Chad: What’s Happening with Hinda Deby?

In May, Jeune Afrique published an article profiling the inner circle of Chad’s military ruler Mahamat Deby – who took over after his father, Chad’s longtime ruler Idriss Deby (in power 1990-2021) was killed on the frontlines of a battle against rebels. The piece made me wonder about the fate of Hinda Deby, one of Idriss Deby’s wives and Mahamat Deby’s step-mother.

Idriss Deby died suddenly, but the question of succession was on observers’ minds well before he died. And Hinda Deby’s name was often mentioned. Born in 1980, she is of Mahamat’s generation (he was born in 1984) rather than her late husband’s (who was born in 1952). She and Idriss Deby married in 2005.

As late as the first quarter of 2021, on the eve of the president’s death, Hinda Deby’s “growing influence” was being mentioned by informed observers. Her influence ran through multiple sectors – oil, health, and education, among others – and operated both through formal channels, such as her “Grand Coeur” foundation, and through the strategic placement of family members into top posts (her father Mahamat Acyl, who died in 2020, was a senior diplomat). These family members included, as of 2021, her uncle Abdelmoutalib Abderahim Abdoulfarakh as director-general of military intelligence; her brother Khoudar Mahamat Acyl as the president’s aide-de-camp; her brother Abderahim Mahamat Acyl as deputy director of the Chad Hydrocarbons Company; her brother Ahmat Khazali Acyl as director of the National Social Planning Account; and her aunt’s ex-husband Ahmed Kogri as head of Chadian intelligence (here’s my source for the last four names and positions). From early on in her marriage to the president, journalists and their interlocutors surmised that Deby – who famously relied on his Zaghawa ethnic group as the core of his power – used his marriage to the Arab Hinda to build ties with another key ethnic group and another key family in the country.

Of course, observers of Chadian politics also long predicted that Deby’s successor might be one of his sons, several of whom held senior positions as well. Mahamat was clearly in the running.

My crude reading of what transpired immediately after Deby’s death is that power in Chad remained essentially military – obviously there is a serious gender component to consider and an ethnic one as well, but Mahamat Deby was elevated to head of state not just in preference to Hinda, but also because he had the most central position within the military hierarchy at the moment of his father’s death, namely as head of the Directorate-General of the Security Services of the Institutions of the State, the most elite unit (see more here). There was reportedly a last-minute power struggle between Mahamat and his half-brother Zakaria, a senior diplomat (ambassador to the United Arab Emirates) and a key leader within the then-ruling party, the Patriotic Salvation Movement (French acronym MPS). It’s possible that Mahamat won by strength of personality, but again, it seems the military was revealed or confirmed as the real backbone of the regime – tellingly, the MPS has seemed to be to more an appendage of power under Mahamat than a real power center in its own right, at least so far in 2021-2022. Returning to Hinda Deby’s role, her time as a sort of interim president in 2020, when Idriss Deby was sick, was reportedly a choice meant in part to manage the incipient conflict between Mahamat and Zakaria – suggesting that Idriss Deby may have found his wife more useful as a kind of mediator than as his ultimate successor.

In any case, since Mahamat’s succession, Hinda Deby’s network preserved its influence in the short term but in the ensuing months has been, at least from what I can tell, somewhat sidelined – the Jeune Afrique profile of the new president’s inner circle notes Ahmed Kogri’s continued importance as head of the National Security Agency, but the ex-First Lady’s brothers do not appear in the list. Indeed, in December last year, her brothers ran into serious legal trouble as part of a very murky affair that involved the assassination of a Chadian colonel, an attack on the home of Hinda’s brother Ahmat Khazali Mahamat Acyl, the interrogations and detention of her brothers Ahmat Khazali and Khoudar and, in March, their release as the case was closed. In April, Hinda Deby fainted from apparent heat stroke at a public event, but has otherwise kept a fairly low profile; her Twitter account, for example, features sporadic and mostly personal/spiritual posts.

That, from the limited insight I have, is where things stand – Mahamat firmly in control of palace politics, having shown where the real power ultimately lay. With that said, I wouldn’t count out Hinda Deby over the long term – not necessarily as president of Chad, but as a player in the country’s politics, given her obvious political skill and the wide reach of her family’s network.

