Comparing the Prime Ministers of the Sahel

Who are the current prime ministers of the five core Sahelian countries, and what do their careers and approaches tell us about Sahelian politics? A few basic patterns emerge. In education, a combination of domestic government schoolings, STEM specializations, and some overseas training helped to fast-track their careers. In the first phases of their careers, employment within the civil service and particularly within state-owned enterprises was the means of ascent; often simultaneously, these men (they’re all men) either built parallel political careers within political parties, or at least (from within the civil service) weathered major shakeups in the political scene around them. The pivotal decade, in all cases, appears to have been the 1990s – in their 30s and 40s, they solidified positions as insiders that they have maintained ever since.

In the current political environment, the default model is that of a military head of state with a career politician or civil servant as prime minister; Niger is the only fully civilian-civilian lineup, in the sense that the head of state there is neither a current nor retired soldier. Two additional takeaways: (1) military heads of state have deep benches of technocrats and career civilian politicians to draw on when forming governments, even in some of the world’s poorest countries; (2) military heads of state in the region prefer civilian to military prime ministers, even if soldiers sometimes take up other key ministries in governments; and (3) in some cases, there are political rewards for the ability to strategically tack back and forth between the ruling party and the opposition, just as there are rewards for repeatedly seeking the presidency even if one doesn’t win it. None of those patterns are particularly unique to the Sahel, of course. One other interesting detail is that all three of the prime ministers in the core conflict zone of the Sahel – Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso – hail from the conflict zones themselves. Such origins, however, don’t necessarily give these men any particular advantage in attempting to manage or resolve those conflicts.

Here are the biographical sketches:

Mauritania – Mohamed Ould Bilal Messoud (b. 1963, Rosso): Ould Bilal Messoud is a technocrat and engineer with a background in hydraulics and business administration; parts of his education were in Algeria, Senegal, and possibly Europe. Since 1991, he has risen through the ranks of the state bureaucracy. Political turbulence in Mauritania between 2005 and 2009 clearly did not hurt his career, which continued to advance after the coup of 2005 against longtime ruler Maaouya Sid’Ahmed Ould Taya; he then moved into his first ministerial position (as Minister of Facilities, Urban Planning, and Housing) under the short-lived civilian administration of Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdallahi; he then headed up several state-run enterprises after the coup of 2008 and the coming to power of Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz (military head of state 2008-2009, civilian head of state 2009-2019). In 2020, Ould Bilal Messoud became prime minister after allegations of corruption brought down his predecessor, Ismail Bedde Ould Cheikh Sidiyya. From what I observe, Ould Bilal Messoud does not have a particularly big profile, perhaps by choice.

Mali – Choguel Kokalla Maïga (b. 1958, Tabango): Maïga is another engineer, in this case with a specialty in telecommunications; he graduated with a doctorate from the Moscow Telecommunications Institute in 1987/1988. Politically active as a supporter of Mali’s then-military ruler Moussa Traoré, Maïga built a career from 1990-2002 at the Mali Telecommunications Firm (Société des Télécommunications du Mali), rising through the ranks there even as Traoré fell in 1991. Meanwhile, Maïga became the leader of the Patriotic Movement for Renewal (MPR), a successor party to Traoré’s party the Democratic Union of the Malian People; under the MPR banner, Maïga ran for president in the open elections of 2002, placing seventh with under 3% of the vote. He again placed seventh in the open elections of 2013 and then scored eighth in the 2018 elections, each time receiving a slightly lower percentage of the vote. Maïga was appointed transitional prime minister by Mali’s current junta in June 2021, after the junta perpetrated its second coup (the first was in August 2020, the second was in May 2021).

Burkina Faso – Albert Ouedraogo (b. 1969, Dori): Ouedraogo has a background in management sciences, having received a doctorate in that subject in 1999 from Caen-Normandy University in France. From 1996-2002, he taught at the University of Ouagadougou, and then fashioned a long and apparently extremely successful career in the private sector (including at Deloitte) and then as a government consultant on a wide array of technical projects. His previous overt political experience was limited to some student activism, but when the Burkinabè junta (came to power January 2022) was seeking a transitional prime minister, Ouedraogo may have appealed to military ruler Paul-Henri Damiba not just because of Ouedraogo’s technocratic credentials, but also because he is close to Damiba’s uncle Pierre Claver Damiba, the first president of the West African Development Bank.

