Four Recent Pieces on Russia in Africa/The Sahel

A lot of analysts and journalists are writing “Russia in Africa” pieces these days, and the quality – and the politics – of those pieces varies considerably. Here are four:

Jalel Harchaoui and John Lechner, “How Russia’s War in Ukraine Affects Its Meddling in Africa” (Lawfare, May 1). This is a good and straight-shooting piece that avoids hyperbole and sensationalism while still taking very seriously Russia’s (negative) role in several of Africa’s conflict zones. The piece also convincingly calls out Washington as talking tough but doing little to really push back on Russian influence – and then, refreshingly, calls not for tough actions but for judicious and continued engagement with African governments. An excerpt:

Punishing poor African governments, like those of CAR or Mali, for their Russian connections by reducing U.S. and European aid will not alter their behavior or protect civilians. It will only amplify Russian influence and erase U.S. leverage, while bringing further harm to populations already in the grips of a severe food crisis caused in large part by Russia’s war on Ukraine. The United States should avoid this type of overreaction given that security deterioration in those territories, along with the growth of actors more toxic than the Russians, might well force the United States to come back asking for cooperation from the same local authorities in the medium-term future.

Mucahid Durmaz and Murtala Abdullahi, “‘White hands’: The Rise of Private Armies in African Conflicts” (Al Jazeera, April 28). As the title indicates, this piece is not merely about Russians or the Kremlin-linked Wagner Group, but it is useful for thinking about Russia in Africa. It is not “whataboutism,” in my view, to consider that other mercenaries from the “global north” and beyond – including French, British, Israeli, and South Africa – also operate in Africa and get into their own scandals involving corruption, abuses, child soldiers, usurpation of state functions, etc. On one level, the “Russia in Africa” story is just that; on another level, it’s a story about the hollowing-out of African states and the opportunities that opens for multiple private-sector plays to cash in.

Carley Petesch and Gerald Imray, “Russian Mercenaries Are Putin’s ‘Coercive Tool’ in Africa” (Associated Press, April 23). This piece represents the now-standard narrative; worth a read, but more as a reflection of the dominant view in Washington and Paris than as adding much new to conversation. On Twitter, Durmaz (co-author of the previous piece) called the AP piece “full of lazy, unimaginative, uncritical, sensationalist and biased reporting on African countries’ complex ties with rest of the world.” Harsh but not unwarranted.

Danielle Paquette, “He’s Pro-Russian, Anti-Zelensky and Rallying for Putin in West Africa” (Washington Post, April 21). I actually found this piece the worst of anything I’ve read on the topic recently. The article is a profile of a 30-year-old Burkinabè man whom the journalist condescendingly presents as an absolute dupe, someone completely brainwashed by Russian disinformation; basically, the guy showed the journalist a few sites he likes, and it becomes a story about how Russia is winning in Africa. It’s not that journalists need to be political scientists (heck, I’m not even a proper political scientist), but to extrapolate so much from a sample size of one (!!) is ridiculous, as is the idea that Russian propaganda is the most significant variable at play in shaping how this man thinks. After all, it turns out “he indulges in scrolling perhaps three times each week, he said, which is how much data he can typically afford.” That’s not much. And what is the effect of the propaganda on his political action? He ultimately attends a pro-Russia demonstration where “only a couple dozen men had gathered.” The piece also glosses over France’s failures in the Sahel, implicitly poo-pooing the kind of frustration this man feels; I’m not saying he’s right to be pro-Putin, but in the hands of some Western journalists and policymakers, the “Russia is taking over Africa” narrative easily becomes a means of grossly oversimplifying how the situation in the Sahel got so bad.

Two Important Pieces on Dialogue with Sahelian Jihadists

The issue of whether and how to dialogue with jihadists in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger is a central issue in the region’s politics now. Here are two important pieces on the subject:

At The New Humanitarian, Sam Mednick interviews Burkina Faso’s Minister for Social Cohesion and National Reconciliation, Yéro Boly. A key portion:

The New Humanitarian: How is the current dialogue in Djibo progressing?

