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.”

Quick Notes on Abu al-Walid al-Sahrawi’s Interview with al-Naba’

In the latest issue (#260) of the Islamic State’s weekly Arabic-language newsletter al-Naba’, there is an interview with Adnan Abu al-Walid al-Sahrawi, the leader of the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS). As MENASTREAM points out, the appearance of the interview temporarily settles the question of whether his deputy Abd al-Hakim al-Sahrawi is now in charge.

The interview is two pages (pp. 10-11) and as I commented on Twitter yesterday, over three-quarters of it concerns the deep background to current events. Prompted by the interviewer, al-Sahrawi gives his version/narration of the history of Saharan-Sahelian jihadism from just after the formation of the Salafi Group for Preaching and Combat (French acronym GSPC) in the late 1990s until the formation of the al-Qaida subsidiary Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wa-l-Muslimin (the Group for Supporting Islam and Muslims, JNIM) in 2017. Only in the last quarter of the interview or so does al-Sahrawi turn to discussing the recent fighting between JNIM and ISGS, which has received recurring coverage in al-Naba’ (see here for my annotated translation of a June 2020 al-Naba’ article on that topic).

Al-Sahrawi’s narration of Saharan-Sahelian jihadism emphasizes the infighting among the Saharan battalion commanders of the GSPC (which was renamed al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb or AQIM in 2007). Al-Sahrawi points to the failure of various efforts to reconcile these battalion commanders (notably Mokhtar Belmokhtar, whom al-Sahrawi names several times, and ‘Abd al-Hamid Abu Zayd, whom al-Sahrawi indirectly names by referring to Abu Zayd’s Tariq bin Ziyad Battalion). Al-Sahrawi also emphasizes that the Saharan battalion commanders were very difficult for AQIM’s Algeria-based leadership to control. “The organization, in reality, was an image with no reality to it. What existed on the ground was a number of battalions with different orientations and multiple loyalties, all of them linked with the leadership of al-Qaida in Algeria.” Notably, while Belmokhtar is often portrayed as the recalcitrant one in other accounts of these internal GSPC/AQIM spats, in al-Sahrawi’s telling, it was Tariq bin Ziyad Battalion (i.e., Abu Zayd) that was resistant to at least one major unity initiative, the effort by central leadership to impose Nabil Abu Alqama as the central leadership’s unquestioned deputy in the Sahara.

Al-Sahrawi goes on to review developments between 2011 and 2013 in detail, starting with the Libyan revolution and its impact (in his view) on the northern Malian rebellion of 2012; then discussing the relationships among AQIM, the AQIM offshoot the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA), AQIM’s ally Ansar al-Din (Defenders of the Faith), and the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (French acronym MNLA); then discussing the impact of the French-led military intervention in Mali in 2013. The thought of going over all those events here on the blog for the millionth time kind of fatigues me, to be honest, so I would suggest reading a summary of those developments if you’re not familiar.

One point of interest here concerns the relationship between AQIM and the Malian-led Ansar al-Din. Those who consider Ansar al-Din a front group for AQIM will find support for their argument in part of what al-Sahrawi says, to wit: “The al-Qaida organization [here meaning AQIM], in its different groupings, entered into that framework [of Ansar al-Din’s vision of an Islamic state in Mali], even though its leadership [the pronoun “its” goes to AQIM, if my reading is correct] remained independent of it [the pronoun “it” goes to Ansar al-Din’s framework, if my reading is correct].” Later he talks about AQIM “working under cover of [Ansar al-Din].” Yet those, like me, who find the “front group” description simplistic will find support in al-Sahrawi’s descriptions of Ansar al-Din circa 2012 as a collection of opponents to the MNLA’s separatist vision, opponents motivated “either by ethnic, racial reasons or by creedal, religious reasons.” Al-Sahrawi later briefly mentions the 2013 split among Ansar al-Din’s leadership that remains, I think, fundamental to understanding the hybridity of the movement itself during 2012. Anyways, it’s a long discussion; YMMV.

