Mali: The Politics of a Prisoner Release in Mopti (and Bamako)

On 19 February, the Malian government announced that it had secured the liberation of Makan Doumbia and Issaka Tamboura; the former is the prefect of Tenenkou Cercle, one of the most troubled districts in the central Mopti Region, while the latter is a journalist who was kidnapped in Douentza Cercle, another troubled Mopti area. The two men were seized in separate incidents in Mopti in 2018, and were also liberated on different days.

As RFI details, various theories are circulating as to how the Malian government obtained the releases. RFI casts doubt on the idea that a military rescue operation occurred, suggesting that there is a greater likelihood of a prisoner exchange.

A reporter from Sahelian.com was able to meet Doumbia during his captivity (see this video and report). The kidnappers identified themselves as members of Katibat Macina or Macina Battalion, part of the jihadist coalition the Group for Supporting Islam and Muslims (Arabic acronym JNIM). It is quite possible that the journalist’s contact with Doumbia was a key step toward his release, although Sahelien has not to my knowledge commented on that aspect of the affair.

Local politicians and government officials have been recurring targets of violence and intimidation, and government authority has unraveled in Mopti partly because of the cumulative and mutually reinforcing effects of assassinations and kidnappings of village heads, sub-prefects, prefects, and so forth. Jihadist kidnappings have also targeted relatively ordinary citizens, such as teachers; such kidnappings appear designed to serve not just as sources of financing but also as techniques of control over local populations. At the same time, one feature of the Mopti crisis is its opacity and murkiness – it is not always clear who is killing whom, or who is kidnapping whom.

In any case, the government of President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta was eager to broadcast this bit of good news from Mopti – the two men met not just IBK, but also Prime Minister Soumeylou Maïga and four other prominent cabinet ministers in a highly publicized event. The proceedings seem designed to show that the Malian government cares deeply about its citizens.

But as Sahelien and others have pointed out, other hostages have died during captivity in Mopti, while still others remain unaccounted for.

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Mali: Sharia in Kidal?

My title here is intentionally provocative – the reference is to a recent RFI article discussing new regulations handed down by the Coordination of Azawad Movements (CMA, a bloc of ex-rebels) in Kidal, northeastern Mali, on 30 January. As of 19 February, the CMA was “backpedaling” (see below), but the issue remains a live and contentious one.

From the first RFI article, regarding the initial regulations:

The CMA, which has administered the city for many years, is taking charge of new sectors of security and justice, replacing the State. The rules are stricter: the sale and consumption of alcohol are henceforth forbidden, foreigners* must have a local guardian, and as for the role of Qadi or Islamic judge, it appears strengthened. The inability of the State to assume its responsibilities in northern Mali continues to pose a problem.

The full CMA declaration, signed by CMA President Alghabass ag Intalla, can be found here. Notably, a lot of the press coverage focused on the alcohol ban and restrictions on foreigners, but the declaration also devotes substantial attention to traffic issues and, in particular, says that armed motorcyclists and pedestrians will be brought before the Islamic tribunal and have their bikes and weapons destroyed. There is a a debate to be had over how much any Islamization at work here is    actually subordinate to the CMA’s bid for securitization; it might be going too far to say that the CMA is using Islam as a tool for taking greater physical control of Kidal, but at the very least one can say that Islamization/Qadi-fication is only one part of a larger ambition to expand the CMA’s roles in both security and non-security sectors (including health).

The RFI article caused a bit of controversy because it drew heavily on comments by the researcher Ferdaous Bouhlel, who has been criticized by other Mali specialists (Malian and non-Malian) for allegedly being too close to the CMA. For example:

(Translation: “With researchers like this, the CMA doesn’t need spokesmen any more.”)

My view, however, is that of Guichaoua:

The controversy over Bouhlel, I would say, is a microcosm of two larger debates – (a) have the CMA and Malian Tuareg/Arab rebels systematically obtained more favorable media coverage than they deserve? and (b) is the CMA more nefarious than it sometimes appears in the media?

