Malian Labor Threatens a General Strike, and Seeks a Different Kind of State

On November 23, the National Union of Malian Workers (French acronym UNTM) sent a 6-page letter to the Minister of Employment and Civil Service threatening a general strike from December 14-18. The letter lays out an immense range of demands. Rather than trying to summarize them all, I’ll just evoke a few that caught my eye:

  • “…the implementation of measures and structures appropriate for relaunching the railroad, the Post Office, and for evaluating privatizations, contracts, and the mining code, in addition to the exploitation of gold, to put Mali back in its rights…”
  • “…compensation of workers who have been victims of the crisis in Mali since 2012…”
  • “…immediate measures for reducing the high cost of living…”

Whether or not the strike happens, and regardless of what it achieves or doesn’t achieve, the letter is a reminder that for many Malians, the country’s crisis goes beyond insecurity and beyond questions of coups and elections – the letter evokes a sense of a citizenry experiencing a socioeconomic crisis that the union leaders, at least, understand as a result of both short-term “political inertia” in 2020 and long-term consequences of privatization and the hollowing-out of the state. There is a short paragraph on the first page summarizing the UNTM’s role in Malian history since 1960 and I don’t think that’s idle; the letter’s authors suggest that the problems they are responding to are deeply embedded in the entire arc of Malian history. I also got the sense that the letter’s authors see almost total continuity between Mali’s pre-coup problems and post-coup problems; if there was a honeymoon for the junta or for the transitional government, that honeymoon definitely seems to be over now in the eyes of the UNTM – and the UNTM sees the transitional government as being fully on the hook for past, unfulfilled agreements with labor made in 2019 and earlier. With the phrases I highlighted above, the letter seems to be calling not just for a resolution of labor’s demands but also for a much more muscular and assertive Malian state.

Roundup on the Eve of the Vote: Analyses and Reports on Burkina Faso’s Electoral Landscape

Burkina Faso will hold the first round of presidential and legislative elections on November 22. If no candidate clears 50%, then there will be a second round within about six weeks, if I understand correctly, based on the electoral code’s provisions pertaining to various steps regarding the validation of the first round results.

There are thirteen candidates for the elections, including incumbent President Roch Kaboré, the last election’s runner-up Zéphirin Diabré, the former ruling party’s candidate Eddie Komboïgo, and the former transitional Prime Minister Yacouba Isaac Zida. I expect Kaboré to win, possibly on the first round.

For general background, see International Foundation for Electoral Systems, “Elections in Burkina Faso – 2020 General Elections – Frequently Asked Questions” and the Trans-Saharan Elections Project‘s country page for Burkina. The website of Burkina Faso’s Independent National Electoral Commission is here, and the Constitutional Council’s website is here.

Here are a few recent analyses and reports:

Ornella Moderan, “Burkina Faso’s Voters Should Be Offered More Than Security,” Institute for Security Studies, 18 November. A quote:

The electoral campaign was an opportunity for parties and candidates to clearly articulate their plans for addressing the full range of problems affecting millions in Burkina Faso. But most of them missed the boat. Their inability to confront the complexity of the situation and propose holistic responses doesn’t bode well for the policy changes the country needs. Rather it reveals the piecemeal mindset that has underpinned government’s overly securitised responses to the crisis for years – an approach that has shown its limits.

See also, from ISS, Ibrahim Maïga and Habibou Souley Bako, “Lessons from Mali as Burkina and Niger Head for the Polls,” November 10.

Rida Lyammouri, “Burkina Faso Elections, Another Box to Check,” Policy Center for the New South, November. An excerpt (p. 7):

The November 22 national elections take place in a context marked by the increased importance and expansion of vigilante groups, namely the Koglweogo and the newly formed VDP [Volunteers for the Defense of the Homeland]. Representatives of both groups stated in interviews conducted in August 2020 that they are apolitical, and their objective is to secure areas [where they are present] and to help establish peace in the country. Simultaneously, they also pointed out that each member is free to support a candidate or a political party of their own choice. One of the key criticisms of Koglweogo and VDP is that they are ethnically based and don’t necessarily represent all communities. Participants in the interviews agreed that ethnic affiliation has a significant influence when it comes to choosing the political leader and/or political party. When asked if presidential and parliamentary candidates would use ethnic affiliation to generate support, the answer was automatic: “Of course, ethnic affiliation matters. We have parents who are running in the different elections, we are not forcing our communities, but the majority of our votes will go to these people. They know our realities and our challenges and will therefore know how to defend them for us”.

