Francois Hollande in Mali: Media and Civil Society Reflect on His Africa Legacy

Today and tomorrow (January 13-14), Mali is hosting the “Africa-France Summit,” which French President Francois Hollande is attending. The event is occasioning reflections in the French, European, and African media regarding Hollande’s Africa policy and legacy as a whole. Many of the reflections are quite critical.

Deutsche Welle:

It will be an opportunity for Hollande to bid farewell to his African counterparts as this will be his last Africa-France summit. The French leader steps down later in the year; he will not seek a second term at the presidential elections in the spring.

[…]

[Whereas some analysts give Hollande’s Africa policy positive marks,] Other analysts are rather more critical. Roland Marchal from France’s National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) finds it “disconcerting” that French foreign policy under Hollande placed so much emphasis on military intervention. “Nobody questions whether these military operations are justified,” he said. “In the case of Mali, we see that it hasn’t worked.” The standard of governance is worse than mediocre and the president is facing corruption allegations.

Other commentators argue (French) that Mali is a poor choice for the summit’s location, lauding Hollande’s 2013 decision to intervene militarily in Mali but deploring the lack of political progress there in the intervening years. Another commentator places the blame (French) for the lack of political progress on Mali’s leaders, rather than on “the absence of political vision on the part of France,” but goes on to urge Hollande to publicly call on African publics to hold their leaders accountable.

Whether or not Hollande heeds that advice, African civil society groups have decided to hold a counter-summit (French) during the official summit, in order to hold critical discussions about the policies of African leaders and the international community.

It will be interesting to see what comes of these events – the summit and the counter-summit – and to hear what Hollande says.

 

Recent News from Gao, Mali: Mixed Patrols, A Kidnapping, and A Shooting

Gao, one of northern Mali’s key cities, has witnessed several notable developments recently.

  • On December 24, unknown kidnappers seized a longtime French resident and aid worker affiliated with the small NGO Aide Gao. A search (French) was immediately mounted by Malian forces, French forces, and UN peacekeepers. Jeune Afrique (French) summarizes what is known of the kidnapping itself, the victim, and the search.
  • On January 4, a local Red Cross employee was shot and killed. “A resident of Gao said the worker had been shot by two men on a motorcycle late at night.”
  • On January 5, mixed patrols began in Gao involving former rebels from the Coordination of Azawad Movements (French acronym CMA), pro-government militia forces, and Malian government forces. The full force is expected to comprise 200 fighters from each of the three categories. The mixed patrols are meant to fulfill one condition from a 2015 peace deal. Until early January, the pro-government armed groups had opposed (French) the CMA’s desire to enter the city, but international and governmental mediation (French) appears to have resolved the dispute for the moment.

A Malian Anti-Corruption Agenda

Corruption was a major problem in Mali before the crisis of 2012-2013, and it has remained a major problem since. So I was interested to see a piece on Malijet entitled “Ten Proposals for Effectively Fighting Corruption in Mali” (French). The entire piece is worth reading, but here a few highlights:

#2: “Creating a High Court for Fighting Corruption”

#4: “Putting in Place a System for Denouncing Corruption”

#7: “Declaration of Assets of Elected Officials and State Functionaries”

#10: “Stopping Financial Aid [Packages] and Re-Orienting Economic Co-Development Toward Communities”

Some of the proposals may be controversial, some even naive – with #4, such systems can sometimes be more show than substance – but the list as a whole is, I think, quite well thought out.

The Attack on Tazalit, Niger and an Insight into Nigerien Perspectives on Northern Mali

On October 6 (yesterday), gunmen attacked the Tazalit refugee hosting center in western Niger. The attackers killed twenty-two Nigerien soldiers, although none of the center’s approximately 4,000 refugees were wounded or killed. UNHCR describes the attack:

The armed assailants are reported to have arrived at the site in two pick up trucks. Witnesses say that following the attack, the assailants stayed in the area for up to 2 hours, and looted the health centre, stealing vital medical stocks. They also burned a UNHCR ambulance. No UNHCR staff or partners were present when the attack took place. The attackers then stole a military vehicle and fled, before support arrived.

This is not the first attack against security forces guarding Malian refugee camps in Niger. On the 10th of September, armed assailants attacked a security post at the camp of Tabareybarey in the region of Tillabery, which also borders Mali and is home to almost 10,000 refugees. A young Malian refugee woman of 18 years was killed, as well as a 5 year old refugee boy. Five others were shot and wounded.

