First Thoughts on Burkina Faso’s Legislative Elections Results

Burkina Faso held presidential and legislative elections on November 22. Incumbent President Roch Kaboré won the presidential elections, but I need to gather a bit more data (and gather my thoughts a bit more) before attempting to say anything substantive about that side of the results. So today I’ll speak briefly to the legislative picture.

Heading into the elections, according to Wikipedia, the three largest parties in the 127-member unicameral legislature were as follows:

  • Kaboré’s People’s Movement for Progress (French acronym MPP): 55 seats
  • Zéphirin Diabré’s Union for Progress and Change (UPC): 33 seats
  • The former ruling Congress for Democracy and Progress (CDP): 18 seats

The results from the 2020 legislative elections leave the MPP’s share of seats effectively unaltered – the party gained 1 seat for a new total of 56. The CDP gained 2 seats and also moved into the second spot in the National Assembly, because the UPC lost 21 seats, falling to just 12 seats, and actually slipped into fourth place in the legislature. The new third-place party is called New Time (or perhaps New Era or New Moment) for Democracy, NTD. It won just 3 seats in the previous elections in 2015, and now has 13. No other party holds more than 5 seats.

Two initial observations:

The first observation is that although the MPP does not hold a majority, its near-majority and the fragmentation of the opposition should make it relatively easy for the presidency and the MPP to pass major legislation. Several indicators – among them the lopsided 107-9 vote in favor of a revised electoral code last August; as well as the speed and apparent equanimity with which opposition candidates congratulated Kaboré following his win – suggest to me that the MPP’s strength in the legislature and in Burkinabè politics goes beyond what the numbers alone might indicate.

The second observation, and this requires more data and analysis to flesh out, is that the MPP held its own, electorally, in Burkina Faso’s conflict zones. Just looking at the Sahel Region, the deadliest conflict zone in the country, the MPP did not do too badly. Sahel has four provinces, and here is how the MPP did (based on numbers aggregated here, which may be an unstable link since it’s a live results roundup):

  • Ouadalan: 1 out of the 2 seats
  • Séno: 1 out of the 2 seats
  • Soum: 1 out of the 2 seats
  • Yagha: 0 out of the 2 seats

The MPP did better in the Sahel Region than any other party (NTD won 2 of the Sahel’s 8 seats, the UPC won 1, and minor parties won 1 each). If, again, the Wikipedia page is to be trusted and if I am reading it correctly, then in 2015 the MPP won 1 seat in each of the 4 provinces of the Sahel Region, meaning that in 2020 it held 3 seats and lost 1 (in Yagha). I can’t speak yet to the impact of voter disenfranchisement (de facto or de jure), potential issues of fraud, etc., but on superficial examination the conflict does not appear to have cost the MPP electorally in 2020. And recall that even if the MPP lost 1 seat in the Sahel Region, it held 3 there while gaining 2 elsewhere in the country.

The 2020 legislative results deserve much deeper examination but one implication could be that electoral politics is not, in the Sahel (now referring not to one region in Burkina Faso but to the wider, multi-country region of Africa), generating the incentive structures it is theoretically supposed to around the world: the MPP, it seems, has no major electoral incentive to pay closer attention to the conflict zones.

Roundup on the Eve of the Vote: Analyses and Reports on Burkina Faso’s Electoral Landscape

Burkina Faso will hold the first round of presidential and legislative elections on November 22. If no candidate clears 50%, then there will be a second round within about six weeks, if I understand correctly, based on the electoral code’s provisions pertaining to various steps regarding the validation of the first round results.

There are thirteen candidates for the elections, including incumbent President Roch Kaboré, the last election’s runner-up Zéphirin Diabré, the former ruling party’s candidate Eddie Komboïgo, and the former transitional Prime Minister Yacouba Isaac Zida. I expect Kaboré to win, possibly on the first round.

For general background, see International Foundation for Electoral Systems, “Elections in Burkina Faso – 2020 General Elections – Frequently Asked Questions” and the Trans-Saharan Elections Project‘s country page for Burkina. The website of Burkina Faso’s Independent National Electoral Commission is here, and the Constitutional Council’s website is here.

