Hunger in Mauritania

IRIN, May 26:

Hundreds of thousands of Mauritanians are struggling to feed themselves as they fall victim to the effects of climate change.

A chronically hungry country, Mauritania could see the availability of food drop to its lowest level in years if drought continues to ravage crops, livestock and livelihoods.

An estimated 1.3 million people will face food insecurity this year, according to the latest assessment by the UN-backed Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC).  Among them, nearly half a million people are expected to fall into severe food insecurity by June and be “unable to meet their food needs without external assistance.” Around 21,000 will suffer extreme food insecurity, or a near complete depletion of their livelihoods.

FEWS Net, May 4:

In areas of Mauritania and Senegal that experienced poor rainfall last year, 2014/15 crop production was between 30 and 80 percent below average, causing household food stocks to deplete earlier than normal and prolonging the period of time that households depend on market purchases to meet their food needs. Below-average incomes from crop sales and reduced milk availability are also limiting food access. To cope, households are selling additional livestock, increasing debt levels, engaging in increased levels of wage labor, migration, fishing, and forestry product sales (charcoal, wood, etc.), and reducing the quantity and quality of their meals. Even if the coming June to September rainy season is relatively normal, affected areas will face Stressed (IPC Phase 2) or Crisis (IPC Phase 3) food insecurity between now and the start of new pasture growth in July in pastoral areas or early crop harvests in September in agropastoral areas. A small number of very poor households will also face Emergency (IPC Phase 4) food insecurity, particularly in Mauritania.

WFP, May 25:

Mauritania hosts the largest number of Malian refugees. As of 31 March 2015, over 52,000 refugees are living in Mbera refugee camp. Since the beginning of the political turmoil in Mali, WFP has been providing life-saving food assistance to refugees who continue to depend largely on external support to meet their most basic survival needs.

IFRC, May 29:

IFRC has launched three emergency appeals in The Gambia, Mauritania, and Senegal. Totalling 5.1 million Swiss francs, the appeals aim to support the National Societies in the three affected countries through activities focusing on food security, nutrition promotion, building resilience, and disaster risk reduction.

[…]

Immediate interventions include distributing enriched flour for children under two years and for pregnant or lactating women who are at risk of malnutrition, to prevent a deterioration of their nutritional status, and to support the adoption of better nutritional practices which are essential to reducing malnutrition. Cash transfers will allow families to purchase what best suits their immediate needs, while longer term support will see families receive agricultural and livestock inputs to strengthen and protect their livelihoods.

 

Nigeria: Six Important New Governors

Nigeria got a new president, Muhammadu Buhari, on May 29, but also a large slate of new governors (many incumbents from the last cycle faced term limits). Here are six key figures. I almost wrote “newcomers,” but all of them have previously held major state or federal offices. Five of these governors belong to the current ruling party, the All Progressives Congress or APC; one belongs to the former ruling party, the People’s Democratic Party or PDP.

