Mali: A Disconnect between Algiers Talks and Ground Realities [Updated]

Yesterday, as VOA wrote in its headline, “Mali Government Signs Peace Deal While Rebels Delay.” The deal was scheduled to be signed in Algiers, the capital of Mali’s neighbor Algeria, which has been hosting talks since last July. The talks aim to create peace in the aftermath of a 2012 rebellion in northern Mali led by segments of the Tuareg ethnic group. It is not just the Malian government and Tuareg rebels who have a stake in the outcome in Algiers, however; the rebel side as represented at the negotiating table comprises six factions, including a major Arab-led group. The complexity of the rebel side in Algiers reflects the even greater diversity of interests and factions back home.

The rebels’ delay in signing the deal reflects a disconnect between the talks and what is happening on the ground in northern Mali. Four dynamics reflect the ways in which influential constituencies at home are hostile to or ambivalent about a deal:

  1. Violence: January in particular saw a number of clashes, including between rebels and pro-government armed factions. Even amid talks in Algiers, factions on the ground are expressing different preferences.
  2. Protests against the deal: Saturday saw demonstrations in Ber and Kidal, the latter being the capital of the Kidal Region, the only Tuareg-majority region in Mali. Ber is in the Timbuktu Region, another key northern zone. Tuareg rebels exercise a large degree of de facto control in Kidal.
  3. Ambiguity from leaders about what they want: In recent weeks, Mohamed Ag Intalla, the recently enthroned hereditary ruler of a Tuareg clan confederation, has reportedly come down on both sides of the question of independence for Kidal. Ag Intalla reportedly told one meeting that “Kidal is no longer part of Mali” and told a press organization, “I am Malian. Kidal claims neither independence nor autonomy.” (More here). This ambiguity sends mixed signals to rebels on the ground and to participants in Algiers.
  4. The possibility of behind-the-scenes influence from jihadists: A coalition of jihadists seized much of northern Mali from the Tuareg rebels in mid-2012 and held it until the French military intervened in early 2013. Even though they lost territorial control, jihadists have continued to make their presence felt through guerrilla attacks, suicide bombings and, possibly, behind-the-scenes pressure. Jihadists include major Tuareg leaders such as Iyad Ag Ghali, whose “shadow…hangs over the negotiations in Algiers,” according to one outlet. Ag Ghali may have influence not only through intermediaries at the talks in Algiers, but also through his supporters on the ground in northern Mali. Some sources attribute Ag Intalla’s pro-separatist comments to pressure the ruler faces from Ag Ghali.

These dynamics not only make a deal more complicated to achieve, they also make it less likely that a deal will be respected and implemented in a way that promotes peace. If Ag Ghali’s shadow “hangs over” the talks, so too do the shadows of agreements from the past that were never fully implemented – a legacy that contributed the renewal of conflict in 2012.

Finally, here are two resources on the Algiers talks:

  • RFI (French) and AFP have summaries of the text of the peace deal.
  • Prime Minister Modibo Keita’s statement (French).

UPDATE: Commenter Andy Morgan makes some points that I’d like to highlight here:

I note that your source for Mohammed Ag Intallah’s statement that “Kidal is no longer part of Mali” and the claim that Iyad Ag Ghali’s presence and opinions hang heavy over Kidal and the new Amenokal is the staunchly pro-republican anti-rebel L’Independent newspaper. What they print may be true in this case, I don’t know, but it often hasn’t been so in the past. What’s needed now, and has been needed since the beginning, is some proper on the ground reporting from northern Mali, which gives the chance for the all the accessible protagonists to speak their mind in a formal interview situation and offer a detailed and dispassionate analysis of the nuances within Kel Adagh Touareg opinion, rather than trying to make it seem as every citizen of the Adagh is of one mind. For what it’s worth (which isn’t much I grant you), I found Mohammed Ag Intallah to be decidedly dove-ish and pro-Malian when I met him back in 2009. During our conversation he made no attempt to mince his criticism of Ibrahim Bahanga and his militiamen who were causing serious trouble up near Timyawin at the time. I also know quite a few staunch MNLA supporters who heartily hate Iyad Ag Ghali’s guts and who would turn blue at the thought that he and his ideas were still piloting the rebel cause.

On Weak States and Threats to the U.S.

Stanford’s Dr. Amy Zegart has written an important piece for Foreign Policy in which she argues that the threat of weak states has been over-hyped. I agree with the first half of the piece, in which she takes down the common arguments about why weak states threaten the United States.

