Mali: Sharia in Kidal?

My title here is intentionally provocative – the reference is to a recent RFI article discussing new regulations handed down by the Coordination of Azawad Movements (CMA, a bloc of ex-rebels) in Kidal, northeastern Mali, on 30 January. As of 19 February, the CMA was “backpedaling” (see below), but the issue remains a live and contentious one.

From the first RFI article, regarding the initial regulations:

The CMA, which has administered the city for many years, is taking charge of new sectors of security and justice, replacing the State. The rules are stricter: the sale and consumption of alcohol are henceforth forbidden, foreigners* must have a local guardian, and as for the role of Qadi or Islamic judge, it appears strengthened. The inability of the State to assume its responsibilities in northern Mali continues to pose a problem.

The full CMA declaration, signed by CMA President Alghabass ag Intalla, can be found here. Notably, a lot of the press coverage focused on the alcohol ban and restrictions on foreigners, but the declaration also devotes substantial attention to traffic issues and, in particular, says that armed motorcyclists and pedestrians will be brought before the Islamic tribunal and have their bikes and weapons destroyed. There is a a debate to be had over how much any Islamization at work here is    actually subordinate to the CMA’s bid for securitization; it might be going too far to say that the CMA is using Islam as a tool for taking greater physical control of Kidal, but at the very least one can say that Islamization/Qadi-fication is only one part of a larger ambition to expand the CMA’s roles in both security and non-security sectors (including health).

The RFI article caused a bit of controversy because it drew heavily on comments by the researcher Ferdaous Bouhlel, who has been criticized by other Mali specialists (Malian and non-Malian) for allegedly being too close to the CMA. For example:

(Translation: “With researchers like this, the CMA doesn’t need spokesmen any more.”)

My view, however, is that of Guichaoua:

The controversy over Bouhlel, I would say, is a microcosm of two larger debates – (a) have the CMA and Malian Tuareg/Arab rebels systematically obtained more favorable media coverage than they deserve? and (b) is the CMA more nefarious than it sometimes appears in the media?

In any case, there are some other dynamics to highlight here. Recently in one of the courses I’m teaching, civil wars, we discussed Zachariah Mampilly’s Rebel Rulers and Paul Staniland’s “Wartime Political Orders.” To crude simplify things, one point Mampilly makes is that rebels (or ex-rebels?) develop governance models partly through interaction with civilian populations, whose preferences and needs can shape rebels’ decisions. This is what Bouhlel argues – namely, that the CMA is responding to civilian needs for greater security, and that the CMA is drawing on longstanding idioms of governance in the region. One point Staniland makes is that states and rebels (or ex-rebels?) negotiate different arrangements during wartime, including what Staniland terms “spheres of influence.” The CMA and the Malian government are constantly renegotiating their relationship and probing the limits of the other party’s influence (and these are not the only actors in northern Mali or even in Kidal, of course).

Here it’s worth noting that the CMA’s new rules are at least loosely grounded in the 2015 Algiers Accord, which mentions (.pdf, article 46, pp. 12-13) the “reassertion of the value of the role of Cadis [Qadis] in the administration of justice, notably in terms of civil mediation in a way that accounts for cultural, religious, and customary specificities.” Other actors, however, are unpersuaded that the CMA’s rules have any legitimacy – Ahmed Boutache, president of the Committee for Monitoring the Accord (French acronym CSA), denounced the CMA’s rules as “a flagrant violation of the accord…and an infringement of the sovereign prerogatives of the government of the Republic of Mali.” I see these competing statements as not just legal disagreements but also, again, as a way that each side is probing the limits of the other’s authority and legitimacy.

This brings us back to the issue of the CMA’s “backpedaling,” with the CMA’s 19 February statement acknowledging the authority of the Malian state at the local level and expressing willingness for a dialogue over how to move forward on security and the role of the Qadis. Both the CMA and the state, I think, are in essence making offers and counteroffers amid an evolving and unstable situation.

One wishes, meanwhile, that one knew more about who exactly the Qadis were/are/will be:

Personnel, as they say, is policy.

A final point to consider, and one mentioned in the first RFI article linked above, is the issue of influence from Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wa-l-Muslimin or the Group for Supporting Islam and Muslims (JNIM). RFI quoted an anonymous official from Kidal denouncing the CMA’s new rules as a reflection of JNIM’s pernicious influence. The CMA, which includes some former members of Ansar al-Din, one of JNIM’s constituent parts, is regularly accused of maintaining contacts with JNIM’s leader Iyad ag Ghali. But all of this brings us back to the question of what all these actors want – would ag Ghali be content with a “shari’a-compliant,” autonomous Kidal? Or does he want something more? And was the CMA channeling ag Ghali’s influence – or attempting to undercut it? I’ve tried to get at the complexity of “jihadist politics” in Timbuktu, but there is as much, if not more, to think about in terms of local Kidal dynamics as well.