Boly: If [you] go to Djibo this morning, [you] will see that the situation is beginning to change…The chief of Djibo was in Ouagadougou [and] the jihadists asked to see him. He left with a 22-person delegation. The chief of Djibo was the head of the delegation of those who went… and Jafar [Dicko] was the chief of the jihadists. So, it was at a high level. It went well, with a good atmosphere. But [both sides] told a lot of truths. It was tense.

[Community leaders] asked us to help them get to Djibo, for those who were in Ouagadougou. The army dropped them in Djibo by helicopter. It’s the first time that the people from Djibo asked us for help. Since Djibo is inaccessible and there are leaders who were in Ouagadougou who had fled, [they wanted] help. 

One thing to note is the multiple and shifting meanings that the word “dialogue” takes on, even in the mouth of a single speaker, such as Boly. The interview really gets at that – is dialogue about rehabilitating individual fighters? community-level agreements? high-level deals? All of the above? Five years into the conversation about dialogue in the Sahel (counting from Mali’s Conference of National Understanding in 2017, which made a dialogue a formal recommendation), the parameters of what dialogue does mean and could mean are still very much up for grabs.

A second important piece is Luciano Pollichieni‘s “Rétablir le cycle : précédents historiques et avenir potentiel des négociations de paix au Mali,” a contribution to the Bulletin FrancoPaix. Pollichieni places the question of dialogue into the wider historical “cyclical tradition of uprisings and negotiations” in northern Mali, with a clear-eyed look at the shortcomings of past negotiations. To me, the most interesting portion of the article had to do with arguments for negotiating with the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS); even pro-dialogue commentators usually assume (including me) that when we’re talking about dialogue, we’re talking about the Group for Supporting Islam and Muslims (Arabic acronym JNIM; French acronym GSIM), which is under al-Qaida’s banner. Pollichieni makes a strong case for negotiating with ISGS (p. 5):

Enfin, il est important de noter que la branche locale de l’État islamique, l’État islamique au Grand Sahara (EIGS), est également présente au Mali, et, considérant ses capacités militaires et le fait que ses combattants sont des membres des communautés maliennes participant à l’insurrection, elle devrait être incluse dans les négociations. L’EIGS est particulièrement actif dans la région des trois frontières, particulièrement au Niger. Par conséquent, l’influence politique dont jouissent les autorités maliennes à l’égard de ses dirigeants est limitée par rapport à celle du gouvernement nigérien qui a récemment entamé des négociations avec les djihadistes. Ensuite, par rapport à d’autres acteurs armés de la région, l’EIGS est plus fragmenté : l’assassinat de son chef Abu Walid Al-Sahrawi a engendré une crise de leadership qui, de facto, affecte son programme politique. Au-delà de l’appel idéologique à une interprétation draconienne de l’islam, le type de résultats qui pourrait émerger de ces négociations potentielles n’est pas clairement défini. Cependant, l’EIGS et le GSIM sont en compétition, entraînant parfois des conflits ouverts. Ainsi, négocier avec l’EIGS pourrait nuire à un accord avec le GSIM. Malgré tout, la branche du califat reste une partie importante de l’équation à résoudre pour stabiliser définitivement le pays.

To summarize: ISGS should be included in negotiations in Mali because it represents a significant number of people and has significant military capabilities; Niger may be better placed to negotiate with ISGS, as Nigerien President Mohamed Bazoum has at least gingerly tried to do; ISGS is ultra-hardline but also currently fragmented; and negotiating with ISGS could help bring about an accord with JNIM/GSIM, given the competition between those two groups. I’m persuaded.

Burkina Faso/Mali: The Politics of a Visit from One Junta to Another

Burkina Faso and Mali are both under the control of military juntas – Burkina Faso since January 2022 and Mali since August 2020. Both juntas are under pressure to transition back to civilian rule, especially Mali’s. Since January, Mali has been under sweeping sanctions imposed by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), which is attempting to compel a rapid transition after the Malian junta missed the initially agreed-upon eighteen-month window. Burkina Faso’s relations with ECOWAS are better, for the moment, because the Burkinabè junta is newer; but the junta there recently missed ECOWAS’ April 25 deadline for setting a rapid transition timetable (ECOWAS does not accept the Burkinabè junta’s 36-month plan).

