Two Grim Attacks in Burkina Faso and Niger

Over the weekend, two serious episodes of violence occurred in the Sahel – one in eastern Burkina Faso on Friday (August 7), and one in southwestern Niger on Sunday (August 9). These attacks, and particularly the latter, are being discussed intensely by journalists and analysts, so I will make this post relatively brief.

The August 7 attack targeted a livestock market in Namoungou, a small town in Burkina Faso’s Est (East) Region. The town is approximately 30 kilometers east of Fada N’Gourma, capital of the Est Region. See one map of the approximate location here, and see Héni Nsaibia’s map here. Around 30 gunmen arrived on motorbikes and started firing at civilians, killing some 20 people – all in broad daylight. Strikingly, according to RFI, Namoungou hosted the last functioning livestock market in this part of the Est Region, other than the one in Fada N’Gourma itself. The incident has clear parallels with attacks on livestock markets elsewhere in the east, including at Kompienbiga in May of this year.

The August 9 attack in Niger, meanwhile, killed eight people, including six French aid workers, their Nigerien guide, and their Nigerien driver. At least some, and perhaps all of the French victims worked for the charity ACTED. The attack occurred in or near the Kouré Giraffe Reserve (map), which is some 65 kilometers east-southeast of Niamey, Niger’s capital. Kouré is in the Tillabéri region, which is a hotspot for violence, but Kouré is well away from the main zones of violence within Tillabéri, which are to the northwest of Niamey rather than to the capital’s east and south.

A few thoughts:

  1. Neither attack was immediately claimed, and murkiness surrounding perpetrators and motives is a core feature of the conflict(s) in the Sahel. As Nsaibia noted, survivors from the Namoungou attack pointed fingers not at jihadists but at the country’s volunteer fighters (formally the Volunteers for the Defence of the Fatherland, French acronym VDP). See some background on the VDP here. Regarding the Niger attack, meanwhile, al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) rushed to disavow responsibility. That leaves the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) as the primary suspect, and ISGS does not always claim its attacks immediately. Some attacks never get claimed at all. The point is that in the immediate aftermath of major incidents of violence, there is a lot of confusion, including on the ground. Meanwhile, Sahelien heads of state and senior officials routinely point not just to jihadists when decrying violence but also to “bandits” and “criminals” – see Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta’s condolence message to Niger and France, where he laments not only “violent extremism” but also the “criminal economy” in the region. Going even further, one might add that the uncertainty over “who kills whom” (to borrow a phrase from Jacob Mundy’s brilliant book on Algeria in the 1990s) is one key factor that generates rumors, conspiracy theories, and fear.
  2. Another feature of the violence in the Sahel is the progressive erosion of a sense of safety in different parts of the region. The Namoungou attack made me think of this excellent piece of reporting by Alassane Neya from March 2019, which vividly portrayed the sense of looming insecurity in eastern Burkina Faso, even in Fada N’Gourma itself. Now, it’s worth stressing that some parts of the Sahel have become much safer in comparison with the not-too-distant past. France24’s Kalidou Sy, reflecting on the Niger killings, evoked the 2007 murder of four French tourists at Aleg, Mauritania – and much of Mauritania is now safer for Westerners than it was in the late 2000s, I’d say (let’s come back to Aleg below, because there is another point to draw out there). And as I discussed here, parts of northern Mali, especially the Kidal Region, are registering remarkably few fatalities, even though the image of Kidal as the conflict’s epicenter persists in some quarters (that may be true in some political sense, but not in the sense of day-to-day violence). With all that said, the eruption of violence into new localities, and the progressive encroachment of insecurity on zones previously at the edges of endemically violent zones, has manifold effects – one of them being the sense of disorientation that such violence inflicts on local and national authorities, and even on foreign governments. That kind of disorientation can in turn reinforce bunker mentalities for governments, militaries, and humanitarians. I’ve been thumbing through Ruben Andersson’s No-Go World, and unfortunately haven’t had time to read it in full yet, but the points he makes – about how a sense of pervasive insecurity leads to all kinds of efforts at remote management of conflict zones, efforts that in turn carry serious liabilities – are highly pertinent to thinking about these two episodes of violence.
  3. What happened in Burkina Faso and in Niger may be part of various actors’ master plans – or it may not. Sy’s reference to Aleg reminded me that much still remains unclear about that attack, including whether it was a well-planned incident or whether it was undertaken by aspiring al-Qaida members eager to prove their bonafides (or even to dispel rumors among more seasoned members that these youths were informants).* Killing a group of aid workers makes a dramatic statement – but was it the intended one? Was it a kidnapping gone wrong? Who gave the orders, and why? According to a source cited by RFI, “The attackers came on motorcycles through the bush and waited for the group’s arrival” – but more details are needed to understand what level of planning and strategy was involved. Similarly, at Namoungou, what dynamics of greed or revenge, strategy or improvisation, came into play? Is it part of a brilliant plan to cripple commerce, free movement, and normal life in the Est Region, or is it the resulting of cascading contingencies and reckless gambits?
  4. The targeting of aid workers is a trend, and a terrible one. Whether it was carefully planned or not, the attack in Niger fits into that trend. Many aid agencies take pains to stress their neutrality – the head of the International Committee of the Red Cross in Burkina Faso was making that point last week – but they are not always perceived as neutral, and are certainly not perceived as inviolable, by many armed actors in the Sahel and beyond.

Mali: A New Slate of Judges for the Constitutional Court

A political crisis in Mali began with the legislative elections in March/April and escalated with the M5-RFP protest movement’s rallies in June and July – the M5-RFP being the June 5 Movement – Rally of Patriotic Forces, a coalition of civil society and opposition groups. The protesters have focused their energies on multiple targets: President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta (IBK), his son Karim, the National Assembly, and the Constitutional Court. The protesters’ complaints about all of these figures and institutions are interlinked; among other relationships at play, it was the Constitutional Court that overturned the results of 31 legislative races and in so doing created one of the main grievances fueling the protests.

