Snapshots of Ramadan in the Sahel

Beginnings

Nigeria:

The Nigerian Supreme Council For Islamic Affairs has directed Nigerian Muslims to commence their Ramadan fast on Thursday, June 18. The Sultan of Sokoto, Sa’ad Abubakar III, who is the President-General of the Council, on Wednesday gave the directive while announcing the sighting of the new moon heralding the month of Ramadan 1436AH…Mr. Abubakar also called on Muslim faithful to use the Holy month of Ramadan to re-dedicate themselves to the teachings of Islam and continue to live peacefully with one another irrespective of religious and tribal differences.

Senegal:

The National Commission for the Observation of the Lunar Crescent (CONACOCC) has the task of determining the beginning of each lunar month and this week declared that Ramadan would start on Friday [June 19]. But many Senegalese Muslims began fasting on Thursday, emulating neighbouring Mauritania, Mali and the Gambia, as well as Saudi Arabia, home to the sacred pilgrimage sites of Medina and Mecca.

More here (French).

Material Conditions

Mauritania (French):

At the main food market in Nouakchott, the merchants give themselves over, apparently with complete impunity, to all sortes of speculations. The sudden rise in prices particularly affects the products that go into making the dishes most prized during the month of Ramadan; notably, vegetables and meats.

More from Mauritania: a newspaper editor on economic conditions in Nouadhibou (Arabic), including the difficult wait for a fishing agreement with the European Union.

Mali (French):

Month of pardon, pity, support, and help, [Ramadan] is also the month of high prices in Bamako…Onions have passed from 225 to 400 FCFA/kilo. Likewise, potatoes have climbed from 300 to 500 FCFA/kilo; garlic, from 1000 to 1200 FCFA.

 

Burkina Faso (French):

In Burkina Faso, Muslims are getting ready for the month of Ramadan in a very particular context. Since the popular insurrection and the fall of Blaise Compaoré, people’s purchasing power seems to degrade more and more. For merchants, business is turning into slow motion and people are already denouncing the prices of certain food products useful for the month of Ramadan. A month that could be difficult for many families.

From Senegal (French), a video about electricity and water cuts.

Messages

Nigerian Supreme Council of Islamic Affairs:

[T]he holy month this year coincides with a period Muslims and indeed all Nigerians,have every reason to thank Allah for His abundant blessings. The peaceful elections and the dramatic transition of power from one government to the other are a testimony to the fact that Allah answers prayers. All right-thinking Nigerians appreciate that what Nigeria witnessed this year, despite the frightening predictions and scary projections before the 2015 elections, was simply the grace of divine intervention.

The month of Ramadan as a period of forgiveness offers Nigerians an opportunity to forgive the unprecedented abuse unleashed on their collective humanity in the recent past and to forge ahead as one nation united by one destiny. It is an ample opportunity to foster the ideals of brotherhood and togetherness after some years of crude and institutionalised divide-and-rule tactics which resulted in unprecedented divisiveness, losses, of lives, property and reputation….[F[or those who Allah Has entrusted with leadership, we urge them to remember the favours of Allah on them when He answered the prayers of the oppressed, the maligned and the persecuted by granting them success. They should complement the prayers by being good and justify the expectations of Nigerians by being fair and just to all. They should be compassionate, disciplined and exemplary. They need to demonstrate competence and sense of mission.The campaign period of sloganeering has expired and only exemplary performance can retain and sustain the massive goodwill and support of the abused masses.

Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari:

As we make collective efforts to bring to a permanent end the menace of the Boko Haram in the Lake Chad basin countries, let me use this auspicious occasion to appeal to our misguided brothers to drop their arms, embrace peace and seek a better understanding of Islam during this Holy period and beyond.

Others:

  • Senegalese President Macky Sall (French).
  • Shaykh Aminu Ibrahim Daurawa, Commander-General of the Hisbah Board in Kano, Nigeria: “Ten Things That Break the Fast” (Hausa).
  • Ramadan information page at Mauritania’s Ministry of Islamic Affairs (French).