In any case, there are some other dynamics to highlight here. Recently in one of the courses I’m teaching, civil wars, we discussed Zachariah Mampilly’s Rebel Rulers and Paul Staniland’s “Wartime Political Orders.” To crude simplify things, one point Mampilly makes is that rebels (or ex-rebels?) develop governance models partly through interaction with civilian populations, whose preferences and needs can shape rebels’ decisions. This is what Bouhlel argues – namely, that the CMA is responding to civilian needs for greater security, and that the CMA is drawing on longstanding idioms of governance in the region. One point Staniland makes is that states and rebels (or ex-rebels?) negotiate different arrangements during wartime, including what Staniland terms “spheres of influence.” The CMA and the Malian government are constantly renegotiating their relationship and probing the limits of the other party’s influence (and these are not the only actors in northern Mali or even in Kidal, of course).

Here it’s worth noting that the CMA’s new rules are at least loosely grounded in the 2015 Algiers Accord, which mentions (.pdf, article 46, pp. 12-13) the “reassertion of the value of the role of Cadis [Qadis] in the administration of justice, notably in terms of civil mediation in a way that accounts for cultural, religious, and customary specificities.” Other actors, however, are unpersuaded that the CMA’s rules have any legitimacy – Ahmed Boutache, president of the Committee for Monitoring the Accord (French acronym CSA), denounced the CMA’s rules as “a flagrant violation of the accord…and an infringement of the sovereign prerogatives of the government of the Republic of Mali.” I see these competing statements as not just legal disagreements but also, again, as a way that each side is probing the limits of the other’s authority and legitimacy.

This brings us back to the issue of the CMA’s “backpedaling,” with the CMA’s 19 February statement acknowledging the authority of the Malian state at the local level and expressing willingness for a dialogue over how to move forward on security and the role of the Qadis. Both the CMA and the state, I think, are in essence making offers and counteroffers amid an evolving and unstable situation.

One wishes, meanwhile, that one knew more about who exactly the Qadis were/are/will be:

Personnel, as they say, is policy.

A final point to consider, and one mentioned in the first RFI article linked above, is the issue of influence from Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wa-l-Muslimin or the Group for Supporting Islam and Muslims (JNIM). RFI quoted an anonymous official from Kidal denouncing the CMA’s new rules as a reflection of JNIM’s pernicious influence. The CMA, which includes some former members of Ansar al-Din, one of JNIM’s constituent parts, is regularly accused of maintaining contacts with JNIM’s leader Iyad ag Ghali. But all of this brings us back to the question of what all these actors want – would ag Ghali be content with a “shari’a-compliant,” autonomous Kidal? Or does he want something more? And was the CMA channeling ag Ghali’s influence – or attempting to undercut it? I’ve tried to get at the complexity of “jihadist politics” in Timbuktu, but there is as much, if not more, to think about in terms of local Kidal dynamics as well.

*I think the CMA is referring to non-Malians here, but I wonder if there is a hint that all outsiders (Malian or non-Malian) could be required to have supervision.

Mali: Clerics Rally to Defend Their Class and Weaken the President

On January 19, the Malian imam Abdoul Aziz Yattabaré was stabbed to death in the capital Bamako while exiting his mosque. A member of the High Islamic Council of Mali (HCIM) and director of the Islamic Institute of Missira, Yattabaré’s death evoked wide grief.

The assassination also provoked a public dispute between the HCIM’s leader Mahmoud Dicko and the government of President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta (IBK), with Dicko’s spokesman quickly casting doubt on the government’s statements concerning the assassination and the accused assassin. At the heart of the controversy are a few questions, including whether the imam was assassinated because he condemned homosexuality. Dicko’s spokesman also implied that Yattabaré’s death reflected a government effort to silence Dicko and his circle amid wider tensions between the government and several religious leaders, most prominently Dicko and the Chérif of Nioro, who is arguably the leading Sufi shaykh in Mali.

Dicko and the Chérif (the latter represented by a spokesman) followed up with a mass rally in Bamako on 10 February. The key demands made there were for (a) a new law criminalizing homosexuality, (b) better governance and security, and (c) the sacking of Prime Minister Soumeylou Boubèye Maïga (SBM).

