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.

What Is Politics, Anyways? France’s Dead End in the Sahel

RAND’s Michael Shurkin has a new article out in the Texas National Security Review‘s Winter 2020/20201 issue called “France’s War in the Sahel and the Evolution of Counter-Insurgency Doctrine.” I strongly advise you read it in full – it’s excellent.

At the meta level, for a wild-eyed anti-intervention leftie like me to express skepticism about France’s Operation Barkhane is…not news. But when someone as even-handed and sober-minded as Shurkin is expressing doubts about Barkhane’s long-term prospects, I hope policymakers in Paris and Washington will really listen.

Shurkin writes,

The success of France’s operations depends on political changes that it refuses to impose itself, and frequently, its actions serve to perpetuate a political dispensation that is a principle driver of conflict. While aspiring to be apolitical and declining to meddle in the internal affairs of sovereign nations, France is, wittingly or not, profoundly affecting the political landscape. Moreover, when France does meddle, it risks undermining the host nation’s legitimacy in the eyes of the population.

Every French army officer and Foreign Affairs Ministry official will say that military action can lead to nothing outside of an appropriate political framework, and that security operations may be necessary but are never sufficient to foster an enduring peace. However, they do not know how to act politically without being political.

Here I want to build on what Shurkin writes – what is politics, anyways?

This is not just a problem for political theorists (or for academics scratching their heads over how to respond to Reviewer 2). Defining the sphere of the political and whether and how to act within it is a problem for anyone (everyone) who says, “This conflict has no purely military solution” (and everyone says that about every conflict nowadays, even people who secretly think there is a purely military solution). Once one starts grappling with these questions, you have problems on multiple levels right away, many of which Shurkin gets at directly and indirectly in the excerpt I quoted above. Here are a few problems, for starters:

  1. A foreign military intervention is, inherently, a political act, and the foreign presence constitutes a political actor whether or not the foreigners want it to be;
  2. The foreign presence affects and distorts the political field around it;
  3. Attempting to stay out of the sphere of “formal politics” (elections, and here we might even add coups, transitions, etc.) is itself a political act, and will be perceived and misperceived by plural audiences in diverse ways;
  4. As Shurkin writes elsewhere in the piece, “COIN, per French doctrine past and present, requires some form of political transformation to occur within the host nation, with the understanding that the status quo ante is what engendered the insurrection in the first place. However, post-colonial interventions have tended to restore the status quo ante and relieve problematic regimes from pressure to reform.”

That last quote from Shurkin gets to the problem of how external actors define the desired political end-state. For me, I think 21st-century Western policymakers often imagine political end-states in shockingly unrealistic and vague terms, anticipating not just the military defeat but also the political neutralization of insurgencies that clearly have remarkably staying power. I also think (and here Shurkin and many others may disagree with me) that Western policymakers talk a good game about democracy as a desired political end-state or even as a vehicle for reaching that end-state, but that in practice Western policymakers often consciously or unconsciously want to hand off responsibility to a strongman, an authoritarian. Although then at the same time it seems Western policymakers often want someone biddable and relatively weak-willed, which either leads to them selecting someone too weak to fulfill the strongman role, or someone who turns out to be much different than what they expected and then sows the seeds of renewed (or new) conflict. The most vivid depiction of that latter process I’ve read is Dexter FIlkins’ narration of the CIA’s and Zalmay Khalilzad’s selection of Nouri al-Maliki as Iraq’s prime minister in 2006. That worked out poorly.

From what I understand of Malian politics, I don’t think France has tried to impose a strongman on Mali, and I don’t think France imposed Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta on Mali or saw Keïta as a potential strongman. The French are wise to avoid that blatant kind of political intervention. But I do think that it’s hard for these military interventions and counterinsurgencies to break with earlier models of doing politics in other people’s countries. Shurkin points out how the colonial model haunts contemporary counterinsurgency doctrine and practice – and you can’t really take doctrines applied in a context of anticipated long-term possession and occupation and translate them into a different context, I think. I would add that the Cold War model (“let’s find ‘our son of a bitch’ and put him in there for as long as possible”*) no longer seems viable in many places either, because of local pressures and international norms militating for some level of democracy. So, oftentimes, you can’t impose a strongman (nor do I think you should!!) – but if you don’t impose a strongman, what is the alternative?

