A Chadian Secretary-General for the Organization of Islamic Cooperation

On November 27, at a meeting in Niamey, Niger, foreign ministers from member states of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) elected a new secretary-general for the organization, Chadian diplomat Hussein Brahim Taha. He will begin a five-year term in November 2021.

The OIC, formerly the Organization of the Islamic Conference, was founded in 1969. As is often noted, it is the second-largest multilateral organization in the world, after the United Nations. It is headquartered in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, but the general secretariat has not been a Saudi Arabian preserve – of the 11 people to hold the office so far, only two (albeit the most recent two) were Saudi Arabian nationals. Strikingly, the Sahel has been quite well represented on the list, with a Senegalese national serving as secretary-general from 1975-1979 and a Nigerien national serving from 1989-1996 (term lengths, it seems, have been variable). As noted above, moreover, the Council of Ministers meeting that elected Taha took place in the Sahel as well.

The OIC’s secretaries-general have not been clerics/shaykhs, but rather professional government bureaucrats. The outgoing secretary-general, Yousef Bin Ahmad Al-Othaimeen, holds a Ph.D. in Political Sociology from American University and came up through the Ministry of Social Affairs. Chad’s Taha spent most of his career in the Chadian Ministry of Foreign Affairs where, notably, he served as Chad’s ambassador to Saudi Arabia from 1991-2001 according to this profile. He has also served as Minister of Foreign Affairs and as deputy secretary-general of the Chadian presidency.

The sketches of Taha’s biography that I’ve seen indicate someone who is (a) close to Chadian President Idriss Deby and has his confidence, and (b) deeply familiar with Saudi Arabia. Being familiar to or even close to Saudi Arabia, however, should not lead one to the automatic assumption that Taha is a “Wahhabi” – not all of the institutions headquartered in or associated with Saudi Arabia are “Wahhabi” to the same degree, although that’s a longer discussion that goes beyond the scope of this blog.

Turning to that first point, about Deby, I want to expand on something I said on Twitter, namely that to me it is striking that Deby has now placed three of his top diplomats in three key posts at the regional, continental/African, and now global levels:

  • Mahamat Saleh Annadif, Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Mali and Head of the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) since 2016;
  • Moussa Faki Mahamat, Chairperson of the African Union Commission since 2017; and
  • Hussein Brahim Taha, incoming Secretary-General of the OIC.

I take a few, admittedly somewhat speculative, conclusions from this. One is that Deby has a pretty solid network of people he trusts and has given space to develop the kinds of resumes that major multilateral organizations take seriously. I assume that no Chadian could take a major diplomatic position like these without Deby’s backing. So on the one hand Deby, like many other long-ruling African heads of state, is infamous for refusing to signal who his successor might be, for reshuffling his cabinets frequently, for playing with term limits and constitutional structures, for creating new posts (a vice president soon, perhaps?) while eliminating others (the prime minister-ship, in 2018). Yet on the other hand, Deby is clearly not so jealous of power that he would cripple others’ careers – and perhaps in particular would not be threatened by professional diplomats who can rise to serious heights without becoming rival politicians per se. Ultimately all this reinforces his power, of course: thrive with the Deby-dominated system and you can have a literally world-class career. This is not me excusing him or praising him, except to say that he has a talent for authoritarianism – he is not as crude or just straight-up dumb about it as many other authoritarians are.

Then there is the question of how Deby positions Chad and Chadians to take these roles. A lot of those dynamics are out of my view, at least. A large part of the answer is the role that Chad has taken on as (one, would-be) guarantor of security in the Sahel and the Lake Chad Basin, and that goes a long way to explaining the MINUSMA and African Union Commission appointments. But that role as security guarantor, on its own, is not sufficient to explain an appointment like the OIC’s secretary-general. Another factor there may be the way that the Sahel is a recurring zone of interest for Saudi Arabia, on and off from the 1960s to the present; Chad, additionally, has a number of Arabophone and/or Arab diplomats, and that may be attractive to OIC members as well (see below, where Taha gives his remarks in Arabic). And, finally, perhaps Deby is also skilled at various forms of behind-the-scenes negotiations. I wonder if he committed to anything in exchange for this OIC appointment.

Here is the video of Taha’s acceptance speech:

Very Quick Notes on the September 29 G5 Sahel-MINUSMA-European Union Meeting in Nouakchott

On September 29, the G5 Sahel, the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA), and the European Union (EU) met in Mauritania’s capital Nouakchott. This was a coordination meeting for supporting the G5 Sahel’s Joint Force, which draws battalions from Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, and Chad. The meeting does not appear to have produced any dramatic news.

I’m a bit buried with work this week, so here are just a few links and notes:

  • The meeting was held in the context of United Nations Security Council Resolution 2531 (available here). Among other things, the resolution (p. 11, paragraph 30) “Requests the Secretary-General to ensure adequate coordination, exchange of information and, when applicable, support, within their respective mandates and through existing mechanisms, between MINUSMA, the MDSF [Malian Defense and Security Forces], the FC-G5S [G5 Sahel Joint Force], the French Forces and the European Union missions in Mali, and further requests MINUSMA to convene regular meetings of the Instance de Coordination au Mali as the main platform for such coordination, exchange of information and support.”
  • Here is MINUSMA’s short press release (French) on the coordination meeting.
  • Here is a longer readout (French) from the G5 Sahel. Again, no major news from what I can see.
  • Brief press coverage from RFI (French).

And a few photographs, via Twitter:

Could Mali’s Coup Have Been Avoided? Part Two – The International Community’s Mistakes

Amid the continued fallout from the August 18 coup in Mali I, like others, have been thinking about whether all this was inevitable. What could have gone differently between the previous coup in 2012, and this coup? Yesterday, in part one, I looked at ousted President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta (IBK) and what I consider general flaws in his overall approach as well as specific mistakes he made.

Today, in part two, I look at the international community,* again considering what I see as both macro flaws and concrete turning points. In my view, these trends and events made a coup more likely by inadvertently fueling conflict and by making Mali more difficult to govern. I think the coup resulted from a confluence of factors, but I think that examining the interaction between IBK’s mistakes, the recurring patterns in Malian politics, and the approach of international actors toward conflict management in post-2012 Mali is a crucial starting point for understanding what happened.

As before, these are non-exhaustive lists – and there is quite a lot of room for debate. I imagine some readers who agreed with most of what I wrote about IBK will agree with very little of what I write below.

Even before discussing the macro flaws, I think there is an overall problem, namely that it is extremely difficult to escape a certain conceptual prison. The approach followed by international actors, with France in the leading role, has been: “Hunt and kill the bad guys, make a show of implementing the 2015 Algiers Accord, hold presidential elections at mandated intervals, and say platitudes about ‘good governance’ and ‘the return of the state’.” More on this below, but the point I want to up front first is that it’s very difficult – including for me – to imagine genuine alternatives to this overall approach. Even some of the seemingly out-of-the-box ideas that have been floated in recent years, like negotiating with jihadists or replacing the Algiers Accord with something else, ultimately represent only modest adjustments to hegemonic assumptions about how all this has to go: kill, haggle, vote. It is difficult to imagine other paths that international actors might have followed in the period 2012-2020, but there must be alternatives out there that could have helped prevent this coup.

Moving to the next level of analysis, here are what I think are some deeply problematic features of the international community’s approach:

  • There is a circularity built into the way international actors talk about the relationship between political stability and counterterrorism. Is counterterrorism a means to make politics more stable? Or do politics need to be stable so as not to disrupt counterterrorism? Which is the higher priority and why? And what message does ambiguity on this point send?
  • What does counterterrorism really mean? Let’s say it means killing people who wave black flags, because we deem their politics unacceptable and we think that the more power they get, the more likely they are to try to attack Europe and the United States. But then why does a Sahel-wide counterterrorism mission target conventional rebels (in Chad, February 2019)? And if the black flag-waving jihadists are not actually the ones responsible for the most killings, why does other non-state actors’ violence not count as terrorism? Killing 160 villagers is not terrorism? The likely authors of that massacre get to (got to) have a deputy in the Malian parliament? What message are ordinary people supposed to take from all this? And then counterterrorism or perhaps “counterinsurgency” success is ultimately supposed to depend on buy-in from those same audiences of ordinary people? What if they don’t share the international community’s definition of who is a terrorist? What if counterterrorism is making things worse in Mali, not better?
  • In Sahelian politics more broadly, there seem to be just two non-negotiable rules that all actors adhere to: there must be an elected president as head of state, and the guys (currently) holding black flags can’t sit at the peace talks. Everything else is up for negotiation. You took power in a rebellion in 1990 and you want to win every presidential election from 1996 until 2033? Have at it. You’re running for re-election and you want to keep your opponent, whom you have accused of being a child trafficker, in jail throughout the campaign? Go ahead. You led a coup against the only democratically elected civilian president your country ever had, and now you want to run and win as a civilian? Here’s ten years in power for you. You got re-elected in a presidential election where violence forced the closures of over 700 polling places in a single region, and in which armed non-state actors (whose leaders are also members of your party) helped provide security in several other regions, where you ended up winning massive majorities? Cool. You used to be a jihadist and now you’re a parliamentary deputy? You’re under UN sanctions and you want to be a deputy? No problem. And on and on. What message is sent by all that? The message is that the international community’s talk about “good governance” is mostly bullshit. And it is no wonder that politicians sometimes take actions that prove to be reckless, or that politicians occasionally ignore pushback from the streets until it is too late; they get so used to relative immunity to political consequences that they seem to sometimes forget that there can be blowback to their decisions.
  • Nobody really defines what the international community wants the political end-state to look like or why the international community gets to have much of a say at all. “Good governance” is code for saying that if only everyone tried a little harder and cleaned up their act, Mali could have nice things. Saying “the return of the state” never confronts the ways in which the state itself was and is part of the problem in many areas – corrupt judges, abusive soldiers, etc. Saying that France needs a “political strategy” in Mali becomes, in its vagueness, a way of dodging all the ugly questions: What does it mean for one country to have a strategy for another country’s politics? How far is the international community supposed to go in dictating what Mali’s politics look like? And how must all this feel to Sahelien soldiers – dictated and condescended to by outsiders, let down by their own political leaders, feeling caught in an interminable conflict?
  • The international community only adds to its security deployments, it never cuts them or really assesses them or even replaces them. MINUSMA and Barkhane aren’t enough? Add the European Union Training Mission. Add the G5 Sahel Joint Force. That’s not working either? Add the Coalition for the Sahel. Add Takuba. And after the dust settles from this coup, how many of these missions will be rethought, let alone wrapped up? My prediction: zero. How many of the Western diplomats and military officers shaking their heads over IBK’s blunders would really want a mirror held up to their own institutions’ performance in Mali? These deployments did not trigger the coup, but the tendency to just keep adding external missions has become a replacement for thinking about alternatives – and outside pressure can fuel security force abuses, which in turn exacerbates instability and further complicates the position in which soldiers find themselves. Assume for a second that you were a deeply frustrated but well-meaning** Malian colonel: you can’t kick out the foreigners, you can’t win the war against multiple elusive enemies. Who’s the logical target if you want to change something big?

And here are what I think are some specific mistakes and turning points. Some of them are directly and obviously connected to the coup against IBK, whereas others, in my view, indirectly helped set the stage for the putsch.

  1. Whatever happened in Kidal between France, the Tuareg-led separatists, and the ex-jihadists (circa February 2013). I don’t want to sound like a conspiracy theorist, but it seems France contributed, by design or by accident, to what evolved into a de facto partition of Mali.
  2. The creation of Operation Barkhane (summer 2014): I think having a standing counterterrorism mission for the whole Sahel sent the wrong message and created some bad incentives – now every major Barkhane decapitation strike is greeted as a potential turning point for the conflict (it never is), even as mistrust of Barkhane among ordinary Sahelians seems to grow. I don’t see why individual strikes against jihadist leaders couldn’t be conducted without this kind of essentially permanent structure. Maybe now is time to think about wrapping up Barkhane, or even wrapping up everything other than MINUSMA (spoiler: won’t happen).
  3. Allowing the Algiers Accord to replicate past accords (spring/summer 2015): You can read extended analyses of this problem here and here. In brief, though, recycling old ideas and empowering mostly familiar actors helped to create incentives for the implementation to become a desirable end-state in and of itself for some of those actors, while at the same time excluding considerable swaths of the northern population from key decisions.
  4. Not taking the crisis in central Mali seriously until it was too late (2015 on). For example, it was not until 2019 that MINUSMA was given a second strategic priority (in addition to the first priority, supporting implementation of the Algiers Accord) to help stabilize and restore state authority in the center.
  5. Not responding more forcefully to credible allegations of widespread security force abuses against civilians (2015 on). The beginnings of the cycle wherein these abuses would fuel conflict were already visible by mid-2015.
  6. Publicly rejecting the idea of dialogue with jihadists following the Conference of National Understanding (April 2017). French dismissals of the idea, which came out of Malian civil society, came across as arrogant and peremptory. The French antipathy to the idea seems to have undercut some momentum toward dialogue on the part of civil society and elder statesmen in 2017 while reinforcing a tendency for the Malian government’s own efforts at dialogue to stay opaque and halting.
  7. Partnering with northern militias against the Islamic State (early 2018). Such collaboration between Barkhane, MSA, and GATIA, simply sent the wrong message to the Malian state, other militias, and ordinary people.
  8. Accepting the results of the 2018 presidential election without qualification (August 2018). As I alluded to above, there was so much violence in the Mopti Region that I would argue that no election worthy of the name occurred there. And that was just one problem. The response should not have necessarily been to say “IBK must go” or “IBK isn’t legitimate” but to simply say “sure, that was fine, let’s move on” sent, again, the wrong message.
  9. Accepting the revised results of the 2020 legislative election (April 2020). Again, I think international actors could have done more to convey that they actually did care about deep flaws in the election process and outcome. Here it might have been worthwhile to publicly reject the Constitutional Court’s revised results and to say that the initial results from the Ministry of Territorial Administration should stand.
  10. Treating the M5-RFP protests with contempt (June-July 2020). I don’t think international actors listened or really wanted to listen to what the anti-IBK protesters were saying this summer. And many actors’ contempt for protest leaders, particularly for Imam Mahmoud Dicko, was clear in the French press and elsewhere. And when West African leaders tried to mediate, the message was essentially, “Take the Ministry of Sports and the Ministry of Tourism in the unity government, and pick a few judges for the new Constitutional Court, and then go home.” I’m not saying the international community should have tried to shove IBK aside, but they could have tried a more open-ended process than simply arriving in Bamako and dictating “you get this, this, and this, and you better like it” and then being shot down.

Brief Conclusion

A depressing but quite likely outcome of this coup would be a return to the status quo ante, but with a new president at Koulouba. If you measure success in Mali in terms of stability, then the international community’s approach has been failing since at least 2015, clearly failing since violence began dramatically escalating in 2017, and absolutely failing now that this coup has happened. But that doesn’t mean the assumptions, the policies, or the players will change.

*”International community” is a garbage euphemism, of course, though sometimes I feel stuck with it. What I mean here is France, the United Nations Security Council, the  Economic Community of West African States and its members, the European Union and its members, and the United States, in roughly that order.

**Not saying the new junta (the CNSP) is necessarily well-meaning.

Mali: An AQIM/JNIM Assassination in Timbuktu and Its Aftermath

On 9 September, a commander of the Operational Coordination Mechanism (French acronym MOC) was assassinated in Timbuktu, northern Mali, killed in his car. The commander’s name has been transliterated various ways – Salim Ould M’Begui, Salim Ould Nbekhi, Salim Baghi, and Saloum Ould Becki. From the Arabic spellings that have been given (see here), I would transliterate it Salim Imbighi.

In any case, he was a member of the Coordination of Movements of Azawad (CMA), a coalition of northern Malian armed movements that all played some part in the rebellion of 2012 against the Malian state. The CMA has three major components – the High Council for the Unity of Azawad (HCUA), the Arab Movement of Azawad (French acronym MAA), and the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (French acronym MNLA). M’Begui belonged to the MAA and was further, as we will see below, a member of the Awlad Idris/Oulad Idriss, an Arab tribe in northern Mali.

For further background, the MOC – and the patrols it runs – are a key element of the 2015 Algiers Accord, the peace agreement that aimed to prevent a resumption of war in the north following the 2012 rebellion. There are three signatories to the accord: the Malian government, the CMA, and a cluster of pro-government northern militias called the Plateform. The patrols through the MOC are meant to help these diverse groups work together and, by working together, stabilize the north. The Timbuktu MOC was only set up this May, with only around fifty fighters. The MOC there has yet to start its patrols, and the CMA was earlier accused of dragging its feet regarding patrols in both Timbuktu and Kidal.

Mali’s jihadists are, of course, not part of the accord and they have consistently attempted to sabotage the accord generally and the MOC/patrols specifically. This is key background for understanding M’Begui’s murder. On 17 September, Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wa-l-Muslimin (JNIM) claimed responsibility for the assassination in Timbuktu. JNIM tied the Timbuktu assassination to other assaults on MOCs in the north, including the massive suicide bombing on the Gao MOC in January 2017.

JNIM, a Mali-centric jihadist coalition formed in March 2017, is an official branch of al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). JNIM’s leadership includes both Malians (its overall leader is Iyad ag Ghali, the infamous Tuareg rebel-turned-jihadist) and non-Malians. JNIM’s largely Malian character contributes to its sophisticated understanding of the political and tribal/ethnic landscape of northern and central Mali. The non-Malian members also have deep experience in the country, though, due to the relationships that some of AQIM’s Saharan commanders and units developed in the years leading up to the 2012 rebellion.

The political dimension of JNIM’s approach helps explain why the claim of responsibility was not a generic public statement but rather a letter to the Awlad Idris. The letter takes pains to soften any outrage on the tribe’s part over the assassination, using three rhetorical techniques:

  1. Religious framing: The letter implicitly asserts that Islam constitutes a common ground of Islam between the tribe and JNIM. More explicitly, the letter argues that M’Begui had apostatized by joining the MOC. The MOC, in JNIM’s framing, targets legitimate “mujahidin” and works with “unbeliever” forces, namely the Malian army, the United Nations’ MINUSMA, and the G5 Sahel’s joint force. The letter presents the assassination as a form of religious justice and even self-defense on the part of the “mujahidin.”
  2. Framing the assassination as a last resort: The letter refers to JNIM’s repeated warnings to “all the sons of the tribes and the Muslims generally” not to join the MOC. The letters also references JNIM’s distribution of “numerous audio, video, and written statements warning about this critical matter.” In other words, the letter suggests that M’Begui had many chances to avoid being killed.
  3. Conveying respect for the tribe: The letter not only addresses the tribe, the author even offers to “arrange a direct meeting” to address any remaining concerns the tribe may have. In general, JNIM is keen to win over northern Malian Muslims (courting “the popular embrace” or al-hadina al-sha’biyya), and some AQIM leaders have long argued that jihadists need to woo the tribes rather than alienating them.

Various commentators noted that the statement was signed not by ag Ghali but by Algerian national and longtime AQIM senior official Yahya Abu al-Hammam. For some commentators, the statement reflected Abu al-Hammam’s ambitions to displace ag Ghali within JNIM (and therefore more an AQIM action than a JNIM one). I’m not sure I would go that far, but it does seem to me that there are various questions to pursue here about (a) internal coalition politics within JNIM and (b) geographical variations in how JNIM operates, not just between northern and central Mali (a theme I explored a bit here), but also within northern Mali. In this case, there are questions to pursue about differences between JNIM’s approach in Timbuktu as compared with its approach in Kidal – although Kidal witnesses its own share of violence, including two even more recent assassinations.

Here it is worth rewinding the tape to 2012-2013, to recall that ag Ghali’s Ansar al-Din (especially the Tuareg politicians who were part of it at that time) was the dominant force in Kidal during the jihadist occupation of northern Mali, while AQIM was most visible in Timbuktu (though it was present elsewhere, and ag Ghali, who was closer to AQIM than some of the other Ansar al-Din leaders at the time, traveled between northern Mali’s different cities and regions throughout that period). Here it is also worth revisiting Rida Lyammouri’s 2016 post “AQIM Never Really Abandoned Timbuktu, Mali,” which includes some interesting detail on Abu al-Hammam and the Awlad Idris. Adam Sandor’s 2017 report for Centre FrancoPaix is also highly relevant here, particularly pp. 16-17. Variations in the jihadist landscape within northern Mali, in other words, are not at all new.

Moreover, we should note that JNIM’s assassination of a CMA leader is a reminder that amid recurring rumors of behind-the-scenes contact between ag Ghali and the HCUA, the two movements – JNIM and CMA – are sometimes violently opposed. The CMA quickly and strongly denounced the murder in Timbuktu and promised to track down the assassins, and the CMA/MAA’s remarks concerning jihadist “infiltration” in Timbuktu sounded none too friendly.

This and other assassinations, finally, are a reminder that northern Malian politics is not just an intra-elite game in which politicians play with other men’s lives, but also a deadly competition for influence and power in which elites’ own lives are very much at stake. As this incident demonstrates, JNIM walks a fine line by assassinating people – on the one hand, it sends a clear message about the costs of working with the MOC, the peace process, and anti-jihadist forces; on the other hand, JNIM risks antagonizing a wide swath of extremely important northern Malian constituencies, and in that way undercutting its own long-term political strategy.