To take a brief tangent that goes beyond the scope of this blog, I disagree with parts of the second half, in which Zegart argues that other states – Russia, China, and Pakistan, etc. – are the places with real potential to threaten the U.S. For me, the real threats to the U.S. are (1) climate change and (2) our political elites’ lack of alarm in the face of (a) widespread poverty and suffering, (b) a health care system that is still largely broken, (c) inadequate and crumbling infrastructure, and (d) under-regulated industries that expose Americans to diseases. Of course the thought of nuclear war or wars between great powers frightens me – but the disconnect between our politicians and the ongoing problems in this country scares me more.

Returning to the topic of weak states, Zegart rebuts three arguments often made by those alarmed about weak states. First, she writes, is the argument “that fragile states can become terrorist strongholds that pose existential threats to Western ways of life.” Second is the claim “that poorly governed spaces function as incubators for other global ‘bads,’ like disease, conflict, human rights violations, drug and human trafficking, and criminal networks.” Third is the contention “that globalization connects citizens throughout the world in unprecedented ways, binding the fates of strong states to weak states.”

I won’t rehearse all of Zegart’s arguments, but her counter-arguments to the idea of weak states as terrorist strongholds are worth quoting:

Terrorism experts have found that the vast majority of terrorist attacks strike local targets, not foreign ones. What’s more, the world’s weakest states have not produced the world’s most or worst international terrorists. Foreign Policy’s 2014 Fragile States Index listed five countries in its worst-of-the-worst category: South Sudan, Somalia, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Sudan. None are major inspiration bases, training centers, breeding grounds, or exporters of terrorism directed at Western cities.

Now, it’s true that Somalia’s al-Shabab recently urged its supporters to attack Western shopping malls, including the Mall of America. I agree with Slate, however, that it’s not that scary of a threat.

While clearly a bid for publicity after a year of headlines dominated by ISIS, Boko Haram, and al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, the video does comes with some weight, given that al-Shabab actually did attack the Westgate mall in Nairobi in 2013, killing more than 60 people. There’s also evidence that Shabab has actively recruited fighters from Minnesota’s Somali community. But Shabab has never carried out an attack outside East Africa and it seems unlikely that they would warn their targets to step up security before launching the first one.

The U.S. government doesn’t seem that concerned, though with a potential shutdown looming, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson couldn’t help noting that this sort of vague threat is the reason his department needs a budget.

It’s also worth differentiating, as Zegart does, between threats and existential threats. Even Westgate did not pose an existential threat to Kenya.

The idea of weak states as threats to the U.S. has gained such currency in large part because of the structuring metaphor of Afghanistan. Commentators invoke Afghanistan as a metaphor for every country in Africa where a jihadist movement gains ground: Mali, Somalia, Libya, and so on. There’s even a Twitter account called “Bokostan,” referring to Nigeria’s Boko Haram. But the conflicts in each of these places have specific features that are irreducible to Afghanistan’s experience with al-Qa’ida and the Taliban. Even Afghanistan’s experience is often misunderstood. It’s worth pointing out, yet again, that the 9/11 attacks were planned in various places, including Afghanistan but also Germany.

Analysts can always come up with ways that terrorism in Nigeria (which I wouldn’t call a weak state, though some do), Mali, or Somalia might threaten the West. And the possibility is always there – after all, even one Western sympathizer could do a great deal of harm. But Zegart is right that the threat of weak states has been over-hyped. For example, in thirteen years of existence as a movement and five years as a consistent insurgency, Boko Haram has not attacked the United States; nor has al-Shabab, in its at least nine years of existence; and although Algerian militants carried out attacks in France in the 1990s, since Algeria’s civil war ended (circa 2000-2002) al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghrib has been a threat primarily to Western tourists in northwest Africa, rather than to Europe itself. It’s worth keeping this background in mind when evaluating the threats that weak states, whether in Africa or elsewhere, might pose to the U.S.

Roundup of Recent Writing on the Humanitarian Fallout from Boko Haram

The violence by and against Nigeria’s Boko Haram sect has had a tremendous impact on non-combatants. Northeastern Nigeria and surrounding countries (Niger, Cameroon, and Chad) have experienced waves of displaced persons. Here is some recent writing on the humanitarian aspect of the conflict:

Accounts about surrounding countries:

  • World Food Program: “WFP Resumes Food Distributions in Diffa, Niger”
  • AFP: “Refugees in Niger Live Under Shadow of Boko Haram”
  • VOA: “Humanitarian Crisis Looms at Cameroon Refugee Camp”
  • ICRC: “Chad: Fallout from Escalating Violence in North-Eastern Nigeria”
  • UNHCR: “As Violence Spills Over to Countries Neighbouring Nigeria, UNHCR Calls for Urgent Humanitarian Access to the Displaced”

Accounts about Nigeria:

  • NEMA: “There Are 981,416 IDPs in Nigeria”
  • BBC: “Doctor on the Frontline”
  • IRIN: “For Boko Haram Victims, Charity Begins at Home”
  • IRIN: “Tackling the Trauma of Boko Haram”
  • Doctors Without Borders: “The Fighting Gets Closer and Closer”
  • ICRC: “Nigeria: ICRC Steps Up Aid as Situation Worsens in North-East”
  • NEMA: “Baga Relief Intervention”
  • Joshua Meservey: “Nigerian Refugees Fleeing Boko Haram are a Crisis in the Making”

Senegal: On the Trials of Karim Wade and Hissène Habré

I have a post at the Global Observatory discussing two ongoing trials in Senegal. An excerpt:

The trials of [former Chadian ruler Hissène] Habré and [former President Abdoulaye Wade’s son Karim] Wade will have implications for elites across Africa. The former’s trial may mark a new, albeit halting, effort to use African judicial systems to hold former heads of state accountable for human rights abuses. The latter’s trial may signal a new effort to crack down on corruption. At the same time, however, the trials may have little impact on ordinary Senegalese and their day-to-day struggles.

If you read the piece, please stop back by here and let me know your thoughts in the comments.

Nigerian Elections: Goodluck Jonathan and the Southwest

While many eyes are fixed on the violence in Nigeria’s northeast, the country’s approaching presidential election (March 28) will hinge on what happens elsewhere. One critical zone is the South West, a base of strength for the opposition coalition the All Progressives Congress (APC). The South West is majority-Yoruba, and its most populous city (which is also Africa’s most populous) is Lagos, which has been governed by opposition parties since Nigeria returned to civilian rule in 1999.

The South West voted for the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP) in each of the last four presidential elections. Indeed, the 2011 elections featured a fairly straightforward electoral map. Of Nigeria’s six geopolitical zones, President Goodluck Jonathan won four of them – the North Central, the South West, the South East, and the South South. His challenger, General Muhammadu Buhari, won the North West and the North East. In 2015, the same two men are competing again, but the map could look quite different. Few doubt that Jonathan can hold most or all of the South East and the South South. But Buhari is more competitive in the North Central and the Southwest than he was four years ago. In 2011, the rumor goes, APC leader and former Lagos Governor Bola Tinubu (then of the ACN, one of the APC’s constituent parties) made a deal with Jonathan to support his presidential bid if Jonathan’s PDP left several South West governorships to the ACN. Whatever the truth of that allegation, this time could be different. Tinubu backs Buhari (unless something changes!), and other South West leaders seem fed up with Jonathan – hence former President Olusegun Obasanjo’s recent endorsement of Buhari.

This dynamic helps explain why Jonathan recently undertook a high-profile, four-day sweep through the South West. His campaign was especially eager to highlight his meetings with traditional rulers, such as the Alaafin of Oyo, the Soun of Ogbomoso, and the Alara of Ilara Epe. Jonathan also met Muslim leaders in the South West. (Although the international media is quick to talk of Nigeria’s “Muslim North” and its “Christian South,” there are many Muslims in the South West, and a sizeable Christian minority in much of the North.) The Punch quotes one purported insider account of behind-the-scenes deal-making:

A former Minister of Works, Chief Adeseye Ogunlewe, told one of our correspondents on the telephone on Saturday that the Yoruba elders lamented that the people of the South-West had been marginalised in the Jonathan administration.

He said the Yoruba leaders asked Jonathan to put into writing that if he wins the March 28 elections, Yorubas would be given key positions in his government.

The Punch goes on to report that the APC has mounted a political counter-offensive.

Which way will the South West go? I would be foolish to offer a prediction. On the one hand you have the power and charisma of the presidency and the PDP, and on the other you have the APC’s impressive coalition and its fierce criticisms of the President’s performance. And one should not minimize the agency of the voters, whose behavior may defy the will of political giants (from either party). In any case, the South West is a zone to watch.

On the Bombardment of Abadam, Niger

On February 17, an airstrike killed an estimated thirty-six people in the village of Abadam, Niger (map showing the closest nearby town, Bosso). Although the author of the airstrike remains unconfirmed, most coverage has pointed to Nigeria as the likely candidate.

The strike on Abadam comes amid three interrelated trends: (1) violence by Nigeria’s Boko Haram sect is increasingly spilling over into Nigeria’s neighbors as they move to fight the sect within their territory and even within Nigeria; (2) the Nigerian military is facing international and domestic pressure to demonstrate rapid progress against Boko Haram; (3) Nigeria’s neighbors seem frustrated with Nigeria’s performance against the sect. Although it was an accident, the strike shows how these different trends exist in tension with one another. Put differently, it shows how Nigeria’s aims, incentives, and actions may conflict with those of its neighbors.

Back to the incident itself:

At least 36 civilians were killed when a military plane bombed a funeral party in a Niger border village, the government said, in an incident its deputy mayor blamed on the Nigerian air force.