On August 7, President Keïta named a brand new slate of nine members for the Constitutional Court, fulfilling a pledge he had made and conforming to a demand from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the regional bloc that is the lead mediator between IBK and the M5-RFP. The new slate take their oaths of office today, August 10.

The old, departing slate included Manassa Danioko, a career judge and diplomat who had been appointed president of the Court in 2015. She became a symbol for the M5-RFP of the Court’s corruption, while she presented herself as a defender of the Constitution. The letter of protest that she and two colleagues wrote to IBK protesting their dismissal – calling it unconstitutional and illegal – is worth reading, not just because it captures her perspective but also because it raises thorny issues about judicial independence. Various sides within Malian politics and the international community are trading accusations about what is constitutional or unconstitutional, and as actors improvise I don’t think either IBK or the M5-RFP can claim to be consistent defenders of the constitution. That does not mean, though, that I sympathize with Danioko – her approach to public relations during the protest has been poorly conceived, to say the least.

The formula for picking out the new judges was a bit complicated – three chosen by the president, three by the President of the National Assembly, Moussa Timbiné, and three chosen by the High Council of the Magistrature. Here is the list:

  1. Amadou Ousmane Touré, magistrate – picked by IBK
  2. Aser Kamaté, magistrate – picked by IBK
  3. Doucoure Kadidia Traoré, lawyer – picked by IBK
  4. Malick Ibrahim, lawyer – picked by Timbiné
  5. Ba Haoua Toumagnon, magistrate – picked by Timbiné
  6. Beyla Ba, retired magistrate – picked by Timbiné
  7. Demba Tall, magistrate – picked by High Council
  8. Mohamed Abdourahamane Maiga, magistrate – picked by High Council
  9. Djènéba Karambenta, magistrate – picked by High Council

The new president of the Court is the above-listed Amadou Touré, a prosecutor and former auditor general and ambassador to Cote d’Ivoire. Most recently he has been chief of staff to Prime Minister Boubou Cissé (h/t Serge Daniel).

I do not think these appointments will depoliticize the Court, either in practice or in the eyes of the M5-RFP. This is not a question about the qualifications of the new appointees, who all appear to be accomplished legal professionals – rather, it has to do with the mechanisms by which they were selected and, at least in Touré’s case, with their professional itineraries. Selecting an executive branch staffer to head a judicial institution whose independence is in question from multiple directions is not really a good look. The Nord Sud Journal even reports that another appointee, Demba Tall, is PM Cissé’s cousin (h/t Baba Ahmed), which takes us back to the question of family networks in Mali’s top institutions.

Also, as Andrew Lebovich points out, there is a problem with Timbiné getting to pick one-third of the new slate:

To spell this out further, Timbiné – although President of the National Assembly – is himself one of the 31 “mal-elected” deputies whom ECOWAS and others want gone from the legislature, or at least compelled to do a re-run election. And, moreover, the M5-RFP refused to participate in naming the new judges. So this overhaul of the Court ticks a box vis-a-vis ECOWAS’ stipulations, but is unlikely to mollify the protesters. IBK may have to rely on cracks within the M5-RFP, rather than these institutional shakeups (which are, I’m trying to say, likely less impactful than they might first seem), to withstand the protests.

 

 

 

Mauritania: A Change in Prime Minister Amid the Parliamentary Corruption Investigation

Yesterday, August 6, Mauritania’s Prime Minister Ismail Ould Cheikh Sidiya resigned, along with his government. President Mohamed Ould Ghazouani has tapped an engineer and former minister, Mohamed Ould Bilal, as the next Prime Minister and has tasked him with forming a new government. My impression from the news stories I’ve read is that the president does not need parliamentary approval to make this change.

Biographies of Ould Bilal can be found here (Arabic) and here (French). Born in 1963, he hails from Keur-Macene (map) in the Trarza region. Ould Bilal rose through the ranks of development and food security agencies before his appointment as Minister of Equipment, Urban Planning, and Housing under the civilian President Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdallahi (in office 2007-2008). Under the next head of state, Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz (in power 2008-2019), Ould Bilal briefly served as director the Mauritanian Electricity Company (Somelec). Under Ould Ghazouani he has been working as an advisor within the Prime Minister’s office, so he is being promoted from within.

Ould Bilal is from the Haratine, meaning that he comes from a socio-racial category of Arabic speakers who are defined in Mauritanian society as racially black, unlike the Bidan who are Arabic speakers socially defined as white. Mauritania’s elite largely hails from the Bidan even though the Bidan are a demographic minority in the country.

In the press and beyond, the change in prime minister is almost universally seen as connected to the ongoing parliamentary investigation into alleged corruption under Ould Abdel Aziz (the immediate past president, if you’re losing track of all the names). As Reuters points out, “several ministers” from the departing government of Ould Cheikh Sidiya may be implicated in scandals.

My hot take is that the appointment of (a) a technocrat and (b) a Hartani* may be intended to project an image of professionalism and inclusivity at a delicate moment for the president. During his election campaign last spring and summer, Ould Ghazaouni indicated that he would take a more inclusive approach than past (Bidan) heads of state – through the appointment of Ould Bilal, the president may be seeking (among other goals) to show that he will make good on such intentions. This is not the first time that a Hartani has held a senior post in the government (Messaoud Ould Boulkheir, for example, served as president of the National Assembly), but the racial politics of the appointment are notable.

*Singular of Haratine

Senegal: The Passing of the Khalifa of the Niassene Tijaniyya

On August 2, a key leader of the Tijaniyya Sufi order in Senegal and in Africa more broadly, Shaykh Ahmed Tidiane Ibrahima Niasse, passed away in Dakar. He is set to be buried in Kaolack, Senegal today (August 6). President Macky Sall is scheduled to visit Kaolack on August 8 to offer his condolences.

Niasse was the son of the extraordinarily influential Shaykh Ibrahim Niasse (1900-1975), who transformed, revitalized, and expanded the Tijaniyya not just in Senegal, but throughout West Africa (especially northern Nigeria), into Chad and Sudan, and beyond. His community’s epicenter is Kaolack (map) and specifically the area known as Medina Baye; it is one of three main spiritual centers in Senegal alongside Touba (for the Mouridiyya Sufi Order) and Tivaouane (for another branch of the Tijaniyya). Watching the condolences come in from different parts of the world – Morocco, Algeria, Egypt, Chad, etc. – one gets a sense of the map of Niasse’s enduring influence.