Sam Mednick, “Burkina Faso moves ahead with vote despite extremist attacks,” Associated Press, November 18. Two few key paragraphs:

The National Independent Electoral Commission (CENI) used helicopters to reach places inaccessible by road and registration was extended after coronavirus movement restrictions temporarily halted the process in March. Despite the challenges, Yacouba Bambyam Ouedraogo, communications director for CENI said that 95% of the country was covered adding more than 1 million voters.

But local officials say the more than 1,000 villages that were not reached, is where most of the population lives. Four of 11 communes in Sanmatenga province weren’t fully covered and a lot of people were missed, Youssouf Ouedraogo, president of the municipal electoral commission in Kaya told the AP.

Sophie Douce, “Elections au Burkina Faso : en « zone rouge », une campagne sous le signe de la menace terroriste,” Le Monde, November 18. A translated passage:

Several days out from the elections, the candidates hold more and more meetings across the country, a third of whose territory is in a state of emergency. Mined roads, risk of kidnapping or targeted attack… Certain sectors remain inaccessible to the authorities. On November 8, the driver of a candidate in the legislative elections was killed on the Gorom-Gorom route (in the north). “When you move from one zone to another, you find yourself in a no man’s land and if you don’t alert the authorities in advance, what happened before could happen again,” warned Ahmed Newton Barry, the president of the Independent National Electoral Commission, after the attack.

Amaury Hauchard, “In Jihadist-Hit Burkina Areas, No Elections — and No State,” AFP, November 18.

“The victory of the jihadist groups is not so much a military one as having installed a fear that makes people’s lives extremely difficult,” Rinaldo Depagne of the International Crisis Group said.

[…]

“It’s only around the towns that the soldiers are present. In the camps in the bush, there are none left, everybody has gone,” [Burkinabè analysts Mahamoudou] Savadogo said.

“The state has no more control there. Whole tracts of the country will be unable to vote.”

My New Book – and a Foreign Exchanges Podcast Episode About It

My new book, Jihadists of North Africa and the Sahel: Local Politics and Rebel Groups, is now out. It’s my regional history of a certain brand of violent politics. The description:

Jihadist movements have claimed that they are merely vehicles for the application of God’s word, distancing themselves from politics, which they call dirty and manmade. Yet on closer examination, jihadist movements are immersed in politics, negotiating political relationships not just with the forces surrounding them, but also within their own ranks. Drawing on case studies from North Africa and the Sahel – including Algeria, Libya, Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, and Mauritania – this study examines jihadist movements from the inside, uncovering their activities and internal struggles over the past three decades. Highlighting the calculations that jihadist field commanders and clerics make, Alexander Thurston shows how leaders improvise, both politically and religiously, as they adjust to fast-moving conflicts. Featuring critical analysis of Arabic-language jihadist statements, this book offers unique insights into the inner workings of jihadist organisations and sheds new light on the phenomenon of mass-based jihadist movements and proto-states.

I also just appeared on an episode of Derek Davison’s Foreign Exchanges podcast to talk about the book. Derek is an amazingly sharp and knowledgeable interviewer, and he structured the conversation in a way that I think will give listeners a very good sense of what the book does.

On the Campaign Trail in Burkina Faso, Opposition Candidates Promise Dialogue with Jihadists, Kaboré Says No

Burkina Faso will hold the first round of its presidential (and legislative) elections on November 22, in other words very soon. A colleague sent me this story, in which the runner-up from the last election, Zéphirin Diabré, was speaking to a rally in the capital Ouagadougou as he campaigns once again. He is paraphrased and quoted as follows:

To put Burkina Faso back on the rails, Zéphirin Diabré proposes negotiation with certain armed groups. “Among these groups, which are the ones who have demands that are negotiable? While sorting through, there are people with whom, of course, one can talk.