Niger – Ouhoumoudou Mahamadou (b. 1954, Amaloul Nomade): Mahamadou has a background in economics and public administration, having studied in Togo, France, and the United States. A career civil servant from 1979 to 1991, he was also a founding member of the Nigerien Party of Democracy and Socialism (PNDS) in 1990; the PNDS is the party of Niger’s immediate past President Mahamadou Issoufou and the current President Mohamed Bazoum. During the 1990s and 2000s, Ouhoumoudou Mahamadou was in and out of the Nigerien government while also taking up major posts at the regional and international levels. He served twice as minister (Mines, Energy, Industry, and Crafts from 1991-1993, and Finance from 2011-2012), once as chief of staff (to Issoufou, 2015-2020), was elected twice as deputy from his home Tahoua Region (2011 and 2020), with stints at the Economic Community of West African States, the African Development Foundation, and other such organizations along the way. He was appointed in 2021 as Bazoum’s first prime minister, replacing Issoufou’s longtime prime minister, Brigi Raffini.

Chad – Albert Pahimi Padacké (b. 1966, Gouin; more biographical details here): At least in my research so far, I have not found details of Padacké’s biography between his birth and 1990, when he entered government. Since 1990, under the rule of Presidents Idriss Deby (1990-2021) and Mahamat Deby (2021-present), Padacké has been a major civilian figure associated with the regime, holding ministerial posts on and off: Finance, Commerce, Mines, Agriculture, Justice, Communication, etc., before being appointed Prime Minister in 2016. The post of prime minister was abolished in 2018, but then was resuscitated under the transitional military regime of Mahamat Deby, who appointed Padacké as his first and so far only PM. During the 2000s and up through the 2021 election (won by Idriss Deby just days before his death), Padacké was a frequent candidate for president (2006, 2011, 2021). In 2011 and 2021 he was a distant runner-up, scoring 6% to Deby’s 89% in 2011, and scoring 10% to Deby’s 79% in 2021. If one feels cynical (I do), one could say that Padacké was not a convincing opposition figure, given how many times he served in Deby’s governments – including, by some accounts, serving during the 2006 elections. Mahamat Deby would not have made him PM, it seems to me, if Padacké was not an insider through and through.

Chad: A Delay for the Inclusive National Dialogue, and Perhaps for the Whole Transition

In April 2021, Chad’s longtime President Idriss Deby died unexpectedly on the frontlines of a fight against the rebel Front for Change and Concord in Chad (French acronym FACT). He was almost immediately succeeded by a transitional military-led regime headed by his son Mahamat Deby. The new regime, called the Transitional Military Council (French acronym CMT), put forth plans for an eighteen-month transition, with the provision that the eighteen months can be renewed once if necessary (see the Transition Charter, Article 97). Chad’s authorities have been given substantially more leeway by regional and international actors than have other current juntas in Mali, Guinea, and Burkina Faso.

Per the “roadmap” adopted by the transitional legislature in July 2021, one key element of Chad’s transition is a planned Inclusive National Dialogue with rebels. The Dialogue was originally slated to take place in either November or December 2021, with elections to follow between June and September 2022. The authorities have presented the Dialogue as an indispensable step; my reading is that they hope to (a) project an image of national unity, (b) bolster their own perceived legitimacy, (c) co-opt as many rebels as possible, and (d) portray any holdouts as bad-faith actors. The Dialogue is being supported by Qatar, which is also acting as a mediator; some key rebels are based in Qatar, such as Timan Erdimi (read an interview with him from late 2021 here).

A “pre-dialogue” set of negotiations, meanwhile, has been taking place in Doha. Here is Al Jazeera:

About 50 rebel groups [have] presented their demands to a delegation of 24 government representatives.

Among the requests, the groups asked for guaranteed safety if they return to the country and for the release of prisoners of war. The government is keen to hand amnesty to those accused of acts of rebellion and to free all members of the rebel groups who will sign amnesty agreements, according to a document seen by Al Jazeera.

But there is disagreement concerning other demands of the rebels, such as banning members of the TMC from running in the next elections, army reforms and a constitutional revision.

The National Dialogue has now been postponed three times. Most recently, on May 1, Chad’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced that at the request of Qatar, it was delaying the Dialogue until an unspecified date. As discussed in the Al Jazeera article linked above, moreover, there was pressure from rebels and from civil society groups for the authorities to delay, even as Deby suggested for a while that he would stick to the timeline. Not to be too cynical, but the image of the junta reluctantly postponing the Dialogue to accommodate other actors doesn’t quite convince me; it is clearly politically advantageous for the TMC to prolong the negotiations until it gets maximum buy-in, and the TMC may be quite wary of the reforms it may be called upon to make – and dissidents it may have to let back into Chad – after the Dialogue concludes.

Meanwhile, the CMT can use the Dialogue as a reason for tinkering with the overall timeline of the transition. On that note, this latest delay increases the chances that the whole transition will be delayed – in other words, that the authorities will invoke the clause in the charter that lets them renew the eighteen-month window. There is now talk of holding the Dialogue in June or July, and then elections towards the very end of the year. From the rebel side, some groups say they want a delay in the Dialogue but not a delay in the transition itself.

