Roundup on the High-Level Meeting on Mali and the Sahel at the United Nations General Assembly

On 26 September, a “High-Level Meeting on Mali and the Sahel” took place on the margins of the United Nations General Assembly meeting in New York. The meeting focused heavily on the issue of the G5 Sahel Joint Force. Here are a few relevant links:

  • The conclusions of the event (English and French). Key quote: “Participants welcomed the progress in operationalizing the Joint Force and condemned the attack of 29 June against its Headquarters in Sévaré. They expressed solidarity with the Joint Force and concerned countries. They welcomed the European Union’s commitment to rebuild the Headquarters. Participants affirmed that mobilizing adequate support for the full operationalization of the Joint Force was critical to its success and called upon Member States to provide the necessary support to the Joint Force as per the recommendations of the Secretary-General contained in his report of 16 October 2017 (S/2017/869) and resolution 2391 (2017). They encouraged the members of the Group of Five for the Sahel to establish a political and strategic framework for the Joint Force. “
  • United Nations Secretary General António Guterres’ remarks (French and English). Key quote: “My longstanding position is that the G5-Sahel Joint Force is an important demonstration of regional ownership.  It needs a strong mandate and sustained and predictable funding.”
  • Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta’s remarks (French). Key quote: “The Malian state has modest resources, which do not allow it to implement all of the engagements accepted in the Accord within the prescribed period. That is why I reiterate my call for the rapid and effective mobilization of the resources promised by our partners.”
  • High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini’s remarks (French). Key quote: “Together, you are stronger. That is why we have decided to invest a lot in the G5 Sahel.”
  • On Twitter, Burkina Faso’s Foreign Minister Alpha Barry called for “speed in partners’ support to the G5 Sahel so that the joint force becomes operational on the ground.”
  • Here is a brief readout (French) from Mauritanian Foreign Minister Ismaël Ould Cheikh Ahmed.

French President Emmanuel Macron’s speech (French) to the entire General Assembly is also worth reading.

Here are a few relevant tweets:

Advertisements

Mali: An AQIM/JNIM Assassination in Timbuktu and Its Aftermath

On 9 September, a commander of the Operational Coordination Mechanism (French acronym MOC) was assassinated in Timbuktu, northern Mali, killed in his car. The commander’s name has been transliterated various ways – Salim Ould M’Begui, Salim Ould Nbekhi, Salim Baghi, and Saloum Ould Becki. From the Arabic spellings that have been given (see here), I would transliterate it Salim Imbighi.

In any case, he was a member of the Coordination of Movements of Azawad (CMA), a coalition of northern Malian armed movements that all played some part in the rebellion of 2012 against the Malian state. The CMA has three major components – the High Council for the Unity of Azawad (HCUA), the Arab Movement of Azawad (French acronym MAA), and the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (French acronym MNLA). M’Begui belonged to the MAA and was further, as we will see below, a member of the Awlad Idris/Oulad Idriss, an Arab tribe in northern Mali.

For further background, the MOC – and the patrols it runs – are a key element of the 2015 Algiers Accord, the peace agreement that aimed to prevent a resumption of war in the north following the 2012 rebellion. There are three signatories to the accord: the Malian government, the CMA, and a cluster of pro-government northern militias called the Plateform. The patrols through the MOC are meant to help these diverse groups work together and, by working together, stabilize the north. The Timbuktu MOC was only set up this May, with only around fifty fighters. The MOC there has yet to start its patrols, and the CMA was earlier accused of dragging its feet regarding patrols in both Timbuktu and Kidal.

Mali’s jihadists are, of course, not part of the accord and they have consistently attempted to sabotage the accord generally and the MOC/patrols specifically. This is key background for understanding M’Begui’s murder. On 17 September, Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wa-l-Muslimin (JNIM) claimed responsibility for the assassination in Timbuktu. JNIM tied the Timbuktu assassination to other assaults on MOCs in the north, including the massive suicide bombing on the Gao MOC in January 2017.

JNIM, a Mali-centric jihadist coalition formed in March 2017, is an official branch of al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). JNIM’s leadership includes both Malians (its overall leader is Iyad ag Ghali, the infamous Tuareg rebel-turned-jihadist) and non-Malians. JNIM’s largely Malian character contributes to its sophisticated understanding of the political and tribal/ethnic landscape of northern and central Mali. The non-Malian members also have deep experience in the country, though, due to the relationships that some of AQIM’s Saharan commanders and units developed in the years leading up to the 2012 rebellion.