ECOWAS and Mali: Numbers Matter, But Also Pride

On June 4, heads of state from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) convened for an extraordinary summit to consider options for handling the recalcitrant military juntas in Mali, Guinea, and Burkina Faso, all of which refuse to obey ECOWAS’ dictates on timetables for returning to civilian rule. Tensions are most severe between ECOWAS and the Malian junta, the first of the three military regimes to come to power (Mali, August 2020; Guinea, September 2021; Burkina Faso, January 2022). The negotiations between ECOWAS and Mali hit a low point in December 2021/January 2022, when the junta finally and blatantly scrapped the initial 18-month transition timetable (which would have ended in February 2022) and floated alternative timelines ranging up to five additional years. ECOWAS imposed severe sanctions in response. ECOWAS’ summit on June 4 of this year yielded no major result except a decision to maintain the sanctions and defer further decisions until ECOWAS’ next ordinary summit on July 3.

On June 6, the Malian junta issued a decree announcing a two-year extension of the transition, dating from March 26, 2022:

The announcement appears to have been unilateral, and ECOWAS rejected the new timeline proposal:

What does ECOWAS want? Two basic things, I think: a relatively short timeline, and to save some face. So while ECOWAS might consider a two-year timeline, reportedly the optics of Mali’s junta simply decreeing that timeline rubbed ECOWAS the wrong way. Two years is also, at least by my vague sense, the upper bound of what ECOWAS could accept, and they might not even be able to stomach two years on top of an already-lapsed eighteen months. Twelve months, fourteen months, sixteen months…all of those lengths seem to be acceptable in ECOWAS’ eyes. The numbers are really not that different at this point, then, but to seal a deal it seems ECOWAS and the junta would have to find a way to keep pride on both sides. And to be fair, I don’t think that’s just ego on ECOWAS’ side – they are also obviously very concerned about what messages the Guinean and Burkinabè juntas will take from this whole saga between ECOWAS and Mali.

Nigeria: The Two Major Parties’ Presidential Candidates Face Off for the Next Eight Months

Nigeria will hold an open presidential election in February 2023; current President Muhammadu Buhari (elected 2015, re-elected 2019) is term-limited. In the last two weeks, both of the two major parties have concluded their presidential primaries. The People’s Democratic Party (PDP), which ruled Nigeria from 1999 to 2015, selected former Vice President Atiku Abubakar (in office 1999-2007) as its nominee. The ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) selected former Lagos State Governor Bola Tinubu (in office 1999-2007) as its nominee. One might say this is the least surprising outcome, given the stature of both men and their longstanding, open ambition to be president. Atiku was the runner-up in 2019 against Buhari, and Tinubu was the main architect of the APC, which formed in 2013 as a vehicle for Buhari’s fourth run for the presidency, but also as a compromise between opposition politicians in the north (Buhari’s turf) and the southwest (Tinubu’s).

The official campaign period is from 28 September 2022 to 23 February 2023 but I would say that the real-life campaign is now in full swing.

Given the advantages of incumbency, I would put Tinubu as the early favorite to win. On the other hand, both of the major parties are fractious coalitions, and a rebellion by part or all of the electorate is a possibility, especially given that both Tinubu and Abubakar represent a political class – septuagenarian, wealthy, careerist, and often vague on policy prescriptions (by choice, not due to lack of awareness of possible policies) – that is inherently distant from the lives of most ordinary Nigerians. Complex expectations about rotational dynamics and ethnoreligious balancing also come into play; Tinubu is a southerner and Abubakar is a northerner, Tinubu is Yoruba whereas Abubakar is Fulani, although both are Muslims.

Biographies of both men are legion, but the profiles from the BBC – of Abubakar and of Tinubu – are a good place to start if you are not familiar with either or both of them.

Mali and Burkina Faso: ECOWAS Kicks the Can to July

On June 4, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) held an extraordinary summit in Accra, Ghana, to discuss the situations – i.e., the military juntas – in Mali, Guinea, and Burkina Faso. Tension between ECOWAS and Mali’s junta are particularly severe, and ECOWAS imposed country-level, sweeping economic sanctions in January 2022 in an effort to pressure the Malian junta to set a rapid timetable for holding elections and handing over power to civilians.

