Details on Mali’s July 9 Constitutional Referendum

On July 9, Malians will vote “yes” or “no” on a referendum that would, if passed, modify the 1992 Constitution. The referendum would create a Senate, allow the President to appoint some “traditional leaders” to the Senate, and provide the president with additional authorities to implement the 2015 Algiers Accord that is meant to create a lasting peace in northern Mali. (More details on the referendum here, in French.) The referendum has been in the works for at least several months (French).

The formal campaign period begins June 23, but the informal campaign has already begun. The campaign and the composition of the “yes” and “no” sides could offer something of a preview of the 2018 presidential elections, when incumbent President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita will likely seek a second term.

In terms of the legal process, the referendum has already cleared two hurdles: it was approved by the required two-thirds majority in the National Assembly, and it has been cleared by the Constitutional Court (French, .pdf). Some Malian commentators (French) have disagreed with the Court, arguing that the referendum cannot legally be held because of constitutional requirements that Mali enjoy territorial integrity before it proceeds with such a vote. In the eyes of those commentators, what the Court calls “residual insecurity” in northern Mali (p. 3) is something much more serious, namely a state of affairs that will prevent many central and northern Malians from voting, and will prevent politicians from effectively campaigning. Personally, I don’t see how a representative referendum could be held under the present circumstances.

In terms of the politics of the referendum, important opposition figures declared at a June 8 press conference (French) that they will be campaigning for a “no” vote. The opposition objects to both the timing and the content of the referendum; in particular, they denounce the expansion of presidential powers that the constitutional changes would bring.

Political opposition to the referendum has been expressed not just in press conferences, but also in street demonstrations. According to one account (French), demonstrators at an attempted protest on Saturday were “roughed up” and “confined like sheep” by the security forces.

In sum, signs of opposition to the referendum are quite visible, but given the uncertainties of who will get to vote (geographically speaking) and the lack of opinion polls, it’s very unclear to me what the likely result is. I will say that historically speaking, incumbents often do have considerable influence over such referenda in West Africa and the Sahel.

As a final note, it’s interesting to put Mali in regional perspective when it comes to the question of creating a Senate. Leaders in several of Mali’s neighbors moved to abolish Senates in recent years: Senegal closed its Senate in 2012. Mauritania‘s president wants to scrap the Senate there, although the Senate rejected plans for its own demise and now the issue is set to be decided in a referendum (French) to be held July 15, just six days after Mali’s. In Burkina Faso, longtime ruler Blaise Compaore’s plans to recreate that country’s upper house were quashed (French) after a popular revolution overthrew him in 2014. Niger and Guinea lack Senates, and the recently created Senate in Cote d’Ivoire is something of an exception (French) to the continental rule. The last of Mali’s neighbors, Algeria, does have a Senate, so perhaps we’ll say that Mali is not a total outlier, but its government is in a minority of African governments that actively want to add a new chamber to their parliaments.

 

Iyad Ag Ghali’s Military Strategy in Mali

In April, I translated a few excerpts from an interview (.pdf, p. 4) given by Malian jihadist leader/politician Iyad Ag Ghali. In the earlier post I focused on the question of Ag Ghali’s religious views, to the extent that it is possible to assess them; here I translate another passage related to his military strategy for Mali, where the new jihadist formation he leads – Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wa-l-Muslimin (Group for Supporting Islam and Muslims, a part of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb or AQIM) – has committed numerous attacks in recent months. Even though the interview is now two months old, I believe it has enduring relevance and I hope to translate another section or two some time this summer.

Here is the passage on military strategy:

Interviewer: You are active in a major way in Mali – how do you assess the forces of the French enemy and his agents, and what is your general policy in military action?

 

Ag Ghali: Among the most important elements we should mention about our general military strategy are:

 

  • spreading over the largest geographical terrain possible;
  • seeking to exhaust the enemy by targeting him in every place in which he is present, and inciting the people in that [effort] and mobilizing them for it;
  • striving to earn popular support, strengthening relations with [the public] and defending it;
  • employing the principle of guerrilla warfare in military action while using the style of organized warfare sometimes, in other words a combination of showing up or hiding, according to the circumstances.