Moving on, when discussing his unit’s pledge of allegiance to the Islamic State in 2015, al-Sahrawi is conspicuously silent on Belmokhtar. He has no shortage of criticisms for the AQIM leadership in general, accusing them of a criminal level of self-interest and self-preservation in the face of what he sees as a groundswell of interest in the Islamic State project from the among AQIM’s own rank-and-file. He repeatedly slams AQIM leaders for their approach to the 2012 rebellion, to the MNLA, etc. Yet al-Sahrawi does not name any names here, nor does he criticize Belmokhtar – who, when he and al-Sahrawi were both part of the then-estranged AQIM unit al-Murabitun in 2015, publicly rejected al-Sahrawi’s pledge of allegiance to the Islamic State, a pledge al-Sahrawi made in the name of al-Murabitun. It makes me wonder whether there is a vestigial admiration for Belmokhtar among Islamic State audiences (despite the Islamic State in Libya and elsewhere having publicly called for Belmokhtar’s death at points). Belmokhtar did, after all, cut a larger-than-life figure in the Sahara and even in Libya for a time, and perhaps al-Sahrawi is shying away here from directly taking on that legacy. Belmokhtar, as a reminder, has been either dead or at least publicly absent from the Saharan scene since 2016. In any event, al-Sahrawi presents JNIM’s formation in 2017 as a response to the formation and growth of ISGS.

Al-Sahrawi then turns to the ISGS-JNIM conflict, saying that for a time, ISGS focused on fighting “crusaders and apostates” while making outreach to JNIM’s cadres. According to al-Sahrawi, this outreach attracted a lot of fighters from Ansar al-Islam (Defenders of Islam), a northern Burkina Faso-based jihadist outfit that was/is in JNIM’s orbit, as well as from JNIM units in what he refers to as “Konna,” “Macina,” and “Nampala” (localities in the Mopti and Ségou Regions of central Mali). Al-Sahrawi then quickly runs through a complicated series of events that, in his telling, involved JNIM fighters from Nampala (but not physically in Nampala at the time) pledging allegiance to ISGS/Islamic State, then JNIM leaders giving orders for that pro-ISGS unit to be blocked from returning to Nampala, then fighters in Macina refusing to carry out the orders and instead pledging allegiance to ISGS/IS themselves, then the leader of the ISGS-aligned group from Nampala, Miqdad al-Ansari, being killed in a “crusader air raid…under obscure circumstances!” I have not yet had time to triangulate between this and other accounts. As in other al-Naba’ articles, al-Sahrawi argues that JNIM leadership coordinates with non-jihadists. He then presents JNIM’s negotiations with successive Malian authorities as the culmination of a process where the group has de facto lost its jihadist credentials – and, of course, he refers to them as “apostates” throughout the article.

Big takeaways? I’m not sure. The desire to shape perceptions of history stands out – it’s not just scholars and analysts who are still chewing over the events of 2011-2013 in Mali. And the sense of the JNIM-ISGS conflict as a competition for the loyalties of discrete units of fighters in Mali is also notable. The account of how a dispute over Nampala escalated into a wider conflict will be worth revisiting. Another point is that, at least on this first reading, I saw no references to Nigeria, Boko Haram, ISWAP (in the sense of a specific organization based around Lake Chad), etc. Finally, I can’t help but sigh at the Islamic State’s ascription of the title “Al-Shaykh” to al-Sahrawi – not everybody has to be a shaykh, guys. Pretty clear that al-Sahrawi’s not, even by jihadi standards.

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.

Burkinabè Presidential Campaign: Roch Kaboré and Tahirou Barry in Dori (Sahel Region) [UPDATED]

Scanning the news out of Burkina Faso yesterday, I was struck by two brief articles about candidates campaigning in Dori (map), the capital of the Sahel Region – the most violent region within Burkina Faso‘s multi-sided conflict, and the second-most violent region within the Sahel (now meaning the multi-country region, rather than the unit of Burkina Faso) as a whole. Among the four provinces that make up Burkina Faso’s Sahel Region, Séno (where Dori sits) is somewhat less affected than Soum (whose capital is Djibo), the epicenter of the conflict in the north. Nevertheless, Dori is highly affected by the multi-faceted crisis that involves not just violence but also massive displacement, economic disruptions, public health impacts, and food insecurity.

On October 31, official campaigning began in advance of the first round of the presidential elections, scheduled for November 22. Incumbent President Roch Kaboré, who took office in 2015, faces twelve competitors, including several formidable politicians.

