Links Roundup on the Battle Against the Islamic State in Sirte, Libya

In May of this year, the Islamic State’s Libya affiliate controlled a strip of coastal Libya that extended from Abu Ghrein in the west to Bin Jawwad in the east. Early 2016 had seen advances by the Islamic State that made Libyan and international authorities quite nervous. In the west, the Islamic State was harassing the outskirts of Misrata, Libya’s third-largest city, and in in the east it was attacking major oil infrastructure, including the country’s two largest oil terminals, Ra’s Lanuf and Al-Sidr. These and other factors contributed to the launch of a multi-pronged offensive against Sirte, the epicenter of the Islamic State’s Libyan territory. The main assault is being conducted by mostly Misratan forces aligned with Libya’s Government of National Accord (GNA), a United Nations-backed, would-be unity government. Those forces, coming from the west, reached Sirte in June. But since then, the GNA’s fighters have been engaged since then in a difficult battle against die-hard Islamic State fighters holed up in central Sirte, at sites such as the Ouagadougou Conference Hall (one of the Islamic State’s original bastions in the city). The battle for Sirte has importance not just for the campaign against the Islamic State, but also because the campaign itself is shaping Libyan politics and will help determine the fate and nature of the GNA.

For day-to-day coverage, I recommend following Daniele Ranieri, Mary Fitzgerald, Mattia Toaldo, Frederic Wehrey, Mohamed Eljarh, Francesca Mannochi and, for those who read Arabic, the official account of Operation Al-Bunyan al-Marsus (Operation Solid Structure), the GNA’s campaign.

Here are a few links that will take you deeper into both the campaign and the politics surrounding it.

On the Islamic State’s rise in Libya and in Sirte specifically:

On the campaign (in roughly chronological order):

  • Patrick Markey, “Libyan Forces Battle Islamic State Street-to-Street in Sirte”
  • Frederic Wehrey: “Libyans Are Winning the Battle Against the Islamic State”
  • Patrick Markey, “Sirte Battle Risks Widening Libya Political Splits”
  • Amanda Kadlec, “All Eyes on Sirte: Beating the Islamic State, But Losing Libya”
  • Libya’s Channel, “In Depth: Oil Guards Seize IS-Held Territory, Join Unity Government Coalition”
  • AFP, “ISIS Tries to Break Siege in Libya’s Sirte”
  • Missy Ryan, “In a Pivotal Battle, Libyan Forces Laying Siege to Islamic State in Sirte”
  • Aidan Lewis, “Libyan Forces Report Gains Against IS in Battle for Sirte”

On what might come next:

And finally, some sage notes of anti-alarmism from Geoff Porter, written before the current campaign began, about the barriers to expansion that the Islamic State faces in Libya.

Libya: Mahdi al-Barghathi Is the Man to Watch

The international media has, at most, the attention span for two stories about Libya: (a) the battle against the Islamic State there, and (b) the existence of different would-be governments and rival militias. Typically, the central characters in storyline B are:

  • Fayez al-Sarraj, Prime Minister of the United Nations-backed Government of National Accord (GNA)
  • Khalifa Haftar, commander of the Libyan National Army (LNA), the official fighting force of the House of Representatives (HOR), the internationally-recognized parliament that has yet to fully endorse the GNA
  • Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thinni and President Aguila Saleh of the HOR government
  • Prime Minister Khalifa Ghwell and President Nouri Abusahmain of the General National Congress (GNC)/National Salvation Government, the Tripoli-based, Islamist-dominated and non-internationally-recognized government.

These six names are the main ones you might see in day-to-day coverage of Libya. Then there are other layers and names you would encounter – deputy prime ministers of the GNA, for example, such as Ahmed Maiteeg.

If you’re a relative newcomer to studying Libyan politics, as I am, it might be a while before you run across the name Mahdi al-Barghathi. But increasingly I think he is the man to watch in Libya today.

Al-Barghathi is the Minister of Defense in the GNA, and he is important for what he represents: the possibility of a GNA that would achieve truly national reach without submitting to Khalifa Haftar’s will. Briefly, the GNA’s central political problem is bringing enough people under its umbrella to become a functional, national government. One big obstacle to that goal is Haftar, who hopes to be the equivalent of Egypt’s Abdul Fattah al-Sisi: a military strongman who treats all Islamists, even the Muslim Brotherhood, as terrorists. So Haftar either won’t come under the GNA’s umbrella unless he gets to hold the umbrella, or he would kick out a lot of people already under the umbrella (i.e., anyone who likes the Muslim Brotherhood), or he wouldn’t ever be willing to come under the umbrella at all. Haftar’s support comes from eastern Libya, al-Barghathi is from eastern Libya, and so if the GNA can rally enough easterners around al-Barghathi, it might be able to marginalize Haftar. For his own part, Haftar was displeased by al-Barghathi’s selection.

