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

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

Let’s start with the regional picture:

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

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

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

A few thoughts:

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

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

My comments:

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

Here is Luengo-Cabrera’s graphic for Niger:

Remarks:

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

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

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

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

Assessing the Algiers Accord at the 5-Year Mark: Background Resources and a Quick Comment

Mali is now five years into the implementation of the Algiers Accord of 2015, the latest in a series of peace agreements between central Malian governments and rebel factions in the north. The text of the Accord can be found, in French, here.

For readings on the long-term historical background of those agreements, I recommend this 2017 paper from the International Peace Institute and this 2015 paper from RAND. Another major report (French), released in June 2019, comes from a Malian civil society coalition (thanks to Anna Schmauder). And for the most recent (April 2020) report of the Independent Observer, the Carter Center, see here. And, last but not least, the Center for Strategic and International Studies called in April of this year for a new accord – an idea with both merits and flaws, given that the present accord clearly fails to address some of the conflict’s worst aspects (above all, the situation in central Mali) but also given the likely overwhelming difficulties that would confront any effort to renegotiate the Accord or to scrap it and start over.

Most recently, this Q+A with Mathieu Pellerin of International Crisis Group gives a great overview of where things stand. One excerpt:

The parties have not carried out the substantive political and institutional reforms defined in Section II of the agreement (the first section lays out the agreement’s general principles), starting with regionalisation. So far, the measures have been temporary or too limited to make any real impact on the ground. It took months of negotiation between the signatories and international partners of the Peace Agreement Monitoring Committee (Comité de suivi de l’accord, CSA) to appoint interim authorities in the northern regions, and with few tangible results. Three years on, these authorities have insufficient financial and human resources, and lack the training, to manage the regions effectively. The two new regions (Ménaka and Taoudenit) created in northern Mali, based on commitments made by President Amadou Toumani Touré in 2011, also lack resources. Voters in these regions could not choose deputies in the April 2020 legislative elections because the electoral districts had not yet been delineated.

The only part of Pellerin’s comments that raised an eyebrow for me was where he blamed the slow implementation on “lack of will” among the signatories – I’ve become a bit allergic to that phrase because I think it functions as a placeholder for real analysis rather than constituting an analysis in and of itself. To his credit, Pellerin did not stop there, but went on to say

Apart from the lack of will, the Malian state and the CMA are also keen to preserve the status quo: the CMA enjoys considerable de facto autonomy in its areas of influence in northern Mali, while many of its members have paid employment in the bodies set up by the agreements, such as the CSA and the interim authorities. In parallel, this state of affairs allows the Malian state to delay implementation of the 2015 agreement’s more sensitive provisions, particularly those implying constitutional reform. In August 2017, pressure from the public – mobilised in part against the agreement’s implementation – forced the government to postpone a draft constitutional referendum. By maintaining the status quo, the government prevents social unrest while still honouring its commitment to the international community to continue implementing the agreement.

I agree with this line of argument more – although the idea of “prevent[ing] social unrest” has perhaps already been overtaken by events a bit, given the mass protests against the president in Bamako. I have also viewed the government’s decision to hold the legislative elections in March/April of this year as part of the government’s plan to make another attempt at that constitutional referendum, although I think the June 5 protest movement gives the president a preview of the pushback he would face if he attempted the referendum again in the short or medium term (the provisions creating a Senate and giving the president power to appoint a substantial share of its members would, I think, play poorly in the current environment). In any case, the idea that key players in Mali have an interest in maintaining the status quo is something I wrote about here.

Other write-ups on the 5-year mark of the Algiers Accord can be found at DW (French), and in a provocative commentary at Le Carréfour (French) arguing that Mali has already de facto been partitioned into two states:

If certain people pose the question of whether Mali will lose Kidal, they are mistaken. Mali has already lost Kidal, for it has become a state in its own right.

Mali: Analyzing the Legislative Results from Kidal

On March 29 and April 19, Mali held legislative elections. Among the results, the outcome in the northern region of Kidal is worth a close look, given Kidal’s centrality to the peace process and the ongoing conflict.

