Regional Interconnections and Conflict in the Sahel

I am curious to hear readers’ reactions to two pieces that have appeared in recent weeks. These pieces, inspired by the recent bombings in Niger, treat interconnections between crises in different Northwest African countries, specifically Libya, Mali, and Niger.

  • AFP: “With its weak government, porous borders and proliferation of weapons, Libya has been accused of destabilising its southern neighbours, but analysts say it is wrong to point the finger at Tripoli alone. Niger’s President Mahamadou Issofou has said those behind two suicide attacks in his country on May 23 came from southern Libya. He also said the same groups had been planning another attack on Chad…Western diplomats and analysts believe that southern Libya has become a regrouping area for jihadist groups pushed out of northern Mali by a French-led offensive launched in January.”
  • Similarly, from Reuters: “Suicide attacks on a French-run mine and a military base in northern Niger have shown how an Islamist threat is spreading across the weak nations of the Sahara, meaning France may be tied down there for years to come. Regional rivalries are aggravating the problem for Paris and its Western allies, with a lack of cooperation between Saharan countries helping militants to melt away when they come under pressure and regroup in quieter parts of the vast desert. Security officials say lawless southern Libya has become the latest haven for al Qaeda-linked fighters after French-led forces drove them from strongholds in northern Mali this year, killing hundreds.”

Analyses of such interconnections are important. Just as I think the civil war in Libya played some part in intensifying the ongoing crisis in Mali, I think the fallout from war in Mali has been one key motivation for (or, at the very least, a rhetorical image invoked by) jihadist movements attacking Algeria and Niger in the first half of this year. Indeed, I would like to see deeper reflection about the unanticipated consequences of external military and political interventions in this part of the world (and in general). At the same time, I think it is important to weigh evidence carefully, to preserve awareness of how localities differ from one another even amid regional interactions, and to minimize analogical thinking (i.e., understanding one place by comparing it with another).

What do you think?

Mali: France, Kidal, and the MNLA

The story I want to tell here can be told with headlines:

  • AFP, May 18: “France Accused of Favouring Mali’s Tuareg Rebels.”
  • Reuters, May 19: “After Crushing Mali Islamists, France Pushes Deal with Tuaregs.”
  • USA Today, May 20: “French Troops Depart Mali, Leaving Joy, Worries.”

These articles leave the reader with the impression that France is continuing to intervene in Malian politics even as it reduces its military presence there, and that its political stances are proving unpopular.

France and other outside powers have flirted heavily with the idea that the Tuareg-led National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad (MNLA), a movement that advocated northern Malian separatism during the early phase of last year’s rebellion, is a politically acceptable negotiating partner, and one that deserves some political stake in post-conflict northern Mali. Some Western policymakers find this belief alluring, I suspect, because it helps them categorize northern Malians into “good” and “bad” rebels and offers hope of putting various genies back into various bottles. If the MNLA speaks for northern Malians, the argument runs, reaching an agreement with it could resolve the conflict.

My own opinion is that the MNLA’s brutality and loss of political control in early 2012 refutes the notion that they can speak for northern Mali – they only speak for part of it. The recent withdrawal from the MNLA of one of its key leaders provides further evidence that the MNLA only speaks for some.

Outsiders would be wise to question the reductionist view that positions the MNLA as the most significant political force in northern Mali. Outsiders’ attempts to apply such a view could cause backlash on the ground. As the city of Kidal, which the MNLA now helps control, becomes a symbol in struggles over the future identity of Mali, France’s positions appear out of step with the views of many Malians. The Reuters article mentioned above explains:

A standoff over how to restore Malian government authority to Kidal, the last town in the desert north yet to be brought under central control, is sowing resentment with Paris and could delay planned elections to restore democracy after a coup.

Mali’s army has moved troops towards Kidal, a stronghold of the MNLA Tuareg separatists, but missed a self-imposed deadline this week to retake the Saharan town. France, which has its own forces camped outside, does not want Malian troops to march on the town, fearing ethnic bloodshed if it is taken by force.

[…]

Many in government and on the streets of Bamako blame the January 2012 uprising by the Tuareg MNLA for unleashing the other calamities that nearly dissolved the country. Nationalists now want the army to march into Kidal to disarm the rebels.

France is instead backing secretive talks being held in neighboring Burkina Faso, designed to allow the July elections to take place, while urging Bamako to address Tuaregs’ long-standing demands for autonomy for their desert homeland.

Clashes between Arabs and Tuaregs have shown that ethnic tension remains high.