Given that some of the country’s communal militias, or whatever ones wishes to call them, are already in dialogue with the state (or are working under the Volunteers for the Defense of the Homeland), the clear implication would seem to be that Diabré is open to negotiating with some jihadists – perhaps the Burkinabé group Ansaroul Islam/Ansar al-Islam (Defenders of Islam) or the Mali-centric Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wa-l-Muslimin (the Group for Supporting Islam and Muslims, JNIM); the latter has conducted limited negotiations with successive Malian governments, especially over the hostage/prisoner exchange that concluded in early October of this year. The idea of negotiating with the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) has not been seriously floated in Mali, and it is unlikely that Diabré has them in mind here, though it is still possible.

Here is another major candidate, Eddie Komboïgo of the former ruling Congress for Democracy and Progress (CDP), promising in generic terms to turn the security situation around through dialogue:

In the weeks that follow our election, you are not going to hear a gunshot inside our borders. Because we are going to courageously negotiate with the different forces of evil.

Another (more minor) candidate, Do Pascal Sessouma of the Pacifist Party, has also talked along these lines. Here he is in a November 5 interview:

On the question of terrorism my position is clear. I will negotiate with those who are attacking us. I am among those who think that it is not by cannon shots that one triumphs over an ideology. I think I would be able to bring back peace and security in 18 months through a holistic and inclusive approach.

These are the three examples I’ve seen. I imagine there are others among the 12 opposition candidates who are taking similar stances.

The proposals are short on details, but they represent a shift in the political debate amid an insurgency that continues to worsen:

President Roch Kaboré, facing re-election, says absolutely not (speaking from Dédougou, November 17):

We will not negotiate with those who have, as a project, dismantling Burkina Faso and jeopardizing our coexistence.

Assuming (as I do, at least) that Kaboré will win, it will be interesting and consequential to see whether the idea of dialogue maintains any traction after the dust settles from the election.

Chad: Toward a Vice Presidency (and a Succession Plan?)

In 2018, a constitutional reform in Chad abolished the post of prime minister and restored term limits, but not retroactively, meaning that President Idriss Deby can theoretically remain in power through 2033, assuming he wins a six-year term in next April’s elections and then another six-year term some time around 2027. Deby took power in 1990, meaning he is already, as of now, one of Africa’s longest-ruling heads of state – and he is by far the longest-ruling leader in the Sahel now.

There is a lot of speculation about whom Deby might eventually pick as a successor – or whether he will pick a successor at all. In neighboring Cameroon, a ruler with even more years under his belt, Paul Biya (took power 1982) has not, to my knowledge, indicated a clear successor. In both countries, Icarusus have sometimes seemed to fly too close to the sun, and have then fallen quickly.

Chad is now moving, however, to create a vice presidency, whose occupant will be appointed directly by Deby himself. The idea was a key discussion point at the November 1 “National Inclusive Forum” (boycotted by some opposition parties and labor syndicates). The proposal is part of a wider set of potential constitutional reforms that would include measures such as re-establishing the Senate (which, if I understand correctly, only existed in theory until its elimination in the 2005 constitutional reform). Following the Forum, a November 12 Council of Ministers meeting further fleshed out some of the circumstances (president out of the country, incapacitated, on vacation, etc.) under which the vice president would temporarily take over. The full official readout of that meeting is here, and contains details on other components of the constitutional reform package. On November 16, the National Assembly created a 25-member commission to study the Forum’s proposed revisions to the constitution; the commission has 18 days to complete that task. So the process is moving along pretty quickly.

It will be very interesting, obviously, to see who Deby picks for the post. I don’t know that one should assume that the new VP will be *the* successor, but it would seem that Deby would only pick someone he really trusts, given the potential for the person to assume power in various circumstances.

Niger: Context on the Rejection of Hama Amadou’s Candidacy

On November 13, Niger’s Constitutional Court released a decree regarding the 41 aspiring candidates for the upcoming presidential elections, whose first round is scheduled for December 27. The Court rejected 11 candidacies and validated 30; the most prominent of those rejected was Hama Amadou, the runner-up from the last election in 2016 and the third-place finisher from the election of 2011.

The Court’s decision on Amadou’s candidacy was not a 100% foregone conclusion, but on the other hand precisely no one is surprised. Press coverage of the race, and of Amadou’s bid in particular, has long noted that the invalidation of his candidacy was a strong probability. The rejection rests primarily on the fact that in March 2017, Amadou was sentenced to a year in prison after being condemned (perhaps spuriously) for alleged participation in a baby trafficking ring.