The refugees, as UNHCR points out, are primarily Malians. These refugees were displaced during and after Mali’s 2012-2013 civil war – Tazalit itself was established in 2013 (.pdf). Part of the context for this attack is that Mali’s conflict is in many senses ongoing, including through continued displacement and attacks such as these. In a May 2016 update (.pdf), UNHCR estimated that there are 134,262 Malian refugees currently living in Mali’s neighbors. Of these, over 60,000 are in Niger. Throughout the region, many refugees remain reluctant to go back to Mali.

Who were the attackers? Nigerien authorities (French) and international voices have been quick to call the incident a terrorist attack, but few details have emerged yet about the identity of the attackers. They stole some military equipment, but as Philippe Frowd points out, their “motive can’t have been simply material.”

Niger’s Defense Minister Hassoumi Massaoudou has pointed to “narco-terrorists” as the responsible party. His statement was a highly interesting take on how Nigerien authorities view conflict dynamics in present-day Mali (French):

This attack was perpetrated by narco-terrorists coming from northern Mali, probably from the zone of Kidal and Tin Zaouaten…The armed groups of northern Mali, it’s a continuum between terrorist groups and the armed groups who participate sometimes in the Algiers [peace] process and the groups of traffickers, narco-traffickers. So, there not a distinction between these different groups: Ansar Dine, [Al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb], [the High Council for the Unity of Azawad], narco-traffickers. In reality, they go from one position to the other. We have pursued them, [but] they entered Malian territory.

The statement says two things to me. First, the Nigerien authorities do not know which group was responsible. Second, the Nigerien authorities have a cynical (though not completely unfair!) perspective regarding the armed groups in northern Mali. Essentially, Massaoudou said that no hard and fast distinctions can be made between groups there. (There is significant evidence to show that he’s partially right, although I think he is over-simplifying the situation.) The implication, though, is that the Malian authorities and the international community have maintained some rather arbitrary, or at least problematic, definitions concerning who is mainstream and who should be able to participate in politics and peace deals (the High Council), and who is anathema and should be excluded from politics and peace deals (Ansar Dine, AQIM, etc).

It will be interesting to see which group, if any, claims responsibility.

On Salafism and Terrorism in Mali: A Response to the Monkey Cage

On November 20, a team of gunmen stormed the Radisson Blu hotel in Mali’s capital Bamako, taking hostages and killing twenty people. The tragedy reflects the complex aftermath of Mali’s 2012-2013 civil war, which was centered in the northern part of the country, but which has left in its wake a nationwide terrorism problem.

There has been much helpful commentary on the attack, and there has been some unhelpful commentary. In the latter category is a piece published on the Washington Post’s Monkey Cage blog, entitled “After this month’s attack in Bamako, what do we know about fundamentalist Islam in Mali?” The author, a University of Florida political scientist named Sebastian Elischer, unfairly links some non-violent Malian Muslim political activists to terrorism. By “fundamentalism,” Elischer means Salafism, a literalist form of Sunni Islam.

Elischer’s argument is politically dangerous. He writes in the context of a wider environment in which many observers assume that Salafism, a theological position, predisposes its adherents to jihadism, a form of violent politics. This assumption is wrong: as Jacob Olidort has pointed out, if the hundreds of thousands of non-violent Salafis around the world “were involved in forming political parties or in direct violent activity, the world would look very different” (p. 4, footnote 1).

The fact that the majority of Salafis reject jihadism has been largely ignored amid the media’s and the terror-ology industry’s constant equations of Muslim activism with violence. This environment makes it easy for various governments to justify crackdowns against a wide swath of activists, regardless of whether or not they are involved in violent jihad. This environment also distorts Western policymakers’ understandings of the roots of jihadism and terrorism. The current and naïve framework of “countering violent extremism” has yielded many failures, and these failures stem in part from the assumption that the “wrong beliefs” are the main factor in people’s embrace of violence.

Elischer, of course, denies that he is engaging in guilt by association. But listen to the language he uses:

The political Salafists in Bamako are not behind the recent attacks on the Radisson. But they provide an ideology that opposes democracy and secularism — two major achievements of Mali’s political trajectory in the past two decades. Nonetheless, the international community should note that the forces seeking to destabilize Mali are not just isolated in far-flung northern regions but are actually not that far from the presidential palace.