A Chadian Secretary-General for the Organization of Islamic Cooperation

On November 27, at a meeting in Niamey, Niger, foreign ministers from member states of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) elected a new secretary-general for the organization, Chadian diplomat Hussein Brahim Taha. He will begin a five-year term in November 2021.

The OIC, formerly the Organization of the Islamic Conference, was founded in 1969. As is often noted, it is the second-largest multilateral organization in the world, after the United Nations. It is headquartered in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, but the general secretariat has not been a Saudi Arabian preserve – of the 11 people to hold the office so far, only two (albeit the most recent two) were Saudi Arabian nationals. Strikingly, the Sahel has been quite well represented on the list, with a Senegalese national serving as secretary-general from 1975-1979 and a Nigerien national serving from 1989-1996 (term lengths, it seems, have been variable). As noted above, moreover, the Council of Ministers meeting that elected Taha took place in the Sahel as well.

The OIC’s secretaries-general have not been clerics/shaykhs, but rather professional government bureaucrats. The outgoing secretary-general, Yousef Bin Ahmad Al-Othaimeen, holds a Ph.D. in Political Sociology from American University and came up through the Ministry of Social Affairs. Chad’s Taha spent most of his career in the Chadian Ministry of Foreign Affairs where, notably, he served as Chad’s ambassador to Saudi Arabia from 1991-2001 according to this profile. He has also served as Minister of Foreign Affairs and as deputy secretary-general of the Chadian presidency.

The sketches of Taha’s biography that I’ve seen indicate someone who is (a) close to Chadian President Idriss Deby and has his confidence, and (b) deeply familiar with Saudi Arabia. Being familiar to or even close to Saudi Arabia, however, should not lead one to the automatic assumption that Taha is a “Wahhabi” – not all of the institutions headquartered in or associated with Saudi Arabia are “Wahhabi” to the same degree, although that’s a longer discussion that goes beyond the scope of this blog.

Turning to that first point, about Deby, I want to expand on something I said on Twitter, namely that to me it is striking that Deby has now placed three of his top diplomats in three key posts at the regional, continental/African, and now global levels:

  • Mahamat Saleh Annadif, Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Mali and Head of the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) since 2016;
  • Moussa Faki Mahamat, Chairperson of the African Union Commission since 2017; and
  • Hussein Brahim Taha, incoming Secretary-General of the OIC.

I take a few, admittedly somewhat speculative, conclusions from this. One is that Deby has a pretty solid network of people he trusts and has given space to develop the kinds of resumes that major multilateral organizations take seriously. I assume that no Chadian could take a major diplomatic position like these without Deby’s backing. So on the one hand Deby, like many other long-ruling African heads of state, is infamous for refusing to signal who his successor might be, for reshuffling his cabinets frequently, for playing with term limits and constitutional structures, for creating new posts (a vice president soon, perhaps?) while eliminating others (the prime minister-ship, in 2018). Yet on the other hand, Deby is clearly not so jealous of power that he would cripple others’ careers – and perhaps in particular would not be threatened by professional diplomats who can rise to serious heights without becoming rival politicians per se. Ultimately all this reinforces his power, of course: thrive with the Deby-dominated system and you can have a literally world-class career. This is not me excusing him or praising him, except to say that he has a talent for authoritarianism – he is not as crude or just straight-up dumb about it as many other authoritarians are.

Then there is the question of how Deby positions Chad and Chadians to take these roles. A lot of those dynamics are out of my view, at least. A large part of the answer is the role that Chad has taken on as (one, would-be) guarantor of security in the Sahel and the Lake Chad Basin, and that goes a long way to explaining the MINUSMA and African Union Commission appointments. But that role as security guarantor, on its own, is not sufficient to explain an appointment like the OIC’s secretary-general. Another factor there may be the way that the Sahel is a recurring zone of interest for Saudi Arabia, on and off from the 1960s to the present; Chad, additionally, has a number of Arabophone and/or Arab diplomats, and that may be attractive to OIC members as well (see below, where Taha gives his remarks in Arabic). And, finally, perhaps Deby is also skilled at various forms of behind-the-scenes negotiations. I wonder if he committed to anything in exchange for this OIC appointment.

Here is the video of Taha’s acceptance speech:

Chad: Toward a Vice Presidency (and a Succession Plan?)

In 2018, a constitutional reform in Chad abolished the post of prime minister and restored term limits, but not retroactively, meaning that President Idriss Deby can theoretically remain in power through 2033, assuming he wins a six-year term in next April’s elections and then another six-year term some time around 2027. Deby took power in 1990, meaning he is already, as of now, one of Africa’s longest-ruling heads of state – and he is by far the longest-ruling leader in the Sahel now.

