Some Symbolism Behind New Street Names in Nouakchott

In Mauritania’s capital Nouakchott, the municipal authorities in Tevragh Zeina, a large and relatively upscale neighborhood, have decided to rename several major streets. Charles de Gaulle Avenue becomes Al-‘Allama al-Hajj ‘Umar Tall Avenue, John Kennedy Avenue becomes Al-‘Allama Buddah Ould al-Busayri Avenue, and Gamal ‘Abd al-Nasir Avenue becomes National Unity Avenue.

At least to me, the symbolism reads as the replacement of foreign, decolonization-era figures with regional/local Islamic leaders. ‘Umar Tall (d. 1864) was a leader within the Tijaniyya Sufi order, and the architect of a pre-colonial jihad state extending deep into present-day central and northern Mali. He is the subject of a great deal of Western scholarship, including by David Robinson. Tall, significantly, was ethnically Toucouleur, rather than Arab, and it is possible to see this street renaming as a gesture toward the idea/hope  of Islam as a basis for racial unity in Mauritania.

Buddah Ould al-Busayri (1920-2009) is actually the topic of my next book project (so perhaps I’m on the right track, research-wise!). He was imam of Nouakchott and mufti of Mauritanian throughout much of the postcolonial period, and acted as a kind of “papal” figure (somewhat similar to Stéphane Lacroix’s depiction of ‘Abd al-‘Aziz Ibn Baz in Saudi Arabia) during a period of rising Islamic/Islamist activism in the 1970s and after.

Are these renaming a form of decolonization? I’m not sure. But it’s interesting that figures such as de Gaulle, JFK, and ‘Abd al-Nasir have lost some of their resonance, perhaps above all for younger generations born long after the independence era.

 

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“Africa Past & Present” Podcast Episode on Boko Haram

I was up at Michigan State University last week for a classroom discussion (on Salafism in Nigeria, my first book) and a talk on Boko Haram (i.e., my second book and also some ongoing research). MSU has a fantastic African Studies community, including my host, Prof. Mara Leichtman, whose book examines the Shi’a in Senegal. At MSU I also had the opportunity to go on the Africa Past & Present podcast with Prof. Peter Alegi. The episode has now been posted here.

Problematic Framings from the NYT and WSJ on Terrorism and Counterterrorism in West Africa

Recently, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal wrote articles with remarkably similar headlines:

  • NYT: “Where Terrorism Is Rising in Africa and the U.S. Is Leaving”
  • WSJ: “In West Africa, Violent Extremism Spreads as U.S. Trims Military Footprint”

The words “and” and “as” are doing a lot of work in these headlines – more work than should be asked of these poor conjunctions. I know, I know, you’re never supposed to ascribe intentionality to anyone, but it looks to me as though the headline writers wanted to (a) lead readers to think that “as” means “because,” but also (b) preserve plausible deniability for when people call them on their bullshit.

In any case, Nathaniel Powell took the words right out of mouth:

There’s a lot going on with these articles, but one thing that’s clearly going on is that some American journalists went to an annual U.S. military training exercise called Flintlock. The exercise rotates among Sahelian countries, and this year the main portion of Flintlock was held in Burkina Faso. The WSJ, to their credit, is more upfront about the ways that Flintlock informed their reporting; the WSJ article leads with a description of Flintlock. The NYT is less clear about this, not mentioning Flintlock until the ninth paragraph of their story.  The NYT buries the context and presents the article as a savvy description of long-term trends – rather than, say, a readout of a few days in Burkina Faso and a handful of interviews with Nigerian special forces officers, the head of US Special Operations Command Africa, and a few think tankers and NGOers. (The NYT and the WSJ, I should add, interviewed a lot of the same people, including the Nigerian special forces colonel who gets a prominent role in both articles.)

Some of the quotes from think tankers, moreover, implicitly contradict the framing of the NYT article. Here are Jean-Hervé Jezequel and Alice Friend, both of whom I respect a ton, quoted in the NYT:

Military analysts and human rights groups cited three main reasons for the spiraling violence in Burkina Faso and its neighbors: French-led counterterrorism operations in Mali have pushed the problem south, into Burkina Faso. Armed Islamic militants have effectively exploited grievances among local populations. Abuses by security forces have fueled jihadist recruiting.