Here are a few recent analyses and reports:

Ornella Moderan, “Burkina Faso’s Voters Should Be Offered More Than Security,” Institute for Security Studies, 18 November. A quote:

The electoral campaign was an opportunity for parties and candidates to clearly articulate their plans for addressing the full range of problems affecting millions in Burkina Faso. But most of them missed the boat. Their inability to confront the complexity of the situation and propose holistic responses doesn’t bode well for the policy changes the country needs. Rather it reveals the piecemeal mindset that has underpinned government’s overly securitised responses to the crisis for years – an approach that has shown its limits.

See also, from ISS, Ibrahim Maïga and Habibou Souley Bako, “Lessons from Mali as Burkina and Niger Head for the Polls,” November 10.

Rida Lyammouri, “Burkina Faso Elections, Another Box to Check,” Policy Center for the New South, November. An excerpt (p. 7):

The November 22 national elections take place in a context marked by the increased importance and expansion of vigilante groups, namely the Koglweogo and the newly formed VDP [Volunteers for the Defense of the Homeland]. Representatives of both groups stated in interviews conducted in August 2020 that they are apolitical, and their objective is to secure areas [where they are present] and to help establish peace in the country. Simultaneously, they also pointed out that each member is free to support a candidate or a political party of their own choice. One of the key criticisms of Koglweogo and VDP is that they are ethnically based and don’t necessarily represent all communities. Participants in the interviews agreed that ethnic affiliation has a significant influence when it comes to choosing the political leader and/or political party. When asked if presidential and parliamentary candidates would use ethnic affiliation to generate support, the answer was automatic: “Of course, ethnic affiliation matters. We have parents who are running in the different elections, we are not forcing our communities, but the majority of our votes will go to these people. They know our realities and our challenges and will therefore know how to defend them for us”.

Sam Mednick, “Burkina Faso moves ahead with vote despite extremist attacks,” Associated Press, November 18. Two few key paragraphs:

The National Independent Electoral Commission (CENI) used helicopters to reach places inaccessible by road and registration was extended after coronavirus movement restrictions temporarily halted the process in March. Despite the challenges, Yacouba Bambyam Ouedraogo, communications director for CENI said that 95% of the country was covered adding more than 1 million voters.

But local officials say the more than 1,000 villages that were not reached, is where most of the population lives. Four of 11 communes in Sanmatenga province weren’t fully covered and a lot of people were missed, Youssouf Ouedraogo, president of the municipal electoral commission in Kaya told the AP.

Sophie Douce, “Elections au Burkina Faso : en « zone rouge », une campagne sous le signe de la menace terroriste,” Le Monde, November 18. A translated passage:

Several days out from the elections, the candidates hold more and more meetings across the country, a third of whose territory is in a state of emergency. Mined roads, risk of kidnapping or targeted attack… Certain sectors remain inaccessible to the authorities. On November 8, the driver of a candidate in the legislative elections was killed on the Gorom-Gorom route (in the north). “When you move from one zone to another, you find yourself in a no man’s land and if you don’t alert the authorities in advance, what happened before could happen again,” warned Ahmed Newton Barry, the president of the Independent National Electoral Commission, after the attack.

Amaury Hauchard, “In Jihadist-Hit Burkina Areas, No Elections — and No State,” AFP, November 18.

“The victory of the jihadist groups is not so much a military one as having installed a fear that makes people’s lives extremely difficult,” Rinaldo Depagne of the International Crisis Group said.

[…]

“It’s only around the towns that the soldiers are present. In the camps in the bush, there are none left, everybody has gone,” [Burkinabè analysts Mahamoudou] Savadogo said.

“The state has no more control there. Whole tracts of the country will be unable to vote.”

On the Campaign Trail in Burkina Faso, Opposition Candidates Promise Dialogue with Jihadists, Kaboré Says No

Burkina Faso will hold the first round of its presidential (and legislative) elections on November 22, in other words very soon. A colleague sent me this story, in which the runner-up from the last election, Zéphirin Diabré, was speaking to a rally in the capital Ouagadougou as he campaigns once again. He is paraphrased and quoted as follows:

To put Burkina Faso back on the rails, Zéphirin Diabré proposes negotiation with certain armed groups. “Among these groups, which are the ones who have demands that are negotiable? While sorting through, there are people with whom, of course, one can talk.