I don’t know; maybe if the French could, they would clone Idriss Deby and put the clones in charge of Mali and Burkina Faso. But even if they could, you can’t just manufacture a Deby-like figure out of thin air and impose him – Deby has roots, networks, constituencies. So if you can’t possess the place, and if (as Shurkin points out repeatedly) you constantly signal that your presence is temporary, then the colonial model is out. And if you can’t or won’t impose a strongman (or if imposing a strongman is essentially rolling the dice, a la Maliki), then the Cold War template is out too.

And I don’t know that there really is a post-Cold War template. Because again, it’s still an exercise in trying to shape someone else’s politics. But now that effort at manipulation is so abstract and indirect that I think Western policymakers are sometimes in denial about the fact that they really are still attempting serious forms of manipulation, not all of which can be inherently and completely benevolent. So you’re left trying to provide security to give space for elections, for example, but the elections can’t be truly representative amid conflict, and the main contestants are mostly familiar faces with very limited popularity and appeal, many of whom are architects of the same status quo ante that Shurkin aptly points out is a cause of the conflict itself. Or you’re left in this very awkward dual role of killing the bad guys on the one hand and trying to act as the country’s coach on the other hand, saying, “This is how you run an army! This is how you try not to kill civilians! This is how you run a ministry!” But it doesn’t really work, and when it doesn’t work the Western policymakers and implementers let themselves off the hook by turning the concept of “governance” into a moral critique of African leaders and bureaucrats, and telling themselves the Africans “just don’t want it [peace] badly enough.” Again, I don’t think Shurkin will necessarily agree with my reasoning or my crude phrasing, but these are the implications I take from his piece and from the broader patterns that I see.

In short, maybe France can’t articulate a serious political strategy in Mali and the Sahel because there really isn’t one to be articulated. So you’re left saying “the return of the state” or “security-development nexus” for like 20 years, and then one day you go home.

*Yes, I know the possibly apocryphal quote was uttered in a pre-Cold War context, but still.

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.

A Cabinet Reshuffle in Chad

On 14 July, Chadian President Idriss Deby announced a cabinet reshuffle. As Le Monde noted, this move comes roughly nine months before the next presidential elections, which the electoral commission recently set for 11 April 2021. Le Monde and others regard it as a near-certainty that Deby will run for another term.

Le Monde further notes that the post of prime minister was eliminated in 2018, so this reshuffle does not involve a change of prime minister. For context, Chad adopted a new constitution in May 2018 inaugurating the Fourth Republic and greatly expanding Deby’s powers. The elimination of the prime minister post was part of that expansion (Chad also has no Vice President).

The new government comprises 35 members versus 31 in the old government.

Three notable points:

  • The appointment of Amine Abba Sidick, Chad’s ambassador to France, as the new Minister of Foreign Affairs (replacing Mahamat Zene Chérif, now Minister of Communication). As the analyst Flore Berger commented on Twitter, “I guess the relationship with France and international partners will be as important as ever for Chad.” Jeune Afrique profiles Sidick (also sometimes spelled Siddick) here.
  • The withdrawal from government of Deby’s longtime ally Delwa Kassiré Koumakoye, probably for reasons of age and health.
  • The new Health Minister is Abdoulaye Sabre Fadoul, most recently (from what I can tell) chief of staff for the civilian side of the presidency. He’s a veteran of several of Deby’s governments. He’s been called “the brain of the Fourth Republic.”

Here is the official presidential decree with the full list, which I’ll translate here:

  1. Minister of State, Minister Secretary-General of the Presidency of the Republic: Kalzeubé Payimi Deubet
  2. Minister of Foreign Affairs, African Integration, and Chadians Abroad: Amine Abba Sidik
  3. Minister of Public Security and Immigration: Mahamat Tahir Orozi
  4. Minister for the Administration of the Territory and Autonomous Collectivities: Mahamat Ismael Chaibo
  5. Minister of Communication, Spokesman of the Government: Mahamat Zene Cherif
  6. Deputy Minister for the Presidency, Responsible for the Armies, Former Combatants, and Victims of War
  7. Minister of Public Health and National Solidarity: Dr Abdoulaye Sabre Fadoul
  8. Minister of Justice, Guardian of the Seals, Responsible for Human Rights: Djimet Arabi
  9. Minister of Higher Education, Research, and Innovation: David Houdeingar Ngarimaden
  10. Minister of the Economy, Development Planning, and International Cooperation: Dr Issa Doubragne
  11. Minister of Finance and the Budget: Tahir Hamid Nguilin
  12. Minister of the Post Office and the Digital Economy: Dr Idriss Saleh Bachar
  13. Minister of Infrastructure and Transportation: Ahmat Abakar Aguid
  14. Minister of National Education and Civil Promotion: Aboubakar Assidick Tchoroma
  15. Minister of Energy: Ramatou Mahamat Houtouin
  16. Minister of Public Employment, Dialogue, and Social Employment: Ali Mbodou Mbodoumi
  17. Minister of Professional Training and Trades: Achta Ahmat Breme
  18. Minister of Industrial Development, Sales, and the Promotion of the Private Sector: Lamine Moustapha
  19. Minister of Urban and Rural Hydroelectric Power: Tahani Mahamat Hassan
  20. Minister of Youth and Sports: Routouang Mohamed Ndonga Christian
  21. Minister of Oil and Mines: Oumar Torbo Djarma
  22. Minister of the Organization of the Territory, Housing Development, and Urban Planning: Amina Ehemir Torna
  23. Minister of Agriculture: Abdoulaye Diar
  24. Minister of Civil Aviation and National Meteorology: Sebgué Nandeh
  25. Minister of Livestock Farming and Animal Production: Ahmat Mahamat Bachir
  26. Minister of the Environment and Fishing: Brahim Mahamat Djamaladine
  27. Minister of Tourist Development, Culture, and Crafts: Patalet Geo
  28. Minister of the Woman and the Protection of Small Children: Amina Priscille Longoh
  29. Minister Secretary-General of the Government, Responsible for Relations with the National Assembly and the Promotion of Bilingualism in the Administration: Mariam Mahamat Nour
  30. State Secretary for Foreign Affairs: Evelyne Fakir
  31. State Secretary for Health and National Solidarity: Dr Djiddi Ali Sougoudi
  32. State Secretary for National Education and Civic Education: Moustapha Mahamat Talko
  33. State Secretary for Finances and the Budget: Alixe Naimbaye
  34. State Secretary for the Economy, Development Planning, and International Cooperation: Dr Abderahim Younous
  35. Deputy Secretary-General of the Government: Lucie Beassemda

Notes on Yesterday’s G5 Security Summit in Nouakchott, Mauritania

Yesterday, 30 June, Sahelian heads of state, French President Emmanuel Macron, other top European leaders, and representatives of numerous multilateral bodies met in Nouakchott, Mauritania for a summit on Sahelian security. According to Macron’s agenda for the day, the event consisted of a working lunch for heads of state, followed by a larger meeting and then a joint press conference. The Elysée (French presidency) does not appear to keep permanent links for each separate day, so I am posting a screen shot:

Another version of the agenda, which differs just slightly from the times listed by the Elysée, was published by the Mauritanian outlet Mauri Actu and can be found here. That version gives a sense of the other participants in the event.

The Nouakchott summit is the sequel to one held at Macron’s invitation in Pau, France in January 2020. You can read the transcription of the joint press conference from that event in French here, and the New York Times‘ (appropriately critical) coverage is here. The Nouakchott summit also follows the 25 February G5 Sahel summit in Nouakchott as well as the recent virtual launch, on 16 June, of the French-backed Coalition for the Sahel. Nouakchott has been the site of several key meetings this year because Mauritania currently holds the rotating presidency of the G5 Sahel, a political (and now military-political) coordinating body for Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, and Chad.

In the lead-up to yesterday’s summit, a theme in Western press coverage was the suggestion that France is “gaining” militarily in the Sahel while the Sahelian governments are dysfunctional. I disagree with that framing, but let’s unpack it a bit first.

Here is AFP:

France is increasingly optimistic about the effectiveness of its anti-jihadist campaign in the Sahel, but experts caution that short-term successes will not by themselves bring lasting victory…

The governments of these countries, among the poorest in the world, are struggling to reinvest in the newly-retaken territories and win hearts and minds.

