A Ministerial Security Meeting in Burkina Faso

On 16 October, ministers from Benin, Togo, Niger, and Burkina Faso met in Ouagadougou to discuss security issues and cross-border cooperation. In public remarks, attendees stressed the inter-connectedness of their sub-region and the desire for greater collaboration between police, gendarmes, and soldiers. The ministers also met Burkina’s President Roch Kaboré.

Clearly, then, the violence in Burkina Faso’s east has its neighbors worried.

These four countries are already part of different political, economic, and security organizations. All of them are members of the Economic Community of West African States. Niger and Burkina Faso are members of the G5 Sahel, which has its own Joint Force. Those two countries re also members of the U.S.-sponsored Trans-Saharan Counter-Terrorism Partnership. Niger and Benin are both members of the Multi-National Joint Task Force (to counter Boko Haram), although Benin is a minor member. There is not, to my knowledge, a formal common framework for these four countries. Perhaps we will see one emerge.

I am, in general, a skeptic about the efficacy and prospects of regional approaches to counterterrorism. The MNJTF, I think, has been less integrated than advertised, and the G5 Joint Force has gotten off to a slow and problematic start. With that said, though, more cooperation is obviously better than less. We’ll see where this goes.

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Notes on the Outcome Statement of the Lake Chad Conference in Berlin

On 3-4 September, the governments of Germany, Nigeria, and Norway, together with the United Nations, hosted a “High-Level Conference on the Lake Chad Region.” The primary aim of the conference was to close the funding shortfall for humanitarian operations in the region affected by Boko Haram – namely, northeastern Nigeria, southeastern Nigeria, northern Cameroon, the islands of Lake Chad, as well as some parts of western Chad. The conference generated some $2.17 billion in pledges, more than the organizers had hoped.

This post offers a few notes on the outcome statement, but first, here is the program, which is also worth a glance. The panel I would have most liked to see was on the afternoon of 3 September, and entitled “Regional cross-border cooperation: Interventions of the Lake Chad Basin Commission and Governors from the region.” The speakers were Mamman Nuhu, Executive Secretary, Lake Chad Basin Commission; Kashim Shettima, Governor of Borno State, Nigeria; Abali Salah Mahamat, Governor of Lac Chad Province, Chad; Midjiyawa Bakary, Governor of the Extreme North Region, Cameroon; and Mahamadou Bakabe, Governor of Diffa, Niger.

Turning to the outcome statement, a lot of the language is pretty banal and predictable. So here I’m only highlighting points that struck me as unusually substantive or noteworthy:

  • It is worth reading the statement in conjunction with UN Security Council Resolution 2349 (2017), which is referenced on p. 1. That resolution, among other matters, “Calls upon relevant United Nations entities, including UNOCA, UNOWAS, and the United Nations Office to the African Union (UNOAU) to redouble their support for Governments in the Region, as well as sub-regional and regional organizations, to address the impact of Boko Haram and ISIL violence on the peace and stability of the Region, including by addressing the conditions conducive to the spread of terrorism, and violent extremism that can be conducive to terrorism, in line with the United Nations Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy, and to conduct and gather gender-sensitive research and data collection on the drivers of radicalization for women, and the impacts of counter-terrorism strategies on women’s human rights and women’s organizations, in order to develop targeted and evidence-based policy and programming responses” (p. 4).
  • Laudably, the statement repeatedly emphasizes the need for programming that specifically addresses the needs of women and girls.
  • In the three main pages of the Outcome Statement’s text, the word “resilience” appears eight times and seems to me to have been the buzzword of the conference (as it is in various other development and humanitarian settings these days). Here is some sample language: “Strengthening resilience for sustainable development is essential for reducing vulnerabilities in the long term and efforts are already under way. We highlighted the leadership of governments in the region and the centrality of resilience-building measures at all levels.” Honestly, I have troubling telling what this means concretely. There is a section on p. 3 that clarifies things a bit: “Resilience means going beyond simply restoring the status quo ante, which contributed to giving rise to the crisis: it means building a better standard of living than before. There is an urgent need for governments and partners to continue to scale up efforts for transformational change.” But the language is so vague, even here, that I don’t quite know what the authors meant. I understand “resilience” as the capacity to withstand and even thrive amid setbacks; I suppose the real subtext here is that the donors are worried about either a real worsening of the conflict, or a future conflict, and so “resilience” becomes a code word for saying that governments need to prevent something like this from happening again.
  • Here is some more language that I found odd, from p. 2: “The conference highlighted that stabilization in the Lake Chad region is understood as supporting political processes on the ground and supporting security efforts in order to reduce violence. Stabilization seeks to enable first steps towards reconciliation between parties to the conflict and to establish social and political consensus as a foundation for legitimate political structures and long-term development. The conference underlined the importance of joint efforts to prevent further outbreaks of violent conflict and an escalation of conflicts into crises. The conference further underscored that supporting political processes to develop a common regional approach on stabilization is pivotal. The conference welcomed the establishment of the Governors’ Forum in Maiduguri in May 2018 as an important tool for cross-border cooperation. In this regard, we welcomed enhanced cooperation by the Governors of the riparian provinces and states and the consultation processes which increased civil society participation at the local level, especially of traditional and religious leaders, youth and women movements, and community health workers.” One could read “political processes” here as referring to the possibility of negotiations with Boko Haram (“reconciliation between parties to the conflict”), but one could also read it as coordination between different governments and different levels of government (“a common regional approach on stabilization”). Perhaps both senses are meant or implied.
  • The notes of criticism toward the Lake Chad governments are subtle, but they are there. From p. 3: “The conference stressed that reforms are needed to pursue more effective decentralization, and reach greater geographical equity in the allocation of public resources based on national realities. This would help building the capacity of public institutions to deliver key public services and serve their citizens to build resilience.” And from p. 2: “The conference called upon all parties to uphold their obligation to allow and facilitate timely and unhindered passage of impartial humanitarian relief for civilians in need. We expressed concern about the dangers faced by aid workers and reminded all parties that humanitarian personnel and assets must be respected and protected.” I’m sure the text of the statement was carefully negotiated, but reading between the lines suggests – to me, at least – that donors are concerned about how hierarchy, corruption, and authoritarianism are impeding humanitarian responses.
  • p. 4 of the statement breaks down the pledges made.

Three Recent Items on Niger, the Western Security Presence, and Domestic Dissent

Here are three items on Niger, from July and August, that caught my eye:

  • On 19 July, five U.S. Senators sent a letter to U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo expressing concern about Niger’s arrests of civil society activists. Two key lines from the letter: “It is vital that Niger’s leaders do not interpret our counterterrorism cooperation as license for shirking their responsibilities for good governance…We urge the State Department to speak out in support of civil society leaders jailed for exercising their freedom of expression, association, and assembly.” The signatories are Cory Booker (D-NJ), Jeff Flake (R-AZ), Christopher Coons (D-DE), Gary Peters (D-MI), and Michael Bennet (D-CO). The group visited Niger in April of this year, on a trip that also included stops in Burkina Faso, South Africa, and Zimbabwe.
  • At the Guardian, Ruth Maclean and Omar Hama Saley write about Niger’s “suppression of dissent.” Here is one key passage: “Niger is one of the most militarised countries in Africa. The government spends 21% of its small budget on defence, which means there is much less to spend on things like health and education. Hence the need for higher taxes, which the government says do not affect the poor but which have nevertheless sparked fierce opposition. Civil society leaders and rights groups say protests against this and any controversial government policies have been ‘almost systematically denied’, while pro-government marches are allowed. Detained civil society leaders have been spread out in jails across the country, meaning their families struggle to visit and feed them; several were convicted of instigating an unarmed, banned gathering last month, and released having already served their time.”
  • At the Intercept, Nick Turse writes that the projected costs of the U.S. drone facility in Agadez are rising: “The outpost — officially a new airfield and associated facilities at Nigerien Air Base 201, or AB 201 — was once billed as a $50 million base dedicated to surveillance drones, and it was to be completed in 2016.  Now, it’s slated to be a $100 million base for armed MQ-9 Reaper drones which will finally take flight in 2019, though the construction cost is hardly the end of the tab for the facility.” The costs, notably, are not just financial but also political.

The authoritarian trendline is worrying – it’s hard to summarize Niger’s political history since 1991, but “civilian authoritarianism” seems to now be a recurring theme. Meanwhile, I’m glad to see journalists continuing to assess the multi-faceted effects of the drone base on civilians in the north; I don’t want to excerpt too much from Turse Maclean and Saley, but there’s a striking paragraph in there with quotations from a man who had barely heard of the United States. The pace of social change and globalization everyone now is rapid, but this base project seems to be accelerating that pace to an even faster clip in one of the most remote parts of the world. That’s going to generate unpredictable effects (and here I’m not talking of violence, actually, but more of chaotic social change). In any case, all of these documents are worth reading in full.

