Basic Resources for Following and Contextualizing the COVID-19 Outbreak in the Sahel

This post is meant to help anyone attempting to follow COVID-19, the response, and the wider impact in the Sahel. Most of the below resources are in French. I’ve left Senegal out for now, but I might follow up with a separate post. I welcome suggestions for further resources to include, and will update accordingly.

Tracking Case Counts

Sahelian Ministries of Health provide official case counts. These ministries often have both websites and Facebook pages; the Facebook pages for Mali, Burkina Faso, and Chad are particularly active.

The Ministries also often have annual reports or other self-evaluations of health sector capacity, which can be key for gaining a sense of each country’s preparedness and infrastructure if you want a deeper dive.

Local journalists and other non-governmental bodies also provide frequent case count updates (mostly here I’m linking to Twitter accounts):

Key Public Figures

Most of these links are to Twitter accounts. Sahelian heads of state and other top officials are now commenting frequently on COVID-19 and their governments’ responses:

Important Press Coverage and Analysis

Other Useful Resources

  • UNICEF publishes COVID-19 situation reports; for example, here are its reports on Chad from April 15 and May 14;
  • FEWS-Net monitors food insecurity around the world; here is one April update about COVID-19’s impact on food security in Burkina Faso;
  • I previously rounded up IMF statements on disbursements to Sahelian countries. The World Bank has an interactive map detailing their COVID-19 response projects around the world.

Africa-Wide Commentary Relevant to the Sahel

Roundup of IMF Statements on Disbursements to Sahelian Countries amid COVID-19

On April 15, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) approved six-month debt service relief for twenty-five low-income countries, including the Sahelian countries Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, and Niger.

The IMF has also given disbursements to each of those countries to help offset the impact of COVID-19.

Burkina Faso ($115.3 million, approved April 14):

The immediate challenge is to contain the spread of COVID-19, strengthen medical care, implement the social distancing and other containment measures, and mitigate the socio-economic impact of the pandemic, especially on the most vulnerable.

[…]

The economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic in Burkina Faso is rapidly unfolding, with the short-term outlook worsening quickly. The pandemic comes at a time when Burkina Faso was already gripped by a heightened security crisis. The authorities responded by putting in place measures to help contain the spreading of the virus, including by closing schools and universities, banning mass gatherings, and suspending international travel. Though absolutely needed to contain the outbreak these measures, together with the global response, have significantly worsened the economic outlook in the near term, with real economic growth declining substantially, and both the fiscal and balance of payments deficits widening significantly.

Chad ($115.1 million, approved April 14):

Due to a significant deterioration of the macroeconomic outlook and weakening of fiscal situation, urgent external and fiscal financing needs have emerged. The IMF’s support will make a substantial contribution to filling immediate external needs and preserving fiscal space for essential COVID-19-related health expenditure. It is also expected to help catalyze additional donor support.

Mali ($200.4 million, approved April 30):

This assistance will help support urgent spending on health services and assistance to affected firms and households, while preserving overall social spending.

[…]

The COVID-19 shock hit the economy hard amid an already challenging social and security situation. The economic outlook has deteriorated significantly, and growth is expected to slow to below 1 percent, increasing already high unemployment and poverty.

Mauritania ($130 million, approved April 23):

The COVID-19 pandemic is having a dramatic human, economic, and social impact on Mauritania. The short-term economic outlook has deteriorated rapidly and growth is expected to turn negative this year, with severe hardships for the population, and the outlook is subject to considerable uncertainty. These developments have given rise to urgent balance of payment and fiscal financing needs.

[…]

The IMF’s financial assistance under the RCF will provide a sizable share of the financing needed to implement the anti-crisis measures. Additional concessional and grant financing from the international community will be critical to close the remaining financing gap and help Mauritania respond effectively to the COVID-19 crisis.

Niger ($114.5 million, approved April 14):

The COVID-19 pandemic is having a pronounced negative economic impact on Niger and downside risks are significant. The economic downturn, fiscal pressures, and tightening financial conditions are giving rise to large financing gaps in Niger’s public finances and balance of payments this year.

[…]

A substantial widening of this year’s budget deficit is appropriate, reflecting unavoidable revenue shortfalls and pressing spending needs for health care, social protection, and support for hard-hit businesses.

Senegal ($442 million, approved April 13):

The Covid-19 pandemic is hitting Senegal hard. The sharp global economic downturn and domestic containment measures have led to a substantial reduction in economic activity, with sectors such as tourism, transport, construction, and retail particularly hard-hit, and the pandemic in Europe is also translating into lower remittances. As a result, the short-term economic outlook has deteriorated significantly, with large uncertainties surrounding the duration and spread of the pandemic.

