Changing Post-Coup/Transition Norms in West Africa?

I think I’ve made this point elsewhere (can’t remember where), but yesterday’s roundup on Burkina Faso reminded me of it, in the context of discussing the visit by an Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) delegation to Ouagadougou. The point is this: ECOWAS seems now to be comfortable with (or reluctantly acquiescing to) two-year transitions, which differ from the previous expectation in two ways – the length (eighteen months) and the precision (“two years” can date from a more or less arbitrary point that is not necessarily when a given junta took power).

The coups in Mali (August 2020, May 2021), Guinea (September 2021), and Burkina Faso (January 2022) all upended business as usual in West Africa and confronted France, ECOWAS, the United States and other external actors with a major dilemma – how much pressure to apply to coup-makers, and to what end? The “gold standard” for an orderly post-coup transition, in the West African regional context, appears to be the fourteen-month transition in Niger in 2010-2011, and ECOWAS (with French backing) sought to enforce a standard of eighteen months. But intransigence from Mali in particular forced ECOWAS into negotiating. Sometimes ECOWAS negotiated in a tough way, as when ECOWAS imposed sweeping sanctions on Mali from January-July 2022 in response to the junta’s proposal for a transition that could have lasted through 2026. Yet even at its toughest-minded, ECOWAS was always negotiating at a disadvantage – ECOWAS is not, I think, going to physically force any junta from power, and I think the juntas all know that. So the end result – and here the juntas watch each other, clearly – is an adjusting of the norms in the ways I described above. Mali’s junta ended up getting sanctions lifted by offering a “two-year” transition plan (but dating from March 2022, meaning that March 2024 will in fact mark three and a half years since the junta took power) and Burkina Faso’s junta now appears to be on the same page as ECOWAS about a “two-year” transition plan (dating from July 2022, giving that junta as much as thirty months in power – not a far cry from what it demanded originally).

(ECOWAS’ mediation/negotiation efforts with Guinea – the new mediator [French] is former Beninese President Boni Yayi – are still ongoing.)

If one thinks that Mali, Guinea, and Burkina Faso are part of an “epidemic” of West African (or African) coups and if one expects that “epidemic” to claim further victims – I’m ambivalent on both questions – then the next question is what expectations the Malian and Burkinabè experiences set up for potential coup-makers elsewhere in the region. Again, I’m not necessarily expecting any more coups in the short term, but any aspiring West African coup-makers now know that they can likely expect at least thirty months in power. Depending on how one reads their motivations – and especially if one is ultra-cynical and sees coup-makers as primarily there for their own enrichment and empowerment – then the incentives are clear. That ultra-cynical view is a bit too strong for me; I think it’s hard to get in the mind of Assimi Goïta (Mali) or Paul-Henri Damiba (Burkina Faso) and separate what may be, on the one hand, their legitimate frustrations over insecurity, civilian corruption and fecklessness, and pressures from below from their own soldiers versus, on the other hand, more self-serving motivations. But even if one sees these officers as heroes (I don’t), the coup/transition combo itself becomes something different depending on the length of time it lasts. Fourteen months, eighteen months…that’s hitting a reset button on the country’s politics, for better or worse. Thirty months, forty-two months…that’s a full-blown military regime. The pendulum has not, I think, swung back to where it was in the 1980s (Mauritania 1984, Burkina Faso 1987, Chad 1990) or earlier, when a coup-maker could expect to come into power and stay there practically indefinitely, perhaps with the occasional rigged election or cabinet reshuffle to placate various foreign and domestic stakeholders. But the pendulum has certainly swung a bit in that direction versus where it was a decade ago, when coup-makers had a lot more trouble making their rule stick – including in Mali (2012) and Guinea (2008).

