On Gao, MUJWA, and the ICRC

On March 30, a driver for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) was fatally shot outside Gao, northern Mali. The attack was quickly claimed (French) by the Movement for Unity/Tawhid and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA, or MUJAO in French). MUJWA, an offshoot of al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb, was a key participant in the jihadist takeover of northern Mali in 2012-2013. MUJWA and other jihadists have continued to trouble Mali since the French-led military intervention swept the jihadists out of power – though not entirely out of Mali – in 2013. MUJWA was a dominant player in Gao during 2012-2013.

One immediate effect of the killing will be a partial withdrawal by the ICRC. In a statement, the ICRC expressed concern over “the rise in violence against humanitarian workers, which is preventing them from coming to the aid of individuals and communities in dire need.” The humanitarian group has now suspended travel (French) in the north. The chilling effect of violence on relief operations is bad news for Mali, particularly for the approximately 100,000 Malians who remain internally displaced.

The attack also calls attention to MUJWA’s complicated trajectory. Since 2013, some fighters from MUJWA have joined the al-Murabitun network, named for an eleventh-century northwest African Islamic empire (al-Murabitun recently claimed an attack on a nightclub in Mali’s capital Bamako). Others have joined the Arab Movement of the Azawad (French), one of the non-jihadist northern rebel movements opposed to the national government but participating in intermittent peace talks. As the former MUJWA fighter interviewed at the link explains, some northern Malian Arabs looked to MUJWA to protect them from the Tuareg rebel group the National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad, another key northern rebel faction but an enemy of the Arab Movement of the Azawad. The point is not only the astounding complexity of the landscape of armed groups in northern Mali (which there are many experts who can explain better than I can), but also the way in which so many of the major actors from 2012-2013 are still influential, albeit often in different ways and venues than before.

Mali: A Disconnect between Algiers Talks and Ground Realities [Updated]

Yesterday, as VOA wrote in its headline, “Mali Government Signs Peace Deal While Rebels Delay.” The deal was scheduled to be signed in Algiers, the capital of Mali’s neighbor Algeria, which has been hosting talks since last July. The talks aim to create peace in the aftermath of a 2012 rebellion in northern Mali led by segments of the Tuareg ethnic group. It is not just the Malian government and Tuareg rebels who have a stake in the outcome in Algiers, however; the rebel side as represented at the negotiating table comprises six factions, including a major Arab-led group. The complexity of the rebel side in Algiers reflects the even greater diversity of interests and factions back home.

The rebels’ delay in signing the deal reflects a disconnect between the talks and what is happening on the ground in northern Mali. Four dynamics reflect the ways in which influential constituencies at home are hostile to or ambivalent about a deal:

  1. Violence: January in particular saw a number of clashes, including between rebels and pro-government armed factions. Even amid talks in Algiers, factions on the ground are expressing different preferences.
  2. Protests against the deal: Saturday saw demonstrations in Ber and Kidal, the latter being the capital of the Kidal Region, the only Tuareg-majority region in Mali. Ber is in the Timbuktu Region, another key northern zone. Tuareg rebels exercise a large degree of de facto control in Kidal.
  3. Ambiguity from leaders about what they want: In recent weeks, Mohamed Ag Intalla, the recently enthroned hereditary ruler of a Tuareg clan confederation, has reportedly come down on both sides of the question of independence for Kidal. Ag Intalla reportedly told one meeting that “Kidal is no longer part of Mali” and told a press organization, “I am Malian. Kidal claims neither independence nor autonomy.” (More here). This ambiguity sends mixed signals to rebels on the ground and to participants in Algiers.
  4. The possibility of behind-the-scenes influence from jihadists: A coalition of jihadists seized much of northern Mali from the Tuareg rebels in mid-2012 and held it until the French military intervened in early 2013. Even though they lost territorial control, jihadists have continued to make their presence felt through guerrilla attacks, suicide bombings and, possibly, behind-the-scenes pressure. Jihadists include major Tuareg leaders such as Iyad Ag Ghali, whose “shadow…hangs over the negotiations in Algiers,” according to one outlet. Ag Ghali may have influence not only through intermediaries at the talks in Algiers, but also through his supporters on the ground in northern Mali. Some sources attribute Ag Intalla’s pro-separatist comments to pressure the ruler faces from Ag Ghali.

These dynamics not only make a deal more complicated to achieve, they also make it less likely that a deal will be respected and implemented in a way that promotes peace. If Ag Ghali’s shadow “hangs over” the talks, so too do the shadows of agreements from the past that were never fully implemented – a legacy that contributed the renewal of conflict in 2012.