In Senegal as in many other parts of the Muslim world, major Sufi leaders are succeeded by their descendants. In this sense the term “Khalifa” does not indicate a claim to the Caliphate whatsoever, but rather operates in its root meaning of a “successor.”

Another note is that Shaykh Ahmed Tidiane Niasse was named for Ahmad al-Tijani (d. 1815), the founder of the Tijaniyya as a whole, who lived in North Africa.

The new Khalifa for the Niassene Tijaniyya is the late shaykh’s brother, another son of Shaykh Ibrahim Niasse, Mohamoudul Mahi. Succession within Senegal’s major religious families typically proceeds laterally through one generation before proceeding to the next generation.

It is worth noting that there are multiple poles of spiritual authority for the Niassene Tijaniyya in Kaolack and worldwide. Shaykh Ibrahim Niasse’s grandson Hassan Cissé (d. 2008) became a highly influential figure in his own right, and his brothers have continued to act as major leaders for the community.

There is a vast scholarly literature on the Niassene Tijaniyya. Here I will mention two works: Shaykh Ibrahim Niasse’s early life and career was the subject of a meticulously researched book by Rüdiger Seesemann. And the community’s approach to knowledge and spiritual training was the topic of an excellent book by Zachary Wright.

Four Reasons Why Mali in 2020 Is Not Burkina Faso in 2014

There was a lively commentary posted yesterday (August 4) at the Malian news aggregator site Maliweb, by Diagne Fodé Roland. I’ll translate the title as “Mali in 2020 Is on the Path of Burkina in 2014.” The twin reference is to the anti-incumbent protests that have been unfolding in Mali since June of this year, and to the 2014 popular uprising (and military coup) that overthrew Burkina Faso’s longtime ruler Blaise Compaoré in 2014.

The Malian protests are led by a coalition of groups known as the June 5 Movement – Rally of Patriotic Forces (French acronym M5-RFP). Their main demand (now perhaps not shared by all parts of the movement) has been the resignation of President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta (IBK).

I was not previously familiar with the writing of Diagne (I believe this to be his surname), but given how widely he has been published in the Senegalese press, he may be Senegalese rather than Malian. He quotes heavily from another thinker, Issa N’Diaye, whose work is also new to me – Diagne quotes from N’Diaye’s provocatively titled book Silence, on démocratise !démocratie et fractures sociales au Mali (Silence, We’re Democratizing! Democracy and Social Fractures in Mali). The argument Diagne picks up on from Ndiaye is that after the popular uprising (and military coup) that overthrew Mali’s longtime military dictator Moussa Traoré in 1991, the new system of multiparty democracy was in reality a neocolonial “festival of bandits” where members of the old ruling party (UDPM) took over the new ruling party (ADEMA) and marginalized the original movers in the revolution. In this view, part of the Malian left was disempowered and the remainder was incorporated into a “neocolonial bourgeoisie in vassalage to the liberal plans of structural adjustment dictated by the IMF, the World Bank, and the WTO.” In Diagne’s view, that history of what he sees as kleptocracy for elites and immiseration for ordinary Malians sets the stage for the current crisis.

Diagne’s points here are worth taking seriously, and his analysis is shared by not a few Malians. At the very least, the phrase “political class” has recurred throughout the crisis, and there is a palpable sense of fatigue and disgust with that class. The next part of Diagne’s historical narrative pertains to the northern rebellion of 2012 and the French intervention, which Diagne sees as a neo-imperialist maneuver. Diagne describes the insecurity in the country in highly conspiratorial terms, an analysis I do not share but which many Malians do seem to share. But to pursue that discussion would take us off track – I want to get back to the headline of Diagne’s piece.

Diagne does not develop, at all, the comparison between Mali and Burkina Faso – in fact, I wonder whether an editor slapped that headline on the piece. But the comparison is worth exploring, for at least two reasons:

  1. Burkina Faso’s transition is the most recent instance of a popular revolution in the Sahel, and
  2. The involvement of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) in attempting to mediate Mali’s crisis invites a regional reading of the Malian situation. I have even seen the argument (I wish I had saved the link/post) that the real audience for ECOWAS’ missions to Mali is the domestic constituencies of those same ECOWAS heads of state, and that ECOWAS leaders are above all concerned that anti-incumbent protests not spread to their own countries. That’s a discussion worth pursuing in another post, I think.

I also won’t discuss the revolution in Burkina Faso exhaustively here – for that, I recommend Ernest Harsch’s Burkina Faso: A History of Power, Protest and Revolution. Instead, I want to highlight four reasons why I think Mali 2020 and Burkina Faso 2014 are quite different from one another.

1. IBK is not Compaoré

Simply by virtue of math, I think one has to say that IBK in 2020 and Compaoré in 2014 belong to different categories. IBK is an embattled leader, a career member of the Malian “political class,” and now the symbol of that class, especially in the eyes of his opponents – yet he is also a term-limited incumbent in his second term, who came to power by the ballot box, and who has been in power for well under a decade (he took office in 2013). The elections IBK won in 2013 and 2018 were flawed (low turnout, and almost certainly some rigging), but they were not, in my view, the stage-managed elections of a “competitive authoritarian” dictatorship. All of this is a far cry from the career of Compaoré, who came to power in a bloody 1987 coup, was elected and re-elected president in grossly undemocratic elections in 1991 and 1998, skirted term limits on a technicality in 2005, and was preparing to flout term limits again in the lead-up to the 2015 election. IBK has not been president long enough to instill the kind of resentment that developed under Compaoré – no one protesting in the streets now in Bamako was born while IBK was president (I assume/hope), but plenty of protesters in Burkina Faso in 2014 had lived all their lives under Compaoré’s rule.

