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:

Global Observatory Piece on Chad and Its Western Allies

I’m up at Global Observatory with a piece on Chad. Here’s an excerpt:

The Chadian government is also asking Western and African donors for more development funding. Chad will hold a roundtable in Paris in September to seek contributions for its newly adopted national development plan. Potential partners have already shown a willingness to participate: Deby recently hosted the vice president of the African Development Bank, which is financing projects in Chad’s electricity sector; the Bank confirmed that it will attend the Paris roundtable. The adoption of the development plan was one factor in the IMF’s decision to grant a new loan. The IMF did not make any allusion to Chad’s role in regional security, but other actors are clearly aware of the bargaining power that Chad has with donors because of its security role. Meeting the committee organizing the roundtable, France’s ambassador to Chad asked the Chadian government—according to the paraphrase of a Chadian news site—“to avoid playing the security card.” But the card has already been played, and with effect.

I welcome any comments you may have.

Mbaku on the Challenges Facing Moussa Faki Mahamat at the African Union Commission

Earlier this month, I discussed the process whereby Chad’s Moussa Faki Mahamat was elected chair of the African Union Commission.

Over at the World Policy Institute, John Mukum Mbaku has a smart post on the challenges Mahamat and the AUC will face now. Mbaku identifies five: the Western Sahara issue (now that Morocco has been readmitted to the AU); the International Criminal Court; poverty; “sectarian conflicts”; and terrorism. Here is Mbaku’s conclusion:

During the last decade, the AU has failed to confront major issues threatening peace and security in various parts of the continent. There is hope that Faki, who has gained significant experience dealing with terrorism during his chairmanship of the council of ministers of the G5 Sahel, which has been quite active in the war against terror, can provide the leadership needed to move the AU in the right direction. Some observers believe that Faki’s close working relationship with the EU and the United States in the fight against religious extremism in the Sahel could help him, as AU Commission chairperson, to secure resources for the continent’s peace and security efforts. Although he is Francophone and will be viewed by those countries as representing their interests, he is fluent in English, French, and Arabic and will be able to reach out to virtually all of the continent’s stakeholders. This is critical because dealing with the continent’s multifarious problems would require significant levels of consultation with all relevant groups. Nevertheless, some critics question whether he has the political will to democratize the AU and the continent, especially given Chad’s increasing authoritarianism—Déby has ruled Chad with a strong hand since 1990 and was reelected in April 2016 to a fifth term as president in an election that was considered by many international observers as not fair, free, or credible. Nevertheless, Faki has promised to prioritize development and stability and to undertake necessary reforms to render the AU more responsive to continental crises.

The whole post is worth a read.

An Economy-Focused Cabinet Reshuffle in Chad

Recently, Chadian President Idriss Deby reshuffled his cabinet. Part of the reshuffle was prompted by the departure of Foreign Affairs Minister Moussa Faki Mahamat, who is going (with Deby’s blessing) to become the new chair of the African Union Commission.

Another factor in the reshuffle, however, was the less amicable firing of Finance and Budget Minister Mbogo Ngabo Seli (French), who had only been in his post since August 2016. Seli, it seems, had been unable to maintain a good relationship with Deby’s inner circle and had been equally unable to manage a crisis resulting from the “non-payment of salaries” to civil servants and other key personnel. That “non-payment” is a core part of the budget/austerity crisis that has evoked recurring protests in Chad in recent months, an issue I discuss here (.pdf, p. 13).

In December, there was another firing: Mines Minister Gomdigué Baïdi Lomey (French). In that case, no reasons were given.

The new government promotes Hissein Brahim Taha, the Chadian ambassador to France and a veteran diplomat, to the post of Foreign Affairs Minister. Other new and key appointments include the promotion of three senior technocrats, Christian Georges Diguibaye, Ngueto Yambaye, and Ahmat Mahamat Hassan, to the posts of Finance Minister, Minister of the Economy, and Minister of Justice, respectively. The new government also includes the famous Chadian filmmaker Mahamat Saleh Haroun to the post of Minister of Touristic, Artisanal, and Cultural Development.

The reshuffle did not affect ministers in the security and defense sphere, suggesting that the move was more about dealing with the country’s economic crisis than anything else.

Some Details on Moussa Faki Mahamat’s Election as AU Commission Chair

On January 30, Chadian Foreign Minister Moussa Faki Mahamat was elected the new chair of the African Union Commission (a position distinct from that of AU chair, which is always a head of state and is currently Guinean President Alpha Conde). Here are some key points about how and why he was elected:

  • The election (French) initially involved five candidates: Senegal’s Abdoulaye Bathily, Botswana’s Pelonomi Venson-Moitoi, Equatorial Guinea’s Agapito Mba Moku, Kenya’s Amina Mohammed, and Mahamat. After four rounds of voting, the race narrowed to Mohammed and Mahamat. After Mahamat began to pass Mohammed in the sixth round (French), she withdrew and he was elected on the seventh ballot, 39 to 15 (the 15 being abstentions). The winner needed not just a simple majority, but a majority of two-thirds (i.e., at least 36).
  • As I wrote last July (paywalled), the election of a the new AU Commission chair was meant to be decided then. But West Africa balked at the list of candidates available (which included some of the candidates from this time – Venson-Moitoi and Moku – but not the others), and was not able to insert a last-minute candidate of its own.
  • In a formal sense, Chad is in Central Africa rather than West Africa, but West African (and particularly Sahelian) support was crucial in Mahamat’s ultimate victory. One report (French) says that Mahamat won in part because of fragmentation within regional blocs during the early rounds – even on the first round, West Africa’s Bathily only received 10 of West Africa’s 15 votes. West Africa’s support steadily shifted to Mahamat during subsequent rounds. The same report talks about an anti-Senegal sentiment among certain key countries, reflecting displeasure with President Macky Sall’s foreign policy as well as suspicions that Senegal is too pro-Morocco (Morocco was just readmitted to the AU after a long suspension, and some countries opposed its re-entry).
  • The key backers of Mahamat after round four of voting were reportedly (French) North Africa (especially Libya, Algeria, Mauritania), the Sahel, and Southern Africa, especially Angola and Mozambique. In other words, much of the continent aligned in favor of Mahamat, while Mohammed retained East African support until the end. Mahamat received only fourteen votes on the first ballot, but he emerged as a consensus candidate.
  • The victory has been widely interpreted as a sign of Chad’s influence and particularly the influence of its President Idriss Deby. As RFI (French) wrote, “It is a victory for Idriss Deby who waged a discreet, but methodical campaign in favor of his protege. It is a victory for Chadian diplomacy, but still more for the Chadian army, which for five years has paid a bloody price in Africa for defending Mali, Niger, Nigeria, and Cameroon against the terrorists of al-Qaida and Boko Haram. Finally, it is a victory for Francophone [Africa] because the outgoing president, Madame [Nkosazana] Dlamini-Zuma [of South Africa], did not speak a word of French.”
  • Chad’s military deployments in recent years directly mapped onto the voting for Mahamat: the West African countries that supported Mahamat over Bathily included (French) Mali, Niger, and Nigeria, as well as Burkina Faso, which borders Mali and Niger and suffered a major terrorist attack in 2016. Chad’s deployments have been expensive financially, but rewarding in foreign affairs. There has been much analysis of how Chad has positioned itself as a key African counterterrorism partner for France and the United States, but clearly Chad has also positioned itself as a key ally for other African countries.

Some biographical details on Mahamat, as well as some coverage of his election, can be found in English here.