  1. Akinwunmi Ambode (Lagos): Lagos is the most populous state in Nigeria and the country’s main commercial center. Ambode represents continuity with Lagos’ previous two governors, Babatunde Fashola (2007-2015) and Bola Tinubu (1999-2007), both of whom are influential APC leaders, especially Tinubu. An accountant by training, Ambode served as Tinubu’s accountant general. He has pledged to reduce government expenses but has also said he will not be “reinventing the wheel.” His official biography is here.
  2. Abdullahi Ganduje (Kano): Kano is the most populous state in northern Nigeria, the second most populous state overall, and the major commercial hub of the north. Like Ambode in Lagos, Ganduje represents continuity in Kano, having served as deputy to his predecessor, Rabiu Kwankwaso, who has moved on to the Senate. Ganduje and Kwankwaso belong to the APC, in which Kwankwaso may prove to be an important northern voice, and perhaps Ganduje as well. Kwankwaso has left Ganduje with a debt liability of $1.9 billion (379 billion naira). Ganduje has pledged to increase government revenues and boost security in the state, which has sometimes been a target for Boko Haram.
  3. Nasir El-Rufai (Kaduna): Kaduna is a northern state with both economic and political importance, including for its tragic and divisive history of inter-communal conflicts. Nasir El-Rufai, a former cabinet minister (for the Federal Capital Territory) and current APC leader, defeated a PDP incumbent. El-Rufai has already won acclaim for halving his and his deputy’s salaries. However, his inauguration was marked by an incident where young protesters threw rocks and other objects at the Emir of Zaria and the state’s chief judge, “accus[ing] them of colluding with the previous administration of Governor Ramalan Yero to plunder the resources of the state.” The inauguration unrest is a reminder of the difficulties El-Rufai may face in promoting unity and peace in Kaduna.
  4. Simon Lalong (Plateau): Plateau is another northern state with complex histories of inter-communal conflict. Lalong, a former Plateau State House of Assembly Speaker who now belongs to the APC, defeated the PDP’s candidate in an open race. Lalong has begun making appointments, which will be closely scrutinized for how they do or do not represent the state’s diversity.
  5. Nyesom Wike (Rivers): Rivers is a key state in the oil-producing Niger Delta region and home to Port Harcourt, a regional economic center. Wike, of the PDP, has wrested Rivers back from the APC. Former Governor Rotimi Amaechi defected from the PDP to the APC in 2013, but was unable to pass power to his chosen successor. A lawyer by training, Wike was Amaechi’s chief of staff during the latter’s first term (2007-2011), but chose to remain with the PDP. As governor, Wike will have the challenge of ruling a politically turbulent state during a time of uncertainty, especially given that the amnesty for former Niger Delta militants may end this year, or be transformed into a new program. Wike will also have the opportunity to play a major role in rebuilding and reshaping the PDP, which has preserved a major base in the Delta and elsewhere in the southeastern part of Nigeria.
  6. Aminu Tambuwal (Sokoto): Tambuwal, who defected from the PDP to the APC in October 2014, was most recently Speaker of the House in the National Assembly. One of the most prominent northern politicians, he is now governor of a state with political, economic, and symbolic importance – the state is the seat of the Sultan of Sokoto, Nigeria’s pre-eminent hereditary Muslim ruler. Tambuwal has emphasized the theme of continuity with his predecessor, the APC’s Aliyu Wamakko, but has also promised redoubled efforts on job creation, agricultural development, attracting investment, and building infrastructure. Tambuwal will remain a major leader in the APC: rumors already circulate of a struggle between him and Tinubu to choose the next Speaker.

Key Passages from President Buhari’s Inauguration Speech

Today, Muhammadu Buhari was sworn in as Nigeria’s new president. He enters office facing high expectations regarding security, anti-corruption, and job creation. Here are a few key passages from the speech he delivered at his inauguration:

  1. “Our neighbours in the Sub-region and our African brethren should rest assured that Nigeria under our administration will be ready to play any leadership role that Africa expects of it. Here I would like to thank the governments and people of Cameroon, Chad and Niger for committing their armed forces to fight Boko Haram in Nigeria.” This acknowledgment of outsiders’ help is important: Chad in particular has complained that in the Jonathan administration’s late-game offensive against Boko Haram, Chadian and Nigerien soldiers received little cooperation from their Nigerian counterparts. It is also important that Buhari spoke Boko Haram’s name without fuss or euphemism; that signals that he is not afraid of the group.
  2. “Our founding fathers, Mr Herbert Macauley, Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, Alhaji Ahmadu Bello, the Sardauna of Sokoto, Alhaji Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, Malam Aminu Kano, Chief J.S. Tarka, Mr Eyo Ita, Chief Denis Osadeby, Chief Ladoke Akintola and their colleagues worked to establish certain standards of governance. They might have differed in their methods or tactics or details, but they were united in establishing a viable and progressive country. Some of their successors behaved like spoilt children breaking everything and bringing disorder to the house.” Here Buhari invokes the independence generation as his model of political leadership. It is important to note the ethnic and political diversity represented by this list. Take two examples: J.S. Tarka was a prominent Middle Belt politician, while Aminu Kano was a major northern leftist who spent much of his life in opposition to more conservative figures like Bello. Invoking this diversity is clearly a conscious choice on Buhari’s part, intended to honor different legacies in Nigeria’s post-independence history and to project an ideal of inclusivity, especially after an election in which the South East and South South zones voted heavily for his opponent.
  3. “My appeal for unity is predicated on the seriousness of the legacy we are getting into. With depleted foreign reserves, falling oil prices, leakages and debts the Nigerian economy is in deep trouble and will require careful management to bring it round and to tackle the immediate challenges confronting us, namely; Boko Haram, the Niger Delta situation, the power shortages and unemployment especially among young people. For the longer term we have to improve the standards of our education. We have to look at the whole field of medicare. We have to upgrade our dilapidated physical infrastructure.” Here he is urging the audience to be patient – this goes back to the point I made above about the high expectations. If we take a long-term perspective, the allusion to youth unemployment is the most important part of this whole passage – if Buhari cannot help create jobs for youth, he could face even more difficulties in the future.
  4. “The most immediate is Boko Haram’s insurgency.” Here he gives a sense of short-term prioritization. His remarks about preventing a re-emergence of a similar group and his references to improving human rights standards are critical – it will be important to see how he follows through on these promises.
  5. “The amnesty programme in the Niger Delta is due to end in December, but the Government intends to invest heavily in the projects, and programmes currently in place. I call on the leadership and people in these areas to cooperate with the State and Federal Government in the rehabilitation programmes which will be streamlined and made more effective.” Short-term priority number two is the Delta, it seems. He leaves some ambiguity about whether the amnesty for former militants will be renewed – the first sentence suggests it could end, but the second implies that some programs will keep going after 2015.
  6. “Unemployment, notably youth un-employment features strongly in our Party’s Manifesto. We intend to attack the problem frontally through revival of agriculture, solid minerals mining as well as credits to small and medium size businesses to kick – start these enterprises. We shall quickly examine the best way to revive major industries and accelerate the revival and development of our railways, roads and general infrastructure.” Note how he again emphasizes the issue of youth unemployment. It will be very important to see who comprises his economic team, and how they translate these principles (and other ideas his party advocated throughout the campaign) into policies.

What are your impressions of the speech?

Boko Haram and ISIS: Be Careful with Evidence

In March of this year, the violent Nigerian sect Boko Haram pledged allegiance to the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL. The pledge has elicited questions about what kind of material support the Islamic State may provide to Boko Haram, especially in terms of fighters, training, and money. These questions tap into an older inquiry about what connections Boko Haram has/had to other jihadist organizations – for years before the pledge, there were allegations of operational ties to al-Qa’ida’s affiliate al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). And these questions also take on added significance now, as Boko Haram is being forced to chart a new course in the wake of its recent territorial losses to Nigerian and regional armies.

When assessing the strength of Boko Haram’s outside connections, it’s important to weigh the evidence carefully. News organizations and analysts all have the temptation to seize on small details or perceived trends as evidence of growing operational ties. But the details may not be as significant as analysts presume, and the trends may not be new.

Example 1: An article headlined “With Help from ISIS, A More Deadly Boko Haram Makes a Comeback.”

The Nigerian terror group Boko Haram, after some much heralded reversals on the battlefield, has made a dangerous comeback, unleashing female suicide bombers, carrying out a series of deadly attacks, and seizing a highly strategic town [Marte, Borno State].

[…]

All this comes amid reports that Boko Haram may be receiving training from the self-proclaimed Islamic State, widely known as ISIS, which operates in Iraq and Syria. A group called the Mosul Youth Resistance Movement, apparently formed to fight ISIS in and around the major Iraqi city it conquered almost a year ago, killed five Boko Haram members there, according to the Iraqi Kurdish website BasNews. Saed Mamuzini, spokesperson for the Kurdish Democratic Party, is quoted saying, “The Nigerian Boko Haram militants were in Mosul to take part in a military training course conducted by Islamic State.”

