Op-Ed on Dialoguing with Jihadists – at The New Humanitarian

The New Humanitarian asked me to distill some of my findings from my recent article on jihadist dialogues, the “local turn” in peacebuilding, and the possible ill fit between what local voices want and what international peacebuilders want. The op-ed is here. An excerpt:

This could be the kind of bargain that might ultimately attract jihadists: Amnesty, and Islamisation that goes beyond dropping formal references to French-style secularism (laïcité) from the Malian constitution.

However, what would this then mean for the status of Malian women, for access to education, for the country’s Christians and other non-Muslims, for Muslims who did not accept a “jihadist-lite” kind of rule, for Mali’s traditions of free assembly, music, art, and literature?

Though some Malian elites and citizens appear open to settlements with jihadists, it is difficult to tell what would be acceptable to the wider public, where questions of secularism, law, justice, and Islam are far from settled.

Changing Post-Coup/Transition Norms in West Africa?

I think I’ve made this point elsewhere (can’t remember where), but yesterday’s roundup on Burkina Faso reminded me of it, in the context of discussing the visit by an Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) delegation to Ouagadougou. The point is this: ECOWAS seems now to be comfortable with (or reluctantly acquiescing to) two-year transitions, which differ from the previous expectation in two ways – the length (eighteen months) and the precision (“two years” can date from a more or less arbitrary point that is not necessarily when a given junta took power).

The coups in Mali (August 2020, May 2021), Guinea (September 2021), and Burkina Faso (January 2022) all upended business as usual in West Africa and confronted France, ECOWAS, the United States and other external actors with a major dilemma – how much pressure to apply to coup-makers, and to what end? The “gold standard” for an orderly post-coup transition, in the West African regional context, appears to be the fourteen-month transition in Niger in 2010-2011, and ECOWAS (with French backing) sought to enforce a standard of eighteen months. But intransigence from Mali in particular forced ECOWAS into negotiating. Sometimes ECOWAS negotiated in a tough way, as when ECOWAS imposed sweeping sanctions on Mali from January-July 2022 in response to the junta’s proposal for a transition that could have lasted through 2026. Yet even at its toughest-minded, ECOWAS was always negotiating at a disadvantage – ECOWAS is not, I think, going to physically force any junta from power, and I think the juntas all know that. So the end result – and here the juntas watch each other, clearly – is an adjusting of the norms in the ways I described above. Mali’s junta ended up getting sanctions lifted by offering a “two-year” transition plan (but dating from March 2022, meaning that March 2024 will in fact mark three and a half years since the junta took power) and Burkina Faso’s junta now appears to be on the same page as ECOWAS about a “two-year” transition plan (dating from July 2022, giving that junta as much as thirty months in power – not a far cry from what it demanded originally).

(ECOWAS’ mediation/negotiation efforts with Guinea – the new mediator [French] is former Beninese President Boni Yayi – are still ongoing.)

If one thinks that Mali, Guinea, and Burkina Faso are part of an “epidemic” of West African (or African) coups and if one expects that “epidemic” to claim further victims – I’m ambivalent on both questions – then the next question is what expectations the Malian and Burkinabè experiences set up for potential coup-makers elsewhere in the region. Again, I’m not necessarily expecting any more coups in the short term, but any aspiring West African coup-makers now know that they can likely expect at least thirty months in power. Depending on how one reads their motivations – and especially if one is ultra-cynical and sees coup-makers as primarily there for their own enrichment and empowerment – then the incentives are clear. That ultra-cynical view is a bit too strong for me; I think it’s hard to get in the mind of Assimi Goïta (Mali) or Paul-Henri Damiba (Burkina Faso) and separate what may be, on the one hand, their legitimate frustrations over insecurity, civilian corruption and fecklessness, and pressures from below from their own soldiers versus, on the other hand, more self-serving motivations. But even if one sees these officers as heroes (I don’t), the coup/transition combo itself becomes something different depending on the length of time it lasts. Fourteen months, eighteen months…that’s hitting a reset button on the country’s politics, for better or worse. Thirty months, forty-two months…that’s a full-blown military regime. The pendulum has not, I think, swung back to where it was in the 1980s (Mauritania 1984, Burkina Faso 1987, Chad 1990) or earlier, when a coup-maker could expect to come into power and stay there practically indefinitely, perhaps with the occasional rigged election or cabinet reshuffle to placate various foreign and domestic stakeholders. But the pendulum has certainly swung a bit in that direction versus where it was a decade ago, when coup-makers had a lot more trouble making their rule stick – including in Mali (2012) and Guinea (2008).