Given that some of the country’s communal militias, or whatever ones wishes to call them, are already in dialogue with the state (or are working under the Volunteers for the Defense of the Homeland), the clear implication would seem to be that Diabré is open to negotiating with some jihadists – perhaps the Burkinabé group Ansaroul Islam/Ansar al-Islam (Defenders of Islam) or the Mali-centric Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wa-l-Muslimin (the Group for Supporting Islam and Muslims, JNIM); the latter has conducted limited negotiations with successive Malian governments, especially over the hostage/prisoner exchange that concluded in early October of this year. The idea of negotiating with the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) has not been seriously floated in Mali, and it is unlikely that Diabré has them in mind here, though it is still possible.

Here is another major candidate, Eddie Komboïgo of the former ruling Congress for Democracy and Progress (CDP), promising in generic terms to turn the security situation around through dialogue:

In the weeks that follow our election, you are not going to hear a gunshot inside our borders. Because we are going to courageously negotiate with the different forces of evil.

Another (more minor) candidate, Do Pascal Sessouma of the Pacifist Party, has also talked along these lines. Here he is in a November 5 interview:

On the question of terrorism my position is clear. I will negotiate with those who are attacking us. I am among those who think that it is not by cannon shots that one triumphs over an ideology. I think I would be able to bring back peace and security in 18 months through a holistic and inclusive approach.

These are the three examples I’ve seen. I imagine there are others among the 12 opposition candidates who are taking similar stances.

The proposals are short on details, but they represent a shift in the political debate amid an insurgency that continues to worsen:

President Roch Kaboré, facing re-election, says absolutely not (speaking from Dédougou, November 17):

We will not negotiate with those who have, as a project, dismantling Burkina Faso and jeopardizing our coexistence.

Assuming (as I do, at least) that Kaboré will win, it will be interesting and consequential to see whether the idea of dialogue maintains any traction after the dust settles from the election.

Burkinabè Presidential Campaign: Roch Kaboré and Tahirou Barry in Dori (Sahel Region) [UPDATED]

Scanning the news out of Burkina Faso yesterday, I was struck by two brief articles about candidates campaigning in Dori (map), the capital of the Sahel Region – the most violent region within Burkina Faso‘s multi-sided conflict, and the second-most violent region within the Sahel (now meaning the multi-country region, rather than the unit of Burkina Faso) as a whole. Among the four provinces that make up Burkina Faso’s Sahel Region, Séno (where Dori sits) is somewhat less affected than Soum (whose capital is Djibo), the epicenter of the conflict in the north. Nevertheless, Dori is highly affected by the multi-faceted crisis that involves not just violence but also massive displacement, economic disruptions, public health impacts, and food insecurity.

On October 31, official campaigning began in advance of the first round of the presidential elections, scheduled for November 22. Incumbent President Roch Kaboré, who took office in 2015, faces twelve competitors, including several formidable politicians.

Kaboré was in Dori on November 10, meeting with some of the key figures in the Sahel Region such as the Emir of Liptako, Ousmane (whose backstory I recently wrote about here) and the Emir of Yagha, Boureima Ly. In addition to reinforcing his relationships with elites, Kaboré’s trip also seems to have been about delivering a two-fold message: a promise to restore security, but a related promise to end “stigmatization” – in other words, to end the ethnic profiling of the Peul/Fulani, and perhaps other groups as well. How those promises are received, I couldn’t say; the insecurity has increased, tragically and rapidly, over the course of Kaboré’s first term, and the collective punishment of Peul (a feature of the conflict not just in Burkina Faso but also in Mali) has been, in my view, systemic (see some discussion of that dynamic here).

It’s interesting to contrast Kaboré’s messaging in Dori with the messaging of Tahirou Barry, a serious but frankly not top-tier candidate, who was in Dori on November 6. Barry’s party is the Movement for Change and Renaissance (MCR). A former minister of culture and tourism and a parliamentary deputy, Barry is himself Peul but has emphasized his and his family’s multi-ethnic, multi-cultural character (his own family is from Gaoua, in the southwest, and his wife is ethnically Mossi, the largest ethnic group in Burkina Faso). In Dori, then, Barry’s emphasis was on the economic development of the Sahel Region, with promises to expand Dori’s livestock market and make the Sahel Region into a center for processing milk. Barry talked about the insecurity in his remarks, but placed that in a larger context of what he calls the abandonment of the region by central authorities.