There is a lot of speculation about whom Deby might eventually pick as a successor – or whether he will pick a successor at all. In neighboring Cameroon, a ruler with even more years under his belt, Paul Biya (took power 1982) has not, to my knowledge, indicated a clear successor. In both countries, Icarusus have sometimes seemed to fly too close to the sun, and have then fallen quickly.

Chad is now moving, however, to create a vice presidency, whose occupant will be appointed directly by Deby himself. The idea was a key discussion point at the November 1 “National Inclusive Forum” (boycotted by some opposition parties and labor syndicates). The proposal is part of a wider set of potential constitutional reforms that would include measures such as re-establishing the Senate (which, if I understand correctly, only existed in theory until its elimination in the 2005 constitutional reform). Following the Forum, a November 12 Council of Ministers meeting further fleshed out some of the circumstances (president out of the country, incapacitated, on vacation, etc.) under which the vice president would temporarily take over. The full official readout of that meeting is here, and contains details on other components of the constitutional reform package. On November 16, the National Assembly created a 25-member commission to study the Forum’s proposed revisions to the constitution; the commission has 18 days to complete that task. So the process is moving along pretty quickly.

It will be very interesting, obviously, to see who Deby picks for the post. I don’t know that one should assume that the new VP will be *the* successor, but it would seem that Deby would only pick someone he really trusts, given the potential for the person to assume power in various circumstances.

Press Freedom Issues in Chad

Deutsche Welle (French) reports on an atmosphere in which around 30 independent media outlets in Chad, including the country’s oldest independent newspaper, N’Djaména Hebdo, face risks of suspension. Under a 2018 law, both the director and the editor-in-chief of any given media outlet must have journalism degrees from a university, and that criterion has been used this fall to suspend various outlets.

From my brief research, it looks like two interlocking ordinances were ratified by the National Assembly in November 2018 – one, the actual law regulating the written and electronic media; the other, an ordinance creating the Haute Autorité des Médias et de l’Audiovisuel (High Authority for Media and Audiovisual Media,* HAMA). The ordinances were ratified by a vote of 118 for, 28 against, and 11 absentions, out of 188 total members the legislature.

It is HAMA that has the authority to issue suspensions, and on September 7 of this year, HAMA gave a three-month suspension to twelve different outlets. Organizations such as Reporters Without Borders decried the suspensions, suggesting that the criterion about degrees is immaterial to the question of whether these are legitimate journalistic outfits. Deutsche Welle writes that in the context of Chad’s approaching presidential elections, scheduled for April, there are concerns that more papers will be suspended.

Earlier this month, the Union of Chadian Journalists marked the “International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists,” an occasion created after the 2013 deaths of two French journalists in Mali. The Chadian Union called for a government investigation into the 2014 disappearance of Chadian journalist Noubadoum Sotinan, and also called more broadly for an end to the “harassment and intimidation of media professionals.” From the little research I’ve done, and reading between the lines a bit, it seems that press outlets are mostly opting not to replace senior staff who lack the required degrees – perhaps the editors in question calculate that the real issue at play is not the narrow one of qualifications.

*Forgive the awkward translation, I couldn’t think of a better one.

Chad: Authoritarianism, Counterterrorism, and International Silence – Comments on Two Pieces at Just Security

Just Security has published two pieces on Chad, with complementary content, this month:

  • Olivier Guiryanan, “Counterterrorism Assistance to Chad for the Sahel: The Price the People Pay,” September 2.
  • Eugène Le-Yotha Ngartebaye, “Chad’s Counterterrorism Support Abroad Drives Repression and Discontent at Home,” September 10.

The titles indicate the arguments the piece make – arguments that resonate with me and that others have made, at varying lengths and applied to both Chad and other Sahelien countries, before.

Here is Guiryanan’s conclusion, one of the strongest parts of his article:

As long as Chad’s security forces have easy access to a global armory with zero accountability to their citizens, they will have little interest in developing a sustainable security architecture that is shaped by Chadians and capable of resolving community grievances, investigating and punishing abuses, and preventing violent conflict. With a turbulent history, neighbors in turmoil, and a population tired of economic inequality and repression, the costs of staying the course could be dangerously high.

And here is a good excerpt from Ngartebaye’s piece:

Despite this diplomatic boost for Chad’s government [from external military deployments] and certain, though limited, economic benefits from the military aid and foreign missions, Chad’s citizens have found their country’s regional involvement significantly less rewarding. The government, fearful of reprisals by groups similar to or allied with the armed groups that its military has been fighting abroad, has cracked down on a wide and seemingly arbitrary range of civic freedoms, including the right to beg, hold public demonstrations, wear the burqa and the turban (based on the rationale that both sometimes hide people’s faces). In April this year, the government finally amended the country’s draconian anti-terror law to remove the death penalty for terrorism-related charges, after domestic and international criticism when 44 alleged members of Boko Haram died in pre-trial detention in the country’s capital.