And here is Reuters, whose article is even more explicit that the assessment of “France is winning, Sahel governments are flailing” comes ultimately from the French government:

Mali and Burkina Faso must guarantee at a summit this week that their domestic political problems do not reverse fragile military successes against Islamist militants in the Sahel region, a French presidential source said on Monday.

“Domestic political problems” seems to mean the protests against President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta in Mali and the upcoming elections in Burkina Faso, or perhaps the phrase is also a veiled reference to widely reported security force abuses in those countries (and in Niger).

Clearly there is domestic turmoil in Mali and Burkina Faso – but I am uncomfortable with the framing that effectively says “African dysfunction is undercutting French accomplishments.” For one thing, I’m not sure what France’s “fragile military successes” really consist of, beyond the killing of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM)’s emir Abdelmalek Droukdel on June 3. Aside from the killing of Droukdel, most of what I’ve seen recently from France’s Operation Barkhane reads to me as the same kind of operations it has been conducting for years, and any gains in one area inevitably seem to be paralleled by a degradation in another area. The press coverage of this summit is replete with references to French/Sahelian gains made in the tri-border zone (Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso), but the references are quite vague once you scrutinize them. Meanwhile, the events and reports coming out of the Sahel’s conflict zones seem quite grim to me – blockaded towns in northern Burkina Faso, villages under jihadist sway in the east, Mali’s premier opposition leader in presumed jihadist captivity for over three months, etc. Those are bad signs, and they don’t seem to indicate that the French and Sahelian militaries are on a path toward victory.

And then, to return to critiquing the framing of “French prowess, African dysfunction,” there is the fact that France is not merely a military actor in the Sahel but is, first and foremost, a political actor in its former colonies – and a military intervention is itself a political act, I might add. France appears most comfortable working, when possible, with strongmen; failing that, France leans on a particular type of technocratic, Francophone professional politician in its former colonies. I don’t think that French authorities hand-pick the candidates to run in Sahelian elections. But is it an accident that the heads of state so often look exactly what you would imagine the Elysée would dream up – an economist or banker turned lifelong politician, perhaps still a “socialist” according to their party’s name but generally neoliberal in economic policy and deferential to France and Europe when it comes to international relations? And then you add to that the optic of Macron basically publicly treating the current Sahelian heads of state as his subordinates and clients, and ultimately what you have is an extremely top-down and narrow conception of political authority in the region. Is it a surprise that such a system has proven brittle and fragile, especially amid a widening conflict? How the Sahel can move forward politically is an enormously complicated question and I do not have the answer, but I suspect that the answer does not begin with Macron instructing his counterparts to get their shit together.

</mini rant>

Turning to the substance of the summit, here are a few resources:

  • Here is the final joint communiqué. Honestly, very little stood out to me from the document, which mostly read to me as a restatement of the principles of the Coalition for the Sahel (counterterrorism, enhancing military capacity, “the return of the state,” and development) and a restatement of what was discussed at Pau. There are references in this latest communiqué to not tolerating human rights abuses, a major topic of discussion recently, and the Sahelien heads of state called for (even) more international security contributions, but otherwise I thought the document was bland.
  • Here is the video and transcript of Macron’s remarks on his arrival at the summit. His primary theme was “solidarity” in the face of COVID-19 and terrorism. A secondary theme was the “return of the state,” especially in parts of Mali and Burkina Faso. The “return of the state” is, again, one of four pillars of the Coalition for the Sahel.
  • Twitter posts from Sahelian heads of state, regarding their respective participation in the summit, can be found at the following links: Mohamed Ould Ghazouani of Mauritania; Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta of Mali; Roch Kaboré of Burkina Faso; Mahamadou Issoufou of Niger; Idriss Deby of Chad.
  • RFI’s readout of the summit, which notes the positive and optimistic tone that the heads of state struck.

Speaking of international security engagements, the next development on the horizon there is the anticipated deployment of the French-created Takuba Task Force. At Clingendael, Anna Schmauder, Zoë Gorman, and Flore Berger have written an excellent explainer about the force.