To some extent, this is about the personalities, but on another level this is about resolving deep-rooted, structural tensions in Libyan politics. If we look at those tensions in terms of political geography, we might say the following: Libya’s main cities in terms of population are Tripoli (the capital, in the west), Benghazi (in the east), and Misrata (a commercial hub in the west). To speak crudely, Benghazi and the east do not want to be dominated by a Tripoli-based government or by Misrata’s powerful politicians and militias: hence (and drawing on a long history, including the east’s marginalization under Muammar al-Qadhafi), we see repeated expressions of resistance to centralized rule by eastern politicians. The GNA’s career so far might even reinforce eastern fears of western domination: the battle to retake Sirte from the Islamic State, for example, could be described simplistically as a Misratan military effort overseen by politicians in Tripoli. But some people in the east are willing to participate in national projects such as the GNA, especially if they can be convinced that those projects will be truly inclusive. This brings us back to what al-Barghathi represents: an easterner, not Haftar, who has been given a major portfolio in the GNA; a symbol of a Libyan security sector where the east has a big say, and is not just under Misrata’s thumb.

A bit more on al-Barghathi himself – and why he was a brilliant pick for the position:

  • He is from Benghazi
  • He commanded the Benghazi-based 204 Tank Brigade, which ultimately became part of Haftar’s Operation Dignity (an anti-Islamist offensive launched in 2014). As the example of al-Barghathi himself illustrates, Operation Dignity is not an army of soldiers, all of them personally loyal to Haftar, so much as it is a coalition of units whose commanders have allied with Haftar for different reasons. Rather than engaging in a head-to-head conflict with Haftar, the GNA can attempt to peel away segments of that coalition and cut Haftar’s support out from under him. As the UK’s ambassador to Libya recently said, “[Al-Barghathi’s] relationship with General Haftar is not good, and General Haftar does not accept him as Minister of Defence, but he has good relations with many of the officers in the Libyan National Army. He is quietly trying to work with them to bring the very many groups into one structure” (.pdf, p. 3).
  • Despite being part of Dignity, he reportedly has good relations with a wide variety of important actors, including some who are opposed to Haftar. These actors include Ibrahim al-Jadran, who commands an important militia in the east, the GNA-aligned Petroleum Facilities Guard-Center. One Algerian source (Arabic) makes the highly interesting claim that al-Barghathi has respect among Islamists and even jihadists: “During the [2011] revolution he fought side by side with the revolutionaries of Benghazi and with the fighters of Ansar al-Shari’a [a jihadist outfit]…And when Haftar launched Operation Dignity, al-Barghathi did not join either of the two sides in the conflict, and chose neutrality…The appearance of the Islamic State in Benghazi and its attack on the camp of the 204 Tank Brigade was the reason that al-Barghathi joined Operation Dignity.” According to the source, al-Barghathi maintains goodwill with Libyan Islamists (minus, of course, the Islamic State). Hence al-Bargathi is a consensus figure of sorts in the security sector, except of course with Haftar.
  • As noted above, he has strong credentials as a revolutionary, which can help assuage Islamists’ and revolutionaries’ fears that the HOR and Operation Dignity have become de facto strongholds for members of the Qadhafi regime.
  • He has strong backing from one of the east’s most powerful tribes, the Awaqir (of which I believe his own tribe, the Baraghatha, is a sub-unit, though I’m still seeking confirmation). The tribes, including the Awaqir, have been major public supporters of Haftar and the HOR – but as one source (Arabic) puts it, “any clash between al-Barghathi and Haftar will make the Awaqir tribe stand with al-Barghathi.” Another source (Arabic) notes that the Awaqir have given “6,000 of its sons to Operation Dignity,” and that the Awaqir have maintained public support both for the HOR’s right to endorse or reject the GNA and for al-Barghathi’s appointment as Minister of Defense. All of this puts Haftar in a deeply awkward position: if he comes to be seen as not just anti-GNA but as specifically anti-al-Barghathi, he could find himself losing the tribal support that he cannot do without. Haftar himself is from the Firjan, a significant tribe but by no means the largest tribe in the east.

Put all of this together and it’s no surprise that al-Barghathi was reportedly the target of a car bombing in Benghazi on July 13. It is dangerous work attempting to be a unifying figure in post-Qadhafi Libya – as we learn from the example of Abdul Fattah Younes, another prominent easterner, who defected from Qadhafi’s government to the revolutionaries’ side in February 2011 only to be assassinated (most likely by hardline Islamists) in July 2011. Younes’ assassination left lasting bitterness and contributed to post-revolutionary fragmentation.

