Mali: The Politics of a Prisoner Release in Mopti (and Bamako)

On 19 February, the Malian government announced that it had secured the liberation of Makan Doumbia and Issaka Tamboura; the former is the prefect of Tenenkou Cercle, one of the most troubled districts in the central Mopti Region, while the latter is a journalist who was kidnapped in Douentza Cercle, another troubled Mopti area. The two men were seized in separate incidents in Mopti in 2018, and were also liberated on different days.

As RFI details, various theories are circulating as to how the Malian government obtained the releases. RFI casts doubt on the idea that a military rescue operation occurred, suggesting that there is a greater likelihood of a prisoner exchange.

A reporter from Sahelian.com was able to meet Doumbia during his captivity (see this video and report). The kidnappers identified themselves as members of Katibat Macina or Macina Battalion, part of the jihadist coalition the Group for Supporting Islam and Muslims (Arabic acronym JNIM). It is quite possible that the journalist’s contact with Doumbia was a key step toward his release, although Sahelien has not to my knowledge commented on that aspect of the affair.

Local politicians and government officials have been recurring targets of violence and intimidation, and government authority has unraveled in Mopti partly because of the cumulative and mutually reinforcing effects of assassinations and kidnappings of village heads, sub-prefects, prefects, and so forth. Jihadist kidnappings have also targeted relatively ordinary citizens, such as teachers; such kidnappings appear designed to serve not just as sources of financing but also as techniques of control over local populations. At the same time, one feature of the Mopti crisis is its opacity and murkiness – it is not always clear who is killing whom, or who is kidnapping whom.

In any case, the government of President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta was eager to broadcast this bit of good news from Mopti – the two men met not just IBK, but also Prime Minister Soumeylou Maïga and four other prominent cabinet ministers in a highly publicized event. The proceedings seem designed to show that the Malian government cares deeply about its citizens.

But as Sahelien and others have pointed out, other hostages have died during captivity in Mopti, while still others remain unaccounted for.

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Mali: Clerics Rally to Defend Their Class and Weaken the President

On January 19, the Malian imam Abdoul Aziz Yattabaré was stabbed to death in the capital Bamako while exiting his mosque. A member of the High Islamic Council of Mali (HCIM) and director of the Islamic Institute of Missira, Yattabaré’s death evoked wide grief.

The assassination also provoked a public dispute between the HCIM’s leader Mahmoud Dicko and the government of President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta (IBK), with Dicko’s spokesman quickly casting doubt on the government’s statements concerning the assassination and the accused assassin. At the heart of the controversy are a few questions, including whether the imam was assassinated because he condemned homosexuality. Dicko’s spokesman also implied that Yattabaré’s death reflected a government effort to silence Dicko and his circle amid wider tensions between the government and several religious leaders, most prominently Dicko and the Chérif of Nioro, who is arguably the leading Sufi shaykh in Mali.

Dicko and the Chérif (the latter represented by a spokesman) followed up with a mass rally in Bamako on 10 February. The key demands made there were for (a) a new law criminalizing homosexuality, (b) better governance and security, and (c) the sacking of Prime Minister Soumeylou Boubèye Maïga (SBM).

There is obviously a lot going on here all at once. Here are a few points:

  • As a pressure bloc, Mali’s religious leaders seem to have the most influence when it comes to “social issues” and particularly ones related to sexuality; the same clerics recently got the government to back down on sex education in schools. And the clerics seem to be much less influential when it comes to determining electoral outcomes; Dicko and the Chérif, despite vocal opposition, did not thwart IBK’s re-election last year. So in denouncing homosexuality, the clerics are on familiar and, for them, very strong ground.
  • Calling for SBM’s resignation is a savvy political move in the sense that he is the strongest prime minister IBK has had so far. There was rapid turnover in prime ministers during Keïta’s first term. SBM has also been credited, rightly or wrongly, with winning the re-elect for IBK. If you want to weaken the president, in other words, calling for SBM’s firing is not a stupid tactic.
  • In terms of popular attitudes toward homosexuality, I think some Western commentators discussing the rally in Bamako came off as a bit too smug and contemptuous, forgetting that (a) it wasn’t that long ago that major Western politicians such as Barack Obama opposed gay marriage, and (b) in a context of widespread insecurity and paranoia, conspiracy theories can gain a lot of currency within information economies. I’m not saying any of this to defend homophobia, but rather to say that if you put yourself in the shoes of someone at one of these rallies, it is not incomprehensible why someone might latch onto the idea that there is a homosexual cabal running the country and seeking to undermine Islam; amid endemic violence, it often seems that people reach for explanations that revolve around a sense that “things are not what they seem,” or in particular, “the elites are not who they seem.” The circulation of conspiracy theories combines with anti-Western sentiment to allow clerics such as Dicko to present themselves as defenders of what is “authentically” Malian and Muslim against an alleged foreign onslaught.
  • The clerics may also feel some genuine fear, as a class, and are thus going on the offensive because they feel themselves to be on the defensive. Not too long after Yattabaré’s murder, another Bamako-based preacher was stabbed, although not fatally. The clerics may be feeling more vulnerable than they admit. Having been in both the HCIM offices and Dicko’s mosque, I can say that security is not tight in either place. I imagine that may change now.

Mali/Burkina Faso: Continued Fallout from Koulogon and Yirgou Violence

On the night of December 31-January 1, two consequential attacks occurred in villages in Mali and Burkina Faso. In Mali, Donzo hunters attacked the village of Koulogon, targeting ethnic Fulani/Peul and killing thirty-seven people. In Burkina Faso, suspected jihadists attacked the primarily Mossi village of Yirgou, which elicited a reprisal attack by Yirgou villagers against nearby Fulani. In Burkina Faso, the death toll soon approached forty.

Koulogon is located in the Bankass cercle of Mali’s Mopti region (see Bankass town on this map), while Yirgou is located in the Barsalogho Department in Sanmatenga Province of Burkina Faso’s Centre-Nord Region (see Barsalogho town on this map).

The two incidents reflect the wider “ethnicization” of Sahelian, and particularly central Malian, conflicts that many analysts have been pointing to in recent years. That is, a dynamic takes hold where jihadists are assumed to be Fulani, the Fulani are targeted for collective punishment, and then both the jihadist violence and the intercommunal violence reinforce the overall dynamic of insecurity, where people organize violence along largely ethnic lines.

These two incidents have received major attention for a few reasons. First, they exemplify this dynamic of spiraling violence, providing instances that the media can readily understand and convey. Second, the death tolls are high in each instance, reflecting wider escalation:

Third, the violence marked a grim start to the new year, and the timing undoubtedly plays a part in the media’s focus on the incidents. And fourth, the attacks underscored how authorities are falling short when it comes to preventing violence. Regarding that last point, it is worth noting that Burkina Faso had already declared a state of emergency in parts of seven out of thirteen regions even before the Yirgou attack.

Here is some of the attention the incidents have gotten.

For one thing, there have been presidential visits to the villages:

Regarding Koulogon, notably, Malian President Keïta promised to establish a military base in the vicinity, and a gendarmerie unit has been deployed to Diallasago.

Burkina Faso’s President Roch Kaboré has also met Fulani/Peul leaders, attempting to defuse the ethnicization issue:

There are also calls and plans for investigations, with a United Nations inquiry underway regarding Koulogon, and with various civic and ethnic associations calling for other inquiries. For example, in Burkina Faso an association (Fulani-led, from what I can tell) called the Collectif contre l’impunité et la stigmatisation des communautés (Collective Against Impunity and the Stigmatization of Communities) is giving press interviews and organizing marches.

The Collective is also calling for the disarmament of Koglweogo militias (see here for background), depicting the militias as vehicles for ethnic violence.