From the moment of the coup in another West African country, Guinea, in September 2021 and especially since the coup in Burkina Faso in January, there has been a certain solidarity between West Africa’s three overt juntas (that solidarity does not extend in the same way to Chad, I would say, where the dynamics are quite different – although still a junta! Nor does it fully or necessarily extend to Mauritania which is arguably still under quasi-military rule). When sanctions hit Mali in January, Guinea’s military leader Colonel Mamadi Doumbouya made a point to declare that those two countries’ land border would remain open, calling Mali a “brother country” and evoking “the pan-Africanist vision.” Moreover, as journalists’ profiles of these figures often emphasize, there are generational similarities (born in the 1980s) and professional similarities (colonels, often from elite units) among the new West African coup-makers.

In this context it is interesting to see a delegation that Burkina Faso’s military ruler, President Paul-Henri Damiba, sent to Bamako to meet the Malian junta on April 22. The delegation included three top officers who are in Damiba’s “inner circle”: Serge Thierry Kiendrebeogo, Damiba’s chief of staff; Yves-Didier Bamoun, national theater operations commander, and Daba Naon, head of national firefighters’ brigade. The delegation met senior members of the Malian junta, including Malian President Assimi Goita, Defense Minister Sadio Camara, and National Transition Council* President Malick Diaw, all three of them key members of the junta. Separately, the Burkinabè delegation met Chief of Army Staff Oumar Diarra and Director of Military Security Moussa Toumani Koné.

The delegation’s main purpose, according to the official readout, was to “reaffirm their will [i.e., the will of the Burkinabè authorities] to continue military and security cooperation with Mali and to reinforce it especially through the intensification of operations on the ground.” Notably, the Burkinabè presidency mirrored recent rhetoric from the Malian Armed Forces (FAMa) about FAMa’s “increase in power” (montée en puissance – see an example of that phrase’s usage by FAMa here). The official readout says, in part, “The ambition is to anticipate security problems that could cause a retreat of armed terrorist groups into Burkinabè territory, due to the increase in power of the Malian Defense and Security Forces in the struggle against terrorism, thus the interest to develop synergies for countering the forces of evil.” One could read a lot into these phrases. There is a cozying-up to the Malian junta, obviously, especially in the context of severe Malian-French tensions and the Malian junta’s keenness (desperation?) to prove itself militarily capable amid the partial French withdrawal from Malian territory. Yet there is also obviously a note of concern from the Burkina Faso side – there is no shortage of jihadist activity in Burkina Faso already, but it seems the Burkinabè authorities are indeed anticipating that the escalating brutality and outright massacres conducted by Malian forces and Russian mercenaries may cause some blowback for Burkina Faso. Then, finally, I suspect part of the politics of the visit involves Burkinabè authorities preparing for a future scenario where they, too, might be under full sanctions from ECOWAS, including the closure of land borders with all of their neighbors except, of course, Mali.

In another official readout, the Burkinabè delegation emphasized two other policy points. First is the idea that the transition back to civilian rule must go in the following order: “security – return of the displaced – elections.” That’s a message to ECOWAS, obviously. The second is the idea, highlighted by Damiba recently as well, that Burkina Faso’s security policy now rests on two main planks – counter-jihadist operations and a dialogue-based off-ramp. Here is the latest piece of reporting on the dialogue front by The New Humanitarian, which has been following that issue closely.

*This is the transitional legislative body in Mali.

My Review of Ahmed El Shamsy’s Rediscovering the Islamic Classics – at Reading Religion

At the American Academy of Religion’s Reading Religion site, I have a review up of Ahmed El Shamsy’s Rediscovering the Islamic Classics: How Editors and Print Culture Transformed an Intellectual Tradition (Princeton University Press, 2020). El Shamsy is a marvelous scholar and someone whose work has deeply influenced mine. Nevertheless I have a few disagreements with him, especially about his assessment of postclassical Islamic literature.

