Roundup on Niger’s Arrest of Moussa Tchangari (Updated)

On Wednesday, Niger’s Interior Ministry confirmed that authorities had arrested (on Monday)

On Monday, Nigerien authorities arrested a journalist and civil society activist named Moussa Tchangari on charges of collaborating with Boko Haram. (EDIT: Interior Minister Hassoumi Massaoudou said that Tchangari “has been collaborating with Boko Haram for some time, and he is actively spreading propaganda and false news in liaison with Boko Haram.” According to Oxfam’s Associate Country Director for Niger, Fenke Elskamp, “Tchangari[‘s] file [is] still empty, his lawyers confirm.”)

The arrest comes amid an uptick in Niger’s conflict with the Nigerian sect this year, which has seen Nigerien soldiers deploying inside Nigeria as well as a spate of attacks by Boko Haram inside Niger, particularly the southeastern Diffa Region.

Niger’s action also occurs in the context of other struggles over the control of information during the fight against Boko Haram. For example, the Nigerian government has in the past blacked out mobile phone service in northeastern states, and journalists have complained that they lacked access. Moreover, the case of Tchangari is reminiscent of Nigerian journalist Ahmad Salkida, who left Nigeria for the United Arab Emirates in 2013. Salkida had interviewed Boko Haram’s founder Muhammad Yusuf during the latter’s lifetime and had written for years on the sect. He began to experience harassment “after security agencies and Nigerian authorities began to mistake his in-depth reporting on the extremist group as evidence of his closeness to the sect.” I obviously do not know all the facts in either case, but I give the benefit of the doubt to both Salkida and Tchangari.

A few perspectives on Tchangari’s case are below.

AFP:

“This man has been collaborating with Boko Haram for some time, and he is actively spreading propaganda and false news in liaison with Boko Haram,” Interior Minister Hassoumi Massaoudou told AFP.

[…]

Tchangari was arrested on Monday and charged with “criminal links to the terrorist group Boko Haram”, he said.

Tchangari’s organisation Alternative Espace Citoyen has been critical of the humanitarian crisis in southeastern Niger, where the army is fighting Boko Haram.

In early May, his group published a report that criticised the Niger authorities after the evacuation of some 25,000 Lake Chad residents over fears of new Islamist attacks, following a deadly assault in late April.

Amnesty:

Niger must immediately release a human rights defender arrested after he criticised the indictment of six village leaders for “failure to cooperate” with the authorities in the fight against Boko Haram, Amnesty International said today.

[…]

The fight against Boko Haram and national security requirements must not be an excuse for arrests, which lack a solid legal basis and do not respect human rights. Arbitrary arrests and detention without charge should not be the weapons used to silence those who peacefully exercise their right to freedom of expression.

Here are a few more resources:

  • Tchangari’s Twitter account. His most recent tweets, dating May 8, are photographs of people displaced from Lake Chad islands by order of Nigerien authorities.
  • The website of Alternative Espaces Citoyens, an NGO where Tchangari is Secretary General.
  • A statement (French) from African and European human rights organizations, calling on Nigerien authorities to free Tchangari.
  • RFI (French) quotes some civil society members in Niger, including a member of Alternative Espaces Citoyens and Amnesty’s Nigerien researcher.
  • The RFI story above says that Nigerien authorities were offended by an interview Tchangari gave to RFI’s Hausa service. The Hausa service has covered the displacement from Lake Chad, but I haven’t been able to find the interview.

Nigeria: The PDP Thinks about Its Next Steps

Nigeria’s People’s Democratic Party (PDP) has held the presidency for sixteen years, but as of May 29 it will be in the opposition. Defeat has left the PDP with a number of questions, most importantly: What next?

Over the weekend and into this week, the PDP’s official Twitter handle started a surprisingly candid discussion of this issue, all while expressing confidence that the PDP would maintain “its ability as the flagship of democracy.” The series of tweets generated controversy, including within the PDP, with some officials saying that the account was not speaking for the party.

The online conversation has been paralleled by leadership changes. Adamu Mu’azu, national chairman since January 2014, just resigned, as did Tony Anenih, chairman of the Board of Trustees – perhaps to make way for outgoing President Goodluck Jonathan to take that position. There is a precedent for a former head of state to play such a role: former President Olusegun Obasanjo was chair of the Board from when he left office in 2007 until 2012.