2. There are no Malian equivalents to the symbolism/martyrdom of Thomas Sankara or Norbert Zongo (yet)

The Burkinabè revolution was multi-causal and complex, but it’s worth mentioning two key figures who became symbols for the protesters there, and whom the protesters (and much of the wider society, it seems to me) consider martyrs of the Compaoré regime. The first is Compaoré’s immediate predecessor, the revolutionary dictator Thomas Sankara (in power 1983-1987), who is widely admired not just in Burkina Faso but across Africa and around the world (including by me, for what it’s worth) for his efforts to transform Burkina Faso’s society and economy and to make the country egalitarian and truly independent. Sankara’s murder during Compaoré’s 1987 coup is, for many Burkinabè citizens, a wound that refuses to heal, and during and after the protests there has been a powerful call for the country to reckon with that tragic history. The second figure is Norbert Zongo, a journalist murdered in 1998, likely at the hands of Compaoré’s regime and in connection with his investigation into the murder of a driver employed by Compaoré’s brother François, a story with wider implications for understanding corruption and impunity within the regime. These figures are not the only victims of the Compaoré regime, but their memories loomed large in the 2014 uprising.

I do not see any Malian equivalents to those figures, not at the same level of symbolism and resonance. This is not to say that there are not Malians dying in tragic and preventable ways; the insecurity in the center and the north of the country claims victims on a daily basis. There have even been deaths associated with the Malian security forces’ response to the M5-RFP’s protests. But I do not see a parallel to Sankara and Zongo in Mali in the sense of prominent, widely respected and even beloved figures whose deaths can be laid directly at the incumbent’s doorstep in some deeply personal way. Deep as the anger toward IBK may be among the M5-RFP’s supporters, I am not sure it matches the depth of the Burkinabè protesters’ anger and disgust toward Compaoré in 2014.

The most dangerous moment so far in the Malian government’s response to the M5-RFP, I would say, came over the weekend of July 10-12 when the security forces were detaining M5-RFP leaders and cracking down on protesters with excessive force. If the security forces inadvertently produce martyrs amid this crisis, the dynamic could shift substantially.

Another, related point is that there were dress rehearsals, of sorts, for the Burkinabè uprising of 2014 – notably, there were waves of protests in 2008 and 2011. One could argue that various episodes in Mali’s history (the 1991 revolution, or perhaps the 2009 protests against a controversial Family Code, or perhaps something else) were precedents for the current moment, but 1991 was a long time ago and previous mobilizations by clerics were issue-specific, or focused on figures below the level of the president. Mali in 2020 does not appear to be at the peak of a long-building wave.

3. The M5-RFP has little visible support outside Bamako

Another crucial difference between Burkina Faso in 2014 and Mali in 2020 is that the Burkinabè revolution had a broader geographical ambit. Certainly the M5-RFP is not completely lacking in support outside the capital, and certainly Burkina Faso’s capital Ouagadougou was the heart of the 2014 revolution there – but numerous commentators have pointed out that the M5-RFP has not mobilized substantial protests in cities other than Bamako. Meanwhile, in Burkina Faso in 2014 (and in the earlier protest waves in 2008 and 2011), there was substantial mobilization in the economic hub Bobo-Dioulasso and elsewhere. If IBK outlasts the M5-RFP, as he is still fairly likely to do, a significant reason will be that the protests are not truly national in scope.

4. The Burkinabè revolution was relatively leaderless, whereas the M5-RFP is elite-led and therefore vulnerable

The whole idea of “leaderless movements” is partly a myth, of course, and there were organized groups that played substantial roles in the 2014 revolution in Burkina Faso – the most famous of them being Balai Citoyen (Citizen’s Broom), founded by musicians in 2013. And the ground for the uprising was partly prepared through intra-elite splits, including the departure of several major figures from Compaoré’s camp in 2012 (among them current President Roch Kaboré). Yet amid the 2014 revolution in Burkina Faso, it was not so easy as it is in Mali in 2020 to pick out the handful of people who appear to be in charge. The M5-RFP is a formal coalition of three groups, which gives you a relatively small group of key leaders, such as Imam Mahmoud Dicko, his close associate Issa Kaou Djim, and the former ministers Cheick Oumar Sissoko, Mountaga Tall, and Choguel Maïga. It is not that these leaders merely snap their fingers and tens of thousands of people come out – obviously there must be a give-and-take between leaders and protesters as the leaders attempt to read the mood of their supporters. Yet the relatively small, elite character of the leadership leaves them vulnerable to divide-and-rule tactics by IBK’s team, and to infighting and strategic disagreements. With the M5-RFP’s most prominent leader, Dicko, now suggesting that IBK does not need to resign, after all, it appears more likely that the M5-RFP will split than that the M5-RFP will succeed in forcing IBK out of power. In Burkina Faso, in contrast, events moved so quickly in October 2014, and the protesters proved so difficult to placate or divide, that Compaoré was being forced out before he could devise a serious counter-strategy. The increasingly protracted negotiations in Mali have, in a way, favored the M5-RFP so long as they don’t budge; but it has also given IBK time to experiment, lean on his peers and supporters outside Mali, and wait for the M5-RFP to crack.

Nigeria: Competing Narratives Circulate in the Aftermath of Attack on Borno Governor Zulum’s Convoy

On July 29, the convoy of Borno State Governor Babagana Zulum was attacked in the town of Baga (map), possibly by Boko Haram. The incident has generated competing narratives and speaks to the wider “information war” that is a core part of the crisis – even Boko Haram’s own leader Abubakar Shekau has referred to the centrality of the “information war (yakin bayani).”

In the aftermath of the attack, some of the main contention is between the governor and the Army. Various videos of the attack (see here) have circulated, including one clip from the vantage point of a driver in the convoy, and one short clip of Zulum arguing with a Nigerian Army officer. Zulum has also been quoted as saying to the Army officer:

You have been here for over one year now, there are 1,181 soldiers here; if you cannot take over Baga which is less than 5 km from your base, then we should forget about Baga. I will inform the Chief of Army Staff to redeploy the men to other places that they can be useful. You people said there’s no Boko Haram here, then who attacked us?