 

COVID-19 and Jihadists, Part Two

See part one here, where I lay out a few reasons to be skeptical of the now widespread media/think tank narrative saying COVID-19 benefits jihadists. I’m going to revisit this as necessary because I think the narrative is still very flawed. It’s still too soon to tell.

For example, last week saw a piece from the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) entitled “Extremist Groups Stepping up Operations during the Covid-19 Outbreak in Sub-Saharan Africa.”

The piece opens with a seemingly strong argument, seemingly backed by data:

Sub-Saharan African extremist groups are poised to make strategic gains during the Covid-19 outbreak, outmaneuvering distracted and overstretched domestic and foreign security forces. Violent attacks in the region’s hotspots rose by 37 percent between mid-March and mid-April, according to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED) database, and groups have begun to release pandemic-related propaganda. Meanwhile, African states—like governments worldwide—are shifting military resources to the pandemic response, potentially undercutting counterterrorism operations.

On closer examination, though, there are problems:

  1. The individual attacks and incidents discussed in the piece don’t fit the supposed pattern. In one paragraph, the authors cite three incidents: the March 19 attack on a Malian army base; the March 25 kidnapping of Malian opposition politician Soumaïla Cissé; and the March 22-23 attack by Boko Haram on Chad. At the time of all of these incidents, however, confirmed case counts in Mali, Nigeria, and Chad were very low. Mali didn’t even confirm its first two cases under March 25; Nigeria’s first confirmed case was reported on February 27, but Nigeria only reported its first COVID death on March 23; and Chad’s first official case was on March 19. One could make the argument that the global pandemic and/or the response to it was already emboldening jihadists and constraining security responses in the Sahel and the Lake Chad Basin by mid-March, but I think even that is a tough sell. When we look at the kidnapping of Cissé, moreover, it could arguably be blamed not on jihadists being emboldened by the pandemic but on Malian authorities’ decision to press ahead with legislative elections despite the pandemic – Cissé was kidnapped while campaigning in the ultra-dangerous southern Timbuktu Region. And the reality may be even murkier than that; one account (French) says that Cissé had actually brokered a deal with local jihadists to campaign in their area, but was then kidnapped by a rival jihadist group. Assessing the causal role of COVID-19 in any of these incidents is pretty difficult, to say the least, and there are a lot of grounds for blaming other factors.
  2. The trend lines were already bad. The ACLED numbers quoted by the authors sound bad, but they do not unpack them – and they do not contextualize them. 2017-2019 were already very bad and worsening years for Mali and Burkina Faso, and the Boko Haram/ISWAP insurgency in northeastern Nigeria/Lake Chad has been quite bad for some time as well. A 37% jump in violent attacks sounds bad (and again, the authors don’t unpack this – attacks by whom?), but consider that Burkina Faso had a 25% jump in displacements from January to February 2020, or that there was a roughly 57% increase between December 2019 and January 2020 in what the Council on Foreign Relations’ Nigeria Security Tracker calls “incidents” in the Boko Haram conflict – meaning, to put it less dramatically, that there were 19 incidents in December and 30 in January. So for one thing, the numbers concerning attacks, deaths, and displacements are just bad all around; and for another, there is significant variation in levels of attacks even without a pandemic around. Certainly COVID-19 must be having an impact on these conflict zones, but in complex ways and in combination with other factors.
  3. Jihadist governance can be brittle. I wrote this in the last post, but it’s worth revisiting here. The authors argue that jihadist propaganda and service delivery will win them support while governments stumble. But it is not at all clear that jihadists are skilled at managing humanitarian emergencies – in fact, they often create humanitarian emergencies around them, and many, many people simply flee jihadist control. The authors of the CSIS piece write, “Al-Shabaab, for example, took advantage of the famine in Somalia three years ago to publish photos of its fighters distributing food and medical supplies to needy families, blaming the crisis on regional and international governments.” But this is not evidence of success, it is only evidence of propaganda; meanwhile, various experts have argued that al-Shabab grossly mismanaged the 2011 famine in Somalia. Here is one quote from a study: “Al-Shabaab has poorly managed the famine crises. The Famine Early Warning Systems (FEWS) has declared that the crisis broke in several southern regions of Somalia. Al-Shabaab had expelled most of the intergovernmental and non-governmental relief organizations. They have also denied that there was a famine in the country. As a result, hundreds of thousands of people were forced to seek food and shelter in TFG- controlled Mogadishu and neighboring countries such as Ethiopia and Kenya. To the victims, al-Shabaab was complicit in their suffering” (emphasis added, because that’s a crucial point – jihadists’ propaganda can be clumsy, it’s not always masterful). If jihadists botch their pandemic response through inflexibility, lying, and harsh treatment of civilians, it could be a setback for them in various ways.
  4. African militaries are not necessarily pulling back yet. Here, the authors seem to conflate possibilities with actualities. They write, “A memo from Nigeria’s army headquarters called on soldiers to be on ‘maximum security alert and be ready for deployment’ and suspended leave passages for all personnel.” But suspending leaves doesn’t mean that counterterrorism is slackening (it might be, it might not be!). A glance at the Nigerian Army’s Facebook page shows them heralding supposed counterterrorism successes as recently as April 29. There are a lot of competing claims and counter-claims to sort out when it comes to the Nigerian military’s own propaganda, obviously, but one shouldn’t assume that militaries will pull back. In fact, recently there have been several excellent (and disturbing) Twitter threads (see below) from experts pointing to patterns of severe and persistent security force abuses in the Sahel. Will CSIS write a piece arguing that COVID-19 is emboldening security forces to commit abuses? It seems to me you could make that case just as easily as the case that the pandemic is emboldening jihadists.
  5. International forces are not yet pulling back majorly. The authors even note this themselves, despite the title of the relevant section of their piece – and furthermore, Irish troops coming back from peacekeeping in Mali, and the British suspending a training mission in Kenya, do not add up to a major shift. And as I said in the last piece, it’s way too soon to tell with some of these supposed trends. And one might even wonder whether international forces pulling back a bit – say, if AFRICOM did ease up on drone strikes – might not improve the overall situation a bit in Somalia and elsewhere.
  6. The policy recommendations are thin and predictable. “Enhance civilian outreach,” “uplift religious leaders,” and “exploit insurgent missteps.” None of these ideas are new, and there is a particularly unfortunate line saying “Somali imams and teachers, in collaboration with Somali government ministries, have been broadcasting best practices for staying safe during the pandemic—tying them to Koranic dictates.” The authors act surprised that imams would try to keep people safe (!), and act as though this basic function of religious leaders should be harnessed to some kind of counterterrorism agenda. But most Muslim clerics around the world have been trying to protect their co-religionists (and their societies more broadly) while remaining true to their visions of what authentic Islam is. In fact, it’s probably better to let religious leaders speak for themselves rather than trying to “uplift” them, because there are substantial dangers into trying to fashion clerics into the mouthpieces of some kind of “official Islam” – governments trying to co-opt clerics can even inadvertently undercut them. Finally, one irony in the “exploit insurgent missteps” is that the point the authors are making is both obvious and in some instances already happening. The authors write, “if extremists attempt to launch operations beyond their capabilities and overextend themselves, security forces should retaliate, hitting poorly defended bases and safe havens.” This is effectively what Chad has done, although there are real limits to what Chad’s offensive is likely to accomplish. In any event, it’s odd that if the authors consider the situation so scary, that they didn’t put more effort into the policy recommendations.