In its communiqué from the summit, ECOWAS had a few qualified words of praise for the Burkinabè junta, but took no major decisions, electing to maintain the sanctions on Mali and revisit the situations in all three countries at the next ordinary summit scheduled for July 3.

There’s a fair amount being reported about intra-ECOWAS divisions on how to proceed, especially with Mali. RFI calls Niger, Ghana, Gambia, and to some extent Nigeria the hardliners, in other words the really pro-sanctions crowd. Senegal and Cote d’Ivoire are, or at least as of early May reportedly were, also in the pro-sanctions camp. There is also a lot online about the role of Togolese President Faure Gnassingbe, who is now formally mediating between Mali and ECOWAS; I’m having trouble cutting through the speculation to find what’s reliable, but there is a lot of speculation that Togo is open to a much softer line on Mali. For whatever it’s worth, his tweet about the summit spoke of “stability and peace” rather than, say, “democracy.”

Piece for Quincy Institute’s Responsible Statecraft: France Should Try Taking a Break from/with Mali

I have a piece at the Quincy Institute’s Responsible Statecraft blog:

France’s best option, in the current environment, is to take a strategic pause in its efforts to shape Malian politics and the politics of the wider Sahel region. Such a pause would entail reacting indifferently to any further diplomatic provocations from Mali. The pause would also entail encouraging West African regional authorities to ease sanctions on the Malian economy and defer the question of when the junta will hold elections — essentially, France and its West African allies might consider ignoring Mali for the rest of 2022 and shrugging at whatever else the junta comes up with. Such a policy would, admittedly, amount to rewarding the junta for its stubborn refusal to yield power to civilians. Yet punishing and arguing with the junta has not worked, and a diplomatic breather might allow for an opening within a few months — and might also avoid pushing Mali further into the arms of Russia.

A French-Malian pause and then reset would also be in the interest of the United States, especially because Mali is a key piece of an increasingly delicate regional puzzle that involves growing threats to democracy and security in the overwhelming majority of West Africa’s fifteen states. There is little to gain in supporting failing French and regional West African policies, even if those policies theoretically serve U.S. goals such as promoting democracy, countering Russian influence, and containing insurgents. The United States, less resented than France in the Sahel, might try a phase of quiet and exploratory diplomacy aimed at discerning what could bring Mali’s junta to hand power back to civilians. This moment calls for creativity, especially as juntas in Mali’s neighbors Guinea and Burkina Faso take cues from the Malian junta’s defiance of regional and Western powers. There is a middle ground between coddling dictators and turning Mali into a pariah.

World Politics Review Article on Mali, One Year After the May 2021 Coup

At World Politics Review (subscription required), I look at where Mali stands one year after the May 2021 coup that consolidated the power of the current ruling junta. An excerpt:

In May 2021, Mali suffered its second coup in the space of a year, both of which were perpetrated by the same group of colonels. While the first coup, in August 2020, followed a recognizable script of quickly standing up a civilian-led transitional government with the task of guiding the country to democratic elections, the second has upended that “business-as-usual” approach to post-coup transitions. As such, for Mali and for West African democracy in general, it represents a real turning point, revealing the coup-makers’ combination of shrewdness and ambition—a combination that is already being replicated by military juntas that have similarly seized power in Guinea and Burkina Faso.

The G5 Sahel Joint Force – More Important Politically Than Militarily

The junta in Mali, determined to antagonize France on every possible diplomatic front, is threatening to withdraw from the G5 Sahel, a regional organization created in 2014 by Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, and Chad. Mali’s withdrawal would in turn affect the viability of the G5 Sahel Joint Force (French acronym FC-G5S). The Joint Force is a five-nation enterprise set up in 2017 with French backing. It draws troops from the G5 Sahel countries and had an initial target of 5,000 troops. Niger’s President Mohamed Bazoum has said the Malian withdrawal leaves the organization “dead.”