Burkina Faso Roundup – 27 July 2022

Guinea-Bissau’s President Umaro Embaló, who currently doubles as the chairman of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), visited Burkina Faso on July 24 accompanied by ECOWAS’ mediator for Burkina Faso, former Nigerien President Mahamadou Issoufou. The visit was a follow-up to the July 3 ECOWAS summit, where Burkina Faso’s post-coup transition was on the agenda (French); ECOWAS and the Burkinabè junta, led by Paul-Henri Damiba, continue to appear satisfied with the current twenty-four-month transition plan (which runs through July 2024. Here is the Burkinabè Presidency’s readout (French) of the visit, and here (French) is Embaló’s brief comment.

Former longtime President Blaise Compaoré (in power 1987-2014) returned to Burkina Faso for a few days earlier this month for a “reconciliation” meeting with Damiba and one other past head of state. On July 26, he issued a formal apology to the Burkinabè people and especially to the family of his widely beloved predecessor Thomas Sankara (in power 1983-1987). In April of this year, Compaoré was convicted in absentia of complicity in Sankara’s murder (in the coup that brought Compaoré to power) and received a life sentence that he appears very, very unlikely to serve. The author of a recent biography of Sankara, Brian Peterson, comments here.

Jeune Afrique (French; paywalled) has a brief discussion of the career of the most wanted Burkinabè jihadist leader, Jafar Dicko. Jihadist attacks continue, including the destruction of two bridges (French) on July 15-16 in the Sahel Region (one of Burkina Faso’s regions, not to be confused with the overall Sahel region of Africa).

A Ghanaian TV report on Burkinabè refugees arriving in northern Ghana:

Here is the International Organization for Migration’s latest report (French) on population movements within, into, and out of Burkina Faso.

French Ambassador Luc Hallade upset (French) the Burkinabè authorities and various civil society groups with his remarks to the French Senate on July 5. More here (French).

Sahelian governments should crack down on extremist preaching? Turns out it’s not so simple (French).

Radio Omega with a long report on the “quiet mourning” of military families who have lost someone:

Mali Roundup – 26 July 2022

Find last week’s roundup here, and yesterday I had a post about the political difficulties (and, for the junta, the political utility) of Prime Minister Choguel Maïga – who appears, nevertheless, to be planning for the future (French).

One grim development late last week was the July 22 attack – claimed by the jihadist coalition Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wa-l-Muslimin (the Group for Supporting Islam and Muslims, JNIM) – on a major military base at Kati, just outside the capital Bamako. See a bit on the attackers, from JNIM’s Katibat Macina, here (French). You can find a good thread on the attacks here. And here’s the Armed Forces’ official statement:

Given the Armed Forces’ difficulties in fighting JNIM, is it (once again) time to consider negotiating (French)?

The regional governors (French) are meeting military head of state Col. Assimi Goïta July 25-26.

On July 20, the Malian authorities essentially expelled (French) Olivier Salgado, spokesperson for the UN peacekeeping mission MINUSMA – MINUSMA was, obviously, outraged (French). The expulsion comes in the midst of serious tensions between the Malian government and MINUSMA. The UN’s Under-Secretary-General for Peace Operations, Jean-Pierre Lacroix, scheduled a five-day visit (French) to Mali in response.

On July 3, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) lifted the sanctions it had imposed on Mali’s economy – although targeted sanctions on key individuals remain in place. On July 18, the World Bank restarted (French) projects it had suspended during the sanctions period.

Here is the UN’s latest situation report on Ménaka, one of Mali’s most violent regions, covering the period July 11-17. And here’s a thread with some jihadist propaganda from Ménaka.

Mali: Prime Minister Choguel Maïga (Days Numbered?) as the Junta’s Shield Against Criticism

In Mali, the transitional government remains in my view a military junta with a partial civilian veneer. One could view transitional Prime Minister Choguel Maïga (a civilian appointed June 2021) as a full member of the transition, and certainly he appears to have exercised some influence, most notoriously in what appear to be targeted crackdowns (French) on his own critics and rivals. Yet fundamentally, I think he is useful to the junta in a few, interconnected ways – he can absorb criticism and can also float controversial ideas, and then absorb more criticism. That works until the criticism gets too intense, of course, but then the junta can fire him, appearing to be responsive to domestic and/or international pressure, and then find someone else to either reprise the role or to provide a kind of makeover.