I recommend both pieces, although they would have benefited from more careful editing. There are a few mistakes (about the number of troops Chad contributed to France’s Operation Serval, for example) as well as various statements that are inauspiciously phrased and could be read as mistakes. So they make for a great overview but if you’re not well-versed in the details, just be a bit cautious.

I have three more substantive comments, revolving around a single premise (of mine, not the authors’): international actors do not care about making Chad more democratic or making the Chadian state more interested in human rights.

Here are my comments, then:

  1. Guiryanan has some really interesting ideas about how Chad’s donors could insist that Chadian authorities empower civil society organizations as watchdogs over security spending and human rights issues. That makes sense to me – although I’m not sure Chad’s donors are interested in that; I think some donors, including the U.S. and France, are comfortable with the current, unstated bargains, and have been happy with those bargains for quite some time now. Guiryanan devastatingly diagnoses, moreover, how donors tend to treat civil society in Chad (with remarks that apply elsewhere in the region too): “Civil society is too often restricted to being passive pawns in donor-funded security projects and workshops encouraging ‘social cohesion’ and improved military-civilian relations. Rather than hold the military and government accountable, their presence is used to legit[i]mize the military and lend tacit support.” I don’t see that pattern changing any time soon, but I am glad that Guiryanan and Just Security are doing what they can to up the pressure.
  2. Ngartebaye also has recommendations for international actors. The most actionable recommendation is that the United Nations should take over paying the salaries of Chadian soldiers deployed as peacekeepers in Mali. His other suggestions – that “international assistance should be redirected to real internal reforms” and that “the complicit silence adopted by Chad’s partners should be replaced by a frank dialogue on human rights issues in Chad” – get to the core of the problem. But again, I think that international silence comes out of international actors’ basic comfort with the status quo. I doubt that your average senior State Department official or National Security Council director spends too much time worrying about the status of Chadian democracy. It’s clear that powerful international actors hold potential levers over Chad – but who holds levers over those actors when it comes to Chad?
  3. One of the most notable aspects of Chadian politics is when and how pushback against President Idriss Deby arises, especially when pushback succeeds. In fact, if Chadian politics is “who gets to be head of state,” then there is no Chadian politics; but if Chadian politics is “what power struggles play out within the existing system,” then there is a real politics within the country. Both authors point to examples of this – Guiryanan, for example, writes, “In recent years, public sector workers and students have become a powerful force on the streets, as they fought to reverse cuts to state allowances and aid.” (See also the really interesting episode of a regional governor being fired in 2018 over abuses.) Ngartebaye, meanwhile, astutely advises international actors to increase the potential for give-and-take within the system; he writes that donors should stipulate “that citizens can freely choose their local leaders (governors, mayors, and members of Parliament) through free and transparent elections.” Chad is not a totalitarian dictatorship (the state is too weak for that, if “totalitarianism” is even possible in the first place), and there would be ways of making the country even less authoritarian. Again, though, international donors seem uninterested in using those levers.

Boko Haram/ISWAP Roundup for September 3, 2020

Previous roundup here.

Here is the Council on Foreign Relations’ Nigeria Security Tracker update for August 22-28.

Some recent ISWAP claims:

The U.S. Department of Defense Inspector General published a quarterly report covering U.S. counterterrorism in East, North, and West Africa for the period April-June 2020. From the section on ISWAP (p. 44):

ISIS-West Africa was responsible for some of the deadliest attacks during the quarter. According to USAFRICOM, ISIS-West Africa claimed responsibility for an attack on June 10 in Nigeria’s Borno state that killed 81 civilians.

ISIS-West Africa claimed 67 attacks during the quarter against partner military installations or their forces, although some of the attacks may have been conducted by ISISin the Greater Sahara, which does not have an official media outlet that publicly claimsresponsibility for attacks. SOCAFRICA assessed that, based on the location of the attacks, at least 10 of the attacks claimed by ISIS-West Africa were perpetrated by ISIS in the Greater Sahara.

SOCAFRICA reported that, while ISIS-West Africa mostly keeps to its base in the Lake Chad region, there was limited reporting to indicate that the group has the intent and capability to expand operations beyond the region. In addition to the June 10 attack in Nigeria’s Borno state, ISIS-West Africa was also likely responsible for a series of attacks a few days later in Monguno and Nganzai that resulted in the deaths of 20 Nigerian security personnel and 40 civilians, according to SOCAFRICA.