More on the talks here, and a short case study of Arab-Tuareg clashes here.

As of Wednesday (French), the MNLA had expressed willingness to let Kidal participate in presidential elections in July, but continued unwillingness to allow the Malian army to enter the city. The longer the political and military standoff over Kidal continues, the more frustrated other parts of the country could become – RFI (French) writes that Kidal has become “a national obsession in Mali,” and that its name “is on all the lips in Bamako.” Historical memories may contribute to this “obsession”: Kidal was created in 1991 (out of the Gao region) with the hopes of helping resolve the Tuareg-led rebellion of that time. Many non-Tuareg Malians reportedly blame the Tuareg for Mali’s crisis and view the Tuareg as angling for a greater share of government largesse than they deserve. As anger grows over the situation in Kidal, Malians who hold such views may become outraged by outsiders’ attempts to elevate the MNLA as the north’s premier political force.

Bombings in Northern Niger

Two bombings occurred this morning in northern Niger, one at a military barracks in Agadez (map) and another in Arlit (map), at a uranium mine operated by Somaïr, a subsidiary of the French firm Areva. At least nineteen casualties (and fifty wounded) have been reported so far, and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA) has claimed responsibility (French). MUJWA was a key member of the Islamist coalition that controlled much of northern Mali from summer 2012 to January 2013. A MUJWA member also reportedly holds four soldiers hostage.

AFP quotes a MUJWA spokesman on their motivations:

“Thanks to Allah, we have carried out two operations against the enemies of Islam in Niger,” MUJAO spokesman Abu Walid Sahraoui told AFP.
“We attacked France and Niger for its cooperation with France in the war against sharia (Islamic law).”

The BBC adds that the latter statement is “thought to be a reference to French and Nigerien involvement in combating Islamists in neighbouring Mali.”

More from the BBC’s Thomas Fessy:

There is little doubt that these two attacks are evidence of a spill-over from the conflict in neighbouring Mali. However, although Niger shares a border with Mali, the attackers are more likely to have come through southern Libya, given the location of their targets in the country’s far north. This could confirm suspicions that fighters linked to al-Qaeda had been on the move in the area.

But this would also be the bloodiest attack carried out since the French started their military campaign in Mali this year…Militants have just shown how determined they are to strike across the region.

The attacks in Niger will heighten concerns about security throughout the Sahel, including the security of multinational companies’ facilities. The attacks in Niger also highlight the unpredictability that the crisis in Mali and the French/African intervention have generated; it merits reflection that the intervention aimed in part to prevent exactly these kind of events. The governments of the region are struggling to deal with the fallout of the crisis and the intervention, and I think it is likely that there will be more bombings in the Sahel in the coming months.

RFI (French) and Jeune Afrique (French) are providing live updates on the situation in Niger.

Guest Post: “Fixing Mali: Accountability a Prerequisite”

(Today’s guest post comes from Jamie Pleydell-Bouverie, an MA Candidate [graduating this week!] at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University. The post addresses challenges of accountability in crisis-torn Mali. The author’s views are not identical to mine; I disagree with the idea of ruling out amnesty for participants in the conflict, for example. But I find his arguments thought-provoking and the issue is a timely one. Please share any thoughts in the comments section. – Alex)

As Mali gears up for elections in July amidst the phased French withdrawal that is currently underway, the next three months seem to be the overriding focus of policymakers, commentators and stakeholders. This is understandable. Mali is at a crucial juncture as it tries to consolidate French military success, provide security, re-establish constitutional order and deal with a plethora of humanitarian issues. But any sustainable fix to Mali’s multifarious crisis will have to address its root causes.

Of these, one of the most important – yet sometimes overlooked – is Mali’s longstanding history of impunity. In the North, painful memories of unpunished crimes from previous conflicts have shaped the collective consciousness of people who feel ostracized and neglected by the central government. Mali is a prime example of the power that memories of unpunished crimes have to resurface and rekindle conflict. Stories of massacres that were never investigated in the 1963 rebellion and crimes that were never redressed in the 1990s rebellion have been passed down to a new generation of fighters (see ICG’s 2012 report Avoiding Escalation). Cyclical conflict will likely continue in Mali if the cycle of impunity is not broken. It is crucial, therefore, that there is a meaningful effort to investigate instances of abuse that have occurred and hold perpetrators accountable.