Finally, here are two resources on the Algiers talks:

  • RFI (French) and AFP have summaries of the text of the peace deal.
  • Prime Minister Modibo Keita’s statement (French).

UPDATE: Commenter Andy Morgan makes some points that I’d like to highlight here:

I note that your source for Mohammed Ag Intallah’s statement that “Kidal is no longer part of Mali” and the claim that Iyad Ag Ghali’s presence and opinions hang heavy over Kidal and the new Amenokal is the staunchly pro-republican anti-rebel L’Independent newspaper. What they print may be true in this case, I don’t know, but it often hasn’t been so in the past. What’s needed now, and has been needed since the beginning, is some proper on the ground reporting from northern Mali, which gives the chance for the all the accessible protagonists to speak their mind in a formal interview situation and offer a detailed and dispassionate analysis of the nuances within Kel Adagh Touareg opinion, rather than trying to make it seem as every citizen of the Adagh is of one mind. For what it’s worth (which isn’t much I grant you), I found Mohammed Ag Intallah to be decidedly dove-ish and pro-Malian when I met him back in 2009. During our conversation he made no attempt to mince his criticism of Ibrahim Bahanga and his militiamen who were causing serious trouble up near Timyawin at the time. I also know quite a few staunch MNLA supporters who heartily hate Iyad Ag Ghali’s guts and who would turn blue at the thought that he and his ideas were still piloting the rebel cause.

Turning the Lights Back On

After an eighteen-month break, now seems like a good time to start blogging again. Nigeria’s elections (although postponed) are approaching, conflict in northern Mali is escalating, Burkina Faso is working through a transition, and the wider Sahel region is dealing with a number of interrelated crises.

To give a brief professional update, I spent the 2013-2014 academic year as an International Affairs Fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations. The program, which aims in part to give scholars a hands-on experience in government, placed me in the Department of State as a Desk Officer for Nigeria. After wrapping up the fellowship, I started at Georgetown University’s African Studies Program as a visiting assistant professor. I am teaching courses there on Islam and politics.

I have done some writing during my absence from the blog. I published two academic journal articles, one with African Affairs and another with the Journal of Religion in Africa. In fall 2014, I began writing monthly for the Global Observatory of the International Peace Institute, and I also resumed contributing periodical briefings to World Politics Review. I’ve been doing some writing about the upcoming elections in Nigeria (March 28 and April 11), and I’ll post those pieces separately. I have also completed a book manuscript on Salafism in Nigeria.

The purpose of this blog has not changed – I aim simply to provide informative commentary on current events in Nigeria and the Sahel, and to a lesser extent the Horn of Africa. I do not know that I’ll be able to maintain the pace I set before; my students and my academic research are and must be higher priorities than blogging. I may welcome a few guest bloggers from time to time in order to bring new perspectives.

What may change slightly in this new incarnation is my tone. I want to be more explicit about my values – my effort to write about people in the Sahel as real human beings, not just objects in geopolitical dramas; my distaste for analysts who write breathlessly and speculatively about Africa in order to put forth the most nightmarish picture of global terrorism possible; my opposition to targeted killings, to the West’s strategy of short-term airstrikes followed by long-term neglect (see: Libya), to the shoot-and-vote model, and to unimaginative “train-and-equip” efforts that just flood the world with more weapons; and my impatience with those who can only see Islam in Africa through the lens of “good Sufis” and “bad Salafis.”

The world has enough voices pushing simplistic narratives, quick fixes, and counterproductive violence – let this blog be an advocate for more constructive and promising paths toward peace.

Africa News Roundup: Mali, Algeria, Senegal, and More

Reuters: “Mali’s interim government has removed General Amadou Sanogo, who led a coup last year, as head of a military committee tasked with reforming the West African country’s armed forces, a government statement said.” For more on Sanogo’s promotion to general, see here.

On Friday, Mali’s President-elect Ibrahim Boubacar Keita visited Cote d’Ivoire (French).

Magharebia: “Algeria is offering pardons to thousands of armed extremists, provided their hands are unstained with citizens’ blood…Army units are distributing leaflets and flyers in Tlemcen, Sidi Bel Abbes and Ain Témouchent, urging extremists to lay down arms and benefit from the 2005 Charter for Peace and National ReconciliationEnnahar daily reported this week.”

Imams in Touba, Senegal (French) complain of a lack of water, electricity, and other amenities, and cast blame on political authorities.

Reuters: “Nigerians Seek Refuge in Niger.”

Moulid Hujale: “My Journey Back to Somalia.”

What else is happening?