Mali’s National Assembly has 147 seats, and some 22 of those (I’ve seen various counts) were won outright in the first round. That category included the four seats in Kidal, won with what RFI (French) calls “North Korean scores.” Here are the winners and their reported vote totals and percentages (French):

  • Abeïbara: Ahmada ag Bibi, 2,724 votes (91.53%)
  • Kidal: Choghib ag Attaher, 11,592 votes (74.6%)
  • Tessalit: Aicha Belco Maiga, 10,070 votes (87.3%)
  • Tin-Essako: Mohamed ag Intalla, 2,384 votes (97%)

Reported turnout (French) was over 85% in Kidal, in contrast to reported turnout of less than 13% in the capital Bamako.

Here is a map of Kidal’s administrative cercles, which double as electoral constituencies:

These four deputies from Kidal (see here, French) include three incumbents who won re-election – Ahmada ag Bibi of Abeïbara, Mohamed ag Intalla of Tin-Essako, and Aicha Belco Maiga* of Tessalit. The first two figures are particularly well known. In addition to their long careers in electoral politics, they are both prominent hereditary leaders within the Ifoghas clans of the Kel Adagh Tuareg confederation; ag Intalla is, in fact, the aménokal or head of the confederation. Such combinations of electoral capital and hereditary capital have been common in the north since the advent of multiparty politics in the 1990s. Both men are also, moreover, senior leaders within the ex-rebel coalition the Coordination of Azawad Movements (CMA); ag Intalla’s brother Alghabass is the Secretary General of arguably the most important bloc within the CMA, the High Council for Unity of Azawad (HCUA). Both ag Bibi and ag Intalla won massively in the previous elections in 2013 (see here, pp. 46-47).

The only upset this year, then, was in the city of Kidal itself. In 2013 (see previous link, p. 47), the CMA did not yet exist but its components did, and their preferred candidate lost; the winner that year was Ahmoudène ag Iknass, who hails from the Imghad (former “tributary” or “vassals,” considered free but not “noble” within the Kel Adagh) Tuareg. The Imghad likely represent the majority of voters in Kidal, and so ag Iknass’ victory could be interpreted as demographic destiny coming to fruition after years of Ifoghas dominance. Yet the (future) CMA leaders also felt that ag Iknass was installed by their political enemies, namely the antecedents of the movement that since 2014 has been called the Imghad Tuareg Self-Defense Group and Allies (French acronym GATIA). Ag Iknass has been seen as close to GATIA’s leader El Hajj ag Gamou, who is himself Imghad; for example, ag Iknass was one of two main representatives (French) for the coalition of movements called the Plateforme, of which GATIA is the leading member, in negotiations with the CMA in 2015.

One crude but plausible reading of this year’s election in Kidal is that CMA forces wrested the seat back from GATIA. I have not been able to find much information yet about the incoming deputy, Choghib ag Attaher, but if he is the same man mentioned here (French), he was a Vice President of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (French acronym MNLA, another key bloc of the CMA) as of 2014. And if he is the same man described in these leaked U.S. Embassy Bamako cables (here and here), then he is a hereditary ruler within one fraction of the Idnane, another prominent Tuareg clan sometimes considered to be nobility. A writeup (French) after his election victory describes him as a tribal chief from a major family, a local RPM official, and “a product of the youth of Kidal.”

Notably, the electoral power struggles in the north do not really play out along party lines – all four of the deputies from Kidal belong to President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta’s Rally for Mali (French acronym RPM) – but ag Iknass, the outgoing deputy from Kidal city, previously did too. This year, however, ag Iknass ran (French, p. 108) on the list of ASMA-CFP (Alliance for Solidarity in Mali-Congress of Patriotic Forces, led by former Prime Minister Soumeylou Boubèye Maïga). It seems the real contest was over who would be the RPM candidate for Kidal rather than which party would win. Party affiliations play out differently in different parts of Mali – in contrast to Kidal, the RPM was nearly wiped out in Bamako (French) in these elections.