A number of serving and former PDP elected officials have weighed in on what the party should learn from its defeat and where it should go from here. One is former Cross River Governor Donald Duke, who gave an interview with Channels Television in April. The interview has attracted some attention – you can read about it (and watch it) here.

For my part, I thought the PDP’s tweets effectively conveyed the message that the party was willing to listen to ordinary citizens. For that reason, disavowing the conversation would make the party look worse. On the other hand, a willingness to listen will not be sufficient for revamping the party’s image. I think what the PDP will need to figure out is whether it is, or can be, more than a collection of elites united by a desire to win elections. The party will also need to show what policies it has to offer beyond a slate of macroeconomic “reforms” that sometimes delivered rapid growth, but did not deliver enough jobs.

 

Niger: President Issoufou’s Trip to Saudi Arabia

Nigerien President Mahamadou Issoufou and a delegation of cabinet ministers and other senior government officials traveled to Saudi Arabia from approximately May 10-12. The visit is not unusual, but in light of Senegal’s recent decision to send troops to support Saudi Arabia in its military venture in Yemen, there has been more attention to Saudi-Sahelian relations. So it is interesting to look at the content of Issoufou’s trip, which centered on themes of Saudi investment in Niger and Islamic solidarity between the two countries.

Upon his arrival in Riyadh (French), Issoufou met King Salman. This was Issoufou’s first visit since King Salman took the throne in January, so Issoufou gave both condolences on the death of King Abdullah and congratulations on King Salman’s coronation. In addition to meeting the Foreign Affairs and Education Ministers, Issoufou met (French) Finance Minister Ibrahim bin Abdulaziz bin Abdullah Al-Assaf as well as Hajj Minister Bandar al-Hajjar. With al-Assaf, Issoufou discussed the Saudi Fund for Development and its projects in Niger.

(Unfortunately the Fund’s website does not have a country page for Niger, but the Saudi embassy in Niger provides a few details here, writing that the Fund works in “health, education and the construction of dams, as the fund is now building seven health centers in seven regions in Niger and the [sic] of 150 primary schools project. You can also read about a dam project in Mali here [Arabic].)

Issoufou’s other meetings concentrated on spurring greater Saudi investment in Nigerien businesses and development.

After his stop in Riyadh, Issoufou visited (French) the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina and made ‘umra (lesser pilgrimage) in Mecca. He then met the Secretary General of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation in Jeddah. (Niger was a founding member of the OIC and hosts the Organization’s Islamic university for Francophone Africa, located in Say near Niamey.) Issoufou also sat down with the vice president of the Islamic Development Bank, and the Bank and the Government of Niger signed a financing agreement for a road between Tébaram and Tahoua. See the Bank’s announcement here.

It’s a busy travel season for Issoufou – this week he is in Ghana for a summit of the Economic Community of West African States.

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.”

Two Points about Boko Haram’s Recent Maiduguri Attack

Boko Haram, the Nigerian sect, has repeatedly attacked the northeastern city of Maiduguri, its birthplace. Maiduguri was part of Boko Haram’s mass uprising in 2009, it saw sustained guerrilla-style violence from 2010-2013, and it was the site of a massive raid on a detention facility, Giwa Barracks, in May 2014. During Boko Haram’s period of territorial expansion in 2014-early 2015, it sometimes appeared that the group was encircling the city and stood a good chance of taking it. Indeed, in January-February 2015 the group made several major assaults on Maiduguri, but failed (or perhaps never intended) to take it. Soon, however, Boko Haram was thrown on the defensive, as Nigerian and regional forces started to retake its territory.

All this is background to this week’s attack (May 13) on Maiduguri. The violence reportedly began with explosions by three female suicide bombers (a standing Boko Haram tactic), followed by an assault involving hundreds of “militants.” Much of the fighting reportedly took place in the village of Kayamla, about twenty kilometers from Maiduguri, which was the site of a prior attack. Authorities quickly imposed a twenty-four hour curfew in Maiduguri.

