Roundup on Conflict Issues in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger (12/2/2020)

There’s a lot of news and reports coming out that probably each deserve their own post, but given end-of-the-semester stress, it’s wiser for me to just do a roundup today. A few things that have caught my eye recently:

  • Dan Eizenga and Wendy Williams, “The Puzzle of JNIM and Militant Islamist Groups in the Sahel,” Africa Center for Strategic Studies, December 1. An excerpt: “JNIM’s structure functions as a business association on behalf of its membership, giving the impression that it is omnipresent and inexorably expanding its reach. The characterization of JNIM as a single operational entity, however, feeds the inaccurate perception of a unified command and control structure.”
  • Danielle Paquette and Henry Wilkins, “An American moved to Burkina Faso for ‘a better life.’ He was shot dead outside a military base,” Washington Post, December 1. This is a very sad story, and some of the saddest parts actually relate more to the United States than to Burkina Faso.
  • AFP reports (December 1, French) on a tenuous peace initiative in Ménaka, Mali.
  • France24 has a roughly 16-minute video report (November 27, French) by the journalist Cyril Payen, who embedded with Nigerien special forces.
  • This is a good interview (November 24) with Guillaume Soto-Mayor about Sahelian security issues.

Niger: Context on the Rejection of Hama Amadou’s Candidacy

On November 13, Niger’s Constitutional Court released a decree regarding the 41 aspiring candidates for the upcoming presidential elections, whose first round is scheduled for December 27. The Court rejected 11 candidacies and validated 30; the most prominent of those rejected was Hama Amadou, the runner-up from the last election in 2016 and the third-place finisher from the election of 2011.

The Court’s decision on Amadou’s candidacy was not a 100% foregone conclusion, but on the other hand precisely no one is surprised. Press coverage of the race, and of Amadou’s bid in particular, has long noted that the invalidation of his candidacy was a strong probability. The rejection rests primarily on the fact that in March 2017, Amadou was sentenced to a year in prison after being condemned (perhaps spuriously) for alleged participation in a baby trafficking ring.

Page 5 of the decree I linked to above lays out the legal arguments for rejecting his candidacy. The arguments and counterarguments have been circulating for months if not longer. The argument is that the electoral code disqualifies anyone who has been sentenced to a year or more in prison; the counterargument from Amadou, made well in advance of this decision, was that he still enjoyed the necessary “civil and political rights” mentioned in another provision of the electoral code. Amadou has steadily denounced the legal proceedings against him since 2014, calling them all politically motivated. Meanwhile, the electoral code itself has also been criticized by the opposition as non-inclusive and pro-incumbent.

Even if Amadou had been allowed to contest, it might not have affected the ultimate outcome. In November 2015, on the eve of the 2016 elections the authorities detained Amadou, after he return from exile. That election went to a run-off, which the incumbent (Mahamadou Issoufou, who is now in his second and final term) won with 92.5% of the vote. In other words, authorities clearly have multiple chokepoints at which they can block Amadou from coming even close to winning. I

The way Issoufou’s team has treated Amadou is bad, and anti-democratic. But Amadou’s own career may be a bit checkered, as this micro-biography reminds us (from this paper, p. 2, footnote 4:

Hama Amadou has been a dominant figure in the Nigerien political landscape since the 1980s. He has been prime minister twice, under the presidency of Mahamane Ousmane (1995–96) and that of Tandja Mamadou (2000–07). After a period of exile in France, due to allegations of corruption, he returned to Niger in 2010.

Of course, corruption allegations can be politicized just as much as trafficking allegations can, and Tandja (who was in office 1999-2010; for clarity the dates given in the quote refer to Amadou’s tenure as Prime Minister under Tandja) was no angel – he was ultimately overthrown in a coup after engineering a referendum to keep him in power past a two-term limit. Perhaps Amadou has simply been on the wrong side of various fallings-out with Nigerien heads of state. But this may be one of those stories that, as so often, ultimately has no good guys. That doesn’t excuse the treatment of Amadou in 2016 or 2020, however.