Kaboré was in Dori on November 10, meeting with some of the key figures in the Sahel Region such as the Emir of Liptako, Ousmane (whose backstory I recently wrote about here) and the Emir of Yagha, Boureima Ly. In addition to reinforcing his relationships with elites, Kaboré’s trip also seems to have been about delivering a two-fold message: a promise to restore security, but a related promise to end “stigmatization” – in other words, to end the ethnic profiling of the Peul/Fulani, and perhaps other groups as well. How those promises are received, I couldn’t say; the insecurity has increased, tragically and rapidly, over the course of Kaboré’s first term, and the collective punishment of Peul (a feature of the conflict not just in Burkina Faso but also in Mali) has been, in my view, systemic (see some discussion of that dynamic here).

It’s interesting to contrast Kaboré’s messaging in Dori with the messaging of Tahirou Barry, a serious but frankly not top-tier candidate, who was in Dori on November 6. Barry’s party is the Movement for Change and Renaissance (MCR). A former minister of culture and tourism and a parliamentary deputy, Barry is himself Peul but has emphasized his and his family’s multi-ethnic, multi-cultural character (his own family is from Gaoua, in the southwest, and his wife is ethnically Mossi, the largest ethnic group in Burkina Faso). In Dori, then, Barry’s emphasis was on the economic development of the Sahel Region, with promises to expand Dori’s livestock market and make the Sahel Region into a center for processing milk. Barry talked about the insecurity in his remarks, but placed that in a larger context of what he calls the abandonment of the region by central authorities.

Which message appeals more? I really couldn’t say – I don’t see opinion polls coming out for this race, for example. But it is striking to see how differently these two politicians are framing the same overall situation. And it is tempting to say that Kaboré is pursuing a kind of top-down strategy while Barry is attempting something bottom-up, but that’s also probably too simple. I also, admittedly, may have missed reports about other candidates’ swings through Dori; other kinds of messaging are possible too. [Update, November 13: A senior colleague alerted me to this poll, which shows that a strong plurality of respondents to this poll (nearly 43%) say they plan to vote for Kaboré, and some 27% are undecided or are keeping their intentions confidential, suggesting he has a decent chance of winning on the first round. Nearly 66% of respondents, meanwhile, say they are concerned about insecurity – the most common concern among respondents.]

Anecdotally, meanwhile, I wonder how many people this Dori resident speaks for:

“I watch the politicians parade and do their things, but this is not my concern,” said Oumar Cissé, from Dori, a town in the northern Sahel region – the epicentre of the violence – that is seeing a daily influx of internally displaced people. “Our real concern is that security comes back first, and after that we can think about elections.”

And then there are the physical obstacles to voting. An August 2020 law, and the realities of the conflict, will likely mean that thousands of voters cannot vote, and that the results of the elections will be accepted regardless, domestically and internationally. The campaigning in Dori is a reminder, to me at least, that the vote is likely to proceed in many major towns and administrative centers within the conflict zones, and that it is rural voters above all who stand to be disenfranchised.

Press Freedom Issues in Chad

Deutsche Welle (French) reports on an atmosphere in which around 30 independent media outlets in Chad, including the country’s oldest independent newspaper, N’Djaména Hebdo, face risks of suspension. Under a 2018 law, both the director and the editor-in-chief of any given media outlet must have journalism degrees from a university, and that criterion has been used this fall to suspend various outlets.

From my brief research, it looks like two interlocking ordinances were ratified by the National Assembly in November 2018 – one, the actual law regulating the written and electronic media; the other, an ordinance creating the Haute Autorité des Médias et de l’Audiovisuel (High Authority for Media and Audiovisual Media,* HAMA). The ordinances were ratified by a vote of 118 for, 28 against, and 11 absentions, out of 188 total members the legislature.

It is HAMA that has the authority to issue suspensions, and on September 7 of this year, HAMA gave a three-month suspension to twelve different outlets. Organizations such as Reporters Without Borders decried the suspensions, suggesting that the criterion about degrees is immaterial to the question of whether these are legitimate journalistic outfits. Deutsche Welle writes that in the context of Chad’s approaching presidential elections, scheduled for April, there are concerns that more papers will be suspended.