Some of Zulum’s staff have also been blunt in their criticism of the military:

MNJTF here refers to the Multi-National Joint Task Force, which includes the militaries of Nigeria, Niger, Chad, and Cameroon with some participation by Benin as well. Note too that part of the information war concerns not just who perpetrated the attack, but also how serious it was or wasn’t.

In remarks to the press the day after the attack (see also here), Zulum appeared to imply that there were no actual Boko Haram fighters involved in the attack, and that there was “serious shooting by the Nigerian armed forces.” These remarks are tricky to parse. The prominent Nigerian analyst Bulama Bukarti has implied that the military staged the attack (or feigned being under attack?):

I’m not convinced. It seems to me that if the Army wanted to block Zulum from Baga, it could have done so without staging a kind of theatrical performance. But anything is possible.

Zulum also stressed, in that press interview, the economic importance of Baga. He suggested that eventually it may be necessary for the military to leave Baga, if they cannot secure the town, and for the local population “to take destiny into their own hands.”

In additional remarks that were, I believe, delivered over the weekend, Zulum noted that the situation in Borno since 2015 has been different, and in his view better, than in the period 2011-2015, but he made headlines (even more so than for the other interview) for referencing “sabotage within the system” as a (the?) reason why the insurgency persists.

More coverage of Zulum’s remarks can be found here.

Amid the competing narratives, part of what’s at stake is that the governor’s ability to move around the state is, both practically and symbolically, inseparable from his ability to demonstrate control – both in the face of the jihadist insurgency and vis-a-vis the military. Threats to his free movement are also threats to his political capital.

In the aftermath of the attack (as beforehand), Zulum has emphasized his direct physical outreach to Borno’s most vulnerable populations. I don’t think such gestures are cynical or empty, but I also think they have a political dimension:

Meanwhile, the leadership of the Nigerian Army has framed the attack as a Boko Haram attack but also as “an isolated and most unfortunate incident that occurred in a territory where normalcy has since been restored with socio-economic activities picking up.” We see a hint of a gap between the statements of the officer who appears in the video I linked to above, who can be heard saying “there is no Boko Haram inside the town,” and the official Army statement, another portion of which reads, “The good people of Baga town and indeed the entire Borno State are enjoined to continue to provide credible information that will assist the security agencies to successfully combat terrorism as well as apprehend and flush out the perpetrators of the attack.” The Army is keen to present itself as being in control, but there is the faintest acknowledgment here that they do not have the human intelligence they need. The reasons for that are manifold, but one obvious reason is the Army’s own past history in Baga. The statement has also promised an investigation into the incident.

The Army is also keen to control the narrative about the trajectory of the conflict – in other words, the Army would like audiences, local, national, and international, to believe that the trajectory is positive. This convoy attack, however, has prominent voices in Borno and beyond saying that the situation is deteriorating – the State’s foremost religious leader, the Shehu of Borno, said, “If a convoy of such highly placed person in the State will be attacked, I repeat, nobody is safe. The matter is getting worse, I urge everyone to raise up our hands to seek Allah’s intervention.” This is precisely how the Army does not want people to feel.

There are multiple audiences in play. One is President Muhammadu Buhari – Zulum explicitly said, in his remarks about sabotage, that this is something he is conveying to the president. The Army, obviously, also wants Buhari to be convinced that they are making progress. Another key audience is ordinary people (and voters) in Borno. And there is an international audience too, obviously.

Who controls what now, in Borno? The picture is constantly shifting, but humanitarian access maps give one perspective – here is one June 2020 map of educational activities in Borno, for example. For context, Baga is located in Kukawa Local Government Area (LGA), northeastern Borno State. The map does not classify Kukawa as inaccessible but it does mark two nearby LGAs, Abadam and Marte, as red zones. Adjacent Monguno LGA is also very dangerous. Contrary to the military’s claims, Baga is still very much part of the conflict zone.

Finally, for further context, this is not the first time a Borno governor’s convoy has been attacked – Zulum’s predecessor, Kashim Shettima, was attacked on the road between the state capital Maiduguri and the northeastern town of Gamboru in February 2019.

Ansar Dine Was Not a Front Group for AQIM

Ansar Dine or Ansar al-Din (Defenders of the Faith, or Supporters of the Religion) was a jihadist group formed in Mali in either late 2011 or early 2012, depending on which sources you consult. The group played one of the leading roles in the northern Malian rebellion of 2012 and in the jihadist emirate-building project that followed. In 2017, Ansar al-Din united with several other jihadist units to form Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wa-l-Muslimin (the Group for Supporting Islam and Muslims, JNIM), the most important jihadist formation in the Sahel today.

From the moment of its creation and even before, Ansar al-Din had a substantial relationship with al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), some of whose units are part of JNIM; within al-Qaida’s global hierarchy, AQIM also stands between JNIM and al-Qaida core in the chain of command.

But the relationship was and is multi-faceted. And I’ve been dismayed to see numerous analyses, including a few I’ve read recently, refer to Ansar al-Din as a “front group” for AQIM.

Here are five reasons why this is wrong.

Before talking specifically about Ansar al-Din and AQIM, we need a definition of “front group.” Here is one dictionary definition of “front organization”: “an organization that acts as the face of another organization or group, for example a crime group or intelligence agency, in order to conceal the activities of that organization or group.” With that in mind, let’s turn to five facets of the relationship between Ansar al-Din and AQIM:

1. Ansar al-Din and AQIM openly worked together in 2012.

In 2012, virtually all serious reporting and analysis of Ansar al-Din noted that the group was working with AQIM and with AQIM’s offshoot the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA). Here is one example, and here is another. I have read nothing that suggests Ansar al-Din took pains to disguise this cooperation, and former Ansar al-Din leaders I have interviewed (see below) have acknowledged dispassionately that some of them had direct contact with AQIM leaders in 2012.