Armed Drones in Niger Wouldn’t Be My Recommendation

AP:

The United States started arming drones in the West African nation of Niger earlier this year, according to the U.S. Africa Command.

“In coordination with the Government of Niger, U.S. Africa Command has armed intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) aircraft already in Niger to improve our combined ability to respond to threats and other security issues in the region. Armed ISR aircraft began flying in early 2018,” Samantha Reho, spokeswoman for U.S. Africa Command, told The Associated Press.

The armed drones are currently deployed to Niger’s Air Base 101 in Niamey. The effort was supported by Niger, and is part of the long-term strategic partnership between the U.S. and Niger to help counter violent extremists in the region, she said.

As a matter of operational security, Reho said she could not discuss whether strikes have already been carried out by the armed drones.

Regular readers will not be surprised to hear that I do not favor the use of armed drones or policies of assassination in the Sahel (or anywhere, really). I understand the main argument for their use, I think – namely, the idea that killing key bad guys will make a bad situation less bad. But evidence from elsewhere seems to suggest that things often don’t go that way. For example, much has been written in a critical vein about the U.S. drone campaign in Yemen. To take one critic’s comments, here is Jillian Schwedler, from 2015, discussing Yemen:

I would like to focus on different metric: the longer-term impact of the drone strikes on the legitimacy and attractiveness of al-Qaida’s message in Yemen and its ability to recruit among Yemenis themselves. Drone strikes are widely reported in local media and online and are a regular topic of discussion at weekly qat chewing sessions across the country. Cell phone calls spike after drone strikes, which are also widely reported on Twitter and Facebook. The strikes are wildly unpopular, with attitudes toward the United States increasingly negative. An Arab Barometer survey carried out in 2007 found that 73.5 percent of Yemenis believed that U.S. involvement in the region justified attacks on Americans everywhere.

[…]

The dual effect of U.S. acceleration in drone strikes since 2010 and of their continued use during the “transitional” period that was intended to usher in more accountable governance has shown Yemenis how consistently their leaders will cede sovereignty and citizens’ security to the United States. While Yemenis may recognize that AQAP does target the United States, the hundreds of drone strikes are viewed as an excessive response. The weak sovereignty of the Yemeni state is then treated as the “problem” that has allowed AQAP to expand, even as state sovereignty has been directly undermined by U.S. policy – both under President Ali Abdullah Salih and during the transition. American “security” is placed above Yemeni security, with Yemeni sovereignty violated repeatedly in service of that cause. Regardless of what those in Washington view as valid and legitimate responses to “terrorist” threats, the reality for Yemenis is that the United States uses drone strikes regularly to run roughshod over Yemeni sovereignty in an effort to stop a handful of attacks – most of them failed – against U.S. targets. The fact that corrupt Yemeni leaders consent to the attacks makes little difference to public opinion.

It’s not hard to imagine a similar set of interactions playing out in the Sahel – strikes that feed both anti-Americanism and contempt/mistrust for national states that willingly cede their already limited sovereignty.

I also question whether it’s really worth it to kill the top guys, especially the smart ones. Is it better to have a smart enemy, or a dumb one? It might seem intuitive that it’s better to fight a dumb guy, but dumb guys can be vicious and impetuous and if they sometimes act against their own long-term interests, their vicious and short-sighted moves can nevertheless make everything worse for everyone, including you. Then, too, dumb guys can be hard to talk to when it eventually comes time for jaw-jaw instead of war-war. Dumb guys also sometimes have a harder time holding coalitions together, so maybe that means when the dumb guy takes over from the smart guy, before too long you’re dealing not just with one smart guy but with the new dumb guy and with a couple of other guys (smart and dumb!) who didn’t want to take orders from the new dumb guy. Does that make your life better or worse? Or maybe you never get the top guy, because his whole life now turns into hiding from you and bragging about how you can’t get him, so now you content yourself with killing second-tier figures, but somehow guys keep signing up for that role. And then all of a sudden you’re killing quite a few people, and you make mistakes and kill a lot of civilians, and then you find yourself in something like the situation that Schwedler describes above, with broad swaths of the civilian population turning against both you and your “partner” governments.