Page 5 of the decree I linked to above lays out the legal arguments for rejecting his candidacy. The arguments and counterarguments have been circulating for months if not longer. The argument is that the electoral code disqualifies anyone who has been sentenced to a year or more in prison; the counterargument from Amadou, made well in advance of this decision, was that he still enjoyed the necessary “civil and political rights” mentioned in another provision of the electoral code. Amadou has steadily denounced the legal proceedings against him since 2014, calling them all politically motivated. Meanwhile, the electoral code itself has also been criticized by the opposition as non-inclusive and pro-incumbent.

Even if Amadou had been allowed to contest, it might not have affected the ultimate outcome. In November 2015, on the eve of the 2016 elections the authorities detained Amadou, after he return from exile. That election went to a run-off, which the incumbent (Mahamadou Issoufou, who is now in his second and final term) won with 92.5% of the vote. In other words, authorities clearly have multiple chokepoints at which they can block Amadou from coming even close to winning. I

The way Issoufou’s team has treated Amadou is bad, and anti-democratic. But Amadou’s own career may be a bit checkered, as this micro-biography reminds us (from this paper, p. 2, footnote 4:

Hama Amadou has been a dominant figure in the Nigerien political landscape since the 1980s. He has been prime minister twice, under the presidency of Mahamane Ousmane (1995–96) and that of Tandja Mamadou (2000–07). After a period of exile in France, due to allegations of corruption, he returned to Niger in 2010.

Of course, corruption allegations can be politicized just as much as trafficking allegations can, and Tandja (who was in office 1999-2010; for clarity the dates given in the quote refer to Amadou’s tenure as Prime Minister under Tandja) was no angel – he was ultimately overthrown in a coup after engineering a referendum to keep him in power past a two-term limit. Perhaps Amadou has simply been on the wrong side of various fallings-out with Nigerien heads of state. But this may be one of those stories that, as so often, ultimately has no good guys. That doesn’t excuse the treatment of Amadou in 2016 or 2020, however.

What I don’t understand (and I welcome readers’ input) is why Issoufou and his designated successor, Mohamed Bazoum, appear so reluctant to face Amadou in a truly open electoral contest. The ruling party has a lot of advantages, and in any case Issoufou beat Amadou (and then received his support in the second round) in what seemed to me (perhaps naively) to be a relatively clean election in 2011. But perhaps this Court decision is just the form of extra insurance that Issoufou and Bazoum want now.

From the way I’m writing, of course, you can probably tell that I am assuming the Court is under Issoufou’s control. Maybe I’m being unfair. But the perception, at least, of undue executive influence over such courts is becoming a problem across the Sahel:

Some institutions involved in the electoral processes in Niger and Burkina Faso [where presidential and legislative elections will take place on November 22] – particularly their constitutional courts and electoral commissions – are increasingly being criticised.

In Mali, the loss of confidence in these institutions led to the rejection of the results promulgated in April. This triggered a series of demonstrations, culminating in an institutional stalemate and the coup d’état on 18 August.

If we assume that the Court acts at Issoufou’s behest or at least reads his unstated wishes and then channels them, we can say that such maneuvers are a more sophisticated form of rigging than, for example, day-of-election ballot box stuffing. But court-based manipulation of the electoral field is still a relatively blunt tool, and one whose use comes with costs. Namely, the costs are some citizens’ loss of confidence in the process, and perhaps not just citizens who back Amadou or any other of the rejected candidates. The risk here, I think, is not mass electoral violence or anything that dramatic, but rather a continued long-term erosion of faith in the political system. The “political class,” when prominent members allege fraud in one breath and defend working with Issoufou in the next, does not necessarily help build confidence either.

What next for Amadou? Jeune Afrique asks. He does not have many good options, it seems, and as one anonymous diplomat quoted in the article puts it, Amadou “could try to launch a power struggle with le pouvoir, especially in Niamey, where his party is very strong, but that’s a dangerous game.”

Quick Notes on Abu al-Walid al-Sahrawi’s Interview with al-Naba’

In the latest issue (#260) of the Islamic State’s weekly Arabic-language newsletter al-Naba’, there is an interview with Adnan Abu al-Walid al-Sahrawi, the leader of the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS). As MENASTREAM points out, the appearance of the interview temporarily settles the question of whether his deputy Abd al-Hakim al-Sahrawi is now in charge.

