Op-Ed on Dialoguing with Jihadists – at The New Humanitarian

The New Humanitarian asked me to distill some of my findings from my recent article on jihadist dialogues, the “local turn” in peacebuilding, and the possible ill fit between what local voices want and what international peacebuilders want. The op-ed is here. An excerpt:

This could be the kind of bargain that might ultimately attract jihadists: Amnesty, and Islamisation that goes beyond dropping formal references to French-style secularism (laïcité) from the Malian constitution.

However, what would this then mean for the status of Malian women, for access to education, for the country’s Christians and other non-Muslims, for Muslims who did not accept a “jihadist-lite” kind of rule, for Mali’s traditions of free assembly, music, art, and literature?

Though some Malian elites and citizens appear open to settlements with jihadists, it is difficult to tell what would be acceptable to the wider public, where questions of secularism, law, justice, and Islam are far from settled.

Piece for Responsible Statecraft on Changing Post-Coup Norms

The Quincy Institute’s Responsible Statecraft asked me to expand a bit on my post here the other day about the lengthening tenures of ostensibly transitional West African military regimes. My piece for Responsible Statecraft is here. An excerpt:

American policymakers should not get comfortable with military regimes. If harsh sanctions and threats do not work (ECOWAS tried a sweeping sanctions package for Mali and then backed down when it did not sway the junta), neither should American policymakers fool themselves into thinking that a given autocrat is some vital ally on another priority. The African autocrats who survived the “third wave of democracy” did so because they partnered closely with Washington, Paris, or some other major power.

At the moment, American-Russian (and American-Chinese) competition and the African versions of the “War on Terror” have both led American policymakers to accept certain African leaders’ abuses — sometimes for decades, as in the case of Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni, who has been in power since 1986. The tradeoffs are not worth it, including reputationally, when American backing becomes closely linked with a ruler’s anti-democratic behavior and human rights abuses.

The Fall of Bamako? Some Scenarios

The jihadist coalition Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wa-l-Muslimin (the Group for Supporting Islam and Muslims, JNIM), a subsidiary of al-Qaida, is now openly menacing (French) Mali’s capital Bamako. The threats are more than rhetorical – the July 22 attack on the country’s core military base at Kati, just outside Bamako, showed JNIM’s reach and daring. Jihadist incursions into southern Mali and even into Bamako are not at all new; Bamako suffered a major terrorist attack as far back as 2015. Yet the overall trend line in Mali is more and more violence, and the south (French) is under greater threat than ever before, meaning that jihadist threats to encircle and blockade Bamako are at least partly credible.

What scenarios, then, are possible? Olivier Walther of the University of Florida, a leading expert on patterns of violence in the region (I have contributed to some of his multi-authored reports for the OECD), outlined one grim scenario in a short, provocative thread the other day:

Here are a few other scenarios:

  • Hard jihadist blockade: This would put Bamako in the position of Djibo, a major town in northern Burkina Faso. On and off for the past few years, jihadists have cut off Djibo from surrounding areas, accelerating displacement, further ruining the local economy, and compelling desperate negotiations that often advantage the jihadists. This would be much harder for jihadists to achieve with Bamako, however – it would entail controlling or at least terrorizing six major routes (versus just three in Djibo), and targeting a national capital instead of a provincial town.
  • Soft jihadist encirclement: This would put Bamako in the position of Niger’s capital Niamey, which is surrounded by regions and departments under a state of emergency. Niamey is not cut off from surrounding areas per se, and a degree of normalcy continues there, but traveling even nearby the city can bring unexpected risks, as occurred with the August 2020 killing of some French humanitarians and their Nigerien driver not far from the capital.
  • Increased terrorism in the city: This would make Bamako into an analogue of Maiduguri, Nigeria in the years after Boko Haram’s resurgence starting in 2010 – something far short of jihadist control, but still suffering a frequent clip of terrorist attacks (and I don’t mean just attacks by jihadists, but more specifically terrorism in the sense of attacks meant to instill fear among the civilian population). What that ultimately gains jihadists is unclear; in Maiduguri, Boko Haram’s terrorism set off a cycle of violence between the group and the security forces that initially seemed to benefit Boko Haram, but then state-backed vigilantes (reflecting, in part, popular fatigue with the violence) helped partly push Boko Haram out of the city.
  • The fall of Bamako followed by a rapid French intervention: The outright fall of Bamako to JNIM, whether violently or through surrender, would in my view almost immediately provoke a kind of Operation Serval Part 2. The fall of Bamako would very likely entail the fall of the ruling junta there as well, unless some very low-probability and bizarre scenario emerged whether the junta and JNIM shared power (I can’t see it). The fall of the junta and the jihadist takeover of Bamako, then, would almost certainly have the French screaming “I told you so!” and organizing an intervention. I do not think the French government’s appetite for counterterrorism has diminished, overall; I think they’re just frustrated specifically with the Malian transitional authorities, and that they would go back into Mali without hesitation if the political situation there change. If France came charging in, they would send JNIM scurrying, and after the dust settled Mali would be back to something like where it was in 2013, except worse, with JNIM rebuilding in the countryside and a flimsy, pro-French civilian government in Bamako. Then the cycle of the last decade would likely repeat, perhaps with a beefed-up G5 Sahel Joint Force as a replica of the African Union Mission in Somalia.
  • The fall of Bamako followed by a rapid African intervention: What if Bamako fell and France somehow passed on an intervention? Perhaps in this scenario French authorities would calculate that the French public could not stomach Operation Serval Part 2, or perhaps a vestigial junta (could Bamako somehow fall, and the junta try to rule from elsewhere in the south?). That might leave France (and the US) in support roles as the African Union (AU), the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), or some subset of Mali’s neighbors and peers (Niger + Chad, as in their intervention in Nigeria in 2015?) organized a military intervention. The question then would be whether African forces would organize rapidly or not; in 2012, when jihadists controlled northern Mali, there seemed to be some hesitation on ECOWAS’ part, or at least a preference for attempting negotiations. Would that allow JNIM to look something like Somalia’s al-Shabab in 2009-2010, carving out a substantial territory that it openly governed? Of course, even in al-Shabab’s case their control over the capital was eventually broken.
  • The fall of Bamako followed by stalemate: Would both France and ECOWAS (and Niger, Chad, Senegal, etc.) hesitate to intervene? What then – would there be a kind of Talibanization of JNIM, where they agree to implement their vision within the borders of a single state? Where would that leave JNIM’s ventures in Burkina Faso and further afield? Would JNIM use Mali as a launching pad for some kind of more ambitious attacks elsewhere (potentially returning Mali to the scenario of a rapid French intervention)? Or would the scenario settle into a long-term stalemate, even longer-lasting than al-Shabab achieved in Mogadishu circa 2009-2011? I find this one unlikely but not impossible.
  • The fall of Bamako followed by chaos: What if Bamako falls but no one really “wins”? That is, what if Bamako proves ungovernable for JNIM, amid what would likely be a very unenthusiastic population, massive civilian flight, an immediate suspension of most international assistance and programming, crippling diplomatic and economic isolation of an already desperately poor and landlocked country, etc.? How would other Malian actors react – would there be a bizarre scenario of JNIM controlling Bamako but not Kidal, Timbuktu, Gao, etc? Would JNIM march into Bamako and then march into Mopti, Segou, etc? Or would there be some kind of war of all against all?
  • A failed jihadist attempt to take or hold Bamako, followed by blowback for JNIM: Blockading a city or terrorizing it is not the same as attempting to take it and hold it. What if JNIM seriously tried to take control and then lost to the Malian armed forces – or even to a popular uprising? JNIM leaders must know that even in the best-case scenarios for them, taking Bamako would entail considerable exposure. If JNIM captured Bamako, would Iyad ag Ghali, Amadou Kouffa, Yusuf al-Annabi, and other senior leaders show their faces, as the jihadist leadership did in northern Malian cities in 2012? Or would they rule through proxies? If they show their faces, they’re essentially putting targets on their back, but if they don’t show face, why bother taking the city in the first place – and could they trust mid-level commanders to run a whole capital for them? There is a significant possibility of jihadist overreach here – no matter how much their capabilities have grown, it seems to me that overt state-building efforts still carry more risks than rewards for jihadists. I suppose that’s why ultimately, I still think the first few scenarios I described are much more likely than these scenarios further down the list.

Changing Post-Coup/Transition Norms in West Africa?

I think I’ve made this point elsewhere (can’t remember where), but yesterday’s roundup on Burkina Faso reminded me of it, in the context of discussing the visit by an Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) delegation to Ouagadougou. The point is this: ECOWAS seems now to be comfortable with (or reluctantly acquiescing to) two-year transitions, which differ from the previous expectation in two ways – the length (eighteen months) and the precision (“two years” can date from a more or less arbitrary point that is not necessarily when a given junta took power).