Earlier this month, the Union of Chadian Journalists marked the “International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists,” an occasion created after the 2013 deaths of two French journalists in Mali. The Chadian Union called for a government investigation into the 2014 disappearance of Chadian journalist Noubadoum Sotinan, and also called more broadly for an end to the “harassment and intimidation of media professionals.” From the little research I’ve done, and reading between the lines a bit, it seems that press outlets are mostly opting not to replace senior staff who lack the required degrees – perhaps the editors in question calculate that the real issue at play is not the narrow one of qualifications.

*Forgive the awkward translation, I couldn’t think of a better one.

A Few Stray Quotes Regarding the Reported Jihadist Presence in Mali’s Wagadou Forest

August 2011:

The return of [al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, AQIM] in the zone [after a June 2011 Mauritanian-Malian military operation] can be explained by several causes. The most evident is that the forest is strategic: it serves as natural air and ground cover. Satellites or drones cannot spot the elements of AQIM and access by the land route is difficult there.

May 2019:

The forest is a nearly uninhabited zone, frequented by nomads. The vegetation is dense and it is dominated by thorny bushes. The trees, larger in the eastern part of the forest, make the forest darker…The forest is traversed by the road which leaves Dioura for Toladji and Nampala, and also the road that links Diabaly to Nampala. Due to its density and its size, Wagadou offers an ideal refuge for malefactors escaping satellite surveillance and the airstrikes of conventional armies.

October 2020:

The village of Farabougou owes its misfortunes to its reputation as a locality home to intrepid warriors. Situated at the edge of the forest of Wagadou, Farabougou has always fiercely resisted razzias [raids], very frequent in the zone before the pacification imposed by colonization.

October 2020:

Cheick Oumar Sissoko of Espoir Mali Koura, part of the M5-RFP protest movement: “But where do all these motorbikes come from? All these people with transport who circulate as they like? Who come to attack as they like, at 5 o’clock in the morning, at 5 o’clock in the afternoon, where do they come from and where do they go afterwards? Where do they resupply themselves with gas, with food? It’s true that today at Dogofry and Farabougou, they took all the animals, the cows, the goats, but where do they come from and where do they go in this border zone with Mauritania? Or it seems that some can be in the forest of Wagadou. Do they not fall back to Mauritania?

Negotiations with Jihadists Are Already Occurring in Multiple Places in Mali

My brain is fried, so I’ll let a few data points speak mostly for themselves.

Le Drian, October 26:

Koro cercle, Mopti Region, July 2020:

In July, a new meeting was organized between the representatives of Mono Bemou and the jihadists, somewhere in a corner of the brush between the villages of Dinangourou and Dioungani. The jihadists set their conditions, extensive and onerous, to say the least: “They told us that no one, except them, could carry weapons. And that they only used these weapons for targeting the State. They also demanded that they be able to deliver sermons wherever it seemed good to them, and they forbade the consumption of alcohol and cigarettes…They did not forbid the republican school, but they demanded that the madrasas and instruction in Arabic be put in the forefront.” The last demand of the jihadists: “That no one revisit the question of who stole whose animals” in order to not “create other problems.”

Farabougou, Ségou Region, November 2020:

Many days ago, discussions were initiated with the jihadists. This mediation, conducted by local notables with the support of the army and the authorities, moved forward considerably at first. In particular, the intercommunal tensions preceding the jihadists’ actions had been resolved. But blockages appeared last week. Many sources within the mediation explain that at present, the jihadists demand, for lifting the siege, to collect the weapons of Farabougou’s traditional Dozo hunters. They also demand that sharia, as they conceive it, be applied. The discussions are thus more difficult, but they continue.

Not saying the dialogues/negotiations always work, or work at all. But they are happening, sometimes from the bottom up, sometimes from the top down, in different places in Mali. How could it be otherwise? What France wants, or says, only matters to some extent. And these are only some of the negotiations that are reported – imagine what goes unreported.

Roundup on Recent(ish) Insecurity-Related Events in the Mopti and Ségou Regions of Mali

I think my blogging this week will be mostly roundups, at least until the dust settles with the U.S. elections and my (and readers’, perhaps) mental acuity returns to something like normal.