Which message appeals more? I really couldn’t say – I don’t see opinion polls coming out for this race, for example. But it is striking to see how differently these two politicians are framing the same overall situation. And it is tempting to say that Kaboré is pursuing a kind of top-down strategy while Barry is attempting something bottom-up, but that’s also probably too simple. I also, admittedly, may have missed reports about other candidates’ swings through Dori; other kinds of messaging are possible too. [Update, November 13: A senior colleague alerted me to this poll, which shows that a strong plurality of respondents to this poll (nearly 43%) say they plan to vote for Kaboré, and some 27% are undecided or are keeping their intentions confidential, suggesting he has a decent chance of winning on the first round. Nearly 66% of respondents, meanwhile, say they are concerned about insecurity – the most common concern among respondents.]

Anecdotally, meanwhile, I wonder how many people this Dori resident speaks for:

“I watch the politicians parade and do their things, but this is not my concern,” said Oumar Cissé, from Dori, a town in the northern Sahel region – the epicentre of the violence – that is seeing a daily influx of internally displaced people. “Our real concern is that security comes back first, and after that we can think about elections.”

And then there are the physical obstacles to voting. An August 2020 law, and the realities of the conflict, will likely mean that thousands of voters cannot vote, and that the results of the elections will be accepted regardless, domestically and internationally. The campaigning in Dori is a reminder, to me at least, that the vote is likely to proceed in many major towns and administrative centers within the conflict zones, and that it is rural voters above all who stand to be disenfranchised.

Burkina Faso: 13 Candidates Face Off in Next Month’s Presidential Elections

In early October, Burkina Faso’s Independent National Electoral Commission (French acronym CENI) issued a provisional list of 14 candidates for the November 22 presidential elections (coupled with legislative elections). Another 9 candidates did not meet the requirements for candidacy.

A CENI decree signed October 10 gives the same list, along with more details, including the number of sponsorships each candidate received. For what it’s worth, 2015’s runner-up, Zéphirin Diabré, received the most, at 170; incumbent President Roch Kaboré received 120, the former ruling Congress for Democracy and Progress’ candidate Eddie Komboigo got 129, and all others got fewer than 100.

On October 22, the Constitutional Council published the final list of candidates. One from the earlier list, Harouna Kindo, was dropped due to not paying the required deposit. That leaves 13 candidates. At the link, Le Faso notes that the Council did not disqualify Yacouba Isaac Zida, who is the former transitional Prime Minister (2014-2015) and, before that, number 2 within the now-disbanded Presidential Security Regiment. Zida, however, remains in exile in Canada.

I profiled the top candidates here a few weeks back. I have no crystal ball regarding the elections, but as I said then, I expect Kaboré to win, in part because of de jure and de facto restrictions on who can vote due to insecurity. But anything could happen. There are formidable candidates among the other 12 figures.

One interesting item that I haven’t explored is what Radio Omega calls “a wave of resignations” from Diabré’s party recently. That’s not good for the formal head of the opposition, obviously. The figure discussed at the link not only was a parliamentary deputy and the deputy president of the party’s parliamentary bloc, but is also apparently a significant figure within the Mossi chiefly establishment – a minister, as he puts it in his Facebook page (as of October 22), to the Mogho Naaba, the country’s “mediator monarch.” I wonder if various politicians are putting their fingers to the wind in the weeks before the election, and I wonder which ways they feel the wind blowing.

Here, finally, is CENI’s provisional list of legislative candidates.

Quoted in Al Jazeera’s Burkina Faso Elections Preview

Burkina Faso holds the first round of its presidential elections on November 22. President Roch Kaboré is seeking re-election and, in my view, is likely to win. I recently looked at some of his leading challengers here.

