Africa News Roundup: Mali Kidnapping, Abdel Aziz’s Expected Return to Mauritania, Boko Haram, Eskinder Nega, and More

First, most readers have likely heard that the Movement for Tawhid and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA/MUJAO) claimed responsibility for the kidnapping of a French citizen in Diema, Kayes, southwestern Mali (map – other versions have the kidnapping taking place in Nioro). The Kayes region is not part of the territory held by the Islamist coalition. The kidnapping, it seems to me, will ratchet up security concerns in southern Mali and increase the perceived threat to Western interests posed by the Islamists.

Mauritania’s President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, who was shot on October 13 and spent the last weeks recovering in France, was reportedly expected to return to Mauritania today. Yesterday he gave an interview (French) to RFI and Le Monde on Mauritania and Mali.

AFP: “Suspected French jihadist Arrested in Mauritania.”

Reuters: “Sudan’s information minister had one clear message after security agents moved in to arrest their former spy chief – that a plot had been uncovered, the culprits caught and the situation in the country was now ‘totally stable.’ Khartoum did appear quiet a day later on Friday – but on the desert city’s dusty streets the detention amplified a debate about the future of the country’s leader, and posed new questions about who might one day unseat him.”

Two items on Boko Haram:

  • Al Jazeera: Nigerian “security services have released a list of Boko Haram’s ‘Most Wanted’ men. The list is published with corresponding bounties on offer for the capture of the men, and appeals to members of the public who wish to come forward with information leading to the arrest of the wanted men, to do so…First on the ‘Most Wanted’ list is Abubukar Shekau, the self-styled leader of the group…The other 18 men on the Boko Haram’s ‘Most Wanted’ list, who have bounties ranging from $155,000 dollars down to a more meagre $60,000 dollars upon their heads, names and faces are hardly known to the public or the media. This may make their capture much more difficult.”
  • This Day: “Boko Haram kingpin arrested in Adamawa, Bomb Factory Closed.”

VOA: “Ethiopia’s Federal Supreme Court has postponed hearing an appeal of the conviction of prominent Ethiopian journalist Eskinder Nega and opposition leader Andualem Arage.  But the court gave its first indication Thursday that charges brought by prosecutors under the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation may not be that strong by demanding that prosecutors justify the June convictions.”

IRIN on reintegrating returned refugees in Senegal.


Africa News Roundup: Nigeria’s Oil Export Problems, Somalia’s New Cabinet, Karim Wade Questioned in Senegal, and More

BBC (video): “Nigerian Military Chief Sets Out Mali Plan.”

Jeune Afrique (French): “The MNLA Launches an Offensive against MUJWA in Gao.”


Nigerian crude oil export delays have lengthened, traders said on Friday, a sign that a raft of recent output problems caused by oil theft and flooding are increasingly holding back supplies from Africa’s biggest producer.


Nigeria’s military has killed a top commander of militant Islamist group Boko Haram in the north-eastern city of Maiduguri, an army spokesman has said. Ibn Saleh Ibrahim was killed in an exchange of fire with six of his lieutenants.

On Tuesday, Somalia’s Federal Parliament approved the new cabinet.

VOA: “In Somalia, Political Battle Over Newly Liberated Regions.”

The Economist: “The question of what to do with the charcoal, perhaps worth $40m, could affect the fate of Somalia’s new government.”

Senegalese police summoned Karim Wade, a former cabinet minister and son of former President Abdoulaye Wade, for questioning on Thursday, and have forbade him to leave the country.

BBC (video): “Is Biofuel a Solution for Burkina Faso?”

Mauritania’s President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, wounded in a shooting on October 13, continues to convalesce in France.

What else is going on?

Mali’s Islamist Coalition Responds to External Intervention Discussions

Plans for an external military intervention in war-torn Mali are gathering momentum. Mali’s interim government has agreed to allow the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) to base a 3,000-strong force in Bamako. The European Union is “considering requests to support West African-led military intervention in Mali and to restructure the country’s beleaguered army.” France and the United States have urged the United Nations Security Council to approve ECOWAS’ plans, and France and the African Union have said they will support ECOWAS logistically. Even Algeria “may have to accept the deployment of West African troops in its crisis-hit neighbour Mali contrary to its traditional stance against foreign intervention and focus on internal security, analysts say.”

As Reuters points out, uncertainty about who really rules in Bamako – coup leader Captain Amadou Sanogo, civilian President Dioncounda Traore, or Prime Minister Cheick Modibo Diarra – could efforts to retake Mali’s Islamist-held north. But many powerful actors are pushing for a military campaign of some kind.

These developments have not gone unnoticed in the north. The Malian press has transcribed a phone interview with Oumar Ould Hamaha, a commander within the Islamist coalition that rules northern Mali. I have not been able to find an in-depth profile on Hamaha, but this comment on him from AFP is notable:

Malian national Omar Hamaha, one of the main Islamist commanders in the north, is a case study in the bridges between [Ansar al Din, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa, the main players in the Islamist coalition].

He is known as the second-in-command to the AQIM boss in charge of Gao. But during the seizure of Timbuktu in April, he referred to himself as the chief-of-staff of Ansar Dine, and now says he holds the same position in MUJAO.

“Remember, we are all mujahedeen. Whether a fighter is from MUJAO, Ansar Dine or AQIM, it’s the same thing,” he told AFP.

“We have the same ambition, the application of sharia. Whenever there’s an attack on one of us, it’s an attack on everyone.”

Hamaha is frequently quoted as a spokesman for the coalition in local and international media (see here, for example), where his rhetoric often emphasizes the coalition’s embrace of violence in the service of its determination to impose shari’a across Mali. In the aftermath of the Malian army’s killing of sixteen Muslim preachers earlier this month, Hamaha expressed the Islamist coalition’s rejection of mediation efforts and its objective of capturing Bamako:

He warned that the Islamists would one day attack the south. ‘‘We will plant the black flag of the Islamists at Koulouba,’’ he said, naming the hill on which Mali’s presidential palace sits.

Hamaha reiterated these messages in his recent phone interview (French), in which he expresses defiance regarding the possibility of an external intervention. My translation:

I was contacted last Saturday by the Minister of Defense for discussions. I told him that we are open to dialogue if the government is ready to submit itself to the shari’a. Plainly speaking, if the authorities are ready to apply the sharia. I was surprised that the Minister of Defense spoke to me of secularism (laicite). That impedes all dialogue with them. We are jihadists…We are ready to take the lead and to defeat all armies by the sword, whether they be from ECOWAS or even NATO…Nothing will be able to stop our advance on Bamako and the rest of Mali because we have chosen to die for the religion.

More remarks from Hamaha here (French).

The statement leaves me wondering how seriously to take the threat of the Islamist coalition’s southern advance. The Islamists’ capture of the town of Douentza (map) on September 1 certainly raised some eyebrows, and their repeated references to a southern advance indicates that the threat is not just an offhand comment. On the other hand, advancing into southern areas could stretch the Islamists thin, exacerbate the political backlash they sometimes face, and hand them military defeats. Whatever happens, ECOWAS and other external forces can expect stiff resistance from the Islamist coalition, and external forces may even find themselves initially working not just to retake territory, but to repel new attacks.

Mali: Repercussions of a Small-Town Shooting

Yet another setback for Mali’s government – a significant and tragic mistake that already seems to be snowballing into a catastrophe:

Sixteen Muslim preachers from a moderate sect were shot dead in central Mali as they traveled by road to a religious conference, the Malian and Mauritanian governments said Sunday. Early reports indicate that the men’s long beards aroused the suspicion of Mali’s military, which confused them for the extremists who have taken over the nation’s north.

The preachers were heading to the gathering in Bamako when they were executed in Diabaly, 430 kilometers (267 miles) north of the capital. The dead included at least 12 nationals of Mauritania, the Mauritanian government said in a government communique that blames Malian security forces for executing the preachers. A relative of two of the victims and a Mali police official confirmed this version of events.

See the full article for statements from the Mauritanian and Malian governments. The Mauritanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ statement is available in Arabic here and a press release from the Malian government is available in French here.

Google Maps has no location for “Diabaly,” but does map “Diabal” in the region of Segou.

Some sources have said that the preachers were members of the “Dawa society,” while others have identified them as members of the South Asia-based Tablighi Jamaat, which is also sometimes known in Arabic as Jama’a al Tabligh wa al Da’wa, roughly translated “The Society for Delivering the Message and Calling People to Islam” – da’wa meaning the call to Islam.

Malian authorities have acted swiftly to manage the political fallout from the incident. The country’s foreign minister has traveled to Mauritania to personally express his condolences, and the government has launched an investigation of the incident. This may be enough to assuage anger in Nouakchott.

The Islamist coalition that controls northern Mali quickly condemned the Malian government and portrayed the incident as a trigger for wider conflict:

“With this barbaric act that was not warranted, I don’t see any future for Malian army or the Malian government because we are going to continue our southward push to Bamako. This was a declaration of war,” said Oumar Ould Hamaha, a senior Islamist speaking on behalf [the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa, MUJWA.]

This threat, I think, deserves to be taken seriously.

How did such an incident occur? The details may remain murky, but there are at least two points to be made. The first is that tensions on the ground seem to be running high, making townspeople – who in one version reportedly (Arabic) seized the preachers and handed them over to the army – and soldiers prone to shooting first and asking questions later. The second is that the political confusion and tension in Bamako may filter down to soldiers, especially ones posted near the zone controlled by northern Islamists. With things unsettled in Bamako, soldiers in places like Diabaly may be quicker to act impulsively.

In any case, the incident has brought the Malian government both a diplomatic problem and a new source of contention with the northern Islamists.

Africa News Roundup: Meles on Sick Leave, Anniversary of Somalia’s Famine, Protests in Mauritania, and More

The New York Times has a photo essay on skateboarding in Uganda.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi takes a leave of absence after his recent hospitalization.

The Nigerian government has lifted a state of emergency in Borno and other states, but violence by Boko Haram continues.

In other Nigeria news, “government revenue increased 32 percent to 763.6 billion naira ($92.7 billion) in June from the previous month, boosted by company and oil taxes.”

The BBC and the United Nations mark the one year anniversary of Somalia’s famine.

Anti-regime demonstrations continued this week in Mauritania.

What will President Macky Sall do?

The International Court of Justice on Friday ordered Senegal to prosecute the former president of Chad, Hissène Habré, who has lived comfortably for two decades in Senegal despite indictments in connection with political killings, torture and a host of other brutalities.

As Sudan and South Sudan negotiate in Ethiopia, the South accuses the north of bombing one of its villages.

Three Europeans kidnapped in Tindouf, Algeria last October were freed (in Mali) this week. The government of Burkina Faso helped negotiate their release.

What else is happening?

Political Shifts in Northern Mali [Updated]

This post is more a roundup of overlapping events than an attempt to produce a coherent narrative about the political situation in northern Mali, but the events do share one broad trait: they all instantiate political change, underscoring how fluid the situation remains.

The rebellion in northern Mali was launched in January by the Tuareg-led group the National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad (MNLA, where “Azawad” refers to the three northern regions of Mali). The MNLA’s stated goal has long been independence for that territory. Starting in April and especially since June, the MNLA has lost political and military ground to Ansar al Din (Arabic: Defenders of the Faith), a group that seeks to implement shari’a law across all of Mali. Ansar al Din’s coalition of Islamists includes fighters from Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and an AQIM offshoot called the Movement for Unity/Tawhid and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA).

One recent political shift has been in the MNLA’s stated goals. On Sunday, the MNLA announced that they were (my term) downgrading their quest: instead of seeking full secession, a spokesman said, they now seek “cultural, political, and economic independence.” Their spokesman referenced Quebec as a model. The MNLA further declared its resolve to fight Ansar al Din. The implications of this change in rhetoric regarding secession may be quite serious. Big questions arise: Would the MNLA help the Malian army or outside forces reclaim the north from the Islamist coalition in exchange for guarantees of future autonomy? Does this change of rhetoric signal the MNLA’s desperation (and decreasing political and military relevance)?

Another apparent political shift could benefit Ansar al Din. In June, a trio of northern Malian militias announced the formation of a coalition to “liberate” northern Mali from the rebels. Now it appears that some fighters from one of those militias, the ethnically Songhai group Ganda Koy, have broken ranks to join Ansar al Din. The reasons for this (alleged) shift are unclear to me.

On other political fronts, Ansar al Din is not faring as well. Throughout the spring and summer, there have been reports of protests in northern cities, but it was not always clear whether the protests were targeting the MNLA or Ansar al Din. Now that Ansar al Din is more firmly in control of key northern cities, it seems clearer that recent protests are against the Islamists. I have long argued that Ansar al Din has gained some popular support from its attempts to establish law and order and to provide aid, and I stand by that, but the protests are a sign that significant elements of the local population want the Islamists gone. Ansar al Din’s harsh response to protests last weekend, moreover, could generate further backlash.

Finally, there are outside attempts to split the Islamist coalition. The African Union stated yesterday that Ansar al Din, in Reuters’ words, “can be part of a negotiated political solution to reunite the divided West African country if it breaks with al Qaeda and its allies.” This offer seems unlikely to tempt Ansar al Din so long as they have the upper hand in the north, but it is possible that continued efforts at putting wedges into the Islamist coalition could induce cracks later on if Ansar al Din finds itself on the defensive. It is also possible that the AU’s talk will fall on completely deaf ears.

[UPDATE]: Peter Tinti (in the comments) provides us with a link (French) to an interview with MNLA spokesman Moussa Ag Assarid, in which he denies that the Movement has renounced its goal of independence. He claims the earlier news was misinformation spread by the Movement’s “detractors.” According to him, the MNLA is “ready to have talks with the Malian authorities” under international supervision, but they “have never renounced [their] demand for the independence of the Azawad.”

The spokesman quoted in the piece above on MNLA’s renunciation of secession demands was a different figure, Ibrahim Ag Assaleh, identified by Reuters as “a senior member of the MNLA.” The contradictory rhetoric either indicates that one of the two men (likely Ag Assaleh) does not genuinely speak for the MNLA, or that the movement is divided over how to proceed.

Cholera in the Sahel

News of an outbreak of cholera in Islamist-held Gao, northern Mali (map), has focused some international attention on the problem of cholera across the Sahel region. You can read about cholera’s causes, symptoms, and treatments here.

UNICEF (via VOA) released a statement this week expressing concern about the recent uptick in cholera cases in the western Sahel sub-region:

Since mid-June, the number of people affected by the deadly highly infectious water-borne disease has shot up in the Sahel, especially in Niger’s regions bordering the Niger River, where the Ministry of Health reports nearly three times as many cholera patients over the first half of 2012 compared to the same period last year.

Niger is home to about 400,000 children who are expected to require life-saving treatment for severe malnutrition this year.

Cholera is a recurrent threat throughout the Sahel. Last year, over 67,000 cholera cases were reported mainly around the Lake Chad Basin countries (Chad, Cameroon, Nigeria), with 2,153 deaths and an average case fatality rate of 3.2 per cent.

But this year, the outbreaks appear to be concentrated further to the west around Niger and Mali, where its impact is aggravated by massive displacement of people fleeing the conflict in northern Mali and puts more strain on the children already affected by an acute nutrition crisis. While cholera cases appeared in Cameroon, Niger and Nigeria earlier this year, several other Sahel countries are now facing significant risks, with a sharp increase of cases expected with the onset of the rainy season.

As IRIN summarizes, the number of cases in parts of the Sahel, such as the Lake Chad basin, is lower than it was in 2011, but in Mali and Niger the number is set to rise between August and December, which is peak cholera time.

Decreases in cases this year in countries like Chad and Guinea are due to a combination of acquired immunity, prevention methods, and vaccines.

The Red Cross has worked near Gao to prevent the spread of cholera there, supporting “a treatment centre set up on the spot by the health authorities to prevent the disease from spreading…Local radio stations have begun to broadcast warning messages and recommendations, and Mali Red Cross volunteers are going door to door to distribute treatment products and water.” The Islamist group the Movement for Unity/Tawhid and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA) has also reportedly “told people not to drink the river water or bathe in it in a bid to contain the outbreak.”

Nevertheless, ongoing violence in northern Mali between various rebel groups could complicate efforts at prevention and treatment, potentially allowing the disease to spread. Cholera’s spread would add to the burdens Mali, Niger, and other countries in the sub-region already face, including displaced persons and lack of food. UNICEF, the Red Cross, and other organizations are stepping up their efforts to monitor and contain outbreaks, but the present chaos in northern Mali may well work against them.