What does all this mean for the future? For one thing, ag Attaher’s victory would seem to further consolidate the CMA’s position in Kidal, with a corresponding weakening of GATIA’s position. Beyond that, another obvious conclusion is the relative continuity among key actors – the CMA’s deputies will remain key interlocutors with the government in Bamako, and being from the same party has not and does mean that the Kidal elites are always positively disposed toward the government. Finally, the CMA’s seemingly regained ability to dominate the elections in Kidal underscores that the demographic majority will not always buck the preferences of the long-time elite.

*Who is Songhai, for what it’s worth, while the other three are Tuareg. Her Facebook page is here.

The Death of a Northern Malian Shaykh, and a Few of My Analytical Blindspots

On April 2, northern Malian sources reported the passing of Shaykh Hamdi Ould Muhammad al-Amin (Romanized spellings vary), the chief judge (qadi al-quda) of Kidal.

In a Facebook post (Arabic), one spokesman for the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (French acronym MNLA) traced the shaykh’s genealogy back to Sidi al-Mukhtar al-Kunti (1729-1811), one of the most influential religious scholars (.pdf) in the Mauritania-Mali sub-region in the past several centuries.

The shaykh appears to have been more than just a learned man. He also seems to have had strong relationships with tribal and political leaders in northern Mali; for example, he was one prominent attendee at the installation (Arabic) of the Kunta confederation’s new ruler Muhammad al-Amin Ould Baba in 2015. The Nord Sud Journal, in its report (French) on the shaykh’s death, notes that his passing was announced by the prominent northern Malian politician and hereditary ruler Alghabass ag Intalla, sectary-general of the High Council for the Unity of Azawad (HCUA), over WhatsApp. The journal describes the shaykh as a “consensus” figure in northern Mali, writing that he “judged all the disputes between armed groups after the Anefis accords of 2015.” (See background on those accords here.)

The MNLA and HCUA eulogies for the shaykh are another reminder that neither of these movements should be understood as secular. In interviews, MNLA leaders have stated to me that they and the rebellion they launched in 2012 received support from prominent shaykhs and jurists in the region – including another prominent northern Malian shaykh who died in 2017, Al-‘Atiq bin Sa’d al-Din (Arabic).

Identifying the senior Muslim scholars of northern Mali has been a consistent blind spot for me, and with both Ould Muhammad al-Amin and Ibn Sa’d al-Din I became aware of them only upon their deaths. In part, this is simply a weakness of my own research, and a sign that I have not yet found the right sources and interviewees, or have not asked the right questions of the politicians I’ve interviewed. On another level, though, I think the task is objectively harder than, say, identifying prominent clerics in Bamako or Nouakchott. Perhaps this difficulty reflects a center-periphery split, with the ulama (religious scholars) of the capital much more visible than those in the north. Yet there is essentially no difficulty in identifying major political or military figures in northern Mali: such individuals are routinely profiled and interviewed by Jeune Afrique, for example, and they have proven relatively easy to meet in Bamako and even in Washington.

So there are a few questions that have occurred to me over the years:

  1. Has there been a disruption in scholarly reproduction in northern Mali? In other words, do senior scholars have clear successors – from within their families or from among their senior students? From what I’ve read on Ould Muhammad al-Amin and Ibn Sa’d al-Din, scholarly authority appears strongly hereditary in the region – but that does not mean that it will be reproduced automatically, or that sons will have the same status as their fathers. The eulogies for Ould Muhammad al-Amin indicate that there are clear successors in his place, but I have wondered about the wider picture.
  2. Are northern Malian ulama reticent to step into the media spotlight given the conflict in the region, or because of the local scholarly culture? In Bamako, even when I know the names of major scholars and seek out interviews with them, I have found it much harder to have productive interviews with shaykhs than with politicians, including politicians from the north. Is there even more reticence in the north about interacting with foreigners and/or journalists?
  3. How much did the rise of Tabligh in the 1990s and 2000s, and the rise of Salafism and Salafi-jihadism in the region, affect the wider religious field? How were traditionalist – i.e., Maliki-Sufi-Ash’ari – scholars in the north affected? Is it even correct to assume that someone like Ould Muhammad al-Amin, from a family famously identified with the Qadiriyya Sufi order, still identified as Sufi? What is the position of someone like the jihadist(-leaning?) judge Houka Houka ag Alhousseini within the wider religious field – an outlier, a representative of a minority trend, a representative of a growing trend, etc.? Is someone like that only infamous because he is associated with jihadists, while the truly influential religious scholars in the region shun the spotlight?
  4. When the 2015 Algiers Accord, meant to bring peace to northern Mali, refers to the role of cadis/qadis (Islamic judges) in local governance (.pdf, p. 13), do northern leaders have a list of specific people in mind to fulfill these functions – or who are already fulfilling these functions? Or is this more aspirational?