In short, the conflicts in Mali and Burkina Faso comprise a whole swath of complex, localized but interconnected dynamics and conflicts, and the Koulogon and Yirgou incidents throw a lot of those dynamics into sharp relief. At the same time, there is a limit to how “legible” the violence is when viewed through the prism of individual incidents. This is an important note to conclude on, I think:

Mali: A Controversy Around Sex Education

In December, the Malian government announced that it was withdrawing a proposed sexual education textbook for adolescents. The plans for the textbook had evoked opposition from Muslim leaders in Mali, including Mahmoud Dicko, president of the High Islamic Council of Mali (French acronym HCIM) – Dicko asserted that by including a chapter on sexual orientation, the textbook was promoting homosexuality. In early January, the government announced the abandonment of the initiative. (It’s worth noting that Christian leaders, and Muslim leaders beyond Dicko, were also unhappy with the textbook.)

The incident feels like a replay, in miniature, of the 2009-2011 controversy over reforms to the family code – an episode that also saw Dicko and others successfully pressuring politicians into backtracking. Both the textbook and the family code struggles reveal the power of Muslim clerics and constituencies as lobby groups. The textbook episode also surprises me a bit in that you would think Malian politicians and bureaucrats would have seen the backlash coming given the way the family code debate played out.

There are real limits to the clerics’ political influence, of course. Dicko supported President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta when he ran and won in 2013, but Keïta won re-election in August 2018 despite a public falling out with Dicko and another prominent cleric, the Chérif of Nioro. So clerics don’t necessarily get to choose who gets elected. And it seems highly unlikely that Mali will see a cleric win the presidency, or even seriously try for it, any time soon. (Some of the reason for that has do with continuity in the political elite, a dynamic I discuss here).

Nevertheless, the lobbying power is formidable. And perhaps out of a desire to reinforce that power, Dicko kept going even after the textbook was withdrawn. On December 23, Dicko led – or perhaps eagerly accepted to lead, depending on how you read events – a demonstration in Mali’s capital Bamako. It is worth noting the presence of opposition politicians at the event, but even their attendance does not yet convince me that Dicko will be able to translate lobbying influence into electoral power. In any case, for now it seems the clerics get to draw red lines on key policy issues perceived to affect Islamic morality in Mali.

 

Roundup on the High-Level Meeting on Mali and the Sahel at the United Nations General Assembly

On 26 September, a “High-Level Meeting on Mali and the Sahel” took place on the margins of the United Nations General Assembly meeting in New York. The meeting focused heavily on the issue of the G5 Sahel Joint Force. Here are a few relevant links:

  • The conclusions of the event (English and French). Key quote: “Participants welcomed the progress in operationalizing the Joint Force and condemned the attack of 29 June against its Headquarters in Sévaré. They expressed solidarity with the Joint Force and concerned countries. They welcomed the European Union’s commitment to rebuild the Headquarters. Participants affirmed that mobilizing adequate support for the full operationalization of the Joint Force was critical to its success and called upon Member States to provide the necessary support to the Joint Force as per the recommendations of the Secretary-General contained in his report of 16 October 2017 (S/2017/869) and resolution 2391 (2017). They encouraged the members of the Group of Five for the Sahel to establish a political and strategic framework for the Joint Force. “
  • United Nations Secretary General António Guterres’ remarks (French and English). Key quote: “My longstanding position is that the G5-Sahel Joint Force is an important demonstration of regional ownership.  It needs a strong mandate and sustained and predictable funding.”
  • Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta’s remarks (French). Key quote: “The Malian state has modest resources, which do not allow it to implement all of the engagements accepted in the Accord within the prescribed period. That is why I reiterate my call for the rapid and effective mobilization of the resources promised by our partners.”
  • High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini’s remarks (French). Key quote: “Together, you are stronger. That is why we have decided to invest a lot in the G5 Sahel.”
  • On Twitter, Burkina Faso’s Foreign Minister Alpha Barry called for “speed in partners’ support to the G5 Sahel so that the joint force becomes operational on the ground.”
  • Here is a brief readout (French) from Mauritanian Foreign Minister Ismaël Ould Cheikh Ahmed.