The Mopti Region of Mali deserves its own regular roundup – it is the most violent region in the entire Sahel, with myriad tragedies affecting the region’s residents and with major ramifications for other parts of Mali and the Sahel. The adjacent Ségou Region is also a site of significant insecurity.

I don’t think I’ll attempt a regular roundup, but here are a few pieces that have caught my eye recently. I list them in chronological order. All are in French but I have translated the titles:

  • Olivier Dubois, Jeune Afrique, October 4: “In the Mopti Region, a Precarious ‘Peace’ with the Jihadists.” The article focuses on a July 27 peace agreement signed in the Koro district/cercle. The deal contained many striking provisions, including compromises from the jihadist side – such as allowing “republican schools” to continue function, with the provision that Arabic-language schools be prioritized. Then, too, the jihadists said that disputes over stolen animals should be dropped, so as not to elicit further conflict. Precarious indeed.
  • On October 28-29, the United Nations’ peacekeeping force MINUSMA launched seven new projects in the Mopti Region aimed at reducing inter communal violence and promoting reintegration.
  • Célian Macé, Libération, November 1: “The Malian Army Accused of Summary Executions in a Peul Village.” The Peul are a major ethnic group in Mali and West Africa more broadly, and their role in the current conflict is extraordinarily complex – I refer you to Modibo Ghaly Cissé’s paper here. The village in question here is Liebé, in the Bankass district/cercle of Mopti, near the border with Burkina Faso.
  • RFI, November 2: “A Soldier Killed in an Attack at Farabougou.” Farabougou, in the Niono district/cercle in Ségou (map), was the site of a jihadist siege beginning in early October. Breaking the siege required Malian military intervention, including the physical presence of Colonel Assimi Goïta, head of the junta that ruled Mali from late August until early October, and current vice president of the transitional government. The attackers are presumed to belong to Katibat Macina (Macina Battalion), part of the al-Qaida-affiliated JNIM coalition. As you can see from the RFI story, the situation remains tense in and around Farabougou.
  • Le Monde, November 3: “France Announces Major Antijihadist Operations in Mali.” The article reports on French claims that operations in the vicinity of Boulkessi, in the Douentza district/cercle of Mopti, killed some 60 jihadists affiliated to Ansaroul Islam last week between approximately October 28-30.

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.

What Is Politics, Anyways? France’s Dead End in the Sahel

RAND’s Michael Shurkin has a new article out in the Texas National Security Review‘s Winter 2020/20201 issue called “France’s War in the Sahel and the Evolution of Counter-Insurgency Doctrine.” I strongly advise you read it in full – it’s excellent.

At the meta level, for a wild-eyed anti-intervention leftie like me to express skepticism about France’s Operation Barkhane is…not news. But when someone as even-handed and sober-minded as Shurkin is expressing doubts about Barkhane’s long-term prospects, I hope policymakers in Paris and Washington will really listen.

Shurkin writes,

The success of France’s operations depends on political changes that it refuses to impose itself, and frequently, its actions serve to perpetuate a political dispensation that is a principle driver of conflict. While aspiring to be apolitical and declining to meddle in the internal affairs of sovereign nations, France is, wittingly or not, profoundly affecting the political landscape. Moreover, when France does meddle, it risks undermining the host nation’s legitimacy in the eyes of the population.

Every French army officer and Foreign Affairs Ministry official will say that military action can lead to nothing outside of an appropriate political framework, and that security operations may be necessary but are never sufficient to foster an enduring peace. However, they do not know how to act politically without being political.

Here I want to build on what Shurkin writes – what is politics, anyways?

This is not just a problem for political theorists (or for academics scratching their heads over how to respond to Reviewer 2). Defining the sphere of the political and whether and how to act within it is a problem for anyone (everyone) who says, “This conflict has no purely military solution” (and everyone says that about every conflict nowadays, even people who secretly think there is a purely military solution). Once one starts grappling with these questions, you have problems on multiple levels right away, many of which Shurkin gets at directly and indirectly in the excerpt I quoted above. Here are a few problems, for starters:

  1. A foreign military intervention is, inherently, a political act, and the foreign presence constitutes a political actor whether or not the foreigners want it to be;
  2. The foreign presence affects and distorts the political field around it;
  3. Attempting to stay out of the sphere of “formal politics” (elections, and here we might even add coups, transitions, etc.) is itself a political act, and will be perceived and misperceived by plural audiences in diverse ways;
  4. As Shurkin writes elsewhere in the piece, “COIN, per French doctrine past and present, requires some form of political transformation to occur within the host nation, with the understanding that the status quo ante is what engendered the insurrection in the first place. However, post-colonial interventions have tended to restore the status quo ante and relieve problematic regimes from pressure to reform.”