Relevant Twitter threads on security force abuses:

It’s Way Too Soon to Tell Whether COVID-19 Will Benefit Jihadists (And Here’s a Few Reasons It Might Not)

Amid the pandemic, there has been a spate of commentary arguing that the Islamic State, al-Qaida, and other jihadist groups stand to benefit from the disruptions COVID-19 is causing (see here, here, here, and here for examples). Here’s how the argument runs: strong states will pull back on counterterrorism campaigns, and weak states will see further erosions in stability and governance. Some states are also increasing repression amid lockdowns, with security forces exhibiting the precise kinds of behaviors that research suggests drive much jihadist recruitment.

There is merit to these arguments about the benefits jihadists may reap – but it is way too soon to tell. Attacks in recent weeks, for example Boko Haram’s killing of ninety-two Chadian soldiers in late March, cannot be convincingly attributed to the pandemic. And there are reasons to think that COVID-19 could hurt jihadists too.

First, youthfulness will not necessarily protect jihadists’ ranks. In settings without mass testing and without strong public health systems, the virus has sometimes taken a significant toll on people under fifty. Jihadists, young and old, may also have comorbidities due to battlefield injuries and years of poor diet and limited access to healthcare. And not all jihadists are young – al-Qaida’s formal leader Ayman al-Zahawiri, for example, is sixty-eight. When and if the virus spreads to jihadist groups, fighters with severe symptoms will face the difficult choice of suffering alone or leaving their hideouts to seek care. Top leaders could struggle to find treatment without being recognized, and ordinary fighters may find – even if they do not arouse suspicion when arriving at hospitals and clinics, which they very well might – that the health systems in their areas are overwhelmed. For example, even though the reported cases in Yemen and Libya are low, experts have sounded the alarm about how the pandemic could shatter what remains of those countries’ health infrastructures.