Three Items on Mauritania

  1. Jeune Afrique has a good article (July 15, French) on Mauritanian policy towards Mali – and why Mauritania has opted to keep the relationship functional and functioning despite many, many problems next door, including the deaths of Mauritanian citizens in Mali. One Mauritanian minister, quoted anonymously, sums it up, referring specifically to the decision to keep export corridors open during the period Mali was under sweeping sanctions: “We would derive no benefit from the collapse of our neighbor. Starving the populations was totally out of the question.”
  2. Mauritania’s ruling party was renamed and rebranded earlier this month, changing its name from the Union for the Republic (French acronym UPR) to al-Insaf, Arabic for “equity” (the translation that French-language Mauritanian media outlets are using) or perhaps “even-handedness.” (The root n-s-f has to do with halving and sharing, as in nisf, “half.”) The party also has a new president, Mohamed Melaïnine Ould Eyih, who is also minister of national education – you can read a short biography of him here (French). There is a long backstory involving the party and a power struggle between former President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, the party’s founder, and current President Mohamed Ould Ghazouani – who appears to be in firm control of the current iteration of the party.
  3. In the course of one of my research projects I finally tracked down the text of a 2015 fatwa (Arabic) by a Mauritanian cleric, Shaykh Ahmad Jiddu Wuld Ahmad Bahi, giving a blanket condemnation of present-day slavery. The lines of argument will likely be familiar to anyone who has looked in depth at the “Islam and slavery” debate (if you haven’t, you might start here), but to simplify greatly, the fatwa says that early Islam acknowledged the reality of slavery but worked to improve slaves’ conditions and end the practice, and that public interest, as well as what he views as legal consensus among states (Muslim and non-Muslim) against slavery, should compel present-day Muslim societies to completely eradicate slavery. There’s a lot more to the fatwa than that, of course, but those are a few of the key points. You can also watch a rich discussion between the shaykh and a Mauritanian journalist here (Arabic).

Some Thoughts on Blasphemy and Anti-Blasphemy Violence – for Foreign Exchanges

At Derek Davison’s Foreign Exchanges, I wrote last week about “the politics of blasphemy” (that’s also the title of the piece. I found the topic extremely hard to write about with the delicacy it merits, given that I neither want to excuse violence against innocents nor do I want to play into Islamophobia. The piece takes recent violence in Nigeria as a point of departure but also touches on incidents from Mauritania, Sudan, and elsewhere.

The G5 Sahel Joint Force – More Important Politically Than Militarily

The junta in Mali, determined to antagonize France on every possible diplomatic front, is threatening to withdraw from the G5 Sahel, a regional organization created in 2014 by Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, and Chad. Mali’s withdrawal would in turn affect the viability of the G5 Sahel Joint Force (French acronym FC-G5S). The Joint Force is a five-nation enterprise set up in 2017 with French backing. It draws troops from the G5 Sahel countries and had an initial target of 5,000 troops. Niger’s President Mohamed Bazoum has said the Malian withdrawal leaves the organization “dead.”

