Chad: Rebel Advances and French Airstrikes in the North

Reuters:

French warplanes struck a rebel convoy in northern Chad on Sunday, helping local troops repel an incursion across the border from Libya…

Mirage jets struck a column of 40 pickups carrying armed groups from Libya deep into Chadian territory, the French army said in a statement…

The Union of Forces of Resistance (UFR), a rebel Chadian coalition created in 2009 after almost toppling Deby, said it was behind the offensive. [The Military Command Council for the Salvation of the Republic or] CCMSR is a splinter group of the UFR.

Let’s add a bit more context. The French military’s statement is brief and vague, saying merely that some Mirage 2000 fighter jets took off from Chad’s capital N’Djamena at the request of the Chadian government. One fighter jet patrol made a “show of force” to warn the rebel convoy; the rebels did not halt, so a second patrol conducted two strikes on the convoy. In terms of the rebel groups, it’s worth noting that the CCMSR was often in the news (and on this blog) in the second half of 2018, but they have been relatively quiet of late, including in the media sphere.

RFI gives a few more details on the French airstrikes, namely (a) the convoy had been frustrating Chadian forces’ attempts to destroy it for two days before the strikes, (b) the strikes occurred at least 400km from the Chadian border with Libya,* and (c) the French forces were part of Operation Barkhane. That operation is widely understood as a Sahelian counterterrorism force, but last August’s transfer of a Barkhane base from N’Djamena to Wour (map) was, perhaps, a signal that Barkhane was making itself available to Chad as an anti-rebel force. There is a much longer history of French support to Chadian President Idriss Deby, including amid rebellions that have threatened his power in the past, so these dynamics extend well beyond just Barkhane.

For a bit of the UPR’s perspective, here is an interview with a UPR spokesman on TV5.

As several colleagues have pointed out, there are more questions than answers here:

*Le Figaro adds, imprecisely, that the strikes fell “between Tibesti and Ennedi,” which doesn’t quite make sense to me.

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Nigeria: Notes on Recent Boko Haram Violence

In Nigeria, Boko Haram and its offshoot Islamic State West Africa (ISWA) have perpetrated several major attacks and a number of micro attacks recently. Here are some of the most prominent incidents in recent weeks:

  • An ISWA attack on a military base in Baga (map), 26 December
  • An ISWA attack on Rann (map), 14 January
  • An ISWA attack on Geidam (map), 23 January,
  • Attacks attributed to Boko Haram, targeting two military bases/outposts at Pulka (map) and Logomani (map) on the Nigeria-Cameroon border, 26-27 January
  • A second attack on Rann, attributed by some reports to Boko Haram rather than ISWA, 28 January

Some of these places are small cities – the number of displaced from Rann alone is estimated at 30,000. Most of these towns/cities have been previously, even repeatedly, exposed to Boko Haram and ISWA violence. Much of Borno State remains extremely dangerous for civilians and soldiers; all of the attacks mentioned above occurred in Borno save the one in Geidam, which is in neighboring Yobe State.

Reporting on these attacks also emphasizes the unpreparedness of the Nigerian military. See the following thread:

The assault on Geidam also shows how individual attacks can build momentum for future violence, as fighters seize weapons and equipment and as the attacks shake soldiers’ and even officers’ confidence. The accounts about Geidam do not all agree on the details, but different reporters and ISWA’s own readout all say that ISWA took supplies in Geidam, perhaps including fuel, a tank, other military vehicles, and weapons. Meanwhile, the attack seems to have caught the military by surprise:

In separate interviews with PREMIUM TIMES under anonymity on Friday morning, military officers were troubled by Boko Haram’s ability to inflict such damage on an area that had long been fortified to serve as a buffer against unchecked movement of insurgents south of River Komadougou-Yobe.

Geidam has been regularly targeted since November 2011 when Boko Haram launched a string of deadly assaults on residents in the community and Damaturu, the state capital. The military, however, moved swiftly to frustrate easy movement of the insurgents by setting up bases in the communities near River Komadougou-Yobe, which is a minor tributary of the Lake Chad.

While other Yobe communities, especially Buni Yadi, live in fear of regular Boko Haram attacks, Geidam was relatively calm, which security analysts credit to the military’s ability to prevent terrorists from using the nearby river.

But the military base in Geidam, which sits near the border with Diffa, Niger Republic, was perhaps the first target of the latest deadly raid, according to military sources.