Again, the personalities involved are important, but even more important is what each one represents. At the risk of being hyperbolic, I would say that al-Barghathi now represents the relationship between the GNA and the east, as well as the prospects for unification of the security sector. With the HOR’s leadership recently sounding even more reluctant to endorse the GNA, and with hints circulating about the possibility of a formally fragmented security sector, al-Barghathi’s position is becoming even more tense. Live or die, succeed or fail, I think he is the man to watch in Libya right now.

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.

Headlines out of Today’s ECOWAS Summit

Between May 15 and 19 (today), Ghana has hosted three important meetings for the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS): (1) an Ordinary Session of the Council of Ministers from May 15-16; (2) a Session of the Mediation and Security Council on May 17; and (3) a Session of the Authority of Heads of State and Government on May 19.

The Council of Ministers is made up of member states’ Ministers in charge of ECOWAS Affairs, while the Mediation and Security Council is composed of member states’ Ministers of Foreign Affairs and Defense. More details about the agendas for these meetings can be found here, with additional information on the Heads of State summit here. I should note also that Ghana’s President John Mahama has been the ECOWAS Chairman since 2014.

Here are some key takeaways, readouts, and headlines from the meetings:

  • Term limits: “West African leaders on Tuesday rejected a proposal to impose a region-wide limit to the number of terms presidents can serve, after opposition to the idea from Togo and Gambia, Ghana’s foreign minister said.”
  • Mahama’s remarks/Jonathan’s farewell: Reiterating his earlier praise for Nigeria’s “historic elections,” Chairman Mahama lauded President Goodluck Jonathan for his “mature statesmanship” in conceding defeat, and “salute[d]” President-elect Muhammadu Buhari for his victory. You can read Jonathan’s remarks at the summit here.
  • Youth Employment: Mahama also urged greater focus on job creation for youth, saying, “considering the fact that we have the fastest growing youth population; young people are coming out of school at every level of the educational system in the hope of finding jobs, it’s going to be a major hurdle for us.”
  • Common External Tariff: “Regarding the [ECOWAS Common External Tariff or CET], which entered into force in January this year, the Commission indicated that as at 30 April 2015, only eight Member States had started the implementation, namely, Benin, Burkina Faso, Cote d’Ivoire, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal and Togo, with the remaining seven countries, lagging behind due to various reasons, such as legal requirements, public health and other technical considerations. Council commended the eight Member States and urged the remaining seven to take the necessary steps to ensure effective implementation of the CET before the end of the year in accordance with the decision of the Authority of Heads of State and Government.”

Recent Developments and Perspectives on Mediterranean Migration Crisis

This year, repeated fatal shipwrecks in the Mediterranean Sea have shocked the world and highlighted the struggles of migrants who travel from Africa and the Middle East to the shores of the Mediterranean seeking access to Europe. I’ve written on the issue here, especially as it relates to European-Sahelian relations, and now I want to point out a few recent developments and perspectives on the crisis.

Developments

  • Naval Mission: Today, European foreign and defense ministers, meeting in Brussels, backed plans for a European Union naval mission that “will involve European warships and surveillance aircraft gathering intelligence and then raiding boats to crack down on people smugglers.” The mission is supposed to start next month.
  • Italian Rescues: Last week, the Italian Coast Guard rescued nearly 2,500 migrants.
  • Shelters: The European Union, in cooperation with Niger, plans to open shelters in the Nigerien cities of Agadez, Arlit, and Diffa. The centers aim to “dissuade [migrants] from trying to reach Europe and instead offering local alternatives.”
  • Anti-Trafficking Law: On May 11, Niger’s parliament passed a “law that could see human smugglers facing up to 30 years in prison in an effort to stem the flow of illegal immigrants crossing its borders in hopes of getting to Europe.” Together, the shelters and the law attempt to go part of the way toward addressing Nigerien President Mahamadou Issoufou’s call to address the local roots of the migration crisis.

Perspectives

  • Francis Kornegay: “The Mediterranean crisis is indicative of how intellectually inadequate geopolitical and foreign policy/national security analysis has become at connecting the dots of interdependence between land and sea in the world’s unfolding power dynamics.”
  • Gary Younge: “The facts on immigration don’t fit easily on a mug, whereas the politics of xenophobia can be condensed into a single sentence. ‘They’re coming here to get what’s yours.’ This is, of course, a lie, stemming from a system in which borders reflexively open for capital and close for people.”