Obviously I welcome any insights that readers may have. The answers to these questions potentially have major import for how one understands the situation in northern Mali. A situation where senior, traditionalist scholars are dying without being replaced could mean that the politicians are the ones dominating the scene and/or that jihadists face less resistance within the religious field. On the other hand, if the senior traditionalists are still present but reticent, that could mean that there are powerful religious influences on politicians and powerful counterweights to jihadists, in complex dynamics that lie outside of my view.

Mali: Sharia in Kidal?

My title here is intentionally provocative – the reference is to a recent RFI article discussing new regulations handed down by the Coordination of Azawad Movements (CMA, a bloc of ex-rebels) in Kidal, northeastern Mali, on 30 January. As of 19 February, the CMA was “backpedaling” (see below), but the issue remains a live and contentious one.

From the first RFI article, regarding the initial regulations:

The CMA, which has administered the city for many years, is taking charge of new sectors of security and justice, replacing the State. The rules are stricter: the sale and consumption of alcohol are henceforth forbidden, foreigners* must have a local guardian, and as for the role of Qadi or Islamic judge, it appears strengthened. The inability of the State to assume its responsibilities in northern Mali continues to pose a problem.

The full CMA declaration, signed by CMA President Alghabass ag Intalla, can be found here. Notably, a lot of the press coverage focused on the alcohol ban and restrictions on foreigners, but the declaration also devotes substantial attention to traffic issues and, in particular, says that armed motorcyclists and pedestrians will be brought before the Islamic tribunal and have their bikes and weapons destroyed. There is a a debate to be had over how much any Islamization at work here is    actually subordinate to the CMA’s bid for securitization; it might be going too far to say that the CMA is using Islam as a tool for taking greater physical control of Kidal, but at the very least one can say that Islamization/Qadi-fication is only one part of a larger ambition to expand the CMA’s roles in both security and non-security sectors (including health).

The RFI article caused a bit of controversy because it drew heavily on comments by the researcher Ferdaous Bouhlel, who has been criticized by other Mali specialists (Malian and non-Malian) for allegedly being too close to the CMA. For example:

(Translation: “With researchers like this, the CMA doesn’t need spokesmen any more.”)

My view, however, is that of Guichaoua:

The controversy over Bouhlel, I would say, is a microcosm of two larger debates – (a) have the CMA and Malian Tuareg/Arab rebels systematically obtained more favorable media coverage than they deserve? and (b) is the CMA more nefarious than it sometimes appears in the media?

In any case, there are some other dynamics to highlight here. Recently in one of the courses I’m teaching, civil wars, we discussed Zachariah Mampilly’s Rebel Rulers and Paul Staniland’s “Wartime Political Orders.” To crude simplify things, one point Mampilly makes is that rebels (or ex-rebels?) develop governance models partly through interaction with civilian populations, whose preferences and needs can shape rebels’ decisions. This is what Bouhlel argues – namely, that the CMA is responding to civilian needs for greater security, and that the CMA is drawing on longstanding idioms of governance in the region. One point Staniland makes is that states and rebels (or ex-rebels?) negotiate different arrangements during wartime, including what Staniland terms “spheres of influence.” The CMA and the Malian government are constantly renegotiating their relationship and probing the limits of the other party’s influence (and these are not the only actors in northern Mali or even in Kidal, of course).