The interview is two pages (pp. 10-11) and as I commented on Twitter yesterday, over three-quarters of it concerns the deep background to current events. Prompted by the interviewer, al-Sahrawi gives his version/narration of the history of Saharan-Sahelian jihadism from just after the formation of the Salafi Group for Preaching and Combat (French acronym GSPC) in the late 1990s until the formation of the al-Qaida subsidiary Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wa-l-Muslimin (the Group for Supporting Islam and Muslims, JNIM) in 2017. Only in the last quarter of the interview or so does al-Sahrawi turn to discussing the recent fighting between JNIM and ISGS, which has received recurring coverage in al-Naba’ (see here for my annotated translation of a June 2020 al-Naba’ article on that topic).

Al-Sahrawi’s narration of Saharan-Sahelian jihadism emphasizes the infighting among the Saharan battalion commanders of the GSPC (which was renamed al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb or AQIM in 2007). Al-Sahrawi points to the failure of various efforts to reconcile these battalion commanders (notably Mokhtar Belmokhtar, whom al-Sahrawi names several times, and ‘Abd al-Hamid Abu Zayd, whom al-Sahrawi indirectly names by referring to Abu Zayd’s Tariq bin Ziyad Battalion). Al-Sahrawi also emphasizes that the Saharan battalion commanders were very difficult for AQIM’s Algeria-based leadership to control. “The organization, in reality, was an image with no reality to it. What existed on the ground was a number of battalions with different orientations and multiple loyalties, all of them linked with the leadership of al-Qaida in Algeria.” Notably, while Belmokhtar is often portrayed as the recalcitrant one in other accounts of these internal GSPC/AQIM spats, in al-Sahrawi’s telling, it was Tariq bin Ziyad Battalion (i.e., Abu Zayd) that was resistant to at least one major unity initiative, the effort by central leadership to impose Nabil Abu Alqama as the central leadership’s unquestioned deputy in the Sahara.

Al-Sahrawi goes on to review developments between 2011 and 2013 in detail, starting with the Libyan revolution and its impact (in his view) on the northern Malian rebellion of 2012; then discussing the relationships among AQIM, the AQIM offshoot the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA), AQIM’s ally Ansar al-Din (Defenders of the Faith), and the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (French acronym MNLA); then discussing the impact of the French-led military intervention in Mali in 2013. The thought of going over all those events here on the blog for the millionth time kind of fatigues me, to be honest, so I would suggest reading a summary of those developments if you’re not familiar.

One point of interest here concerns the relationship between AQIM and the Malian-led Ansar al-Din. Those who consider Ansar al-Din a front group for AQIM will find support for their argument in part of what al-Sahrawi says, to wit: “The al-Qaida organization [here meaning AQIM], in its different groupings, entered into that framework [of Ansar al-Din’s vision of an Islamic state in Mali], even though its leadership [the pronoun “its” goes to AQIM, if my reading is correct] remained independent of it [the pronoun “it” goes to Ansar al-Din’s framework, if my reading is correct].” Later he talks about AQIM “working under cover of [Ansar al-Din].” Yet those, like me, who find the “front group” description simplistic will find support in al-Sahrawi’s descriptions of Ansar al-Din circa 2012 as a collection of opponents to the MNLA’s separatist vision, opponents motivated “either by ethnic, racial reasons or by creedal, religious reasons.” Al-Sahrawi later briefly mentions the 2013 split among Ansar al-Din’s leadership that remains, I think, fundamental to understanding the hybridity of the movement itself during 2012. Anyways, it’s a long discussion; YMMV.