Since the onset of Mali’s crisis in October 2011, serious abuses have been committed by Islamist groups (AQIM, MUJAO and Ansar Dine), the MNLA, and Malian forces. Abuses by Islamist groups include beatings, floggings and arbitrary detentions against those engaged in behaviour deemed to be “haram” or forbidden. Limb amputations and executions have been meted out as punishment, unique cultural and religious heritage has been systematically destroyed, and the Islamists’ use of child soldiers has been prolific. The summary execution of an estimated 70 Malian soldiers in the town of Aguelhoc – the “single most serious crime of this conflict” according to Human Rights Watch – was reportedly carried out by Islamists, possibly members of AQIM. Extensive abuses by the MNLA and Arab militias have also been documented, including pillaging, sexual abuse and the use of child soldiers.

Countless abuses by the Malian army have been recorded as well. Following Captain Sanogo’s coup on March 22 2012, effective command and control of the security services seriously deteriorated. Numerous instances of torture and forced disappearances were documented, particularly against “red beret” soldiers who were allegedly implicated in the counter-coup attempt on April 30. The execution of 16 Islamic preachers on their way to a religious conference in Bamako on September 8 is amongst the more shocking abuses carried out by the military. More recently, retaliatory violence by government troops in the north has surged.

Bringing Mali’s well-established culture of impunity to a close will be essential for the attainment of sustainable peace. It is particularly important that accountability applies to members of the security forces, including senior figures such as Captain Sanogo, who has been implicated by some NGOs in torture and enforced disappearances. There are some encouraging signs. Six soldiers were recently recalled to Bamako from Timbuktu following the disappearance of several civilians. These soldiers are due to stand before a Military Tribunal, which will be a first in Mali’s history. But if Mali is to break its cycle of impunity, this cannot remain an exception to the rule. Accountability must become the rule.

Any temptation to consider offering an amnesty for serious crimes in the name of reconciliation must be avoided. Reconciliation and justice are not antithetical concepts: Justice is a path to reconciliation. Indeed, the effective work of Mali’s National Dialogue and Reconciliation Commission – led by Mali’s former Minister of Defence, Mohamed Salia Sokona – will depend on the administration of even-handed justice. This, in turn, will require strengthening Mali’s key institutions – such as the judiciary, the police and army – which have long failed to be effective guarantors of the rule of law. Mali is in desperate need of institutions that can provide security and redress, which makes the task of dismantling Mali’s architecture of impunity more a project of construction than destruction.

The need for thinking and acting in multiple time horizons is essential. When countries are in crisis, policymaking is too often overtaken by events, meaning that longer term goals get ignored or put on hold. This must not happen in Mali. If those factors that gave rise to Mali’s crisis – including its deep-seated culture of impunity – are not addressed, then Mali will still be a sad example of cyclical conflict in years to come.

Somalia, Mali, and the Weakness of Analogical Thinking

NPR, in March, wrote the headline, “Western Money, African Boots: A Formula For Africa’s Conflicts.” Somalia’s “success,” the piece suggested, could be replicated in places like Mali. Bloomberg, over the weekend, made the same argument: “To Stabilize Mali, Look to Somalia’s Lessons.” From the piece:

Mali is like Somalia in that, in both places, Muslim extremists took advantage of political turmoil to seize large areas of the country. In each case, African countries agreed to send soldiers to neutralize the threat — a way around Western reluctance to commit troops to far-off places, and a local solution more likely to be acceptable to African populations. Yet the forces largely floundered when left to their own resources.

Other examples of this kind of thinking are legion.

I’ve criticized the Mali-Somalia analogy, as well as the idea of Somalia as a “success story,” here. I will add this: beyond whatever merits the analogy may have, the way in which people make it, their seeming lack of awareness or concern or curiosity about the limits of the analogy, bothers me. Does the presence of “Muslim extremists,” “political turmoil,” “African forces,” and “Western funds” establish a fundamental similarity between two places? Are the separatist movements of Mali essentially similar to those of Somalia? Are the histories of these two countries, particularly over the last twenty years, alike? Is the situation in Bamako now comparable to the situation in Mogadishu? The answer to all these questions, in my view, is no.

I do not see what is to be gained, from a policy perspective, by eliding the differences between Mali and Somalia. Yes, there are Western-funded African forces in both places. But each country seeks, and needs, political solutions that respond to its own particular histories and dynamics (Peter Tinti’s writing on Mali is relevant here). If Somalia’s “model” offers Mali anything, it is grounds for caution:

  1. The length of time it took to reconquer territory
  2. The fragility of political progress
  3. The persistence of problematic center-provincial relations (see here for a grim take on struggles over Somalia’s Jubaland)
  4. Problems with payment and funding 

Etc.