It’s been rumored before that the junta, headed by Colonel Assimi Goïta, was contemplating firing Maïga. But criticism has heated up in recent days with statements from political parties calling for Maïga’s firing. Here’s the main statement, from a coalition of parties, released on July 21:

Here’s a July 22 statement from another of Mali’s major parties calling on Maïga to resign, and here’s some coverage (French) from RFI.

Notably, the parties present themselves as anti-Maïga, pro-transition – in other words, seeking to drive a wedge between Goïta and Maïga. Part of that dynamic may have to do with the junta’s own (scary) authoritarianism, which goes well beyond just Maïga’s own seeming reprisals against enemies. Criticizing Goïta is riskier than criticizing Maïga. Yet on another level, (what I take to be) the junta’s strategic use of Maïga appears to be paying off – criticisms that are, ultimately, about the destructiveness of the whole ruling clique can be recast as criticisms of one individual, effectively letting the junta off the hook or at least buying them more time, their most precious commodity.

It’s not that Maïga doesn’t have some support. And I think someone else in the role could improve things in Mali somewhat – but the (very bad) fundamentals would not change with his departure.

Roundup on Floods in the Sahel

Flooding has become a regular and tragic recurrence in the Sahel, a challenge compounded by poor infrastructure – which makes flooding a political issue as well as an environmental and humanitarian one.

A few snapshots:

Senegal:

Torrential rain fell across Senegal on Wednesday, causing floods in the capital Dakar and bringing down a section of one of the main highways into the city.

Cars, scooters and pedestrians inched through torrents of brown knee-deep water as unusually strong downpours battered the semi-arid city, where sandy roads and flat-roofed houses are poorly equipped for the July to October rainy season.

Mali: “Inondation : les populations priées d’évacuer le lit du fleuve.” From Studio Tamani, this segment discusses authorities’ efforts to evacuate riverine areas.

In Burkina Faso’s Le Pays (French), an editorial argues for both increased proactivity on the part of citizens as well as much more ambitious efforts by the state to relocate and care for vulnerable populations.

RFI (French) reports on flooding that has killed roughly a dozen people and left some 16,000 people homeless in Niger, with brief comments from the mayor of a heavily affected commune in the Zinder Region (southern Niger).

Al Wihda Info (French) describes flooding in the Lamé sub-prefecture, southwestern Chad.

Unfortunately, there is very likely more flooding to come. In 2021, in the zone stretching from Mauritania to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), a total of 1.4 million people were affected by seasonal flooding. Out of the countries in that zone, Chad and Niger were the second- and third-most affected countries, respectively, after the DRC – 256,000 people were affected in Chad, and 250,000 in Niger.

Nigeria: Notes on the Ekiti and Osun Gubernatorial Elections

Two southwestern Nigerian states, Ekiti and Osun, hold gubernatorial elections at a critical point in the political calendar, namely some 6-9 months before presidential, legislative, and (most – 30 of 36) gubernatorial elections. Ekiti and Osun are not the only states to hold off-cycle gubernatorial elections, as various court cases, re-run elections, impeachments, and other factors have moved six states’ gubernatorial elections from the main, four-year political cycle to their own, four-year cycles. Ekiti and Osun have become particularly important since 2014 because of the political shift that occurred in Nigeria from approximately 2013-2015 after the formation of the All Progressives Congress (APC), whose presidential candidate Muhammadu Buhari won election in 2015 (after running three times previously under other parties’ banners) and then won re-election in 2019. The APC is in crude terms a coalition between the north and the southwest. Political parties’ performance – i.e., the performance of the APC and the People’s Democratic Party (PDP, which held the presidency 1999-2015 and is now Nigeria’s main opposition party) – in the Ekiti and Osun gubernatorial elections can give some indication of where the southwest might go in the presidential elections the following year.

