My Annotated Translation of the Islamic State’s Article “Liptako: Graveyard of Crusaders and Apostates” from Al-Naba 238 (June 2020)

This project has been on the back burner since the summer, and I guess I ended up saving it for a rainy day. Click the link below (or here) for the translation and annotations; my introduction to the translation gives more context and a few thoughts on the conflict between the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) and Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wa-l-Muslimin (JNIM).

Burkina Faso: 13 Candidates Face Off in Next Month’s Presidential Elections

In early October, Burkina Faso’s Independent National Electoral Commission (French acronym CENI) issued a provisional list of 14 candidates for the November 22 presidential elections (coupled with legislative elections). Another 9 candidates did not meet the requirements for candidacy.

A CENI decree signed October 10 gives the same list, along with more details, including the number of sponsorships each candidate received. For what it’s worth, 2015’s runner-up, Zéphirin Diabré, received the most, at 170; incumbent President Roch Kaboré received 120, the former ruling Congress for Democracy and Progress’ candidate Eddie Komboigo got 129, and all others got fewer than 100.

On October 22, the Constitutional Council published the final list of candidates. One from the earlier list, Harouna Kindo, was dropped due to not paying the required deposit. That leaves 13 candidates. At the link, Le Faso notes that the Council did not disqualify Yacouba Isaac Zida, who is the former transitional Prime Minister (2014-2015) and, before that, number 2 within the now-disbanded Presidential Security Regiment. Zida, however, remains in exile in Canada.

I profiled the top candidates here a few weeks back. I have no crystal ball regarding the elections, but as I said then, I expect Kaboré to win, in part because of de jure and de facto restrictions on who can vote due to insecurity. But anything could happen. There are formidable candidates among the other 12 figures.

One interesting item that I haven’t explored is what Radio Omega calls “a wave of resignations” from Diabré’s party recently. That’s not good for the formal head of the opposition, obviously. The figure discussed at the link not only was a parliamentary deputy and the deputy president of the party’s parliamentary bloc, but is also apparently a significant figure within the Mossi chiefly establishment – a minister, as he puts it in his Facebook page (as of October 22), to the Mogho Naaba, the country’s “mediator monarch.” I wonder if various politicians are putting their fingers to the wind in the weeks before the election, and I wonder which ways they feel the wind blowing.

Here, finally, is CENI’s provisional list of legislative candidates.

Recent Reporting on Insecurity-Related School Closures in the Central Sahel and the Lake Chad Basin

The violent conflicts in the Sahel and in the Lake Chad Basin have been causing schools to close, on and off, for years. Bodies such as Human Rights Watch and the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack have issued reports on this subject this year (in May and September, respectively). Jihadists are key perpetrators of attacks on schools, obviously, targeting them for ideological reasons specific to education (objections to the curricula, for example), but also as symbols and institutions of the state. Schools can also be caught in the crossfire, literal or political, amid extended conflicts; for example, Human Rights Watch points out above that when militaries use schools, it can contribute to making those schools into targets.

Several journalistic reports on school closures have come out just in the past few days:

  • Voice of America (October 19) reports on school closures in northern Cameroon due to attacks by Boko Haram. A Cameroonian official says: “Sixty-two schools have been closed. The children have to be either scholarized [educated] in other schools very far from their own villages or to abandon schools. Thirty-four-thousand-and-fifty-four students have been registered as IDPs. We have the students of the host communities; we have even refugee students.”
  • Le Point (October 21) gives some grim statistics: in Mali, 926 schools out of 8,421 are closed. In the central region of Mopti, the most violent region in the entire Sahel, 127 schools out of 218 are closed.
  • RFI (October 21) gives even worse statistics for Burkina Faso: 2,100 schools closed, although that estimate is actually lower than 2,512, the number of schools closed due to insecurity on the eve of COVID-19, according to Human Rights Watch’s count in its May 2020 report.
  • RFI (October 21) has a short piece on the education crisis in Mali, including a striking micro-portrait of a teacher who was wounded in Kidal, in the far northeast, during an ill-fated visit by the then-Prime Minister there in 2014, which triggered clashes with ex-rebels. The teacher, now in Bamako, says he/she cannot go back because of the state’s absence in Kidal and the security forces’ inability to provide security there.

In some areas, I don’t think it’s much of an exaggeration to say, insecurity is locking parts of entire generations out of their chance at an education. And teachers like the one mentioned above can also have their lives and careers thrown into chaos. Even if the violence stopped tomorrow in all these conflict zones, the effects will be felt over lifetimes.