What I don’t understand (and I welcome readers’ input) is why Issoufou and his designated successor, Mohamed Bazoum, appear so reluctant to face Amadou in a truly open electoral contest. The ruling party has a lot of advantages, and in any case Issoufou beat Amadou (and then received his support in the second round) in what seemed to me (perhaps naively) to be a relatively clean election in 2011. But perhaps this Court decision is just the form of extra insurance that Issoufou and Bazoum want now.

From the way I’m writing, of course, you can probably tell that I am assuming the Court is under Issoufou’s control. Maybe I’m being unfair. But the perception, at least, of undue executive influence over such courts is becoming a problem across the Sahel:

Some institutions involved in the electoral processes in Niger and Burkina Faso [where presidential and legislative elections will take place on November 22] – particularly their constitutional courts and electoral commissions – are increasingly being criticised.

In Mali, the loss of confidence in these institutions led to the rejection of the results promulgated in April. This triggered a series of demonstrations, culminating in an institutional stalemate and the coup d’état on 18 August.

If we assume that the Court acts at Issoufou’s behest or at least reads his unstated wishes and then channels them, we can say that such maneuvers are a more sophisticated form of rigging than, for example, day-of-election ballot box stuffing. But court-based manipulation of the electoral field is still a relatively blunt tool, and one whose use comes with costs. Namely, the costs are some citizens’ loss of confidence in the process, and perhaps not just citizens who back Amadou or any other of the rejected candidates. The risk here, I think, is not mass electoral violence or anything that dramatic, but rather a continued long-term erosion of faith in the political system. The “political class,” when prominent members allege fraud in one breath and defend working with Issoufou in the next, does not necessarily help build confidence either.

What next for Amadou? Jeune Afrique asks. He does not have many good options, it seems, and as one anonymous diplomat quoted in the article puts it, Amadou “could try to launch a power struggle with le pouvoir, especially in Niamey, where his party is very strong, but that’s a dangerous game.”

Niger: A Glimpse of the Simultaneously Contentious and Cohesive Political Class

Earlier this week, Jeune Afrique published an interview with the Nigerian politician and presidential candidate Seini Oumarou. The candidate for the former ruling party the National Movement for a Society of Development (MNSD), Oumarou was prime minister from 2007 to 2009 under President Mamadou Tandja (in office 1999-2010). Niger will hold the first round of its presidential elections (coupled with legislative elections) on December 27. Oumarou placed second in the 2011 elections and third in the 2016 elections.

I don’t mean to single out Oumarou, but the interview exemplifies some of what observers (Sahelian and non-Sahelian) have been saying with regard to the “political class.” That term has been used a lot in the wake of turbulent events (a summer of protests, then a coup, and now a transition) in Mali this year. The term also applies to other Sahelian countries, referring in my view to (a) the relative staleness of the personalities at the top of the political scene, (b) the relative similarity of top politicians’ resumes and backgrounds, and (c) their relative solidarity with one another as a class.

In a way, having a political class is not at all unique to the Sahel. My own country just elected someone who was in high office from 1973-2017, and who has run for president three times, beginning in 1987. Despite a great deal of concern about the “partisan divide” in the United States, one also sees a great deal of cross-party solidarity as a class, with “country club rules in Washington” coming into play in subtle but consequential ways. Meanwhile, on the one hand, one could argue quite plausibly that in the Sahel, there is more fluidity in terms of figures moving in and out of government, party lines getting blurred, party formation serving as a vehicle for senior politicians’ direct political interests, professed ideologies getting muted, etc. On the other hand, President-elect Joe Biden may appoint some Republicans to his cabinet (as Barack Obama did), so I don’t want to say the Sahel is completely unique in terms of ostensible opposition figures going in and out of government.