*I think the CMA is referring to non-Malians here, but I wonder if there is a hint that all outsiders (Malian or non-Malian) could be required to have supervision.

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Thoughts on the Postponement of Nigeria’s Elections

On the night of February 15-16, in other words the eve of Nigeria’s scheduled presidential and legislative elections, the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) announced a one-week postponement to February 23. The postponement also affects the gubernatorial and state assembly elections, initially previewed for March 2 but now slated for March 9.

From the INEC website, here is an excerpt from Chairman (Prof.) Mahmood Yakubu’s remarks on February 16. I will quote at length, because I find some of this remarkable:

It is therefore not unexpected that such a tremendous national mobilization of men and materials will encounter operational challenges and we have had our own fair share of such challenges. There has been delays in delivering ballot papers and result sheets for the elections which is not unusual. However, I must emphasize that all the ballot papers and result sheets were ready before the elections despite the very tight legal timeframe for finalizing nomination of candidates and dealing with the spate of legal challenges that accompany it. In this regard, the Commission has been sued or joined in over 640 court cases arising from the nomination of candidates. As at today, there are 40 different court orders against the Commission on whether to add or drop candidates. The net effect of these is that there is usually roughly a one-month window for the Commission to print ballot papers and result sheets and either fly or transport them to several destinations until they finally get to each polling unit. Unfortunately, in the last one week, flights within the country have been adversely affected by bad weather. For instance, three days ago, we were unable to deliver materials to some locations due to bad weather. We therefore had to rely on slow-moving long haulage vehicles to locations that can be serviced by air in spite of the fact that we created five zonal airport hubs – Abuja (North Central), Port Harcourt (South South and South East), Kano (North West), Maiduguri and Yola (North East) and Lagos (South West) to facilitate the delivery of electoral logistics.

Apart from these logistical challenges, we also faced what may well be attempts to sabotage our preparations. In a space of two weeks, we had to deal with serious fire incidents in three of our offices in Isiala Ngwa South Local Government Area of Abia State, Qu’an Pan Local Government Area of Plateau State and our Anambra State Office at Awka. In all three cases, serious disruptions were occasioned by the fire, further diverting our attention from regular preparations to recovery from the impact of the incidents. In Isiala Ngwa South, hundreds of PVCs were burnt, necessitating the re-compiling of the affected cards and reprinting in time to ensure that the affected voters are not disenfranchised. I am glad that all the cards were quickly reprinted and made available for collection by their owners.

What stood out to me were the defensive tone and the reference to sabotage. The postponement has obviously occasioned concerns (including from me!) that this a maneuver designed to favor the incumbent and reduce turnout, but here we see Yakubu portraying INEC as the target rather than the author of efforts at tampering.

Of course, past postponements have not necessarily favored the incumbent. In 2015, the administration of President Goodluck Jonathan ordered a six-week delay amid the military campaign against Boko Haram. Jonathan then lost to Muhammadu Buhari.

That does not mean, however, that there is no cause for concern here. Jonathan’s administration deserves substantial criticism, but through 2018 and 2019 Buhari’s administration and the current iteration of INEC have made several problematic moves. This postponement follows two other incidents that troubled me: the highly contentious partial re-run of the gubernatorial election in Osun in September, and the presidency’s suspension of Supreme Court Chief Justice Walter Onnoghen in January.

Overall, I have long expected Buhari to win (partly, I admit, because of a status quo bias on my part – other analysts, most prominently the Economist Intelligence Unit, predict a win by Buhari’s chief rival, former Vice President Atiku Abubakar). Buhari’s central political alliance, with former Lagos Governor Bola Tinubu, remains intact and seems likely to help Buhari reconstruct most of the map he won in 2015 – the north plus the southwest plus part of the Middle Belt.

But the map could shrink. There are internal, state-level conflicts within Buhari’s All Progressives Congress (APC) that could affect Buhari’s prospects in northern states such as Kano. Meanwhile, Atiku and his allies have pull in states such as Adamawa and Kwara. I don’t expect all of these states to shift to Atiku’s column, but the “solid north” may be more competitive for Buhari than in 2011 and 2015. These dynamics give the president’s team an incentive to tamper – whether they have that intention is another question. But the postponement looks bad, not just in terms of INEC’s professionalism but also in terms of tampering.

My final thought is that I think another postponement is possible, although I would put the chances well under 50%. But if the logistical challenges were serious enough to warrant a one-week postponement, and if there are ongoing efforts at sabotage, then one week may prove insufficient.

