New Report: “Mali’s Tragic But Persistent Status Quo”

I have a new report out with Rosa Luxemburg Foundation. The report, “Mali’s Tragic But Persistent Status Quo,” looks at why some politicians – especially in Bamako and Kidal – have maintained power and influence for years, even amid Mali’s multi-faceted crisis. The report is based on field research trips I took to Bamako in January and March of this year.

Here’s an excerpt:

The report makes two, interrelated arguments. First, armed conflict in Mali benefits certain politicians and does not typically threaten manyother politicians’ survival or interests. The central state would almost certainly prefer to end the conflict, but its limited means prevent it from doing so. Thus the central authorities seek ways to manage and shape the endemic violence that they cannot eliminate. The management of violence in both northern and central Mali revolves around controlling regional capitals (or making deals with the de facto administrative authorities there) and accepting that state authority progressively diminishes as one leaves the regional capitals and moves into the surrounding areas.


The report’s second main argument is that the formal, externally- backed mechanisms intended to stabilize Mali and resolve its conflicts are implicated in perpetuating violence. The peace process envisioned by the 2015 Algiers Accord has been rocky and problematic. Alongside implementation problems, the design of the Accord unwittingly encourages ambitious politicians and violent entrepreneurs to create new militias as a means of seeking representation in the structures established through the Accord. Nevertheless, foreign powers appear comfortable with both the Bamako-based political class and the Tuareg hereditary elite in Kidal, occasionally contemplating sanctions against members of the latter but showing no appetite to displace either group. Moreover, as two experts put it, “In some ways, Bamako’s elites are more connected to the realities of cities outside Mali than to what is happening in the centre or north of the country.”

I welcome any feedback you have on the report.


Notes on the Carter Center’s Second Report on Mali’s Peace Process

The Carter Center is the independent observer designated to follow the implementation of Mali’s peace process as envisioned by the 2015 Algiers Accord. The selection of an independent observer is itself one part of the Accord’s implementation. The Carter Center released its first report in May 2018, and released its second report on 26 October.

Here are my notes on the latter. To me the most striking passages involved (a) the Carter Center’s concerns about the Accord Monitoring Committee (CSA) and (b) the report’s observations about the Operational Coordination Mechanism (MOC) and civilians’ negative perceptions of it in Gao. Here are some key excerpts:

  • The overall tone is mixed, leaning cautiously optimistic. From p. 3: “The observation period was marked by modest but real progress as well as by a significant pause in implementation caused by the presidential election. While progress has been made in disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration (DDR), other obstacles remain, particularly the establishment of the Interim Authorities and the Operational Coordination Mechanism (Mécanisme opérationnel de coordination – MOC) as fully operational. Despite their continued commitment to the agreement, this mixed record underlines the fact that the Malian parties (government of Mali, Coordination des mouvements de l’Azawad [CMA]), and the Plateforme des mouvements du 14 juin d’Alger [Platform]) remain reluctant to advance quickly.”
  • After noting implementation challenges related to the structures created by the Accord and the signatories’ postures, the report goes on to note other challenges to peace. From p. 4: “Two challenges external to the agreement itself impede progress – the crisis in central Mali and criminal economic activity. The crisis in central Mali could overtax the resources initially earmarked for the execution of the agreement, while the ‘criminal economy’ – whose link with the implementation of the agreement has been sufficiently documented by the report of the group of experts established pursuant to United Nations Security Council Resolution 2374 (2017) – slows and discourages implementation.” For background on the crisis in central Mali, this report is a good place to start for Anglophones; for those who read French, I would add this report as well. The report of the UN group of experts can be found here, and my own notes on it are here. Finally, the Carter Center report discusses these two issues (central Mali and criminal economic activity) a bit more on p. 13.
  • The report makes numerous critiques of the Monitoring Committee/Comité de suivi de l’accord (CSA). From p. 6: “Normally scheduled monthly, only three CSA sessions were held during the five-month observation period, due in large part to the presidential election. These sessions lasted only a single day, and sometimes just a few hours. During these sessions, a blockage on a particular topic occasionally led to the suspension or end of a session. The CSA ratifies, often without discussion or formal decision, the actions or agreements made by the parties…The appointment of the minister of social cohesion [see here – AT] is a significant clarification of thegovernment’s presence in the CSA. At the same time, the Independent Observer notes that senior officials of the CMA, based in Kidal, regularly call into question the conclusions or decisions negotiated by representatives in Bamako. The Platform coalition is often marked by wide differences between its members, which impact and slow decision-making.”
  • The report also focuses in on the difference between the formal installation of the interim authorities in northern areas and their actual functioning. From p. 9: “At the regional level, Interim Authorities have been established officially in Kidal (February 2017), Gao and Ménaka (March 2017), and Timbuktu and Taoudéni (April 2017). However, none are in fact operational because they lack budgets to carry out their missions, including the provision of basic services…Over and above these specific obstacles, the Independent Observer expresses concern about the lack of initiative shown by the government to empower the Interim Authorities. Because of the absence of a budget and activities, the Interim Authorities are gradually being undermined and the government’s good faith called into question.”
  • The report has strong words about the MOC, writing that it is operation but deeply hamstrung in Gao, and “not operational” in Timbuktu and Kidal (p. 10). Significantly, the report notes that in Gao, “the population complains of growing insecurity and tends to attribute the increase in banditry and crime to the presence of MOC members.” In other words, the issue is not just about budgets and technical implementation but also about perceptions. The dynamic the report notes is a very dangerous one.



US Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Tibor Nagy in Europe and West Africa

It took the Trump administration an unusually long time to appoint an Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs. When the nominee was ultimate chosen, it was Tibor Nagy, a retired Foreign Service officer who had served as ambassador to Guinea and Ethiopia. His swearing-in took place in September (see his remarks from that ceremony here).

Nagy is now on his first trip overseas (I think) since taking his post. Lasting from 29 October to 10 November, the trip will take him to the United Kingdom, France, Togo (November 1), Guinea (November 2-4), Mali (November 4-7), and Nigeria (November 7-10). From the official statement, let’s just excerpt the part about Mali and Nigeria:

In Bamako, Mali on November 4-7, Assistant Secretary Nagy will hold meetings with Malian government officials, host a trade and entrepreneurship roundtable, and meet with YALI alumni.

The final stop on the trip will be Abuja, Nigeria. Assistant Secretary Nagy will have meetings with government officials, members of the American business community, religious leaders, civil society organizations, youth groups, and he will deliver a speech at Baze University on U.S.-Africa relations.

I was not previously familiar with Baze University, which is located in Abuja. Its website is here.

Nagy laid out more of his agenda in a blog post. After describing his past experiences in/with Africa, he wrote:

On this trip, I have set out four themes as part of my engagement. The first is to promote stronger trade and commercial ties between the United States and Africa by creating a level playing field across African markets for all companies, regardless of where they come from.

This means placing an emphasis on rule of law, transparency, recourse for investors, and fighting corruption.

My second priority is harnessing the potential of Africa’s youth as a force for economic ingenuity and prosperity.

[…a section on demographics follows…]

My third goal is to advance peace and security through partnerships with African governments and regional mechanisms. The transnational challenges of terrorism and extremism in the Sahel, Northern Nigeria, Somalia, and now in Central Africa, and the rise of Boko Harem [don’t blame me – AT], Al Qaeda in the Magreb, ISIS West Africa, and Al Shabaab, require new, determined regional approaches to counteract these groups. This includes better-trained and paid African security and law enforcement.

I look forward to engaging productively with the African Union, the Economic Community of West African States, and what I hope will be an inclusive and re-energized Intergovernmental Authority for Government.

Finally, I want to set the record straight – the United States has an unwavering commitment to the continent and its people. From the President’s Emergency Plan For AIDS Relief to Power Africa, to the African Growth and Opportunity Act, Feed the Future, the Young African Leaders Initiative, and numerous other development and exchange programs, the United States has stood side-by-side with African nations since de-colonization to improve livelihoods, increase life expectancy, open our markets to African exports, promote democracy and human rights, and elevate Africa’s place in the world.

If you’re eager too more information on the trip, Jeune Afrique interviewed Nagy about his intentions for the trip, and about his views on the recent Cameroonian presidential elections, the upcoming presidential elections in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the role of China in Africa, and other issues – but honestly, I found nothing of great interest in the interview.

Nagy has gotten some good will from the Africanist community in Washington so far, including this glowing write-up of his swearing-in remarks. That write-up was penned by former a Ambassador to Botswana and Senior Africa Director at Obama’s National Security Council, Michelle Gavin, who almost certainly would have had a high Africa-related post in a hypothetical Hillary Clinton administration. For me, though, this is part of the problem – U.S. Africa policy is often so blandly articulated, and so focused on the recurring themes of stability, security, and development, that it can seem like a mere technocratic exercise, rather than a set of political choices. Those choices should be controversial (it’s politics!), but somehow U.S. Africa policy (more than for other regions, I think), seems to be structured around cliches. So I don’t have high expectations for what this trip will yield.