Let us pause briefly here to ask how one ought to explain the Radisson Blu attack. First, one should start by elaborating the histories and agendas of the groups that have claimed responsibility and have previously been involved in violence. One should then contextualize these groups’ violence within the broader history of politics and conflict in Mali during the colonial and post-colonial periods, with particular emphasis on the period 2011-present. One should also make appropriate reference to how the aftermath of Algeria’s “Black Decade” of the 1990s has affected Mali, especially in terms of the spillover of Algerian-led jihadist groups into northern Mali and their long-term efforts to implant themselves in local communities there. In his effort to link southern Salafis to terrorism, Elischer skims over or neglects the relevant history.

The villain in Elischer’s piece is Mahmoud Dicko, a southern Salafi cleric who serves as president of Mali’s High Islamic Council. Dicko is a major Malian public figure who is, by all accounts, uninvolved in jihadist activity – and who has publicly condemned the Radisson attack. In Elischer’s eyes, however, Dicko’s political activities are anti-democratic and “destabilizing.”

Dicko is not going to be any Western policymaker, academic, or human rights activist’s ideal of a “moderate Muslim.” Dicko linked the Radisson attack, for example, to what he calls the Western world’s “promotion of homosexuality.” Dicko envisions and works toward a Mali that is religiously and socially conservative.

But are Dicko’s actions anti-democratic? Elischer writes that Dicko and his camp seek “to impose fundamentalist Islamic beliefs on society by asserting a role in the political sphere.” Doesn’t everyone who participates in politics seek to impose some kind of belief system on their society? In a U.S. context, I want everyone to have free medical care, housing, and a minimum income – and if I can help get politicians elected who support those views, then I am willing to have that system “imposed” on voters who disagree with it. That’s how politics works: even in a democracy, some people don’t get their way.

The issue raised by people like Dicko is what happens when democratic contexts coincide with mobilization in the name of illiberal values. What happens, in other words, when a group of Malian Muslims mobilizes to protest a family code that would give greater rights to women, as happened in 2009? Dicko helped lead a campaign that pressured former President Amadou Toumani Toure to back down and amend the proposed code in a more conservative direction, in line with the wishes of Dicko and others. Such changes, however, were accomplished without significant violence. Arguably, that’s just democracy in action – but for Elischer, all of Dicko’s political actions constitute an inappropriate fusion of religion and politics, a form of “intimidation” against the government, and/or a nefarious “influence” over elected officials and civil servants.

Worth adding, too, is that Dicko is not the only proponent of social conservatism in Mali. Does anyone think that Sufi shaykhs in Mali, or post-Sufi media stars like Shaykh Cherif Haidara, are going to be lining up to advocate for the rights of homosexuals in Mali? Dicko and the Salafis, after all, were far from the only voices arguing against the more liberal family code. And if we’re talking about threats to democracy in Mali, then surely the politicians who steal public money, the junior army officers who staged a coup in 2012, to say nothing of the northern jihadists and separatists, deserve some mention. With secularism, finally, one might ask whether Mali must remain beholden to the version of secularism it inherited from France, or whether the country’s vast Muslim majority has some right to reimagine the relationship of religion and politics in their country.

Elischer’s own orientation, ironically, is nakedly anti-liberal. In his recent article for African Affairs, he suggests that the state of Islamic affairs was better in Sahelian countries like Niger during the 1970s and 1980s, when an alliance of military rulers and Sufi shaykhs could more tightly regulate the religious sphere. Elischer implies that the free of exchange of ideas – allowing Salafis to compete for political and social influence – is inherently dangerous and “destabilizing.” Some societies, we hear, need top-down control and a class of state-appointed “good Muslims” to keep the “bad Muslims” in check.

The ultimate problem with Elischer’s analysis of Salafism is this implicit “good Muslim, bad Muslim” dichotomy. His approach to Salafism is too simple. In his Monkey Cage piece and elsewhere, he relies on an outdated typology of Salafis from 2006, which classifies Salafis into “purists/quietists” (allegedly apolitical preachers oriented toward moral reform), “politicos” (politically engaged preachers), and “jihadis.” As I told Elischer in person at the fall 2015 meeting of the American Political Science Association, recent work has challenged this typology, showing that “purists” participate in politics, that “jihadis” can be “quietists,” and that it’s tricky to assess how theology might inform violence.

Nevertheless, the tripartite typology persists. Elischer invokes it to suggest that Salafis exist along a spectrum from quietism to jihadism, and that the more they participate in politics, the closer they move to jihadism. The case of Dicko should show why that’s too simple: Dicko participates in politics a lot, but he condemns jihadism and in no way seems to be veering toward terrorism. For Elischer and others who are suspicious of all Salafis, however, Salafis’ political behavior will always be interpreted as inherently suspect. In this worldview, other actors participate in politics with integrity, but the Salafis enter politics with the end goal of undermining democracy. If one holds Salafis to be inherently anti-democratic, then they can never prove their democratic bonafides – they will always be asked to defend themselves from the claim that they are potential terrorists.