The FC-G5S is, as this post’s title indicates, more important in my view as a political symbol than as a military reality. So-called “regional forces” are appealing to Western powers for various reasons, especially when those forces offer the promise that “African solutions to African problems” (a phrase that Western policymakers deploy selectively and, in my view, sometimes disingenuously) will either allow Western forces an exit strategy, or obviate the need for large Western military deployments in the first place. Some regional forces “work,” at least in the limited sense of partly beating back insurgencies and preserving some gains afterwards; the most successful in this sense is the African Union Mission in Somalia. Other regional forces may have some impact but their presence arguably muddies the waters, even distracting attention away from the propensity of member states to act unilaterally or on ad hoc basis – witness the widely hailed Multi-National Joint Task Force (MNJTF) in the Lake Chad Basin, but also witness the tendency of Nigeria, Chad, and other MNJTF contributors to do their own thing when the chips are down. The G5 Sahel Joint Force never even achieved the kind of aura the MNJTF developed – chased out of its own headquarters in 2018, the FC-G5S has no major military accomplishments to its credit.

Mali’s withdrawal or potential withdrawal (apparently this is a legal grey area) is a rebuke to France and Niger in particular. Mali’s junta, which has been cultivating near-pariah status in West Africa and with Western powers, was denied the rotating presidency of the G5 Sahel in February; the presidency has remained with Chad’s President Mahamat Deby, who came to power in a coup that was much more palatable to Paris and Washington than the coups (two) that Mali’s junta perpetrated. Chadian-Malian relations are not so bad currently and Deby is urging Mali to stay in the G5 Sahel, but Malian-Nigerien relations are not so great, especially given successive Nigerien presidents’ critiques of the Malian junta. Niger and France are also drawing even closer together as France reacts to its frayed relations with the colonels in Bamako.

The collapse of the G5 Sahel would remove yet another piece of the largely Western-designed framework – unsuccessful, it should be noted – aimed at guiding Mali and the Sahel back to security and stability. Again, I think the G5 Sahel Joint Force was never going to achieve what its backers hoped. I think it would have been better if the FC-G5S could have been more thoughtfully dismantled and debated, but one could be harsh and say that the “death” of the G5 Sahel could productively force a reconsideration of the underlying policy assumptions (fantasies??) about how this all ends – including the recurring hope that the solution is something like an African Union force (a re-hatted G5 Sahel?) with a United Nations Chapter VII (enforcement) mandate and dedicated funding. Here I would note that even that plan is not really fleshed out from what I have seen – is the idea that security will be restored through an open-ended deployment of African forces, all while the region’s politics get worse and worse?

To sum up, then:

  • Mali’s junta is reckless and is spending more time antagonizing France than improving anything in Mali
  • Some of the things the Malian junta is taking aim at weren’t doing much good anyways
  • Western powers don’t have a real plan

Nigeria: Readings on the Upcoming All Progressives Congress (APC) Presidential Primary, May 29-30

Nigeria’s ruling party, the All Progressives Congress (APC), will hold its presidential primary on May 29-30. The APC candidate can be considered the frontrunner, at least at this early date, for the open 2023 presidential election (current President Muhammadu Buhari is term-limited). Watch out, reader – there’s a lot of speculation out there in the press! But here is some interesting commentary:

Vanguard, May 22: “Seven days to the presidential primary of the All Progressives Congress (APC), there is palpable anxiety over the speculation that [former Lagos State Governor and southwestern powerbroker] Asiwaju Bola Tinubu may dump the ruling party at the federal level if the exercise, scheduled for May 29 and 30, is manipulated against him. Tinubu is one of the front runners in the contest for the APC presidential ticket ahead of the 2023 general elections.”

Punch, May 22: “All the presidential aspirants in the All Progressives Congress, except a former  Lagos State governor, Asiwaju Bola Tinubu, are open to the idea of the candidate of the party emerging through consensus, Sunday PUNCH can confirm. The consensus method will entail the President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.), anointing one of the aspirants, while the others simply step down for him as was done during the March 26 national convention of the APC, which produced Senator Abdullahi Adamu as the chairman.”