What caught my eye here was first, the phrase “unleashing female suicide bombers” – which suggests that this is new. Not really. I basically stopped reading after that, since the article’s credibility evaporated when it began to present the old as evidence of the new. But to go further, it is certainly possible that Boko Haram members are training in Iraq. Yet are Kurdish websites really the most reliable sources? And is this really evidence of an Islamic State-supported Boko Haram comeback?

Example 2: An article headlined “Captured video appears to show foreign fighters in Nigeria’s Boko Haram.” When we read the article, we find that the video shows “a man speaking in Sudanese Arabic” and wearing “a white turban.” Another man wears “a black turban.” Are these men fighters? Are they Sudanese? Are they Nigerians who spent time in Sudan? Do they have anything to do with the Islamic State? The answers to some of these questions may well be yes, but I would argue that we can’t know yet – and so we shouldn’t over-interpret the limited evidence that is available. It’s better to withhold judgment.

As a final note, I would say that there has long been an assumption in many quarters that Boko Haram simply could not be homegrown, or that Nigerians could not possibly be the masterminds of Boko Haram’s violence. Well, why not? Nigeria is home to over 170 million people (that’s more than Iraq, Syria, and Algeria put together, with at least 70 million residents to spare). Is it inconceivable that some Nigerians would know how to make bombs, plan sophisticated attacks, conquer territory, and produce propaganda? I think the alliance with ISIS is real and that it will have some effect, especially in the sphere of media and rhetoric, where there is observable and consistent evidence of influence. But I am suspicious of the analysts who seem to need to find an Arab hand behind any and all terrorism in sub-Saharan Africa.

 

Review of Todd Moss’ The Golden Hour

Last year, Todd Moss published The Golden Hour, a novel about a coup in Mali. Moss served as a Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Bureau of African Affairs at the U.S. Department of State from 2007-2008, and he has long been a senior officer at the Center for Global Development, where he wears a number of important hats. You can read his full biography here. The Golden Hour is a work of fiction, but it draws on his work at State and is clearly inspired partly by events in Mali in 2012-2013. Below I review the novel as a piece of writing and as a political statement.

As a Novel

From a literary point of view, I very much enjoyed the book. I found it to be a literal page-turner; I read it in two long sessions, the first of which kept me up much later than I had planned. The novel is engrossing largely because Moss strikes a skillful balance: he includes enough characters and plots twists that the book stays intriguing, but does not bog the writing down with needless complexity. Too many thrillers pack in characters and events until even the most sympathetic reader or viewer becomes lost and frustrated; Moss wisely avoids that.

The idea at the heart of the book is also compelling. Moss’ central character is an academic-turned-diplomat, Judd Ryker, who gets to put his ideas into practice. Ryker’s theory is that a coup can be successfully reversed within approximately one hundred hours. Mali becomes his first real test. I can’t say whether the idea of the “golden hour” in coup-reversal is workable or not; the point is, it’s interesting, and it was part of what kept me reading.

As a side note, I wondered whether the real-life scholar Jay Ufelder (who is not, it should be said, an advocate of anything like a “golden hour”) provided any of the inspiration for Ryker. There are certainly scholars out there doing sophisticated work on understanding coups, so the character of Ryker does not seem crazy.

As a Political Statement (Caution: Spoilers)

Moss was not, I think, primarily trying to make a statement: from what I can tell, The Golden Hour was written as a literary project and as an experiment in thinking through how an idea might play out. Nevertheless, a piece of fiction such as this, taking heavy inspiration from recent and dramatic events, implies some opinions about real-life politics.

The politics of the novel are complicated, which is a good thing: you could not pigeon-hole it as a defense of any particular ideology. I found some elements compelling, and others discomfiting.