At Al Jazeera, Henry Wilkins has a really strong article succinctly examining the potential disenfranchisement – de jure and de facto – of thousands of voters. The article draws partly on interviews with a mayor from eastern Burkina Faso (given a pseudonym in the piece for his protection – see some context on the insecurity at the village level in the east here, in French); with Judd Devermont of the Center for Strategic and International Studies; and me.

Here is one quote of mine:

“I think the government could have done a lot more to avoid being in this situation in the first place,” Alex Thurston…told Al Jazeera. “Curtailing security force abuses would have helped. But, now that the insecurity is so bad, they have limited options vis-a-vis the elections.”

Burkina Faso’s Presidential Elections: Key Candidates

Burkina Faso’s presidential elections, coupled with legislative elections, are now less than two months away (November 22). The elections will take place under heavy constraints due to mass violence, especially in the north and east, and mass displacement affecting an even wider swath of the country.

Incumbent President Roch Kaboré, who was elected and took office in 2015 following the 2014 popular revolution against longtime incumbent Blaise Compaoré, is seeking re-election. His party is the People’s Movement for Progress (Mouvement du Peuple pour le Progrès, MPP).

Who are the other main candidates? A Deutsche Welle headline from this summer puts it well: “Roch Kaboré Facing Compaoré’s Close Associates.” Or you could put it this way: “One ex-Compaoré associate faces others,” given that Kaboré was, until a 2012 rupture and his 2014 move into the (then) opposition, a key member of the dictator’s team.

Here are a few notable candidates, in chronological order of their formal party nominations:

  • Gilbert Noël Ouédraogo, a relatively young candidate (b. 1968). He is head of the Alliance pour la démocratie et la fédération – Rassemblement démocratique africain (Alliance for Democracy and Federation – African Democratic Rally), a long-standing party that supported Compaoré, especially from the 2000s on. He was excluded from contesting in 2015 through a law that banned Compaoré’s close associates from running. His formal candidacy came particularly early in this cycle – April 1, 2019.
  • Zéphirin Diabré, the runner-up in 2015 and formal leader of the country’s opposition under Kaboré. He is running as the candidate of his party, l’Union pour le progrès et le changement (the Union for Progress and Change, UPC). He was formally invested as their candidate on July 25.
  • Eddie Komboïgo, an accountant who has led the ex-ruling party, the Congrès pour la démocratie et le progrès (Congress for Democracy and Progress, CDP), during the post-Compaoré era. Blocked from running in 2015 over Compaoré ties, he reportedly received backing from the ex-president amid intra-CDP power struggles over the past year and more (see below). He was invested as the party’s candidate on July 26.
  • Kadré Desiré Ouedraogo, an ex-prime minister from the Compaoré era (he was PM from 1996-2000), who lost out in the intra-CDP power struggle. He is now the candidate of Agir ensemble (“Act Together”) and allied parties, and was designated as their candidate on September 6.
  • Yacouba Isaac Zida, who played a key role in the opaque power struggle amid and during Compaoré’s fall, then was interim prime minister during the 2014-2015 transition. In the late Compaoré era, Zida was second-in-command of the Presidential Security Regiment, an infamous unit within the military, now disbanded. Zida is scheduled to be invested on September 25 as the candidate of the Mouvement patriotique pour le salut (Patriotic Salvation Movement, MPS). In exile in Canada amid legal troubles back home, he faces complicated questions about whether to return to Burkina Faso and possibly face a court summons or even detention.

Some candidates are not just tied to Compaoré by virtue of their resumes, but also in their messaging. For example, leaders of Ouedraogo’s Agir Ensemble have explicitly evoked a kind of nostalgia for the “stability” of the Compaoré era. This message may have some real appeal for a significant swath of voters – although that does not mean that specific candidates will receive support just because they proclaim they will restore stability.

If polling is an indication, Kaboré is highly vulnerable. But the circumscription of the vote (due to violence, displacement, and/or the electoral law, in whatever proportion you weight the different factors’ impact) may be one factor in increasing his chances of re-election. Another, equally important factor may be the profiles of his opponents – although the “political class” of Mali has come in for a lot of (domestic and international) scorn this summer amid the protests and then the coup there, Mali is not the only country with a relatively stale political class.* Voters’ sense of apathy or disgust with the whole political class could be, on balance, another factor that boosts Kaboré’s chances. I expect him to win.

