A Few Recent Reports on Sahelian Security

Here are a few reports that caught my eye recently, with key quotations from each:

  • SIPRI, “Establishing a Regional Security Architecture in the Sahel”: “The creation and branding of the FC-G5S has spurred an upsurge in programmes by international organizations and the G5 states themselves to run in parallel with the force’s military and reconnaissance operations, G5S preventative programmes and judicial procedures. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) has supported the creation of a Security Cooperation Platform (Plateforme de Coopération en Matière de Securité, PCMS) for law enforcement agents, representatives of the judicial system and advisers from Interpol to collaborate on counterterrorism and transnational organized crime. Mali, Niger and Chad are cooperating to share good practices on interrogation and trying alleged terrorists in the Afrique de l’Ouest contre la criminalité organisée (West African Network of Central Authorities and Prosecutors, WACAP). Burkina Faso is piloting a risk evaluation programme to prevent radicalization in overpopulated prisons. The AU has also stepped in to bolster the regional security efforts of the G5S countries through the African Union Nouakchott process, which aims to enhance security cooperation through intelligence-based policing, holistic treatment of criminal chains and the creation of horizontal structures to strengthen cohesion, trust and mutual assistance on security matters. The prospects for fruitful interoperability with G5S operations have heightened incentives and the impetus for the AU to revitalize the APSA in the Sahel and the Sahara region, as well as the African Standby Force. The merits of these initiatives hinge on effective coordination and information sharing across platforms, but the ad hoc nature of these collaborations still allows the G5S countries to distance themselves from the reputational shortcomings of previous institutional programmes.”
  • ISS, “What Is the African Union’s Role in the Sahel?”: “Some G5 Sahel states do not necessarily see the Nouakchott Process as an adequate or relevant framework, as it has stalled over the years. It has also been pointed out that the G5’s security development approach is a more appropriate response to the current multidimensional challenges in their respective countries. These opposing views illustrate the divergence of opinion regarding regional strategies by the AU. This comes at a time when the AU is undergoing institutional reform – one of the expected outcomes of which is a clear divide of labour between the continental and regional actors.”
  • Centre FrancoPaix, “Stabilizing Mali: The Challenges to Conflict Resolution” (p. 11): “For the moment, counterterrorism military operations are monopolizing efforts and undermining possible initiatives for peace by postponing them indefinitely. The focus on the war against terrorism creates no incentive for the Malian state to pursue peace and reconciliation and justifies the mistakes and abuses of Malian security and defence forces. It also allows militias to benefit from a counterterrorist rent when they work with international counterterrorist forces, which exacerbates intercommunal tensions…Conceptual work around the ‘terrorist’ label must be encouraged by the UN and its partners, as the concept undermines a political commitment because of the military posture that it presupposes. A conceptual shift would help put forward a political rather than a military strategy.”
  • International Alert, “If Victims Become Perpetrators: Factors Contributing to Vulnerability and Resilience to Violent Extremism in the Central Sahel” (p. 7): “One of the key findings of this research is the assertion that violent extremism in the central Sahel is primarily a response to local conflicts, and that the link with international jihadism is more rhetoric than reality. In fragile and conflict-affected states, there are a number of factors that may influence the behaviour of marginalised young men and women who are confronted with violent extremism. However, this study shows that the most determining factor contributing to vulnerability or resilience to violent extremism is the experience (or perception) of abuse and violation by government authorities – in other words, real or perceived state abuse is the number one factor behind young people’s decision to join violent extremist groups. On the other hand, the study shows that strengthening social cohesion, supporting young men’s and women’s role in their communities, and mitigating social and gender exclusion could strengthen community resilience.” This sounds a lot like the “Journeys to Extremism” report’s conclusions about radicalization among people who have had direct, negative contact with state security forces.
  • Andrew Lebovich, “Mali’s Impunity Problem and Growing Security Crisis”: “Also this week, the UN mission in Mali announced that Malian soldiers attached to the G5 Sahel Joint Force were responsible for killing 12 civilians in the town of Boulikessi, and urged the Malian government to conduct a swift, credible investigation into the murders. These major crimes threaten communal cohesion in Mali and facilitate jihadist groups’ recruitment efforts. They also undermine the role the international community plays in Mali, including its training programmes for the security forces and its (often ineffective) efforts to pressure the government to address the panoply of challenges to the country’s stability. Continuing failure to deal with these issues will only make peace harder to achieve, and will have wide-ranging consequences.”
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Mauritanian Ulama Debate a Third Term for the President

Mauritania’s President Mohamed Ould Abd al-Aziz will reach the end of his second term next year, and with it the limit of what the current constitutional provisions allow him to serve. Talk of a third term, however, has circulated for quite some time, and now the country’s religious scholars – ulama – are joining the debate. Recently, one of the most prominent senior shaykhs in the country, Hamdan Ould al-Tah, led a delegation that met the president and urged him to seek a third term. The expression of support is not necessarily surprising – Ould al-Tah has been close to different governments in Mauritania almost throughout the postcolonial period, and served as Minister of Islamic Affairs in addition to serving on various official religious bodies. Moreover, from a religious point of view, many ulama see political stability as preferable to the potential risks of change.

