anti-Taliban mission in 1993 would have gone smoothly?

Parts of the article are good, especially the actual on-the-ground reporting in it. But on the whole, the piece reads like an MRI of the confused, self-contradictory Western thinking about jihadism. It’s local! It’s foreign! We need to act! If we act we’ll make it worse! Locals have to solve the problem for themselves! Locals are too venal to solve this! And on and on.

 

Sahelian Governments’ Readouts of the 2 July Nouakchott Meeting on the G5 Sahel

On 2 July, amid the African Union summit in Mauritania’s capital Nouakchott, the presidents of France and five Sahelian countries (Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Chad) met to discuss Sahelian security generally and the G5 Sahel Joint Force specifically. One outcome of the meeting was the sack of the Joint Force’s commander, Malian General Didier Dacko.

For French speakers, though, I thought it would be useful to round up all the official readouts of the meeting I could find. The Chadian presidency and the Nigerien presidency released official statements, while Mali’s president did a wide-ranging interview with France24 on the margins of the summit and (so far as I could tell) Burkina Faso’s president did not release a readout, just two comments on Twitter. As for Mauritania, the official Agence Mauritanienne d’Information released a readout here. Finally, the French president’s remarks to the press can be found here.

To me the most interesting readout was the Nigerien version, which had a few highlights (other than the main theme of the meeting, which seems to have been “let’s get this thing going a lot more”):

  • The G5 countries will now move to rebuild the damaged force headquarters in Sévaré, Mali;
  • They will continue to pursue a United Nations Chapter Seven mandate for the force (more backstory here), which might help resolve some of its financial problems; and
  • The regional governments will meet again in Nouakchott on 6 December.