The FC-G5S is, as this post’s title indicates, more important in my view as a political symbol than as a military reality. So-called “regional forces” are appealing to Western powers for various reasons, especially when those forces offer the promise that “African solutions to African problems” (a phrase that Western policymakers deploy selectively and, in my view, sometimes disingenuously) will either allow Western forces an exit strategy, or obviate the need for large Western military deployments in the first place. Some regional forces “work,” at least in the limited sense of partly beating back insurgencies and preserving some gains afterwards; the most successful in this sense is the African Union Mission in Somalia. Other regional forces may have some impact but their presence arguably muddies the waters, even distracting attention away from the propensity of member states to act unilaterally or on ad hoc basis – witness the widely hailed Multi-National Joint Task Force (MNJTF) in the Lake Chad Basin, but also witness the tendency of Nigeria, Chad, and other MNJTF contributors to do their own thing when the chips are down. The G5 Sahel Joint Force never even achieved the kind of aura the MNJTF developed – chased out of its own headquarters in 2018, the FC-G5S has no major military accomplishments to its credit.

Mali’s withdrawal or potential withdrawal (apparently this is a legal grey area) is a rebuke to France and Niger in particular. Mali’s junta, which has been cultivating near-pariah status in West Africa and with Western powers, was denied the rotating presidency of the G5 Sahel in February; the presidency has remained with Chad’s President Mahamat Deby, who came to power in a coup that was much more palatable to Paris and Washington than the coups (two) that Mali’s junta perpetrated. Chadian-Malian relations are not so bad currently and Deby is urging Mali to stay in the G5 Sahel, but Malian-Nigerien relations are not so great, especially given successive Nigerien presidents’ critiques of the Malian junta. Niger and France are also drawing even closer together as France reacts to its frayed relations with the colonels in Bamako.

The collapse of the G5 Sahel would remove yet another piece of the largely Western-designed framework – unsuccessful, it should be noted – aimed at guiding Mali and the Sahel back to security and stability. Again, I think the G5 Sahel Joint Force was never going to achieve what its backers hoped. I think it would have been better if the FC-G5S could have been more thoughtfully dismantled and debated, but one could be harsh and say that the “death” of the G5 Sahel could productively force a reconsideration of the underlying policy assumptions (fantasies??) about how this all ends – including the recurring hope that the solution is something like an African Union force (a re-hatted G5 Sahel?) with a United Nations Chapter VII (enforcement) mandate and dedicated funding. Here I would note that even that plan is not really fleshed out from what I have seen – is the idea that security will be restored through an open-ended deployment of African forces, all while the region’s politics get worse and worse?

To sum up, then:

  • Mali’s junta is reckless and is spending more time antagonizing France than improving anything in Mali
  • Some of the things the Malian junta is taking aim at weren’t doing much good anyways
  • Western powers don’t have a real plan

Comparing the Prime Ministers of the Sahel

Who are the current prime ministers of the five core Sahelian countries, and what do their careers and approaches tell us about Sahelian politics? A few basic patterns emerge. In education, a combination of domestic government schoolings, STEM specializations, and some overseas training helped to fast-track their careers. In the first phases of their careers, employment within the civil service and particularly within state-owned enterprises was the means of ascent; often simultaneously, these men (they’re all men) either built parallel political careers within political parties, or at least (from within the civil service) weathered major shakeups in the political scene around them. The pivotal decade, in all cases, appears to have been the 1990s – in their 30s and 40s, they solidified positions as insiders that they have maintained ever since.

In the current political environment, the default model is that of a military head of state with a career politician or civil servant as prime minister; Niger is the only fully civilian-civilian lineup, in the sense that the head of state there is neither a current nor retired soldier. Two additional takeaways: (1) military heads of state have deep benches of technocrats and career civilian politicians to draw on when forming governments, even in some of the world’s poorest countries; (2) military heads of state in the region prefer civilian to military prime ministers, even if soldiers sometimes take up other key ministries in governments; and (3) in some cases, there are political rewards for the ability to strategically tack back and forth between the ruling party and the opposition, just as there are rewards for repeatedly seeking the presidency even if one doesn’t win it. None of those patterns are particularly unique to the Sahel, of course. One other interesting detail is that all three of the prime ministers in the core conflict zone of the Sahel – Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso – hail from the conflict zones themselves. Such origins, however, don’t necessarily give these men any particular advantage in attempting to manage or resolve those conflicts.