Niger: Droughts, Floods, and Locusts

This year, as last year, a cruel cycle has taken shape in the Western Sahel: drought, floods, and locusts. This cycle affects Niger strongly, with rainy seasons bringing floods and pests after months of hunger. For overviews of the Sahelian food crisis, see here and here. In this post I look quickly at the problems of flooding and locusts.

As IRIN writes, “In 2012 Niger experienced the worst floods on record since 1929, with almost half a million people displaced and at least 68 deaths, affecting 70,000 households in total.” This year’s rainy season brought renewed flooding:

Severe flooding since the start of August in drought-prone Niger has killed at least 20 people and left around 48,000 homeless, the United Nations and local media reports said Wednesday.

The central Maradi region [map showing location of Maradi city] is the hardest-hit, with nine deaths and 19,425 people displaced.

Last year, heavy and premature rains contribute to a locust infestation in Mali and Niger.

Swarms of locusts encouraged by early rains are breeding in the north of Mali and Niger, bringing a second generation of insects that could increase 250 fold by the end of this summer and put the livelihoods of up to 50 million people in the region at risk.
The new generation is expected to spread from rebel-held northern regions of the two West African states, where pest control is difficult, to neighbouring countries.
The locusts migrated to Mali and Niger in June from Algeria and Libya, and rains that began in the region in May, almost two months earlier than usual, are helping spawn a fresh lot of desert locusts whose numbers are expected to significantly increase by October.

The United Nations now predicts that this year, too, will see a locust invasion. For a primer on locusts, see here.

As these problems recur on an annual basis, they became chronic if not permanent. And the untreated human toll from one year – the displaced, the hungry, the sick – exacerbates the toll from the next.

Guest Post: Some Observations on the Electoral Campaign in Mali

[I am delighted to share today’s guest post, which comes from Dr. Leonardo A. Villalón of the University of Florida. As his biography attests, he has been a leading expert on the Sahel for over twenty years. He has also been a generous mentor to other scholars, including me. He writes from Mali to share some impressions and findings regarding the upcoming elections. As always, readers’ comments and reactions are welcome. – Alex] 

The comments below were written on 20 July during a visit to Bamako in the midst of the presidential electoral campaign. The observations are impressionistic, based on conversations and interviews with a range of actors, but necessarily limited primarily to people from what is known locally as “la classe politique.” No doubt sentiments on the street and in the popular neighborhoods are somewhat different.

Bamako is plastered with campaign posters and billboards. Even the huge iconic hippopotamus statue at a major roundabout in the center of town is covered in posters for competing candidates. With 27 contenders—one dropped out a couple of days ago—in the first round of presidential elections scheduled for Sunday 28 July, the entire city seems to be caught up in the elections, on the surface at least.

As many analysts have reported, there is no shortage of reasons to worry about the process, and lots of well-founded trepidation about what could go wrong in the aftermath of these elections. But at the same time it is very clear that many Malians have a real sense of hope that the nightmare that began with the coup of 22 March 2012, and led to the occupation of the country’s northern half, first by Tuareg separatists from the National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad (MNLA) and then by the assorted jihadist groups who displaced them, just might be drawing to an end. The French intervention in January 2013, enthusiastically welcomed at the time, has lost much of its luster, particularly over France’s handling of the MNLA in the remote northern region of Kidal. But complaints are muted and there is still a general sense that the French intervention is what opened the door to a way out of what many describe as the “black hole” into which the country had fallen.

Most importantly, the intervention seems to have marginalized the military actors who led the coup. Following a ceremony last month to mark a “reconciliation” between two competing branches of the military, the coup leader, Amadou Haya Sanogo, formally asked the country’s forgiveness for what he had launched. His gesture is read cynically—and almost certainly correctly—as being motivated by fear of what might await him after the transition, given that he has clearly lost control or even any real influence.

The candidates include three former prime ministers, a number of other well-known figures from Malian politics, and some newcomers, including one woman. Many local analysts insist the election is wide open, but if any candidate seems to many to be the front-runner it is Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, known as IBK. His campaign plays on his image as a strong and decisive leader, forged in his time as prime minister in the 1990s, and portrays him as the one man capable of reestablishing order and authority. Many think it likely that he will be among the top two in the first round, who will then go to a runoff two weeks later, on 11 August. His weakness, however, is that his popularity is not matched by the degree of party organization demonstrated by some of the others.