“These are a series of small rural insurgencies that are spreading,” said Jean-Hervé Jezequel, director of the International Crisis Group’s Sahel project in Dakar, Senegal.

[…]

Military officials and independent analysts stressed that American and other Western military aid may at best buy time for African allies to address poverty, lack of education, government corruption and other grievances that extremist groups seek to exploit.

“There are no fully military solutions here, just holding actions,” said Alice Hunt Friend, a former top Pentagon official for Africa and a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

So the analysts themselves are saying (a) any real or imagined U.S. drawdown is not a top-tier cause of spreading militancy, and (b) you can’t solve all this with more guns and training.

Another well-informed response to the NYT came from Peter Dörrie:

In other words, the NYT has really confused some issues regarding causality. The situation in the Sahel is bad. The situation in Burkina Faso is very bad. But the view of the world where American military deployments are the only thing standing in the way of rising jihadist tides is just fundamentally wrong. That worldview is, moreover, politically convenient for politicians, bureaucrats, and military officers in Washington, Stuttgart, Niamey, and beyond. The NYT could’ve done more here to question such narratives.

A Cabinet and Military Reshuffle in Burkina Faso [Updated]

On January 19, the cabinet of Burkina Faso stepped down, including Prime Minister Paul Kaba Thieba after three years of service. The country’s security crisis seems to have been the trigger. A new prime minister, Christophe Joseph Marie Dabiré, soon took over. According to his official biography, Dabiré served in senior positions under both Thomas Sankara and Blaise Compaoré, and was a deputy in the National Assembly from 1997-2007. A new government was announced on January 24, and it contained familiar faces from Burkinabé politics, with several key ministers (Alpha Barry at Foreign Affairs, René Bagoro at Justice) keeping all or most of their previous portfolios.

A military reshuffle soon followed (more details here), with some of the most important changes and promotions affecting the Armée de Terre and its three military regions.

Here, then, are some key civilian and military members of the reconstituted national security team:

  • Minister of Defense: Chérif Sy, former president of Burkina Faso’s transitional parliament. (Read more on the challenges he faces here, and an old but useful biography can be found here.)
  • Minister of Security: Ousséni Compaoré, longtime United Nations official and commander of Burkina Faso’s gendarmerie during the 2014 revolution, retired gendarme (according to some sources, head of the gendarmerie under Sankara, or at least high up in the gendarmerie), and in any case a close ally of Sankara.
  • Chief of Staff of the Armée de Terre: Colonel Gilles Bationo, former commander of the first military region (replacing Léon Traoré – read a bit more about the handover here; one interesting detail is that Bationo reportedly speaks both English and Arabic).
  • Head of the first military region: Colonel Yves Patrick Ouédraogo (some biographical details available here).
  • Head of the second military region: Colonel Adam Néré (short biography here).
  • Head of the third military region: Colonel Moussa Diallo (read a bit on his background here). [UPDATE]: Apparently there are two Colonel Moussa Diallos, and this one is different than the figure profiled at the link.

In terms of patterns, it’s tempting to say that within both the cabinet and the military, President Roch Kaboré had an eye out for not just his own men, but also Sankara loyalists, some of whom had opposed Compaoré. But I would need to dig a bit deeper into the bios to confirm that hunch.

Mali: Alghabass ag Intalla’s Comments on the “Sharia in Kidal” Affair

If you’re not familiar with the background about the recent dispute between the Coordination of Azawad Movements (CMA) and Malian authorities concerning the CMA’s 30 January declaration of new regulations for Kidal, then start here.