The coups in Mali (August 2020, May 2021), Guinea (September 2021), and Burkina Faso (January 2022) all upended business as usual in West Africa and confronted France, ECOWAS, the United States and other external actors with a major dilemma – how much pressure to apply to coup-makers, and to what end? The “gold standard” for an orderly post-coup transition, in the West African regional context, appears to be the fourteen-month transition in Niger in 2010-2011, and ECOWAS (with French backing) sought to enforce a standard of eighteen months. But intransigence from Mali in particular forced ECOWAS into negotiating. Sometimes ECOWAS negotiated in a tough way, as when ECOWAS imposed sweeping sanctions on Mali from January-July 2022 in response to the junta’s proposal for a transition that could have lasted through 2026. Yet even at its toughest-minded, ECOWAS was always negotiating at a disadvantage – ECOWAS is not, I think, going to physically force any junta from power, and I think the juntas all know that. So the end result – and here the juntas watch each other, clearly – is an adjusting of the norms in the ways I described above. Mali’s junta ended up getting sanctions lifted by offering a “two-year” transition plan (but dating from March 2022, meaning that March 2024 will in fact mark three and a half years since the junta took power) and Burkina Faso’s junta now appears to be on the same page as ECOWAS about a “two-year” transition plan (dating from July 2022, giving that junta as much as thirty months in power – not a far cry from what it demanded originally).

(ECOWAS’ mediation/negotiation efforts with Guinea – the new mediator [French] is former Beninese President Boni Yayi – are still ongoing.)

If one thinks that Mali, Guinea, and Burkina Faso are part of an “epidemic” of West African (or African) coups and if one expects that “epidemic” to claim further victims – I’m ambivalent on both questions – then the next question is what expectations the Malian and Burkinabè experiences set up for potential coup-makers elsewhere in the region. Again, I’m not necessarily expecting any more coups in the short term, but any aspiring West African coup-makers now know that they can likely expect at least thirty months in power. Depending on how one reads their motivations – and especially if one is ultra-cynical and sees coup-makers as primarily there for their own enrichment and empowerment – then the incentives are clear. That ultra-cynical view is a bit too strong for me; I think it’s hard to get in the mind of Assimi Goïta (Mali) or Paul-Henri Damiba (Burkina Faso) and separate what may be, on the one hand, their legitimate frustrations over insecurity, civilian corruption and fecklessness, and pressures from below from their own soldiers versus, on the other hand, more self-serving motivations. But even if one sees these officers as heroes (I don’t), the coup/transition combo itself becomes something different depending on the length of time it lasts. Fourteen months, eighteen months…that’s hitting a reset button on the country’s politics, for better or worse. Thirty months, forty-two months…that’s a full-blown military regime. The pendulum has not, I think, swung back to where it was in the 1980s (Mauritania 1984, Burkina Faso 1987, Chad 1990) or earlier, when a coup-maker could expect to come into power and stay there practically indefinitely, perhaps with the occasional rigged election or cabinet reshuffle to placate various foreign and domestic stakeholders. But the pendulum has certainly swung a bit in that direction versus where it was a decade ago, when coup-makers had a lot more trouble making their rule stick – including in Mali (2012) and Guinea (2008).

Burkina Faso Roundup – 27 July 2022

Guinea-Bissau’s President Umaro Embaló, who currently doubles as the chairman of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), visited Burkina Faso on July 24 accompanied by ECOWAS’ mediator for Burkina Faso, former Nigerien President Mahamadou Issoufou. The visit was a follow-up to the July 3 ECOWAS summit, where Burkina Faso’s post-coup transition was on the agenda (French); ECOWAS and the Burkinabè junta, led by Paul-Henri Damiba, continue to appear satisfied with the current twenty-four-month transition plan (which runs through July 2024. Here is the Burkinabè Presidency’s readout (French) of the visit, and here (French) is Embaló’s brief comment.

Former longtime President Blaise Compaoré (in power 1987-2014) returned to Burkina Faso for a few days earlier this month for a “reconciliation” meeting with Damiba and one other past head of state. On July 26, he issued a formal apology to the Burkinabè people and especially to the family of his widely beloved predecessor Thomas Sankara (in power 1983-1987). In April of this year, Compaoré was convicted in absentia of complicity in Sankara’s murder (in the coup that brought Compaoré to power) and received a life sentence that he appears very, very unlikely to serve. The author of a recent biography of Sankara, Brian Peterson, comments here.

Jeune Afrique (French; paywalled) has a brief discussion of the career of the most wanted Burkinabè jihadist leader, Jafar Dicko. Jihadist attacks continue, including the destruction of two bridges (French) on July 15-16 in the Sahel Region (one of Burkina Faso’s regions, not to be confused with the overall Sahel region of Africa).

