Snapshots of Ramadan in the Sahel

Beginnings

Nigeria:

The Nigerian Supreme Council For Islamic Affairs has directed Nigerian Muslims to commence their Ramadan fast on Thursday, June 18. The Sultan of Sokoto, Sa’ad Abubakar III, who is the President-General of the Council, on Wednesday gave the directive while announcing the sighting of the new moon heralding the month of Ramadan 1436AH…Mr. Abubakar also called on Muslim faithful to use the Holy month of Ramadan to re-dedicate themselves to the teachings of Islam and continue to live peacefully with one another irrespective of religious and tribal differences.

Senegal:

The National Commission for the Observation of the Lunar Crescent (CONACOCC) has the task of determining the beginning of each lunar month and this week declared that Ramadan would start on Friday [June 19]. But many Senegalese Muslims began fasting on Thursday, emulating neighbouring Mauritania, Mali and the Gambia, as well as Saudi Arabia, home to the sacred pilgrimage sites of Medina and Mecca.

More here (French).

Material Conditions

Mauritania (French):

At the main food market in Nouakchott, the merchants give themselves over, apparently with complete impunity, to all sortes of speculations. The sudden rise in prices particularly affects the products that go into making the dishes most prized during the month of Ramadan; notably, vegetables and meats.

More from Mauritania: a newspaper editor on economic conditions in Nouadhibou (Arabic), including the difficult wait for a fishing agreement with the European Union.

Mali (French):

Month of pardon, pity, support, and help, [Ramadan] is also the month of high prices in Bamako…Onions have passed from 225 to 400 FCFA/kilo. Likewise, potatoes have climbed from 300 to 500 FCFA/kilo; garlic, from 1000 to 1200 FCFA.

 

Burkina Faso (French):

In Burkina Faso, Muslims are getting ready for the month of Ramadan in a very particular context. Since the popular insurrection and the fall of Blaise Compaoré, people’s purchasing power seems to degrade more and more. For merchants, business is turning into slow motion and people are already denouncing the prices of certain food products useful for the month of Ramadan. A month that could be difficult for many families.

From Senegal (French), a video about electricity and water cuts.

Messages

Nigerian Supreme Council of Islamic Affairs:

[T]he holy month this year coincides with a period Muslims and indeed all Nigerians,have every reason to thank Allah for His abundant blessings. The peaceful elections and the dramatic transition of power from one government to the other are a testimony to the fact that Allah answers prayers. All right-thinking Nigerians appreciate that what Nigeria witnessed this year, despite the frightening predictions and scary projections before the 2015 elections, was simply the grace of divine intervention.

The month of Ramadan as a period of forgiveness offers Nigerians an opportunity to forgive the unprecedented abuse unleashed on their collective humanity in the recent past and to forge ahead as one nation united by one destiny. It is an ample opportunity to foster the ideals of brotherhood and togetherness after some years of crude and institutionalised divide-and-rule tactics which resulted in unprecedented divisiveness, losses, of lives, property and reputation….[F[or those who Allah Has entrusted with leadership, we urge them to remember the favours of Allah on them when He answered the prayers of the oppressed, the maligned and the persecuted by granting them success. They should complement the prayers by being good and justify the expectations of Nigerians by being fair and just to all. They should be compassionate, disciplined and exemplary. They need to demonstrate competence and sense of mission.The campaign period of sloganeering has expired and only exemplary performance can retain and sustain the massive goodwill and support of the abused masses.

Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari:

As we make collective efforts to bring to a permanent end the menace of the Boko Haram in the Lake Chad basin countries, let me use this auspicious occasion to appeal to our misguided brothers to drop their arms, embrace peace and seek a better understanding of Islam during this Holy period and beyond.

Others:

  • Senegalese President Macky Sall (French).
  • Shaykh Aminu Ibrahim Daurawa, Commander-General of the Hisbah Board in Kano, Nigeria: “Ten Things That Break the Fast” (Hausa).
  • Ramadan information page at Mauritania’s Ministry of Islamic Affairs (French).

 

Hunger in Mauritania

IRIN, May 26:

Hundreds of thousands of Mauritanians are struggling to feed themselves as they fall victim to the effects of climate change.

A chronically hungry country, Mauritania could see the availability of food drop to its lowest level in years if drought continues to ravage crops, livestock and livelihoods.

An estimated 1.3 million people will face food insecurity this year, according to the latest assessment by the UN-backed Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC).  Among them, nearly half a million people are expected to fall into severe food insecurity by June and be “unable to meet their food needs without external assistance.” Around 21,000 will suffer extreme food insecurity, or a near complete depletion of their livelihoods.

FEWS Net, May 4:

In areas of Mauritania and Senegal that experienced poor rainfall last year, 2014/15 crop production was between 30 and 80 percent below average, causing household food stocks to deplete earlier than normal and prolonging the period of time that households depend on market purchases to meet their food needs. Below-average incomes from crop sales and reduced milk availability are also limiting food access. To cope, households are selling additional livestock, increasing debt levels, engaging in increased levels of wage labor, migration, fishing, and forestry product sales (charcoal, wood, etc.), and reducing the quantity and quality of their meals. Even if the coming June to September rainy season is relatively normal, affected areas will face Stressed (IPC Phase 2) or Crisis (IPC Phase 3) food insecurity between now and the start of new pasture growth in July in pastoral areas or early crop harvests in September in agropastoral areas. A small number of very poor households will also face Emergency (IPC Phase 4) food insecurity, particularly in Mauritania.

WFP, May 25:

Mauritania hosts the largest number of Malian refugees. As of 31 March 2015, over 52,000 refugees are living in Mbera refugee camp. Since the beginning of the political turmoil in Mali, WFP has been providing life-saving food assistance to refugees who continue to depend largely on external support to meet their most basic survival needs.

IFRC, May 29:

IFRC has launched three emergency appeals in The Gambia, Mauritania, and Senegal. Totalling 5.1 million Swiss francs, the appeals aim to support the National Societies in the three affected countries through activities focusing on food security, nutrition promotion, building resilience, and disaster risk reduction.

[…]

Immediate interventions include distributing enriched flour for children under two years and for pregnant or lactating women who are at risk of malnutrition, to prevent a deterioration of their nutritional status, and to support the adoption of better nutritional practices which are essential to reducing malnutrition. Cash transfers will allow families to purchase what best suits their immediate needs, while longer term support will see families receive agricultural and livestock inputs to strengthen and protect their livelihoods.

 

Controversy around a Mauritanian Atheist

Reportedly (Arabic), A Mauritanian man recently professed atheism on Facebook. I haven’t been able to find the original page, but the incident has caused controversy in the country. The government’s High Council for Fatwa and Grievances released a statement (Arabic) announcing “our distress and our disapproval” of the man’s words and calling for legal action against him.

This incident is the latest in a series of high-profile instances of alleged unbelief, apostasy, or blasphemy in Mauritania. 2014 saw a wave of such events. One man was jailed in January and then sentenced to death in December for writing an online article perceived as blasphemous. Another man was arrested for allegedly urinating on a copy of the Qur’an in February 2014, while March 2014 saw protests over an incident in which a small group of men allegedly desecrated copies of the Qur’an. Those events were seemingly unconnected, but coming in rapid succession they elevated tensions around issues of apostasy and blasphemy.

Other events have had a more political tinge. Also last year, Mauritanian religious scholars accused leftist writers of spreading atheism. In 2012, the anti-slavery activist Biram Ould Abeid publicly burned texts from the Maliki legal school (one of Sunni Islam’s four major schools, and the one most widespread in northwest Africa) in protest at the ways in which such texts had been invoked to justify slavery. The burning triggered protests and resulted in his arrest. It’s important to note that burning Maliki texts is categorically different from desecrating a Qur’an, and that Ould Abeid was not making a symbolic gesture of unbelief but rather was attempting to confront and overturn a certain interpretation of tradition.

In any case, the point is that accusations of blasphemy can be directed at both isolated individuals and opposition movements. Also, the issue has become sensitive enough that even one individual’s Facebook posts can elicit a government response.

Mauritania’s Legislative Elections: A New Date, and a New Delay

On August 3, Mauritania’s Communications Minister Mohamed Yahya Ould Hormah announced that the country would hold legislative and municipal elections on October 12 of this year. The government has repeatedly delayed elections, originally scheduled for 2011, due to disagreements with the opposition. Unless I am mistaken, the last time Mauritania held parliamentary elections was in November/December 2006 for legislative and municipal seats, and January/February 2007 for senate seats. If this is correct then Mauritania has not held legislative elections since the military coup of August 2008 that brought current President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz (who won election as a civilian in July 2009) to power.

This month’s attempt to schedule an election also met with a delay. Parties within the Coordination of Democratic Opposition (COD) coalition swiftly announced their plans to boycott the October elections. Among those threatening a boycott were the left-leaning Union of the Forces of Progress (UFP) and the Islamist National Rally for Reform and Development (Tewassoul). Tewassoul and others cite concerns about transparency and fairness. Their stated concerns resemble those raised by other COD parties in August 2011. For those interested in further details, Tewassoul’s website features an August 12 COD statement (Arabic) entitled “Why is [the COD] Boycotting the Elections for Which the Regime Calls?”

In response to the boycott threat, the government on August 22 postponed the elections until November 23. A second round may follow on December 7.

The government’s responsiveness to the opposition’s boycott threats is noteworthy. What do you think? Does it bespeak fear, or political savvy, or both?

Mauritania’s Salafi Prisoners: A Release and Some Questions

This week, Mauritanian authorities released two prisoners (Arabic), Bashir Kharashi Sall and Sidi Ould Mamuri (my transliterations), who had been held for five years on charges of links to violent Islamic groups. The Mauritanian press often refers to such prisoners as “Salafis,” and I will too for the sake of shorthand, but it’s worth bearing in mind that Salafi is a theological category whose complexity such shorthand frequently masks.

From my limited research so far, it seems that the two men were held in connection with a gun battle between security forces and Al Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb that occurred on the outskirts of Mauritania’s capital Nouakchott in April 2008 (video report). My evidence is this 2010 list (Arabic) of accused persons from the “Santar Amtir incident” (my transliteration, which is likely wrong – the Arabic is صانتر أمتير), which from what I can deduce refers to the area where the April 2008 clashes occurred. The two men appear on that list.

The issue that the Mauritanian press (see first link above) raises this week in its coverage concerns not violence, however, but dialogue. Sall and Mamuri participated, as have numerous other Salafi prisoners, in government-facilitated conversations with Islamic scholars who attempted to alter the Salafis’ thinking on various issues. The linked article above hints that the dialogues have borne inconsistent or at least opaque fruit: the two men, despite their participation in dialogue, “were kept in prison without release despite the issuance of pardon for tens of prisoners who participated in the dialogue.” Other participants in the dialogue, the article continues, remain in prison today, awaiting pardon or sentencing.

Rehabilitation programs for jihadists raise concerns about how to measure success and prevent recidivism; the architects of such programs presumably wish neither to release potential recidivists nor to detain genuinely reformed individuals, and much less to detain people who were innocent in the first place. If I am right in detecting a critical tone in one Mauritanian press outlet’s coverage of these issues, then it seems segments of Mauritanian society would like their government to communicate more clearly the criteria it uses to keep certain individuals behind bars.

Mauritanian Politicians on Security and Mali

The war in northern Mali remains a source of contestation and debate in Mauritania.

President Mohamed Ould Abd al Aziz this week argued (Arabic) that the conflict in northern Mali arose from negligence in the face of regional terrorist threats, and urged a pro-active approach to terrorism going forward. Abd al Aziz, initially opposed to any armed Mauritanian involvement in the conflict in Mali (despite previous Mauritanian interventions there around 2010-2011), has expressed greater openness to such involvement recently.

The Coordination of the Democratic Opposition (CDO), meanwhile (Arabic), “attributed responsibility to Abd al Aziz’s government for the killing of Mauritanian citizens in Mali.” The Union of the Forces of Progress (UFP), a key player in the CDO, has called for an investigation (Arabic) into killings of Mauritanians in Mali. The shootings of sixteen Muslim preachers in central Mali in September 2012, a group that included numerous Mauritanians, remains a live issue in Mauritania today; the UFP referred specifically to that in their statement.

As Abd al Aziz negotiates his position on Mali, then, he faces a vocal opposition and complex intersections of domestic and foreign policy.

Africa News Roundup: Kenya, South Sudan, Algeria, Nigeria, and More

VOA:

The runner-up in Kenya’s presidential election is filing a petition with the Supreme Court Saturday challenging the results.  The party of Prime Minister Raila Odinga says it will present to the court evidence of electoral fraud. Odinga’s CORD alliance has refused to accept the first-round victory of Jubilee candidate Uhuru Kenyatta.

Results released last week by the country’s electoral commission, the IEBC, declared Mr. Kenyatta had won 50.07 percent of the vote, just enough to avoid a run-off with Mr. Odinga.

Reuters: “After a Long Fight for Freedom, South Sudan Cracks Down on Dissent.”

Bloomberg:

South Sudan’s government said it signed an agreement with Ethiopia and Djibouti that may enable the East African nation to export oil by truck from July, while a study on a pipeline linking the three countries is completed.

An accord signed on March 12 in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, envisages crude being exported via Djibouti’s Red Sea port of Douraleh, South Sudan Deputy Petroleum Minister Elizabeth James Bol said in an interview today. Douraleh is 1,469 kilometers (913 miles) northeast of Juba, the South Sudanese capital.

[…]

South Sudan is considering building two pipelines, one via Ethiopia and another across Kenya to the port of Lamu, as an alternative to the conduit that runs through neighboring Sudan.

Magharebia reports on Morocco’s diplomatic outreach to Mauritania, which is partly motivated by concern over the crisis in Mali.

IRIN: “Call to End Neglect of Emergency Education in Mali.”

Bloomberg: “Senegal Seeks to Become West Africa Hub for Islamic Finance.”

Al Jazeera: “Thousands Protest Unemployment in Algeria.”

VOA: “Development Improves in Ethiopia, But Just Slightly.”

The Guardian (Nigeria): “Northern Christians, Emir [of Anka, in Zamfara State] Oppose Amnesty for Boko Haram.” The titular Christians are the Northern Christian Elders Forum (NORCEF).

Osun Defender:

Two top leaders of the Peoples Democratic Party in Borno State were yesterday assassinated by gunmen suspected to be operatives of the Islamist militant group Boko Haram. The slayings came less than one week after the officials participated in welcoming President Goodluck Jonathan during his tour of the troubled state.
The victims were Usman Gula (who was the PDP’s vice chairman for Southern Borno), and Hajia Gamboa, who served as the party’s women’s leader for Shehuri ward in Maiduguri.

What else is happening?