A Nigerian Army Facebook post from September 1 says, in part, “The Chief of Army Staff, Lt Gen TY Buratai has congratulated and commended the Commander, Officers and all the gallant troops of the Nigerian Army 4 Special Forces Command Doma Nasarawa State for their gallantry and patriotism that manifested in the destruction of Darul Salam/Boko Haram terrorists’ Camps in Kogi and Nasarawa States recently.” Press coverage here and here.

See also Bulama Bukarti’s thread on Dar al-Salam/Darul Salam/Darus Salam:

Borno State Governor Babagana Zulum recently “inaugurated a 23- member committee for relocation of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) to Baga town…The Chairman of the Committee is headed by the Attorney General and Commissioner for Justice, Barrister Kaka Shehu Lawan, while the Permanent Secretary Ministry of Reconstruction, Rehabilitation and Resettlement (RRR), Engineer Abba Yusuf is to serve as Secretary.”

Human Rights Watch (August 31), “Nigeria’s Rising Number of Missing Persons.”

Punch (September 1):

The Shehu of Borno, Alhaji Garbai Elkanemi, has lamented that 13 district heads and several ward heads (Bulamas) have been killed in his emirate at the peak of the ongoing crisis by the Boko Haram terrorist group.

The monarch made the disclosure in Maiduguri during a courtesy visit by a delegation of the Senate Committee on Special Duties, led by Senator Abubakar Yusuf, who were in Borno State to assess the performance of the North-East Development Commission.

Olivier Guiryanan at Just Security, “Counterterrorism Assistance to Chad for the Sahel: The Price the People Pay.”

Boko Haram/ISWAP Roundup for August 13, 2020

Previous roundup here.

Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari and Chief of Army Staff Tukur Buratai both made headlines this week for comments that seemed to minimize the seriousness of the Boko Haram crisis. Buhari, as quoted by his spokesman Garba Shehu, called Boko Haram “mere scavengers desperate for food, raiding shops and markets, and killing innocent persons in the process.” Buratai, in another statement released through Shehu, said, “There are no Boko Haram terrorists in neighbouring states. They have been pushed out, and now cornered in Borno State.” The reference to “neighbouring states” is to states bordering Borno, in other words Yobe, Adamawa, and Gombe. Overconfident statements from Nigerian authorities have been a feature of the conflict and, arguably, a reflection of some of the attitudes and approaches that are in and of themselves among the drivers of the conflict.

Buhari’s comments came at a meeting with security officials and state governors on August 11. According to Borno State Governor Babagana Zulum, who is also the current Chair of the North East Governors Forum, the North East governors told the president the following:

We told Mr President that there is a need for the Nigerian government to address the root causes of the insurgency, which are not limited to the endemic poverty, hunger among others.

One of the root causes is that of access to farmlands, people need to go back to their farmlands…

[…]

Most importantly, there is a war economy in the region and I think that is why we are here. So I think the government is taking a bold step with a view to ensuring speedy resolution of some of the grey areas that we have in the region.

Meanwhile, a report in Vanguard alleges that there is less cooperation between political authorities in Borno than there is in the neighboring states, and that this explains why there is a thriving war economy in Borno:

The situation is however different in Borno State where the political class h[as] refused to cooperate with the security agencies and some businessmen prefer to sustain the reign of terror due to their political and business interests. At stake, our correspondents discovered is the thriving illegal business of smuggling from where tonnes of rice and other banned items are smuggled into Nigeria while millions of litres of fuel are transported into Chad and other neighbouring countries.

There are a lot of claims and counter-claims to sort through here, obviously.

Attacks occurred this week in several Local Government Areas (LGAs) of Borno: Magumeri, Dikwa, and Kukawa (where the town of Baga is). See a map of Borno here. The Nigerian Army called the reports about Magumeri LGA “fake news” on their Facebook page – but take a look at the comments! Trust in official accounts is low, to say the least.

According to Daily Trust via RFI (Hausa), Boko Haram (a category that should be understood broadly in this context, I think) killed 223 civilians, 82 soldiers, and 7 police between January 2 and August 2 of this year in Borno, Adamawa, and Yobe States.

Premium Times‘ Abdulkareem Haruna filed a special report on sexual abuse in camps for internally displaced persons in Nigeria. Relatedly, see the discussion between Hassana Maina and Bulama Bukarti in an episode on “Terrorism and Sexual Violence.”

Chad’s National Human Rights Commission investigated the case of 44 alleged Boko Haram members who died in a Chadian prison in April. The investigation concluded that the detainees were civilians who had been arbitrarily arrested and who then died of heat exposure and overcrowding. The case is part of the aftermath of Chad’s “Operation Bohoma Anger.” See some context on the operation here. Meanwhile, in an August 8 interview with RFI (French), which I admit I have not found time to listen to yet, Deby claimed that there is no Boko Haram presence inside Chad since the operation, but that cross-border attacks, and violence on Lake Chad islands, continue.