It is still very much an open question as to which other candidates could make it to the runoff. Speculation turns around several, including Soumaïla Cissé (a former minister and president of the West African Economic and Monetary Union—UEMOA); Modibo Sidibé (a former prime minister), Dramane Dembélé (candidate of the one-time dominant ADEMA party), or perhaps Cheick Modibo Diarra (former head of Microsoft Africa, who served for a time as prime minister in the interim government). In any case, it seems unlikely that with such a large field anyone could win outright in the first round, and there thus seems certain to be an extremely intense period of political maneuvering and horse-trading to secure endorsements by the losing candidates in the two weeks between the first and second rounds. And if IBK is not in the top two, some worry about whether his followers—or even IBK himself—will accept the results.

The scheduled date for the elections has been controversial, and in the lead-up many suggested that the timing would be impossible. Indeed, the president of the Independent National Electoral Commission (CENI) announced shortly before the opening of the campaign that it would be extremely difficult to stick to the date. The International Crisis Group and other observers also called for a postponement. But the “international community”—code words for the French, with American backing, and UN blessing—made it clear that there would be no going back on the date.  The issue is now moot. As one African Union expert working with the CENI puts it: “We don’t talk about that anymore.” The campaign is on and elections will be held, and importantly it will be with seemingly very wide popular support. In conversations with Malians from the political class, people acknowledge the difficulties and imperfections in organization, but no one has doubts about the fact that they will happen on the scheduled date. The dominant sentiment is that there is an urgent need to move forward to get out of the current situation, that elections thus need to happen as soon as possible, and that any delay would only make matters worse. The withdrawal of one presidential candidate on 17 July, over what he claimed was inadequate preparation, certainly reflects some anxiety, but both the other candidates and the broader public have shrugged their shoulders, and gone on with the campaign.

There is strong sentiment among Malians that they are an occupied country. “We are under tutelage” (sous tutelle) says the president of the NGO Network to Support the Electoral Process in Mali (APEM); indeed he goes further, “we are once again colonized.” In addition to the UN patrols that occasionally circulate in the city, all the major hotels in the city are full to capacity with technical assistants and specialists of all sorts who have come to supervise and observe the transition. The large Nord-Sud hotel has been rented in its entirety for the next two years by the French military, which has taken over managing it. And the towering Hotel de l’Amitié has been completely booked by the United Nations. The hint of resentment among Malian actors about the large number of outside experts adds to the sense of urgency to carry out the elections, and to restore a constitutionally elected government.

The material preparation for the elections has also been a major source of concern. Indeed, in the buildup to the elections that were to have been held in 2012, before the coup intervened, the issue of the electoral lists and voter identification remained highly problematic and unresolved. With the goal of moving forward with elections now, an amendment to the electoral code on 21 May 2013 prescribed a revised system that has been widely accepted. Based on a general census of the population that had been carried out in 2009 for the purpose of establishing a biometric civil registry (including photos and fingerprints), national identity cards have been produced, and will serve as voting cards. This census was significantly better than any previous effort in Mali to identify voters.

One unsolvable problem is that, given the timing of the census, the list does not include people who turned 18—the legal voting age—this year. But no one seems particularly concerned about that fact. The resulting “Cartes NINA” (for Numéro d’Identité National) are being distributed across the country, and while there is variation in some regions, the general trend suggests very broad popular mobilization to collect the cards; in some areas the figure is already as high as 80%. In Bamako, kids circulate among the traffic selling plastic badge-holders like those used for nametags at conferences, which they hawk as “Carte NINA protectors.” Some people are wearing them. Voters will be allowed to retrieve their cards until the eve of election day. One lingering concern is that the cards do not indicate the actual voting place for each voter, but the electoral administration insists lists will be published in advance, and has additionally instituted innovative systems for find a polling site via free text messaging. There is good reason to think that we might actually witness the highest voting turnout in Mali’s history with this election. Historically turnout has been extremely low, even by regional standards.

The major source of concern which all acknowledge is what will happen in the remote northeastern region of Kidal, the MNLA stronghold and an area where the French presence has complicated the return of the state, and hence the organization of the elections. There are conflicting reports about the extent to which the logistics are in place for the elections to go forward. And there are many fears that there will be violent efforts to disrupt the process on election day. It is true, as people quickly point out, that Kidal represents a very small portion of the electorate, and it is in addition the region where turnout has always been the lowest. Whatever happens in the region on election day will thus not determine the outcome of the elections—results will be declared regardless of what happens in Kidal—but the perception of whether the region took part in the process will very much shape the enormity of the task facing the new president in trying to rebuild national unity. The political stakes in the region are thus very high, and there is a huge symbolic importance to whether the elections go smoothly there. That is very hard to predict. While TV coverage of the campaign in the past few days showed Tuareg youth greeting a candidate with cries of “Mali! Mali!”, violent clashes in Kidal between Tuareg and other residents allegedly left one person dead, and the situation is clearly tense. News sources on 20 July announced that five election workers had been detained in Tessalit, in the far north, in an apparent effort to disrupt the process.