There is obviously a lot going on here all at once. Here are a few points:

  • As a pressure bloc, Mali’s religious leaders seem to have the most influence when it comes to “social issues” and particularly ones related to sexuality; the same clerics recently got the government to back down on sex education in schools. And the clerics seem to be much less influential when it comes to determining electoral outcomes; Dicko and the Chérif, despite vocal opposition, did not thwart IBK’s re-election last year. So in denouncing homosexuality, the clerics are on familiar and, for them, very strong ground.
  • Calling for SBM’s resignation is a savvy political move in the sense that he is the strongest prime minister IBK has had so far. There was rapid turnover in prime ministers during Keïta’s first term. SBM has also been credited, rightly or wrongly, with winning the re-elect for IBK. If you want to weaken the president, in other words, calling for SBM’s firing is not a stupid tactic.
  • In terms of popular attitudes toward homosexuality, I think some Western commentators discussing the rally in Bamako came off as a bit too smug and contemptuous, forgetting that (a) it wasn’t that long ago that major Western politicians such as Barack Obama opposed gay marriage, and (b) in a context of widespread insecurity and paranoia, conspiracy theories can gain a lot of currency within information economies. I’m not saying any of this to defend homophobia, but rather to say that if you put yourself in the shoes of someone at one of these rallies, it is not incomprehensible why someone might latch onto the idea that there is a homosexual cabal running the country and seeking to undermine Islam; amid endemic violence, it often seems that people reach for explanations that revolve around a sense that “things are not what they seem,” or in particular, “the elites are not who they seem.” The circulation of conspiracy theories combines with anti-Western sentiment to allow clerics such as Dicko to present themselves as defenders of what is “authentically” Malian and Muslim against an alleged foreign onslaught.
  • The clerics may also feel some genuine fear, as a class, and are thus going on the offensive because they feel themselves to be on the defensive. Not too long after Yattabaré’s murder, another Bamako-based preacher was stabbed, although not fatally. The clerics may be feeling more vulnerable than they admit. Having been in both the HCIM offices and Dicko’s mosque, I can say that security is not tight in either place. I imagine that may change now.

Piece on Jihadism and Politics in Timbuktu for War on the Rocks

This is a belated post to promote an article I wrote last week for War on the Rocks, where I looked at whether the jihadist project has a “political ceiling,” so to speak, in Mali or elsewhere. I took the Timbuktu region as a case study. I also appeared on their “WarCast” (subscription required) to discuss the piece and the broader situation in Mali.

I welcome your comments!

Mali: What Next for the Truth, Justice, and Reconciliation Commission?

RFI has an article on Mali’s Truth, Justice, and Reconciliation Commission (Commission vérité justice et réconciliation, CVJR) that raises some important questions. The CVJR, whose official website can be found here, was created in 2014 with a mandate through 2018. RFI expects that the mandate will be renewed, but at least two key challenges remain:

  1. How can the Commission hear from as many victims as possible? The article mentions that the office in Kidal only opened two weeks ago; even more seriously, victims can face reprisals if they are seen talking to the Commission. Then too there is the problem of severe violence in the center of Mali, particularly Mopti, which creates waves of new victims as well as new difficulties pertaining to victims’ access to the Commission.
  2. How will the Commission’s plans for a victims’ reparations law be squared with plans for a law of “national understanding,” which some critics call an amnesty? (For one commentary on the law, see here, and for one version of the text, see here.)

These are big questions, of course, and debates over “justice” versus “peace” can be extremely fraught. My own thinking on the bigger picture was heavily influenced by Jacob Mundy’s book Imaginative Geographies of Algerian Violence, which deals in part with ways  that forgetting can be just as important to peace as remembering can.

But to move from the big picture back to the details, I was interested to look a bit into the commission’s structure. From the website, one learns that it comprises twenty-five commissioners, directed by a president (Ousmane Oumarou Sidibé, a lawyer and former labor minister) and two vice presidents (former parliamentary deputy Hat ag Baye* and Islamic scholar El Hadj Sidi Konake). One could say that northerners have a large representation on the commission, with the president coming from Timbuktu, one of the vice presidents (ag Baye) coming from Gao, and at least nine of the commissioners having recognizably Arab or Tuareg names. This is not to say that the commission’s balance is off – after all, the north was where the violence began in the current cycle of conflict, and where many of the victims still are. And the other vice president (Konake) is from Mopti, so that region has senior representation too. I guess what is striking is the comparison between this northern-dominated Commission and many other organs of the Malian government, where northern representation is quite thin. On the other hand, one doesn’t want to get too caught up in the politics of representation, which easily becomes an end in and of itself – what matters is the quality of performance.

A final note is that there are several commissioners with connections to Mali’s High Islamic Council, which could mean both that the Commission actively sought out religious leaders as members and/or that the High Islamic Council had a lot of say in who got to sit on the commission.

*Ag Baye replaced Nina Wallet Intallou, who became Minister of Tourism.