 

The Guiro Affair: Corruption, Accountability, and Questions in Burkina Faso

On June 20, the Court of Appeal (French) in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, found Ousmane Guiro guilty of corruption involving 900 million FCFA (about $1.5 million). The Court ordered the confiscation of his assets, gave him a suspended prison term of two years, and fined him 10 million FCFA (about $17,000). The “Guiro Affair” began in the final phase of ex-President Blaise Compaore’s rule, but has lasted into Burkina Faso’s post-revolutionary period.

The case is important because it touches on broader themes of corruption, accountability, and politics. Guiro, a former Director-General of Customs, was first arrested in January 2012. He was immediately fired by Compaore. Jeune Afrique (French) wrote at the time:

In Ouagadougou, the news surprised people, and for good reason: in the memory of the Burkinabe, it is the first time that such a high personality has been incarcerated. To cut rumors short, the Commandant of the Gendermarie Hubert Yaméogo had to appear on the set of Burkinabe national television and tell part of the story. 

Jeune Afrique noted that Guiro had survived earlier accusations of corruption in 2008, allegedly because his “well-placed friends” protected him. The magazine went on to imply, though, the in the aftermath of protests and mutinies that swept Burkina Faso in 2011 – a dry run of sorts for the revolution of 2014 – the presidency may have been willing to offer up a sacrificial lamb to the voices demanding accountability for corruption. Guiro, who apparently had trunks full of cash (French), may have been ideal because of the egregious nature of his theft.

Civil society reactions (French) to Guiro’s sentencing have been complex, with some prominent leaders saying that the sentence was too light. Burkinabe observers have raised questions about who else was involved in corruption under Compaore, and whether the relatively light sentence for Guiro sends a “noxious” message to officeholders. Some have even taken the verdict as evidence that “the system of Mr. Blaise Compaore is still intact” – that Burkina Faso’s governing institutions, including the judiciary, will continue to protect high-placed wrongdoers. Guiro now has time to appeal, but even if his case closes, the issues at stake in his trial will continue to resonate for some time.

Two Quotations on Selecting Cabinet Ministers in Nigeria

The administration of Nigeria’s new President Muhammadu Buhari is currently working to assemble a cabinet. It is no easy task. Many considerations are taken into account – merit, experience, intra-party politics, balance among Nigeria’s six “geo-political zones,” etc. Moreover, as in other countries (including the United States!), the process may not be entirely subject to calculation and careful planning. Here are two quotations that made me think about the messiness of the process:

1. Nasir El-Rufai (former Minister of the Federal Capital Territory and current Governor of Kaduna), The Accidental Public Servant, pp. 56-57:

There is rarely neither any merit attached nor any selection and review process, to appointing leadership particularly under military regimes. Typically, various names are contributed by the political elite, collected into a long list; someone or a small group reviews the list, prunes some out, sending the result to some committee to assign them to various ministries and the head of state makes some last minute reassignment of portfolios. In other words, Nigeria’s governance outcomes really depend on a series of accidents rather than any meritocratic or rigorous process.

2. Ahmed Joda, head of Buhari’s transition committee, chairman of the 1979 transition committee from Olusegun Obasanjo to Shehu Shagari, and vice chairman of the President Policy Advisory Group when Obasanjo returned to office as a civilian in 1999:

In 1999…[w]e had a complete office block already made, vehicles and buses and our accommodation had been booked and when you arrived everything was smooth, including all the handing over notes were prepared on the first day. We had everything. Now, this election [i.e., the 2015 election] is the first time in the history of Nigeria that an opposition party had uprooted a ruling party. It was not just changing the president or changing the members of the states or national assemblies. We were all witnesses to the election campaigns, how bitter it was. There were predictions that the country would collapse; there were also all sorts of allegations and counter-allegations and the environment was very hostile. People were expecting the worst, but God, in His infinite mercies, diffused all the tension but, perhaps, the outgone government did not expect to lose the election, I don’t know…The situation was this: we were to receive the handing over notes, study them and wherever necessary to seek clarifications from wherever, whether ministers, civil servants or chairmen of boards or chief executives of parastatals. But, like I told you, we did not receive those notes in time and our terms of reference although extended by the president limited us by the mere fact of our name ‘transition committee’.

The full interview with Joda (at the link above) is worth reading.