For more, I recommend reading Fola Adeleke‘s piece at The Conversation.

 

Recent Media Quotes/Review

I’ve been quoted in a few media reports recently, and a new review of my book on Boko Haram came out.

Media:

  • Voice of America, “French Airstrikes in N. Chad Affirm Support for President Déby”
  • BBC, “Nigerian Elections: Has Boko Haram Been Defeated?”
  • The Economist, “Boko Haram, Nigeria’s Jihadist Group, Is Regaining Strength.”

The review appeared in International Affairs, by Caroline Varin, whose own book on Boko Haram can be found here. Varin highlights things that I see as the book’s strengths, and she also makes some solid critiques of the book – writing conclusions, in particular, has never been my strength!

Mali: Clerics Rally to Defend Their Class and Weaken the President

On January 19, the Malian imam Abdoul Aziz Yattabaré was stabbed to death in the capital Bamako while exiting his mosque. A member of the High Islamic Council of Mali (HCIM) and director of the Islamic Institute of Missira, Yattabaré’s death evoked wide grief.

The assassination also provoked a public dispute between the HCIM’s leader Mahmoud Dicko and the government of President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta (IBK), with Dicko’s spokesman quickly casting doubt on the government’s statements concerning the assassination and the accused assassin. At the heart of the controversy are a few questions, including whether the imam was assassinated because he condemned homosexuality. Dicko’s spokesman also implied that Yattabaré’s death reflected a government effort to silence Dicko and his circle amid wider tensions between the government and several religious leaders, most prominently Dicko and the Chérif of Nioro, who is arguably the leading Sufi shaykh in Mali.

Dicko and the Chérif (the latter represented by a spokesman) followed up with a mass rally in Bamako on 10 February. The key demands made there were for (a) a new law criminalizing homosexuality, (b) better governance and security, and (c) the sacking of Prime Minister Soumeylou Boubèye Maïga (SBM).

There is obviously a lot going on here all at once. Here are a few points:

  • As a pressure bloc, Mali’s religious leaders seem to have the most influence when it comes to “social issues” and particularly ones related to sexuality; the same clerics recently got the government to back down on sex education in schools. And the clerics seem to be much less influential when it comes to determining electoral outcomes; Dicko and the Chérif, despite vocal opposition, did not thwart IBK’s re-election last year. So in denouncing homosexuality, the clerics are on familiar and, for them, very strong ground.
  • Calling for SBM’s resignation is a savvy political move in the sense that he is the strongest prime minister IBK has had so far. There was rapid turnover in prime ministers during Keïta’s first term. SBM has also been credited, rightly or wrongly, with winning the re-elect for IBK. If you want to weaken the president, in other words, calling for SBM’s firing is not a stupid tactic.
  • In terms of popular attitudes toward homosexuality, I think some Western commentators discussing the rally in Bamako came off as a bit too smug and contemptuous, forgetting that (a) it wasn’t that long ago that major Western politicians such as Barack Obama opposed gay marriage, and (b) in a context of widespread insecurity and paranoia, conspiracy theories can gain a lot of currency within information economies. I’m not saying any of this to defend homophobia, but rather to say that if you put yourself in the shoes of someone at one of these rallies, it is not incomprehensible why someone might latch onto the idea that there is a homosexual cabal running the country and seeking to undermine Islam; amid endemic violence, it often seems that people reach for explanations that revolve around a sense that “things are not what they seem,” or in particular, “the elites are not who they seem.” The circulation of conspiracy theories combines with anti-Western sentiment to allow clerics such as Dicko to present themselves as defenders of what is “authentically” Malian and Muslim against an alleged foreign onslaught.
  • The clerics may also feel some genuine fear, as a class, and are thus going on the offensive because they feel themselves to be on the defensive. Not too long after Yattabaré’s murder, another Bamako-based preacher was stabbed, although not fatally. The clerics may be feeling more vulnerable than they admit. Having been in both the HCIM offices and Dicko’s mosque, I can say that security is not tight in either place. I imagine that may change now.