A Ghanaian TV report on Burkinabè refugees arriving in northern Ghana:

Here is the International Organization for Migration’s latest report (French) on population movements within, into, and out of Burkina Faso.

French Ambassador Luc Hallade upset (French) the Burkinabè authorities and various civil society groups with his remarks to the French Senate on July 5. More here (French).

Sahelian governments should crack down on extremist preaching? Turns out it’s not so simple (French).

Radio Omega with a long report on the “quiet mourning” of military families who have lost someone:

Roundup on Floods in the Sahel

Flooding has become a regular and tragic recurrence in the Sahel, a challenge compounded by poor infrastructure – which makes flooding a political issue as well as an environmental and humanitarian one.

A few snapshots:

Senegal:

Torrential rain fell across Senegal on Wednesday, causing floods in the capital Dakar and bringing down a section of one of the main highways into the city.

Cars, scooters and pedestrians inched through torrents of brown knee-deep water as unusually strong downpours battered the semi-arid city, where sandy roads and flat-roofed houses are poorly equipped for the July to October rainy season.

Mali: “Inondation : les populations priées d’évacuer le lit du fleuve.” From Studio Tamani, this segment discusses authorities’ efforts to evacuate riverine areas.

In Burkina Faso’s Le Pays (French), an editorial argues for both increased proactivity on the part of citizens as well as much more ambitious efforts by the state to relocate and care for vulnerable populations.

RFI (French) reports on flooding that has killed roughly a dozen people and left some 16,000 people homeless in Niger, with brief comments from the mayor of a heavily affected commune in the Zinder Region (southern Niger).

Al Wihda Info (French) describes flooding in the Lamé sub-prefecture, southwestern Chad.

Unfortunately, there is very likely more flooding to come. In 2021, in the zone stretching from Mauritania to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), a total of 1.4 million people were affected by seasonal flooding. Out of the countries in that zone, Chad and Niger were the second- and third-most affected countries, respectively, after the DRC – 256,000 people were affected in Chad, and 250,000 in Niger.

Piece on Mass Atrocities for Quincy Institute’s Responsible Statecraft

At the Quincy Institute’s Responsible Statecraft blog, I wrote this week about mass atrocities in the Sahel. Here are the concluding paragraphs:

Amid the final push for a new Africa strategy, what the Sahel needs from the United States is not grand strategies but rather day-to-day efforts to help some of the world’s most vulnerable people, and to hold perpetrators of violence to account. Bluntly, each successive administration’s “Africa strategy” tends to reshuffle the one before it, with nods to abstract priorities such as “democracy,” “development,” and “security.”

Such lists of priorities give little guidance for how to help local Sahelian communities and their governments, much less the entire continent, move toward greater stability and inclusive governance. Meanwhile, there is a risk that substantial U.S. government energies will be consumed by processes that are really about optics — a major new strategy will be rolled out with great fanfare, but it is likely to collect dust. In that connection, there is hubbub around an “African leaders’ summit” in this fall, but it will likely prove just as empty as the summit under Obama in 2014. Biden appointees should measure their success not by whether such Washington-focused events go smoothly, but by tangible accomplishments improving lives on the African continent.

Roundup of Recent Reports and Articles on or Relevant to the Sahel

Deutsche Welle, “Les putschistes en échec face aux djihadistes,” 30 May 2022. A look at data from the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data project, providing evidence that the juntas in Mali and Burkina Faso are performing poorly against jihadist groups and very poorly at protecting (i.e., not victimizing) civilians.

Conflict Armament Research, “Weapons Supplies Fuelling Terrorism in the Lake Chad Crisis,” May 2022. The report concentrates on data from the Diffa Region, southeastern Niger. An excerpt (p. 8):

JAS- and ISWAP-affiliates appear to have acquired a significant proportion of their weaponry opportunistically and within their area of operation, including through battlefield capture and raids on military and security force outposts, mainly between 2013 and 2019. A smaller proportion of the documented materiel was initially diverted from sources located thousands of miles from Niger, such as the Rwandan national arsenal, and there is minimal evidence of long-range trafficking support for armed groups fighting in the Lake Chad conflict.