Ould Ghazouani posted a striking photo of the six heads of state; I leave you with that:

 

Chad: Notes on Ben Taub’s Recent New Yorker Piece

I like the journalist Ben Taub’s work a lot, and there is much to like in his latest, on rebellions in Chad, for the New Yorker. Taub gets into the politics of the recent rebel advance – and the French airstrikes that followed – in northern Chad, developments I have covered a bit here.

The central argument of Taub’s piece is one that I agree with, and that I rarely see stated so bluntly in the American media: propping up dictators is bad.

After decades of supporting Sahelian strongmen, and turning a blind eye to their abuses, Western countries have been unable to devise any regional strategy except one that conflates the strength of a regime with the stability of a country, and which brings about neither stability nor strength.

Taub falls into the occasional cliché – “jihadi groups thrive in the margins of broken states” – but he also sees through the current rhetoric about “terrorism” coming from both Chad and France. What follows that line about “broken states,” for example, is very good:

and, where there are no terrorists, [Chadian President Idriss] Déby has seen it as politically advantageous to fabricate them. In the aftermath of the French air strikes, his forces arrested some two hundred and fifty rebels and announced that they would be tried as “terrorists,” without the veneer of judicial protections typically afforded to criminals, traitors, or whatever category would normally apply to political opponents and army defectors who have attempted a coup. The designation is convenient for France, too; the legal mandate for Operation Barkhane is counterterrorism, not killing men who have had enough of Déby’s rule. But the facts are being obscured amid staged cries of victory.

Taub goes on to make some very grim predictions:

Absent radical changes in local Sahelian governance and priorities, no humanitarian crisis in Africa’s recent history will compare to the hell to come. What is likely doesn’t have to be inevitable. The question for Western governments is whether they will be complicit in its acceleration.

There are huge questions to ponder here. Is demography destiny in the Sahel? Is the most likely future one of brittle (or collapsing) regimes, with popular desires for change channeled largely or solely into violence? Will the Sahel of 2050 be the frontline of climate apocalypse? There is definitely good reason to think so. But in addition to highlighting the agency of Western governments, one should also keep in mind the agency of Sahelians themselves. Multiple futures are possible for the region, and who knows – maybe increasing crisis and fragility will elicit not just chaos but also creativity.

Recent Media Quotes/Review

I’ve been quoted in a few media reports recently, and a new review of my book on Boko Haram came out.

Media:

  • Voice of America, “French Airstrikes in N. Chad Affirm Support for President Déby”
  • BBC, “Nigerian Elections: Has Boko Haram Been Defeated?”
  • The Economist, “Boko Haram, Nigeria’s Jihadist Group, Is Regaining Strength.”

The review appeared in International Affairs, by Caroline Varin, whose own book on Boko Haram can be found here. Varin highlights things that I see as the book’s strengths, and she also makes some solid critiques of the book – writing conclusions, in particular, has never been my strength!

Chad: In the Wake of November 10 Clashes, A Media War Between the Government and the CCMSR

Here at the blog I’ve followed the conflict in northern Chad between the government and the Military Command Council for the Salvation of the Republic (French acronym CCMSR). The last time I wrote about it was in late October; since then there was another round of clashes in or around Miski during the days before November 18, when the government announced it had reasserted full control. A good overview of the conflict can also be found here.

One core problem in making sense of the violence is that it is frequently unclear who is fighting whom. The Chadian government sometimes refers vaguely to “the enemy,” rather than to a specific entity like the CCMSR, and news reports speak variously of the CCMSR, local community self-defense groups, and gold miners. The CCMSR has even accused the Chadian military of disguising themselves as gold miners to attack the CCMSR. The miners are relevant in part because the government has tried to expel them from the far north, and so their presence there is quasi-legal at best. Meanwhile, something called the Miski Self-Defense Committee has flatly contradicted the CCMSR’s accounts, asserting that “the CCMSR has never participated, from near or far, in the conflict in Miski and has no base in the Tibesti. Moreover, the Self-Defense Committee has no contact, official or unofficial, with the CCMSR.”

All of this difficulty in getting clear information adds to a media war between the government and the CCMSR. In fact, the CCMSR appears to me to be the more active side when it comes to internet communications, with a fairly active Facebook page and a brand-new Arabic-language website that aims to “spread the facts that the dictatorial institutions are intent on hiding.”