Moving on, when discussing his unit’s pledge of allegiance to the Islamic State in 2015, al-Sahrawi is conspicuously silent on Belmokhtar. He has no shortage of criticisms for the AQIM leadership in general, accusing them of a criminal level of self-interest and self-preservation in the face of what he sees as a groundswell of interest in the Islamic State project from the among AQIM’s own rank-and-file. He repeatedly slams AQIM leaders for their approach to the 2012 rebellion, to the MNLA, etc. Yet al-Sahrawi does not name any names here, nor does he criticize Belmokhtar – who, when he and al-Sahrawi were both part of the then-estranged AQIM unit al-Murabitun in 2015, publicly rejected al-Sahrawi’s pledge of allegiance to the Islamic State, a pledge al-Sahrawi made in the name of al-Murabitun. It makes me wonder whether there is a vestigial admiration for Belmokhtar among Islamic State audiences (despite the Islamic State in Libya and elsewhere having publicly called for Belmokhtar’s death at points). Belmokhtar did, after all, cut a larger-than-life figure in the Sahara and even in Libya for a time, and perhaps al-Sahrawi is shying away here from directly taking on that legacy. Belmokhtar, as a reminder, has been either dead or at least publicly absent from the Saharan scene since 2016. In any event, al-Sahrawi presents JNIM’s formation in 2017 as a response to the formation and growth of ISGS.

Al-Sahrawi then turns to the ISGS-JNIM conflict, saying that for a time, ISGS focused on fighting “crusaders and apostates” while making outreach to JNIM’s cadres. According to al-Sahrawi, this outreach attracted a lot of fighters from Ansar al-Islam (Defenders of Islam), a northern Burkina Faso-based jihadist outfit that was/is in JNIM’s orbit, as well as from JNIM units in what he refers to as “Konna,” “Macina,” and “Nampala” (localities in the Mopti and Ségou Regions of central Mali). Al-Sahrawi then quickly runs through a complicated series of events that, in his telling, involved JNIM fighters from Nampala (but not physically in Nampala at the time) pledging allegiance to ISGS/Islamic State, then JNIM leaders giving orders for that pro-ISGS unit to be blocked from returning to Nampala, then fighters in Macina refusing to carry out the orders and instead pledging allegiance to ISGS/IS themselves, then the leader of the ISGS-aligned group from Nampala, Miqdad al-Ansari, being killed in a “crusader air raid…under obscure circumstances!” I have not yet had time to triangulate between this and other accounts. As in other al-Naba’ articles, al-Sahrawi argues that JNIM leadership coordinates with non-jihadists. He then presents JNIM’s negotiations with successive Malian authorities as the culmination of a process where the group has de facto lost its jihadist credentials – and, of course, he refers to them as “apostates” throughout the article.

Big takeaways? I’m not sure. The desire to shape perceptions of history stands out – it’s not just scholars and analysts who are still chewing over the events of 2011-2013 in Mali. And the sense of the JNIM-ISGS conflict as a competition for the loyalties of discrete units of fighters in Mali is also notable. The account of how a dispute over Nampala escalated into a wider conflict will be worth revisiting. Another point is that, at least on this first reading, I saw no references to Nigeria, Boko Haram, ISWAP (in the sense of a specific organization based around Lake Chad), etc. Finally, I can’t help but sigh at the Islamic State’s ascription of the title “Al-Shaykh” to al-Sahrawi – not everybody has to be a shaykh, guys. Pretty clear that al-Sahrawi’s not, even by jihadi standards.

Niger: A Glimpse of the Simultaneously Contentious and Cohesive Political Class

Earlier this week, Jeune Afrique published an interview with the Nigerian politician and presidential candidate Seini Oumarou. The candidate for the former ruling party the National Movement for a Society of Development (MNSD), Oumarou was prime minister from 2007 to 2009 under President Mamadou Tandja (in office 1999-2010). Niger will hold the first round of its presidential elections (coupled with legislative elections) on December 27. Oumarou placed second in the 2011 elections and third in the 2016 elections.

I don’t mean to single out Oumarou, but the interview exemplifies some of what observers (Sahelian and non-Sahelian) have been saying with regard to the “political class.” That term has been used a lot in the wake of turbulent events (a summer of protests, then a coup, and now a transition) in Mali this year. The term also applies to other Sahelian countries, referring in my view to (a) the relative staleness of the personalities at the top of the political scene, (b) the relative similarity of top politicians’ resumes and backgrounds, and (c) their relative solidarity with one another as a class.