The political dimension of JNIM’s approach helps explain why the claim of responsibility was not a generic public statement but rather a letter to the Awlad Idris. The letter takes pains to soften any outrage on the tribe’s part over the assassination, using three rhetorical techniques:

  1. Religious framing: The letter implicitly asserts that Islam constitutes a common ground of Islam between the tribe and JNIM. More explicitly, the letter argues that M’Begui had apostatized by joining the MOC. The MOC, in JNIM’s framing, targets legitimate “mujahidin” and works with “unbeliever” forces, namely the Malian army, the United Nations’ MINUSMA, and the G5 Sahel’s joint force. The letter presents the assassination as a form of religious justice and even self-defense on the part of the “mujahidin.”
  2. Framing the assassination as a last resort: The letter refers to JNIM’s repeated warnings to “all the sons of the tribes and the Muslims generally” not to join the MOC. The letters also references JNIM’s distribution of “numerous audio, video, and written statements warning about this critical matter.” In other words, the letter suggests that M’Begui had many chances to avoid being killed.
  3. Conveying respect for the tribe: The letter not only addresses the tribe, the author even offers to “arrange a direct meeting” to address any remaining concerns the tribe may have. In general, JNIM is keen to win over northern Malian Muslims (courting “the popular embrace” or al-hadina al-sha’biyya), and some AQIM leaders have long argued that jihadists need to woo the tribes rather than alienating them.

Various commentators noted that the statement was signed not by ag Ghali but by Algerian national and longtime AQIM senior official Yahya Abu al-Hammam. For some commentators, the statement reflected Abu al-Hammam’s ambitions to displace ag Ghali within JNIM (and therefore more an AQIM action than a JNIM one). I’m not sure I would go that far, but it does seem to me that there are various questions to pursue here about (a) internal coalition politics within JNIM and (b) geographical variations in how JNIM operates, not just between northern and central Mali (a theme I explored a bit here), but also within northern Mali. In this case, there are questions to pursue about differences between JNIM’s approach in Timbuktu as compared with its approach in Kidal – although Kidal witnesses its own share of violence, including two even more recent assassinations.

Here it is worth rewinding the tape to 2012-2013, to recall that ag Ghali’s Ansar al-Din (especially the Tuareg politicians who were part of it at that time) was the dominant force in Kidal during the jihadist occupation of northern Mali, while AQIM was most visible in Timbuktu (though it was present elsewhere, and ag Ghali, who was closer to AQIM than some of the other Ansar al-Din leaders at the time, traveled between northern Mali’s different cities and regions throughout that period). Here it is also worth revisiting Rida Lyammouri’s 2016 post “AQIM Never Really Abandoned Timbuktu, Mali,” which includes some interesting detail on Abu al-Hammam and the Awlad Idris. Adam Sandor’s 2017 report for Centre FrancoPaix is also highly relevant here, particularly pp. 16-17. Variations in the jihadist landscape within northern Mali, in other words, are not at all new.

Moreover, we should note that JNIM’s assassination of a CMA leader is a reminder that amid recurring rumors of behind-the-scenes contact between ag Ghali and the HCUA, the two movements – JNIM and CMA – are sometimes violently opposed. The CMA quickly and strongly denounced the murder in Timbuktu and promised to track down the assassins, and the CMA/MAA’s remarks concerning jihadist “infiltration” in Timbuktu sounded none too friendly.

This and other assassinations, finally, are a reminder that northern Malian politics is not just an intra-elite game in which politicians play with other men’s lives, but also a deadly competition for influence and power in which elites’ own lives are very much at stake. As this incident demonstrates, JNIM walks a fine line by assassinating people – on the one hand, it sends a clear message about the costs of working with the MOC, the peace process, and anti-jihadist forces; on the other hand, JNIM risks antagonizing a wide swath of extremely important northern Malian constituencies, and in that way undercutting its own long-term political strategy.