Second, severe outbreaks could expose the hollow and brittle character of jihadists’ “shadow governance.” In some areas, jihadists have elaborated relatively sophisticated systems of political and economic sway – for example, drawing rents from gold mining and other activities in eastern Burkina Faso – yet these systems have very limited public health components. Jihadists’ relationships with organizations such as Doctors Without Borders are also often shaky at best, and some humanitarian agencies are being forced to pull back amid the outbreak. If COVID-19 begins to ravage communities under jihadists’ sway, sufferers may not find much help from those outfits – and the incipient social contracts between communities and jihadists may take a hit. As with famines, jihadists’ responses may make the pandemic even worse – and may cost those organizations support among civilians. Meanwhile, states who move swiftly to offer services and manage lockdowns in non-repressive ways may even find that they can repair some of the trust deficits that have festered in recent years (a long shot, I know, but possible). And as the economic toll mounts from the virus and the attendant lockdowns, people may vote with their feet – and not necessarily by flocking to jihadist-dominated zones. Or, in one of the grimmest scenarios imaginable, states may harness the virus as a quiet but lethal bioweapon, blockading jihadist-dominated zones to weaken both jihadist organizations and the wider populations of perceived “enemy civilians.”

Third, jihadists’ narratives may resonate even less with ordinary Muslims than before. There has been no shortage of jihadist propaganda responding to the virus and its effects, but a few competing and overlapping dynamics are at work in the wider religious arena. One is that jihadists by no means have a monopoly on depicting the virus as divine punishment, promoting conspiracy theories about the virus’ alleged Western origins, or calling on Muslims to be more pious. Another dynamic is that many Muslim scholars around the world are redoubling their efforts to reach constituents online or through other media, meaning that media environments are saturated with religious messages as never before. The scholars championing strong public health precautions are often making extremely sophisticated textual arguments, and their higher degree of learning is often on full display in contrast with those who are resistant to public health precautions; jihadists, in other words, may be outcompeted in a real-time competition to display scholarly mastery, in a context where jihadists cannot necessarily fall back on their core messages as easily as before. Yet another dynamic is that with reminders of mortality now so vivid and ever-present, the appeal of calls for ascetic orientations toward the afterlife may grow even among some of jihadists’ potential audiences. The ways that the pandemic may reshape Muslim religiosity has yet to be seen, as events unprecedented in any living Muslim’s lifetime, from Ramadan under lockdown to a year (likely) without hajj, are playing out.

Fourth, states may consider repression, for better or mostly for worse, an “essential” activity. This means that, as in Chad, even the poorest states may still mount forceful responses to jihadist challenges. That kind of state repression certainly drives jihadist recruitment, as noted above, but it is not inherently proof that COVID-19 will benefit jihadists. Meanwhile, as noted above, some states appear keen to repress other perceived challenges – opposition parties and critics, independent journalists and NGOs, and both violent and nonviolent protesters. Such repression could benefit jihadists, if jihadists position themselves as the champions of popular frustration; but state repression of dissidents could also give states more latitude to respond to jihadist attacks, for example if elections are delayed and local media fall silent. Meanwhile, security forces are highly vulnerable to the spread of the virus within their own personnel – but the virus is not, in various ways, an equalizer, and states may be able to provide better care to their sick soldiers and police than jihadists can provide to their sick fighters.

In sum, many of the dynamics that analysts assume will benefit jihadists could actually cut both ways. In the longer term, meanwhile, we may all emerge from COVID-19 into a more securitized world of enhanced tracking of mobile phones, widespread temperature checks, and recurring lockdowns. Those processes will likely gain more purchase in wealthy nations than in poor and fragile ones, but even poor countries may be reshaped by such a future. It is true that jihadists have survived and sometimes thrived even amid intensive surveillance and manhunts, but the post-COVID – or COVID-endemic – world may bring surveillance to a new level that pushes jihadists even further toward the peripheries.

Finally, on a meta level, it is worth noting where the warnings about jihadists are coming from – mostly from the various think tanks for whom conflict analysis is a core coverage area. Although there were terrorism analysts before 9/11, since those attacks there has been a massively profitable industry dedicated to sustaining the idea that terrorism is the central threat to the United States, Europe, and the world. Representatives of that industry can be relied upon to regularly wax alarmist about jihadism no matter what is happening in the world. Some of the analysts warning now about pandemic-emboldened jihadists, it can be assumed, are doing so on the basis of their honest assessments of the situation in different countries – but other analysts may be looking more to their own bottom line, now potentially threatened as public fear turns from terrorism to disease.