Analyzing Niger’s National Assembly Vote on French Forces [Lightly Edited]

On April 22, Niger’s National Assembly approved a policy change that gives greater leeway for the redeployment of two French-led counterterrorism missions – Operation Barkhane and Task Force Takuba – from Mali to Niger. The vote was 131 to 31, representing all but four of the National Assembly’s members.

In a sense, the vote was theater. Niger’s President Mohamed Bazoum had already effectively accepted the French redeployment back in February (see his series of posts on Twitter starting here). Moreover, on March 5, the parties of the presidential majority released a joint statement welcoming the redeployment of foreign forces. Yet the April 22 vote was theater that the government took seriously – Prime Minister Ouhoumoudou Mahamadou addressed the deputies before the vote, evoking Niger’s dire security situation and arguing that Niger cannot face the threat alone.

Why bother with such a vote? Likely to head off, or at least wield a powerful talking point against, the anti-French sentiment in the country and in the Sahel as a whole. It’s a better optic to have the redeployment approved by a huge majority vote in parliament than to merely impose it by presidential decree. See more on the logic of the vote here.

French forces (or, that is, additional French forces) are coming from Mali to Niger primarily because of the deterioration in diplomatic relations between France and the junta in power in Bamako. After the August 2020 coup that brought the junta to power, there was still a fair amount of normalcy in French-Malian relations until the May 2021 follow-on coup that consolidated the junta’s power. Since then, relations went into a tailspin, with big consequences for Operation Barkhane, which began in 2014 as a successor to the French-led Operation Serval, the operation that broke jihadist control over northern Malian towns in 2013. Amid international outcry over the May 2021 coup, French President Emmanual Macron announced “the end of Barkhane as an external operation” (whatever that means, and clearly not a description that applies even amid big changes for Barkhane). Then, as the junta increasingly signaled that it would defy international and regional pressures to hold elections by February 2022, relations worsened further, to the point where Malian transitional authorities expelled the French ambassador in January of this year. That led Macron and allies to announce, in February, a shift of Barkhane and the associated Takuba Task Force (a special forces unit drawing personnel from multiple European countries) elsewhere. Other factors were involved too, though, including the above-mentioned anti-French sentiment in the region, particularly in Mali, as well as some domestic fatigue back in France with the tactically sophisticated but strategically aimless Barkhane and its attendant casualties.

Niger was the logical fallback for Barkhane and Takuba – a country adjacent to Mali, with two presidents (Mahamadou Issoufou, in office 2011-2021; and Bazoum, elected in 2021) who have shown themselves overwhelmingly friendly if not outright deferential to France, the United States, Germany, the European Union, etc.

A bit of background on Niger’s domestic politics: Issoufou and Bazoum, close allies, both belong to the Nigerien Party for Democracy and Socialism (French acronym PNDS). When Issoufou hit his two-term limit, he backed Bazoum (who had held multiple senior positions within Issoufou’s governments and within the party) as the PNDS’ presidential candidate. Bazoum won the run-off election in 2021. The PNDS, in legislative elections in 2020-2021, won a total of 80 seats out of 166 (it is supposed to be 171, but five seats allocated for the diaspora ultimately went unfilled because of the difficulty of organizing diaspora-based elections amid COVID-19). The speaker of parliament is Seyni Oumarou, who placed third in the first round of the 2020-2021 presidential elections; his party is the National Movement for the Society of Development (MNSD), currently part of the presidential majority in the National Assembly. Reuters and others put the presidential majority at 135 seats. The largest opposition party in parliament is MODEN/FA, the party of ex-speaker and Issoufou enemy Hama Amadou.

The National Assembly vote on Barkhane and Takuba’s redeployment was along party lines, although I have not been able to find the precise breakdown of which deputies voted for or against the policy change. In terms of what was actually voted on, this concerned a revision of the 2021 “Declaration of the General Policy of the Government,” and specifically its first plank, which relates to security. The deputies voted on a measure adding new language to that policy document, now formally allowing the government “to build the largest possible alliances for fighting terrorism, to welcome allied forces on its soil and to have them participate in joint military operations.” From what I can tell, the deputies were not directly voting on Barkhane and Takuba, but it was clear what foreign deployments the vote would authorize.