Now that the CMA has (partly?) walked back the regulations, CMA President Alghabass ag Intalla gave an interesting interview to the Malian newspaper 22 Septembre. Three quick points:

  1. Whereas the CMA’s 30 January declaration only implicitly referenced the 2015 Algiers Accord and its provisions concerning the empowerment of Qadis/Cadis/Islamic judges in northern Mali, here ag Intalla explicitly references that part of the Accord. He emphasized that the CMA remains committed to implementing and observing the Accord.
  2. Ag Intalla expresses considerable concern about artisanal gold mining in Kidal and how it brings foreigners (i.e., from West African countries) to the region. Conflicts between authorities and gold miners are now occurring in parts of the Sahel from Mali to Chad, so it’s an important trend to watch. New patterns of human movement connected to gold mining make a lot of people nervous – and/or provide a pretext for authorities and would-be authorities to assert greater control.
  3. Whereas the CMA’s critics see the regulations as undermining and challenging state authority, ag Intalla explains them as a response to the state’s absence. Viewed from a certain vantage point, this starts to look like a chicken and egg problem. On the other hand, one could argue that the state is weak/absent in Kidal in large part because the CMA has blocked and discouraged state efforts to reassert control.

 

 

Nigeria: Initial Impressions Regarding Buhari’s Re-Election

Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari has been re-elected to a second four-year term, as many observers expected. Working off of these figures for 2015 and these figures for 2019, here are a few initial points I would make:

  • Buhari’s map shifted and contracted slightly even as his absolute numbers held basically constant. That is, Buhari won 21 states in 2015 and 19 in 2019, with four states moving out of his column (Adamawa, Benue, Ondo, Oyo) and two states moving into his column (Ekiti and Nasarawa). The 2019 map is essentially just a bifurcation of Nigeria with a line running from the northeast to the southwest. In terms of absolute numbers, Buhari won roughly 15.4 million votes in 2015 and roughly 15.2 million in 2019. Turnout was low, perhaps partly because of the last-minute, one-week delay.
  • Buhari won largely because of massive margins in the north. In patterns that partly replicated patterns from 2015, Buhari scored huge margins in northern states such as Kano (1.07 million vote margin), Katsina (920,000 vote margin), and Borno (760,000 vote margin).
  • If Buhari won by fraud, it was through elevating northern vote totals while simultaneously drawing a plausible map. Some of the northern numbers deserve real scrutiny. Why was Kano such a blowout, when many observers expected it to be competitive? How did the Buhari vote in Borno jump from 473,543 in 2015 to 836,496 in 2019? At the same time, if Buhari’s camp rigged, they either wisely refrained (or were other constrained) from any attempt to take states in the south east and south south (where Buhari won nothing, although he won enough of the vote there to avoid running afoul of the requirement that the winner obtain at least 25% in at least two-thirds of Nigeria’s states). And Buhari’s camp either decided (or was forced) to run tight races in much of the southwest and the Middle Belt, ceding some states (again, Oyo, Ondo, Benue, and one might add Edo* and Taraba) and squeaking by in others (Osun, Nasarawa, and arguably Kogi, depending on what you consider a tight margin). In other words, if they rigged, they didn’t try to take the whole cake – just enough to make sure they won decisively.
  • The southwest isn’t as solid for Buhari (and Tinubu?) as I expected. In my more simplistic moments, I think of Buhari’s All Progressives Congress (APC) as a deal between the north and the southwest, personified respectively by Buhari and former Lagos Governor Bola Tinubu. But 2015 and 2019 show that even that caricature has some truth to it, TInubu can’t simply “deliver” the southwest. There are always gaps, be it Ekiti in 2015 or Oyo and Ondo in 2019.
  • The People’s Democratic Party (PDP) erred by nominating Atiku Abubakar. It sounds obvious in hindsight, but I think it bears mention: Abubakar, a former Vice President, had wide name recognition but also clear baggage, especially in terms of his previous tenure and his perceived associations (fair or unfair) with corruption. I wonder if another (younger?) candidate would have done better.

*Technically south south, but adjacent to the southwest.

Thoughts on the Reported Death of Yahya Abu al-Hammam

According to the French Ministry of Defense, Operation Barkhane killed Yahya Abu al-Hammam and ten other members of Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wa-l-Muslimin (the Group for Supporting Islam and Muslims, JNIM) on February 21 in the Timbuktu Region of Mali. The death of Abu al-Hammam, as the French noted, follows two other JNIM leaders’ (reported) deaths in roughly the past year: Amadou Kouffa, reportedly killed on the night of November 22-23, 2018 in the Mopti Region; and Abu Hasan al-Ansari, killed on February 14, 2018 in the Kidal Region.