God the Blessed and Exalted has granted success and has blessed this policy, and we ask Him for more of His Grace. And it’s possible to say – and God knows best – that the military situation is semi-stable, although the French enemy and those with him are centered in the largest cities with some land and air movements and sweeps. [They are] trying to exploit information and recruit spies and agents.

Three things stand out to me: the emphasis on “exhaustion,” the mention of “popular support,” and the general tone of confidence. All three themes point to a willingness on Ag Ghali’s part, and AQIM’s, to settle in for a long fight in Mali – or rather, to continue the long fight they have already begun. Militarily, I’m not sure how it can be anything but a stalemate in the short term; I do not believe Ag Ghali and AQIM will be able to recapture northern cities, let alone control all of Mali, but I also do not believe that the French and their allies will be able to completely root out the jihadist forces.

 

On Mali’s Internal Debates About Negotiating with Jihadists

In early April, Mali’s Conference of National Understanding recommended that the government negotiate with the jihadists in the north, or at least with Malian nationals Iyad Ag Ghali and Amadou Kouffa. At the time, I wrote a bit about the idea here on the blog. Yesterday I did a follow-up of sorts for Global Observatory, looking at how Malian politicians and commentators are debating the proposal – and at how the debate has continued even after France and Malian President Keita expressed their opposition to the idea.

Mali: Iyad Ag Ghali’s Loose Relationship with Salafism

Call me crazy, but even though al-Qaida is supposedly the quintessential “Salafi-jihadi” group, I think that a lot of people in the al-Qaida fold, even fairly prominent leaders, don’t really care about Salafi theology. That is, they’re either unaware or uninterested in the kinds of purity tests that doctrinaire Salafis, and theologically-minded jihadis, put to other Muslims.

A good example of one al-Qaida leader’s disinterest in Salafism appears in an interview (Arabic, .pdf, p. 4) that Malian national Iyad Ag Ghali recently gave to an al-Qaida publication. Just last month, Ag Ghali publicly and formally became head of a new jihadist formation in the Sahara, Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wa-l-Muslimin (The Group for Supporting Islam and Muslims). The new group is formally part of al-Qaida and the al-Qaida affiliate al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). In the interview, Ag Ghali nonchalantly discusses two issues that would give doctrinaire Salafis considerable pause: his career as a nationalist rebel leader in the 1990s (which involved negotiations with the Malian government), and his long relationship with the global Muslim missionary organization Jama’at al-Tabligh.

Both issues arise in Ag Ghali’s answer to the interviewer’s request for his biography. Ag Ghali divides his life into stages, and among them is: “the stage of negotiations with the Bamako regime in 1991, which produced the first agreement with the Malian government.” Ag Ghali describes the agreement, and the resulting situation “between war and peace” in the 1990s, dispassionately. He voices no regret over what many theologically-minded jihadis would view as a real problem: his willingness to enter into agreements with various regimes that hardline jihadis would consider infidels, and his prioritization of a nationalist struggle over a religious one at that time. It is true that al-Qaida has repeatedly considered and perhaps pursued agreements or truces with different governments, including possibly those in Mauritania and Yemen, but Ag Ghali doesn’t even attempt to frame his past behavior as something that advanced the cause of jihad. There is no indication that he repents for his nationalist past. His attitude is in real tension with the frequently invoked jihadi doctrine of al-wala’ wa-l-bara’, or exclusive loyalty toward Muslims and complete disavowal of those considered non-Muslims.

The second issue is one he describes enthusiastically. Speaking of the period in his life from 1998-2011, he says,

God inspired us – to Him be praise and thanks – to join the Society for Preaching and Spreading the Message [Jama’at al-Da’wa wa-l-Tabligh]. This was a beneficial phase in which God Most High facilitated [my] completion of the memorization of the Holy Qur’an, and [my] visits to God’s Muslims and [my] acquaintance with many of them in many places, such as [Saud Arabia], the Gulf, Mauritania, India, Pakistan, Nigeria, Niger, Togo, and Benin. [I] even [visited] Muslim communities in the West, in France and other countries.