In a way, having a political class is not at all unique to the Sahel. My own country just elected someone who was in high office from 1973-2017, and who has run for president three times, beginning in 1987. Despite a great deal of concern about the “partisan divide” in the United States, one also sees a great deal of cross-party solidarity as a class, with “country club rules in Washington” coming into play in subtle but consequential ways. Meanwhile, on the one hand, one could argue quite plausibly that in the Sahel, there is more fluidity in terms of figures moving in and out of government, party lines getting blurred, party formation serving as a vehicle for senior politicians’ direct political interests, professed ideologies getting muted, etc. On the other hand, President-elect Joe Biden may appoint some Republicans to his cabinet (as Barack Obama did), so I don’t want to say the Sahel is completely unique in terms of ostensible opposition figures going in and out of government.

Still, one striking thing in the Jeune Afrique interview is that Oumarou articulates no criticisms of outgoing President Mahamadou Issoufou or Issoufou’s designated successor, Mohamed Bazoum. Potentially limiting Oumarou’s ability to make such criticisms, of course, is his official role as “High Representative of the State” during Issoufou’s second term (2016-present). The MNSD has also participated in several unity governments during Issoufou’s two terms, decisions that have prompted splits within the party. Oumarou says in the interview that the MNSD’s decision to join Issoufou was in response to “an exceptional situation,” in other words the mounting insecurity in the country, and that the MNSD participated in the unity initiative “without losing its independence.” I’m not cynical enough to dismiss those motives – certainly the situation was bad in 2016 and is in many ways worse now. But it does leave the MNSD in an awkward position – neither the ruling party nor, at this point, really the opposition either. Asked “how do you judge the president’s record?” Oumarou cannot really answer substantively except to essentially plead with Issoufou, indirectly, for free elections. “If he does that, I believe Nigeriens will be disposed to forget all the bad sides of his record.” Yet Oumarou doesn’t say anything specific he believes Issoufou did wrong. Asked by the interviewer about the ongoing scandal surrounding alleged corruption in security contracts, Oumarou says clearly that members of the president’s team are implicated, that soldiers on the front lines were left poorly equipped, and that justice should be done. But that’s only when pushed and, at least here, Oumarou never gives a specific reason why Nigeriens should vote for him and his party.

Later in the interview, Oumarou essentially acknowledges, at least in my reading, that the entire political and legal system in Niger is subject to negotiation among the key players. Given legal challenges to the candidacies of both Bazoum (over allegations that he was born in Libya, not Niger) and Hama Amadou, a leading opposition figure (over his conviction, despite his protestations of innocence, in a baby-trafficking case), Oumarou seems to suggest that both candidacies should be allowed to go forward in order to avoid allegations of bias against the Constitutional Court. More strikingly, Oumarou suggests that Issoufou’s side tampered with the results of the 2016 election to block Oumarou and the MNSD from advancing to the second round. If Oumarou really believes that and was nevertheless willing to join Issoufou’s government later that year, that combination of attitudes points again to the simultaneously contentious and cooperative workings of the political class in Niger.

Burkinabè Presidential Campaign: Roch Kaboré and Tahirou Barry in Dori (Sahel Region) [UPDATED]

Scanning the news out of Burkina Faso yesterday, I was struck by two brief articles about candidates campaigning in Dori (map), the capital of the Sahel Region – the most violent region within Burkina Faso‘s multi-sided conflict, and the second-most violent region within the Sahel (now meaning the multi-country region, rather than the unit of Burkina Faso) as a whole. Among the four provinces that make up Burkina Faso’s Sahel Region, Séno (where Dori sits) is somewhat less affected than Soum (whose capital is Djibo), the epicenter of the conflict in the north. Nevertheless, Dori is highly affected by the multi-faceted crisis that involves not just violence but also massive displacement, economic disruptions, public health impacts, and food insecurity.

On October 31, official campaigning began in advance of the first round of the presidential elections, scheduled for November 22. Incumbent President Roch Kaboré, who took office in 2015, faces twelve competitors, including several formidable politicians.

Kaboré was in Dori on November 10, meeting with some of the key figures in the Sahel Region such as the Emir of Liptako, Ousmane (whose backstory I recently wrote about here) and the Emir of Yagha, Boureima Ly. In addition to reinforcing his relationships with elites, Kaboré’s trip also seems to have been about delivering a two-fold message: a promise to restore security, but a related promise to end “stigmatization” – in other words, to end the ethnic profiling of the Peul/Fulani, and perhaps other groups as well. How those promises are received, I couldn’t say; the insecurity has increased, tragically and rapidly, over the course of Kaboré’s first term, and the collective punishment of Peul (a feature of the conflict not just in Burkina Faso but also in Mali) has been, in my view, systemic (see some discussion of that dynamic here).