*Readers, has anyone measured this? Is there a “political class freshness index” out there? It’s easy for me (and others) to say that the Malian or Burkinabè political classes are stagnant, but it’s not as though there is a shortage of long-serving politicians in the United States (Biden, Pelosi, McConnell…).

Burkina Faso: Wrestling with the Implications of Constrained Elections

Burkina Faso is set to hold the first round of presidential elections on November 22, coupled with legislative elections; incumbent President Roch Kaboré is seeking re-election.

On August 25, the National Assembly passed a law modifying the electoral law of 2001. According to the linked article, out of 127 deputies in the legislature, 120 were present, and 107 voted for the law while 9 voted against (presumably, 4 abstained).

The most controversial part of the law is that it allows for, essentially, a partial election if/when “force majeure or exceptional circumstances” prevent polling places from opening in certain places. Jared Thompson spells out the situation in an excellent thread:

As Jared makes clear, one huge concern is not just about the elections’ representativeness in the abstract, but also specifically about whether these provisions will increase the chances of an incumbent victory for Kaboré and his party, the People’s Movement for Progress (Mouvement du Peuple pour le Progrès, MPP):

The Economist (paywalled) has put the stakes in stark terms, in light of the August 18 coup in neighboring Mali:

What with widespread accusations of atrocities by the security forces, Burkina Faso’s government could soon face a crisis of legitimacy much like the one that is tearing Mali apart. There, too, jihadists have overrun swathes of the countryside. Dodgy parliamentary elections with a paltry turnout earlier this year were followed by massive anti-government protests and then a coup. ECOWAS, the regional bloc, has told the soldiers running Mali to hand back power to a civilian administration and hold elections within a year. But the men in uniform want to stay in power for three years. When democracy falls, it is hard to restore. Burkina beware.

I have some similar concerns:

A few other observations:

  • To play devil’s advocate for a moment, one could say that Burkina Faso’s new law merely codifies what would have been the reality anyway. Ultimately it is insecurity and displacement, rather than this law, that will prevent people from voting and getting their votes counted. In Mali’s presidential elections in 2018, no “force majeure” clauses were invoked that I can remember – yet hundreds of polling places were closed due to violence and intimidation, and both Malian authorities and foreign powers simply accepted the results and moved on. One could argue that it’s better to be above board about the situation and keep things legal, rather than act like things are fine until election day and then have everyone throw up their hands in mock helplessness. Or one could argue that from a realpolitik perspective, the mistake in Burkina Faso is actually calling attention to the ugly realities now instead of papering over them come November.
  • Stepping out of the devil’s advocate role, honestly, these issues leave me really torn. The questions here cut to the bone: Does the mass violence in the Sahel reduce democracy to a kind of theater? Is the expectation (national and international) that “the (democratic) show must go on” unsustainable? Obviously it’s not up to me to decide whether and how Sahelien democracies function, but elections as a mechanism for providing change or continuity are under tremendous stress now. That doesn’t mean that Burkina Faso should abandon elections, or make Kaboré president for life, or repeal this law and just throw the dice in November to see who can vote safely and who can’t. But it’s hard to see how these elections will do anything other than dent Kaboré’s legitimacy at home and abroad. I guess, if I had to make a recommendation, I would say delay the elections until security conditions permit universal enfranchisement* and then subtract the length of the delay from Kaboré’s term if he wins, and allow the winner a full term if it’s someone else. But that kind of arrangement would require substantial legal/constitutional changes as well, obviously.

*And obviously that’s very problematic too, since the trend lines are going in the exact wrong direction on both violence and displacement:

I wrote about the displacement issue here, as well.

In short, nothing but bad options here. I don’t want to see flawed, unrepresentative elections that set the country up for a political crisis; but it’s also hard to imagine alternatives that wouldn’t involve an awkward, open-ended, and equally undemocratic holding period, waiting years for security conditions to permit an actually representative vote.

Burkina Faso: Update on the Kidnapping and Murder of the Grand Imam of Djibo

Last week I wrote about the kidnapping of the Grand Imam of Djibo, Souaibou Cissé, one of the most prominent religious figures in northern Burkina Faso and particularly in Soum Province, where Djibo is the capital. Cissé was kidnapped on August 11. A tragic update is that he was found dead on August 15.