The Central African Republic’s “Ambitious Electoral Calendar”

When African countries suffer coups and/or civil wars, Western governments and local political elites often push for rapid elections, hoping to clarify the question of who’s in charge and to put the country on a path forward. Sometimes it works fairly well (Niger), and sometimes the results are less convincing (Libya, Mali). Looking just at those examples, I’m tempted to propose a very rough model: a coup without a civil war can set the stage for a relatively smooth electoral transition, but a messy combination of revolution and civil war is harder to repair with a vote.

That might be bad news for the Central African Republic (CAR). Last month, after CAR held the Bangui Forum on Reconciliation, I argued that “there is…a danger that domestic and international actors’ focus on swiftly holding presidential elections will distract from the more important task of promoting peace among CAR’s communities.” One purpose of the Forum was to prepare the ground for elections later this year – not necessarily a wise idea, in my view.

Now CAR’s National Elections Authority (l’Autorité nationale des élections, ANE) has laid out what RFI calls an “ambitious electoral calendar” (French)

that fixes the constitutional referendum for October 4, the first round of the legislative elections and the presidential elections simultaneously on October 18, and the second tour of the two votes on November 22. However, before that, the ANE will launch a major census of voters throughout the country, starting June 27 and lasting one month.

RFI spoke to a few politicians who voiced optimism about the timetable, saying that it can go forward if the ANE receives proper funding, and that the elections are unlikely to take place later than December 2015. The ANE’s site is here (French), though it is quite skeletal.

If Mali offers a lesson, it is that the problems of today will re-appear in a new (or old) guise after the elections, unless they are met with real solutions. For CAR, that means continuing to work to reconcile communities, disarm fighters, create jobs, resettle the displaced, and ensure people’s basic needs are met. The international funders who help pay for the elections should devote even greater resources toward those other priorities, otherwise the elections may well prove hollow.

Chad: A Suicide Bombing and Its Response [Updated]

On June 15, four suicide bombers killed twenty-seven* people and wounded 101 others at the Central Police Station and the National Police School in N’Djamena, the capital of Chad. Chadian authorities (French, .pdf) and most observers attribute responsibility to Boko Haram, the Nigerian-born jihadi group. Boko Haram has motive. Starting in January, Chadian soldiers helped to dislodge Boko Haram from territory it controlled in northeastern Nigeria. Boko Haram has long had the habit of conducting reprisals against those it considers enemies, and the sect’s leader, Abubakar Shekau, has been threatening and criticizing Chadian President Idriss Deby for months. Deby even said (French) that he was “not surprised” by the incident. The attacks in N’Djamena also occurred in a context where Boko Haram, reacting to the loss of its territory, is increasing its suicide attacks in and around northeastern Nigeria. This is, however, the first suicide bombing in N’Djamena, and the first major attack by Boko Haram in Chad.

The Chadian government’s reaction has been multi-faceted but, in my view, problematic. Since the attacks, the government has bombed suspected Boko Haram camps in Nigeria. The actual military effects of the bombing will be hard to assess, though Chadian authorities have been quick to claim a major success. Politically, the bombings seem to be a predictable step, one that governments in similar positions often take. The effects in that sphere are also hard to assess. The retaliatory bombings have generated some irritation among Nigerians, directed both at Chadian authorities (for potentially violating Nigerian sovereignty) and at Nigerian authorities (for “sleeping”). Meanwhile, Chad does not seem to have an end-game strategy beyond killing everyone in Boko Haram – which may prove impossible. In the long term, Chad may already be facing the dilemma that its very efficacy against Boko Haram draws it further into violent conflict with the sect.

More controversially, and for me unadvisedly, the Chadian government has also banned full-face veils for Muslim women (the BBC and the Chadian government say “burqa,” but I think they also mean the niqab, which I suspect is more common in Chad). The government’s rationale is that such clothing could be used to conceal identities and weapons, but the attackers on Monday seem to have come on motorbikes and it is unclear whether they were men or women. In any case, to me, such a ban represents a dangerous conflation of jihadism and (what label should one use?) other interpretations of Islam, including non-jihadi Salafism. If a woman wears a niqab, does it mean she is in league with Boko Haram? Of course not. And if you start telling Muslim women what they can wear, and telling Muslim men how their wives should dress, you risk antagonizing people. I don’t think that Chadians will pick up weapons or join Boko Haram over this issue, but in the long term, it is problematic to use incidents of terrorism as a reason to pick sides within non-violent, intra-Muslim struggles. Again, I don’t think non-jihadi Salafis in Chad are going to fight the government over this, but – especially in a context of pre-existing issues of potential government bias against Salafis – it’s possible that the Chadian government is sowing the seeds of future non-cooperation among a significant segment of its Muslim population.

Finally, Chad’s Prime Minister Kalzeubé Payimi Deubet has called (French) on religious leaders to tell their audiences to cooperate with the security forces and to denounce suspicious persons. This seems like a wise step to me, although context and tone matter – if audiences get the impression that religious leaders are being co-opted or intimidated by the government, those leaders’ credibility will suffer alongside that of the government itself. Here too, I think the niqab/burqa ban will work against the government’s other goals.

I do not envy the position in which the Chadian government finds itself. Boko Haram is a genuine threat to Chad, as the suicide bombings show. The challenge is, and will remain, how to respond to that threat without exacerbating it, and without needlessly elevating internal social and political tensions that may, in the long run, have little to do with Boko Haram except where they intersect with the violence almost by accident. Ultimately, much may depend – as it already has – on Deby’s relationship with the new government in Nigeria, because Chad’s ability to strike and bomb Boko Haram will mean less if the governments of the region, working together, cannot develop a strategy for ending the threat of Boko Haram completely. That endeavor will require more than bombs.

*I’ve also seen twenty-eight and thirty-three as counts of those killed.

[Update June 19]: Two reactions from religious bodies:

  • Chad’s Supreme Council of Islamic Affairs has endorsed the burqa/niqab ban, telling the BBC “the hijab is recommended, but wearing a burka is not part of the Chadian culture.”
  • Nigeria’s Jama’at Izalat al-Bida wa-Iqamat al-Sunna (The Society for the Removal of Heresy and the Establishment of the Sunna, better known as Izala), a Salafi organization, has denounced the ban (Hausa), asking, “if [a government bans niqab], where is democracy?”

Insights on Niger’s Economy

Niger is by some measures the poorest country in the world, yet its economy is growing rapidly. Several recent analyses are worth a read. All of them highlight both possibilities and constraints for the economy over the coming years:

  • IMF, May 18: “Despite a deterioration of the security context in the region, real gross domestic product (GDP) in 2014 rebounded to 6.9 percent, from 4.6 percent in 2013. Growth was driven by agriculture and services. Average inflation receded to negative 0.9 percent in 2014 thanks in particular to an improved food supply in part due partly to the government’s food aid program, which helped to attenuate the increase of prices of food products. Weak revenue collections, unanticipated security expenditure and a shortfall in external budget assistance adversely impacted fiscal outcomes and, as a result, most of the program’s fiscal targets for end-2014 were missed. However, the economic outlook for 2015 and the medium-term remain favorable. Although real GDP growth is expected to recede to 4.3 percent in 2015, average growth is projected to average 7 percent during 2016-2018, mainly as a result of the expansion of the extractive industries sector and an increase in public investments.”
  • Facinet Sylla and Mansour Ndiaye, May 28: “Niger is very much a landlocked country, with two-thirds of its land mass desert. The population is concentrated in a narrow strip in the south, where its main activities are farming and herding. The population is doubling every 18 years, with a high birth rate entrenched in the culture. This is a real challenge for food security, education, healthcare, family planning, employment and social protection. The government has therefore made spatial inclusion one of its aims in its national development policy, the main tool of which is the creation of local development bodies. However, the policy’s impact is limited by challenges related to demographics and the transfer of resources, as well as by a relatively weak institutional capacity and regional bodies that are illequipped to bring about sustainable local growth.” The authors’ full paper is available in French here; it features additional discussion of different sectors (agriculture, extractive industries, and commerce), macroeconomic and fiscal policy, and other matters.
  • Adamou Louché Ibrahim (French), June 2, discusses three risks: climatic, physical insecurity, and energy insecurity. He argues that the high cost of energy constrains growth: “Even though Niger has been a net exporter of petroleum products since 2011, their high price (unleaded: 540 FCFA/liter; diesel: 538 FCFA/liter, more than half the daily salary of a salaried worker paid the minimum guaranteed salary of 30,047 FCFA monthly) makes them quasi-inaccessible for the majority of Nigeriens. So, contrary to what certain politicians in the country affirm, a drop in the price of energy would have a very significant positive impact on growth…boost[ing] internal demand, and our economy would enter a virtuous cycle. Thus the government would have everything to gain by renegotiating the contract that binds it to the China National Petroleum Corporation.”

 

Nigeria: President Buhari’s Trip to Niger and Chad

On June 3 (yesterday), Nigeria’s President Buhari started his first trip abroad since taking office, visiting Niger (June 3), Chad (June 4), and then heading to the G7 Summit in Krün, Germany. As Jeune Afrique (French) points out, the trip signifies the importance Buhari attaches to the fight against Boko Haram, and particularly to his relations with Niger and Chad, both of which have been deeply and increasingly involved in the Boko Haram effort.

The trip, in my view, is meant to signal appreciation for these countries’ efforts and convey a continued willingness to work with them, but also to re-assert Nigeria’s leadership.

Here are some key moments from Niger and Chad:

Niger

  • Speech in Niger. Key quotes:
    • “I would like to convey the appreciation of Nigeria for the sacrifices by Niger in the on-going efforts to counter the menace of the Boko Haram insurgency.”
    • “I wish to reassure that with the new impetus [in the fight against Boko Haram] and resolve to seek for closer collaboration with our neighbouring countries of Niger, Chad and Cameroun, Boko Haram insurgency will soon be defeated, insha Allah.”
    • “Another issue of concern to us which is closely associated with the insurgency in the region is the influx of refugees and other displaced persons. We are aware that currently, there are over one hundred and fifty thousand (150,000) displaced persons comprising refugees and returnees taking refuge in various parts of Niger…Our administration will work closely with governments of the affected States to continue to provide humanitarian assistance to the displaced persons and their host communities. The ultimate objective however, remains to end the insurgency and facilitate their return to their homes.”
  • News:
    • Reuters: “Nigeria’s army will take a bigger role in the effort to crush Boko Haram, by taking over from soldiers from Niger in occupying towns liberated from the Islamist militant group, President Muhammadu Buhari said on Wednesday.”
    • Premium Times: “President Muhammadu Buhari said Wednesday he will review a report by the human rights group, Amnesty International, alleging widespread torture and extrajudicial killings by Nigerian military in the fight against Boko Haram.” Official readout of Buhari’s comments here, Amnesty report here.
  • Photographs of Buhari with Nigerien President Mahamadou Issoufou.

Chad

  • Speech and final communique (unverified). Key quote:
    • “Your Excellency, permit me to note that our security is intricately linked. This compels us to cooperate fully on security issues in a robust and sustained manner. To this end, we must redouble our efforts to operationalize the Multi-National Joint Task Force with its Headquarters in Ndjamena. I believe the Task Force will stabilize the areas that have been ravaged by the Boko Haram insurgency when it becomes fully operational. I am very confident that, Insha Allah, this insurgency will be brought to an end soon.”
  • News:
    • AFP: “Buhari on Thursday praised Chad for joining the fight against Boko Haram, saying further cooperation was essential in the future…Deby for his part ‘reaffirmed Chad’s involvement and availability’ to work with Nigeria, according to a statement from his office.”
    • Premium Times: “President Idris Deby of Chad has praised President Muhammadu Buhari for his ‘wise decision’’ to relocate the Nigerian Military Command center from Abuja to Maiduguri, to speed up the defeat of the insurgent group, Boko Haram.”
    • Channels: “While in the Chadian capital, President Buhari also held a closed-door meeting with Major-General Tukur Buratai of Nigeria, who was recently appointed Force Commander of the MNJTF, with headquarters in N’Djamena.”
  • Photographs of Buhari with Chadian President Idriss Deby.

What are your impressions of the trip?