On the other side of the religious debate is Mahfoudh Brahim Ould Vall, vice president of Markaz Takwin al-Ulama (the Center for the Training of Ulama). The Markaz’s president is the globally famous Muhammad al-Hasan Ould al-Dedew, who is also a symbol of sorts for the Islamist movement in Mauritania, though he is not a member of the Islamist Tawassoul party. I assume that Ould Vall speaks for a broader constituency within the Islamist movement. Ould Vall argues that president, like any state functionary, is morally bound to fulfill his original commitments – i.e, to serve only what he initially said he would serve. RFI sees a generational split in this debate, but I think it may be more about which ideological tendency one affiliates with.

A third perspective comes from another globally famous Mauritanian shaykh (and former Minister of Islamic Affairs), Abd Allah Bin Bayyah. In a recent interview, Bin Bayyah said in a general sense that he believes ulama should leave politics to a country’s rulers. He did not, however, comment specifically on the third term issue in Mauritania.

On a Mauritanian Fatwa Against Operation Serval – at The Maydan

Today’s post is outsourced to The Maydan, which is a publication of the Ali Vural Ak Center for Global Islamic Studies at George Mason University. I discuss a 2013 fatwa that a group of Mauritanian scholars released. The fatwa argued against Mauritanian participation in the French-led Operation Serval, which sought to disperse jihadists in northern Mali and restore Mali’s territorial integrity. From the piece:

In the eyes of the Fatwā’s authors, supporting a Western-led (i.e., infidel-led) military intervention in northern Mali would violate the unity that is essential to the preservation of Islam. In this context, the Fatwā referenced the doctrine of al-walā’ wa al-barā’ (“loyalty to the believers and disavowal of the unbelievers”), which emphasizes loyalty to the Muslim community in exclusive preference to partnerships with non-Muslims. The doctrine of al-walā’ wa al-barā’ is often a core theme within jihadist circles.

The Fatwā did not address the Mauritanian government or make formal recommendations concerning its foreign policy; rather, the text asserted obligations and responsibilities that Muslims have toward other Muslims. Nevertheless, the authors spoke as Mauritanians. At several points, the text stated that Mauritanian Muslims have a special duty, given their proximity to Mali, to show solidarity with the Muslims of Mali. Invoking the idea of Islamic solidarity implied that the government of Mauritania, officially an “Islamic Republic,” should not endorse or participate in any Western-led military operation that might harm Muslims in northern Mali. The Fatwā, appearing just days after Operation Serval began, seemed aimed in part at the government. In this sense, the text fits within a broader context of Islamic discourses in Mauritania that have attempted to influence the government’s foreign policy.

If you read the piece, I welcome any comments you may have.

Hunger in Mauritania

IRIN, May 26:

Hundreds of thousands of Mauritanians are struggling to feed themselves as they fall victim to the effects of climate change.

A chronically hungry country, Mauritania could see the availability of food drop to its lowest level in years if drought continues to ravage crops, livestock and livelihoods.

An estimated 1.3 million people will face food insecurity this year, according to the latest assessment by the UN-backed Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC).  Among them, nearly half a million people are expected to fall into severe food insecurity by June and be “unable to meet their food needs without external assistance.” Around 21,000 will suffer extreme food insecurity, or a near complete depletion of their livelihoods.

FEWS Net, May 4:

In areas of Mauritania and Senegal that experienced poor rainfall last year, 2014/15 crop production was between 30 and 80 percent below average, causing household food stocks to deplete earlier than normal and prolonging the period of time that households depend on market purchases to meet their food needs. Below-average incomes from crop sales and reduced milk availability are also limiting food access. To cope, households are selling additional livestock, increasing debt levels, engaging in increased levels of wage labor, migration, fishing, and forestry product sales (charcoal, wood, etc.), and reducing the quantity and quality of their meals. Even if the coming June to September rainy season is relatively normal, affected areas will face Stressed (IPC Phase 2) or Crisis (IPC Phase 3) food insecurity between now and the start of new pasture growth in July in pastoral areas or early crop harvests in September in agropastoral areas. A small number of very poor households will also face Emergency (IPC Phase 4) food insecurity, particularly in Mauritania.

WFP, May 25:

Mauritania hosts the largest number of Malian refugees. As of 31 March 2015, over 52,000 refugees are living in Mbera refugee camp. Since the beginning of the political turmoil in Mali, WFP has been providing life-saving food assistance to refugees who continue to depend largely on external support to meet their most basic survival needs.

IFRC, May 29:

IFRC has launched three emergency appeals in The Gambia, Mauritania, and Senegal. Totalling 5.1 million Swiss francs, the appeals aim to support the National Societies in the three affected countries through activities focusing on food security, nutrition promotion, building resilience, and disaster risk reduction.

[…]

Immediate interventions include distributing enriched flour for children under two years and for pregnant or lactating women who are at risk of malnutrition, to prevent a deterioration of their nutritional status, and to support the adoption of better nutritional practices which are essential to reducing malnutrition. Cash transfers will allow families to purchase what best suits their immediate needs, while longer term support will see families receive agricultural and livestock inputs to strengthen and protect their livelihoods.