All of this undercuts the idea that Ansar al-Din was a front group. By definition, the front is meant to minimize or eliminate any perception of closeness between the sponsor and the front. If the mafia opens a restaurant, they do not call it “The Mafia Restaurant.” If the mafia wants a front, they do not create another mafia that works directly with the parent mafia. If an intelligence agency creates an NGO, they do not call it “Spies Doing Propaganda,” and then openly staff the NGO with intelligence agents. Ansar al-Din, particularly at the level of its leader Iyad ag Ghali, left virtually no distance between itself and AQIM by the summer of 2012.

2. The circumstances of Ansar al-Din’s creation suggest that key actors were improvising rather than executing carefully laid plans.

Numerous sources, including key northern Malian politicians I’ve interviewed as well as some of the reporting from 2012 (example) and subsequent analyses (example), point to meetings at Zakak in far northern Mali in October 2011 as a pivotal episode on the road to the rebellion. Although not all sources agree on exactly what happened at Zakak, all serious sources agree that Iyad ag Ghali was present, that Ansar al-Din had not yet been formed at that time, and that ag Ghali tried and failed to get something from the nascent separatist National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (French acronym MNLA).

The version of events at Zakak that Andy Morgan relates conforms to several other versions I have heard, and represents what I take to be the most accurate narrative:

The story goes that Iyad Ag Ghali came to the meetings at the Zakak base in October, and put himself forward as a candidate for the post of Secretary General of the MNLA. However, his candidacy was rejected, due to his past silences and obscure dealings with the governments of Mali and Algeria. Instead, the post was filled by Bilal Ag Acherif, a cousin of [the influential, recently deceased rebel leader] Ibrahim Ag Bahanga. There was an overwhelming sense that this time round the movement needed fresh thinking at the top, independent of Algerian, Malian or Libyan meddling and that all the half measures of the past, the broken treaties brokered by one or other of the regional powers, the compromises and the stalling had to stop. This time, it was full independence or nothing.

After being turned down the MNLA leadership at Zakak, Iyad Ag Ghali also presented himself to an important meeting of the leaders of the Ifoghas clan, to which he belongs, in Abeibara north of Kidal. There he proposed that he become the political head of the clan and be allowed to pursue an Islamist vision of an independent Azawad. Once again his candidature was rejected, and instead Alghabass Ag Intallah as chosen as the new political leader of the Ifoghas, in place of his ageing and infirm father.

Only after these two rejections did ag Ghali create Ansar al-Din.

To fully capture the dynamics at play would require delving into ag Ghali’s biography, but suffice it to say that his non-jihadist roles in the 1990 and 2006 rebellions, and the broader arc of his career, greatly complicate any story that positions Ansar al-Din as a front group for AQIM. Even if one believes (and there is good reason to believe, although there are also some plausible counterarguments against it) that ag Ghali became an ideologically committed hardline jihadist over the years between the mid-1990s and 2012, it would still be a stretch to say that ag Ghali was executing a master plan to create a jihadist front group in late 2011. Ansar al-Din’s creation appears to have been a Plan B for him, and some of the powerful support it attracted also appears to have represented the improvisatory reactions of key figures to the creation of MNLA. I suppose one could argue that AQIM seized the opportunity on short notice to create a front group in the form of Ansar al-Din, but I think narratives that foreground ag Ghali’s agency are much more compelling. I think ag Ghali turned to AQIM as an ally, building on his longstanding connections to them through the Saharan kidnapping economy and through family and social ties, rather than AQIM designating ag Ghali as its point man for a front group.

3. In 2012-2013, Ansar al-Din included major northern Malian politicians who knew what they were doing by temporarily joining

Another wrinkle in the idea of Ansar al-Din as a front group is that major northern Malian politicians joined it very early on in 2012 and remained part of it until the French Operation Serval, a military intervention to end jihadist control of the north, began in January 2013. These politicians included:

  • Alghabass ag Intalla – former parliamentary deputy, son of the late aménokal or paramount hereditary ruler of the Kel Adagh Tuareg confederation in Mali’s Kidal Region, brother to the current aménokal, and a prominent leader within the Coordination of Azawad Movements or CMA, the ex-rebel bloc that currently controls Kidal and that is a signatory to the 2015 Algiers Accord;
  • Ahmada ag Bibi, a key leader in the 2006 rebellion and current parliamentary deputy for Abeibara, Kidal Region, now also high within the CMA;
  • Mohamed ag Aharib, another veteran of past rebellions and a seasoned negotiator of past peace agreements as well as the 2015 Algiers Accord; and
  • Cheikh ag Aoussa (d. 2016), a major Kidal powerbroker.

My own understanding of Ansar al-Din is that it was a thoroughly hybrid organization, comprising hardened jihadists on the one hand and mainstream (in the context of Kidal) politicians on the other hand. I think the latter camp knew what they were doing when they joined Ansar al-Din – their degree of sympathy for the jihadist project is debatable, but some of them have also said up front (in interviews with me and others) that they joined Ansar al-Din because they felt it was better organized and more militarily effective than the MNLA. Note too that when it became politically toxic for them to be part of Ansar al-Din, namely after Operation Serval began, they got out – and transitioned into helping create the CMA.

This brings us to a core question: If Ansar al-Din was a front group for AQIM, and if the purpose of a front group is to mislead people about the relationship between the front group and the sponsor, who was being misled in 2012? It could not have been the many journalists and analysts mentioned above, who documented Ansar al-Din’s collaboration with AQIM. It could not have been ordinary northern Malians, many of whom experienced first-hand the violence of jihadist rule and witnessed Ansar al-Din working with AQIM – or who voted with their feet by getting out. It could not have been the international community, the Malian government, or regional governments, who negotiated with ag Ghali both directly and through figures such as ag Intalla, and who repeatedly asked ag Ghali to sever his ties to al-Qaida. So was it, then, the northern Malian politicians themselves? Were they duped? I think that’s an impossible argument to sustain, given how adroitly they moved in and then out of Ansar al-Din. Who used whom?