Amnesty International’s report on the second Rann attack offers an even more damning portrait of military unpreparedness – or outright fear of Boko Haram/ISWA:

Disturbingly, witnesses told us that Nigerian soldiers abandoned their posts the day before the attack, demonstrating the authorities’ utter failure to protect civilians.

Alleged withdrawal of troops, triggered a massive exodus of civilians to Cameroon, as fear spread that Boko Haram would take advantage and attack the town. At around 9am on 28 January, a group of Boko Haram fighters arrived on motorcycles. They set houses ablaze and killed those left behind. They also chased after those who attempted to escape and killed some people outside the town. Eleven bodies were found within Rann town, and 49 bodies were found outside.

Another theme worth noting about recent violence is that even micro attacks can have wide impacts. For example, recent ambushes and abductions on a road running from Damaturu (Yobe) to Biu (Borno) caused widespread disruption:

The road which is about 120 kilometres has remained the only safer means as linkage to people living in southern Borno senatorial district reach Maiduguri, the state capital following closure and danger posed on other closest roads.

Sources said, after the abduction, security forces had to close down the road for motorists and passengers. A driver who plies the road on daily basis, Mallam Ali Isa told our Correspondent that he had to follow through 400km Gombe-Potiskum- Damaturu- Maiduguri road after the news filtered that the road was not safe on Friday. His words: “The Damaturu-Buni Yadi- Biu Road was not safe. Today is Buni Yadi Market where thousands of people from the surrounding communities come for business, unfortunately, there was an attack on the road which led to abduction of unspecified number of travellers with looting of foodstuff, and this warrant the military to close down the road including the market,” Isa learnt.

As a closing thought, a lot of the reporting has discussed these incidents in the context of Nigeria’s approaching presidential (February 16) and state (March 2) elections. But I am not sure that the electoral calendar is uppermost in the minds of either Boko Haram or ISWA. I think they operate on a longer timeline and that electoral disruption is a lower priority for them than (a) military positioning, (b) keeping fighters happy/occupied, and (c) obtaining or expanding their supplies and their overall political, economic, and religious influence.

Mauritania Elections: Messaoud Ould Boulkheir and Ahmed Ould Daddah Too Old to Run?

In Mauritania, talk of a third term for incumbent President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz has given way to talk of a near-certain succession by his long-time right-hand man, current Defense Minister Mohamed Ould Ghazouani. Given the long-term dominance of the group of (former) military officers that Ould Abdel Aziz and Ould Ghazouani represent, Ould Ghazouani’s candidacy and victory do seem quite probable. But the overall composition of the presidential field does matter, not just for who wins and who loses but for what it tells us about the positions of different constituencies in Mauritanian politics and society.

One interesting item, then, is that it seems that the People’s Progressive Alliance* (French acronym APP) will not put forward its leader Messaoud Ould Boulkheir as a presidential candidate. Ould Boulkheir is arguably the most important, if no longer the most internationally famous, haratine politician in Mauritania – the haratine or “Black Moors” being a different socio-racial category in Mauritanian society than the bidan or “White Moors” such as Ould Abdel Aziz and Ould Ghazouani. Ould Boulkheir was president of the National Assembly from 2007-2014 and placed second in the presidential election of 2009, winning 16% to Ould Abdel Aziz’s nearly 53%. He also contested the 2003 and 2007 (first round) presidential elections, placing fourth in both.

Ould Boulkheir faces a legal obstacle to candidacy because he is, or will be, older than 75 at the time of the first round. This article details how the PPA had undertaken some initial legal consultations and had begun preparing his candidacy, before consulting more widely and concluding that he was/will be ineligible. The relevant portion of the Mauritanian Constitution (Title II, Article 26) can be found here.

I do not think, based on the obvious trend from past races, that Ould Boulkheir would have defeated Ould Ghazouani. And I don’t think that he was muscled out of contesting – unless one sees Article 26 (which is a new addition, if I am reading the constitution right, from the 2017 referendum) as something designed to target Ould Boulkheir (and, if one follows that logic, to target recurring contender Ahmed Ould Daddah, younger brother of Mauritania’s first president). But it does seem that whether by accident or design, Ould Ghazouani will face a field of lesser-known candidates than was the case in recent presidential elections in Mauritania. One final question is whether the age restrictions on Ould Boulkheir and Ould Daddah gives any advantage to Islamists, who are the second most important party in the country (after the ruling Union for the Republic) if one goes by the results of last year’s legislative elections, but whose room for maneuver is often seriously constrained by the administration.