Daily Trust, May 23: “Daily Trust learnt that political leaders within the ruling APC in South West are mounting pressure on presidential aspirants from the zone to agree on a consensus candidate ahead of the primary so as to approach the convention venue from the position of strength…Vice President Yemi Osinbajo, APC national leader, Asiwaju Bola Tinubu; former Speaker of House of Representatives, Dimeji Bankole; Chairman of Nigerian Governors’ Forum and Ekiti State Governor, Kayode Fayemi as well as former Ogun State Governor, Senator Ibikunle Amosun; the Senator representing Ondo North Senatorial District, Robert Ajayi Boroffice and Serving Overseer of the Citadel Global Community Church, Nigeria, Pastor Tunde Bakare are the presidential aspirants from the South West.”

Vanguard, May 22: “Senate President and frontline presidential aspirant under the All Progressives Congress (APC), Dr Ahmad Lawan has refuted reports of him withdrawing from the presidential race to pursue another term in the senate.”

The Guardian, May 22: “In the APC, the deal initially seems to have been concluded that the presidential ticket of the ruling party will go to the South in line with an old, unwritten agreement put together when the party was formed in 2014 [sic, it was 2013]. This was why until about a week ago, all the aspirants in APC except Kogi Governor, Yahaya Bello, were southerners. It is also the reason why all the big wigs in the South in all the three geo-political zones are in the race. However, the calculation changed when the APC failed in its determination to coerce or compel the opposition PDP to also follow suit. When it became apparent that PDP will not yield to the game of presenting an all-southern candidates election, the APC suddenly changed gear. And guess who was first used to send the clear signal that APC may also join the PDP in presenting a northerner as its candidate? The incumbent Senate President, Dr. Ahmed Lawan.”

Premium Times, May 22: “Last week, statutory delegates in Kaduna State pledged their votes to the former governor of Lagos State, Mr Tinubu. Their governor, Nasir Elrufai, had asked the delegates who they would give their votes at the convention, and in a unanimous voice, they pledged to give them all to Mr Tinubu, who is also the national leader of the party. However, in the usual twist that has characterised the race, 48 hours after, Mr El-Rufai guided the same delegates to pledge their support to the former Minister of Transportation, Rotimi Amaechi.”

BBC Pidgin has a useful breakdown (towards the end) of the delegates by region.

Mali: A Foiled Coup Attempt Against the Junta?

In a May 16 statement, Mali’s transitional military-dominated government described what it calls a coup attempt that allegedly occurred on the night of May 11-12:

The language of the statement is charged, condemning the actions of a “small group of anti-progressive Malian officers and non-commissioned officers” and accusing an unnamed “Western state” of supporting the alleged plotters. In the context of severe diplomatic tensions between the Malian junta and France, the transitional authorities appear to be leaving the impression that there was a French-backed plot against them. Claiming the mantle of progress, too, is a vague effort to attach a kind of politics to what has become an open-ended and rather policy-devoid transition.

Is the narrative plausible? Sure. The junta, which took power in August 2020 and then took on a more blatantly military and authoritarian character in a May 2021 follow-on coup, has been deliberately isolating itself from France, the European Union, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), and most other partners. The junta’s refusal to set a clear and fast timetable for transitioning back to civilian rule elicited a tough sanctions package from ECOWAS in January. Meanwhile, the transitional authorities have been vindictive against even major critics in the capital Bamako, all while beginning to lash out at communities and alleged jihadists in the conflict-torn central regions of Mali. All of that could certainly provoke a reaction from within segments of the Malian Armed Forces; plenty of officers and ordinary soldiers would have ample cause to worry over the grim trajectory of the country, which looks set to become grimmer in the months to come. (None of this, by the way, is my way of defending the pre-August 2020 status quo, which was obviously bad enough to provoke the original coup – one can argue both that the pre-August 2020 trendline was bad and unsustainable, and that the current junta is not solving Mali’s old or new problems.)

As some coverage has pointed out, too, there was already one prior assassination attempt against military leader Colonel Assimi Goita, when a knife-wielding man tried to attack him in a Bamako mosque in July 2021.

On the other hand, some commentators are appropriately skeptical about the story of a foiled coup plot.