If we look back to JNIM’s announcement video from March 2017, when JNIM formally brought together four (depending on how you count it) jihadist movements/units in the Sahara, we see that of the five men featured in the video, only two remain alive: JNIM’s overall leader Iyad ag Ghali, and Abu ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Sanhaji, a judge with JNIM’s parent organization al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).*

On one level, this acceleration in the decapitation of JNIM is a remarkable success for French counterterrorism. On another level, however, we can look at the same images from JNIM’s announcement video and see, vividly, the limits of decapitation. Abu al-Hammam and al-Ansari, after all, were not just deputies in JNIM but were themselves former deputies within individual movements and battalions. In a sense, Abu al-Hammam’s seat at the table might have gone to the AQIM battalion commander ‘Abd al-Hamid Abu Zayd, had Abu Zayd not been killed by French and Chadian forces in February 2013. Al-Ansari’s seat at the table might have gone to Mokhtar Belmokhtar, leader of al-Murabitun, had Belmokhtar not been killed (or at least forced to go into deep hiding) by a French airstrike in Libya in November 2016. Alternatively, al-Ansari’s seat might have gone to Ahmed al-Tilemsi, had the latter not been killed by French forces in Kidal Region in December 2014.

Last month I wrote a piece at War on the Rocks focusing on Abu al-Hammam’s long career in Timbuktu and analyzing some of the political opportunities and constraints he encountered. So I have some appreciation for the accumulated jihadist capital and expertise that he represented. His death is a major event in the history of jihadism in the Sahara, and it could even be taken as a symbol for the passing of a whole generation. And yet, Abu Zayd and Belmokhtar had formidable accumulated capital as well, in terms of local and translocal networks, local knowledge, symbolic resonance, and military and political experience. Were they irreplaceable?

The situation in Mali has deteriorated, I think, not so much due to personalities as to trends. Each successive stage in the deterioration of the conflict has activated new patterns of violence, as well as new developments in hyper-local politics. In a recent and insightful article, Yvan Guichaoua and Héni Nsaibia call attention to the ways that widely used lenses for viewing jihadist expansion in the Sahel – individual-level radicalization and jihadist exploitation of topography and geography – fail to capture the ways that interactions between communities and jihadists drive expansion. The success or failure of jihadist interactions with communities and groups may depend partly on the savviness of top leaders, but not entirely or even predominantly, especially once you get to village-level dynamics.

Additionally, the conflict has produced jihadist leaders even as jihadist leaders have fed conflict – for example, not to be completely Tolstoy-an in my view of history, but someone like Amadou Kouffa can be viewed as both an agent in and a product of the crisis in Mopti. It takes more than force of will or sharpness of intellect to turn a former itinerant preacher into the face of a mass movement. How many people outside of Mali had heard of Amadou Kouffa before 2015? Before 2012? How many Kouffas are rising through the ranks now, their names not yet infamous?

Were I in Barkhane’s shoes and thinking in military terms, of course I would focus on killing top jihadists. But as Andrew Lebovich has laid out, in a piece that delves into Kouffa’s life and his Janus-faced self-presentation as jihadist leader and would-be ethnic champion, the political opportunities created by decapitation are short-lived and hard to exploit. In the wake of Kouffa’s death, Lebovich urged the Malian government to disarm militias and also urged international actors to not only help the Malian state return to Mopti, but return in a way that elicits ordinary citizens’ buy-in. These are immense challenges and without political progress, Barkhane is likely to continue knocking off top commanders without reversing the wider deterioration. On that note, I have also written about how various actors inside and outside Mali appear relatively comfortable with the overall status quo.

Meanwhile I am, honestly, skeptical whether there is even a net gain from some of these counterterrorism operations. At some point, I think there will have to be dialogue between the Malian government and the jihadists, or at the very least a kind of quiet and tacit agreement to stop fighting. I worry that decapitation will breed fragmentation in jihadist ranks that makes dialogue and peace harder to achieve. And I worry that putting big Xs through photographs of top jihadists will be mistaken for a sign of overall progress. And finally, I think that foreign forces may be exacerbating violence through their very presence. I’m not sure France has much of a plan other than to keep killing jihadists, and that might take a long time to work, if it ever works.

*I assume al-Sanhaji is still alive, and could find no reports of his death – but readers, please correct me if I’m wrong.