Olivier Walther and Dimitris Christopoulos published a very strong article in 2014 after undertaking a social network analysis of the northern Malian rebellion of 2012. They highlighted ag Ghali’s key role as a “broker” between AQIM and the northern Malian politicians. Yet this should not be taken to mean that there was some kind of wall between AQIM and those politicians. Ag Bibi told me that at a meeting at ag Intalla’s house in Kidal in 2012, the Kidal elite asked AQIM’s Saharan Emir Nabil Abu Alqama (d. 2012) and AQIM to leave Kidal, an order with which Abu Alqama reportedly complied – pointing not just to contact between the politicians and AQIM, but to the former’s relative power over the latter in certain areas and circumstances (although ag Ghali ultimately went in a direction the other northern Malian politicians rejected and regretted). In any case it is clear that figures such ag Intalla and ag Bibi did not approach their roles within Ansar al-Din as though it were an AQIM front group. And any argument that they got played would, again, be undercut by the political success they had before, during,* and after their time in Ansar al-Din.

*They survived the war, physically and politically, and emerged with their positions as key political powers in Kidal intact. That has to count as a kind of success.

4. AQIM’s internal tensions in 2012 precluded any one-to-one, sponsor-to-front group relationship.

I suppose analysts use the idea of “front group” as a kind of shorthand, but there is real danger of falling into what political scientists call the “unitary actor” fallacy – the projection of unity and coherence onto internally divided factions. AQIM was at the height of its internal divisions in 2011-2012 – MUJWA broke away in late 2011, the AQIM field commander Mokhtar Belmokhtar broke away in late 2012, and in between (and beforehand) there was plenty of infighting and insubordination. The late AQIM Emir Abdelmalek Droukdel’s recovered letter to subordinates in Mali, advising (pleading with?) them to take a softer tack, is relatively famous if you study these events.

So if Ansar al-Din was a front group, who in AQIM was managing it? I suppose the answer might be that it was one of AQIM’s prominent Mali-based field commanders, Abdelhamid Abu Zayd, on behalf of Droukdel and the organization as a whole. Yet the relationship between Abu Zayd and ag Ghali appears to have been one of equals. And if the tensions between Droukdel and Belmokhtar, and between Abu Zayd and Belmokhtar, are the best-known aspects of AQIM’s infighting circa 2012, there also seem to have been points of tension between Abu Zayd and Droukdel – the actions Droukdel advised against in that famous letter are all things that Abu Zayd oversaw. And recall that Ansar al-Din cannot be understood as a unitary actor either. So instead of a sponsor managing a front group, you have two complex, internally divided organizations relating to each other in complicated ways mediated by interpersonal relationships that were never as clear-cut as boss-to-employee. This is not, again, the mafia managing a laundromat.

5. Ansar al-Din’s leader Iyad ag Ghali has benefited just as much from his relationship with AQIM as AQIM has from its relationship with him.

In a sponsor-to-front group relationship it would seem surprising for the front group to eventually begin to displace the sponsor and to reframe even the sponsor’s own agenda. Ag Ghali has now outlived both Abu Zayd (d. 2013) and Droukdel (d. 2020), and there is a fairly widespread feeling among analysts and journalists that JNIM, which ag Ghali leads, is now more prominent and more important than AQIM, which at the moment nobody (publicly) leads. Additionally, JNIM’s pursuit of negotiations with the Malian government, however halting and flawed, is a far cry from AQIM’s original agenda of overthrowing alleged “apostate” regimes across North (and later West) Africa. Do I think ag Ghali will one day renounce jihadism and take up a post in the CMA, or show up in Bamako as a deputy in parliament? No, probably not. But do I think he has been a puppet for AQIM? Again, no. At every point from late 2011 to the present, he seems to have taken his own decisions. You could argue that since he formed Ansar al-Din, AQIM may have been able to hold a sword over his head – once you get in, you can never get out, effectively. But the notion of ag Ghali as AQIM’s subordinate, a notion implicit in the idea of Ansar al-Din as a “front group” for AQIM, is not convincing to me. And recall that other key JNIM leaders, notably Amadou Kouffa in his August 2017 audio message regarding the idea of negotiations, referred to ag Ghali as the real decision maker. Ag Ghali is managing a web of relationships that he knows extremely well on the very turf where he grew up, where he has long fought, and where AQIM’s Algerian leaders (whoever remains of them) are ultimately outsiders.

Conclusion

Why does all this history matter? Because I don’t think it’s very productive to talk about jihadist “front groups” at all. To me, the term is too reductive – it sands away history, it sands away agency, and it leaves the impression of rigid jihadist hierarchies comprised of unitary actors. That picture does not fit with my understanding of the complex histories at play in the Sahel since 2012.

Mauritania: Latest Developments in the Parliamentary Inquiry into Alleged Corruption under Former President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz

In Mauritania, former President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz (ruled as military head of state 2008-2009, and as an elected civilian 2009-2019) is under investigation by the parliament over allegations of corruption. See here for a previous post of mine on the investigation.

This week two important developments occurred in his case:

  • On July 27, the National Assembly voted to pass a law allowing for the creation of a High Court of Justice, the only institution authorized to judge ex-presidents. The law now goes to the Constitutional Council for review and validation, a process that can take 8-30 days; and then the law goes to the current president, Mohamed Ould Ghazouani, for promulgation, a process that can also take 8-30 days. Opposition deputies, however, have expressed skepticism that anything substantive will come out of the process.
  • On July 29, President Ould Ghazouani approved the parliamentary commission of inquiry’s report on Ould Abdel Aziz’s tenure. One major allegation in the report is that Ould Abdel Aziz may have tried to sell/give an island within the Banc d’Arguin National Park (official website here, map here) to the Emir of Qatar in 2012.

More on the island issue herehere, and here:

Parliament is now in recess. On July 30, Justice Minister Haïmouda Ould Ramdane stated that the government will follow normal legal procedures in pursuing the inquiry and stated that the process would be apolitical and objective – obviously, though, many observers read the corruption investigation partly or heavily in the context of the falling-out between Ould Abdel Aziz and Ould Ghazouani, who were close associates for decades prior to the latter’s election.