 

Controversy around a Mauritanian Atheist

Reportedly (Arabic), A Mauritanian man recently professed atheism on Facebook. I haven’t been able to find the original page, but the incident has caused controversy in the country. The government’s High Council for Fatwa and Grievances released a statement (Arabic) announcing “our distress and our disapproval” of the man’s words and calling for legal action against him.

This incident is the latest in a series of high-profile instances of alleged unbelief, apostasy, or blasphemy in Mauritania. 2014 saw a wave of such events. One man was jailed in January and then sentenced to death in December for writing an online article perceived as blasphemous. Another man was arrested for allegedly urinating on a copy of the Qur’an in February 2014, while March 2014 saw protests over an incident in which a small group of men allegedly desecrated copies of the Qur’an. Those events were seemingly unconnected, but coming in rapid succession they elevated tensions around issues of apostasy and blasphemy.

Other events have had a more political tinge. Also last year, Mauritanian religious scholars accused leftist writers of spreading atheism. In 2012, the anti-slavery activist Biram Ould Abeid publicly burned texts from the Maliki legal school (one of Sunni Islam’s four major schools, and the one most widespread in northwest Africa) in protest at the ways in which such texts had been invoked to justify slavery. The burning triggered protests and resulted in his arrest. It’s important to note that burning Maliki texts is categorically different from desecrating a Qur’an, and that Ould Abeid was not making a symbolic gesture of unbelief but rather was attempting to confront and overturn a certain interpretation of tradition.

In any case, the point is that accusations of blasphemy can be directed at both isolated individuals and opposition movements. Also, the issue has become sensitive enough that even one individual’s Facebook posts can elicit a government response.

Mauritania’s Legislative Elections: A New Date, and a New Delay

On August 3, Mauritania’s Communications Minister Mohamed Yahya Ould Hormah announced that the country would hold legislative and municipal elections on October 12 of this year. The government has repeatedly delayed elections, originally scheduled for 2011, due to disagreements with the opposition. Unless I am mistaken, the last time Mauritania held parliamentary elections was in November/December 2006 for legislative and municipal seats, and January/February 2007 for senate seats. If this is correct then Mauritania has not held legislative elections since the military coup of August 2008 that brought current President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz (who won election as a civilian in July 2009) to power.

This month’s attempt to schedule an election also met with a delay. Parties within the Coordination of Democratic Opposition (COD) coalition swiftly announced their plans to boycott the October elections. Among those threatening a boycott were the left-leaning Union of the Forces of Progress (UFP) and the Islamist National Rally for Reform and Development (Tewassoul). Tewassoul and others cite concerns about transparency and fairness. Their stated concerns resemble those raised by other COD parties in August 2011. For those interested in further details, Tewassoul’s website features an August 12 COD statement (Arabic) entitled “Why is [the COD] Boycotting the Elections for Which the Regime Calls?”

In response to the boycott threat, the government on August 22 postponed the elections until November 23. A second round may follow on December 7.

The government’s responsiveness to the opposition’s boycott threats is noteworthy. What do you think? Does it bespeak fear, or political savvy, or both?

Mauritania’s Salafi Prisoners: A Release and Some Questions

This week, Mauritanian authorities released two prisoners (Arabic), Bashir Kharashi Sall and Sidi Ould Mamuri (my transliterations), who had been held for five years on charges of links to violent Islamic groups. The Mauritanian press often refers to such prisoners as “Salafis,” and I will too for the sake of shorthand, but it’s worth bearing in mind that Salafi is a theological category whose complexity such shorthand frequently masks.

From my limited research so far, it seems that the two men were held in connection with a gun battle between security forces and Al Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb that occurred on the outskirts of Mauritania’s capital Nouakchott in April 2008 (video report). My evidence is this 2010 list (Arabic) of accused persons from the “Santar Amtir incident” (my transliteration, which is likely wrong – the Arabic is صانتر أمتير), which from what I can deduce refers to the area where the April 2008 clashes occurred. The two men appear on that list.

The issue that the Mauritanian press (see first link above) raises this week in its coverage concerns not violence, however, but dialogue. Sall and Mamuri participated, as have numerous other Salafi prisoners, in government-facilitated conversations with Islamic scholars who attempted to alter the Salafis’ thinking on various issues. The linked article above hints that the dialogues have borne inconsistent or at least opaque fruit: the two men, despite their participation in dialogue, “were kept in prison without release despite the issuance of pardon for tens of prisoners who participated in the dialogue.” Other participants in the dialogue, the article continues, remain in prison today, awaiting pardon or sentencing.

Rehabilitation programs for jihadists raise concerns about how to measure success and prevent recidivism; the architects of such programs presumably wish neither to release potential recidivists nor to detain genuinely reformed individuals, and much less to detain people who were innocent in the first place. If I am right in detecting a critical tone in one Mauritanian press outlet’s coverage of these issues, then it seems segments of Mauritanian society would like their government to communicate more clearly the criteria it uses to keep certain individuals behind bars.