To give a sense of the CCMSR’s rhetoric, I thought it would be useful to translate an excerpt from one of their recent statements:

Chad, our country, is deeply divided today and the cleavages there are more pronounced than in the past and in the majority of other African countries, notably those of the sub-region. This is because, in twenty-eight years of rule, Idriss Deby has transformed our beautiful basin into a vast shooting range, graciously put at the disposal of the world powers who come to test the new inventions among their armaments.

In internal policy, the fragile embryo of national unity that we inherited from colonization has been completely wrecked. No political culture has been imagined for developing and forging the Chadian national identity and giving, so to speak, to the Chadian male and female citizens the feeling of belonging to a community of destiny.

[…]

We are also aware, if not more aware today than ever, that the departure of Idriss Deby from power, by himself, will not suffice, even if it is an absolute necessity for Chad…The return to calm, the political settlement of our conflict and the installation of a definitive peace founded on justice in our country – all that demands more than a change of regime. That demands of male and female Chadians a national awakening, to outdo themselves and pose some fundamental questions.

Now, I’m honestly in no position to really evaluate how widely this rhetoric resonates and whether opponents of Deby in other parts of the country are at all sympathetic to the CCMSR (perhaps not) or whether they see it as a sectional affair – or as a paper tiger that claims credit for others’ actions. But I will say that the CCMSR is making a fairly ambitious effort to own the media narrative and to offer a far-reaching critique of Deby and of Chadian political culture. I can envision a few scenarios going forward, including (a) a cycle of conflict in and around Miski, as we’ve seen since approximately August, (b) success by the Chadian military in extinguishing the rebellion, (c) expansion of support for the CCMSR, and (d) a multi-sided conflict in the Tibesti. But, once again, the problem of low-quality and contradictory information makes all this very hard to assess and even harder to predict.

Chad: Recent Military Clashes with the CCMSR in Miski

I’m a week late to this,* but it’s worth flagging a recent clash in northern Chad between the military and the rebel group the Military Command Council for the Salvation of the Republic (French acronym CCMSR), which I’ve been blogging about from time to time.

On 24 October, a clash occurred in Miski, in the Tibesti Borkou (see below) region of far northern Chad. As RFI relates, the Chadian military and the CCMSR each say that the other side was the aggressor. RFI adds that according to the Chadian government, all civilians have left Miski.

The government is experimenting with different ways to characterize the violence. RFI cites the government labeling the rebels “drug traffickers and human traffickers.” A military communiqué (via Jeune Afrique) makes no mention of the CCMSR, but rather says:

The Chadian defense and security forces deployed on an inspection and security operation in the new department of Miski were attacked Wednesday by a small group of terrorists. The armed forces assure [the public] that the assailants were neutralized and that the situation is currently under control.

In short, the government seems keen to characterize this as the work of malefactors rather than as a politically-motivated rebellion.

The reference to the “new department of Miski” takes us back to the Jeune Afrique article linked above, which gives a bit of context. In March, Miski was detached, administratively, from the Tibesti region and attached to the Borkou region. The move has been criticized by some northern Chadians as an affront to “historical and cultural norms.” There is a long and multi-layered history surrounding these issues, notably the intersection of (a) government authority in Miski, (b) gold mining, and (c) rebellion. For deeper background, see this report from Small Arms Survey, which discusses past conflicts in Miski starting on p. 96.

For their part, the CCMSR also seeks to delegitimize the other side, namely the Chadian government. The CCMSR’s statement on the Miski incident portrays it as a genocidal campaign aimed at northern populations and undertaken by the “mercenaries and clan militia of Idriss Deby.” Note that the CCMSR characterizes the Chadian government forces as President Deby’s personal militia and to characterize Deby’s government as “mafia criminals.”

Put differently, alongside the violence there is also a war of words going on between the government and the rebels, and simultaneously there is a campaign to control and shape the flow of information. This is particularly crucial in an ultra-remote zone such as Miski where even basic facts – are there civilians there or not? – can be disputed by the two sides. Each side seems keen to argue, for an international audience as much as for a domestic Chadian one, that they are fighting illegitimate predators.

*My new motto is “Sahel Blog: Bringing You Last Week’s News”