Now, Jama’at al-Tabligh has been roundly condemned by the senior Salafi scholars of the twentieth century. Such scholars viewed Tabligh as a group that did a little bit of good, by urging people to be more pious, but that did a lot of harm, due to its Sufi roots (most Salafis abhor Sufism). The Salafi scholars also felt that Tabligh’s rather generic preaching was a distraction from what Salafis consider the core issue, namely instilling an understanding of Salafi theology and doctrine in lay Muslims. Those Salafi scholars are not respected by al-Qaida when it comes to politics, but the theological concerns they raised about Sufism and Salafism are theoretically still relevant to al-Qaida.

Al-Qaida’s attitude toward Tabligh may be quietly flexible. There have been long-standing accusations that al-Qaida has used Tabligh for recruits and for forms of cover. My admittedly limited understanding of these issues is that Tabligh itself is not usually understood as culpable in such interactions; rather, al-Qaida may have taken advantage of Tabligh’s sprawling membership to pursue its own activities.

But that is a far cry from speaking fondly of one’s membership in Tabligh. Ag Ghali describes an overlapping period in his life – 2003-2009 – as “the stage of getting to know the mujahideen,” suggesting he saw no contradiction between membership in Tabligh and his emerging jihadi identity. And again, he voices no regret over his time with Tabligh – he says nothing like, “And then I saw that they were Sufi heretics and I repented.”

A lot has been made of Ag Ghali’s “chameleon-like” identity, and sometimes I think that’s overblown, but this interview definitely furnishes another piece of evidence for that view of him. In fact, the sense I got from the interview was: “This is a true politician.” The interviewer is often critical (perhaps to help Ag Ghali anticipate and deflect others’ criticisms of him), and at each juncture Ag Ghali responds like a politician, sometimes with quite vague answers. As a politician, Ag Ghali has committed to jihadism, but it is far from clear that he has committed to Salafism. (All of this, by the way, recalls Thomas Hegghammer’s argument that “Salafi-jihadi” is a deeply problematic category because of the difficulty assessing people’s theological commitments. Hegghammer recommends classifying people by how they actually behave. In the case of Ag Ghali his argument definitely applies.)

This discussion takes us back to yesterday’s post. Could the Malian government fruitfully engage Ag Ghali in negotiations? I’m still not sure, although I reiterate that I think it’s worth a try. His flexibility could be taken as either a hopeful or a doubtful sign – on the one hand, there is hope that one could find points of discussion with someone who’s ideologically flexible, but on the other hand, someone so flexible might make a very unreliable negotiating partner.

Mali: Talking to Jihadists?

Mali’s Conference of National Understanding ran from March 27 to April 2. One of the major recommendations by participants was for the Malian government to open negotiations with two jihadist leaders and their factions: Iyad Ag Ghali and his Ansar al-Din, and Amadou Kouffa and his Macina Liberation Front. Both Ag Ghali and Kouffa are Malian nationals. See a bit more on that recommendation, and others, here (French).

The recommendation is worth a try. The past two years have seen the slow and painful implementation of the 2015 Algiers Accord, which is meant to bring peace to Mali after its 2012-2013 civil war. As various provisions of the accord are finally implemented, jihadists have repeatedly acted as spoilers. Ag Ghali has strong connections among the Tuareg elite in northern Mali, connections (paywalled) that go beyond jihadist circles and extend into other armed groups that are, and must be, major players in any durable peace. During the negotiations that led to the 2015 accord, informed observers in Mali and France strongly suspected that Ag Ghali was, through intermediaries, casting his “shadow” (French) over the process. If the recent past is any indication, a peace process that makes no room for Ag Ghali is one that will be disrupted, perhaps fatally, by regular jihadist attacks. That’s not to say that the Malian government could magically find common ground with Ag Ghali, but it is to say that opening a channel of dialogue could bear fruit. Dialogue with Ag Ghali might also create more space for dialogue with Kouffa, to whom Ag Ghali is close.

Both Ag Ghali and Kouffa, however, are also key figures in the new Saharan jihadist “super-group” Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wa-l-Muslimin (Group for Supporting Islam and Muslims), whose creation was announced in March. Ag Ghali, in fact, is the group’s leader, and the group is formally a part of al-Qaida. The United States government made Ag Ghali a Specially Designated Global Terrorist in 2013. From Washington’s perspective, there might be insurmountable legal and political obstacles to including Ag Ghali in any negotiations, or to giving him the kind of immunity that he is rumored to want. Indeed, perhaps Ag Ghali’s choice to formalize his role in al-Qaida represents his abandonment of that desire for immunity.