One thing I found compelling was Moss’ depiction of an ostensible (and fictional) terrorist group called Ansar al-Sahra, whose violence and crime pushes some United States government officials to support Mali’s coup leader – again, all in the novel. Part of the novel’s resolution involves Ryker’s discovery that Ansar al-Sahra has been manufactured by the coup leader and his soldiers. This discovery helps Ryker unmake the coup and restore the civilian president. That kind of statement from Moss – that the U.S. government is too gullible when it comes to terrorist “threats,” and too tolerant of thugs who claim to be anti-terrorist – is timely and appropriate. The point to me is not that real-life terrorist groups are in reality secret plots, but rather that governments frequently overreact to terrorist groups, especially new and murky ones.

There was one thing that made me uncomfortable: Moss’ inclusion of a successful armed rescue of an American hostage by American special forces. The depiction of a flawless rescue, carried out by badasses, could mislead some readers into thinking that this should always be the approach in a hostage crisis. Some armed rescues work; many others go quite badly.

Finally, there’s a point about which I felt some real ambivalence: Moss’ depiction of the State Department as a place of high drama and high-stakes decision-making. When I worked there for a year in 2013-2014, I found that many officials – even senior officials – saw their time eaten up not by making “tough calls,” but by dealing with bureaucratic pressures, including the constant demands that different U.S. government agencies place on one another. This is exactly the point that Moss is trying to make, I suppose: that true leadership means finding ways to circumvent bureaucracy. His novel is a celebration of the idea of independent, anti-bureaucratic initiative – he opens with a quote from G.R. Berridge, “The advantages of backchannels are secrecy, speed, and the avoidance of internal bureaucratic battles.” But I think Moss overestimates the room that someone like Ryker might have to improvise, to go “backchannel,” to pursue diplomacy as an adventure and a risk.

Judging from my own (albeit limited and junior) experience, I think risk-aversion is so entrenched in American diplomacy right now that Ryker’s actions are almost unthinkable. Of course, The Golden Hour is a novel and it works as a novel – it’s not meant to map onto reality one-to-one. But the question of risk-taking in diplomacy has tremendous relevance right now, and in that sense I have trouble confining to the question of the plot’s plausibility to the text.

I also am not so sure that I want some of our current officials freelancing more – I would rather see systemic changes in how the United States looks at the world and allocates its resources. The scariest thing to me, in fact, is the diplomat who races through twenty-hour days thinking they are Ryker, thinking they are caught up in a whirling drama of high-stakes events – when in fact they are just managing various inputs and outputs within an essentially closed system comprising government officials (ours and theirs). What effect, after all, has the U.S. had on the ground in Mali since 2012? Has the U.S. decisively changed the course of events there at any point? Perhaps that’s because we’re missing a Ryker; or perhaps it’s because the current bureaucratic systems and diplomatic culture prevent the development of creative policies, not just when it comes to reversing coups but also when it comes to thinking imaginatively about Muslim Africa and the wider Muslim world.

Roundup on Niger’s Arrest of Moussa Tchangari (Updated)

On Wednesday, Niger’s Interior Ministry confirmed that authorities had arrested (on Monday)

On Monday, Nigerien authorities arrested a journalist and civil society activist named Moussa Tchangari on charges of collaborating with Boko Haram. (EDIT: Interior Minister Hassoumi Massaoudou said that Tchangari “has been collaborating with Boko Haram for some time, and he is actively spreading propaganda and false news in liaison with Boko Haram.” According to Oxfam’s Associate Country Director for Niger, Fenke Elskamp, “Tchangari[‘s] file [is] still empty, his lawyers confirm.”)

The arrest comes amid an uptick in Niger’s conflict with the Nigerian sect this year, which has seen Nigerien soldiers deploying inside Nigeria as well as a spate of attacks by Boko Haram inside Niger, particularly the southeastern Diffa Region.

Niger’s action also occurs in the context of other struggles over the control of information during the fight against Boko Haram. For example, the Nigerian government has in the past blacked out mobile phone service in northeastern states, and journalists have complained that they lacked access. Moreover, the case of Tchangari is reminiscent of Nigerian journalist Ahmad Salkida, who left Nigeria for the United Arab Emirates in 2013. Salkida had interviewed Boko Haram’s founder Muhammad Yusuf during the latter’s lifetime and had written for years on the sect. He began to experience harassment “after security agencies and Nigerian authorities began to mistake his in-depth reporting on the extremist group as evidence of his closeness to the sect.” I obviously do not know all the facts in either case, but I give the benefit of the doubt to both Salkida and Tchangari.