Here are the biographical sketches:

Mauritania – Mohamed Ould Bilal Messoud (b. 1963, Rosso): Ould Bilal Messoud is a technocrat and engineer with a background in hydraulics and business administration; parts of his education were in Algeria, Senegal, and possibly Europe. Since 1991, he has risen through the ranks of the state bureaucracy. Political turbulence in Mauritania between 2005 and 2009 clearly did not hurt his career, which continued to advance after the coup of 2005 against longtime ruler Maaouya Sid’Ahmed Ould Taya; he then moved into his first ministerial position (as Minister of Facilities, Urban Planning, and Housing) under the short-lived civilian administration of Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdallahi; he then headed up several state-run enterprises after the coup of 2008 and the coming to power of Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz (military head of state 2008-2009, civilian head of state 2009-2019). In 2020, Ould Bilal Messoud became prime minister after allegations of corruption brought down his predecessor, Ismail Bedde Ould Cheikh Sidiyya. From what I observe, Ould Bilal Messoud does not have a particularly big profile, perhaps by choice.

Mali – Choguel Kokalla Maïga (b. 1958, Tabango): Maïga is another engineer, in this case with a specialty in telecommunications; he graduated with a doctorate from the Moscow Telecommunications Institute in 1987/1988. Politically active as a supporter of Mali’s then-military ruler Moussa Traoré, Maïga built a career from 1990-2002 at the Mali Telecommunications Firm (Société des Télécommunications du Mali), rising through the ranks there even as Traoré fell in 1991. Meanwhile, Maïga became the leader of the Patriotic Movement for Renewal (MPR), a successor party to Traoré’s party the Democratic Union of the Malian People; under the MPR banner, Maïga ran for president in the open elections of 2002, placing seventh with under 3% of the vote. He again placed seventh in the open elections of 2013 and then scored eighth in the 2018 elections, each time receiving a slightly lower percentage of the vote. Maïga was appointed transitional prime minister by Mali’s current junta in June 2021, after the junta perpetrated its second coup (the first was in August 2020, the second was in May 2021).

Burkina Faso – Albert Ouedraogo (b. 1969, Dori): Ouedraogo has a background in management sciences, having received a doctorate in that subject in 1999 from Caen-Normandy University in France. From 1996-2002, he taught at the University of Ouagadougou, and then fashioned a long and apparently extremely successful career in the private sector (including at Deloitte) and then as a government consultant on a wide array of technical projects. His previous overt political experience was limited to some student activism, but when the Burkinabè junta (came to power January 2022) was seeking a transitional prime minister, Ouedraogo may have appealed to military ruler Paul-Henri Damiba not just because of Ouedraogo’s technocratic credentials, but also because he is close to Damiba’s uncle Pierre Claver Damiba, the first president of the West African Development Bank.

Niger – Ouhoumoudou Mahamadou (b. 1954, Amaloul Nomade): Mahamadou has a background in economics and public administration, having studied in Togo, France, and the United States. A career civil servant from 1979 to 1991, he was also a founding member of the Nigerien Party of Democracy and Socialism (PNDS) in 1990; the PNDS is the party of Niger’s immediate past President Mahamadou Issoufou and the current President Mohamed Bazoum. During the 1990s and 2000s, Ouhoumoudou Mahamadou was in and out of the Nigerien government while also taking up major posts at the regional and international levels. He served twice as minister (Mines, Energy, Industry, and Crafts from 1991-1993, and Finance from 2011-2012), once as chief of staff (to Issoufou, 2015-2020), was elected twice as deputy from his home Tahoua Region (2011 and 2020), with stints at the Economic Community of West African States, the African Development Foundation, and other such organizations along the way. He was appointed in 2021 as Bazoum’s first prime minister, replacing Issoufou’s longtime prime minister, Brigi Raffini.