New Post at The Maydan: “An Emerging Post-Salafi Current in West Africa and Beyond”

This post, up today at The Maydan, is a somewhat tentative argument from me (i.e., I might be completely wrong, but I wanted to explore the them). It deals with the question of whether there is something we might call “post-Salafism,” i.e. a trend within the Salafi movement that reaches much more accommodating positions toward Sufis and other non-Salafis. I consider the kinds of internal contradictions and limitations within Salafi politics that seem to be propelling some Salafi (or post-Salafi) openings toward Sufism in Mali, Mauritania, and even the United States. I look forward to your feedback!

New Paper: “Political Settlements with Jihadists in Algeria and the Sahel”

I have a new paper out today with the West African Papers Series of the OECD. The series is part of a partnership between the OECD’s Sahel and West Africa Club and the University of Florida’s Sahel Research Group. The paper is entitled “Political Settlements with Jihadists in Algeria and the Sahel.” It looks at past experiences in the region and argues that settlements with jihadists can be either stabilizing or destabilizing depending on their parameters. The paper goes on to argue, in keeping with arguments I’ve explored here on the blog, that dialogue with jihadists in Mali is worth attempting.

Revisiting Mali’s Family Code Debate Through the Lens of Noah Feldman’s Fall and Rise of the Islamic State

I don’t read as many books as I should, and so I’m always belatedly making my way around to things I should have read years ago. One such book is Noah Feldman’s The Fall and Rise of the Islamic State.

As Feldman discusses the shrinking role of Sunni scholars in judicial affairs, I’ve been reminded a bit of debates around the family code in Mali, particularly in 2009. To recap, a revised family code passed in 2009 included provisions on age of marriage and other matters that a wide range of Malian Muslim leaders found objectionable. After mass mobilization against the code in 2009, followed by several years of maneuvering, the key provisions were all softened. I covered the debate here on the blog at the time, and several colleagues have addressed family law in Mali before and during the 2009 protests.

My own coverage emphasized the intellectual/ideological debate itself – that is, the ways that different parties to the conflict argued over the content of the laws. But reading Feldman’s discussion of how Sunni scholars (primarily in the Arab world) lost influence and jurisdiction to government judges over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, it occurred to me that the family code debate in Mali was also a struggle over whose authority would reign in a sphere still partly dominated by Muslim scholars, judges, etc.

Here is Feldman on global (or Middle East regional) trends, from p. 69:

Codification alone…need not have devastated utterly the scholarly class, who could have been transformed into a judicial class. Scholar-judges would no longer have had the special role of discovering God’s law, but they could at least have retained some of their lost dignity as designated official interpreters charged with applying the provisions of the code.

But the scholars did not manage to retain even this role, at least not in the Sunni Muslim world. The judicial function was eventually taken up instead by a new class of judges trained in modern law, which is to say Westernized law. Unlike the scholarly class, the new judges had no tradition – however attenuated – of independence from the state. To them, Law emanated not from God but from government…As a consolation prize, the scholars retained jurisdiction over family law, central to personal life, though not typically to the life of the state.

Now, this doesn’t apply wholesale to Mali in 2009. For one thing, family law was already codified in Mali by then, and indeed we see moments of debate over family codes in the Sahel going back to at least the 1970s. But the process Feldman describes, and his evocative description of family law jurisdiction as the scholars’ “consolation prize,” does point to how the family code debate dealt not just with the content of the law or with the political power of Muslim organizations writ large, but also with one (or the most) sensitive arena vis-a-vis their authority over constituents. This is not to say that participants in the anti-revisions mobilization were not sincerely pious or sincerely concerned (nor is it to say that there weren’t some cynics among them!). But I suppose what I am trying to say is that the family law debate evoked an already-existing competition between Muslim scholars and the state, a competition felt in some sectors and not in other, and perhaps felt most acutely in the sphere of family law.

Here we would do well to recall Benjamin Soares’ article on the Malian family code debate. He argues that there is a profound gap between the code (old or proposed) and the lived experiences of Malians (Muslim and even non-Muslim) in the sphere of family law, marriage, etc. Particularly relevant for this post is how Soares points out that many religious marriages in Mali go unrecognized by the state, which can pose problems for ordinary people – and, Soares goes on to say, there was even a phase after 2002 when Muslim judges and associations began issuing certificates for religious marriages, a trend that made the competition for authority explicit and that eventually evoked a government order to cease (see pp. 423-427). These arguments, I would say, complement Feldman’s discussion about earlier trends in the Middle East.

So to sum up, it’s not an accident that the family code caused as big of a debate and a mobilization as it did. It was not necessarily that Muslim organizations latched onto this issue somewhat arbitrarily, but rather that family codes in particular touch on core sensitivities in a sometimes unspoken, sometimes explicit competition over authority between scholars and states. That competition has a deep local history in Mali but also a global history reaching back to the nineteenth century.