Here it’s worth noting that the CMA’s new rules are at least loosely grounded in the 2015 Algiers Accord, which mentions (.pdf, article 46, pp. 12-13) the “reassertion of the value of the role of Cadis [Qadis] in the administration of justice, notably in terms of civil mediation in a way that accounts for cultural, religious, and customary specificities.” Other actors, however, are unpersuaded that the CMA’s rules have any legitimacy – Ahmed Boutache, president of the Committee for Monitoring the Accord (French acronym CSA), denounced the CMA’s rules as “a flagrant violation of the accord…and an infringement of the sovereign prerogatives of the government of the Republic of Mali.” I see these competing statements as not just legal disagreements but also, again, as a way that each side is probing the limits of the other’s authority and legitimacy.

This brings us back to the issue of the CMA’s “backpedaling,” with the CMA’s 19 February statement acknowledging the authority of the Malian state at the local level and expressing willingness for a dialogue over how to move forward on security and the role of the Qadis. Both the CMA and the state, I think, are in essence making offers and counteroffers amid an evolving and unstable situation.

One wishes, meanwhile, that one knew more about who exactly the Qadis were/are/will be:

Personnel, as they say, is policy.

A final point to consider, and one mentioned in the first RFI article linked above, is the issue of influence from Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wa-l-Muslimin or the Group for Supporting Islam and Muslims (JNIM). RFI quoted an anonymous official from Kidal denouncing the CMA’s new rules as a reflection of JNIM’s pernicious influence. The CMA, which includes some former members of Ansar al-Din, one of JNIM’s constituent parts, is regularly accused of maintaining contacts with JNIM’s leader Iyad ag Ghali. But all of this brings us back to the question of what all these actors want – would ag Ghali be content with a “shari’a-compliant,” autonomous Kidal? Or does he want something more? And was the CMA channeling ag Ghali’s influence – or attempting to undercut it? I’ve tried to get at the complexity of “jihadist politics” in Timbuktu, but there is as much, if not more, to think about in terms of local Kidal dynamics as well.

*I think the CMA is referring to non-Malians here, but I wonder if there is a hint that all outsiders (Malian or non-Malian) could be required to have supervision.

Mali: What Next for the Truth, Justice, and Reconciliation Commission?

RFI has an article on Mali’s Truth, Justice, and Reconciliation Commission (Commission vérité justice et réconciliation, CVJR) that raises some important questions. The CVJR, whose official website can be found here, was created in 2014 with a mandate through 2018. RFI expects that the mandate will be renewed, but at least two key challenges remain:

  1. How can the Commission hear from as many victims as possible? The article mentions that the office in Kidal only opened two weeks ago; even more seriously, victims can face reprisals if they are seen talking to the Commission. Then too there is the problem of severe violence in the center of Mali, particularly Mopti, which creates waves of new victims as well as new difficulties pertaining to victims’ access to the Commission.
  2. How will the Commission’s plans for a victims’ reparations law be squared with plans for a law of “national understanding,” which some critics call an amnesty? (For one commentary on the law, see here, and for one version of the text, see here.)

These are big questions, of course, and debates over “justice” versus “peace” can be extremely fraught. My own thinking on the bigger picture was heavily influenced by Jacob Mundy’s book Imaginative Geographies of Algerian Violence, which deals in part with ways  that forgetting can be just as important to peace as remembering can.

But to move from the big picture back to the details, I was interested to look a bit into the commission’s structure. From the website, one learns that it comprises twenty-five commissioners, directed by a president (Ousmane Oumarou Sidibé, a lawyer and former labor minister) and two vice presidents (former parliamentary deputy Hat ag Baye* and Islamic scholar El Hadj Sidi Konake). One could say that northerners have a large representation on the commission, with the president coming from Timbuktu, one of the vice presidents (ag Baye) coming from Gao, and at least nine of the commissioners having recognizably Arab or Tuareg names. This is not to say that the commission’s balance is off – after all, the north was where the violence began in the current cycle of conflict, and where many of the victims still are. And the other vice president (Konake) is from Mopti, so that region has senior representation too. I guess what is striking is the comparison between this northern-dominated Commission and many other organs of the Malian government, where northern representation is quite thin. On the other hand, one doesn’t want to get too caught up in the politics of representation, which easily becomes an end in and of itself – what matters is the quality of performance.