 

Mali: Does Telling People Not to Kill Each Other Work?

The below message floated across the Twitter feed the other day and caught my eye:

The full official article from MINUSMA – that is, the United Nations Multi-Dimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali – is here. It describes how eight community radio stations are getting kits with laptops, microphones, antennas, and other equipment.

On the one hand, this kind of project is inspirational. MINUSMA’s support is going to expand the physical reach of community radio stations in Mopti, the most violent region in Mali today. In other words, broadcasts will increasingly reach the isolated rural areas where violence is severe. The article is full of moving quotes from Mopti radio broadcasters and listeners, such as the following: “Getting timely, effective, true, and exact information in each village, each community, headed for each citizens, is essential for reducing tensions” and “The radio changes our lives. It gives us the feeling of being part of a society.” The radio broadcasters and staff put themselves at considerable risk in order to disseminate information, and that is extremely admirable.

On the other hand, I question the assumptions that MINUSMA seems to embrace. I’m sure there will be “monitoring and evaluation” galore, but to me one can never really evaluate whether something like this is making a difference beyond an anecdotal level. If overall violence in Mopti gets worse in 2019, does that mean the project failed? And if violence declines, did the project succeed? But even beyond the monitoring and evaluation component, what is the theory of change? Is it that people who are already desperate enough, or angry enough, or ideologically motivated enough, or opportunistic enough to kill will be dissuaded from doing so by a radio broadcast? I believe that media can incite and encourage violence – but does it follow from that proposition that media can also reduce and constrain violence? I’m not so sure. I believe that media can be a powerful tool that rebels and jihadists use to win recruits and sympathizers – but does it follow from that that government-backed or UN-backed media can reverse or effectively counter such recruitment? Again, I’m skeptical. Picture yourself as a twenty-five-year-old bandit in the Youwarou cercle, or a sixteen-year-old jihadist in the Tenenkou cercle, or a forty-eight-year-old hunter in the Bankass cercle – is there a radio broadcast, or even a succession of radio broadcasts, that would make you lay down your arms? Picture yourself living deep in the bush, trusting only a few people, grieving losses of relatives or friends who have been killed by others, grieving (consciously or unconsciously) over those whom you yourself have killed – what could a radio broadcaster say to you?

And is it not possible that the newly equipped community radio stations will now be more attractive targets? New laptops, new antennae, MINUSMA funding…

Why not just give this money directly to the poor in Mopti?

 

 

Mali: A Wikileaks Nugget on Iyad ag Ghali and AQIM in 2006

In the course of research for a short piece I’m writing on jihadism in northern Mali, I stumbled across a March 2008 Wikileaks cable from U.S. Embassy Bamako. The whole cable is interesting for its analysis of tribal and clan dynamics in northern Mali, but one paragraph jumped out at me about Iyad ag Ghali, today the preeminent jihadist leader in northern Mali but as of 2006 still a mainstream rebel. The paragraph concerned ag Ghali’s interactions with al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) amid the 2006 rebellion; the paragraph challenged my own understanding, which is that as of that time ag Ghali’s interactions with were limited to hostage negotiations rather than broader cooperation. Here it is:

Intra-Tuareg tensions also divided the ADC [Democratic Alliance for Change], Mali’s next large-scale Tuareg rebel movement (also led by the Ifogas Iyad ag Ghali) [Ifoghas is a cluster of “noble” clans within the Kel Adagh Tuareg confederation – AJT]. In late 2006 the ADC engaged with elements of what is now AQIM in northern Mali. ADC members who participated in the AQIM attacks later reported that ag Ghali had quietly directed fellow Ifogas to pull back just as the ADC prepared to attack AQIM. This forced the ADC’s Idnane and Taghat Melet members to face AQIM alone. Afterwards, Ifogas reportedly refused to help fellow Idnanes and Taghat Melets negotiate for the release of prisoners captured by AQIM. One disaffected ADC member, who said he was eventually forced to speak with AQIM leader [Mokhtar] Bel Moctar directly to win the release of a captured relative, described the ADC as weakened to the point of dissolution following this episode.

One could, of course, quite reasonably question the credibility of this report – but even as a rumor it is interesting.

It’s interesting too to note Belmokhtar’s role and how AQIM was negotiating not just the release of high-value European hostages but also Malian fighters. The role of the AQIM field commander extends well beyond military operations and recruitment and extends to managing all kinds of local dynamics that are essentially political.