*As a minor detail, al-tahaluf al-sha’bi al-taqadummi might also be translated “the popular, progressivist alliance.”

Piece on Jihadism and Politics in Timbuktu for War on the Rocks

This is a belated post to promote an article I wrote last week for War on the Rocks, where I looked at whether the jihadist project has a “political ceiling,” so to speak, in Mali or elsewhere. I took the Timbuktu region as a case study. I also appeared on their “WarCast” (subscription required) to discuss the piece and the broader situation in Mali.

I welcome your comments!

Mauritania: An Ould Ghazouani Presidency?

In Mauritania, what looked for a long time like a strong probability, if not certainty – a third term for President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz – now looks less and less likely. The next elections are expected to fall between April and June of this year, and Ould Abdel Aziz has publicly called on his supporters to cease efforts to modify the constitution. Even more tellingly, Ould Abdel Aziz has now publicly expressed support for current Defense Minister and long-time right-hand man Mohamed Ould Ghazouani as a successor and as candidate for the ruling Union for the Republic (UPR) party. Even last fall, it should be noted, some journalists were reading Ould Ghazouani’s appointment as Defense Minister as a sign that he was next in line for the presidency.

Geoff Porter has more on the recent developments and what comes next:

There will certainly be some opposition activity (which in sporadic instances may provoke a repressive response from the state, including disruption of Islamist activities and harassment of Mauritania’s human rights organizations), but ultimately, the UPR machine has a lock on electoral politics in Mauritania and “President El Ghazouani” is nearly a sure thing. With last week’s announcement and today’s tweet [from UPR head Sidi Mohamed Ould Maham], the elite will begin to rally round El Ghazouani. There was already a steady stream of late model cars outside El Ghazouani’s Nouakchott villa last week and visitors were stacked up in the waiting area outside his Ministry of Defense office. This will likely intensify in the weeks and months to come.

I would add that an Ould Ghazouani presidency would represent continuity not just with the administration of Ould Abdel Aziz, but with trends in Mauritanian politics dating back to the beginning of military rule in Mauritania in 1978. At that time, of course, Ould Abdel Aziz and Ould Ghazouani were just starting their careers, and they reportedly met in 1980 at the military training academy in Meknes, Morocco. Their rise through the ranks coincided with the reign of military dictator Maaouya Ould Sid’Ahmed al-Taya (1984-2005); ironically, however, they (and the late Ely Vall) became the key movers in overthrowing Ould al-Taya in order to preserve the system while shedding its increasingly erratic top man. They then staged another coup in 2008, following a short-lived experiment with a civilian president, and installed Ould Abdel Aziz. He then removed his uniform and ran as a civilian in 2009, and again in 2014, which brings us more or less up to the present. Ould Ghazouani has been a key figure in all these events, and it was Ould Ghazouani who acted as de facto president in 2012 while Ould Abdel Aziz was recuperating after being shot.

Ould Ghazouani’s biography and career are less well known, I would say, than one might expect for a figure of his stature. Most sources say that he hails from Assaba, southern Mauritania, from the Ideiboussat tribe. I don’t want to go too deep on “tribal” analysis, but for context the Ideiboussat is a zwaya or clerical tribe from among the “White Moors” (Bidan), who are at the top of Mauritania’s socio-racial hierarchy. Being from a clerical tribe does not make one a cleric, of course. For what it’s worth, Ould Abdel Aziz is from a tribe called the Awlad/Oulad Bou Sbaa (described in some sources as a zwaya tribe as well, though other sources call it a Hassan/warrior tribe), and he comes from Akjoujt. So one could say that in terms of tribes, there is some sort of basic continuity in terms of a White Moor succeeding another White Moor, but not in terms of the specific tribe. So one question will be how an Ould Ghazouani presidency would affect the business networks surrounding the current president, who is sometimes said to favor the Oulad Bou Sbaa for key positions and contracts.

Mali: What Next for the Truth, Justice, and Reconciliation Commission?