A notable statement on the whole affair has come from Sidi Mohamed Ould Maham, a former president of the ruling Union for the Republic (French acronym UPR). On Facebook, Ould Maham warned, “There is an organized campaign in a deliberate fashion aiming to absolve the former president of this corruption and offer these [former ministers and officials] as a sacrificial ram* to the people and to the judiciary.” The statement could be parsed in a lot of different ways, to say the least. More coverage of Ould Maham’s statement can be found here.

*It is not an accident that Ould Maham used the phrase “sacrificial ram” in a statement made in the lead-up to Eid al-Adha (which falls today). The phrase evokes the ram sacrificed by the Prophet Ibrahim/Abraham as a ransom for his son (usually thought to be the Prophet Ismail, rather than the Prophet Ishaq/Isaac, in the Islamic tradition).

Boko Haram/ISWAP Roundup for July 30, 2020

I’m considering doing a weekly roundup on Boko Haram and the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP). Here’s my first stab at it:

United Nations Security Council, Report of the Secretary-General, “Children and Armed Conflict in Nigeria” (July 6, posted to Relief Web July 24). The report covers January 2017-December 2019. One excerpt (p. 6):

According to information gathered and verified by the country task force, the recruitment and use of children accounted for the greatest number of verified violations in north-east Nigeria. A total of 3,601 children (780 girls, 2,820 boys, 1 sex unknown) aged between 6 and 17 years were verified to have been recruited and used by CJTF [Civilian Joint Task Force] (2,203), followed by Boko Haram (1,385) and the Nigerian Security Forces (13). Of the total attributed to CJTF, 41 children were recruited and used between January and September 2017 while the remaining 2,162 were recruited and used between 2013 and 2016 but verified as such during the reporting period. Within the framework of its action plan, CJTF granted access to the country task force to carry out extensive verification of children formerly associated with the group.

On Wednesday, July 29, gunmen attacked the convoy of Borno State Governor Babagana Zulum as it was returning from Kukawa to Baga, northern Borno – see The Cable‘s report and video:

Some of the latest violence by ISWAP:

Issue 244 of the Islamic State’s al-Naba’ newsletter is available here (with registration). Page 7 discusses ISWAP operations in Nigeria and Chad, while page 9 features a brief (and quite generic) biography of a slain company commander.

Kingsley Omonobi, Vanguard, “Chaos as Boko Haram/ISWAP executes its own ‘governor of Lake Chad’ in power struggle” (July 28). I’ve been tinkering with a separate post about all these reports and rumors of internal violence, and how difficult it can be to verify any of what’s reported.

Channels Television, “601 Repentant Boko Haram Members Graduate From DRR Camp Set For Integration” (July 26).

On the other hand:

More on Ndume’s comments here.

Shola Oyepipo, This Day, “In Buratai’s Nigeria, Insecurity Now ‘Under Control’” (July 26).

Finally, here is the latest weekly roundup from the Council on Foreign Relations’ Nigeria Security Tracker, covering July 18-24.

Niger: The Release of Blogger Samira Sabou and Wider Issues of Press Freedom in Niger

In Niger, a notable press freedom case concluded (?) on Tuesday, July 28, when authorities freed the blogger and journalist Samira Sabou after a court in the capital Niamey cleared her of defamation charges.

As Amnesty International outlined in its demand for her release, Sabou was arrested on June 10 on charges of “electronic defamation” against President Mahamadou Issoufou’s son Sani, who is also deputy chief of staff to the presidency. According to Amnesty, the younger Issoufou

filed a complaint against Samira Sabou after a Facebook user mentioned on 26 May his name in a comment responding to Samira’s publication relating to allegation of corruption. Samira Sabou did not mention Sani Mahamadou Issoufou’s name. She should have never been prosecuted for these allegations of defamation and detained.

I think this must be the post in question, although she had a few that day (Amnesty is more specific about the post here). If I’m right, then her post was commenting on a Jeune Afrique article from March about how the opposition hoped to leverage an audit of the Ministry of Defense to weaken the ruling party during the lead-up to the 2020/2021 presidential elections. I’ve covered the audit and the related procurement scandal here, and I’ve discussed the elections a bit here.

Sabou was charged under a “cyber-criminality” law passed in June 2019. Concerns have been rising for several years now about press freedoms in Niger, and about political freedoms more broadly. In a 2019 briefing for African Affairs, two U.S.-based scholars wrote, “Western media reports often associate Niger with violent religious extremism, but an arguably more imminent problem is the rollback of Niger’s fragile democracy.” And here is a longer excerpt from the same piece:

Journalists and civil society activists such as Moussa Tchangari and Ali Idrissa are prime targets of government crackdowns. Freedom of information has declined sharply in recent years. The annual Reporters without Borders World Press Freedom Index dropped Niger from a ranking of twenty-ninth in 2011 to sixty-third in 2018. Two prominent examples illustrate the modus operandi of the government vis-à-vis journalists. In January 2014, Soumana Idrissa Maïga, the editor of a private newspaper, was arrested after the government accused him of inciting hatred and violence. In March 2017, Baba Alpha, the owner of a private radio station, was accused of using false citizenship papers. He was imprisoned for two years and eventually deported to Mali after the government declared him a threat to Niger’s internal security. Both journalists had reported critically on government conduct and corruption.

Sabou’s case occurred after that piece was written, but organizations such as Amnesty have also viewed her detention in a wider context, especially amid the fallout from the procurement scandal:

Journalist Ali Soumana, owner of ‘’Le Courrier’’ newspaper has been arrested and taken into custody since 12 July. His arrest is believed to be linked to the publication of a story on the alleged misuse of funds by the Ministry of Defence. This is the third time in less than four years that Ali Soumana has been harassed while carrying out his journalist work.

For nearly two years, journalists and human rights activists in Niger have been the target of repeated arbitrary arrests. Since 15 March, activists Moudi Moussa, Halidou Mounkaila and Maïkoul Zodi were detained mainly on the basis of fabricated allegations, after calling for an investigation into the alleged misuse of funds by the Ministry of Defence.

In this climate, human rights organizations have taken Sabou’s release as a baby step forward – the International Federation for Human Rights calls it “a first positive signal sent by the judicial authority in Niger.”