It’s interesting to contrast Kaboré’s messaging in Dori with the messaging of Tahirou Barry, a serious but frankly not top-tier candidate, who was in Dori on November 6. Barry’s party is the Movement for Change and Renaissance (MCR). A former minister of culture and tourism and a parliamentary deputy, Barry is himself Peul but has emphasized his and his family’s multi-ethnic, multi-cultural character (his own family is from Gaoua, in the southwest, and his wife is ethnically Mossi, the largest ethnic group in Burkina Faso). In Dori, then, Barry’s emphasis was on the economic development of the Sahel Region, with promises to expand Dori’s livestock market and make the Sahel Region into a center for processing milk. Barry talked about the insecurity in his remarks, but placed that in a larger context of what he calls the abandonment of the region by central authorities.

Which message appeals more? I really couldn’t say – I don’t see opinion polls coming out for this race, for example. But it is striking to see how differently these two politicians are framing the same overall situation. And it is tempting to say that Kaboré is pursuing a kind of top-down strategy while Barry is attempting something bottom-up, but that’s also probably too simple. I also, admittedly, may have missed reports about other candidates’ swings through Dori; other kinds of messaging are possible too. [Update, November 13: A senior colleague alerted me to this poll, which shows that a strong plurality of respondents to this poll (nearly 43%) say they plan to vote for Kaboré, and some 27% are undecided or are keeping their intentions confidential, suggesting he has a decent chance of winning on the first round. Nearly 66% of respondents, meanwhile, say they are concerned about insecurity – the most common concern among respondents.]

Anecdotally, meanwhile, I wonder how many people this Dori resident speaks for:

“I watch the politicians parade and do their things, but this is not my concern,” said Oumar Cissé, from Dori, a town in the northern Sahel region – the epicentre of the violence – that is seeing a daily influx of internally displaced people. “Our real concern is that security comes back first, and after that we can think about elections.”

And then there are the physical obstacles to voting. An August 2020 law, and the realities of the conflict, will likely mean that thousands of voters cannot vote, and that the results of the elections will be accepted regardless, domestically and internationally. The campaigning in Dori is a reminder, to me at least, that the vote is likely to proceed in many major towns and administrative centers within the conflict zones, and that it is rural voters above all who stand to be disenfranchised.

Press Freedom Issues in Chad

Deutsche Welle (French) reports on an atmosphere in which around 30 independent media outlets in Chad, including the country’s oldest independent newspaper, N’Djaména Hebdo, face risks of suspension. Under a 2018 law, both the director and the editor-in-chief of any given media outlet must have journalism degrees from a university, and that criterion has been used this fall to suspend various outlets.

From my brief research, it looks like two interlocking ordinances were ratified by the National Assembly in November 2018 – one, the actual law regulating the written and electronic media; the other, an ordinance creating the Haute Autorité des Médias et de l’Audiovisuel (High Authority for Media and Audiovisual Media,* HAMA). The ordinances were ratified by a vote of 118 for, 28 against, and 11 absentions, out of 188 total members the legislature.

It is HAMA that has the authority to issue suspensions, and on September 7 of this year, HAMA gave a three-month suspension to twelve different outlets. Organizations such as Reporters Without Borders decried the suspensions, suggesting that the criterion about degrees is immaterial to the question of whether these are legitimate journalistic outfits. Deutsche Welle writes that in the context of Chad’s approaching presidential elections, scheduled for April, there are concerns that more papers will be suspended.

Earlier this month, the Union of Chadian Journalists marked the “International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists,” an occasion created after the 2013 deaths of two French journalists in Mali. The Chadian Union called for a government investigation into the 2014 disappearance of Chadian journalist Noubadoum Sotinan, and also called more broadly for an end to the “harassment and intimidation of media professionals.” From the little research I’ve done, and reading between the lines a bit, it seems that press outlets are mostly opting not to replace senior staff who lack the required degrees – perhaps the editors in question calculate that the real issue at play is not the narrow one of qualifications.

*Forgive the awkward translation, I couldn’t think of a better one.