A few perspectives on Tchangari’s case are below.

AFP:

“This man has been collaborating with Boko Haram for some time, and he is actively spreading propaganda and false news in liaison with Boko Haram,” Interior Minister Hassoumi Massaoudou told AFP.

[…]

Tchangari was arrested on Monday and charged with “criminal links to the terrorist group Boko Haram”, he said.

Tchangari’s organisation Alternative Espace Citoyen has been critical of the humanitarian crisis in southeastern Niger, where the army is fighting Boko Haram.

In early May, his group published a report that criticised the Niger authorities after the evacuation of some 25,000 Lake Chad residents over fears of new Islamist attacks, following a deadly assault in late April.

Amnesty:

Niger must immediately release a human rights defender arrested after he criticised the indictment of six village leaders for “failure to cooperate” with the authorities in the fight against Boko Haram, Amnesty International said today.

[…]

The fight against Boko Haram and national security requirements must not be an excuse for arrests, which lack a solid legal basis and do not respect human rights. Arbitrary arrests and detention without charge should not be the weapons used to silence those who peacefully exercise their right to freedom of expression.

Here are a few more resources:

  • Tchangari’s Twitter account. His most recent tweets, dating May 8, are photographs of people displaced from Lake Chad islands by order of Nigerien authorities.
  • The website of Alternative Espaces Citoyens, an NGO where Tchangari is Secretary General.
  • A statement (French) from African and European human rights organizations, calling on Nigerien authorities to free Tchangari.
  • RFI (French) quotes some civil society members in Niger, including a member of Alternative Espaces Citoyens and Amnesty’s Nigerien researcher.
  • The RFI story above says that Nigerien authorities were offended by an interview Tchangari gave to RFI’s Hausa service. The Hausa service has covered the displacement from Lake Chad, but I haven’t been able to find the interview.

Belated Update 6/3: Tchangari was released (French) on May 27 after being held since May 18. Jeune Afrique (French) has some interesting commentary on the episode, including the judge’s comment that Tchangari’s publications had “demoralized the army,” and also the news that other civil society activists have been detained in recent months.

Nigeria: The PDP Thinks about Its Next Steps

Nigeria’s People’s Democratic Party (PDP) has held the presidency for sixteen years, but as of May 29 it will be in the opposition. Defeat has left the PDP with a number of questions, most importantly: What next?

Over the weekend and into this week, the PDP’s official Twitter handle started a surprisingly candid discussion of this issue, all while expressing confidence that the PDP would maintain “its ability as the flagship of democracy.” The series of tweets generated controversy, including within the PDP, with some officials saying that the account was not speaking for the party.

The online conversation has been paralleled by leadership changes. Adamu Mu’azu, national chairman since January 2014, just resigned, as did Tony Anenih, chairman of the Board of Trustees – perhaps to make way for outgoing President Goodluck Jonathan to take that position. There is a precedent for a former head of state to play such a role: former President Olusegun Obasanjo was chair of the Board from when he left office in 2007 until 2012.

A number of serving and former PDP elected officials have weighed in on what the party should learn from its defeat and where it should go from here. One is former Cross River Governor Donald Duke, who gave an interview with Channels Television in April. The interview has attracted some attention – you can read about it (and watch it) here.

For my part, I thought the PDP’s tweets effectively conveyed the message that the party was willing to listen to ordinary citizens. For that reason, disavowing the conversation would make the party look worse. On the other hand, a willingness to listen will not be sufficient for revamping the party’s image. I think what the PDP will need to figure out is whether it is, or can be, more than a collection of elites united by a desire to win elections. The party will also need to show what policies it has to offer beyond a slate of macroeconomic “reforms” that sometimes delivered rapid growth, but did not deliver enough jobs.