Links Roundup on the October 20 “High-Level Humanitarian Event on the Central Sahel”

Yesterday, October 20, the government of Denmark co-hosted a “high-level humanitarian event,” or a ministerial roundtable, on humanitarian issues in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger. The other hosts were the government of Germany, the European Union, and the United Nations. You can watch the recorded livestream, and get other information, here.

A few other links:

  • The co-hosts’ joint press release about the $1.7 billion that was pledged in funding for humanitarian needs. An excerpt: “Twenty-four Governments and institutional donors announced financial support at the virtual conference…Once released, the funds will help some 10 million people for the remainder of 2020 and through 2021 with nutrition and food, health services, water and sanitation, shelter, education and protection, and provide support to survivors of gender-based violence.” 
    • Another point from the press release: “The three affected countries were represented by H.E. Mr. Alpha Barry, Minister of Foreign Affairs, Burkina Faso; H.E. Mr. Zeïni Moulaye, Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, Mali; and H.E. Ms. Aïchatou Boulama Kané, Minister for Planning, Niger.”
  • The pledge result table is here. If I understand the breakdown of the numbers correctly, the conference raised approximately the target sum ($1 billion) for 2020, as well as $725 million for 2021 and beyond. See the Care statement below for how humanitarian appeals have gone severely underfunded for the Sahel.
  • A transcript of UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres’ video message.
  • A UN News report on the event, and another readout at OCHA.
  • Statement from the German Federal Foreign Office. Germany pledged 100 million Euros for the period 2020-2023.
  • The European Union’s press release. The EU pledged around 43 million Euros.
  • US Special Envoy for the Sahel J. Peter Pham’s remarks.
  • A statement from CARE, the day before the conference, on how underfunding of humanitarian appeals can affect women in particular. One paragraph: “Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, women and women’s civil society have been critical frontline responders and leaders in humanitarian response efforts. Yet, the public health emergency has had a disproportionate impact on women and girls. COVID-19 has exacerbated pre-existing inequalities and resulted in alarming health and economic impacts for women and increased risk of gender-based violence. Women and girls are pillars of the response in their own communities, but the existence of their organizations is threatened by lack of funding for COVID and the other programs they were implementing.”

Mauritania: Moustapha Ould Limam Chafi Returns to Nouakchott

On October 18, Mauritanian national Moustapha Ould Limam Chafi returned to the country’s capital Nouakchott after what Le Figaro estimates is “a dozen years’ exile.” At least two Mauritanian regimes – that of Maaouya Ould Taya in 2004, and that of Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz in 2011 – issued warrants for his arrest (in 2004 over charges of helping to plot a coup, in 2011 over charges of colluding with al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb or AQIM). But he was never arrested by Mauritanian authorities, and is now back home roughly a year after Ould Abdel Aziz’s successor, President Mohamed Ould Ghazouani, canceled the warrants for Ould Chafi and two other prominent Ould Abdel Aziz-era dissidents/exiles.

How to classify Ould Chafi? Businessman, politician, intermediary, power broker? Jeune Afrique has covered his career extensively over the years, writing profiles and updated profiles in 2011, 2017, and 2019. In the first profile, we read, “His network goes from Niger to Cote d’Ivoire, where he spends a lot of time around Prime Minister Guillaume Soro, and to Mali, among other [places]. Outside West Africa, his connections go from Morocco to Darfur (Sudan), and also to Rwanda. But he is, first of all, a faithful companion of the Burkinabè president Blaise Compaoré, and has his house and family in Ouagadougou.”

The accusations of collusion with jihadists stem largely from his role in negotiating ransom payments for and releases of western hostages of AQIM, a role he sometimes undertook on behalf of Compaoré. Jeune Afrique‘s 2017 article discusses this dimension of his career a bit more. And nowadays, when accusations arise that Compaoré’s inner circle colluded with AQIM, Ould Chafi’s name continues to come up. I personally have not seen decisive evidence of collusion on the part of either Compaoré or Ould Chafi. I shed no tears when Compaoré was overthrown but in my eyes, negotiations or hostage payments are not tantamount to direct collusion. But I do not, and likely will never, know the full story on any of these dealings.

Back in Nouakchott, Ould Chafi is presenting his return home as purely personal and is disavowing any political agenda.