The imam was kidnapped while traveling by car, returning from Burkina Faso’s capital Ouagadougou to Djibo. More specifically, he was kidnapped near the town of Gaskindé, south of Djibo, on a particularly dangerous stretch of the journey. His body was found in Tiléré, a village north of Gaskindé and just south of Djibo (map). His funeral was held the same day.

The imam’s murder has elicited national outcry and consternation in Burkina Faso. President Roch Kaboré said that the murder “aimed at undermining our model of religious tolerance.” The government condemned the killing and promised that the security forces will hunt the murderers. The Federation of Islamic Associations of Burkina Faso, in a statement, offered its condolences and condemned “the inhumanity” of the killers.

As far as I can tell, no one has claimed responsibility for the kidnapping and murder, although most journalists, Burkinabè elites, and observers (including me) assume that jihadists were the perpetrators. As I wrote in my last post on the topic, the kidnappers appear to have known exactly who they were taking (they let the other passengers in the car go). I wonder now whether the kidnappers on the spot were only empowered to take him, and not to kill him, and thus ended up having to get further instructions from their superiors, which may explain the brief interval between the kidnapping and the discovery of the body. But that’s just a hypothesis. And I could find almost no details about how exactly the body was discovered – why Tiléré? Did any of the residents see the body being deposited there? Burkinabè security forces may be asking some tough questions of Tiléré residents, although this situation shows exactly why the pattern of collective punishment by the security forces is so counterproductive – who will want to talk to the soldiers, whenever they show up in the village? And if the soldiers do get information, how can they know it’s not someone using the imam’s death as a pretext for pointing the finger at a hated neighbor? And if the soldiers don’t get information, will they punish the whole village? And thus the cycle of collective punishment would not only undermine the investigation of this death but might even be perpetuated by that very same investigation.

Finally, the kidnapping exemplifies and reinforces the sense of uncertainty I’ve referred to as a feature of the Sahelian crisis (and mass violence more generally). When someone, even someone prominent, is kidnapped, there is little sense of what will follow. Will the victim be found dead four days later, as in the case of the grand imam? Or will the victim’s captivity drag on and on, as the Malian opposition leader Soumaïla Cissé’s (no relation to the imam, I assume) has? Soumaïla Cissé is coming up on five months in captivity.

This is not about me – at all – but on a personal note I will say that this incident bothered me a lot. Just really sad and grim.

Notes on Yesterday’s G5 Security Summit in Nouakchott, Mauritania

Yesterday, 30 June, Sahelian heads of state, French President Emmanuel Macron, other top European leaders, and representatives of numerous multilateral bodies met in Nouakchott, Mauritania for a summit on Sahelian security. According to Macron’s agenda for the day, the event consisted of a working lunch for heads of state, followed by a larger meeting and then a joint press conference. The Elysée (French presidency) does not appear to keep permanent links for each separate day, so I am posting a screen shot:

Another version of the agenda, which differs just slightly from the times listed by the Elysée, was published by the Mauritanian outlet Mauri Actu and can be found here. That version gives a sense of the other participants in the event.

The Nouakchott summit is the sequel to one held at Macron’s invitation in Pau, France in January 2020. You can read the transcription of the joint press conference from that event in French here, and the New York Times‘ (appropriately critical) coverage is here. The Nouakchott summit also follows the 25 February G5 Sahel summit in Nouakchott as well as the recent virtual launch, on 16 June, of the French-backed Coalition for the Sahel. Nouakchott has been the site of several key meetings this year because Mauritania currently holds the rotating presidency of the G5 Sahel, a political (and now military-political) coordinating body for Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, and Chad.

In the lead-up to yesterday’s summit, a theme in Western press coverage was the suggestion that France is “gaining” militarily in the Sahel while the Sahelian governments are dysfunctional. I disagree with that framing, but let’s unpack it a bit first.

Here is AFP:

France is increasingly optimistic about the effectiveness of its anti-jihadist campaign in the Sahel, but experts caution that short-term successes will not by themselves bring lasting victory…

The governments of these countries, among the poorest in the world, are struggling to reinvest in the newly-retaken territories and win hearts and minds.