In this, Elischer’s analysis echoes a wider claim echoed across various media outlets. It is not just Salafis, but all Muslims, who face intensive scrutiny about their relationship to violence. I commend Omid Safi’s question to the reader, “I wonder what [that relentless scrutiny] says about our preconceived notion of a majority of Muslims worldwide secretly being complicit regardless of what they do, regardless of what they say, and regardless of how many of their leading scholars, imams, and experts are denouncing the practices of ISIS” – or any terrorist group.

Returning to Mali, how are policymakers supposed to act on Elischer’s analysis? The “international community” is supposed to “note” the “destabilizing” influence of Dicko and other Salafis in southern Mali. Then what? Demand that Malian politicians repudiate Dicko? Seek to influence elections to the High Islamic Council? Advocate for the arrest of non-violent Salafi preachers? Elevate Sufi Muslims and empower them to marginalize Salafis within Malian institutions and public life? Would any of those actions make it less likely that jihadist groups would storm hotels in Bamako? Or would this kind of suspicion of non-violent Salafis make it even harder to resolve Mali’s many interlocking crises?

Analysts and policymakers desperately need more complicated maps of the religious and political terrain of the Sahel. Nearly a decade into my thinking about the region, I realize how little I understand. But I do believe that “good Muslim/bad Muslim” dichotomies serve everyone poorly, and can have dangerous and unintended consequences when applied in policy.

Partial List of Recent Jihadist Attacks in Southern and Central Mali

This is my effort to catalogue jihadist attacks in southern and central Mali during 2015. I’ve deliberately left off attacks by northern rebels such as the Coordination for the Movements of the Azawad, because I consider those attacks categorically different, although the lines can get blurry. Please let me know if I’ve left any jihadist attacks off the list, and I’ll update it accordingly.

[Update: Ansar al-Din has claimed responsibility for the June 27 and 28 attacks, and commenter Aurélien has listed numerous other attacks, which I’ve incorporated below.]

  • June 28, Fakola, Sikasso Region: Gunmen briefly seized the village; Malian security sources attributed the attack to Peul fighters associated with the Masina Liberation Front, but Ansar al-Din claimed the attack.
  • June 27, near Nara, Koulikoro Region: Gunmen killed three soldiers at a military camp; Malian intelligence sources attributed the attack to Peul fighters associated with Ansar al-Din, which claimed the attack.
  • June 14, Djenné, Mopti Region: Gunmen attack a gendarmerie post.
  • June 10, Misséni, Sikasso Region: An estimated thirty gunmen killed a gendarme and burned down the police station; Malian sources did not identify the attackers, but a Malian journalist (French) attributed the attack to Ansar al-Din.
  • June 2, Dogofri, Ségou Region: Four gunmen kill a gendarme; Malian security sources blame the Masina Liberation Front.
  • April 12, between Niono and Diabaly, Ségou Region: A roadside bomb kills two Malian soldiers.
  • April 3, Boni, Mopti Region: Gunmen kill two civilians.
  • April 1, Boulkessi, Mopti Region: Gunmen attacked a Malian military base.
  • March 7, Bamako: Attackers with a machine gun and grenades kill five people at a bar; later claimed by al-Murabitun.
  • January 8 and 16, Ténenkou, Mopti Region: Gunmen attacked soldiers in the village; the Malian press (French) attributed the attack to the Masina Liberation Front.
  • January 6, Dioura, Mopti Region: Gunmen attacked a military outpost.
  • January 5, Nampala, Ségou Region: Gunmen attacked Malian soldiers, killing as many as seven; the Malian press (French) attributed the attack to the Masina Liberation Front.

Review of Todd Moss’ The Golden Hour

Last year, Todd Moss published The Golden Hour, a novel about a coup in Mali. Moss served as a Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Bureau of African Affairs at the U.S. Department of State from 2007-2008, and he has long been a senior officer at the Center for Global Development, where he wears a number of important hats. You can read his full biography here. The Golden Hour is a work of fiction, but it draws on his work at State and is clearly inspired partly by events in Mali in 2012-2013. Below I review the novel as a piece of writing and as a political statement.