The other major issue at stake in this election, and one that provokes unease and some evident discomfort among many, is the issue of religion. Mali is a deeply religious country, some 95% Muslim. Over the twenty years of Mali’s democratic experimentation the role of religion in the public sphere of an officially secular state had been a source of controversy and some tension. The massive mobilization of religious forces in opposition to a proposed family law in 2009, forcing the president to back down, was widely read as an indication of the rising power of religious actors. In this context the intrusion of religious actors into the electoral campaign has raised significant worries. While this is not really unprecedented, it certainly has never reached the scale it seems to have attained in this campaign.

At the same time, the religious sphere itself seems to be divided on both the extent and the role it should play in the process. A network of Muslim associations calling itself “SABATI 2012” [for more on SABATI 2012 see here – Alex] has organized to promote candidates reflecting Muslim values in the campaign, and has declared that it will make an official endorsement of a candidate. With the support of the president of the High Islamic Council of Mali, Mahmoud Dicko (often described as a “Wahhabi”) and his somewhat unlikely alliance with the Sufi shaykh of Nioro du Sahel, the group met recently to discuss an endorsement. It is widely understood that the preferred candidate of many in the Muslim religious community is IBK, but no official endorsement has yet been made. And the subsequent discussions of an endorsement in mosques produced tensions, and even some violence. There is no common Islamic front, therefore, and the religious figure in the country with the broadest popular following, Shaykh Cherif Ousmane Madani Haidara, has clearly indicated he will not endorse any candidate. Various candidates, nevertheless, have begun to make religious appeals in their campaign speeches. And Soumaïla Cissé’s campaign has put up a large billboard near the Islamic Cultural Center in Bamako announcing his support for promoting “Islamic finance.” Many factors will determine whether the electoral process will translate into greater religious influence in post-transition politics in Mali, but the door is certainly open to that possibility.

On Saturday 20 July 2013 the APEM Network held a press conference to present and discuss the report (French) of the “pre-electoral observation” mission they had carried out, in all regions of the country, from 1 June to 20 July. The report focused on five issues: 1. The elaboration of the electoral lists; 2. The distribution of the NINA cards; 3. The filing and validation of candidacies; 4. The conduct of the electoral campaign at mid-point; and, 5. The logistics of getting the electoral materials in place.  In each area the report discussed the state of affairs, and in each noted some number of problems or issues, mostly minor. The overall conclusion of the report is that the elections are on schedule to take place as planned, across the country. Imperfections are there, the APEM officers noted in their comments, but they are limited, and they are not such as to favor one candidate over another. The press conference ended with the projection of some photos of one persistent flaw APEM had noticed: Bamako is plastered with campaign posters, many of them placed illegally.

In the soul-searching mood that characterizes many discussions with Malian intellectuals about the country’s current state, one keen observer told me: “These elections are only a bandage on an open wound. They cannot themselves heal the problems in Mali, but they may at least allow some protection from further infections while the wound heals.” But the wound is deep, and it may take a long time and much more substantial remedies before it can really heal.

Africa News Roundup: Nigeria, Mali, South Sudan, Somalia, and More

Africa Review:

Senegal’s Attorney-General Serigne Bassirou Guèye has began a probe into one of the biggest drug scandals ever to rock the country’s police force.

As a first step, he ordered on Wednesday the arrest and detention of a Nigerian believed to be behind the whole scandal.

The issue came to a head after a top Senegalese police was accused of having connections with the detained Nigerian.

Reuters:

Malian troops deployed in the northern town of Kidal on Friday after attacks by light-skinned Tuareg separatists on black residents killed at least one, a week before elections meant to unify the fractured nation.

Nigeria reportedly plans to withdraw some 850 of its 1,200 soldiers from Mali following the elections there.

Garowe:

At least two persons including an African Union soldier (AMISOM) in the southern Somali port of Kismayo were killed in a roadside explosion Wednesday.

Human Rights Watch: “South Sudan: Army Making Ethnic Conflict Worse.”

Nigeria:

Nigerian governor Rotimi Amaechi and four of his northern counterparts have been pelted with stones by opponents in his home state.

Their convoy was attacked as it left the airport of Port Harcourt, the capital of his oil-rich Rivers state.

The northern governors [of Niger, Kano, Jigawa, and Adamawa] were visiting to show their support for Mr Amaechi.

He was suspended from the ruling party for what analysts see as his opposition to President Goodluck Jonathan.

What else is happening?