Despite all that, I wouldn’t call Ekiti and Osun “bellwether” states – I’m not sure such a thing exists in Nigeria. The gubernatorial results do tend to roughly presage the presidential results in those particular states, though, whether because the gubernatorial results reflect the voters’ feelings about the parties overall, or because incumbents can assist in tipping elections to make sure their party’s presidential candidate wins.

In 2014, an APC incumbent lost Ekiti while another APC incumbent held Osun. Buhari went on to lose Ekiti and win Osun in the 2015 presidential elections.

In 2018, an APC challenger (and former governor) took Ekiti back from the PDP, although he won by fewer than 20,000 votes out of over 400,000 cast. Meanwhile, the APC held Osun, but after a tumultuous and hotly contested process that saw a re-run election after the initial outcome, a PDP victory, was tossed out. The following year, Buhari won both Ekiti and Osun, although his margin in Osun was very small, roughly 10,000 votes.

In 2022, the Ekiti and Osun gubernatorial elections both concluded recently – Ekiti on June 18 and Osun on July 16. In Ekiti, the APC candidate won ( Abiodun Oyebanji, who now succeeds term-limited APC Governor Kayode Fayemi) with 53% of the vote as the PDP and another party, the Social Democratic Party, split the rest of the vote – the Social Democrats actually placed second. In Osun, the 2022 election was a rematch of the 2018 election, but with a different outcome – this time, the PDP’s Ademola Adeleke defeated incumbent APC Governor Gboyega Oyetola.

The Ekiti and Osun elections also offer, each cycle, some idea of how Nigeria’s Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) is performing. You can read a laudatory take on INEC’s performance in Ekiti here. The author notes, “For the first time in the history of elections in Nigeria, INEC  transmitted results electronically, and the Ekiti election was the first to be conducted after President Muhammadu Buhari signed the Electoral Act 2022 into law.” The same author has written a separate analysis of the Osun election and the APC’s loss, attributing it to tensions between Oyetola and his predecessor, Rauf Aregbesola, as well as to “the pain of the 2018 Osun governorship election – many still believe Adeleke was robbed of his mandate during the last election in the state.”

In any case, if the pattern from 2014-2015 and 2018-2019 holds, the APC and its presidential candidate, the veteran southwestern politician Bola Tinubu, could expect to win Ekiti but not Osun. More broadly, the APC does not have to sweep the southwest to win the entire election, but it does have win big there and in the north, in my view, to win its third presidential election in a row. The rivalry between Oyetola and Aregbesola is just one small example of how many personalities, interests, and decisions Tinubu will have to juggle in the coming months.

Mali Roundup – 19 July 2022

The story of the 49 Ivorian soldiers arrested in Mali on July 10 continues to play out; Togolese President Faure Gnassingbé is attempting to mediate between Mali and Cote d’Ivoire. The soldiers were arriving as part of rotations in the United Nations peacekeeping mission MINUSMA. Jeune Afrique (French) looks at the tensions between MINUSMA and the Malian government.

The executive bureau of the ex-rebel bloc the Coordination of Azawad Movements (French acronym CMA) held one of its ordinary meetings in Kidal on July 16-17, and is not so happy (French) with the transitional authorities, especially over their handling of the Algiers Accord (a 2015 peace agreement), the ongoing violence in Menaka, the seeming lack of progress in investigating the assassination of top CMA figure Sidi Brahim Ould Sidatt, and more. The presidency of the CMA rotated from Bilal ag Acherif to Alghabass ag Intalla. Full communiqué here (French).

A presumed jihadist attack on July 15 on an army checkpoint at Zantiguila, some 60 kilometers from Bamako, is adding to fears about jihadists’ southward encroachments.