The air crew was likely to have mistaken the villagers, who had gathered near a mosque, for Boko Haram militants, Niger military sources in the nearby town of Bosso said.

[…]

Abadam lies on the border with Nigeria around 13 kilometres (eight miles) southwest of Bosso, where thousands of soldiers from Chad and Niger are massed in preparation for operations against Boko Haram.

The best commentary I’ve seen on the strike has come from RFI (French). RFI focuses on the operational, rather than the political, difficulties with such strikes:

The bombardment of Abadam brings to light the limits of resorting to airstrikes against Boko Haram. The Cameroonians have only used their Alpha Jet with caution. They have only done so one time, to liberate one of their bases briefly occupied by Boko Haram at the end of December. [RFI is referring to this incident – Alex.] As for the Chadians, they strike military targets with their Sukhoï in support of or in preparation for an operation on the ground. African military personnel generally agree in thinking that their fighter planes are too imprecise and thus too dangerous in the zones where members of Boko Haram are mixed into the civilian population.

These points take on added importance as Nigeria turns to airstrikes within its own territory. Just yesterday, the Nigerian military bombed suspected Boko Haram positions in the Sambisa forest in northeastern Nigeria.

The operational dangers feed into the potential for political problems, both within Nigeria and with its neighbors. Authorities in Niger have reacted calmly in public to the strike on Abadam (see the government’s statement in French here), declaring three days of national mourning and promising an investigation into the identity of the aircraft. Nevertheless, if it does turn out that Nigeria was responsible, this episode may foreshadow how a search for quick fixes as the clock ticks down to March 28 (the date of Nigeria’s once-delayed presidential elections) could put Nigeria at odds with the surrounding countries.

Mapping Boko Haram’s Attacks

Ryan Cummings recently wrote about several myths surrounding Nigeria’s Boko Haram sect. To his list one could add others, including the claim that the geographical range of Boko Haram’s attacks is always expanding. Of course, it is self-evidently true that if one looks at the group’s entire career, their range does indeed expand every time they strike a new location. But the idea that the trend is always toward expansion is not necessarily true.

In the current environment, with Nigeria’s neighbors fighting Boko Haram, there is a trend toward Boko Haram strikes in their territory – as demonstrated by recent incidents in Diffa, Niger; Waza, Cameroon; and Ngouboua, Chad.

Yet within Nigeria, the overall trend may be towards contraction of the group’s attacks. Davin O’Regan has published a rich and interesting set of maps, together with analysis, that show a more concentrated, higher intensity battle zone in 2013-2014 versus 2012. O’Regan writes,

Boko Haram’s brutal wave of attacks seemed unstoppable in 2014. Deaths from the Islamic extremist group’s campaign of violence in Nigeria more than doubled 2013’s toll, surpassing rates seen during the recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.surpassing levels of violence seen in Afghanistan and Iraq. The group overran military bases and circulated footage of a Nigerian Air Force jet it claimed to have shot down. By August, Boko Haram announced an “Islamic State” in northern Nigeria, eliciting comparisons to ISIS’s sweeping seizure of vast territory in Iraq and Syria. Some reports have claimed that Boko Haram controls up to 20 percent of Nigerian territory.

An analysis of the geographic distribution of the group’s attacks and movement in recent years suggests more limited and shifting territorial ambitions, however. Despite Boko Haram’s growing lethality and tactical sophistication, the group appears to be concentrating larger proportions of its resources in Nigeria’s more remote border areas.

This analysis suggests that rather than representing “new fronts,” Boko Haram’s attack in Lagos last year was an aberration.

Are O’Regan’s data reliable? That depends on the quality of the primary source data. But the real point is the trend. I have heard former Ambassador John Campbell say of his Nigeria Security Tracker that its individual casualty counts (drawn from press reports) are hard to verify, but that the trends in these counts likely give us an accurate picture of whether violence is rising or falling. The same may well hold true for geographic trends.

The implication of O’Regan’s data is that Boko Haram is a northeastern Nigerian group with a limited but real capacity to project violence into other areas – other northern cities (including Abuja), border areas of nearby countries and, rarely, southern Nigeria.

O’Regan’s whole post is worth reading. He gives possible explanations for the contraction (and you can find others here, particularly the idea that by pushing Boko Haram out of Maiduguri, the government-backed Civilian Joint Task Force inadvertently contributed to a wave of extreme rural violence). O’Regan also offers thoughtful policy recommendations, namely a suggestion to contain Boko Haram in the northeast.

Of course, one further lesson from his maps is Boko Haram’s adaptability. Efforts by Nigeria’s neighbors to destroy Boko Haram are already starting to change its range and targets. The map for 2015 may well end up looking different than either the 2012 map or the 2013-2014 map.