After all, a major component of the diplomatic war between France and Mali is the information war – and as demonstrated by the swirling narratives around the mass graves at Gossi, the accusations at play in this information war can be quite dramatic. Would the Malian junta gain politically by generating a fake story of a foiled coup? Absolutely, if they are hoping to drive up the kind of “rally round the flag” effect that is part of their current appeal – perhaps even their main domestic political narrative at this point. One could also speculate that the junta is sending a message to actual would-be coup plotters within the ranks, conveying something along the lines of “we are on alert, we recognize this is a possibility, and we will deal harshly with any attempts.” Ultimately, I think a coup is the greatest medium-term threat to the junta at this point. They have shown a great deal of stubbornness in the face of sanctions, even amid escalating defaults on debts; they do not seem to fear a mass civilian protest movement, and one does not seem to be in the cards in the near term; there is little possibility in my view of an external military intervention in the short term; the major politicians in Bamako are being coopted, intimidated, or kept complacent through the promise of eventual elections; etc. That leaves an internal coup as the biggest or most unpredictable threat – and it is not clear to me how unified the armed forces were behind the junta in the first place. And if there was no major schism in the ranks in August 2020 or May 2021 that does not mean that everyone is on “team junta,” so to speak.

To be a bit wishy-washy by way of conclusion, it’s very hard for me to adjudicate these competing possibilities about whether the latest alleged coup is real, fake, or perhaps some minor incident that the junta is deliberately exaggerating. In any case, even announcing a fake coup attempt could be read as a sign of some nervousness at the top.

Burkina Faso: Notes on HRW’s Latest Report on Jihadist Abuses

Human Rights Watch is out with a new report entitled “Burkina Faso: Armed Islamists Kill, Rape Civilians.” The subtitle is equally important – “Army, Militia Respond with Summary Executions, Enforced Disappearances.” The contents of the report will not be shocking to long-time watchers of Burkina Faso, but the report is a vital update. There were a few points that stood out to me:

  • The report’s focus on rape highlights, once again, the wide gap between jihadist ideology and jihadist practice. The jihadist promise is one of a utopian counter-order based on their version of justice, which includes the idea that a jihadist state will bring safety and fairness for ordinary Muslims. In practice, jihadist predation and crimes of opportunity occur frequently: “A nurse from a village near Dablo said she had treated over 55 women who had been raped by armed Islamists between September and December 2021. ‘The women came from 11 villages,’ she said. ‘The terrorists attacked Muslims, Christians, and animists alike. They cried – they couldn’t eat or sleep and were too ashamed to tell their families what happened.'” Much research has been conducted on rape and gender-based violence as a “weapon of war” (and see more on this below), including the use of rape as a tool for punishing and driving away perceived outsiders, but use of that weapon obviously narrows whatever political appeal Burkina Faso’s jihadists may have for civilians in the country’s conflict zones.
  • Relatedly, the HRW report points to a high degree of deliberate displacement by jihadists: “The attacks, said security analysts, appeared designed to compel widespread displacement from towns perceived to support the government, thereby consolidating armed group control from their strongholds in northern Burkina Faso to the central regions. Humanitarian workers expressed alarm at the dramatic pace of deterioration. Said one, ‘Civilian life is being suffocated as roads are mined; villages blockaded; markets closed; and water points, telecommunication, and electricity infrastructure sabotaged.'” If this is indeed the strategy – reduce the population, and then rule over what remains – it does indicate to me that there’s some exhaustion of the jihadist political project, an admission that they cannot win over the majority. On the other hand, it takes some level of political support to have the recruits necessary to execute such a strategy.
  • The closing sections of the report, focusing on abuses by the army and by civilian fighters in the Volunteers for the Defense of the Homeland (French acronym VDP), confirms earlier trends – collective punishment, ethnic profiling of the Peul, and government empowerment of the VDP but simultaneous VDP mistrust of the government (“describing one incident [of a VDP unit ethnically profiling and then killing accused jihadists], a VDP member said, ‘We used to turn suspects over to the gendarmes, but they always released them, so we decided to sort this problem out ourselves’…) Notably, although the report focuses on dynamics in the conflict zones rather than on macro-politics in Ouagadougou, the report conveys a sense of continuity of military and VDP practice before and after the January 2022 coup; in other words, the report describes abuses both in the last quarter of 2021 and the first quarter of 2022. Current military President Paul-Henri Damiba has alluded vaguely to a new approach, but on the ground it does not appear that much has changed.