As a Novel

From a literary point of view, I very much enjoyed the book. I found it to be a literal page-turner; I read it in two long sessions, the first of which kept me up much later than I had planned. The novel is engrossing largely because Moss strikes a skillful balance: he includes enough characters and plots twists that the book stays intriguing, but does not bog the writing down with needless complexity. Too many thrillers pack in characters and events until even the most sympathetic reader or viewer becomes lost and frustrated; Moss wisely avoids that.

The idea at the heart of the book is also compelling. Moss’ central character is an academic-turned-diplomat, Judd Ryker, who gets to put his ideas into practice. Ryker’s theory is that a coup can be successfully reversed within approximately one hundred hours. Mali becomes his first real test. I can’t say whether the idea of the “golden hour” in coup-reversal is workable or not; the point is, it’s interesting, and it was part of what kept me reading.

As a side note, I wondered whether the real-life scholar Jay Ufelder (who is not, it should be said, an advocate of anything like a “golden hour”) provided any of the inspiration for Ryker. There are certainly scholars out there doing sophisticated work on understanding coups, so the character of Ryker does not seem crazy.

As a Political Statement (Caution: Spoilers)

Moss was not, I think, primarily trying to make a statement: from what I can tell, The Golden Hour was written as a literary project and as an experiment in thinking through how an idea might play out. Nevertheless, a piece of fiction such as this, taking heavy inspiration from recent and dramatic events, implies some opinions about real-life politics.

The politics of the novel are complicated, which is a good thing: you could not pigeon-hole it as a defense of any particular ideology. I found some elements compelling, and others discomfiting.

One thing I found compelling was Moss’ depiction of an ostensible (and fictional) terrorist group called Ansar al-Sahra, whose violence and crime pushes some United States government officials to support Mali’s coup leader – again, all in the novel. Part of the novel’s resolution involves Ryker’s discovery that Ansar al-Sahra has been manufactured by the coup leader and his soldiers. This discovery helps Ryker unmake the coup and restore the civilian president. That kind of statement from Moss – that the U.S. government is too gullible when it comes to terrorist “threats,” and too tolerant of thugs who claim to be anti-terrorist – is timely and appropriate. The point to me is not that real-life terrorist groups are in reality secret plots, but rather that governments frequently overreact to terrorist groups, especially new and murky ones.

There was one thing that made me uncomfortable: Moss’ inclusion of a successful armed rescue of an American hostage by American special forces. The depiction of a flawless rescue, carried out by badasses, could mislead some readers into thinking that this should always be the approach in a hostage crisis. Some armed rescues work; many others go quite badly.

Finally, there’s a point about which I felt some real ambivalence: Moss’ depiction of the State Department as a place of high drama and high-stakes decision-making. When I worked there for a year in 2013-2014, I found that many officials – even senior officials – saw their time eaten up not by making “tough calls,” but by dealing with bureaucratic pressures, including the constant demands that different U.S. government agencies place on one another. This is exactly the point that Moss is trying to make, I suppose: that true leadership means finding ways to circumvent bureaucracy. His novel is a celebration of the idea of independent, anti-bureaucratic initiative – he opens with a quote from G.R. Berridge, “The advantages of backchannels are secrecy, speed, and the avoidance of internal bureaucratic battles.” But I think Moss overestimates the room that someone like Ryker might have to improvise, to go “backchannel,” to pursue diplomacy as an adventure and a risk.

Judging from my own (albeit limited and junior) experience, I think risk-aversion is so entrenched in American diplomacy right now that Ryker’s actions are almost unthinkable. Of course, The Golden Hour is a novel and it works as a novel – it’s not meant to map onto reality one-to-one. But the question of risk-taking in diplomacy has tremendous relevance right now, and in that sense I have trouble confining to the question of the plot’s plausibility to the text.

I also am not so sure that I want some of our current officials freelancing more – I would rather see systemic changes in how the United States looks at the world and allocates its resources. The scariest thing to me, in fact, is the diplomat who races through twenty-hour days thinking they are Ryker, thinking they are caught up in a whirling drama of high-stakes events – when in fact they are just managing various inputs and outputs within an essentially closed system comprising government officials (ours and theirs). What effect, after all, has the U.S. had on the ground in Mali since 2012? Has the U.S. decisively changed the course of events there at any point? Perhaps that’s because we’re missing a Ryker; or perhaps it’s because the current bureaucratic systems and diplomatic culture prevent the development of creative policies, not just when it comes to reversing coups but also when it comes to thinking imaginatively about Muslim Africa and the wider Muslim world.