Notes on the New JNIM/AQIM Video

The jihadist formation in the Sahara-Sahel region, Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wa-l-Muslimin (JNIM, the Group for Supporting Islam and Muslims), recently put out a new video called “The Battle Continues.” JNIM is a subsidiary of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). MENASTREAM, as always, has a good rundown of some key moments, personalities, and images.

The video is heavily branded as an al-Qaida effort. It returns repeatedly to images of Usama bin Laden and other al-Qaida figures. The video presents the jihadist fight in Mali as both (a) a replay of medieval battles between Muslims and Crusaders, and (b) a part of a global struggle that extends to Nigeria, Libya, Egypt, Gaza, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, Kenya, Afghanistan, and Chechnya. Surveying the contemporary global scene, the video emphasizes images of Muslim civilians being killed and repressed by security forces. The video also displays images of numerous dead jihadist leaders, ranging from Yemen’s Nasir al-Wuhayshi to AQIM’s Abd al-Hamid Abu Zayd to Ansar al-Sharia Libya’s Muhammad al-Zawahi. In other words, the video wants the viewer to think something along the lines of “Muslims are being unfairly attacked around the world and al-Qaida leaders are giving their lives to defend them.”

But to just take the video as an expression of transnational jihadist ties would be to miss some of its politics. So much analysis of jihadist videos, in fact, focuses on the visual symbolism to a degree where the actual content of what jihadists are saying goes under-analyzed. And this video, albeit not very original, is trying to stake out some political ground vis-a-vis both France and toward interpretations of the Mali conflict that JNIM does not want to become dominant.

In one sequence starting around 8:35, the video pivots to France, showing television clips of Western analysts asserting that France’s fight in Mali is motivated by ambitions to control resources in the Sahel. But then the video cuts to a clip from RT, where the announcer asks whether France’s intervention in Mali was in fact part of a war on Islam. JNIM cleric Abd al-Hakim al-Muhajir makes that case emphatically, arguing that “it is not an economic or interest-based war in the first degree…Rather, it is a war of creeds between faith and unbelief, Islam and polytheism, between the sovereignty of man, which France wants, and the sovereignty of God alone, for the sake of which the mujahidin are struggling (Bal hiya harb ‘aqadiyya bayn al-iman wa-l-kufr, wa-l-islam wa-l-shirk, bayn hakimiyyat al-bashar, kama turiduha Faransa wa bayn hakimiyyat Allah wahdahu, kama yujahid min ajliha al-mujahidun).” Al-Muhajir argues that economic interests are at stake, but as a secondary matter in this broader combat he sees between belief and unbelief. The video then includes two clips of French philosopher Michel Onfray arguing that France has double standards for when it invokes human rights justifications in foreign affairs.

To me, this was the most interesting argument the film made – ironically, both France and JNIM/AQIM now work to combat the perception that this is a conflict over untapped resources in the Malian Sahara. One wonders whether JNIM is not also, indirectly, trying to combat the perception that it too is a product of a conspiracy involving great powers. Interestingly enough, JNIM may lose ground in the information war if what it considers the wrong kind of conspiracy theories gain too much traction – JNIM wants audiences to understand the conflict as black and white, and that requires arguing that France is explicit about its “Crusader” ambitions, rather than arguing that France has hidden agendas.

Another part of the video’s message revolves around the romanticization of jihadist life. This comes across to some extent in the military sequences, which includes both JNIM’s own training footage and then news footage of the aftermath of JNIM’s June 2018 attack on a G5 Sahel Joint Force base in Sévaré, central Mali. Later, the video shows jihadists impersonating a United Nations convoy as they prepare for and execute their April 2018 attack on a MINUSMA base in Timbuktu.

But the romanticization comes across most strongly in sequences highlighting ordinary fighters. This section emphasizes the ethnic and linguistic diversity of the fighters, who are presented as joyful, pious, and disciplined youth. If this is in part a recruitment video, the pitch is based largely on the idea that recruits will enjoy a pure life and a vibrant camaraderie. The segments featuring JNIM/AQIM’s Yahya Abu al-Hammam and an audio message from JNIM leader Iyad ag Ghali are relatively unremarkable; the young fighters come across as more three-dimensional, and that may be intentional on JNIM’s part.

To me this read as a demonstration of strength and a reminder that JNIM is digging in for the long haul (hence the title). The video did not break any new ground, ideologically speaking. There was not as much emphasis on building popular support as I might have expected; but again, perhaps the theme of camaraderie stood in for a more explicit pitch.