On Seku Amadu and the Movement for the Liberation of Masina

On May 3, a group called the Movement for the Liberation of Masina partially destroyed the tomb of Seku Amadu in Hamdallahi, Mali (Hamdallahi is some 37km south of Mopti). The attack came just days before the scheduled ceremonial visitation by the shaykh’s admirers (May 9).

Since 2012, a number of such mausolea have been destroyed in Mali, especially in the context of jihadist rule in northern regions in 2012-2013. Regarding motive, the short answer for why jihadists destroy tombs would be that the jihadists see the tombs as manifestations of polytheism – not as respect for a major Muslim leader or a particularly pious saint, but as dangerous symbols of devotion toward a figure other than God. Another answer might be that destroying tombs is a way to physically and symbolically reshape the political and religious landscape, to project power.

This incident in particular struck me, though, because of the clash it represents between pre-colonial and post-colonial models of jihad in West Africa. Seku Amadu (ca. 1776-1845) was not just known for his piety or scholarship: he was one of the Muslim scholars who led jihads in nineteenth-century West Africa. Around 1818, he built an empire called Masina (or Macina) in present-day Mali, with Hamdallahi as its capital. He originally fought in the name of Shaykh ‘Uthman dan Fodio (1754-1817), founder of the more famous Sokoto Caliphate located in present-day northern Nigeria and its environs, but Seku Amadu subsequently acted in his own name. Masina fell in 1862 to the armies of another pre-colonial jihad leader, Al-Hajj ‘Umar Tall (ca. 1794-1864).

There are a few things to note about the pre-colonial jihads and how they differ from the kinds of jihads we see now. First, the theological orientation and worldview of these pre-colonial leaders was heavily shaped by Sufism, by the Maliki legal school of Sunni Islam, and by the classical model of Islamic knowledge in northwest Africa – in other words, by all the institutions that today’s jihadists reject. Dan Fodio was a Sufi of the Qadiriyya order, and Seku Amadu had close ties to the Qadiriyya as well; Tall was a Sufi of the Tijaniyya order. Second, the pre-colonial jihad leaders often had considerable learning and scholarly achievements under their belts before they turned to jihad – unlike today’s jihadists, who often lack any significant training in Islamic scholarship. The list might go on, but the point is that the theological and intellectual make-up of today’s jihadists is so different from that of the pre-colonial jihad leaders that the pre-colonial leaders would likely feel almost nothing in common with today’s jihadists.

This stark difference is worth bearing in mind when we assess how today’s jihadists talk about the pre-colonial jihads, or about pre-colonial Muslim polities more generally. For example, when it comes to northern Nigeria, I read a lot of analyses now about how Boko Haram is trying to “resurrect” the Sokoto Caliphate or the Empire of Kanem-Bornu (a polity in the Lake Chad region that was Islamized starting in the eleventh century, and successfully resisted incorporation into Sokoto). Maybe it’s true that Boko Haram seeks to do so, although I am skeptical. But in any case, Boko Haram’s understanding of Sokoto or Kanem-Bornu has been fed through some heavy filters and a good bit of selective re-imagination. Boko Haram didn’t start that process of re-imagination – for forty years and more, Salafis have worked to portray dan Fodio as (strictly) an activist who fought heresy, and to sand away his Sufism and Malikism – but they have taken the process several steps further. In any case, amid this misleading rhetoric, the outsider needs to keep in mind how someone like dan Fodio or Seku Amadu understood himself.

This is critical as one assesses the Movement for the Liberation of Masina, which has reportedly committed multiple acts of violence in central Mali, in a worrying trend that extends northern Mali’s conflict into new areas. If the reports are accurate, then the Movement features many of the same characters who played a role in the jihadist takeover of northern Mali in 2012-2013: a preacher named Hamadoun Kouffa (possibly dead) formerly associated with the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa or MUJWA; and possibly even Iyad ag Ghali, leader of Ansar al-Din.

Some have read the Movement for the Liberation of Masina as an ethnic movement – specifically Fulani/Peul, and indeed Seku Amadu himself was Fulani. Yet the goals of the Movement seem to be ideological. In the Malian press, we read that the Movement hopes to “restore” the Empire of Masina. When the Movement attacked Tenenkou, Mopti Region in January, they reportedly used similar language, including about bringing back the “old order.” But it is apparent that what they are “restoring” would bear little resemblance to what Seku Amadu built. They, of course, would likely see no irony in their destruction of Seku Amadu’s tomb – they would say that he himself would not have tolerated tombs or visitations to them. But what I see is the contrast between the Sufi-infused, intellectually sophisticated jihads of the nineteenth century, and the anti-Sufi, crudely ideological jihads of the present.


Partial List of Recent Attacks in Mali

The past few weeks have seen a number of attacks in Mali, especially in the north. This post provides some brief information on some of these attacks. Key parties include the Malian military, the United Nations peacekeeping mission, the Tuareg rebel alliance the Coordination of Movements of the Azawad (CMA, which include the National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad, or MNLA), the pro-government militia Self-Defense Group of Imghad Tuareg and Allies (GATIA in French), and the pro-government wing of the Arab Movement of the Azawad (MAA in French). The Malian government and the CMA are being pressured to sign a peace agreement in Algiers on May 2015, but the CMA has been delaying and asking for additional provisions relating to Tuareg self-rule in the north, and the UN is starting to seem openly nervous about the prospects for a signature – let alone implementation.

  • May 1: CMA fighters kill one person (apparently a civilian) and take six others hostage in Bintagoungou.
  • April 29: Rebels (apparently CMA) kill nine Malian soldiers, wound six others, and take six more hostage in a fight in Léré.
  • April 29: Unknown gunmen, possibly CMA, kill three (two soldiers and one civilian) in Goundam.
  • April 28: CMA fighters shoot at UN peacekeepers in Timbuktu.
  • April 27: Pro-government GATIA and MAA fighters take Menaka from the CMA.
  • April 20: Unknown gunmen kill a UN driver/peacekeeper in an ambush 30 kilometers west of GAO.
  • April 17: Unknown gunmen kill two civilian drivers during an ambush on a UN convoy outside of Gao.
  • April 15: Suicide bombing by al-Murabitun at a UN base in Ansongo.

Mali: On the CMA’s Refusal to Sign the Algiers Accord

In Algeria, the Malian government and various factions connected to the 2012-2013 rebellion have been negotiating a peace agreement. Today, the northern Malian Tuareg rebel alliance known as the Coordination for the Movements of Azawad (CMA) reiterated its refusal to sign the current version of the agreement. The agreement is due to be “rubber stamped” on May 15 and the United Nations has pressured the CMA to sign.

The CMA’s statement can be found in French here. The statement reaffirmed a commitment to upholding a May 2014 ceasefire, but did not provide much new information about the CMA’s refusal to sign. For more context, see the statements of April 10 and March 16. The latter statement invokes the attitudes of the CMA’s constituents back home and suggests that the accord represents “a good basis for [further] work” but does not “take into account the essential elements of the legitimate aspirations of the people of the Azawad [northern Mali].” Given the difficulty of reconciling the international pressures manifested in Algiers and the domestic pressures found back home, the CMA is in a difficult position. This dynamic helps explain their repeated requests for more time.

What specific provisions does the CMA want added to the accord? One Malian press story says that the demands include “the ‘official recognition of the Azawad as a geographic, political, and legal entity,’ the creation of an inter-regional assembly covering this zone, and a quota of ‘80% Azawad residents’ in the security forces.” I can’t say whether that’s an accurate representation of the CMA’s asks, but it gives some sense of the concrete and symbolic issues at stake in the negotiations.

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?