RFI reports on the July 14-15 visit of French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna and Defence Minister Sebastien Lecornu to Niamey, Niger in the context of France’s partial withdrawal from Mali. Reuters looks at France’s efforts to generate a new strategy for the Sahel. An excerpt:

French officials said the onus going forward would be on regional countries to lead on security, while also focusing more on development, good governance and education. The ministers would announce 50 million euro aid to enhance the electricity network in Niger as well as budgetary support.

A key area of concern is how and whether French and European troops will used to support countries in the coastal Gulf of Guinea nations such Benin, Togo and Ivory Coast, where there has been a rise in attacks. Al Qaeda’s regional arm has said it would turn its attention to the region.

France24 reports on “dirty gold” in Mali:

The New York Times‘ Ruth Maclean has a major article on the digitization and public availability of thousands of manuscripts from Timbuktu.

Three Items on Mauritania

  1. Jeune Afrique has a good article (July 15, French) on Mauritanian policy towards Mali – and why Mauritania has opted to keep the relationship functional and functioning despite many, many problems next door, including the deaths of Mauritanian citizens in Mali. One Mauritanian minister, quoted anonymously, sums it up, referring specifically to the decision to keep export corridors open during the period Mali was under sweeping sanctions: “We would derive no benefit from the collapse of our neighbor. Starving the populations was totally out of the question.”
  2. Mauritania’s ruling party was renamed and rebranded earlier this month, changing its name from the Union for the Republic (French acronym UPR) to al-Insaf, Arabic for “equity” (the translation that French-language Mauritanian media outlets are using) or perhaps “even-handedness.” (The root n-s-f has to do with halving and sharing, as in nisf, “half.”) The party also has a new president, Mohamed Melaïnine Ould Eyih, who is also minister of national education – you can read a short biography of him here (French). There is a long backstory involving the party and a power struggle between former President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, the party’s founder, and current President Mohamed Ould Ghazouani – who appears to be in firm control of the current iteration of the party.
  3. In the course of one of my research projects I finally tracked down the text of a 2015 fatwa (Arabic) by a Mauritanian cleric, Shaykh Ahmad Jiddu Wuld Ahmad Bahi, giving a blanket condemnation of present-day slavery. The lines of argument will likely be familiar to anyone who has looked in depth at the “Islam and slavery” debate (if you haven’t, you might start here), but to simplify greatly, the fatwa says that early Islam acknowledged the reality of slavery but worked to improve slaves’ conditions and end the practice, and that public interest, as well as what he views as legal consensus among states (Muslim and non-Muslim) against slavery, should compel present-day Muslim societies to completely eradicate slavery. There’s a lot more to the fatwa than that, of course, but those are a few of the key points. You can also watch a rich discussion between the shaykh and a Mauritanian journalist here (Arabic).

My New Article on Illiberal Peacebuilding Efforts in Mali

At Third World Quarterly, I have a new article out entitled “Illiberalism and post-conflict settlements with jihadists: a Malian case study.” Here is the abstract:

This paper draws on recent research in peace studies in order to analyse peacebuilding efforts with jihadists in central Mali. The paper explores two main streams of data: first, an exchange of messages between a Malian jihadist leader, Amadou Kouffa, and a Malian Muslim cleric; and, second, survey data on Malians’ attitudes towards politics and Islamic law. The paper also discusses what is known about a pattern of fragile, temporary, localised ceasefires with Malian jihadists. These different data sources highlight the poor fit between Western liberal peacemaking frameworks and some local conflict realities and aspirations, even amid a supposed ‘local turn’ in peacebuilding. Whereas liberal frameworks tend to assume that democracy, human rights, reconciliation, and secularism should be part of any peace settlement, some Malian elites and citizens appear open to illiberal solutions. These findings indicate substantial conceptual and practical challenges for the incorporation of local voices into peacebuilding agendas. The findings also add to an emerging literature on ‘illiberal peace’, which so far has focused mostly on top-down authoritarian models rather than civil society-driven illiberal compromise efforts.