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.

Advertisements

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.

Mali Elections: Counting Polling Place Closures from the First Round (Regional and Cercle-Level Data)

Hopefully this post doesn’t duplicate work that has already been done elsewhere, but I have not seen anyone go through and give the cercle-level data from the Malian government’s list of polling place closures from the first round of the presidential elections. Let me restate, for clarity: when Malians voted on 29 July, 871 polling places were closed “for various reasons” (mostly connected to insecurity), according to the government. Those closures were concentrated in one region – Mopti, in the center – and even within Mopti they were concentrated in certain administrative cercles, especially the ones that had already been deeply affected by violence.

So here are some figures on the closures (hand-counted by me, so it’s possible that some mistakes crept in, particularly with Mopti cercle and Tenenkou cercle):

Regional Level

Mali has ten regions (formerly eight). The closures affected four of those regions:

  • Mopti: 729
  • Timbuktu: 101
  • Segou: 39
  • Koulikoro: 2

Both of Koulikoro’s closures were in one cercle, Nara, so I won’t go through that in the counts below.

Cercle Level – Mopti

Mopti has eight cercles (see the Wikipedia map here). The closures affected seven of those cercles (the unaffected cercle was Bankass, the southeasternmost cercle):

  • Mopti: 193
  • Tenenkou: 190
  • Douentza: 154
  • Koro: 58
  • Youwarou: 58
  • Djenne: 50
  • Bandiagara: 26

Cercle Level – Timbuktu

Timbuktu has five cercles (unless my information is out of date since the reorganization from eight into ten regions, in which case I hope readers will correct me; in any case, the Wikipedia map is here). The closures affected four of those cercles:

  • Tombouctou (Timbuktu): 47
  • Gourma-Rharous: 40
  • Niafunke: 12
  • Goundam: 2

Cercle Level – Segou (39 Total)

Segou has seven cercles (Wikipedia map here). The closures affected two of those cercles (the two that border some of the worst-hit areas in Mopti)

  • Niono: 32
  • Macina: 7

I may draw some more conclusions from this data in other posts or pieces, but the immediate and obvious conclusion is the Mopti was the worst affected by far, and that the broad north-south band from Niono in Segou up through Mopti (particularly the western half of the region (Tenenkou, Mopti, Youwarou, Djenne, although obviously Douentza was very bad as well) and then into the Timbuktu region was the main corridor of electoral violence in the first round.

The second round figures are here, although I have not yet seen a cercle-level breakdown of closures. But in the second round as in the first, Mopti was far and away the region with the most closures.