Sahelian Governments’ Readouts of the 2 July Nouakchott Meeting on the G5 Sahel

On 2 July, amid the African Union summit in Mauritania’s capital Nouakchott, the presidents of France and five Sahelian countries (Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Chad) met to discuss Sahelian security generally and the G5 Sahel Joint Force specifically. One outcome of the meeting was the sack of the Joint Force’s commander, Malian General Didier Dacko.

For French speakers, though, I thought it would be useful to round up all the official readouts of the meeting I could find. The Chadian presidency and the Nigerien presidency released official statements, while Mali’s president did a wide-ranging interview with France24 on the margins of the summit and (so far as I could tell) Burkina Faso’s president did not release a readout, just two comments on Twitter. As for Mauritania, the official Agence Mauritanienne d’Information released a readout here. Finally, the French president’s remarks to the press can be found here.

To me the most interesting readout was the Nigerien version, which had a few highlights (other than the main theme of the meeting, which seems to have been “let’s get this thing going a lot more”):

  • The G5 countries will now move to rebuild the damaged force headquarters in Sévaré, Mali;
  • They will continue to pursue a United Nations Chapter Seven mandate for the force (more backstory here), which might help resolve some of its financial problems; and
  • The regional governments will meet again in Nouakchott on 6 December.
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Mali: PM Maiga’s Visit to France and Return Home

The government in Bamako is facing numerous problems at the moment: alongside the long-running violence in the north and center of the country, there are the rapidly approaching 29 July presidential elections. Added to that are serious allegations, and in some cases confirmations, of mass, extrajudicial killings by Malian soldiers.

Amid these crises, Prime Minister Soumeylou Maiga is striking a higher profile than the president, especially overseas, and so it is worth watching Maiga’s actions amid this multi-faceted security and political crisis.

The Malian journal 22 Septembre (French) reports on Maiga’s visit to Paris earlier this week, where he held closed-door meetings. Maiga was accompanied by several ministers, and met, among other senior French officials, his counterpart Édouard Phillipe.

Then, RFI (French) notes, Maiga cut his visit short to return home due to a strike by prefects and sub-prefects, which had affected the distribution of voters’ cards – a major issue in the preparations for the elections.

Finally, it is well worth reading this interview (French) by RFI with Maiga, in which he comments on his France trip, the human rights violations, his recent trips to northern Mali, the record of President Keita, and the French presence in Mali.

Libya: Press Roundup, Key Documents on the Sarraj-Haftar Meeting in Paris

On July 25, two of the most important figures in Libyan politics – Fayez al-Sarraj, head of the United Nations-backed Government of National Accord, and Khalifa Haftar, head of the Libyan National Army – met in Paris and agreed on a ceasefire.

Here are a few a relevant statements:

  • The joint declaration by Sarraj and Haftar.
  • The speech by President Macron (French).
  • United Nations Security Council: “The members of the Security Council welcome the meeting of Fayez Al Sarraj, President of the Presidency Council of Libya, and General Khalifa Haftar, Commander of the LNA, hosted in Paris by the President of the French Republic on the 25th of July, and the Joint Declaration issued after the meeting. Council members urge all Libyans to support a negotiated political solution, national reconciliation, and an immediate ceasefire, as called for in the Joint Declaration.”
  • U.S. State Department: “We welcome the Joint Declaration from the July 25, meeting between Libyan Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj and General Khalifa Haftar, hosted outside of Paris by French President Emmanuel Macron. We call on all Libyans to support political dialogue and adhere to a cease-fire, as stated in the Joint Declaration.”

Here’s a roundup of some press coverage. Much of the coverage has been quite critical, including when it comes to assessing the role of French President Emmanuel Macron:

  • L’Express (French): “If the initiative seems praiseworthy, nevertheless the hardest [part] remains to be done.”
  • Bloomberg: “A French-led effort to reunify fractured Libya failed to consult powerful local forces and risks achieving little beyond boosting the legitimacy of a renegade general who has recently racked up significant battlefield gains.”
  • The Economist: “The deal is but a small step. More agreements are needed before elections can be held and the fighting, which now involves myriad groups, is likely to continue. As it is, the LNA, which backs a separate government in the east, rarely battles the forces aligned with Mr Serraj. But General Haftar is free to keep pummelling terrorists, which is what he labels most of his opponents. The country’s powerful militias were left out of the talks in Paris, which were chaired by the newly appointed UN envoy for Libya, Ghassan Salamé. So like previous deals brokered by the UN, this one lacks widespread support, at least for now.”
  • VOA: “The meeting…was not coordinated with the Italian government. [Italian Prime Minister Paolo] Gentiloni’s ministers took the unusual step of openly criticizing the French president this week, voicing their frustration with Macron’s efforts, which they argue distract from a coordinated U.N. and European Union effort to engineer a political deal in Libya between three rival governments and dozens of militias.