VOA reports on an apparent wave of surrenders by Boko Haram fighters, together with their captives, to the Multi-National Joint Task Force (MNJTF); the group is being held at an MNJTF base at Mora, Cameroon (map). Amb. John Campbell has more.

Boko Haram/ISWAP Roundup for July 30, 2020

I’m considering doing a weekly roundup on Boko Haram and the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP). Here’s my first stab at it:

United Nations Security Council, Report of the Secretary-General, “Children and Armed Conflict in Nigeria” (July 6, posted to Relief Web July 24). The report covers January 2017-December 2019. One excerpt (p. 6):

According to information gathered and verified by the country task force, the recruitment and use of children accounted for the greatest number of verified violations in north-east Nigeria. A total of 3,601 children (780 girls, 2,820 boys, 1 sex unknown) aged between 6 and 17 years were verified to have been recruited and used by CJTF [Civilian Joint Task Force] (2,203), followed by Boko Haram (1,385) and the Nigerian Security Forces (13). Of the total attributed to CJTF, 41 children were recruited and used between January and September 2017 while the remaining 2,162 were recruited and used between 2013 and 2016 but verified as such during the reporting period. Within the framework of its action plan, CJTF granted access to the country task force to carry out extensive verification of children formerly associated with the group.

On Wednesday, July 29, gunmen attacked the convoy of Borno State Governor Babagana Zulum as it was returning from Kukawa to Baga, northern Borno – see The Cable‘s report and video:

Some of the latest violence by ISWAP:

Issue 244 of the Islamic State’s al-Naba’ newsletter is available here (with registration). Page 7 discusses ISWAP operations in Nigeria and Chad, while page 9 features a brief (and quite generic) biography of a slain company commander.

Kingsley Omonobi, Vanguard, “Chaos as Boko Haram/ISWAP executes its own ‘governor of Lake Chad’ in power struggle” (July 28). I’ve been tinkering with a separate post about all these reports and rumors of internal violence, and how difficult it can be to verify any of what’s reported.

Channels Television, “601 Repentant Boko Haram Members Graduate From DRR Camp Set For Integration” (July 26).

On the other hand:

More on Ndume’s comments here.

Shola Oyepipo, This Day, “In Buratai’s Nigeria, Insecurity Now ‘Under Control’” (July 26).

Finally, here is the latest weekly roundup from the Council on Foreign Relations’ Nigeria Security Tracker, covering July 18-24.

Trends in Political Violence in the Sahel for the First Half of 2020: A Few Comments

The analyst José Luengo-Cabrera periodically posts graphics capturing different trends in violence and displacement in the Sahel; these graphics are indispensable for thinking about conflict in the region, and I really respect his work. He recently posted graphics for the first half of 2020. I want to briefly comment on some of the trends here.

Let’s start with the regional picture:

In addition to the points Luengo-Cabrera makes, here are a few other basic observations:

  • It’s worth repeating often that even though the current wave of crisis in the Sahel began with the 2012 rebellion in northern Mali, most of the intervening years and particularly the last three and a half have been more violent than 2012. Mali is not in a “post-conflict” phase, despite the signing of a peace agreement called the Algiers Accord in 2015.
  • It also bears repeating that northern Mali has, for some time now, not been the most violent zone in the conflict. Kidal, the heartland of the 2012 rebellion, is not even mentioned in Luengo-Cabrera’s breakdown of violent regions. The most violent areas of the current conflict are central Mali (note that Mopti is the most violent region on his list, and that adjacent Ségou is eighth on the list – more violent than Timbuktu) and northern Burkina Faso (note that while eastern Burkina Faso is heavily affected by insecurity and jihadism, it is the north that is substantially more violent).
  • What appears to propel mass violence, in my view, is multi-directional conflict where the key protagonists/decision-makers are not well-known elites. Why is northern Mali less violent than central Mali? Northern Mali has no shortage of militias – but they tend to be led by seasoned politicians and fighters, in some cases by figures who have been political fixtures since the 1990s. In contrast, in central Mali and northern Burkina Faso one finds the violence is often led by people who have emerged as key actors only during the conflict itself, and who were relatively unknown before.
  • The trend lines, particularly for Mali and Burkina Faso, are horrific. In my view much of the increase in violence stems from the compounding effects of previous violence – as I have said before here on the blog, I am skeptical about the idea that COVID-19 on its own triggered major spikes in violence and/or decisively empowered jihadists in the region.