A final note is that there are several commissioners with connections to Mali’s High Islamic Council, which could mean both that the Commission actively sought out religious leaders as members and/or that the High Islamic Council had a lot of say in who got to sit on the commission.

*Ag Baye replaced Nina Wallet Intallou, who became Minister of Tourism.

 

Notes on the Carter Center’s Second Report on Mali’s Peace Process

The Carter Center is the independent observer designated to follow the implementation of Mali’s peace process as envisioned by the 2015 Algiers Accord. The selection of an independent observer is itself one part of the Accord’s implementation. The Carter Center released its first report in May 2018, and released its second report on 26 October.

Here are my notes on the latter. To me the most striking passages involved (a) the Carter Center’s concerns about the Accord Monitoring Committee (CSA) and (b) the report’s observations about the Operational Coordination Mechanism (MOC) and civilians’ negative perceptions of it in Gao. Here are some key excerpts:

  • The overall tone is mixed, leaning cautiously optimistic. From p. 3: “The observation period was marked by modest but real progress as well as by a significant pause in implementation caused by the presidential election. While progress has been made in disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration (DDR), other obstacles remain, particularly the establishment of the Interim Authorities and the Operational Coordination Mechanism (Mécanisme opérationnel de coordination – MOC) as fully operational. Despite their continued commitment to the agreement, this mixed record underlines the fact that the Malian parties (government of Mali, Coordination des mouvements de l’Azawad [CMA]), and the Plateforme des mouvements du 14 juin d’Alger [Platform]) remain reluctant to advance quickly.”
  • After noting implementation challenges related to the structures created by the Accord and the signatories’ postures, the report goes on to note other challenges to peace. From p. 4: “Two challenges external to the agreement itself impede progress – the crisis in central Mali and criminal economic activity. The crisis in central Mali could overtax the resources initially earmarked for the execution of the agreement, while the ‘criminal economy’ – whose link with the implementation of the agreement has been sufficiently documented by the report of the group of experts established pursuant to United Nations Security Council Resolution 2374 (2017) – slows and discourages implementation.” For background on the crisis in central Mali, this report is a good place to start for Anglophones; for those who read French, I would add this report as well. The report of the UN group of experts can be found here, and my own notes on it are here. Finally, the Carter Center report discusses these two issues (central Mali and criminal economic activity) a bit more on p. 13.
  • The report makes numerous critiques of the Monitoring Committee/Comité de suivi de l’accord (CSA). From p. 6: “Normally scheduled monthly, only three CSA sessions were held during the five-month observation period, due in large part to the presidential election. These sessions lasted only a single day, and sometimes just a few hours. During these sessions, a blockage on a particular topic occasionally led to the suspension or end of a session. The CSA ratifies, often without discussion or formal decision, the actions or agreements made by the parties…The appointment of the minister of social cohesion [see here – AT] is a significant clarification of thegovernment’s presence in the CSA. At the same time, the Independent Observer notes that senior officials of the CMA, based in Kidal, regularly call into question the conclusions or decisions negotiated by representatives in Bamako. The Platform coalition is often marked by wide differences between its members, which impact and slow decision-making.”
  • The report also focuses in on the difference between the formal installation of the interim authorities in northern areas and their actual functioning. From p. 9: “At the regional level, Interim Authorities have been established officially in Kidal (February 2017), Gao and Ménaka (March 2017), and Timbuktu and Taoudéni (April 2017). However, none are in fact operational because they lack budgets to carry out their missions, including the provision of basic services…Over and above these specific obstacles, the Independent Observer expresses concern about the lack of initiative shown by the government to empower the Interim Authorities. Because of the absence of a budget and activities, the Interim Authorities are gradually being undermined and the government’s good faith called into question.”
  • The report has strong words about the MOC, writing that it is operation but deeply hamstrung in Gao, and “not operational” in Timbuktu and Kidal (p. 10). Significantly, the report notes that in Gao, “the population complains of growing insecurity and tends to attribute the increase in banditry and crime to the presence of MOC members.” In other words, the issue is not just about budgets and technical implementation but also about perceptions. The dynamic the report notes is a very dangerous one.