Roundup: Recent Assessments of U.S. Government Approaches Toward the Sahel

Here are a few items that I saw recently, all in very different ways assessing and critiquing aspects of how the United States government (or parts of it) has/have interacted with the Sahel:

  •  Loren DeJonge Schulman of the Center for a New American Security, “Working Case Study: Congress’s Oversight of the Tongo Tongo, Niger, Ambush.” I learned a lot from this. It reinforces my impression (and this is me speaking, not even paraphrasing Schulman) that U.S. troops are sometimes effectively on combat missions even if those missions go by highly euphemistic names. And there is not much oversight.
  • Nick Turse for the New York Times, “How One of the Most Stable Nations in West Africa Descended Into Mayhem.” This is a major piece of reporting. If you read it seeking a comprehensive explanation of Burkina Faso’s crises, you may walk away disappointed; if you read it as a critique of the United States government’s approach to Burkina Faso, the piece will probably make more sense.
  • State Department Office of Inspector General, “Audit of the Department of State Bureau of African Affairs Monitoring and Coordination of the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership Program.” Some pretty harsh assessments in there – but pretty fair, from what I can tell.

Niger: Key Points from President Mahamadou Issoufou’s Recent Interview with France24

On October 12, France 24 published a video interview with Niger’s President Mahamadou Issoufou. The headline from France 24, echoed in some Sahelian media coverage of the interview (example), was somewhat surprising to me: these headlines focused on Issoufou’s reiteration that he will not be seeking a third term. I had thought that he had made this very clear, including by clearly designating his preferred successor in the person of Mohamed Bazoum (whom I expect to win the elections in December 2020/February 2021); and in the interview itself, as I note below, both he and the interviewer take it for granted that Issoufou is committed to stepping down at the end of his term. So perhaps this is something of a media narrative, a kind of generalized skepticism among headline writers that any African leader would really step down voluntarily.

Here are my notes on the interview:

  • Responding to the first question, about whether Mali’s recent prisoner exchange will ultimately prove destabilizing, Issoufou expressed happiness and congratulations over the release of Soumaïla Cissé and several Europeans. Issoufou argued that there are no “ideal solutions” in such situations and that governments must make compromises. Issoufou’s essentially unqualified support for this deal could be seen as a contrast with some more critical remarks he has made in the past about, for example, the situation in Kidal and what he sees as the Malian state’s unfulfilled responsibilities there.
  • Concerning the second question, about the investigation following the August 9 attack at Kouré, Niger, I didn’t find Issoufou’s answer very specific or substantive.
  • Concerning the third question, on COVID, Issoufou mentions what I think of as the standard (though not necessarily wrong) list of factors explaining Africa’s relatively resilience in the face of the pandemic: past experiences, youthful population, etc. He points to Niger’s strikingly low case and death rate as evidence that the health sector, despite its weakness, has performed very well. And definitely in terms of confirmed official cases, Niger appears to have done quite well – better, in fact, than its neighbor Burkina Faso.
  • Regarding the threat of terrorism and criminality, Issoufou evokes what he sees as a multi-faceted policy response: ideological, economic, security, development, democracy, etc.
  • Asked to summarize his record after nearly ten years in office, Issoufou notes his efforts to assure security and consolidate democracy – and it is here that he mentions that he has kept his promise by not seeking a third term, and he emphasizes that the elections will be transparent and clear. It is a bit out of context for France 24 and others to run with the headline that Issoufou is rejecting a third term, because both the interviewer and Issoufou take that as a given in their exchange. Were I writing the headline, I would have gone with Issoufou’s promise for a “free and transparent” election – that’s the real question now. Issoufou avoids discussing any particular case of third-term-seeking elsewhere in the region, but argues that the Africa-wide trend is against third terms.
  • The last question concerns regional free trade and economic integration, and I didn’t find anything in the answer particularly striking.

Mali: Quick Context on the Two Italian Hostages Released

Yesterday, October 8, the head of Mali’s presidential crisis cell confirmed the secure return of four hostages held by jihadists, specifically by Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wa-l-Muslimin (the Group for Supporting Islam and Muslims, JNIM).

One of these four returned hostages is famous – Soumaïla Cissé, formal head of Mali’s opposition, who was kidnapped while campaigning in the Niafunké district of the Timbuktu Region in March.

And another hostage is a relatively familiar name to Sahel watchers – French national Sophie Pétronin, who was kidnapped in Gao, Mali in 2016.