French President Emmanuel Macron’s speech (French) to the entire General Assembly is also worth reading.

Here are a few relevant tweets:

Mali: Another Look at the Presidential Election Results

The “Les Afriques dans le Monde” project at Sciences Po Bordeaux has posted some useful maps and charts on Mali’s presidential elections.

Here are a few takeaways:

  • It’s really striking to see the pie charts that include abstentions. The visuals really underscore the weakness of President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta’s second term mandate.
  • The post highlights that of more than 65,000 new voters added to the rolls for the 12 August runoff, approximately half of them were in Gao and half in the diaspora. These are the kinds of numbers that have raised eyebrows in Mali.
  • The maps showing vote share by region are also extremely useful. The map of the first round highlights how well IBK did in the north (especially Kidal and Gao) and how poorly he did in Mopti (which also had, far and away, the highest number of polling place closures due to violence. Interestingly, as the authors note, IBK’s main rival Soumaïla Cissé had his best score in Timbuktu (20%), and his second-best in Gao, so this is not a story of Cissé doing well in south and IBK doing well in the north – rather, it’s the story of two candidates with significant northern support amid a divided south, where the share of votes going to other candidates was much higher. Cissé had minimal support in the south, actually.
  • The map of the second round reinforces these patterns. IBK dominated Kidal, but Cissé preserved a substantial vote share in Timbuktu (increasing, actually, to 26% there) and Gao. Only in those two regions, moreover, was the share of people voting greater than the share of people not voting. In the south, again, Cissé had relatively little support. Moreover, abstentions reached 70% in Segou, Bamako, and Sikasso.
  • I would reiterate what I’ve said before, namely that IBK is in some sense not really the president of Mopti (and even, one could argue, Segou). The violence was so severe, and the abstentions so high, that I take the outcome there as a rejection of the process itself.

Mali: Poor Relations Between IBK and the Cherif of Nioro Continue

In the lead-up to Mali’s presidential election in July and August, some of the country’s most prominent religious leaders publicly broke with President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita (IBK). One of these men, arguably the most influential Muslim figure in the country, was the Cherif of Nioro, Mohamed Ould Cheicknè or Bouyé (whose name is transliterated numerous ways, even in the Malian press). In the first round of the elections, the Cherif endorsed Aliou Diallo. In the second round, the Cherif endorsed IBK’s opponent Soumaïla Cissé. As I wrote then, “One takeaway is that key Malian religious leaders appear confident that they can break with IBK and come out okay even if he wins a second term.”

In a recent interview, the Cherif recounted his history with IBK and with Malian politics generally. There are a few notable points:

  • He considered himself apolitical under President Amadou Toumani Touré (in office 2002-2012) until the controversy over the proposed family code (which the Cherif and other leaders saw as harmful to Islam) circa 2009. The family code debate influenced his thinking even after the fall of Touré in the coup of 2012, and the Cherif came to support IBK as someone who had been, in his eyes, wronged by Touré and who could “take the country forward.” Endorsing IBK in 2013 was the first time the Cherif had supported a presidential candidate, he says.
  • The Cherif said that IBK deceived him and the Malian people, and that IBK’s first term revealed an autocratic personality. The Cherif recounted a story about one of his sons being harassed and beaten over a toll, and how the affair escalated into a political confrontation between his family and IBK after it appeared to the Cherif that the harassment had been “a sort of political score-settling” connected with his son’s own political activities.
  • The portion of the interview posted online ends there, from what I could find. But the fact of the interview itself being given and published stood out to me in and of itself. Who knows how the relations between IBK and the country’s Muslim leaders will play out over the next five years, but things are not necessarily off to a great start in the second term.