 

 

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.

Three Recent, Compelling Pieces on Mali

Recently I’ve read three new pieces on Mali, all of which were very strong and which readers may find of interest:

  • Arthur Boutellis and Marie-Joëlle Zahar, “A Process in Search of Peace: Lessons from the Inter-Malian Agreement,” for International Peace Institute;
  • Ferdaous Bouhlel, Yvan Guichaoua and Jean-Hervé Jézéquel, “The stoning that didn’t happen, and why it matters,” for African Arguments; and
  • Niagalé Bagayoko, Boubacar Ba, Boukary Sangaré, and Kalilou Sidibé, “Masters of the land: Competing customary and legal systems for resource management in the conflicting environment of the Mopti region, Central Mali” for The Broker.

Here’s an excerpt from “The Stoning That Didn’t Happen”:

The episode stresses how complicated it is to gather information about northern Mali. AFP and RFI work from Bamako and Paris, respectively 1,500 km and 4,500 km away from the town of Kidal, where the reported events unfolded. Researchers operate from similar distances for the same security reasons.

The consequence of this is that journalists and researchers rely on indirect sources of information that are far from perfect and then do their best to triangulate them. It can often be difficult to tell whether two accounts are distinct or if they derive from the same source of information, since the same story can circulate through networks under multiple guises.

[…]

The timing of the stoning story is also important. It came as some civil society activists and politicians were calling for negotiations with Islamist leaders – calls that were abruptly rejected by authorities. It also immediately preceded French President Emmanuel Macron’s visit to Mali in which he met with French troops and re-affirmed France’s pledge to fight terrorism.

And here’s an excerpt from “Masters of the Land”:

Customary institutions are still highly relevant – and legitimate – in Central Mali today. Local communities often find it hard to grasp the role of the government in resource management. Decentralization provided a national framework for resource management in Mali by establishing regions, cercles, and communes as units of local government. Governance units are entitled to manage their own natural resources, while electing assemblies or councils to manage these collectively. This decentralization process, which was accompanied by the adoption of a number of new laws for resource management, has deeply affected agro-pastoral management principles.

This overlap and competition between customary and legal institutions (and laws) for the management of resources often triggers tensions between communities and networks involved in farming, livestock breeding and fisheries, fuelling century-old conflicts between the different communities in the Mopti region. Furthermore, the priority given by most development programmes to agriculture-oriented policies, at the expense of pastoralism, has triggered intra- and inter-communal tension, resulting in the emergence of new power relations within communities involved in resource exploitation. This is especially the case within the Fulani community, where domination between pastoral and farming populations has changed since the colonial period due to the enforced settlement imposed on nomadic populations. These upheavals have upset historical balances.

“Masters of the Land” provides an important corrective to the alarmist narrative of “Fulani radicalization” that various irresponsible people are pushing. True, the piece points to a trend where Fulani pastoralists join jihadist groups in order to gain weapons with which to fight local rivals, as well as a trend where some Fulanis are nostalgic for past Islamic empires, but the piece also shows that central Mali has witnessed a growth in (non-jihadist) “politico-military militia” and “self-defence groups.” The authors note, “These groups are sometimes difficult to distinguish from each other and their followers do not fit neatly into one sociological category.” The authors conclude, “The complexity of the recurrent and violent crises, as well as the overlapping and competing customary and legal institutions involved in the management of resources, calls for security and development activities to be better grounded on the socio-cultural context in Central Mali.” Endorsing a shallow, region-wide narrative of “Fulani radicalization” would undermine, rather than advance, such an effort to better ground security and development activities.

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.