Mali is preparing for elections that will likely prove highly problematic. Mali faces a massive crisis of refugees and internally displaced persons. Mali confronts a lingering guerrilla conflict in the north. Mali is struggling to determine who will rule reconquered northern territories, and what place the separatist National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad will have in northern Mali’s future (see Reuters on Kidal). Amid these challenges, more attention to the specificity of Mali’s problems would bring greater benefit than than more casually drawn analogies between Mali and Somalia.

Ber, Mali

On Monday and Tuesday, Malian and Burkinabe soldiers moved into the village of Ber (map), in the Timbuktu region. AP calls Ber “a focal point in recent weeks of fighting between two of Mali’s ethnic minorities — Tuaregs and Arabs.”* RFI (French) has more detail on Tuareg-Arab clashes in Ber, or more specifically, clashes between the Movement of Arabs of Azawad (MAA) and the National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad (MNLA). An MAA commander (French) has stated that Arab forces forces in Ber, however, did not act on the MAA’s orders. Whatever the case, residents reportedly called on troops to pacify the village. Troops have since made a number of arrests – in one account (Arabic), these arrests targeted Arabs and raised fears in the Arab community that a “wave of new arrests” of Arabs would follow.

Events in Ber highlight, first of all, the uncertainties surrounding information coming out of northern Mali (what happened? who made decisions? who acted in whose name?) and the narratives that compete for the spotlight. These events also call attention to community-level conflicts elsewhere in northern Mali (see this article, in French, on intra-Arab fighting in Anefis, north of Gao). In my view, if you combine Tuaregs’ and Arabs’ widespread fear of communal violence, the actual occurrence of communal violence, and the competing narratives that emerge from violence, you create conditions for (adding to) long-lasting grievances and mistrust in these communities. Reported abuses by Malian soldiers against Peul, Tuaregs, and Arabs further exacerbate fear and anger.

*It’s worth mentioning that Oumar Ould Hamaha, a commander within the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa, is an Arab from Ber.

Mali: Jihadist Wives

Read the news out of Mali and you will hear almost exclusively about men. That’s one reason I was struck by this (ultimately somewhat thin) article from France 24. Another is the issue of how Islamist groups interacted with local communities in northern Mali. An excerpt:

FRANCE 24 met with the wife of a jihadist leader from the Gao region.

Mariam moved back to her mother’s house in this peaceful village near Gao, in northern Mali, when her husband left the area.

She won’t say her husband’s name, but everyone in town knows he is Abu Dardar, one of the most brutal and feared jihadist leaders in the region.

He saw Mariam in the market one day and decided he was going to marry her. He liked the way she was dressed. He hated women who wore shirts or dresses but she was veiled and already a devout Muslim. Mariam had become a radical when she married her first husband, whom she had three children with, before he abandoned her.

Slippery terms like “radical” hinder analysis more than they help in this case – what does it mean that she “became a radical”? – but the story gives a glimpse into how the Islamist coalition in northern Mali was partly localized.

I do not have much on Abu (also spelled Abou) Dardar. One Malian source (French) states that he is Algerian, as many senior leaders in the Islamist coalition are/were. After the Islamist coalition – Ansar al Din, Al Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA) – gained control of northern Mali in the spring of last year, Abou Dardar appeared frequently in the press as a spokesman. Usually news sources identified him as a MUJWA leader, but sometimes as a leader of one of the other groups (this trend, which has appeared with press coverage of other leaders, suggests either fluidity of membership between these groups, or confusion in the media, or both). We find Abou Dardar speaking to the press after reported clashes between MUJWA and the separatist northern group the MNLA in November, after Islamists’ destruction of mausoleums in Timbuktu in December, after the French intervention began in January, and during continued combat in the far north in February.

If Abou Dardar is indeed Algerian, his marriage to this Malian woman may fit part of a broader pattern mentioned in sources like this 2010 analysis (French) by Le Figaro of how AQIM developed local ties in northern Mali. Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the former AQIM commander reportedly killed this month, was one AQIM leader who allegedly married a Malian woman (from Timbuktu, in this case). A Malian source quoted by Le Figaro called such marriages “a true social intermingling [which] offers real protection.”

The marriages also make defining “local” difficult in the context of the crisis in northern Mali. Some observers are quick to depict AQIM and MUJWA as “foreign” to Mali. But the ties these groups have developed in northern Malian communities, and the fact that some members of these groups are Malian nationals, points to a more complicated reality.