I would make two simple points:

  1. Boko Haram is still deadly and will likely remain so for some time to come, even if they are greatly weakened. As Reuters says, “Wednesday’s assault shows [Boko Haram] is still capable of pulling off bloody assaults.” This is a basic point, but an important one: premature triumphalism about retaking territory from Boko Haram could easily lead the military, the incoming administration, and outside observers to forget that Boko Haram has long demonstrated a capacity to adapt – and to resurface with new violence even after the authorities thought they had quashed it. The Maiduguri attack may have signaled some desperation or an attempt at distraction, as Boko Haram is pushed out of other areas. Nevertheless, even if its supply of fighters dwindles, the suicide bombers may remain an intermittent feature of urban life in the northeast.
  2. People are being repeatedly displaced. As one Twitter user, Maina Kachallah, said, “Well that’s Life in Maiduguri. We flee…return…flee…return. our fate, with our IDPs.” Earlier this week I discussed how some Nigerian refugees were being repatriated from Niger after attacks there, with others being further displaced within Niger. Some of the repatriated persons were heading to Borno State – meaning they could be affected by this latest violence in Maiduguri. Many of the survivors are losing years of their lives and existing amid frequent instability.

Mali: Examining the CMA’s Language on Peace

Today a coalition of northern Malian rebel groups signed a “preliminary peace agreement” with the government, after months of talks in neighboring Algeria. Rebels have said that they will not, however, attend a planned signing ceremony in Mali’s capital Bamako on Friday. Yesterday’s statement from the Coordination of the Movements of the Azawad (CMA, where “Azawad” refers to northern Mali) can be found in French here.

Even more important is another statement, issued the day before yesterday and addressed to the Malian people. It contains the CMA’s perspective on the peace talks and the fundamental issues at stake. One key paragraph:

The government of Mali and the CMA today have the heavy responsibility of establishing a true peace that corrects the failures in the political relationship that former governments have maintained up until now with the Azawad for more than half a century, and [a peace] that reorients the management mechanism of the Azawad by the Malian government. The peace for which we sincerely call must be guided by our own convictions and not dictated by anyone else. So now it is necessary to have the emergence of a new social contract between the government of Mali and the Azawad. We remain convinced that any solution to the crisis that ignores the concerns of the people of the Azawad is doomed to failure.

The CMA condemns the creation, arming, and utilization of civilian populations disguised as militias, at the same time that it condemns any illegitimate violence.

There’s a lot to ponder there, and throughout the statement, which contains both moments of frustrating vagueness and elements of pointed grievance – the last sentence of the excerpt above, for example, seems aimed at GATIA, a pro-government militia. Overall, the statement works to project a willingness to make peace, yet it also references serious stumbling blocks that will remain no matter who signs what.

And that, to me, is the main takeaway: the serious and worsening violence on the ground renders the accord ineffective. I won’t say “meaningless,” because these agreements become, if nothing else, elements in a longer narrative of disagreement, but I will say “ineffective,” because I expect that serious violence will continue after this week.

Al-Murabitun and the Islamic State

Yesterday, Mauritania’s Al Akhbar reported (French, and a slightly different version in Arabic)* that al-Murabitun, a Sahelian jihadist group that takes its name from an eleventh-century Northwest African dynasty, had pledged allegiance to the Islamic State. The audio statement (Arabic) was a short and straightforward pledge of allegiance read by someone who gave his name at the end as ‘Adnan Abu al-Walid al-Sahrawi. Al-Sahrawi was a leader in the Movement for Unity/Tawhid and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA), one of two groups that came together to form al-Murabitun in 2013. The other group was Mokhtar Belmokhtar’s al-Mulaththamun, or “the Masked Men.” Both groups are splinters from al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Al-Sahrawi is (may be?) the emir of al-Murabitun. If genuine, the message from al-Sahrawi would represent a further diminution of al-Qa’ida’s influence in North Africa, the Sahara, and the Sahel.

I don’t go much for the kind of over-analyzing of jihadist media statements that can lead to making mountains out of molehills, but it is striking that al-Sahrawi’s (purported) statement was not nearly as formal or extensive as other, formulaic pledges of allegiance to the Islamic State. Compare the pledge (Arabic) by Boko Haram’s Abubakar Shekau, which included a number of formal elements (such as Khutbat al-Haja, “The Sermon of Necessity,” an oft-used Salafi doxology) not present in al-Sahrawi’s audio pledge.

One of al-Murabitun’s recent attacks was an April 15 suicide attack on United Nations peacekeepers in Ansongo, Mali. That attack was claimed by Belmokhtar.

*h/t Rukmini Callimachi and Andrew Lebovich, whose commentary on this is worth reading.