Global Observatory Piece on Chad and Its Western Allies

I’m up at Global Observatory with a piece on Chad. Here’s an excerpt:

The Chadian government is also asking Western and African donors for more development funding. Chad will hold a roundtable in Paris in September to seek contributions for its newly adopted national development plan. Potential partners have already shown a willingness to participate: Deby recently hosted the vice president of the African Development Bank, which is financing projects in Chad’s electricity sector; the Bank confirmed that it will attend the Paris roundtable. The adoption of the development plan was one factor in the IMF’s decision to grant a new loan. The IMF did not make any allusion to Chad’s role in regional security, but other actors are clearly aware of the bargaining power that Chad has with donors because of its security role. Meeting the committee organizing the roundtable, France’s ambassador to Chad asked the Chadian government—according to the paraphrase of a Chadian news site—“to avoid playing the security card.” But the card has already been played, and with effect.

I welcome any comments you may have.

Mali: France, Kidal, and the MNLA

The story I want to tell here can be told with headlines:

  • AFP, May 18: “France Accused of Favouring Mali’s Tuareg Rebels.”
  • Reuters, May 19: “After Crushing Mali Islamists, France Pushes Deal with Tuaregs.”
  • USA Today, May 20: “French Troops Depart Mali, Leaving Joy, Worries.”

These articles leave the reader with the impression that France is continuing to intervene in Malian politics even as it reduces its military presence there, and that its political stances are proving unpopular.

France and other outside powers have flirted heavily with the idea that the Tuareg-led National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad (MNLA), a movement that advocated northern Malian separatism during the early phase of last year’s rebellion, is a politically acceptable negotiating partner, and one that deserves some political stake in post-conflict northern Mali. Some Western policymakers find this belief alluring, I suspect, because it helps them categorize northern Malians into “good” and “bad” rebels and offers hope of putting various genies back into various bottles. If the MNLA speaks for northern Malians, the argument runs, reaching an agreement with it could resolve the conflict.

My own opinion is that the MNLA’s brutality and loss of political control in early 2012 refutes the notion that they can speak for northern Mali – they only speak for part of it. The recent withdrawal from the MNLA of one of its key leaders provides further evidence that the MNLA only speaks for some.

Outsiders would be wise to question the reductionist view that positions the MNLA as the most significant political force in northern Mali. Outsiders’ attempts to apply such a view could cause backlash on the ground. As the city of Kidal, which the MNLA now helps control, becomes a symbol in struggles over the future identity of Mali, France’s positions appear out of step with the views of many Malians. The Reuters article mentioned above explains:

A standoff over how to restore Malian government authority to Kidal, the last town in the desert north yet to be brought under central control, is sowing resentment with Paris and could delay planned elections to restore democracy after a coup.

Mali’s army has moved troops towards Kidal, a stronghold of the MNLA Tuareg separatists, but missed a self-imposed deadline this week to retake the Saharan town. France, which has its own forces camped outside, does not want Malian troops to march on the town, fearing ethnic bloodshed if it is taken by force.

[…]

Many in government and on the streets of Bamako blame the January 2012 uprising by the Tuareg MNLA for unleashing the other calamities that nearly dissolved the country. Nationalists now want the army to march into Kidal to disarm the rebels.

France is instead backing secretive talks being held in neighboring Burkina Faso, designed to allow the July elections to take place, while urging Bamako to address Tuaregs’ long-standing demands for autonomy for their desert homeland.

Clashes between Arabs and Tuaregs have shown that ethnic tension remains high.

More on the talks here, and a short case study of Arab-Tuareg clashes here.

As of Wednesday (French), the MNLA had expressed willingness to let Kidal participate in presidential elections in July, but continued unwillingness to allow the Malian army to enter the city. The longer the political and military standoff over Kidal continues, the more frustrated other parts of the country could become – RFI (French) writes that Kidal has become “a national obsession in Mali,” and that its name “is on all the lips in Bamako.” Historical memories may contribute to this “obsession”: Kidal was created in 1991 (out of the Gao region) with the hopes of helping resolve the Tuareg-led rebellion of that time. Many non-Tuareg Malians reportedly blame the Tuareg for Mali’s crisis and view the Tuareg as angling for a greater share of government largesse than they deserve. As anger grows over the situation in Kidal, Malians who hold such views may become outraged by outsiders’ attempts to elevate the MNLA as the north’s premier political force.

French and Malian Forces Complete Conquest of Three Major Northern Cities

The French intervention in northern Mali has progressed rapidly. I hope to write more next week about medium- and long-term political and security challenges in Mali, but for now I want to record some dates and specifics, since I imagine I and others will be referring back to this period frequently in the months to come. So here’s a brief timeline of which Islamist-held cities in northern Mali fell to French and Malian governmental forces when. My focus is on the northern provincial capitals of Gao, Timbuktu, and Kidal but I’ve included other towns and cities as well.

  • January 11: Operation Serval begins with French airstrikes
  • January 14: By this date, airstrikes have occurred in Konna, Lere, Douentza, Agharous Kayoune, and Gao
  • January 16: French ground operations begin
  • January 18: Konna recaptured (some sources say Malian troops retook the town on January 12)
  • January 21: Diabaly recaptured (some sources also list January 18 as the date of the recapture of Diabaly)
  • January 21: French and Malian forces enter Douentza
  • January 24: Hombori captured; air raids on Ansongo
  • January 26: Gao captured
  • January 28: Timbuktu airport captured
  • January 29: Timbuktu reconquered
  • January 30: Kidal captured

Al Jazeera details movements of African troops from yesterday:

A group of Chadian soldiers left their temporary base in Niamey on Wednesday, as their convoy rolled through the town of Gorou, Niger and towards the country’s northern border to enter Mali.

The troops are part of a larger African force known as AFISMA, which is due to send more than 8,000 soldiers to Mali to aid in the country’s fight against Islamist militants.

The bulk of the planned African intervention force for Mali is still struggling to get into the country, hampered by shortages of kit and supplies and lack of airlift capacity.

Around 2,000 AFISMA troops are already on the ground to fight the Islamists, who have retreated to the rugged northeast mountains of the Adrar des Ifoghas range on the border with Algeria.

Looking at the timeline, the rapidity of the French/Malian advance is striking though not surprising. But with the first phase of the reconquest (retaking the provincial capitals and other towns) seemingly almost complete, and France already looking for the exits, the medium-term security questions and political challenges are starting to loom large.

On Intervention, Popularity, and Colonialism in Mali

This post has two arguments to make. First, I urge observers of the unfolding conflict in Mali to be cautious about how they interpret reports of Malian enthusiasm for the French intervention. Second, just because the intervention is not “neo-colonial” does not mean that colonialism is not relevant to an understanding of the situation.

On the first point, there have been numerous reports (see one example) of Malians waving French flags, taking up collections for a French helicopter pilot who was killed in action, and performing other symbolic interactions. Anecdotally, many observers report a large, even unanimous degree of expressed support for the French intervention. The enthusiasm seems undeniable. But I think it is important not to assume that this feeling will have staying power or depth; those waving flags may attract more attention now than those who remain silent, and further bloodshed and chaos in the north could turn cheers to boos. I also think it is important not to argue that momentary popularity confers legitimacy on violence or on certain policy decisions; those who say that the intervention is justified because it is popular may soon find they need to make a different argument.

Related to this is the debate about colonialism. Professor Gregory Mann has, in a must-read piece that addresses multiple issues related to the intervention, argued that the French intervention “is not a neo-colonial offensive.” I agree with this in the sense that I do not believe the French are primarily motivated by a desire to establish direct, long-term political control over Mali. But I think it is important to underscore that many of the frameworks and infrastructures that are shaping the situation in Mali and the French intervention there have at least some roots in the colonial era: language, boundaries, policies, conflicts, etc. Colonial legacies also haunt us in the way international media and Western policymakers categorize and construct Muslims in Africa. Colonial legacies help structure current politics and policies in profound ways. Surely no one will argue that it is coincidental that France is taking the lead on a Western military intervention in one of its former African colonies, moving troops and equipment through other former African colonies like Chad. That the Malian government asked for French intervention* may mean that France did not impose its will on Mali in the same manner that colonialism occurred, but it does not mean that relationships of power between Mali and France are clear, or equal, or straightforward. I stress this point because I think there is a tendency in some policy conversations to ignore the colonial period, to view it as distant and irrelevant, to suspect those who bring it up of being radicals stuck in the past and allergic to any possibility of Western involvement in Africa. But the legacies of colonialism remain with us in important ways, and it is possible and necessary to discuss them in a responsible manner.

*More accurate would be Al Jazeera‘s phrasing: “Mali’s [interim civilian] President Dioncounda Traore sent a letter to Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, which he transmitted to the Security Council, and a similar letter to French President Francois Hollande seeking assistance from France, the country’s former colonial power, against the offensive.” To say that the Malian government asked France for help is to simplify power dynamics in Bamako and to project more coherence and authority onto the officially constituted interim government than it possesses, at least in my view.