Thoughts on the 2019 AFRICOM Posture Statement

Last week, AFRICOM’s commander, General Thomas Waldhauser, presented the command’s posture statement to the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Alexis Arieff and Jason Warner had good threads highlighting important points of the document:

I have a few points to add:

  1. I have no insight into how the document was put together, but it felt as though within the statement you could feel three voices wrestling with one another for control: one voice that sees terrorism as the main concern in Africa, another focused on Russia and China, and a third that looks ahead to a grim future of dense, restless, and disease-prone populations. In other words, the document’s zigging and zagging between “Violent Extremist Organizations,” “Great Power Competition,” and “stability” talk did not feel coherent to me, but rather seemed to reflect layers of editing and insertion by constituencies with different priorities and attitudes. The sections on “Great Power Competition” felt the most grafted-on; I wonder whether AFRICOM would have preferred to just talk about terrorism and (in)stability. It was interesting to note that sometimes “Great Power Competition” and mentions of Russia and China fell out of the document for pages at a time, especially in the middle of the statement. It was also interesting to see moments where “Great Power Competition” was conspicuously downplayed (see p. 12, for example, with the “five objectives”). Some of this, I think, must reflect an uncertainty within various U.S. government agencies and offices about whether all the talk of “Great Power Competition” is headed and what the relationship between that and the “War on Terror” (or whatever one is supposed to call it now) is going to be. In other words, some sections might be spliced in just to make various bosses happy.
  2. I was struck by the frequent moments when the document put forth ideological rather than clinical statements on jihadist groups’ histories, characters, and intentions. On p. 7, for example, the document says, “VEOs [Violent Extremist Organizations] cultivate and encourage an environment of distrust, despair, and hopelessness to undermine governments, allowing for the expansion of their radical ideology.” A sentence like this makes me throw up my hands. The persistent and sometimes explicit suggestion, in U.S. policy circles, that jihadists are essentially nihilists misses a lot about what they say, what they do, and what their strategies are or may be. This kind of language from AFRICOM is so crude as to verge on being plain wrong; I’ve tried to show, including in some recent writing, that there is a lot more *politics* going on with jihadists than just “let’s undermine the government.”
  3. The overall crudeness of the document is striking. Maybe this is just inevitable in policy documents, but I don’t think it has to be. Take this sentence from p. 10: “Despite the challenges on the continent, Africans are eager and receptive to work with the U.S. to advance common strategic interests.” Do U.S. policymakers and generals have to talk this way? It just sounds silly. There were also several more specific passages that seemed to me absurdly rosy, especially the brief mention of Burkina Faso on p. 28. The section on Cameroon (pp. 31-32) also reads a bit strangely given that this news broke the day after Waldhauser testified. Couldn’t AFRICOM be a bit more forthcoming and blunt about challenges, frictions, and things that are going badly?
  4. The names of many operations remain ridiculous. “Exercise Lightning Handshake” was my favorite.

Finally, it’s worth noting that some euphemisms – including “advise, assist, and accompany” may be wearing thin as the public gets more information:

 

Roundup of Important Writing on Nigeria’s Presidential Elections

Nigeria is holding presidential elections on 16 February and state elections on 2 March. Here are some important pieces I’ve seen:

  • At Quartz, Stephen Onyeiwu has the bluntly but appropriately titled, “Nigeria’s president Buhari failed to fix Nigeria’s economy, but still has the edge this election.”
  • At Reuters, Paul Carsten has a good overview of the contest and the context.
  • The main challenger, former Atiku Abubakar, laid out his economic vision at Al Jazeera.
  • Crisis Group notes “Six States to Watch” in both the presidential vote and the state contests to follow two weeks later. The states are Rivers, Akwa Ibom, Kaduna, Kano, Plateau and Adamawa. In a similar vein, at USIP Oge Onubogu and Idayat Hassan write, “The Risk of Election Violence in Nigeria is Not Where You Think.”
  • At the BBC, Mayeni Jones explores the influence of “godfathers” over politics and elections.
  • A Vanguard editorial examines the suspension of Chief Justice Walter Onnoghen and calls on the president to reinstate him. Jibrin Ibrahim goes even deeper into the situation, writing, “Walter Onnoghen put Nigeria along the path to constitutional crisis by seeking to act as if he was above the law and President Muhammadu Buhari worsened the situation by suspending him without the accord of the National Judicial Council and swearing in Justice Tanko Muhammad as his interim replacement without allowing the National Judicial Council and the Senate play their constitutional roles.”
  • At African Arguments, Idayat Hassan looks at “fake news” and its political impact.
  • At This Day, Olusegun Adeniyi writes, despairingly, “Neither of the two candidates is offering ideas on how to resolve this nagging problem [of university staff strikes] or any of the other contradictions that define our nation today. Aside the tantrums, abuses and disinformation being exchanged in the social media by supporters of these two leading candidates, one cannot ascertain where they stand on critical national issues.”
  • At The Guardian, Feyi Fawehinmi gives satirical “Political Season Awards” to Nigerian politicians – but closes with the following ultra-serious, and now oft-cited, advice: “Get your PVC. Go out and vote your conscience. And please stay safe – no Nigerian politician is worth your life.”