It’s worth noting the gap between American and Malian views on the question of talking to jihadists. The conference attendees presumably do not see the new “super group” as so solid or scary a structure that Ag Ghali might not be induced to leave it or dismantle it.

 

Where does all this leave the Malian government? One option, of course, would be for them to quietly open a channel to Ag Ghali and Kouffa, using intermediaries from among the non-jihadist rebels. Perhaps such a channel already exists. If so, that leads to questions about what concrete next steps the conference attendees envision. Would an indirect channel be used to open a direct one? Would that lead to a formal meeting? Formal discussions about a peace-for-immunity deal? If so, how would Washington and Paris react? The government of Mali, in other words, has some tough choices to make and various unknowns to think through.

Mali’s Conference of National Understanding

This week, Mali is holding its “Conférence d’Entente Nationale,” which might be translated as “Conference of National Understanding” or “Conference of National Harmony.” It began on March 27 in the capital Bamako. The conference is meant to fulfill one condition of the 2015 Algiers Accord (French, .pdf, p. 4), the agreement that is supposed to bring peace between the government of Mali and various non-jihadist armed groups in the northern part of that country. The conference is meant to “allow a thorough debate between the elements of the Malian nation regarding the underlying causes of the conflict.”

Like other provisions of the accord, such as joint patrols in northern cities and the installation of interim authorities there, the conference is being held long after the architects of the accord intended. Nevertheless, some experts see the problem as haste rather than delay. In a piece (French) well worth reading, Kamissa Camara and Mahamadou Konaté argue that the conference is unlikely to succeed in its aims, and that the conference isn’t taken seriously by many political actors in Mali, making it likely that the debates there will be superficial. Further skepticism about the conference can be found here (French).

Like other provisions of the 2015 accord, the conference has faced political questions about its representativeness and fairness. Notably, the past few days have seen first a boycott, and then the renewed participation (Arabic), of the Coordination of Azawad Movements (CMA), the most prominent body representing former non-jihadist rebels in the north. The CMA wanted a longer conference, so as to allow for more discussion, and Malian government representatives reportedly secured the CMA’s participation by agreeing (French) to extend the “first round” of discussions to April 2.

In terms of themes emerging from the discussions at the conference, one central argument (French) many participants are making is the need for reconciliation between the CMA and the “Platform,” a cluster of pro-government militias in the north. There have been numerous attempts at ceasefires and agreements between the two sides before, but that doesn’t mean conference attendees are wrong when they point to the necessity for intra-north understanding as a precondition to national understanding, security, and peace.

 

State(s) of Emergency in Niger

On March 3, Niger’s government declared a state of emergency (French) in two of its seven regions while maintaining a state of emergency in a third.

The new state of emergency affects Tillabéri and Tahoua, two western regions on the border with Mali. Specifically, the state of emergency includes the departments of Ouallam, Ayorou, Bankilaré, Abala et Banibongou in Tillabéri and the departments of Tassara et Tillia in Tahoua. The declaration responds to recent attacks, including one in October that I covered here on the blog, as well as the recent killing of sixteen soldiers in an attack on a military patrol in Ouallam (French) and the recent killing of five gendarmes in Bankilaré. That last incident occurred after the state of emergency was declared.

The Nigerien government also maintained the state of emergency in Diffa, in the far southeastern part of the country near the borders with Nigeria and Chad. The government explained that “despite the relative respite observed in the Diffa region,” it wanted to keep exceptional security measures in place. Diffa has been the site of numerous attacks by the Boko Haram sect since 2015. The state of emergency in Diffa dates to February 2015.

As the cliché goes, Niger is in a “bad neighborhood” and its border zones are vulnerable to multiple sources of violence, whether emanating from Nigeria, Mali, or Libya. The northern Agadez region is not under a state of emergency, but the region (and the city of Agadez) face their own problems amid a new anti-smuggling crackdown. Going forward, then, there will be questions about what the states of emergency allow the Nigerien government to achieve in terms of security, or whether further security challenges are coming.