So my two cents is, don’t start the cycle in the Sahel. And if you’ve started, stop it now.

Niger: States of Emergency Extended in Diffa, Tahoua, Tillabéry

In Niger, the cabinet met yesterday and issued its communiqué (French). Two notable, though unsurprising, items include the extension of the state of emergency covering Diffa and the partial state of emergency covering two departments in Tahoua ((Tassara and Tillia) and five departments in Tillbéry (Ouallam, Ayorou, Bankilaré, Abala, and Banibangou). For context, here is a map of Niger’s regions.

The state of emergency in Diffa has been in effect since February 2015 and primarily reflects insecurity stemming from Boko Haram. Diffa suffered a suicide bombing earlier this month. The state of emergency in Tahoua and Tillabéry has been in effect since March 2017 and primarily reflects spillover from jihadist violence Mali, as well as a growing conflict matrix (militia-based, ethnic-based, and jihadist, to put it a bit reductively) that increasingly implicates certain border communities as well. Both states of emergency must be renewed every three months, so this renewal is essentially a routine measure, extending the states of emergency through mid-September.

[Note: no post tomorrow, given the likely Eid al-Fitr holiday.]

A Quick Note on Banditry and Counterterrorism in Niger

RFI (French) reports that over the weekend, Nigerien soldiers in the northeast of their country clashed with armed Chadian bandits. The bandits reportedly fled toward the Nigerien border.

The incident reminds me of a quote (French) I’ve come back to again and again, from Mohamed Anacko, president of Agadez’s regional council. This came in the context of discussing France’s Sahel-wide counterterrorism program, Operation Barkhane, in a 2015 interview:

First of all, I should say that if Barkhane had not been there, the last Nigerien lock would have been forced open during the war in Mali. The national army would not have been able to prevent the terrorists from coming to set up shop in the north. But it is true that from the start, Barkhane suffered from a lack of communication. When you send helicopters and planes into the desert, without having created an information mechanism, you should expect that the populations will see a new form of colonialism in it…The inhabitants do not understand that Barkhane only takes action against certain armed groups. There are gangs, coming from Chad or Sudan for example, that practice looting, particularly since gold panning became important. But Barkhane, because that is not its mission, does not take an interest in them. Neither do the Nigerien security forces, moreover. However, these are the persons who create conditions propitious for the installation of terrorism. The risk is that the population will create militias to defend itself. What’s more, the struggle against terrorism, it’s first of all about intelligence. There must be collaboration with the inhabitants, who know the region. If not, Barkhane will have to content itself with doing tourism in the desert.

Words worth reflecting on.

Niger: On Bazoum and al-Sahrawi

Earlier this week, The Guardian published a report on the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) based on an interview with a Nigerien soldier whom ISGS held captive for three months. The whole piece is worth reading, but what stood out to me – more than the soldier’s testimonial – was a passage about an exchange between ISGS leader Abu Walid al-Sahrawi and Niger’s Interior Minister Mohamed Bazoum:

When Bazoum took the interior minister job, he sent emissaries to ask what [ISGS] wanted.

“I said ‘listen, if you have political claims, or problems with the justice, the administration, the state, then tell me’,” said the imposing Bazoum, sitting on the sofa in his Niamey office. “We are ready to discuss your problem with you and resolve it. Declare that you’re a rebel front with specific claims on the Nigerien state.”

He said he received a handwritten letter from Sahraoui himself, which said: “No, we have no problem with you; we are waging jihad against Mali.”

According to Bazoum, the letter contained a list of Sahraoui’s comrades in Nigerien jails, whom he wanted released. If they were freed, ISGS promised to shield Niger from attack.

“I freed some of them to show my good will, but I couldn’t free all of them because some were on trial,” Bazoum said.

After that, the communication channel broke down and attacks escalated. Some believe the group’s militants could still be offered an olive branch to demobilise and be reintegrated into Nigerien society. But Bazoum is not among them.

If true, this account points to some patterns that American officials and analysts are often unwilling to acknowledge: national governments sometimes communicate with jihadists on a non-hostile basis and cut, or attempt to cut, deals with them. And jihadists are sometimes willing to talk, and even to deal a bit.

I’ve been working on some pieces that touch on how different Nigerien officials’ understanding of Sahelian jihadism is from American officials’ understanding of it; here is yet another instance of that divergence.

Think Bazoum was being naive? The guy’s been around the block more than once. And you might play your cards similarly if you held the hand he does.