Effectiveness of Peace Operations Network, “Shifting from External Dependency: Remodelling the G5 Sahel Joint Force for the Future,” June 2022. The authors consider four options for the future of the force. A key excerpt:  

The authors of this report believe that a scaled-up and reconfigured G5 Sahel Joint Force (G5 Sahel Plus) option (discussed below) would have been the optimal model. However, following the recent withdrawal of Mali from the G5S-JF and the deteriorating political landscape in the region and between states, the authors’ reassessment calls for an AU Peace Enforcement mission as the most appropriate, given the current situation. It is important to note, the recommendations provided in this report hinge on the ability of the current and former G5S-JF states to address and resolve the deteriorating political situation, which is fluid in nature and continuously evolving. This will require all states (current and former G5S-JF) to recognise that they need each other to address these challenges, and that any reconfiguration (the models provided in this report) depends on the political situation being fully addressed. There is a need, as the models indicate, to have more joint efforts between the AU and ECOWAS to assist in resolving the current impasses in the region. 

For my own part I think the G5 Sahel Joint Force will never live up to the hopes that have been placed upon it.

Frances Brown, “Governance for Resilience: How Can States Prepare for the Next Crisis?” Carnegie Endowment, May 2022. An excerpt (p. 2):

An overarching insight from the evidence is that governance for resilience is complex and often multidirectional. Several characteristics, such as decentralization, have an ambiguous effect on resilience: they enable a country to withstand some setbacks but leave it more vulnerable in other ways. Still other characteristics—including whether a country is a democracy or an authoritarian political system—do not appear have a clear-cut effect on resilience. In contrast, a few governance “super-factors”—such as control of corruption, societal trust, and high quality political leadership—are exceptionally powerful in enabling a country to augment its resilience through multiple pathways.

The World Bank, “Mali Economic Update, April 2022: Resilience in Uncertain Times – Renewing the Social Contract.” I didn’t find much in here that was imaginative or original, but here is one excerpt (pp. 38-39):

Inclusion should be at the center of development policies. The emergence of violent conflicts in the Sahel is primarily associated with exclusion, inequalities, and concerns about marginalization. Some categories of so-called “floating” populations, whose social or economic status is fragile and whose ties with the State are weaker – nomadic peoples, minorities, excluded youth – are particularly vulnerable to these risks and to engaging in violence through self-defense groups, rebellions, or violent extremist groups. Inclusion covers both territorial inclusion, which requires correcting imbalances in economic opportunities, access to services, and access to justice and security in different parts of a single country, within a single territorial entity or even the neighborhoods of a single town (urban ghetto phenomenon). It also refers to the inclusion of different groups – notably women and “floating” populations – within a single territory through the adequate targeting of public policies and development projects. This could involve, for example making sure local development policies are protective of both farmers and pastoralist groups livelihoods.

Mali and Burkina Faso: ECOWAS Kicks the Can to July

On June 4, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) held an extraordinary summit in Accra, Ghana, to discuss the situations – i.e., the military juntas – in Mali, Guinea, and Burkina Faso. Tension between ECOWAS and Mali’s junta are particularly severe, and ECOWAS imposed country-level, sweeping economic sanctions in January 2022 in an effort to pressure the Malian junta to set a rapid timetable for holding elections and handing over power to civilians.

In its communiqué from the summit, ECOWAS had a few qualified words of praise for the Burkinabè junta, but took no major decisions, electing to maintain the sanctions on Mali and revisit the situations in all three countries at the next ordinary summit scheduled for July 3.

There’s a fair amount being reported about intra-ECOWAS divisions on how to proceed, especially with Mali. RFI calls Niger, Ghana, Gambia, and to some extent Nigeria the hardliners, in other words the really pro-sanctions crowd. Senegal and Cote d’Ivoire are, or at least as of early May reportedly were, also in the pro-sanctions camp. There is also a lot online about the role of Togolese President Faure Gnassingbe, who is now formally mediating between Mali and ECOWAS; I’m having trouble cutting through the speculation to find what’s reliable, but there is a lot of speculation that Togo is open to a much softer line on Mali. For whatever it’s worth, his tweet about the summit spoke of “stability and peace” rather than, say, “democracy.”

World Politics Review Article on Mali, One Year After the May 2021 Coup

At World Politics Review (subscription required), I look at where Mali stands one year after the May 2021 coup that consolidated the power of the current ruling junta. An excerpt:

In May 2021, Mali suffered its second coup in the space of a year, both of which were perpetrated by the same group of colonels. While the first coup, in August 2020, followed a recognizable script of quickly standing up a civilian-led transitional government with the task of guiding the country to democratic elections, the second has upended that “business-as-usual” approach to post-coup transitions. As such, for Mali and for West African democracy in general, it represents a real turning point, revealing the coup-makers’ combination of shrewdness and ambition—a combination that is already being replicated by military juntas that have similarly seized power in Guinea and Burkina Faso.