Still, one striking thing in the Jeune Afrique interview is that Oumarou articulates no criticisms of outgoing President Mahamadou Issoufou or Issoufou’s designated successor, Mohamed Bazoum. Potentially limiting Oumarou’s ability to make such criticisms, of course, is his official role as “High Representative of the State” during Issoufou’s second term (2016-present). The MNSD has also participated in several unity governments during Issoufou’s two terms, decisions that have prompted splits within the party. Oumarou says in the interview that the MNSD’s decision to join Issoufou was in response to “an exceptional situation,” in other words the mounting insecurity in the country, and that the MNSD participated in the unity initiative “without losing its independence.” I’m not cynical enough to dismiss those motives – certainly the situation was bad in 2016 and is in many ways worse now. But it does leave the MNSD in an awkward position – neither the ruling party nor, at this point, really the opposition either. Asked “how do you judge the president’s record?” Oumarou cannot really answer substantively except to essentially plead with Issoufou, indirectly, for free elections. “If he does that, I believe Nigeriens will be disposed to forget all the bad sides of his record.” Yet Oumarou doesn’t say anything specific he believes Issoufou did wrong. Asked by the interviewer about the ongoing scandal surrounding alleged corruption in security contracts, Oumarou says clearly that members of the president’s team are implicated, that soldiers on the front lines were left poorly equipped, and that justice should be done. But that’s only when pushed and, at least here, Oumarou never gives a specific reason why Nigeriens should vote for him and his party.

Later in the interview, Oumarou essentially acknowledges, at least in my reading, that the entire political and legal system in Niger is subject to negotiation among the key players. Given legal challenges to the candidacies of both Bazoum (over allegations that he was born in Libya, not Niger) and Hama Amadou, a leading opposition figure (over his conviction, despite his protestations of innocence, in a baby-trafficking case), Oumarou seems to suggest that both candidacies should be allowed to go forward in order to avoid allegations of bias against the Constitutional Court. More strikingly, Oumarou suggests that Issoufou’s side tampered with the results of the 2016 election to block Oumarou and the MNSD from advancing to the second round. If Oumarou really believes that and was nevertheless willing to join Issoufou’s government later that year, that combination of attitudes points again to the simultaneously contentious and cooperative workings of the political class in Niger.

Two Recent Analyses of Niger’s Elections

Niger will hold the first round of its presidential and legislative elections on December 27, and municipal and regional elections on December 13 (see more details on the timetable here). I expect the ruling party’s candidate, Mohamed Bazoum, to win, quite possibly in the first round.

Here are two recent analyses I’ve read.

Tatiana Smirnova, “Une autre présidentielle sous tension en Afrique de l’Ouest : le cas nigérien” in Bulletin FrancoPaix, Vol. 8, No. 5, pp. 8-10. The conclusion:

This text shows that the opposition in Niger, today essentially composed of different formations coming out of the old single party [the MNSD], is weakened. Nevertheless, these divisions will probably not prevent the opposition from getting organized and supporting a candidate capable of rallying people against PNDS-Tarayya [the current ruling party]. The 2020 election will thus symbolize the restructuring of the Nigerien political scene, a process linked to PNDS-Tarayya’s arrival in power in 2011 after dozens of years spent in the opposition, and/or in circumstantial coalitions with MNSD-Nassara and its allies during the period 1990-2011. This election will also be an indicator of the capacity of Nigerien institutions and politicians to collaborate in order to avoid the worst scenarios.

Sebastian Elischer, “Niger’s Elections Amid Violence and Authoritarian Backsliding,” Italian Institute for International Political Studies. An excerpt:

The PNDS is the only party that has a viable party infrastructure across the country. So far, the PNDS has managed to maintain a united front, which is a rare achievement in Niger’s volatile party system. Hama Amadou, a key architect of Issoufou’s 2011 electoral success, managed to reach the second round of the presidential election in 2016. This was an impressive achievement given that he spent the electoral campaign behind bars. Amadou’s political vehicle, Moden FA Lumana suffers from internal rivalries. Seyni Oumarou, the current high representative of the President and a former Prime Minister (2007 to 2009) is another top contender. His party, the Mouvement National de la Société de Développement (MNSD) shaped Nigerien politics throughout the 1990s and 2000s. Since the downfall of President Tandja in 2010 it has experienced many breakaways. Bazoum, Amadou, and Oumarou have been political household names since the return of multiparty democracy in 1993. To what extent either of the three can inject popular enthusiasm into the electoral process is questionable.

Roundup: Recent Assessments of U.S. Government Approaches Toward the Sahel

Here are a few items that I saw recently, all in very different ways assessing and critiquing aspects of how the United States government (or parts of it) has/have interacted with the Sahel:

  •  Loren DeJonge Schulman of the Center for a New American Security, “Working Case Study: Congress’s Oversight of the Tongo Tongo, Niger, Ambush.” I learned a lot from this. It reinforces my impression (and this is me speaking, not even paraphrasing Schulman) that U.S. troops are sometimes effectively on combat missions even if those missions go by highly euphemistic names. And there is not much oversight.
  • Nick Turse for the New York Times, “How One of the Most Stable Nations in West Africa Descended Into Mayhem.” This is a major piece of reporting. If you read it seeking a comprehensive explanation of Burkina Faso’s crises, you may walk away disappointed; if you read it as a critique of the United States government’s approach to Burkina Faso, the piece will probably make more sense.
  • State Department Office of Inspector General, “Audit of the Department of State Bureau of African Affairs Monitoring and Coordination of the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership Program.” Some pretty harsh assessments in there – but pretty fair, from what I can tell.

Niger: Key Points from President Mahamadou Issoufou’s Recent Interview with France24

On October 12, France 24 published a video interview with Niger’s President Mahamadou Issoufou. The headline from France 24, echoed in some Sahelian media coverage of the interview (example), was somewhat surprising to me: these headlines focused on Issoufou’s reiteration that he will not be seeking a third term. I had thought that he had made this very clear, including by clearly designating his preferred successor in the person of Mohamed Bazoum (whom I expect to win the elections in December 2020/February 2021); and in the interview itself, as I note below, both he and the interviewer take it for granted that Issoufou is committed to stepping down at the end of his term. So perhaps this is something of a media narrative, a kind of generalized skepticism among headline writers that any African leader would really step down voluntarily.

Here are my notes on the interview:

  • Responding to the first question, about whether Mali’s recent prisoner exchange will ultimately prove destabilizing, Issoufou expressed happiness and congratulations over the release of Soumaïla Cissé and several Europeans. Issoufou argued that there are no “ideal solutions” in such situations and that governments must make compromises. Issoufou’s essentially unqualified support for this deal could be seen as a contrast with some more critical remarks he has made in the past about, for example, the situation in Kidal and what he sees as the Malian state’s unfulfilled responsibilities there.
  • Concerning the second question, about the investigation following the August 9 attack at Kouré, Niger, I didn’t find Issoufou’s answer very specific or substantive.
  • Concerning the third question, on COVID, Issoufou mentions what I think of as the standard (though not necessarily wrong) list of factors explaining Africa’s relatively resilience in the face of the pandemic: past experiences, youthful population, etc. He points to Niger’s strikingly low case and death rate as evidence that the health sector, despite its weakness, has performed very well. And definitely in terms of confirmed official cases, Niger appears to have done quite well – better, in fact, than its neighbor Burkina Faso.
  • Regarding the threat of terrorism and criminality, Issoufou evokes what he sees as a multi-faceted policy response: ideological, economic, security, development, democracy, etc.
  • Asked to summarize his record after nearly ten years in office, Issoufou notes his efforts to assure security and consolidate democracy – and it is here that he mentions that he has kept his promise by not seeking a third term, and he emphasizes that the elections will be transparent and clear. It is a bit out of context for France 24 and others to run with the headline that Issoufou is rejecting a third term, because both the interviewer and Issoufou take that as a given in their exchange. Were I writing the headline, I would have gone with Issoufou’s promise for a “free and transparent” election – that’s the real question now. Issoufou avoids discussing any particular case of third-term-seeking elsewhere in the region, but argues that the Africa-wide trend is against third terms.
  • The last question concerns regional free trade and economic integration, and I didn’t find anything in the answer particularly striking.

Mali: Quick Context on the Two Italian Hostages Released

Yesterday, October 8, the head of Mali’s presidential crisis cell confirmed the secure return of four hostages held by jihadists, specifically by Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wa-l-Muslimin (the Group for Supporting Islam and Muslims, JNIM).

One of these four returned hostages is famous – Soumaïla Cissé, formal head of Mali’s opposition, who was kidnapped while campaigning in the Niafunké district of the Timbuktu Region in March.

And another hostage is a relatively familiar name to Sahel watchers – French national Sophie Pétronin, who was kidnapped in Gao, Mali in 2016.

The other two individuals are less well known. They are two Italian nationals who were kidnapped in separate incidents. One is a priest, Pier Luigi Maccalli, who was kidnapped in September 2018 near Makalondi, Niger (map), very close to the border with Burkina Faso. The village/parish where he was serving, Bomoanga, and the schools associated with his mission, have been targeted in other jihadist attacks as well. The other Italian citizen, Nicola Chiacchio (in some reports and sources, Ciacco), is described in one account as a “tourist who was last known to be cycling from Timbuktu to Douentza,” both in Mali (map of Douentza here). He was kidnapped around February 2019.

The two Italians appeared together in a proof of life video in March 2020. The brief video, and some coverage, are available here; additional coverage is here.

MENASTREAM has a very useful map showing Western hostages held in the Sahel, updated to reflect these four figures’ release:

Reuters provides some details about the lead-up to the hostage releases here.

Unfortunately I can’t do much analysis due to time constraints, but one thing that strikes me is how much the conversation about hostage releases has changed since, say, 2011-2013. Back then I heard a lot more open contempt, at least in the U.S., for the idea of paying ransoms or exchanging prisoners with jihadists. Now the tenor of the public conversation, at least online, appears to run very much in the direction of unreservedly celebrating the return of these hostages and therefore tacitly or explicitly accepting the costs as being worth it. The online conversation has shifted, I think, and the makeup of the voices participating in the online conversation has also changed and expanded significantly, when I step back and think about it. That’s good, I’d say.

Translation and Brief Commentary on the Islamic State’s Claim of Responsibility for the August 9 Attack in Kouré, Niger

Yesterday (September 17), in issue 252 of the Islamic State’s weekly Arabic newsletter Al-Naba’ (available for registered users at Jihadology), the organization stated that it had perpetrated the August 9 attack that killed six French citizens and two Nigerien citizens in the Kouré giraffe reserve southeast of Niger’s capital Niamey.

From the moment the attack was known, suspicion fixed on the Islamic State and specifically on the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS), which operates primarily in the Mali-Niger-Burkina Faso borderlands. As I noted at the time, though, the attack and its aftermath – including the lag between the attack and this claim of responsibility – contributed to a climate of uncertainty and fear in the Sahel and in western Niger specifically. This claim of responsibility will not, I think, alleviate that overall sense of dread, which related somewhat to the question of authorship but was even more connected to the location – Kouré (map) is in a zone that was previously considered safer than other parts of the Tillabéry Region, which encompasses Niamey.

Al-Naba’ is sometimes inaccurate, often short on crucial details, and is obviously quite subjective. I do not see anything glaringly inaccurate in my first reading of the article in Al-Naba’ 252 – but the passage describing the Kouré attack is brief and vague. I urge readers to bear this in mind as Western media and analysts extrapolate from what is ultimately a very skeletal write-up.