The opposition, meanwhile, objected on the grounds that the redeployment violates national sovereignty, and on the grounds that the measure is unconstitutional, legally feeble, and/or gives too much power to the government. Multiple observers, meanwhile, raised an eyebrow at the visit of the French Agency for Development’s Director General to Niamey just days before the vote, seeing it as yet another instance of the continued existence of “Françafrique.”

Meanwhile, there was a minor cabinet reshuffle in Niger on April 23, the day after the vote – but I’ll have to tackle that in a future post.

See some footage of the Prime Minister’s speech, and the vote, here.

Mali: Roundup on the Massacre at Moura, the Mass Grave at Gossi, and the Surrounding Information War

I am slowly working on an analytical piece about Mali, France, and Russia, but in the interval it is crucial to simply attempt to keep up with developments and narratives as they unfold.

Two major atrocities have been reported in Mali in the past month or so. Alongside these atrocities is an information war involving Mali’s ruling junta and the associated transitional authorities, the Malian Armed Forces (FAMa), the French state, the Kremlin-aligned mercenaries in the Wagner Group, the Russian state, journalists of various persuasions, and a host of other actors.

The first recent atrocity occurred at Moura (Djenné district, Mopti Region, central Mali) in late March. The most informative things I have read are:

  • Human Rights Watch, “Mali: Massacre by Army, Foreign Soldiers.” A key excerpt: “Malian armed forces and associated foreign soldiers allegedly summarily executed an estimated 300 civilian men, some of them suspected Islamist fighters, in the central Malian town of Moura in late March 2022…The men were among those detained during a military operation that began on March 27. The incident is the worst single atrocity reported in Mali’s decade-long armed conflict. Human Rights Watch investigations revealed that over the course of several days in late March, Malian army forces and foreign soldiers – identified by several sources as Russians – executed in small groups several hundred people who had been rounded up in Moura. A Malian defense ministry statement on April 1 said that from March 23 to 31, the army had killed 203 ‘terrorists’ and arrested 51 more. The statement said the army had acted on intelligence suggesting that armed Islamists were planning a ‘meeting with different Katibats [battalions]’ in Moura.”
  • Read more interviews with/testimonies from residents and survivors here and here.
  • Deutsche Welle analyzes how hard it is to get accurate information about Moura in a climate of crackdowns by Malian authorities on dissenters and independent voices.
  • France24 on the information war.
  • Hannah Armstrong gives crucial context, examining the Moura massacre in light of the overall trajectory of Mali over the last decade. Note that it’s possible to say both that Russia is making things worse and that France failed in Mali: “Mass-casualty violence cropped up on the back of counterterrorism efforts. Intercommunal clashes and ethnic violence flared as self-defense groups—sometimes with French support—donned the counterterrorism mantle to target their rivals, often among the Peul ethnic minority, in central Malian sites like Ogossagou and along the Mali-Niger border. As insecurity spread, the inflows of cash deepened corruption and discredited political authority. Despair drove many Malians to support the coups d’état in 2020 and 2021 and the subsequent security partnership with Russia.”

The second recent atrocity occurred at Gossi (Gourma-Rharous district, Timbuktu Region, northern Mali) in April. French forces handed over a military base at Gossi to Malian forces on April 19, part of a series of such transfers over the past six months or so. A good piece of reporting on the handover, and on some locals’ anticipation that security might degrade and jihadists might be empowered in the wake of the French withdrawal, can be found here.

Days after the handover, the French military released drone surveillance footage appearing to show Wagner Group personnel burying bodies near the Gossi base (I am briefly quoted in the linked piece). According to the French, the Wagner Group’s intent – Russia’s intent – was to smear the French and accuse the French of having covered up atrocities in the north. This is certainly quite plausible. The corpses at Gossi are thus now very much a geopolitical issue – this, from Clingendael’s Anna Schmauder, is well said. In any case, here’s a few other important items:

  • The official statement (counter-statement?) from FAMa is here. The FAMa’s version is that after the handover, a patrol of theirs stumbled upon the mass grave, and now an investigation is underway.
  • RFI (April 23) gives Malians’ reactions, noting that – as with Moura – the relative silence from some politicians and civil society actors speaks to the overall chill on free speech in Mali in recent months under the junta’s and transitional authorities’ crackdown on dissent.
  • Yvan Guichaoua notes that the French have now changed the dynamics of the information war, but in so doing the French have risked highlighting some unanswered questions (where did the bodies come from?) and also highlighting their own surveillance capabilities, potentially feeding “the already disproportionate paranoia in Bamako.”
  • For some pre-scandal background, here’s a piece of reporting from Gossi (French) from 2019.