RFI has an article on Mali’s Truth, Justice, and Reconciliation Commission (Commission vérité justice et réconciliation, CVJR) that raises some important questions. The CVJR, whose official website can be found here, was created in 2014 with a mandate through 2018. RFI expects that the mandate will be renewed, but at least two key challenges remain:

  1. How can the Commission hear from as many victims as possible? The article mentions that the office in Kidal only opened two weeks ago; even more seriously, victims can face reprisals if they are seen talking to the Commission. Then too there is the problem of severe violence in the center of Mali, particularly Mopti, which creates waves of new victims as well as new difficulties pertaining to victims’ access to the Commission.
  2. How will the Commission’s plans for a victims’ reparations law be squared with plans for a law of “national understanding,” which some critics call an amnesty? (For one commentary on the law, see here, and for one version of the text, see here.)

These are big questions, of course, and debates over “justice” versus “peace” can be extremely fraught. My own thinking on the bigger picture was heavily influenced by Jacob Mundy’s book Imaginative Geographies of Algerian Violence, which deals in part with ways  that forgetting can be just as important to peace as remembering can.

But to move from the big picture back to the details, I was interested to look a bit into the commission’s structure. From the website, one learns that it comprises twenty-five commissioners, directed by a president (Ousmane Oumarou Sidibé, a lawyer and former labor minister) and two vice presidents (former parliamentary deputy Hat ag Baye* and Islamic scholar El Hadj Sidi Konake). One could say that northerners have a large representation on the commission, with the president coming from Timbuktu, one of the vice presidents (ag Baye) coming from Gao, and at least nine of the commissioners having recognizably Arab or Tuareg names. This is not to say that the commission’s balance is off – after all, the north was where the violence began in the current cycle of conflict, and where many of the victims still are. And the other vice president (Konake) is from Mopti, so that region has senior representation too. I guess what is striking is the comparison between this northern-dominated Commission and many other organs of the Malian government, where northern representation is quite thin. On the other hand, one doesn’t want to get too caught up in the politics of representation, which easily becomes an end in and of itself – what matters is the quality of performance.

A final note is that there are several commissioners with connections to Mali’s High Islamic Council, which could mean both that the Commission actively sought out religious leaders as members and/or that the High Islamic Council had a lot of say in who got to sit on the commission.

*Ag Baye replaced Nina Wallet Intallou, who became Minister of Tourism.

 

Mali: Does Telling People Not to Kill Each Other Work?

The below message floated across the Twitter feed the other day and caught my eye:

The full official article from MINUSMA – that is, the United Nations Multi-Dimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali – is here. It describes how eight community radio stations are getting kits with laptops, microphones, antennas, and other equipment.

On the one hand, this kind of project is inspirational. MINUSMA’s support is going to expand the physical reach of community radio stations in Mopti, the most violent region in Mali today. In other words, broadcasts will increasingly reach the isolated rural areas where violence is severe. The article is full of moving quotes from Mopti radio broadcasters and listeners, such as the following: “Getting timely, effective, true, and exact information in each village, each community, headed for each citizens, is essential for reducing tensions” and “The radio changes our lives. It gives us the feeling of being part of a society.” The radio broadcasters and staff put themselves at considerable risk in order to disseminate information, and that is extremely admirable.

On the other hand, I question the assumptions that MINUSMA seems to embrace. I’m sure there will be “monitoring and evaluation” galore, but to me one can never really evaluate whether something like this is making a difference beyond an anecdotal level. If overall violence in Mopti gets worse in 2019, does that mean the project failed? And if violence declines, did the project succeed? But even beyond the monitoring and evaluation component, what is the theory of change? Is it that people who are already desperate enough, or angry enough, or ideologically motivated enough, or opportunistic enough to kill will be dissuaded from doing so by a radio broadcast? I believe that media can incite and encourage violence – but does it follow from that proposition that media can also reduce and constrain violence? I’m not so sure. I believe that media can be a powerful tool that rebels and jihadists use to win recruits and sympathizers – but does it follow from that that government-backed or UN-backed media can reverse or effectively counter such recruitment? Again, I’m skeptical. Picture yourself as a twenty-five-year-old bandit in the Youwarou cercle, or a sixteen-year-old jihadist in the Tenenkou cercle, or a forty-eight-year-old hunter in the Bankass cercle – is there a radio broadcast, or even a succession of radio broadcasts, that would make you lay down your arms? Picture yourself living deep in the bush, trusting only a few people, grieving losses of relatives or friends who have been killed by others, grieving (consciously or unconsciously) over those whom you yourself have killed – what could a radio broadcaster say to you?

And is it not possible that the newly equipped community radio stations will now be more attractive targets? New laptops, new antennae, MINUSMA funding…

Why not just give this money directly to the poor in Mopti?