Chad – Albert Pahimi Padacké (b. 1966, Gouin; more biographical details here): At least in my research so far, I have not found details of Padacké’s biography between his birth and 1990, when he entered government. Since 1990, under the rule of Presidents Idriss Deby (1990-2021) and Mahamat Deby (2021-present), Padacké has been a major civilian figure associated with the regime, holding ministerial posts on and off: Finance, Commerce, Mines, Agriculture, Justice, Communication, etc., before being appointed Prime Minister in 2016. The post of prime minister was abolished in 2018, but then was resuscitated under the transitional military regime of Mahamat Deby, who appointed Padacké as his first and so far only PM. During the 2000s and up through the 2021 election (won by Idriss Deby just days before his death), Padacké was a frequent candidate for president (2006, 2011, 2021). In 2011 and 2021 he was a distant runner-up, scoring 6% to Deby’s 89% in 2011, and scoring 10% to Deby’s 79% in 2021. If one feels cynical (I do), one could say that Padacké was not a convincing opposition figure, given how many times he served in Deby’s governments – including, by some accounts, serving during the 2006 elections. Mahamat Deby would not have made him PM, it seems to me, if Padacké was not an insider through and through.

Mauritania Moves Toward a New Lockdown Amid Rising COVID-19 Cases

Yesterday, December 2, Mauritania’s Minister of the Interior Muhammad Salim Ould Marzuk announced an initial 10-day closure of schools in the country amid concerns about a looming second wave of COVID-19 cases. Other measures include a reduction of personnel in government offices, and a more intensive schedule – meeting every 48 hours – for the ministerial committee charged with tracking the pandemic. Also on December 2, the Health Ministry announced that there had been 153 confirmed cases and 2 deaths during the previous 24 hours.

Per Google’s results, the first peak of COVID-19 in Mauritania came on June 24 with 227 cases in one day. Even by July, the country was mostly out of triple digits, and it was only recently that the numbers began to spike again.

The first lockdown, which ended around July, had significant effects on mobility and the economy. The government provided support and covered some expenses for some of the most vulnerable households in the country, and NGOs stepped in as well, but many households were forced into debt as pastoralism and other sectors suffered. This article, from early November, gives a stark portrait of the pandemic’s secondary effects in the Assaba region of southern Mauritania. I’m pro-lockdown, of course, but one can be pro-lockdown and also worry about all these secondary impacts. With that said, the government’s approach to this nascent second lockdown seems to be sober and, more important, fairly clear and straightforward.

A Few Stray Quotes Regarding the Reported Jihadist Presence in Mali’s Wagadou Forest

August 2011:

The return of [al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, AQIM] in the zone [after a June 2011 Mauritanian-Malian military operation] can be explained by several causes. The most evident is that the forest is strategic: it serves as natural air and ground cover. Satellites or drones cannot spot the elements of AQIM and access by the land route is difficult there.

May 2019:

The forest is a nearly uninhabited zone, frequented by nomads. The vegetation is dense and it is dominated by thorny bushes. The trees, larger in the eastern part of the forest, make the forest darker…The forest is traversed by the road which leaves Dioura for Toladji and Nampala, and also the road that links Diabaly to Nampala. Due to its density and its size, Wagadou offers an ideal refuge for malefactors escaping satellite surveillance and the airstrikes of conventional armies.

October 2020:

The village of Farabougou owes its misfortunes to its reputation as a locality home to intrepid warriors. Situated at the edge of the forest of Wagadou, Farabougou has always fiercely resisted razzias [raids], very frequent in the zone before the pacification imposed by colonization.

October 2020:

Cheick Oumar Sissoko of Espoir Mali Koura, part of the M5-RFP protest movement: “But where do all these motorbikes come from? All these people with transport who circulate as they like? Who come to attack as they like, at 5 o’clock in the morning, at 5 o’clock in the afternoon, where do they come from and where do they go afterwards? Where do they resupply themselves with gas, with food? It’s true that today at Dogofry and Farabougou, they took all the animals, the cows, the goats, but where do they come from and where do they go in this border zone with Mauritania? Or it seems that some can be in the forest of Wagadou. Do they not fall back to Mauritania?

A Statement Against Islamophobia from Mauritania’s Ruling Party (Excerpt and Brief Context)

Mauritanian’s ruling party, the Union for the Republic, yesterday (October 26) issued a statement against Islamophobia. The statement refers obliquely to recent “waves of offense to our pure (hanif*) Islamic religion and our Prophet, upon him be the best of blessings and the most befitting peace.” The statement goes on to argue, quite effectively in my view, that Islamophobia in the name of free speech undercuts “the spirit of openness and understanding the particularities of the other,” as well as the “goal of making humanity into a single society.” The statement does not call for other countries, in other words European countries, to ban anti-Islamic speech, nor does it call for any particular policy response, nor does it (in my reading) make any threats, it just condemns anti-Islamic speech and calls for a model of coexistence based on mutual respect.

Two contextual points:

  • The UPR is not an Islamist party but you do not have to be an Islamist to make a statement like this, especially in a virtually 100% Muslim society that proclaims itself an Islamic Republic. I think it can be assumed here that the UPR here speaks for the president as well.
  • I myself have only vaguely been following the latest developments in France and elsewhere, the developments that clearly prompted this statement from the UPR. Shoot the messenger if you like – but my point is that some people in the Sahel are clearly paying close attention to those developments and are very troubled by them. And issuing a statement like this does not mean the UPR is tacitly endorsing violence or anything like that.
  • The UPR is far from the only ruling party, or ruler, issuing statements like this. The tone varies a lot, though. See Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan’s statement, for example, which is much more direct about criticizing French President Emmanuel Macron.

*hanif is a hard word to translate; it can also mean “monotheist,” “sincere,” etc.

Mauritania: Moustapha Ould Limam Chafi Returns to Nouakchott

On October 18, Mauritanian national Moustapha Ould Limam Chafi returned to the country’s capital Nouakchott after what Le Figaro estimates is “a dozen years’ exile.” At least two Mauritanian regimes – that of Maaouya Ould Taya in 2004, and that of Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz in 2011 – issued warrants for his arrest (in 2004 over charges of helping to plot a coup, in 2011 over charges of colluding with al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb or AQIM). But he was never arrested by Mauritanian authorities, and is now back home roughly a year after Ould Abdel Aziz’s successor, President Mohamed Ould Ghazouani, canceled the warrants for Ould Chafi and two other prominent Ould Abdel Aziz-era dissidents/exiles.

How to classify Ould Chafi? Businessman, politician, intermediary, power broker? Jeune Afrique has covered his career extensively over the years, writing profiles and updated profiles in 2011, 2017, and 2019. In the first profile, we read, “His network goes from Niger to Cote d’Ivoire, where he spends a lot of time around Prime Minister Guillaume Soro, and to Mali, among other [places]. Outside West Africa, his connections go from Morocco to Darfur (Sudan), and also to Rwanda. But he is, first of all, a faithful companion of the Burkinabè president Blaise Compaoré, and has his house and family in Ouagadougou.”

The accusations of collusion with jihadists stem largely from his role in negotiating ransom payments for and releases of western hostages of AQIM, a role he sometimes undertook on behalf of Compaoré. Jeune Afrique‘s 2017 article discusses this dimension of his career a bit more. And nowadays, when accusations arise that Compaoré’s inner circle colluded with AQIM, Ould Chafi’s name continues to come up. I personally have not seen decisive evidence of collusion on the part of either Compaoré or Ould Chafi. I shed no tears when Compaoré was overthrown but in my eyes, negotiations or hostage payments are not tantamount to direct collusion. But I do not, and likely will never, know the full story on any of these dealings.

Back in Nouakchott, Ould Chafi is presenting his return home as purely personal and is disavowing any political agenda.