Roundup of Recent Reports and Essays on the Sahel – 4/22/22

Nina Wilén and Paul Williams, “What Are the International Military Options for the Sahel?” (Global Observatory, April 12):

If there is a potential middle way [between expanding the United Nations peacekeeping force MINUSMA versus drawing it down], it probably involves focusing on two potential tasks. First, MINUSMA could prioritize its civilian protection mandate while the UN Security Council seeks to reinvigorate the increasingly moribund Algiers Agreement, or tries to negotiate another peace accord in its place. This might involve doing something like the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) did in December 2013 when civil war broke out and South Sudanese government troops began massacring civilians. Here, UNMISS opened its bases and set up emergency “protection of civilians sites” which housed at one stage over 200,000 civilians at risk. However, conflict dynamics in Mali are different than South Sudan (2013-14) with MINUSMA facing greater risk of attack than UNMISS did. Moreover, such an approach might risk an increase in conflict between local nomads and farmers since the latter might be able to move to such sites more easily. The other route to reconfiguring MINUSMA would be to reduce its footprint and focus primarily on observation and monitoring tasks to document abuses perpetrated by the FAMA [Malian Armed Forces], jihadists, and other actors. This type of mission would not be easy to configure and force protection would be a major concern. Nor would it be welcomed by the junta. In sum, there are no obvious good options for MINUSMA.

Virginie Maudais and Souleymane Maïga, “The European Union Training Mission in Mali: An Assessment” (SIPRI, April)

Based on the interviews and desk research carried out in this study, the impact of EUTM Mali’s activities appears to be positive at the operational level. However, the mission faces several challenges in implementing its mandate and the FAMA is regularly accused of committing crimes with impunity. [p. 11]

Delina Goxho, “Protecting Civilians From Those Who Should Protect Them” (Egmont Institute, April 19):

In many regions in the Sahel, communities are doubtful of their state’s commitment to protect them and are instead veering towards the conviction that state-backed abuses represent a condoned form of systematic discrimination. Acknowledging the harm done to civilians is a first and necessary shift in changing perceptions in the region, potentially leading to a stop in the worsening of violence…Legal consequences and an obligation to reparations for those who commit abuses must also follow suit: this will require better accountability on the part of not just the armed forces and their military leaders, but also the political elites of Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso. These trends should prompt Sahelian militaries and political leaders, as well as foreign security providers, to rethink their involvement in the region. [p. 6]

Jean-Pierre Olivier de Sardan, interviewed by Le Monde (April 16):

On voit bien que Paris marche sur des œufs. [Le président nigérien, Mohamed] Bazoum, de son côté, ne veut pas apparaître comme un vassal de la France. Il n’en est d’ailleurs pas un, mais la présence française peut en effet le mettre en difficulté. Pour le moment, le plus compliqué à gérer, pour lui, c’est sans doute son propre camp, parce qu’il doit composer avec la vieille garde de Mahamadou Issoufou [au pouvoir de 2011 à 2021]. Je pense vraiment qu’il veut lutter contre la corruption en actes et non en mots et qu’il a une réelle volonté d’améliorer la gestion de l’Etat. Mais sa marge de manœuvre est réduite, même si à Niamey, qui lui était très hostile, il a gagné une certaine popularité en rompant avec les habitudes de son prédécesseur, dont les déplacements paralysaient régulièrement la ville, ce qui insupportait les habitants.

OECD, “Natural Resource Governance and Fragility in the Sahel” (April):

Weak minerals governance is a source of economic fragility. In the Sahel, low access to banking and financial services closely relates to illegal minerals trade. Gold derives its value not only from its selling price, but also because it can replace currency. In comparison with cash, it is easier to transport, and easier to exchange against other currencies. For this reason, traders may prefer to use gold in order to build up savings, transfer wealth in accounts abroad, purchase goods and services, and finance trade operations. Significant amounts of Sahel gold are smuggled to Dubai, a leading international gold trading centre (Marks, Kavanagh and Ratcliffe, 2021). The gap between reported gold imports to Dubai and reported combined gold exports from Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger amounted to 1.6 billion USD in 2018, and 3.7 billion USD in 2019 as per UN data, suggesting intense illicit trade (UN Trade Statistics, 2022).

The growing use of gold as currency and means to store value creates a parallel economy, which is selfreinforcing. For example, low access to finance implies small miners rely on credit from traders to fund tools and products. The development of a parallel economy and financial system increases risks of money laundering and tax evasion. It also constrains the accumulation of savings in local banks, and therefore credit provision and private sector investment. [p. 26]

Post for the Quincy Institute’s Responsible Statecraft Blog on U.S. Attack Helicopter Sale to Nigeria

At the Quincy Institute’s Responsible Statecraft blog, I had a post yesterday about the recent approval of a $997 million sale of American-made attack helicopters to Nigeria.

An excerpt:

The Nigerian military’s appetite for more airpower fits with its penchant for flashy, high-casualty operations against both jihadists and bandits. Such operations produce high body counts but do little to break a long-running stalemate in the northeast or to stabilize the increasingly unstable northwest. Selling Nigeria attack aircraft feeds a dangerously exterminationist mentality within the military, whose press releases now constantly trumpet the number of jihadists and bandits who have been “neutralized” or “eliminated,” including from the air.

[…]

More broadly, Nigeria’s inability to contain either jihadism or banditry has much to do with politics: a wealthy and disconnected political and business elite sits atop a growing population suffering from widespread poverty. Even in the face of multiple severe security crises, politicians at both the federal and state levels are often more consumed with intra-elite power struggles than with meeting citizens’ basic needs.

Nigeria 2023: Five Presidential Aspirants to Know

On February 25, 2023, Nigeria will hold presidential elections. Current President Muhammadu Buhari (elected 2015, re-elected 2019) is term-limited and cannot run. The open presidential race will have major implications for the future of Nigeria and for West Africa and beyond.

Major politicians are starting to declare or at least strongly telegraph their candidacies, especially in advance of the presidential primary election for the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC), slated to be held on May 30-31 of this year, and the primary election for the former ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP) on May 28-29. The APC is expected to “zone” its candidate to southern Nigeria, as a power rotation after eight years of a northerner in the presidency.

Here are five names to know, including both APC and PDP candidates:

  1. Bola Tinubu: The Governor of Lagos State from 1999-2007, Tinubu has played a central role as a powerbroker in southwestern Nigeria and in national politics. He is widely considered the leading architect of the 2013 inter-party merger that created the present ruling party, the All Progressives Congress (APC). Tinubu declared on January 10: “I have the confidence, vision and capacity to rule, build on the foundation of Mr. President, and turn Nigeria better. I’ve done that before in Lagos State. You’ve seen that experience and the capacity to turn things around and that is what we are doing.”
  2. Yemi Osinbajo: Nigeria’s sitting Vice President since 2015, Osinbajo also hails from Lagos, where he was Tinubu’s Attorney General from 1999-2007. As Vice President, Osinbajo has often been particularly visible at moments when Buhari has been on extended medical leaves and my impression has been the Osinbajo travels internally within Nigeria more than Buhari does. Osinbajo announced his intention to run for president on April 11. He presented himself as a voice for ordinary Nigerians: “I’ve stood where you stand and sat where you sit. I know and I understand our hopes, aspirations and fears from a place of relatable proximity; and I believe that in those hopes and aspirations are the seeds for the great Nigeria that we all desire.” For whatever it’s worth, Tinubu is Muslim while Osinbajo is Christian; both belong to the APC.
  3. Rotimi Amaechi: Current Minister of Transportation and former Governor of Rivers State (2007-2015) in the Niger Delta, Amaechi is yet another APC aspirant for president. Announcing on April 9, Amaechi highlighted his long experience in elected and appointed positions. He said: “I pledge my heart, mind and soul to the task of building a Nigeria in which every child can go to school, every young person can find work or support to start a business, every citizen can travel safely around the country and sleep at night knowing that law and order prevails and every Nigerian feels included, heard, and respected.”
  4. Atiku Abubakar: Former Vice President (1999-2007) and runner-up in the 2019 presidential election, Abubakar is from Adamawa State in the northeast. He declared his candidacy on March 23, outlining a five-point agenda that emphasizes national unity, security, economic development, education, and the devolution of power to the states and local governments. As in 2019, Abubakar seeks to contest on the PDP ticket.
  5. Bukola Saraki: Member of a major political dynasty from Kwara State, Saraki served as Governor (2003-2011), Senator (2011-2019), and Senate President (2015-2019). The political landscape is shifting fast in advance of the PDP primary, but Saraki has recently been part of a four-candidate alliance advocating for a PDP unity candidate; the other members of the alliance are Sokoto State Governor Aminu Tambuwal (elected 2015, re-elected 2019), Bauchi State Governor Bala Mohammed (elected 2019), and the investment banker Mohammed Hayatu-Deen. Notably, many of the PDP’s top candidates are from the north, as is outgoing President Buhari.

BBC Pidgin has a list of the major APC aspirants and a separate list of the major PDP aspirants; both lists include a number of governors and former governors not mentioned above for reasons of concision.

Burkina Faso: President Damiba’s Visit to Troops in Barsalogho and Djibo

On Easter Sunday, Burkina Faso’s military ruler, President Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba, visited troops in Barsalogho (Center-North Region; map) and Djibo (Sahel Region; map). Both sites are deep in the country’s conflict zone – Barsalogho is the site of intermittent clashes with jihadists (recent example), and Djibo has been in and out of a jihadist-imposed blockade. Damiba’s visit appears intended to boost morale and make a show of authority.

Damiba, for context, took power in a coup d’état on January 23-24 of this year, overthrowing civilian President Roch Kaboré (elected 2015, re-elected 2020). He was declared president on February 16. The coup responded, in large part, to the severe insecurity and attendant displacement crisis that have bedeviled the country since 2016. One likely proximate trigger for the coup was the November 2021 attack on a gendarmerie outpost at Inata (map), a mine northeast of Djibo. If insecurity has been a justification cited by Sahelian coup-makers, however, current juntas’ records in dealing with insecurity are poor so far.

I have not found the text of Damiba’s remarks on these visits to Barsalogho and Djibo. According to the official readout from the presidency, at both stops he discussed the “two complementary pillars” of his administration’s strategy for combating insecurity. These pillars are “the military offensive against radical groups and the creation of a mechanism for dialogue with those who are in the frame of mind to reestablish dialogue with the Nation.” Coverage in the press adds little detail; most reports that I’ve seen are essentially rewrites of the presidency’s readout.

Dialogue with jihadists is a huge topic for Burkina Faso and for the Sahel as a whole. The best reporting I’ve seen on that topic has come from The New Humanitarian – see one of their pieces from late 2021 here. In general I think dialogue is a good idea. In this case I find Damiba’s remarks (or at least as paraphrased by the presidency) still quite vague. His inaugural address was similarly vague, including on the security brief. A strategy of applying pressure while presenting an off-ramp makes sense in the abstract, but much depends on who is viewed as suitable for dialogue – in one sense, Damiba’s strategy could be read as an analogue of Nigeria’s strategy of attempting to crush Boko Haram/Islamic State West Africa Province while holding out the military-run de-radicalization and surrender program “Operation Safe Corridor” as the offramp. That strategy has absorbed a good number of surrendering individuals, but has not transformed the conflict itself.

Meanwhile, the Burkinabè armed forces have conducted a recruitment drive to increase their ranks, currently estimated at 15,000-20,000 personnel, and have called up reservists. The immediate future, I think, still looks grim though.