That last quote from Shurkin gets to the problem of how external actors define the desired political end-state. For me, I think 21st-century Western policymakers often imagine political end-states in shockingly unrealistic and vague terms, anticipating not just the military defeat but also the political neutralization of insurgencies that clearly have remarkably staying power. I also think (and here Shurkin and many others may disagree with me) that Western policymakers talk a good game about democracy as a desired political end-state or even as a vehicle for reaching that end-state, but that in practice Western policymakers often consciously or unconsciously want to hand off responsibility to a strongman, an authoritarian. Although then at the same time it seems Western policymakers often want someone biddable and relatively weak-willed, which either leads to them selecting someone too weak to fulfill the strongman role, or someone who turns out to be much different than what they expected and then sows the seeds of renewed (or new) conflict. The most vivid depiction of that latter process I’ve read is Dexter FIlkins’ narration of the CIA’s and Zalmay Khalilzad’s selection of Nouri al-Maliki as Iraq’s prime minister in 2006. That worked out poorly.

From what I understand of Malian politics, I don’t think France has tried to impose a strongman on Mali, and I don’t think France imposed Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta on Mali or saw Keïta as a potential strongman. The French are wise to avoid that blatant kind of political intervention. But I do think that it’s hard for these military interventions and counterinsurgencies to break with earlier models of doing politics in other people’s countries. Shurkin points out how the colonial model haunts contemporary counterinsurgency doctrine and practice – and you can’t really take doctrines applied in a context of anticipated long-term possession and occupation and translate them into a different context, I think. I would add that the Cold War model (“let’s find ‘our son of a bitch’ and put him in there for as long as possible”*) no longer seems viable in many places either, because of local pressures and international norms militating for some level of democracy. So, oftentimes, you can’t impose a strongman (nor do I think you should!!) – but if you don’t impose a strongman, what is the alternative?

I don’t know; maybe if the French could, they would clone Idriss Deby and put the clones in charge of Mali and Burkina Faso. But even if they could, you can’t just manufacture a Deby-like figure out of thin air and impose him – Deby has roots, networks, constituencies. So if you can’t possess the place, and if (as Shurkin points out repeatedly) you constantly signal that your presence is temporary, then the colonial model is out. And if you can’t or won’t impose a strongman (or if imposing a strongman is essentially rolling the dice, a la Maliki), then the Cold War template is out too.

And I don’t know that there really is a post-Cold War template. Because again, it’s still an exercise in trying to shape someone else’s politics. But now that effort at manipulation is so abstract and indirect that I think Western policymakers are sometimes in denial about the fact that they really are still attempting serious forms of manipulation, not all of which can be inherently and completely benevolent. So you’re left trying to provide security to give space for elections, for example, but the elections can’t be truly representative amid conflict, and the main contestants are mostly familiar faces with very limited popularity and appeal, many of whom are architects of the same status quo ante that Shurkin aptly points out is a cause of the conflict itself. Or you’re left in this very awkward dual role of killing the bad guys on the one hand and trying to act as the country’s coach on the other hand, saying, “This is how you run an army! This is how you try not to kill civilians! This is how you run a ministry!” But it doesn’t really work, and when it doesn’t work the Western policymakers and implementers let themselves off the hook by turning the concept of “governance” into a moral critique of African leaders and bureaucrats, and telling themselves the Africans “just don’t want it [peace] badly enough.” Again, I don’t think Shurkin will necessarily agree with my reasoning or my crude phrasing, but these are the implications I take from his piece and from the broader patterns that I see.

In short, maybe France can’t articulate a serious political strategy in Mali and the Sahel because there really isn’t one to be articulated. So you’re left saying “the return of the state” or “security-development nexus” for like 20 years, and then one day you go home.

*Yes, I know the possibly apocryphal quote was uttered in a pre-Cold War context, but still.