In particular, as I wrote on Twitter yesterday, beware the slippage you may see between Islamic State, ISGS, and Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP). ISWAP can refer to a territorial concept used by the Islamic State to describe events in both the Sahel and the Lake Chad Basin, and ISWAP can also refer specifically to a Lake Chad-based organization that originated as a breakaway, majority faction of the (now rump) Boko Haram in 2016. If Islamic State media file ISGS operations as part of activities within “West Africa Province,” that does not mean that ISWAP, in the sense of that Lake Chad-based organization, is directly supervising and participating in ISGS attacks. To repeated what I said on Twitter, note that Al-Naba’ 252 has separate articles for describing recent events in the Lake Chad Basin (p. 7) and the tri-border Sahelian zone of Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso (pp. 9-10). The description of the Kouré attack comes in the latter article (p. 9). So although the Islamic State considers it all “West Africa Province,” even they make an implicit separation in some media products between the Lake Chad Basin (including southeastern Niger) and the Sahel (including western Niger, where Kouré is).

For further context, the section on the Kouré attack is sandwiched between two other sections titled, respectively, “Killing of a Leader in the Movement for the Salvation of Azawad” and “Capture and Killing of a Major Spy for the Forces of Barkhane.” These are two of ISGS’ main enemies – the context is, again, Sahelian and specifically the tri-border zone.

Below I’ve translated the relevant excerpt on Kouré. Three further quick points:

  • The authors at Al-Naba’ seem most excited about the media and propaganda benefits they see in the attack – an opportunity, in the authors’ eyes, to undermine French narratives about counterterrorism in the Sahel.
  • There are no real details about the attack beyond what was known already from press reports.
  • The sense I get is that this was perpetrated by a single unit, most likely belonging to ISGS, and did not represent any complex coordination between ISGS and ISWAP as organizational entities.

Killing of 6 French in a Special Operation Near Niamey

That same Sunday [as an ISGS attack near Indelimane, Mali – map] witnessed a special operation by the soldiers of the Caliphate. The source told Al-Naba’ that a security detachment executed a sudden attack with automatic weapons on a number of France’s Crusader citizens in the Kouré area southeast of Niamey, the capital of Niger. This resulted in the killing of 6 of them after they were captured, and two of their apostate companions from Niger.

The apostates and Crusaders have acknowledged this blow. They demonstrated their fear that it would affect the reputation of their military campaign, through which, they claim, they have been able to kill the mujahidin and curtail their capacity to launch operations against them.

This operation also produced a media hubbub, due to the nationality of those killed and the place in which it occurred, at a distance of only an hour from the capital Niamey in a famous tourist area. It has been considered a major security breach for all the apostates’ defenses.

Boko Haram/ISWAP Roundup for September 17, 2020

Previous roundup here.

The Emir of Biu Umar Mustapha-Aliyu, an important figure in Borno State’s hierarchy of hereditary Muslim rulers, passed away on September 15 at the age of 80. He had been emir since 1989.

Amnesty:

In this open letter to the President, Amnesty International urges the Nigerian government to ensure all children detained in Giwa Barracks, Kainji military base, Maiduguri Maximum Prison, the Operation Safe Corridor facility outside Gombe, and other detention facilities associated with the conflict in Northeast Nigeria are immediately released, or are only detained as a very last resort and held in humane conditions in a civilian facility. The organization also calls for the immediate release of these children and access for them to education and psychosocial support.

Some of the latest violence:

  • An ISWAP attack at Wasaram, Kaga Local Government Area, killed 8 on September 15. “The insurgents had accused the villagers of alerting troops about their movement on their way to rob traders in the nearby town of Ngamdu…Soldiers intercepted the jihadists and engaged them in a gun battle.” ISWAP also reportedly killed 3 others in Auno, another village.
  • Here is the Council on Foreign Relations’ Nigeria Security Tracker for September 5-11.
  • The Islamic State’s Al-Naba’ 251 (10 September, p. 6, available for registered users at the Jihadology website) briefly describes some attacks in Borno, Yobe, and Chad.