Let’s now turn to country-specific graphics. Here is Luengo-Cabrera’s graphic for Mali:

A few thoughts:

  • The fine print is important here, namely that the fatalities shown for Gao are actually for both Gao and Ménaka; the latter, still-emergent region is obviously part of the tri-border zone that is now the epicenter of the whole Sahel conflict.
  • Note too that within Mopti, the deadliest region, the east (or non-flooded zone) is substantially more violent than the west. Among the factors here may be that according to some Malian experts I’ve talked to, jihadist control is much more consolidated in the west (in cercles/districts such as Tenenkou and Youwarou) than in the east. I think Stathis Kalyvas’ model about contested control driving violence is too schematic (see Laia Balcells’ Rivalry and Revenge, for example, for a more complex view), but this issue of fragmented control certainly seems to be one element in making the east more violent than the west. Additionally, inter-ethnic tensions have repeatedly boiled over into mass violence in eastern Mopti – it is there that the most infamous massacres of the conflict (Ogassagou March 2019, Sobane-Da June 2019, Ogassagou February 2020, etc.) have occurred.
  • Why was 2017 the real turning point to mass violence? Some analysts may immediately answer “JNIM,” referring to Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wa-l-Muslimin (the Group for Supporting Islam and Muslims, an al-Qaida-sponsored coalition that was announced in March 2017). But the constituent elements of JNIM were all present in the conflict before their formal grouping under that umbrella. Other factors, then, include the spread of the central Malian conflict into eastern Mopti, the emergence of ethnic militias such as Dan Na Ambassagou (which was formed in the final months of 2016), and an escalating cycle of abuses by both the militias and the state security forces (and the jihadists, obviously). This is not an exhaustive list of the forces driving a really complicated conflict, of course. But perhaps in sum one might say that 2017 is the year that various trends really collided to produce an accelerating downward spiral.

Here is Luengo-Cabrera’s graphic for Burkina Faso:

My comments:

  • The puzzle we have in explaining why things really deteriorated in Mali in 2017 is, mutatis mutandis, the same puzzle we have for 2019 in Burkina Faso. Again, one could posit the same basic collision of factors: jihadist violence, inter-ethnic tensions, and security force abuses. A symbol for all of 2019 could be the massacre at Yirgou that opened the year; in that event you have all the elements for multi-directional violence – a (presumed) jihadist assassination, a collective reprisal against an ethnic group, impunity for perpetrators of violence, etc.
  • Another puzzle that I’ve meant to work on is why the Nord region is not more violent. Note that the Sahel Region accounts for over 1,000 fatalities but that the Nord Region has little more than 150. Yet the Nord Region is actually closer to eastern Mopti than is the Sahel Region. One lesson here, then, is that Burkina Faso’s conflicts are not merely a spillover of central Mali’s conflicts.

Here is Luengo-Cabrera’s graphic for Niger:

Remarks:

  • Luengo-Cabrera notes in a follow-on post that it is 66%, rather than 86%, of the fatalities for the first half of 2020 that occurred in Tillabéri. Still, Niger’s trends are fundamentally different than neighboring countries’ because Niger’s deadliest zone used to be far in the southeast, in other words in the zone affected by Boko Haram and its offshoots. 2015 was a bad year in Diffa, as southeastern Niger experienced a wave of attacks, partially representing Boko Haram’s reprisals against Niger for Niger’s participation in the joint Chadian-Nigerien-Nigerian campaign that broke up Boko Haram’s formal territorial enclave in the first several months of 2015. Diffa was already under a state of emergency by February 2015, and has remained under one ever since. In contrast, it was not until March 2017 that the Nigerien authorities declared a state of emergency in parts of Tillabéri and adjacent Tahoua. Things have only worsened since then, and this year looks to be the rough equivalent for Niger of 2017 for Mali and 2019 for Burkina Faso. Meanwhile Diffa is relatively calm compared to the situation there in 2015, or the situation in Tillabéri now.
  • The best thing I’ve read on Tillabéri recently is this Crisis Group report.

Finally, here is Luengo-Cabrera’s graphic for Chad (Mauritania is relatively calm, so I won’t cover it here):

A brief comment is that the areas affected by Boko Haram and its offshoots are deadlier than whatever rebellion(s) are simmering in the north. Daniel Eizenga’s briefing on Chad and Boko Haram from April of this year remains highly relevant for understanding the situation there.

I don’t have much to offer for a conclusion except that things are quite bad, especially in the tri-border zone. I don’t think counterterrorism operations are really helping that much. And in addition to the violence, you have mass and growing displacement (for which Luengo-Cabrera has also made graphics, but I’ll leave that for another time), food insecurity, and many other factors contributing to a really nightmarish picture for millions of people.