Senegal: A New Khalifa for the Tijaniyya of Tivaouane

Within Senegal’s Sufi orders, the Sy family of Tivaouane is one of the most important (usually observers consider the Tijaniyya of Tivaouane, the Mouridiyya of Touba, and the Tijaniyya of Kaolack to be the most important Sufi communities in the country). The family recently had a change of leadership with the passing of Cheikh Ahmed Tidiane Sy Al Maktoum and the succession of Abdoul Aziz Sy Al Amine. The position is known as Khalifa, but means “successor” rather than “caliph,” or at least it means something different from the connotation that “caliph” has taken on in English.

A brief biography of the new khalifa, who was born in 1928, can be found here (French). He is the sixth khalifa of the Sy family, and is the son of Serigne Babacar Sy (1885-1957), the first khalifa, and is the grandson of Al-Hajj Malik Sy (1855-1922), the founder of the family and of this branch of the Tijaniyya. The new khalifa has been a longtime counselor to past leaders of the community.

Niger: Opposition Leader Hama Amadou Sentenced in Absentia

Hama Amadou is a Nigerien politician who placed third in the first round of the 2011 presidential elections. In the second round, he supported Mahamadou Issoufou, who went on to win the election and who is Niger’s current president. After the election, Amadou became president of Niger’s National Assembly. In 2013, he and Issoufou fell out. In summer 2014, Amadou and a number of his associates were accused of involvement in trafficking babies from Nigeria. Amid the allegations, Amadou fled the country (and was replaced as National Assembly president), returning only in late 2015 to campaign for the 2016 presidential elections. He spent the campaign under arrest, and was crushed in the official final results, losing to Issoufou 7% to 92%. Amadou was evacuated to France for medical reasons in March 2016, and he remains there in exile.

All this is background to the one-year prison sentence given to Amadou, in absentia, by the Appeals Court in the capital Niamey on March 13. It seems highly unlikely that Amadou will return to Niger any time soon, and so it seems that the sentence is intended to deter him from returning or from attempting to resuscitate his political career.

With the major caveat that I haven’t seen any of the evidence presented at the trial, I must say that the charges have always appeared bogus and political to me. Why would a prominent politician traffic in stolen babies? Profound moral corruption at high levels is of course not unknown, but it stretches credibility to think that Amadou, in the midst of a huge political fight with Issoufou, would have taken a massive professional risk.

The trial took one day (French), and many defendants received five-year sentences. The lawyers for the defendants complained that proper legal procedures were not being followed, and they boycotted (French) the proceedings. You can read an interview with one of Amadou’s lawyers here (French).

If the charges are indeed bogus, that would be a sign to me of growing authoritarianism in Niger.

 

The Jihadist Merger in Mali and the Sahara

In early March, three jihadist groups in Mali and the Sahara released a video announcing that they have merged into a new group called Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wa-l-Muslimin (The Group for Supporting Islam and Muslims). The jihadist groups involved are:

  • the northern Malian Ansar al-Din (Defenders of the Faith or, if you prefer, Supporters of Religion),
  • the central Malian Masina Liberation Front (where Masina refers to an early nineteenth-century Muslim polity whose theological outlook has little in common with contemporary jihadism),
  • and the Saharan “emirate” of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), including al-Murabitun Battalion.

The leader of the new group is Iyad Ag Ghali (b. mid-1950s), a Malian national and leader of Ansar al-Din. Ag Ghali’s career has been extremely complex, but one might summarize it crudely in two phases: a career as a relatively mainstream rebel (albeit with growing jihadist ties) until early 2012, and then a career in open jihadism since 2012. Other jihadist commanders appearing in the video are, from the viewer’s left to right:

  • Amadou Kouffa, a Malian national who is leader of the Masina Liberation Front and a long-time associate of Ag Ghali
  • Yahya Abu al-Hammam/Djamel Okacha, an Algerian national who has been emir of AQIM’s Saharan battalions since 2012
  • Al-Hasan al-Ansari, deputy leader of al-Murabitun, AQIM’s most prominent battalion
  • and Abu Abd al-Rahman al-Sanhaji, the “judge” of AQIM’s Saharan emirate

Many of the most important points about the video have already been made by Yvan Gichaoua here (French). Key points include the video’s emphasis on global jihadist (rather than local political) themes, and its strong message placing these Saharan groups under Al-Qaida’s banner, with specific pledges of allegiance to al-Qaida’s Ayman al-Zawahiri, AQIM’s overall emir Abd al-Malik Droukdal, and the Taliban’s Mullah Hibatullah. Gichaoua also points to the important fact that Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the infamous commander of al-Murabitun, is not in the video, perhaps because he is either dead or incapacitated. Gichaoua also remarks that the physical assemblage of these other leaders is striking in and of itself, given that the point of ongoing counterterrorism operations in the region is to disperse and weaken jihadist groups.

I would add three things:

  1. First, I see this as an administrative reorganization first and foremost. The move does not, it seems, either increase or decrease the number of jihadist fighters in the region. In other words, the groups are not necessarily greater now than the sum of their parts. So I would be skeptical of analyses proclaiming that this “changes the game.” After all, such administrative reorganizations are not new in the Sahara: AQIM has regularly promoted and demoted leaders, battalions have repeatedly broken off and rejoined, etc. Al-Murabitun has been involved in many such reorganizations: it originated as the merger of two breakaway AQIM units, which then subsequently rejoined AQIM. Moreover, Droukdal has had trouble – for years – imposing his will on the Sahara, and this reshuffle will not necessarily change that.
  2. Second, the anti-Islamic State message is not explicit, but neither is it hard to detect in the video. The video opens with the first part of Qur’an 3:103, “Hold firmly to God’s rope together and do not become divided.” That verse has been a key part of the Islamic State’s messaging to jihadis, as the Islamic State proclaims the need for unity. Jihadis pledging allegiance to the Islamic State, including breakaway units of AQIM, have invoked the verse to justify their decision to rally to the Islamic State’s banner. AQIM and its new (old) Saharan leader is making the same argument, except to say that al-Qaida should be the focal point of intra-jihadist unity. In that sense, the video may be aimed partly at defectors from AQIM to Islamic State, with the implication that they should rejoin the fold. That fits with prior AQIM statements, such as a 2016 interview with Abu al-Hammam (dead link, so I won’t post it) which frame the al-Qaida/Islamic State conflict as a kind of family dispute.
  3. Even if the video didn’t concentrate on local politics, the new group undoubtedly will continue attempting to insert itself and its violence in local northern Malian politics. Al-Sanhaji (Arabic) recently released an audio statement threatening the new “joint patrols” in northern Mali. The joint patrols, which I wrote about here, were the target of a major suicide bombing in January. The patrols are an important element of the slow, painful implementation of a 2015 peace accord. Ag Ghali and his allies want peace to fail.

State(s) of Emergency in Niger

On March 3, Niger’s government declared a state of emergency (French) in two of its seven regions while maintaining a state of emergency in a third.

The new state of emergency affects Tillabéri and Tahoua, two western regions on the border with Mali. Specifically, the state of emergency includes the departments of Ouallam, Ayorou, Bankilaré, Abala et Banibongou in Tillabéri and the departments of Tassara et Tillia in Tahoua. The declaration responds to recent attacks, including one in October that I covered here on the blog, as well as the recent killing of sixteen soldiers in an attack on a military patrol in Ouallam (French) and the recent killing of five gendarmes in Bankilaré. That last incident occurred after the state of emergency was declared.

The Nigerien government also maintained the state of emergency in Diffa, in the far southeastern part of the country near the borders with Nigeria and Chad. The government explained that “despite the relative respite observed in the Diffa region,” it wanted to keep exceptional security measures in place. Diffa has been the site of numerous attacks by the Boko Haram sect since 2015. The state of emergency in Diffa dates to February 2015.

As the cliché goes, Niger is in a “bad neighborhood” and its border zones are vulnerable to multiple sources of violence, whether emanating from Nigeria, Mali, or Libya. The northern Agadez region is not under a state of emergency, but the region (and the city of Agadez) face their own problems amid a new anti-smuggling crackdown. Going forward, then, there will be questions about what the states of emergency allow the Nigerien government to achieve in terms of security, or whether further security challenges are coming.

Northern Mali’s Interim Authorities: Serious Problems Emerge

In late February, different factions in Mali agreed on a timetable for the installation of “interim authorities” in the three northern regions, Gao, Timbuktu, and Kidal. The interim authorities are mentioned in the 2015 peace accord (.pdf, French, p. 18). Per the accord, the authorities should have been installed three months after the signing of the accord, or around September 2015.

Given that the different factions were not even prepared to install the interim authorities until now, one can see how serious the obstacles to a durable political settlement are in northern Mali. The problems with the interim authorities closely parallel the problems surrounding “joint patrols,” which I wrote about for Global Observatory in January. The joint patrols are another important provision of the 2015 agreement. The problems for both the interim authorities and the patrols include continued disputes even after so-called agreements, as well as the threat of major violence against the actors attempting to implement those agreements (the joint patrols became the target of Mali’s deadliest-ever suicide bombing in Gao in January).

Regarding the interim authorities, “The government statement said…that the interim authorities would be instated in Kidal on Feb. 28 followed by Gao on March 2 and Timbuktu on March 3.”

The authorities arrived in Kidal, Gao and Menaka as scheduled (over some objections in Gao), but armed groups are already preventing the interim authorities from undertaking their functions in Timbuktu:

Armed groups took over parts of Timbuktu on Monday to prevent Malian interim authorities from being installed there under a peace pact meant to end years of lawlessness, the defense ministry said.

Residents reported sporadic gunfire across Timbuktu on Monday. Banks, schools and shops were shuttered up.

[…]

The main Tuareg faction involved in the resistance was the Council for Justice in Azawad, as Tuaregs call the Sahara desert that is their traditional homeland.

The Council itself was only formed in October 2016 (French), reflecting a key obstacle to peace: the proliferation of armed groups. The Council reportedly (French) represents the Kel Ansar, one the Tuareg confederations in Mali. Led by a former cabinet minister, the Council decries (French) what it sees as the Kel Ansar’s exclusion from the peace process. As with other armed groups, the Council can act – and now is acting – as a spoiler.

Other problems are not hard to foresee. If the joint patrols are a precedent, the interim authorities will themselves be targets for violence before too long. I say this not to advocate pessimism about the ultimate prospects for peace (after all, the first joint patrol recently did occur), but just to point out that the situation is very difficult and tense.