Mali: Another Look at the Presidential Election Results

The “Les Afriques dans le Monde” project at Sciences Po Bordeaux has posted some useful maps and charts on Mali’s presidential elections.

Here are a few takeaways:

  • It’s really striking to see the pie charts that include abstentions. The visuals really underscore the weakness of President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta’s second term mandate.
  • The post highlights that of more than 65,000 new voters added to the rolls for the 12 August runoff, approximately half of them were in Gao and half in the diaspora. These are the kinds of numbers that have raised eyebrows in Mali.
  • The maps showing vote share by region are also extremely useful. The map of the first round highlights how well IBK did in the north (especially Kidal and Gao) and how poorly he did in Mopti (which also had, far and away, the highest number of polling place closures due to violence. Interestingly, as the authors note, IBK’s main rival Soumaïla Cissé had his best score in Timbuktu (20%), and his second-best in Gao, so this is not a story of Cissé doing well in south and IBK doing well in the north – rather, it’s the story of two candidates with significant northern support amid a divided south, where the share of votes going to other candidates was much higher. Cissé had minimal support in the south, actually.
  • The map of the second round reinforces these patterns. IBK dominated Kidal, but Cissé preserved a substantial vote share in Timbuktu (increasing, actually, to 26% there) and Gao. Only in those two regions, moreover, was the share of people voting greater than the share of people not voting. In the south, again, Cissé had relatively little support. Moreover, abstentions reached 70% in Segou, Bamako, and Sikasso.
  • I would reiterate what I’ve said before, namely that IBK is in some sense not really the president of Mopti (and even, one could argue, Segou). The violence was so severe, and the abstentions so high, that I take the outcome there as a rejection of the process itself.

Mali: Poor Relations Between IBK and the Cherif of Nioro Continue

In the lead-up to Mali’s presidential election in July and August, some of the country’s most prominent religious leaders publicly broke with President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita (IBK). One of these men, arguably the most influential Muslim figure in the country, was the Cherif of Nioro, Mohamed Ould Cheicknè or Bouyé (whose name is transliterated numerous ways, even in the Malian press). In the first round of the elections, the Cherif endorsed Aliou Diallo. In the second round, the Cherif endorsed IBK’s opponent Soumaïla Cissé. As I wrote then, “One takeaway is that key Malian religious leaders appear confident that they can break with IBK and come out okay even if he wins a second term.”

In a recent interview, the Cherif recounted his history with IBK and with Malian politics generally. There are a few notable points:

  • He considered himself apolitical under President Amadou Toumani Touré (in office 2002-2012) until the controversy over the proposed family code (which the Cherif and other leaders saw as harmful to Islam) circa 2009. The family code debate influenced his thinking even after the fall of Touré in the coup of 2012, and the Cherif came to support IBK as someone who had been, in his eyes, wronged by Touré and who could “take the country forward.” Endorsing IBK in 2013 was the first time the Cherif had supported a presidential candidate, he says.
  • The Cherif said that IBK deceived him and the Malian people, and that IBK’s first term revealed an autocratic personality. The Cherif recounted a story about one of his sons being harassed and beaten over a toll, and how the affair escalated into a political confrontation between his family and IBK after it appeared to the Cherif that the harassment had been “a sort of political score-settling” connected with his son’s own political activities.
  • The portion of the interview posted online ends there, from what I could find. But the fact of the interview itself being given and published stood out to me in and of itself. Who knows how the relations between IBK and the country’s Muslim leaders will play out over the next five years, but things are not necessarily off to a great start in the second term.

Mali’s New Cabinet

Following his re-election in August, Mali’s President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta (IBK) retained Prime Minister Soumeylou Boubèye Maïga (SBM), whom I and others have accorded a significant role in IBK’s victory. But the president did reshuffle the cabinet. The list of the thirty-two members can be found here. A good analysis of the new cabinet can be found here (French), but I also want to highlight and amplify a few things:

  • During his first term (2013-2018), IBK regularly reshuffled his cabinets and fired four prime ministers, three of whom spent less than a year in the position. So no one’s job is exactly safe, even SBM’s.
  • There is a great deal of continuity in this cabinet. Only twelve people left the cabinet altogether. Some prominent ministers have been retained, such as Salif Traoré (see a bit of biographical data here) as Minister of Security and Mohamed ag Erlaf as Minister of Territorial Administration and Decentralization (who took a bit of heat during the elections, one should add). Another retention is Nina Wallet Intalou, Minister of Crafts and Tourism and someone associated with the Tuareg-led National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), a rebel movement that played a central role in the 2012 rebellion and its aftermath. Yet another retention is Tierno Amadou Diallo, Minister of Religious Affairs, who (if I am correct) has been one of the few ministers to survive all the cabinet reshuffles since 2013.
  • Another form of continuity is familiar faces coming back, just in new positions. This is the case with Tiéna Coulibaly, now Minister of Justice but previously Minister of Defense. It is also the case with Tiémoko Sangaré, previously Minister of Mines and now Minister of Defense.
  • In terms of new entrants, the appointment of Kamissa Camara as foreign minister has been widely hailed in Mali and abroad, for two reasons: (1) because of her strong reputation, including in Washington, where she worked for the National Endowment for Democracy and other institutions [for full disclosure, I have been in contact with her several times and where she has helped me with my research, although I do not believe she has ever met] and (2) because the appointment of a young woman is seen by many as an exciting development for Mali, for Africa, and for female representation in government generally.
  • In terms of party politics, the above-mentioned analysis notes that of the thirty-two cabinet members, twenty represent political parties. A total of seven parties are represented in the cabinet, and six of those belong to the presidential coalition. Another analysis floats the idea that the prominent party ADEMA-PASJ is something of a loser in this reshuffle, losing two seats and gaining only a symbolic prize with Defense – according to the writer, it is actually IBK who manages that portfolio.,

A readout of the new cabinet’s first meeting can be found here.

Roundup of Recent Reports and Commentary on Jihadism in Central Mali and Burkina Faso

Several in-depth reports have come out recently looking at jihadism in central Mali and Burkina Faso, as well as a much-discussed article that focuses on Peul/Fulani identity in those areas and across West Africa. Here are some excerpts:

Philip Kleinfeld, IRIN, “In Central Mali, Rising Extremism Stirs Inter-Communal Conflict.”

Before the emergence of jihadism, the social fabric in central Mali was already fragile. For decades weak governance and competition over land and water caused lingering conflicts between the Fulani pastoralists, who move their herds across the region, and largely sedentary Dogon, Bambara, and Songhai farming communities.

[…]

Convinced the state cannot protect them, traditional Dogon hunters, known as Dozos, have decided to fill the void themselves, forming a new self-defence militia they call Dana Amassagou, which translates roughly as, “hunters in God’s hands”.

The group is responsible for a string of indiscriminate attacks on Fulani civilians and is alleged to have received weapons and training from the Malian government. Fellow Dozos from the Ivory Coast and Niger are also believed to have joined their ranks.

Support from the Dogon community itself is mixed however, with many accounts of Dogon chiefs and civilians protecting their Fulani neighbours against the hunters.

France24: “In Burkina Faso, the Terrorist Threat Is Spreading to the East.”

A forest region bordering Ghana, Togo, Benin and Niger, eastern Burkina Faso has long been regarded as a bastion of organised crime. Thanks to the central government’s neglect of the region, self-defence militias known as “koglweogo” have become the guarantors of security for the local population. And thanks to the dense forests and the lack of adequate road networks, the area is practically inaccessible for national security forces. Thus, eastern Burkina Faso is fertile ground for jihadists.

[…]

A response from the Burkinabé government is long overdue. In a memo on the security situation in the east, relayed by local media, the regional police chief Commissioner Karim Drabo warned that “if security forces do not respond vigorously, the attackers will have time to settle and to spread IEDs throughout the areas they have occupied […] and they are gaining ground”.

And, finally, Dougoukolo Alpha Oumar Ba-Konaré of the human rights organization Kisal recently published a commentary piece at The Conversation (French). I’ve translated the first paragraph below.

The Peul are currently attracting attention because some of them are instrumentalized by fundamentalist groups seeking to implant themselves at the local level in the Sahel. The jihadist terror creates social distress among the other communities in the affected zones, making the Peul the scapegoats due to their supposed historical affinities with radical Islam. Peul identity thus appears as a bogeyman symbolizing the jihadist threat. However, this identity is too heterogeneous to create such a simple link.