Varieties of Selecting Muslim Leaders in West Africa

When it comes to Sahelian countries such as Mali and Niger, I tend to think of strong national-level, top-down Muslim clerical bodies as a phenomenon of the period before liberalization, and especially as a phenomenon of the 1970s and 1980s. There are still bodies like the Islamic Council of Niger, but they don’t seem to have the monopoly over religious decision-making that their predecessor organizations enjoyed.

That’s why this link from Ghana caught my eye, especially the role of the National Chief Imam:

Sheikh Abdul Wadud Haruna, a Kumasi-based Islamic cleric, has been appointed the President or Zaeem of the Tijaniyya Sufi sect in Ghana.

The conferment of the title and the presentation of a certificate of honour were performed by the National Chief Imam, Sheikh Osman Nuhu Sharubutu, during the 47th annual birthday of Prophet Mohammed held in Kumasi last weekend.

Until the elevation, the appointee was the regional head of the Tijaniyya sect in the Ashanti Region.

The appointment was done with the consent of clerics responsible for such decisions and based in Madina Kaolak, Senegal, according to a release.

President John Dramani Mahama, who was the guest of honour at the activity, promised to promote religious tolerance in the country after making a presentation of GH¢12,000, 50 bags of rice and 10 bags of cooking oil to the organisers.

Also present were Sheikh Tijani Aliyu Cise, the Grand Imam of the Tijaniyya sect worldwide, who is also the Imam of Madina Kaolak.

The Tijaniyya is one of the most important Sufi orders in West Africa. Although founded in North Africa in the early nineteenth century, the Senegalese Shaykh Ibrahim Niasse (1900-1975) was responsible for much of the order’s spread in places like Ghana. Kaolack was Niasse’s home and is the seat of his successors. Worth mentioning is that Ghana’s Chief Imam is himself a member of the Tijaniyya. So it’s interesting that the selection of a new representative of the Tijaniyya in Ghana is a decision made jointly by the National Chief Imam and the shaykhs in Kaolack (presumably with some input from other Tijanis, but nevertheless presented as a top-down selection).

I’ve been strongly influenced by Dale Eickelman and James Piscatori‘s notion of a “fragmentation of sacred authority” in the Muslim world, a concept Ousmane Kane uses quite effectively in his book on Nigeria. But this Ghanaian example reminded me that top-down selections of new Muslim leaders are not always a thing of the past. On the other hand, some Ghanaians are worried that when the current National Chief Imam passes (he is over ninety years old, and has served since 1993, when he succeeded his cousin), the Ghanaian Muslim community will divide bitterly over the question of succession – not all Ghanaian Muslims are Tijanis, to say the least. So perhaps further fragmentation is in store.

Continued Rejection of the ICC in West and East Africa

It is not new to read of African governments ignoring or rejecting the International Criminal Court (ICC)’s claims to jurisdictional authority. But two stories this week reinforce the idea that many key players on the continent are willing to cross the Court.

First is Sudanese President Omar al Bashir’s attendance at an African Union summit in Abuja, Nigeria. The ICC issued a warrant for Bashir’s arrest in March 2009, in connection with war crimes in Darfur. His travel itinerary since then charts a map of ICC rejection across Africa and beyond. While Nigeria is the first West African nation to host Bashir, it joins a trend that includes several other countries and the African Union itself. From the BBC:

Mr Bashir has visited numerous African countries since the arrest warrant was issued – including Ethiopia, Kenya and Djibouti.

Only Botswana and Malawi have threatened to arrest him.

In May, the AU called on the ICC to drop war crimes charges against Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta after accusing it of “hunting” Africans because of their race.

Mention of Kenya brings us to the second news item from this week: Yesterday, the ICC rejected another request from Kenyan Vice President William Ruto, who like Kenyatta faces charges at the Court, to hold his trial in Africa.

The election, in March of this year, of Kenyatta and Ruto seemed a rebuke to the Court. Both men have been under indictment since March 2011 in connection with election/post-election violence in 2007-2008. David Bosco, writing shortly before Kenya’s most recent election, spelled out some potential consequences that a Kenyatta victory might have for the Court. One of these is particularly noteworthy in light of the Court’s decision on Ruto’s request for a trial location change:

That a freshly elected African head of state will bear the burden of ICC indictment would likely worsen already poor relations between the court and African officialdom. Many African leaders have argued that the ICC, which to this point has indicted only Africans, systematically ignores crimes committed in other parts of the world. At various points, African leaders have discussed withdrawing en masse from the treaty that created the court or, more likely, empowering a regional court to investigate atrocities, thereby displacing the ICC.

The ICC’s decision to keep Ruto’s trial in The Hague may strengthen such sentiments among some African leaders.

From both Nigeria and Kenya, then, I see fresh examples of the difficulty the Court is having in achieving legitimacy and recognition in Africa.