The other two individuals are less well known. They are two Italian nationals who were kidnapped in separate incidents. One is a priest, Pier Luigi Maccalli, who was kidnapped in September 2018 near Makalondi, Niger (map), very close to the border with Burkina Faso. The village/parish where he was serving, Bomoanga, and the schools associated with his mission, have been targeted in other jihadist attacks as well. The other Italian citizen, Nicola Chiacchio (in some reports and sources, Ciacco), is described in one account as a “tourist who was last known to be cycling from Timbuktu to Douentza,” both in Mali (map of Douentza here). He was kidnapped around February 2019.

The two Italians appeared together in a proof of life video in March 2020. The brief video, and some coverage, are available here; additional coverage is here.

MENASTREAM has a very useful map showing Western hostages held in the Sahel, updated to reflect these four figures’ release:

Reuters provides some details about the lead-up to the hostage releases here.

Unfortunately I can’t do much analysis due to time constraints, but one thing that strikes me is how much the conversation about hostage releases has changed since, say, 2011-2013. Back then I heard a lot more open contempt, at least in the U.S., for the idea of paying ransoms or exchanging prisoners with jihadists. Now the tenor of the public conversation, at least online, appears to run very much in the direction of unreservedly celebrating the return of these hostages and therefore tacitly or explicitly accepting the costs as being worth it. The online conversation has shifted, I think, and the makeup of the voices participating in the online conversation has also changed and expanded significantly, when I step back and think about it. That’s good, I’d say.

Quoted in Al Jazeera’s Burkina Faso Elections Preview

Burkina Faso holds the first round of its presidential elections on November 22. President Roch Kaboré is seeking re-election and, in my view, is likely to win. I recently looked at some of his leading challengers here.

At Al Jazeera, Henry Wilkins has a really strong article succinctly examining the potential disenfranchisement – de jure and de facto – of thousands of voters. The article draws partly on interviews with a mayor from eastern Burkina Faso (given a pseudonym in the piece for his protection – see some context on the insecurity at the village level in the east here, in French); with Judd Devermont of the Center for Strategic and International Studies; and me.

Here is one quote of mine:

“I think the government could have done a lot more to avoid being in this situation in the first place,” Alex Thurston…told Al Jazeera. “Curtailing security force abuses would have helped. But, now that the insecurity is so bad, they have limited options vis-a-vis the elections.”

Burkina Faso: A Delicate Atmosphere Around Inter-Religious Coexistence

From the beginning of Burkina Faso’s current wave of insecurity circa 2016, there have been concerns that the violence would undo the country’s longstanding patterns of inter-religious and specifically Muslim-Christian coexistence and harmony. In 2016, International Crisis Group opened a report on the topic by saying:

Burkina Faso’s great religious diversity and tolerance make it an exception in Africa’s sub-Saharan Sahel. Its model of religious coexistence remains solid but could be at risk of being eroded. For several years now, Muslim leaders have complained that Muslims are under-represented in the civil service and that the administration is not always even-handed in its treatment of Christianity and Islam. Meanwhile, the rising tide of religiously motivated violence in West Africa and the Sahel has created a new regional context. As Burkina is recovering from a period of instability following the October 2014 downfall of former President Blaise Compaoré, and faced with a security emergency and strong social pressures, the government could be tempted to ignore these developments.

For further context, Burkina Faso has a clear Muslim majority of perhaps 61%, according to this estimate, and a substantial Christian minority of around 30%.

Amid the ongoing insecurity, there have been tragic and frightening moments where it has seemed religious coexistence might begin to unravel. Specifically, there have been attacks on churches in the conflict zones in 2019 and 2020. Yet, even as exceedingly grim scenarios are coming to pass in terms of displacement, the tenacity of the insurgency, and escalating levels of violence, the country has – at least in my view – so far avoided the worst-case scenarios in terms of specifically Muslim-Christian violence.

That does not mean there are no tensions – including far outside the conflict zones. One news item that caught my eye recently was a visit on October 3 by the president of the National Assembly, Alassane Bala Sakandé, to the Pazani/Pazaani neighborhood of the capital Ouagadougou. He was there following the destruction of a mosque complex – the mosque itself, another building, and six classrooms – connected with a legal dispute over the land the complex was on. Sakandé called for “dialogue, peace, and tolerance.” The visit also got a fair amount of coverage in local and national media. I think all this points to how delicate the atmosphere is – in other circumstances, the destruction of the mosque might have rankled and caused a neighborhood-level conflict, but in the shadow of the insurgency, it takes on much greater potential significance. It’s good that Sankandé made such a public visit to the site.

See some pictures of the visit here: