Translation and Brief Commentary on the Islamic State’s Claim of Responsibility for the August 9 Attack in Kouré, Niger

Yesterday (September 17), in issue 252 of the Islamic State’s weekly Arabic newsletter Al-Naba’ (available for registered users at Jihadology), the organization stated that it had perpetrated the August 9 attack that killed six French citizens and two Nigerien citizens in the Kouré giraffe reserve southeast of Niger’s capital Niamey.

From the moment the attack was known, suspicion fixed on the Islamic State and specifically on the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS), which operates primarily in the Mali-Niger-Burkina Faso borderlands. As I noted at the time, though, the attack and its aftermath – including the lag between the attack and this claim of responsibility – contributed to a climate of uncertainty and fear in the Sahel and in western Niger specifically. This claim of responsibility will not, I think, alleviate that overall sense of dread, which related somewhat to the question of authorship but was even more connected to the location – Kouré (map) is in a zone that was previously considered safer than other parts of the Tillabéry Region, which encompasses Niamey.

Al-Naba’ is sometimes inaccurate, often short on crucial details, and is obviously quite subjective. I do not see anything glaringly inaccurate in my first reading of the article in Al-Naba’ 252 – but the passage describing the Kouré attack is brief and vague. I urge readers to bear this in mind as Western media and analysts extrapolate from what is ultimately a very skeletal write-up.

In particular, as I wrote on Twitter yesterday, beware the slippage you may see between Islamic State, ISGS, and Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP). ISWAP can refer to a territorial concept used by the Islamic State to describe events in both the Sahel and the Lake Chad Basin, and ISWAP can also refer specifically to a Lake Chad-based organization that originated as a breakaway, majority faction of the (now rump) Boko Haram in 2016. If Islamic State media file ISGS operations as part of activities within “West Africa Province,” that does not mean that ISWAP, in the sense of that Lake Chad-based organization, is directly supervising and participating in ISGS attacks. To repeated what I said on Twitter, note that Al-Naba’ 252 has separate articles for describing recent events in the Lake Chad Basin (p. 7) and the tri-border Sahelian zone of Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso (pp. 9-10). The description of the Kouré attack comes in the latter article (p. 9). So although the Islamic State considers it all “West Africa Province,” even they make an implicit separation in some media products between the Lake Chad Basin (including southeastern Niger) and the Sahel (including western Niger, where Kouré is).

For further context, the section on the Kouré attack is sandwiched between two other sections titled, respectively, “Killing of a Leader in the Movement for the Salvation of Azawad” and “Capture and Killing of a Major Spy for the Forces of Barkhane.” These are two of ISGS’ main enemies – the context is, again, Sahelian and specifically the tri-border zone.

Below I’ve translated the relevant excerpt on Kouré. Three further quick points:

  • The authors at Al-Naba’ seem most excited about the media and propaganda benefits they see in the attack – an opportunity, in the authors’ eyes, to undermine French narratives about counterterrorism in the Sahel.
  • There are no real details about the attack beyond what was known already from press reports.
  • The sense I get is that this was perpetrated by a single unit, most likely belonging to ISGS, and did not represent any complex coordination between ISGS and ISWAP as organizational entities.

Killing of 6 French in a Special Operation Near Niamey

That same Sunday [as an ISGS attack near Indelimane, Mali – map] witnessed a special operation by the soldiers of the Caliphate. The source told Al-Naba’ that a security detachment executed a sudden attack with automatic weapons on a number of France’s Crusader citizens in the Kouré area southeast of Niamey, the capital of Niger. This resulted in the killing of 6 of them after they were captured, and two of their apostate companions from Niger.

The apostates and Crusaders have acknowledged this blow. They demonstrated their fear that it would affect the reputation of their military campaign, through which, they claim, they have been able to kill the mujahidin and curtail their capacity to launch operations against them.

This operation also produced a media hubbub, due to the nationality of those killed and the place in which it occurred, at a distance of only an hour from the capital Niamey in a famous tourist area. It has been considered a major security breach for all the apostates’ defenses.

Boko Haram/ISWAP Roundup for September 17, 2020

Previous roundup here.

The Emir of Biu Umar Mustapha-Aliyu, an important figure in Borno State’s hierarchy of hereditary Muslim rulers, passed away on September 15 at the age of 80. He had been emir since 1989.

Amnesty:

In this open letter to the President, Amnesty International urges the Nigerian government to ensure all children detained in Giwa Barracks, Kainji military base, Maiduguri Maximum Prison, the Operation Safe Corridor facility outside Gombe, and other detention facilities associated with the conflict in Northeast Nigeria are immediately released, or are only detained as a very last resort and held in humane conditions in a civilian facility. The organization also calls for the immediate release of these children and access for them to education and psychosocial support.

Some of the latest violence:

  • An ISWAP attack at Wasaram, Kaga Local Government Area, killed 8 on September 15. “The insurgents had accused the villagers of alerting troops about their movement on their way to rob traders in the nearby town of Ngamdu…Soldiers intercepted the jihadists and engaged them in a gun battle.” ISWAP also reportedly killed 3 others in Auno, another village.
  • Here is the Council on Foreign Relations’ Nigeria Security Tracker for September 5-11.
  • The Islamic State’s Al-Naba’ 251 (10 September, p. 6, available for registered users at the Jihadology website) briefly describes some attacks in Borno, Yobe, and Chad.

UNHCR has published its August 2020 “North-East Situation Update.” An excerpt:

The volatile security environment in North-East Nigeria continues to hinder the provision of Protection and Multisectoral assistance to the affected population in the States of Borno, Adamawa, and Yobe (BAY States). In August, Non-State Armed Groups (NSAG) officially declared humanitarian actors a legitimate target, increasing the risk in the humanitarian delivery programme. In Borno State, indiscriminate attacks against civilian and military targets continued with NSAG mounting illegal vehicle checkpoints to rob, abduct and kill; other incidents have been recorded such as abduction of civilians during daily activities in their farmlands or while fetching firewood in areas outside the safe perimeters in the deepfield locations in Bama, Gwoza, Gubio, Dikwa, and Mungono. In addition, there has been raids on health facilities in Magumeri. In Adamawa and Yobe States several incidents of armed robbery, kidnapping, abduction for ransom, and killing were reported. NSAG attacks and threats of imminent attacks on the communities in North-East is causing widespread fears amongst the civilian population.

Adedigba Adebowale, Premium Times (September 13), “How Boko Haram Insurgency Worsened Malnutrition, Immunisation in Nigeria’s Northeast.”

On September 11, Borno State Governor Babagana Zulum visited refugees in Diffa, Niger and then visited displaced persons in Damasak, Borno. More here about plans to return refugees from Niger to Nigeria.

Niger: A Devastating Report on Summary Executions of Civilians in Tillaberi, and a Hard Denial from the Ministry of Defense

On September 4, Niger’s National Human Rights Commission published its report on the disappearance of 102 civilians in Inates, a commune in the Ayorou Department in Tillabéri/Tillabéry Region; the disappearances in question occurred in incidents between March 27-29 and on April 2, 2020. Here is a map showing Ayorou town – this is western Niger, near the border with Mali. The Tillabéri Region, particularly the border areas, is a major site of operations for the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara – see International Crisis Group’s report on Tillabéri here. As such Tillabéri is also a major zone of counter-jihadist operations. And Niger, which has not had the same level of abuses against civilians as have its neighbors Mali and Burkina Faso, is now – tragically – catching up.

In a mission carried out over several periods between May and July, the Commission found six mass graves with a total of at least 71 bodies, and then worked to identify the bodies and match their names to the list of 102 missing persons. The Commission also generated its own, more numerous and specific, list of mission persons from the area.

The Commission argues strongly that the evidence points toward the Nigerien security forces as the authors of these killings. The Commission notes (p. 64) that all of the people they interviewed identified the military as the authors of mass interrogations in the region. And the Commission further reasons (p. 65) that it is “inconceivable and illogical” to think that jihadists dressed in military uniforms would have crisscrossed the region openly and freely, with “more than a dozen vehicles and tanks,” without drawing the attention of the state. The Commission further rules out the idea (p. 75) that these are bodies of civilians killed during airstrikes – rather, the Commission says, these people were victims of summary executions by the Defense and Security Forces (French acronym FDS). As the BBC notes, the Commission “said it was not possible to say whether top levels of the army were responsible” – an issue that hearkens back to the topic of this post.

In a September 11 statement, Niger’s Minister of Defense Issoufou Katambé rejected the Commission’s conclusions, particularly regarding FDS culpability:

RFI (French) has more on the Ministry of Defense’s reaction, including some provocative comments from the analyst Seidik Abba. He argues that political authorities feel they must give unquestioning support to the military because (a) they need they military to keep fighting in the border areas and (b) they can’t risk provoking a mutiny or even a coup. Abba’s comments definitely made me think – I haven’t rated the risk of a coup very high in Niger, but at the very least I share Abba’s sense that the civilian authorities are loath to avoid antagonizing or “demoralizing” the military hierarchy and the soldiers on the front lines.

Given that attitude, then, I don’t expect much accountability to come out of this process – even though the report is one of the more rigorous and thorough human rights investigations that I’ve seen from a Sahelian governmental body.

That cycle – of abuses, outcry, impunity, and backlash – is not just a byproduct of the Sahelian crisis but a constituent part of it. Both Mali and Burkina Faso have been gripped by the cycle, and it has operated at times in southeastern Niger. Now Tillabéry is, and clearly has been for some time now, facing the same cycle.

Muhammadu Buhari’s Comments on Third Terms Underline ECOWAS’ Credibility Gap on Democracy

Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari was in Niamey, Niger on September 7 for an ordinary summit of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). He made headlines for the following comment:

More of his remarks quoted here:

As leaders of our individual Member-States of ECOWAS, we need to adhere to the constitutional provisions of our countries, particularly on term limits. This is one area that generates crisis and political tension in our sub-region.

Related to this call for restraint is the need to guarantee free, fair and credible elections. This must be the bedrock for democracy to be sustained in our sub-region, just as the need for adherence to the rule of law.

The obvious though unnamed targets of these remarks are Guinea’s Alpha Condé and Cote d’Ivoire’s Alassane Ouattara, both of whom are seeking third terms in elections that fall, respectively, on October 18 and October 31 of this year. One could also, although I’m not sure that this was Buhari’s intention, read his remarks as applying to other leaders in the region who have not sought third terms but who made the electoral playing fields very uneven when running for re-election – I am thinking of Senegal’s Macky Sall and Niger’s Mahamadou Issoufou, both of whom jailed their main opponents while running for (and winning) second terms. And then there is perhaps the most egregious anti-democratic case in the whole region – Togo’s Faure Gnassingbé, who won a fourth term this past February and whose family has been in power since 1967.

Buhari has many faults, but I think he has credibility on this issue of third terms – I do not expect him to seek a third one when his time is up in 2023, and he has repeatedly pledged not to do so. You never know, of course.

The context for Buhari’s remarks about third terms was the ongoing ECOWAS response to the August 18 coup in Mali, which removed second-termer Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta. ECOWAS leaders’ domestic efforts to bend and extend rules have implicitly weakened their credibility in negotiating with different actors in Mali – first the anti-Keïta protesters who threw Bamako’s politics into turmoil from June until the eve of the coup, and then more recently with the junta (the National Committee for the Salvation of the People, French acronym CNSP).

Newsworthy though Buhari’s remarks are, I don’t see pressure from him or others resulting in a course change for Condé or Ouattara. Once presidents start down the third term route they are usually (although not always, as the cases of Nigeria’s Olusegun Obasanjo and Mauritania*’s Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz exemplify) determined to go through with it.

I should probably do a separate post on the ECOWAS summit’s conclusions regarding Mali, but the final communiqué is here (French). The key paragraph on Mali is paragraph 16, page 6, where ECOWAS calls for a 12-month transition back to an elected president, and demands that the CNSP designate an interim president and prime minister, both of them civilians, by September 15. I wouldn’t hold my breath.

*Not an ECOWAS member currently.

A Table Comparing Seven 21st-Century Sahelian Coups

CountryYearCoup?Person RemovedOutcome
Mauritania2005YesMaaouya Ould al-Taya, dictator
in power since 1984 coup
20-month transition to a
civilian administration
with an elected president
who had not been a member of the junta
Mauritania2008YesSidi Mohamed Ould Cheikh Abdallahi, civilian president elected in 200712-month transition to a civilian administration with an elected president who had been the junta’s leader
Niger2010YesMamadou Tandja, civilian president elected in 1999, but who engineered an extra-constitutional third term in 200914-month transition to a civilian administration with an elected president who had not been a member of the junta
Mali2012YesAmadou Toumani Touré, civilian president elected in 20023-week transition to civilian-led transitional government, 17-month transition to elected civilian president
Burkina Faso2014Depends on definitions; came amid a popular revolutionBlaise Compaoré, dictator who came to power in a 1987 coup14-month transition to a civilian administration with an elected president who had not been a member of the junta
Burkina Faso2015YesMichel Kafando and Isaac Zida, who came to power as transitional authorities after 2014 revolution (Note: Zida participated in 2014 possible coup)6-day power struggle and reversal of the coup
Mali2020YesIbrahim Boubacar Keïta, civilian president elected in 2013TBD

I made the above table while working on a separate piece trying to place Mali’s coup, and the international reaction to it, into a wider context. Hopefully the table is relatively self-explanatory, and hopefully it will be useful to those considering historical precedents and contrasts for what is happening now. The one item perhaps not self-explanatory is how to categorize what happened in Burkina Faso in 2014. Clearly there was a popular revolution; the question is whether a military coup occurred in the closing stages of that drama. Here is some contemporaneous reporting about the immediate circumstances and aftermath of Blaise Compaoré’s resignation, and what appeared to be a power struggle between the Army’s General Honoré Traoré and the Presidential Security Regiment’s Colonel Isaac Zida.

We could make the table significantly more complex – adding the ranks of the junta leaders, etc. But I wanted to keep it relatively simple. Perhaps I will revisit it in a future post.

Key Upcoming Dates in Niger’s Electoral Calendar

Niger will hold the first round of its presidential elections, coupled with legislative elections, on December 27 of this year; local and regional elections will come two weeks earlier, on December 13.

The ruling part’s presidential candidate, Mohamed Bazoum, has been in unofficial campaign mode since he left government on June 29. He has been touring the entire country to rally the Parti Nigerien pour la Democratie et le Socialisme (Nigerien Party for Democracy and Socialism, PNDS-Tarayya). Here is one of his latest stops, from the Maradi Region in south central Niger:

So what is supposed to happen, logistically, between now and December 27? A really useful starting point for understanding the Nigerien political system is the Trans-Saharan Elections Project at the University of Florida’s Sahel Research Group, which has pages detailing different countries’ systems – here is the page for Niger.

Another useful resource is this calendar from Niger’s Independent National Electoral Commission (French acronym CENI). I am using the version uploaded to their site on August 6, with a file name dated July 28, so I believe it is fairly current/accurate. Here, according to the calendar, are the key upcoming dates:

  • The main logistical issue at present is the finalization of “biometric electoral lists,” the enrollment of citizens/voters, and the distribution of biometric voter cards. The “definitive Biometric Electoral File” is meant to be published in Niger’s Official Journal on September 4, and distribution of cards is scheduled to begin on September 17 (p. 8). As in other cards, this process has been controversial; the president of CENI, Issaka Souna, gave a press conference on August 30 to address “rumors…that the Commission had turned its back on the Biometric Electoral File and particularly on the biometric voter’s card.”
  • Other preparations in summer and fall involve the training of the electoral corps, the selection of members of voting bureaus, etc.
  • By December 1: The Constitutional Court publishes the definitive list of candidates for the first round of the presidential elections.
  • By December 2: After validation by the Constitutional Court, the government publishes the list of candidates for the legislative elections.
  • December 2-11: The official campaign period for the regional and communal elections.
  • December 5-25: The official campaign period opens for the presidential and legislative elections.
  • December 13: Voters cast ballots in regional and communal elections.
  • Between December 13 and 19: Proclamation of provisional results for regional and communal elections.
  • Between December 20 and January 18, 2021: Proclamation of final results for regional and communal elections.
  • December 27: Voters cast ballots for presidential and legislative elections.
  • By January 1, 2021: CENI publishes provisional results for presidential and legislative elections.
  • Between January 2 and January 30: Constitutional Court announces definitive results for the first round of the presidential elections.
  • Between January 2 and January 31: Constitutional Court announces definitive results for the legislative elections.
  • January 29 (if relevant): The official campaign period opens for the second round of the presidential elections.
  • February 19: Official campaign period closes.
  • February 21: Voters cast ballots for the second round of the presidential elections.
  • Between February 22 and February 26: CENI announces provisional results of the second round.
  • Between February 27 and March 26: The Constitutional Court publishes the final results of the second round.

Brief Analysis

What stands out to me is the complexity of the calendar – any electoral calendar is necessarily going to be complex, but to ask voters to come to the polls twice in two weeks seems fated to cut into turnout on one or both of the voting days. As noted in a previous post, insecurity in western and southeastern Niger may also complicate things, on multiple levels. First, although the presidential election date is highly unlikely to change, and although I wouldn’t expect the legislative election date to change, the same does not hold true for local and regional elections – Nigerien authorities have already suggested that under the state of emergency in the Tillabéry Region in the west, some elections may be delayed. Second, insecurity will undoubtedly limit some voters’ access to polling places – not necessarily because jihadists, bandits, or others directly attempt to close voting centers or block voters’ access (although that may happen, as in central Mali in 2018) – but just because violence and uncertainty will dampen some people’s enthusiasm/willingness for undertaking the necessary travel/risk. Third, you have the closely related issue of displacement. As of July 31, according to UNHCR and Nigerien government data, there are over 265,000 people internally displaced in Niger. That’s a lot of voters, or would-be voters, who may have difficulty casting ballots due to logistical and/or security reasons.

Another thing that stands out to me is the combination of (a) the relatively late date for finalizing the list of candidates and (b) the relatively wide timeframes available to authorities for publishing final results. I don’t think Nigerien authorities will hold back results until the end of those timeframes, but there are, so to speak, ample opportunities for authorities to shape the elections and their outcome on both the front end and the back end of the process.

Boko Haram/ISWAP Roundup for August 27, 2020

Previous roundup here.

Politics

Recent activities and remarks by Borno State Governor Babagana Zulum:

  • Isa Lameen, governor of Niger Republic’s Diffa Region, led a delegation to Maiduguri, Borno’s capital, on August 21 to offer sympathy regarding the recent attack on Zulum’s convoy in Baga, Borno. See press coverage of the visit here, and Zulum’s Facebook post on the meeting here.
  • In an interview with BBC Hausa published on August 21, Zulum said that Boko Haram has recruited internally displaced persons (IDPs) who are frustrated at the lack of opportunity to go home and resume farming. See English-language coverage of his remarks here.
  • Zulum visited Magumeri (map), site of a recent attack, on August 25. His Facebook post on the visit, with excerpts of remarks he gave in Magumeri, is here.

Senator Ali Ndume (Borno South) spoke on August 26 to the Senate Committee on Special Duties and the North East Development Commission at a stakeholders’ meeting in Maiduguri. He emphasized Boko Haram’s impact on his constituents, particularly in his hometown of Gwoza (map).

“Even as a serving senator, I still cannot go to Gwoza my home town because it is not safe,” he said.

“Our security operatives are trying their bests, and we have to give it to them. But the situation is overwhelming. People are dying every day, either from attacks or by hunger. We have lost many lives here.

“There was a time in my home town Gwoza, that about 75 elders most of whom I know personally were dragged by Boko Haram to the town’s abattoir and slaughtered like animals. Only two persons survived because their bodies were covered with other people’s’ blood and the assailants thought they were dead.

“In the same Gwoza, Boko Haram had in a single day lined up young men and summarily shot them dead. These were just some stand out cases.”

The Nigerian human rights activist Chidi Odinkalu, however, poses some critical questions regarding Ndume’s remarks:

Attacks

Here is the Council on Foreign Relations’ Nigeria Security Tracker update for August 15-21.

Punch (August 27):

Jihadists have killed 14 people on a Cameroonian island on Lake Chad near the border with Nigeria after their town decided to block food supplies to the insurgents, security sources said Thursday.

Fighters from the so-called Islamic State West Africa Province landed on the island of Bulgaram aboard speedboats from an enclave on the Nigerian side late Tuesday, they said.

Reports are still emerging about the mass hostage-taking by ISWAP in its August 18 attack on Kukawa, Borno (map).

Nigeria’s The Guardian (August 21):

Jihadists linked to an Islamic State insurgency group have registered their presence in Yobe State, despite claims from the Nigeria Army that the state is free of terrorists.

Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) terrorists Thursday [August 20] dropped leaflets in Buni Gari region of the state [approximate map here] threatening to attack security officials in the region. ISWAP is a splinter group of Boko Haram.

The Boko Haram splinter group Ansar al-Muslimin, commonly known as “Ansaru,” has claimed a few attacks so far in 2020. Here is one, in Kaduna State:

Publications and Reports

The Church of the Brethren is publishing a book of testimonials by members who were victimized by Boko Haram, based on interviews in February-March 2017.

Human Rights Watch (August 25):

Boko Haram used apparent child suicide bombers in an unlawful attack on a site for displaced people in the Far North region of Cameroon, Human Rights Watch said today.

The attack, carried out overnight between August 1 and 2, 2020 in the town of Nguetechewe, killed at least 17 civilians, including 5 children and 6 women, and wounded at least 16. There was no evident military objective in the vicinity.

Here’s one I don’t believe I included in previous roundups – a new factsheet (French) from UN OCHA on Diffa, Niger, covering the period April-June 2020. Among other important details, the factsheet estimates that some 28,000 were displaced in Diffa between December 2019 and June 2020. The factsheet estimates that there are over 125,000 refugees in Diffa and over 100,000 IDPs there, and 740,000 inhabitants. The factsheet further notes a spate of kidnappings by non-state actors (presumably they mean jihadists) and bandits, often targeting women and children.

Niger: Details on the Enlarged State of Emergency in Tillabéry

On August 9, unknown gunmen killed eight people – seven aid workers and their driver – in the Kouré Giraffe Reserve in Niger’s Tillabéry Region. As I’ve written before, Tillabéry is a major conflict zone in the “tri-border zone” between Niger, Mali, and Burkina Faso – but Kouré, east-southeast of Niger’s capital Niamey, was not previously considered a hotspot for violence.

This is reflected in the fact that prior to the attack, the administrative department in which Kouré is located, Kollo, was not under the state of emergency that has applied to parts of Tillabéry since March 2017. The initial state of emergency applied to the departments of Ouallam, Ayorou, Bankilaré, Abala, and Banibangou – in other words, the northernmost departments, those along the border with Mali. In November 2018, the state of emergency, which is typically renewed every three months, was enlarged to the southwest, along the border with Burkina Faso – specifically, the departments of Say, Torodi, and Téra. Another department, Filingué, which is to the northeast of Niamey, was added to the state of emergency in January 2020. For context, here is a map of Tillabéry’s administrative divisions. For further context, Niamey is encircled by Tillabéry but is considered its own separate capital district.

On August 11 of this year, following the attack at Kouré, Niger’s National Security Council placed all of Tillabéry under a state of emergency, including the last two departments that had been exempt – Kollo and Balléyara. For lack of a better word, these two departments as well as Filingué are all “inland”; Niger is, of course, landlocked, but what I mean by “inland” is that these departments do not border Mali or Burkina. In other words, 2020 has brought an implicit acknowledgement from Nigerien authorities that the violence in Tillabéry is not simply a cross-border phenomenon but extends deep into Nigerien territory.

To state the obvious, it’s a bad sign to have the entire region surrounding the capital now under a state of emergency. I do not worry about jihadists (who are the presumed culprits of the Kouré attack) taking over Niamey. I do worry about how it will play out to have the capital under a sort of siege, not just physically but also psychologically.

But the real point of this post is to highlight one dynamic I hadn’t understood before – as outlined in the readout of the August 14 cabinet meeting, the state of emergency allows Nigerien authorities to extend the mandates of municipal, town, and regional councils by up to six months, even up to a cumulative period of five years. This power comes on top of Nigerien authorities’ repeated delays of the municipal elections initially scheduled for 2016, and now scheduled for December 2020.

This is a trend across the Sahel. Incumbents do not typically move presidential elections around – that, I think, would draw significant international attention and objection – but the rest of the electoral calendar is basically up for grabs. Mali’s legislative elections were delayed from 2018 to 2020. Chad’s legislative elections have been delayed since 2015 and are now scheduled for October 2021. These delays reinforce presidential power, whether by preserving presidential majorities and/or by allowing incumbents to hold elections at moments they perceive as favorable – although incumbents can miscalculate, as seems to be the case in Mali, where the disputed March/April 2020 legislative elections were a major factor in triggering the protest movement that has thrown the capital into turmoil this summer.

Obviously it’s hard to hold representative elections amid severe insecurity. And a state of emergency can be a key mechanism for restoring order. But in Niger specifically, the combination of emergency powers for security forces and extended mandates for local officials seems to be part and parcel of a growing authoritarianism that observers have been flagging for quite some time now.

 

The Sahel Partially Reopens After COVID-Related Lockdowns

From everything I’ve read and heard, the Sahel never completely locked down in the face of COVID-19 – closures of borders and institutions were always partial and difficult to enforce, some measures were walked back relatively quickly, and authorities complained about citizens’ non-compliance with directives and recommendations. These difficulties with implementation and enforcement obviously relate to the weak capacities of Sahelien states and to ordinary people’s very understandable needs to keep working and moving amid economic precarity and, for many, actual or looming food insecurity.

Although lockdown was never total, there were some sweeping measures implemented, and the economic impact of even partial lockdowns was intense. (I’m not trying to say that lockdown measures were a mistake, just noting the secondary impacts.)

The Sahel, and particularly Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso, are now in a reopening phase. Mali reopened air borders on July 25 and land borders on July 31; Niger reopened its air borders on August 1, and Burkina Faso reopened its two principal airports on August 1. In all countries, there are restrictions on passengers, such as the requirement for passengers to present fresh test results (less than 72 hours old) in Niger.

I think there are a few factors driving the reopenings:

  1. Official case counts are relatively low – as of August 10, Mali had 2,567, Niger had 1,158, and Burkina Faso had 1,175. Not just the overall numbers but also the rates of increase are low. If you follow journalists and analysts who post the daily case counts for those three countries on Twitter (such as Studio Tamani for Mali, Mamane Kaka Touda for Niger, and Dieudonné Lankoande for Burkina Faso), you’ll see that many days go by with fewer than ten new cases reported. Now, are there many cases going under the radar? I imagine so. Yet I have not seen reports of mass excess deaths – in fact, the death toll has (thankfully) been much lower for the Sahel so far than what I initially expected. All this may give authorities confidence to proceed with phased reopenings.
  2. Relatedly, authorities may be shifting from viewing COVID-19 as a short-term crisis to a long-term but ultimately manageable problem. *By that logic,* it makes sense to keep reopening step by step until and unless there is a dramatic spike in recorded cases.
  3. Political and media attention has decisively turned to other stories, trends, and issues. The M5-RFP protest movement in Mali and the attendant institutional shakeups, the defense procurement scandal in Niger, the approaching presidential elections in Niger and Burkina Faso, the violence (particularly in the tri-border area between the three countries), and many other issues are dominating governments’ time now. It’s not that COVID-19 has fallen off the radar entirely, but it’s no longer seen, I think, as the imminent threat it was seen as back in March and April. One of the most telling things, to me, was that when Mali formed its skeleton cabinet of essential ministers back in late July, Health was not one of them.

The Sahelian situation relates to a wider conversation about why Africa has been less affected by the pandemic than any other continent except the Oceania region. I won’t be able to do that conversation justice here, but this piece by George Kibala Bauer remains essential reading. I leave you with one excerpt:

Many “Africa is doing great with COVID” takes are as problematic as the “Africa is hopeless in the face of this crisis” takes. They lack nuance, downplay the complexity of the situation, and most importantly still operate within the Western gaze.

Two Grim Attacks in Burkina Faso and Niger

Over the weekend, two serious episodes of violence occurred in the Sahel – one in eastern Burkina Faso on Friday (August 7), and one in southwestern Niger on Sunday (August 9). These attacks, and particularly the latter, are being discussed intensely by journalists and analysts, so I will make this post relatively brief.

The August 7 attack targeted a livestock market in Namoungou, a small town in Burkina Faso’s Est (East) Region. The town is approximately 30 kilometers east of Fada N’Gourma, capital of the Est Region. See one map of the approximate location here, and see Héni Nsaibia’s map here. Around 30 gunmen arrived on motorbikes and started firing at civilians, killing some 20 people – all in broad daylight. Strikingly, according to RFI, Namoungou hosted the last functioning livestock market in this part of the Est Region, other than the one in Fada N’Gourma itself. The incident has clear parallels with attacks on livestock markets elsewhere in the east, including at Kompienbiga in May of this year.

The August 9 attack in Niger, meanwhile, killed eight people, including six French aid workers, their Nigerien guide, and their Nigerien driver. At least some, and perhaps all of the French victims worked for the charity ACTED. The attack occurred in or near the Kouré Giraffe Reserve (map), which is some 65 kilometers east-southeast of Niamey, Niger’s capital. Kouré is in the Tillabéri region, which is a hotspot for violence, but Kouré is well away from the main zones of violence within Tillabéri, which are to the northwest of Niamey rather than to the capital’s east and south.

A few thoughts:

  1. Neither attack was immediately claimed, and murkiness surrounding perpetrators and motives is a core feature of the conflict(s) in the Sahel. As Nsaibia noted, survivors from the Namoungou attack pointed fingers not at jihadists but at the country’s volunteer fighters (formally the Volunteers for the Defence of the Fatherland, French acronym VDP). See some background on the VDP here. Regarding the Niger attack, meanwhile, al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) rushed to disavow responsibility. That leaves the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) as the primary suspect, and ISGS does not always claim its attacks immediately. Some attacks never get claimed at all. The point is that in the immediate aftermath of major incidents of violence, there is a lot of confusion, including on the ground. Meanwhile, Sahelien heads of state and senior officials routinely point not just to jihadists when decrying violence but also to “bandits” and “criminals” – see Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta’s condolence message to Niger and France, where he laments not only “violent extremism” but also the “criminal economy” in the region. Going even further, one might add that the uncertainty over “who kills whom” (to borrow a phrase from Jacob Mundy’s brilliant book on Algeria in the 1990s) is one key factor that generates rumors, conspiracy theories, and fear.
  2. Another feature of the violence in the Sahel is the progressive erosion of a sense of safety in different parts of the region. The Namoungou attack made me think of this excellent piece of reporting by Alassane Neya from March 2019, which vividly portrayed the sense of looming insecurity in eastern Burkina Faso, even in Fada N’Gourma itself. Now, it’s worth stressing that some parts of the Sahel have become much safer in comparison with the not-too-distant past. France24’s Kalidou Sy, reflecting on the Niger killings, evoked the 2007 murder of four French tourists at Aleg, Mauritania – and much of Mauritania is now safer for Westerners than it was in the late 2000s, I’d say (let’s come back to Aleg below, because there is another point to draw out there). And as I discussed here, parts of northern Mali, especially the Kidal Region, are registering remarkably few fatalities, even though the image of Kidal as the conflict’s epicenter persists in some quarters (that may be true in some political sense, but not in the sense of day-to-day violence). With all that said, the eruption of violence into new localities, and the progressive encroachment of insecurity on zones previously at the edges of endemically violent zones, has manifold effects – one of them being the sense of disorientation that such violence inflicts on local and national authorities, and even on foreign governments. That kind of disorientation can in turn reinforce bunker mentalities for governments, militaries, and humanitarians. I’ve been thumbing through Ruben Andersson’s No-Go World, and unfortunately haven’t had time to read it in full yet, but the points he makes – about how a sense of pervasive insecurity leads to all kinds of efforts at remote management of conflict zones, efforts that in turn carry serious liabilities – are highly pertinent to thinking about these two episodes of violence.
  3. What happened in Burkina Faso and in Niger may be part of various actors’ master plans – or it may not. Sy’s reference to Aleg reminded me that much still remains unclear about that attack, including whether it was a well-planned incident or whether it was undertaken by aspiring al-Qaida members eager to prove their bonafides (or even to dispel rumors among more seasoned members that these youths were informants).* Killing a group of aid workers makes a dramatic statement – but was it the intended one? Was it a kidnapping gone wrong? Who gave the orders, and why? According to a source cited by RFI, “The attackers came on motorcycles through the bush and waited for the group’s arrival” – but more details are needed to understand what level of planning and strategy was involved. Similarly, at Namoungou, what dynamics of greed or revenge, strategy or improvisation, came into play? Is it part of a brilliant plan to cripple commerce, free movement, and normal life in the Est Region, or is it the resulting of cascading contingencies and reckless gambits?
  4. The targeting of aid workers is a trend, and a terrible one. Whether it was carefully planned or not, the attack in Niger fits into that trend. Many aid agencies take pains to stress their neutrality – the head of the International Committee of the Red Cross in Burkina Faso was making that point last week – but they are not always perceived as neutral, and are certainly not perceived as inviolable, by many armed actors in the Sahel and beyond.