Mali: Dan Na Ambassagou’s Parliamentary Deputy?

I’m writing an academic paper about the Malian legislative elections that took place back in March/April. While writing, a few details have caught my eye, and here is one that’s worth its own post: the name Marcelin Guengueré appears on the list of elected deputies (.pdf, p. 65). He is at the top of the list for the Koro cercle/district in Mopti Region. Most constituencies in Mali elect one deputy, but a minority of districts elect a party or multi-party list of between two and seven candidates. Koro is a four-member district. Guengueré and his three fellow candidates were elected on a list called “Le Mali Qui Bouge” (“Mali That Moves,” or perhaps “Mali in Motion” would be better) and also called “Alliance Amakéné.” The list was independent of the major parties,

Guengueré has also been the spokesman for Dan Na Ambassagou or “hunters who trust in God,” a network of hunters’ associations primarily from the Dogon ethnic group. Dan Na Ambassagou emerged in late 2016 after the killing of a prominent hunter named Théodore Soumbounou. A good starting point for background on the militia is Human Rights Watch’s 2018 report “We Used to Be Brothers,” which contains a sub-section on Dan Na Ambassagou. The group was also widely and credibly accused of perpetrating the notorious March 2019 massacre of ethnic Peul/Fulani villagers at Ogassagou and Welingara, also in the Mopti Region. The Malian authorities tried to dissolve it afterwards, but Dan Na Ambassagou’s leadership defied them, and the group has continued to exist in some form.

The conflict in central Mali cannot and should not be reduced to one of inter-ethnic tensions, but Dogon-Peul violence is one axis of the violence and Dan Na Ambassagou is both a product and an accelerant of that dynamic.

I actually met Guengueré and interviewed him in Bamako in June 2019. Maybe I will write the full story some time. As I was walking in to meet him, he was on the phone saying to someone, “We are not genocidaires,” a line he repeats in this interview. Guengueré has repeatedly described Dan Na Ambassagou as a Dogon self-defense militia and a continuation of past Dogon self-defense efforts, but I at least found some of his rhetoric against the Peul – and about the Malian state – pretty hardline.

In the Malian press, commentators raised concerns about Guengueré and his list during and after the elections. On the eve of the second round in April, one commentator wrote that Dan Na Ambassagou and other armed movements had openly backed Alliance Amakéné, encouraging their supporters to vote for the Alliance and even restricting other candidates’ access to parts of Koro – a combination of mobilization and intimidation, in other words. That report identifies Guengueré as the ex-spokesman, rather than the current spokesman, of Dan Na Ambassagou, but the report also suggests that the line between the Alliance and the armed group is blurry at best.

Another member of the Alliance, Hamidou Djimdé, walked a fine line when describing the relationship with Dan Na Ambassagou in this interview:

What is the connection between your list and Dan Na Ambassagou?

There are many conflations on that subject. We did not solicit any form of support from Dan Na Ambassagou. And we have not had any support from Dan Na Ambassagou.

Marcelin Guenguere was the spokesman for Dan Na Ambassagou. When we decided to throw ourselves into the race, certain [militia members], in a voluntary capacity, decided to protect us during our movements. These were acts of reconnaissance. They said that when had defended them when they needed it and that it was a duty for them to pay us back.

This was far from the only relationship between candidates and militias during the elections – even opposition leader Soumaïla Cissé relied on protection from militias while campaigning in the Timbuktu Region, before he was kidnapped – but it is hard not to read Djimbé’s statements as a bit self-contradictory.

Is Guengueré’s victory a product of war? One analytical distinction I’ve made between the north and the center is that in the north, the leaders of key militias tend to be longtime politicians, whereas in the center, it has seemed to me that the armed groups have a more bottom-up character. Scanning over Guengueré’s career, or at least the snippets of it visible online, I don’t think I could say simply that militia activity moved him from the margins to the spotlight. After all, unless I am somehow confusing him with a homonym, Guengueré appears to have run for parliament, unsuccessfully, in the immediate past elections in 2013, garnering some 16% of the vote in the first round. He also appears to have been a minor presidential candidate in 2018. 16% isn’t nothing, suggesting Guengueré already had a political network and/or a political constituency prior to the emergence of Dan Na Ambassagou. And there have also been recurring allegations that politicians in Bamako channel financial support to Dan Na Ambassagou, meaning that the shorthand of “hunters’ associations” for describing the group may not capture the whole picture of what this force really is. I wonder whether there is not a broader story to be told here about the interplay of political ambition and militia formation in Koro, in Mopti, and beyond.

Trends in Political Violence in the Sahel for the First Half of 2020: A Few Comments

The analyst José Luengo-Cabrera periodically posts graphics capturing different trends in violence and displacement in the Sahel; these graphics are indispensable for thinking about conflict in the region, and I really respect his work. He recently posted graphics for the first half of 2020. I want to briefly comment on some of the trends here.

Let’s start with the regional picture:

In addition to the points Luengo-Cabrera makes, here are a few other basic observations:

  • It’s worth repeating often that even though the current wave of crisis in the Sahel began with the 2012 rebellion in northern Mali, most of the intervening years and particularly the last three and a half have been more violent than 2012. Mali is not in a “post-conflict” phase, despite the signing of a peace agreement called the Algiers Accord in 2015.
  • It also bears repeating that northern Mali has, for some time now, not been the most violent zone in the conflict. Kidal, the heartland of the 2012 rebellion, is not even mentioned in Luengo-Cabrera’s breakdown of violent regions. The most violent areas of the current conflict are central Mali (note that Mopti is the most violent region on his list, and that adjacent Ségou is eighth on the list – more violent than Timbuktu) and northern Burkina Faso (note that while eastern Burkina Faso is heavily affected by insecurity and jihadism, it is the north that is substantially more violent).
  • What appears to propel mass violence, in my view, is multi-directional conflict where the key protagonists/decision-makers are not well-known elites. Why is northern Mali less violent than central Mali? Northern Mali has no shortage of militias – but they tend to be led by seasoned politicians and fighters, in some cases by figures who have been political fixtures since the 1990s. In contrast, in central Mali and northern Burkina Faso one finds the violence is often led by people who have emerged as key actors only during the conflict itself, and who were relatively unknown before.
  • The trend lines, particularly for Mali and Burkina Faso, are horrific. In my view much of the increase in violence stems from the compounding effects of previous violence – as I have said before here on the blog, I am skeptical about the idea that COVID-19 on its own triggered major spikes in violence and/or decisively empowered jihadists in the region.

Let’s now turn to country-specific graphics. Here is Luengo-Cabrera’s graphic for Mali:

A few thoughts:

  • The fine print is important here, namely that the fatalities shown for Gao are actually for both Gao and Ménaka; the latter, still-emergent region is obviously part of the tri-border zone that is now the epicenter of the whole Sahel conflict.
  • Note too that within Mopti, the deadliest region, the east (or non-flooded zone) is substantially more violent than the west. Among the factors here may be that according to some Malian experts I’ve talked to, jihadist control is much more consolidated in the west (in cercles/districts such as Tenenkou and Youwarou) than in the east. I think Stathis Kalyvas’ model about contested control driving violence is too schematic (see Laia Balcells’ Rivalry and Revenge, for example, for a more complex view), but this issue of fragmented control certainly seems to be one element in making the east more violent than the west. Additionally, inter-ethnic tensions have repeatedly boiled over into mass violence in eastern Mopti – it is there that the most infamous massacres of the conflict (Ogassagou March 2019, Sobane-Da June 2019, Ogassagou February 2020, etc.) have occurred.
  • Why was 2017 the real turning point to mass violence? Some analysts may immediately answer “JNIM,” referring to Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wa-l-Muslimin (the Group for Supporting Islam and Muslims, an al-Qaida-sponsored coalition that was announced in March 2017). But the constituent elements of JNIM were all present in the conflict before their formal grouping under that umbrella. Other factors, then, include the spread of the central Malian conflict into eastern Mopti, the emergence of ethnic militias such as Dan Na Ambassagou (which was formed in the final months of 2016), and an escalating cycle of abuses by both the militias and the state security forces (and the jihadists, obviously). This is not an exhaustive list of the forces driving a really complicated conflict, of course. But perhaps in sum one might say that 2017 is the year that various trends really collided to produce an accelerating downward spiral.

Here is Luengo-Cabrera’s graphic for Burkina Faso:

My comments:

  • The puzzle we have in explaining why things really deteriorated in Mali in 2017 is, mutatis mutandis, the same puzzle we have for 2019 in Burkina Faso. Again, one could posit the same basic collision of factors: jihadist violence, inter-ethnic tensions, and security force abuses. A symbol for all of 2019 could be the massacre at Yirgou that opened the year; in that event you have all the elements for multi-directional violence – a (presumed) jihadist assassination, a collective reprisal against an ethnic group, impunity for perpetrators of violence, etc.
  • Another puzzle that I’ve meant to work on is why the Nord region is not more violent. Note that the Sahel Region accounts for over 1,000 fatalities but that the Nord Region has little more than 150. Yet the Nord Region is actually closer to eastern Mopti than is the Sahel Region. One lesson here, then, is that Burkina Faso’s conflicts are not merely a spillover of central Mali’s conflicts.

Here is Luengo-Cabrera’s graphic for Niger:

Remarks:

  • Luengo-Cabrera notes in a follow-on post that it is 66%, rather than 86%, of the fatalities for the first half of 2020 that occurred in Tillabéri. Still, Niger’s trends are fundamentally different than neighboring countries’ because Niger’s deadliest zone used to be far in the southeast, in other words in the zone affected by Boko Haram and its offshoots. 2015 was a bad year in Diffa, as southeastern Niger experienced a wave of attacks, partially representing Boko Haram’s reprisals against Niger for Niger’s participation in the joint Chadian-Nigerien-Nigerian campaign that broke up Boko Haram’s formal territorial enclave in the first several months of 2015. Diffa was already under a state of emergency by February 2015, and has remained under one ever since. In contrast, it was not until March 2017 that the Nigerien authorities declared a state of emergency in parts of Tillabéri and adjacent Tahoua. Things have only worsened since then, and this year looks to be the rough equivalent for Niger of 2017 for Mali and 2019 for Burkina Faso. Meanwhile Diffa is relatively calm compared to the situation there in 2015, or the situation in Tillabéri now.
  • The best thing I’ve read on Tillabéri recently is this Crisis Group report.

Finally, here is Luengo-Cabrera’s graphic for Chad (Mauritania is relatively calm, so I won’t cover it here):

A brief comment is that the areas affected by Boko Haram and its offshoots are deadlier than whatever rebellion(s) are simmering in the north. Daniel Eizenga’s briefing on Chad and Boko Haram from April of this year remains highly relevant for understanding the situation there.

I don’t have much to offer for a conclusion except that things are quite bad, especially in the tri-border zone. I don’t think counterterrorism operations are really helping that much. And in addition to the violence, you have mass and growing displacement (for which Luengo-Cabrera has also made graphics, but I’ll leave that for another time), food insecurity, and many other factors contributing to a really nightmarish picture for millions of people.

A Critical Reading of an Interview with Operation Barkhane’s General Cyril Carcy

When writing yesterday’s post on the Franco-Sahelien security summit in Nouakchott, I spent some time looking at sources from France’s Sahel-wide counterterrorism mission, Operation Barkhane, as part of my attempt to assess what military progress French forces have really made in the Sahel. One item I found was this interview with Barkhane’s General Cyril Carcy, Deputy for Operations. I’d like to discuss a few misconceptions – or outright errors, in my view – that appear in Carcy’s responses.

First, Carcy appears to have a somewhat strange understanding of the two main jihadist formations in the Sahel, Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wa-l-Muslimin (JNIM) and the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara. One odd thing is the translation and acronym for JNIM that Carcy uses. The standard translation, in both English and French, is “the Group for Supporting Islam and Muslims.” In French this is usually rendered Groupe de soutien à l’islam et aux musulmans or Groupe pour le soutien de l’islam et des musulmans (in either case, abbreviated GSIM). Carcy, however, calls JNIM the “Rassemblement pour la victoire de l’Islam et des musulmans (RVIM),” which I would translate as “Assembly for the Victory of Islam and Muslims.” Leaving the issue of “assembly” versus “group” aside, I think that translating the Arabic “nusra” as “support” or “aid” is better than translating it as “victory,” and this nuance can matter for how you understand JNIM’s self-presentation. The translator who supplied this phrase to Carcy may have been working from the Arabic version of JNIM that one sometimes sees, namely Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wa-l-Muslimin, where you could translate “nasr” as “victory” (although you could also translate it as “help/support.” But in official JNIM releases I’ve typically seen “nusra” instead of “nasr.” It’s not a big deal, I suppose, but it’s just an odd note at the beginning of the interview, given how widespread the GSIM acronym and the attendant translation are in Francophone media.

More substantively, Carcy has an understanding of JNIM that is both highly al-Qaida-centric and oddly ethnicized. He says the following:

The face of Al Qaida is manifested through the Assembly for the Victory of Islam and Muslims (RVIM) created March 1st 2017 by Iyad Ag Ghali. It is an identitarian model aiming to safeguard a way of life, fairly close to that of the Tuareg, but also aiming to preserve a space allowing itself to engage in the worst forms of trafficking.

The remark about trafficking captures something of the situation, but Carcy’s casual mention of trafficking obscures wider dynamics. As Crisis Group has written, the implication of drug traffickers in northern Mali is wide-ranging and complex:

Major traffickers maintain relations with both Malian authorities – which the latter denies – and political and military groups in the north; indeed often trafficking networks are embedded in, or overlap with, those groups, who themselves depend on trafficking to finance their operations and to buy weapons. That said, ties between armed groups and traffickers are not trouble-free: they do not always share the same interests. Rivalries among trafficking networks sometimes provoke confrontation between armed groups that those groups would prefer to avoid.

Meanwhile, Carcy’s remarks about “an identitarian model aiming to safeguard a way of life” are basically wrong, I would say. In my view JNIM is a complex coalition. On one level, JNIM is a vehicle for the political ambitions of Iyad ag Ghali, which are related to the preservation and expansion of his own position within northern Malian politics and the politics of the entire region. Even though ag Ghali hails from a “noble” clan within the Kel Adagh Tuareg confederation and even though he has frequently shown those aristocratic colors in his political maneuvering, he has also proven repeatedly disruptive to hierarchies and political settlements in northern Mali and beyond. Ag Ghali is not the avatar of tradition against modernity or whatever. On another level, JNIM is the latest focal point for hardline jihadists in the region, who may have substantially affected ag Ghali’s worldview and identity, but are also not themselves fundamentally seeking to “safeguard a way of life” connected to the Tuareg (or the Arabs or the Peul). Finally, as that parenthetical indicates, JNIM is not – in my understanding – a Tuareg ethnic formation even if though is led by a prominent Tuareg politician. Ironically, when and where JNIM is accused of serving an ethnic agenda, it is accused of serving a Peul ethnic agenda in the center of Mali – and that accusation, too, is off base. In central Mali, to compress a lot of research (mostly by others!) into one sentence, JNIM has championed the interests of particular segments of society, including Peul shepherds against both Peul oligarchs and Dogon farmers. But JNIM is not trying to rewind the clock of history or to stave off historical change. Rather, JNIM seeks to be an agent of radical change not just in military facts on the ground but in intra-communal and inter-communal relations in the Mopti Region of Mali and elsewhere.

Carcy’s understanding of ISGS is also off base, I would say. Here is his framing:

ISGS is an internationalist model founded upon a millenarian ideology…Composed of young people who have turned toward jihadism for lack of social prospects, ISGS seeks to extend its zone of predation in order to increase its recruiting ground, as well as its financing through zakat [Islamic tithe].

Why is JNIM an “identitarian model” while ISGS is an “internationalist model”? If JNIM is recruiting down-and-out youth, what’s necessarily “internationalist” about that? And it is true that the Islamic State’s central leadership has been rhetorically millenarian – but is that true for ISGS? I haven’t seen much end-of-the-world talk in their statements. And is it true that most of their financing is through “zakat”? I wonder what kinds of intelligence briefings Carcy and other top Barkhane commanders are getting, and where the underlying information comes from, and how much French officials’ ideological blinders are shaping how they perceive the ideologies and functioning of these jihadist groups.

For another perspective, here it’s worth citing another Crisis Group report (.pdf, p. 1), this one on ISGS in the Tillabéri region of Niger:

In northern Tillabery, as elsewhere in the Sahel, an excessive focus on counterterrorism has however resulted in the overuse of military tools for a conflict that is fundamentally driven by inter- and intra-communal competition over rights and resources, which the Islamic State has exploited. Counter-terrorism strategies seeking to weaken jihadist groups are neither illegitimate nor unfounded, but the way they have been conducted in Niger has often enflamed the situations they seek to calm. These strategies have, for example, accelerated the militarisation of border communities and fuelled the stigmatisation of members of the Peul nomadic group, whom other local communities often regard as the Islamic State’s closest collaborators on the ground. They have also led to killings of civilians who are accused of being or are mistaken for Islamic State elements. As Niamey mounts a new counter-terrorism push in response to the surging violence along the border, local communities in northern Tillabery are already alleging that military operations have caused scores of civilian deaths.

Another strange thing about Carcy’s comments is that his framing concerning jihadist groups seems to shift from answer to answer. In the response I discussed above, JNIM is “identitarian” and ISGS is “millenarian”; in another response, without naming either group, Carcy says that the region’s jihadists were “identitarian” in 2014 when Barkhane began, but now Barkhane “must reduce a franchise that makes no demand, seeking simply to increase its zone of predation against a population already afflicted by poverty.” Which is it? And is it true that JNIM makes no coherent demands? I’m pretty sure it does – one of those demands, of course, is that France leave. Barkhane might not like that, but you can’t say it’s not clear.

Carcy, like other French officials, is also vague on another critical point – the “return of the state” and “development,” the third and fourth pillars of the Coalition for the Sahel and of the outcomes from France’s Pau summit back in January. On the one hand, it makes sense that a military commander would have more to say about the first two pillars of the Coalition, namely counterterrorism and military capacity. But Carcy’s comments toward the end of the interview, about Barkhane’s “support for political efforts for stabilization and development,” are thin. He concludes the interview by saying, “The objective is to prove to the population that there is an alternative to the terrorist system, which is a totalitarian model founded on terror.” And here we’re back to the same contradictions and outright incoherence – if jihadism offers an “identitarian model” that protects ways of life or offers protection and prospects to down-and-out youth, then how can it be a “totalitarian model founded on terror”?

I’m not sure that French officials really have a fleshed-out version of what “the return of the state” really means. Turning from military officials to the civilian side, French President Emmanuel Macron said the following at the Nouakchott summit:

Macron said that “it is the prefects, magistrates, police officers, and judges who will permit us to truly turn the situation around.”

This is slightly more detailed than what one hears from Barkhane commanders, of course, but it’s still basically a cliche, and one that gives no sense that France has a theory of change about how exactly these civilian authorities will “return” to the conflict zones. Moreover, French officials seem to not understand the fact that civilian authorities’ behavior (the “rackets” that Adam Thiam and others have written so carefully about) in certain zones – the behavior of those same prefects, magistrates, police officers, and judges – was a crucial factor in setting the stage for the present conflict.

Finally, Macron’s remarks about the “return of the state” are effectively undercut, I think, by rhetoric like this:

“We only have one enemy in the Sahel: Islamist terrorism.”

Rida Lyammouri responds better than I could:

And again, you see the problems not just with Macron’s remarks but with Carcy’s – what is France really doing in the Sahel? Fighting “totalitarianism” and “millenarianism,” in other words fanatics? Or trying to maneuver in an extraordinarily complicated political context where ordinary fighters have multi-faceted motivations for aligning themselves with various armed groups? The conceptual framework that Macron, Carcy, and others are using is both simplistic and self-contradictory, and one wonders how any effective policy can be founded upon such a framework.

Mali: On Moussa Timbiné, the New President of the National Assembly, and a Bit of Context

On May 11, following legislative elections held in two rounds on March 29 and April 19, Mali’s 6th National Assembly selected Moussa Timbiné the body’s new president. Timbiné replaces Issaka Sidibé, who served in the position from 2014-2020.

Timbiné, 47, belongs to President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta’s Rassemblement pour le Mali (Rally for Mali, RPM). He was a founding member of the party in 2001, coming from a background in student union activism and then working his way up the ranks of the party as a youth leader and then an elected official, rising to become second Vice President of the Assembly in its last iteration. He is ethnically Dogon and Songhaï, hailing from the Bandiagara administrative district of the Mopti Region, central Mali. In parliament, however, he represents the capital Bamako’s Commune V. A longer biography of Timbiné can be found here (French).

Timbiné is seen as a close ally not just of Keïta the father but also the president’s influential son Karim. (Notably, outgoing National Assembly President Sidibé is Karim Keïta’s father-in-law.) Observers see the Keïta family’s strong hand in putting forth Timbiné, whose candidacy as speaker was a bit of a surprise; until a day before the vote, the RPM’s designee had been another deputy, Mamadou Diarrassouba, who represents Dioïla in the southern Koulikoro Region.

Ironically, moreover, Timbiné had recently nearly lost his own seat. After the second round of voting, provisional results gave the barest of victories, 50.4% to 49.6%, to an opposition  candidate, Boubou Diallo. Diallo belongs to the Union pour la République et la Démocratie (Union for the Republic and Democracy, URD), the country’s foremost opposition party, whose leader Soumaïla Cissé was kidnapped on March 25 and is still in captivity. Indeed, the overall results from Bamako at first appeared to be a bloodbath for Keïta’s RPM there, with the party losing all but one seat (Karim Keïta’s) of the nine it held going into the elections. On April 30, however, Mali’s Constitutional Court reversed the results from various constituencies; by the revised figures, RPM gained ten seats, including four in Bamako, of which one was Commune V. RPM came out with 51 seats total, giving it the largest bloc in the National Assembly but falling well short of a majority. In any case, for those who regard the election results as compromised, Timbiné’s installation as president of the assembly is symbolic and symptomatic.

The scope of Timbiné’s victory within the assembly also raises questions about how much of an opposition there really is in Mali. Timbiné received 134 votes out of the body’s 147 members, against 8 votes for former Prime Minister Moussa Mara. Reportedly, some or even all of the URD members even voted to support him (or were given instructions to cast blank ballots, depending on which account you read). The URD deputies’ behavior angered many of the party’s supporters, prompting party leadership to issue what reads like an apology. In any event, the RPM’s losses in the election and its minority share within the new assembly do not necessarily mean that President Keïta and his allies have lost their grip on the chamber.

 

Mali: The Politics of a Prisoner Release in Mopti (and Bamako)

On 19 February, the Malian government announced that it had secured the liberation of Makan Doumbia and Issaka Tamboura; the former is the prefect of Tenenkou Cercle, one of the most troubled districts in the central Mopti Region, while the latter is a journalist who was kidnapped in Douentza Cercle, another troubled Mopti area. The two men were seized in separate incidents in Mopti in 2018, and were also liberated on different days.

As RFI details, various theories are circulating as to how the Malian government obtained the releases. RFI casts doubt on the idea that a military rescue operation occurred, suggesting that there is a greater likelihood of a prisoner exchange.

A reporter from Sahelian.com was able to meet Doumbia during his captivity (see this video and report). The kidnappers identified themselves as members of Katibat Macina or Macina Battalion, part of the jihadist coalition the Group for Supporting Islam and Muslims (Arabic acronym JNIM). It is quite possible that the journalist’s contact with Doumbia was a key step toward his release, although Sahelien has not to my knowledge commented on that aspect of the affair.

Local politicians and government officials have been recurring targets of violence and intimidation, and government authority has unraveled in Mopti partly because of the cumulative and mutually reinforcing effects of assassinations and kidnappings of village heads, sub-prefects, prefects, and so forth. Jihadist kidnappings have also targeted relatively ordinary citizens, such as teachers; such kidnappings appear designed to serve not just as sources of financing but also as techniques of control over local populations. At the same time, one feature of the Mopti crisis is its opacity and murkiness – it is not always clear who is killing whom, or who is kidnapping whom.

In any case, the government of President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta was eager to broadcast this bit of good news from Mopti – the two men met not just IBK, but also Prime Minister Soumeylou Maïga and four other prominent cabinet ministers in a highly publicized event. The proceedings seem designed to show that the Malian government cares deeply about its citizens.

But as Sahelien and others have pointed out, other hostages have died during captivity in Mopti, while still others remain unaccounted for.

Mali: What Next for the Truth, Justice, and Reconciliation Commission?

RFI has an article on Mali’s Truth, Justice, and Reconciliation Commission (Commission vérité justice et réconciliation, CVJR) that raises some important questions. The CVJR, whose official website can be found here, was created in 2014 with a mandate through 2018. RFI expects that the mandate will be renewed, but at least two key challenges remain:

  1. How can the Commission hear from as many victims as possible? The article mentions that the office in Kidal only opened two weeks ago; even more seriously, victims can face reprisals if they are seen talking to the Commission. Then too there is the problem of severe violence in the center of Mali, particularly Mopti, which creates waves of new victims as well as new difficulties pertaining to victims’ access to the Commission.
  2. How will the Commission’s plans for a victims’ reparations law be squared with plans for a law of “national understanding,” which some critics call an amnesty? (For one commentary on the law, see here, and for one version of the text, see here.)

These are big questions, of course, and debates over “justice” versus “peace” can be extremely fraught. My own thinking on the bigger picture was heavily influenced by Jacob Mundy’s book Imaginative Geographies of Algerian Violence, which deals in part with ways  that forgetting can be just as important to peace as remembering can.

But to move from the big picture back to the details, I was interested to look a bit into the commission’s structure. From the website, one learns that it comprises twenty-five commissioners, directed by a president (Ousmane Oumarou Sidibé, a lawyer and former labor minister) and two vice presidents (former parliamentary deputy Hat ag Baye* and Islamic scholar El Hadj Sidi Konake). One could say that northerners have a large representation on the commission, with the president coming from Timbuktu, one of the vice presidents (ag Baye) coming from Gao, and at least nine of the commissioners having recognizably Arab or Tuareg names. This is not to say that the commission’s balance is off – after all, the north was where the violence began in the current cycle of conflict, and where many of the victims still are. And the other vice president (Konake) is from Mopti, so that region has senior representation too. I guess what is striking is the comparison between this northern-dominated Commission and many other organs of the Malian government, where northern representation is quite thin. On the other hand, one doesn’t want to get too caught up in the politics of representation, which easily becomes an end in and of itself – what matters is the quality of performance.

A final note is that there are several commissioners with connections to Mali’s High Islamic Council, which could mean both that the Commission actively sought out religious leaders as members and/or that the High Islamic Council had a lot of say in who got to sit on the commission.

*Ag Baye replaced Nina Wallet Intallou, who became Minister of Tourism.

 

Mali: Does Telling People Not to Kill Each Other Work?

The below message floated across the Twitter feed the other day and caught my eye:

The full official article from MINUSMA – that is, the United Nations Multi-Dimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali – is here. It describes how eight community radio stations are getting kits with laptops, microphones, antennas, and other equipment.

On the one hand, this kind of project is inspirational. MINUSMA’s support is going to expand the physical reach of community radio stations in Mopti, the most violent region in Mali today. In other words, broadcasts will increasingly reach the isolated rural areas where violence is severe. The article is full of moving quotes from Mopti radio broadcasters and listeners, such as the following: “Getting timely, effective, true, and exact information in each village, each community, headed for each citizens, is essential for reducing tensions” and “The radio changes our lives. It gives us the feeling of being part of a society.” The radio broadcasters and staff put themselves at considerable risk in order to disseminate information, and that is extremely admirable.

On the other hand, I question the assumptions that MINUSMA seems to embrace. I’m sure there will be “monitoring and evaluation” galore, but to me one can never really evaluate whether something like this is making a difference beyond an anecdotal level. If overall violence in Mopti gets worse in 2019, does that mean the project failed? And if violence declines, did the project succeed? But even beyond the monitoring and evaluation component, what is the theory of change? Is it that people who are already desperate enough, or angry enough, or ideologically motivated enough, or opportunistic enough to kill will be dissuaded from doing so by a radio broadcast? I believe that media can incite and encourage violence – but does it follow from that proposition that media can also reduce and constrain violence? I’m not so sure. I believe that media can be a powerful tool that rebels and jihadists use to win recruits and sympathizers – but does it follow from that that government-backed or UN-backed media can reverse or effectively counter such recruitment? Again, I’m skeptical. Picture yourself as a twenty-five-year-old bandit in the Youwarou cercle, or a sixteen-year-old jihadist in the Tenenkou cercle, or a forty-eight-year-old hunter in the Bankass cercle – is there a radio broadcast, or even a succession of radio broadcasts, that would make you lay down your arms? Picture yourself living deep in the bush, trusting only a few people, grieving losses of relatives or friends who have been killed by others, grieving (consciously or unconsciously) over those whom you yourself have killed – what could a radio broadcaster say to you?

And is it not possible that the newly equipped community radio stations will now be more attractive targets? New laptops, new antennae, MINUSMA funding…

Why not just give this money directly to the poor in Mopti?

 

 

Two Recent Reports on Mali by Human Rights Watch and SIPRI

Two new major reports on Mali have appeared recently. Here is a short synopsis/excerpt of each.

1. Human Rights Watch, “Self-Defense Group Abuses in Central Mali” (full report here)

This report concentrates on Bambara and Dogon ethnic self-defense groups in Mali’s central Mopti region, and on the broader dialectic that features (a) jihadist recruitment among the Peul, (b) Bambara and Dogon violence against the Peul, and (c) retaliatory violence by jihadists and Peul communities against the Bambara and Dogon. The report also notes how the Malian state and military, though various forms of both presence and absence, have contributed to the violence.

One thing I really appreciated about the report was that in addition to highlighting jihadism, ethnic tensions, and resource disputes, it also really emphasized how the availability of small arms fuels the conflict. Here is an excerpt from p. 21:

Community leaders from all ethnic groups and security analysts in the region told Human Rights Watch that the proliferation of semi-automatic assault rifles and other weapons in the possession of self-defense and Islamist armed groups was contributing to the lethality of the communal violence.

Many said Mali’s cycles of armed conflict in the north was an obvious factor leading to arms proliferation, but they questioned how, more recently, the self-defense groups had procured so many weapons and ammunition without the government acting to control the problem. A European security expert said: “The Dogon and Bambara self-defense militias have more and more AK-47s (Kalashnikov assault rifles), and seemingly endless stocks of ammunition. These are very poor communities so how can they afford to buy all this stuff?”

Villagers said self-defense or hunting societies were traditionally armed with artisanal or single-barrel shotguns and only started seeing “war guns” within the last few years. “The arms they [militias] are using are not the ones our fathers used,” one market woman said. “When they fired, the earth trembled.”

Many local residents and external observers (including me) are increasingly troubled by the question of where these weapons, and the money used to purchase them, come from.

2. SIPRI, Aurélien Tobie and Grégory Chauzal, “State Services in an Insecure Environment: Perceptions among Civil Society in Mali” (full report here)

This report starts with the finding that Malians by and large want the state to provide essential services but see it as sometimes incapable of doing so. In areas of state weakness or absence, communities are pursuing their own strategies and models. The study is based on a survey, and the variations within responses (by gender, region, topic, etc.) are extremely interesting. Here is one example from pp. 9-10:

The questionnaire also included questions on the best level for decision making, as the issue of decentralization is important in Mali. Initiated in the 1990s, the process of decentralization is regularly debated in the context of the recurring crises. Closer proximity to the decision-making process is sometimes seen as a way to adapt services to local needs and demands…

However, respondents’ preferences for national or decentralized service provision seem to depend on the sector considered: while most respondents were in favour of a nationalized justice system, most preferred transport, water, healthcare and food security to be decentralized. Preferences for education and security were less clear-cut and varied by region, with the South often standing out: respondents in the South tended to favour the nationalization of security policies, whereas those in the North and Central zones wanted them to be decentralized. On the question of education, the opposite pattern appeared: most of the respondents in the South wanted this to be decentralized, whereas those in the North and Central zones wanted a national policy. This may be due to the fact that education is considered a strong vector of integration in Mali and is seen as one of the main instruments for fostering national cohesion. The lack of educational infrastructure in the North, including the absence of a university, has been seen as an obstacle to the development of the regions there.

 

Mali: Roundup on the Reported Death of Amadou Kouffa

In November, media outlets reported that French and Malian forces had killed Amadou/Hamadoun Kouffa, the foremost jihadist in central Mali, on 23 November. A few days later, French Minister of the Armies Florence Parly confirmed Kouffa’s death (see also her initial statements on the raid). An official statement from France’s counterterrorism mission in the Sahel, Operation Barkhane, can be found here. The operation seems to have taken place in the Mopti region of Mali, near the Malian-Mauritanian border.

The organization Kouffa belonged to – Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wa-l-Muslimin (JNIM, the Group for Supporting Islam and Muslims), a part of al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) – has not yet issued a eulogy. The Mauritanian journalist Muhammad Mahmud Abu al-Ma’ali has said that a source within JNIM denied Kouffa’s death and proclaimed him to be in good health. (See also here.)

I have never seen a really definitive biography of Kouffa, but some profiles can be found here and here.

There is a lot to say about Kouffa, but I want to start with a roundup of the coverage of his reported death:

  • The Malian journalist Adam Thiam makes a number of excellent points here, including how one might know whether Kouffa is dead in the absence of a eulogy (e.g., if Kouffa’s wives go into formal mourning, or if he does not surface soon on WhatsApp messages, or if a successor is named). Thiam goes on to say, “It will be difficult to find a natural successor with the stature of the late preacher. But the bleeding will not necessarily stop.” Thiam notes that various root causes of the insurgency in the center are still in place, ranging from Malian army abuses to ethnic and resource conflicts to the continued influence of Iyad ag Ghali, JNIM’s leader. Thiam also notes, sagely, that Kouffa’s death may have unanticipated consequences.
  • An in-depth report at Le Monde surveys Kouffa’s life and career and discusses the potential impact of his death.
  • Also at Le Monde, Thomas Hofnung warns – in a similar vein to Thiam – that by killing Kouffa, France/Mali struck at the top of the pyramid while failing to halt the expansion of that pyramid’s base. Hofnung emphasizes the issue of governance in the center and preventing “a war of all against all.”
  • On Twitter, MENASTREAM wrote a thread giving important details and context about the raid and its significance, including the very important point that Kouffa had recently appeared in a video, and that there seems to be something of a trend where jihadist leaders who expose themselves by making videos can end up quickly targeted and killed by counterterrorism forces. See MENASTREAM’s thread on that video here, and the video itself is here.
  • Both MENASTREAM and Aurelien Tobie, in a separate thread, note another important detail about the raid: as many as thirty JNIM/Kouffa fighters, including other officials of the group, were reportedly killed alongside Kouffa. So the group’s losses may extend well beyond just their regional leader.
  • Arabic-language Mauritanian media outlets such as Sahara Medias have also covered the raid in some depth, but have not, in my view, added many distinctive details.

Mali: Another Look at the Presidential Election Results

The “Les Afriques dans le Monde” project at Sciences Po Bordeaux has posted some useful maps and charts on Mali’s presidential elections.

Here are a few takeaways:

  • It’s really striking to see the pie charts that include abstentions. The visuals really underscore the weakness of President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta’s second term mandate.
  • The post highlights that of more than 65,000 new voters added to the rolls for the 12 August runoff, approximately half of them were in Gao and half in the diaspora. These are the kinds of numbers that have raised eyebrows in Mali.
  • The maps showing vote share by region are also extremely useful. The map of the first round highlights how well IBK did in the north (especially Kidal and Gao) and how poorly he did in Mopti (which also had, far and away, the highest number of polling place closures due to violence. Interestingly, as the authors note, IBK’s main rival Soumaïla Cissé had his best score in Timbuktu (20%), and his second-best in Gao, so this is not a story of Cissé doing well in south and IBK doing well in the north – rather, it’s the story of two candidates with significant northern support amid a divided south, where the share of votes going to other candidates was much higher. Cissé had minimal support in the south, actually.
  • The map of the second round reinforces these patterns. IBK dominated Kidal, but Cissé preserved a substantial vote share in Timbuktu (increasing, actually, to 26% there) and Gao. Only in those two regions, moreover, was the share of people voting greater than the share of people not voting. In the south, again, Cissé had relatively little support. Moreover, abstentions reached 70% in Segou, Bamako, and Sikasso.
  • I would reiterate what I’ve said before, namely that IBK is in some sense not really the president of Mopti (and even, one could argue, Segou). The violence was so severe, and the abstentions so high, that I take the outcome there as a rejection of the process itself.