UNHCR has published its August 2020 “North-East Situation Update.” An excerpt:

The volatile security environment in North-East Nigeria continues to hinder the provision of Protection and Multisectoral assistance to the affected population in the States of Borno, Adamawa, and Yobe (BAY States). In August, Non-State Armed Groups (NSAG) officially declared humanitarian actors a legitimate target, increasing the risk in the humanitarian delivery programme. In Borno State, indiscriminate attacks against civilian and military targets continued with NSAG mounting illegal vehicle checkpoints to rob, abduct and kill; other incidents have been recorded such as abduction of civilians during daily activities in their farmlands or while fetching firewood in areas outside the safe perimeters in the deepfield locations in Bama, Gwoza, Gubio, Dikwa, and Mungono. In addition, there has been raids on health facilities in Magumeri. In Adamawa and Yobe States several incidents of armed robbery, kidnapping, abduction for ransom, and killing were reported. NSAG attacks and threats of imminent attacks on the communities in North-East is causing widespread fears amongst the civilian population.

Adedigba Adebowale, Premium Times (September 13), “How Boko Haram Insurgency Worsened Malnutrition, Immunisation in Nigeria’s Northeast.”

On September 11, Borno State Governor Babagana Zulum visited refugees in Diffa, Niger and then visited displaced persons in Damasak, Borno. More here about plans to return refugees from Niger to Nigeria.

Niger: A Devastating Report on Summary Executions of Civilians in Tillaberi, and a Hard Denial from the Ministry of Defense

On September 4, Niger’s National Human Rights Commission published its report on the disappearance of 102 civilians in Inates, a commune in the Ayorou Department in Tillabéri/Tillabéry Region; the disappearances in question occurred in incidents between March 27-29 and on April 2, 2020. Here is a map showing Ayorou town – this is western Niger, near the border with Mali. The Tillabéri Region, particularly the border areas, is a major site of operations for the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara – see International Crisis Group’s report on Tillabéri here. As such Tillabéri is also a major zone of counter-jihadist operations. And Niger, which has not had the same level of abuses against civilians as have its neighbors Mali and Burkina Faso, is now – tragically – catching up.

In a mission carried out over several periods between May and July, the Commission found six mass graves with a total of at least 71 bodies, and then worked to identify the bodies and match their names to the list of 102 missing persons. The Commission also generated its own, more numerous and specific, list of mission persons from the area.

The Commission argues strongly that the evidence points toward the Nigerien security forces as the authors of these killings. The Commission notes (p. 64) that all of the people they interviewed identified the military as the authors of mass interrogations in the region. And the Commission further reasons (p. 65) that it is “inconceivable and illogical” to think that jihadists dressed in military uniforms would have crisscrossed the region openly and freely, with “more than a dozen vehicles and tanks,” without drawing the attention of the state. The Commission further rules out the idea (p. 75) that these are bodies of civilians killed during airstrikes – rather, the Commission says, these people were victims of summary executions by the Defense and Security Forces (French acronym FDS). As the BBC notes, the Commission “said it was not possible to say whether top levels of the army were responsible” – an issue that hearkens back to the topic of this post.

In a September 11 statement, Niger’s Minister of Defense Issoufou Katambé rejected the Commission’s conclusions, particularly regarding FDS culpability:

RFI (French) has more on the Ministry of Defense’s reaction, including some provocative comments from the analyst Seidik Abba. He argues that political authorities feel they must give unquestioning support to the military because (a) they need they military to keep fighting in the border areas and (b) they can’t risk provoking a mutiny or even a coup. Abba’s comments definitely made me think – I haven’t rated the risk of a coup very high in Niger, but at the very least I share Abba’s sense that the civilian authorities are loath to avoid antagonizing or “demoralizing” the military hierarchy and the soldiers on the front lines.

Given that attitude, then, I don’t expect much accountability to come out of this process – even though the report is one of the more rigorous and thorough human rights investigations that I’ve seen from a Sahelian governmental body.

That cycle – of abuses, outcry, impunity, and backlash – is not just a byproduct of the Sahelian crisis but a constituent part of it. Both Mali and Burkina Faso have been gripped by the cycle, and it has operated at times in southeastern Niger. Now Tillabéry is, and clearly has been for some time now, facing the same cycle.