And here is Reuters, whose article is even more explicit that the assessment of “France is winning, Sahel governments are flailing” comes ultimately from the French government:

Mali and Burkina Faso must guarantee at a summit this week that their domestic political problems do not reverse fragile military successes against Islamist militants in the Sahel region, a French presidential source said on Monday.

“Domestic political problems” seems to mean the protests against President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta in Mali and the upcoming elections in Burkina Faso, or perhaps the phrase is also a veiled reference to widely reported security force abuses in those countries (and in Niger).

Clearly there is domestic turmoil in Mali and Burkina Faso – but I am uncomfortable with the framing that effectively says “African dysfunction is undercutting French accomplishments.” For one thing, I’m not sure what France’s “fragile military successes” really consist of, beyond the killing of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM)’s emir Abdelmalek Droukdel on June 3. Aside from the killing of Droukdel, most of what I’ve seen recently from France’s Operation Barkhane reads to me as the same kind of operations it has been conducting for years, and any gains in one area inevitably seem to be paralleled by a degradation in another area. The press coverage of this summit is replete with references to French/Sahelian gains made in the tri-border zone (Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso), but the references are quite vague once you scrutinize them. Meanwhile, the events and reports coming out of the Sahel’s conflict zones seem quite grim to me – blockaded towns in northern Burkina Faso, villages under jihadist sway in the east, Mali’s premier opposition leader in presumed jihadist captivity for over three months, etc. Those are bad signs, and they don’t seem to indicate that the French and Sahelian militaries are on a path toward victory.

And then, to return to critiquing the framing of “French prowess, African dysfunction,” there is the fact that France is not merely a military actor in the Sahel but is, first and foremost, a political actor in its former colonies – and a military intervention is itself a political act, I might add. France appears most comfortable working, when possible, with strongmen; failing that, France leans on a particular type of technocratic, Francophone professional politician in its former colonies. I don’t think that French authorities hand-pick the candidates to run in Sahelian elections. But is it an accident that the heads of state so often look exactly what you would imagine the Elysée would dream up – an economist or banker turned lifelong politician, perhaps still a “socialist” according to their party’s name but generally neoliberal in economic policy and deferential to France and Europe when it comes to international relations? And then you add to that the optic of Macron basically publicly treating the current Sahelian heads of state as his subordinates and clients, and ultimately what you have is an extremely top-down and narrow conception of political authority in the region. Is it a surprise that such a system has proven brittle and fragile, especially amid a widening conflict? How the Sahel can move forward politically is an enormously complicated question and I do not have the answer, but I suspect that the answer does not begin with Macron instructing his counterparts to get their shit together.

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Turning to the substance of the summit, here are a few resources:

  • Here is the final joint communiqué. Honestly, very little stood out to me from the document, which mostly read to me as a restatement of the principles of the Coalition for the Sahel (counterterrorism, enhancing military capacity, “the return of the state,” and development) and a restatement of what was discussed at Pau. There are references in this latest communiqué to not tolerating human rights abuses, a major topic of discussion recently, and the Sahelien heads of state called for (even) more international security contributions, but otherwise I thought the document was bland.
  • Here is the video and transcript of Macron’s remarks on his arrival at the summit. His primary theme was “solidarity” in the face of COVID-19 and terrorism. A secondary theme was the “return of the state,” especially in parts of Mali and Burkina Faso. The “return of the state” is, again, one of four pillars of the Coalition for the Sahel.
  • Twitter posts from Sahelian heads of state, regarding their respective participation in the summit, can be found at the following links: Mohamed Ould Ghazouani of Mauritania; Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta of Mali; Roch Kaboré of Burkina Faso; Mahamadou Issoufou of Niger; Idriss Deby of Chad.
  • RFI’s readout of the summit, which notes the positive and optimistic tone that the heads of state struck.

Speaking of international security engagements, the next development on the horizon there is the anticipated deployment of the French-created Takuba Task Force. At Clingendael, Anna Schmauder, Zoë Gorman, and Flore Berger have written an excellent explainer about the force.

Ould Ghazouani posted a striking photo of the six heads of state; I leave you with that: