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.

</mini rant>

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:

 

Looking Ahead to Burkina Faso’s 22 November Presidential and Legislative Elections

On 22 November (as announced in February), Burkina Faso will have simultaneous presidential and legislative elections. The presidential election will pit incumbent President Roch Kaboré against what I assume will be a host of challengers. The legislative elections will determine the occupants of the 127 seats in the country’s unicameral National Assembly. Municipal elections will follow in 2021.

Kaboré was elected in 2015 following the country’s 2014 revolution against longtime dictator Blaise Compaoré (in office 1987-2014). Kaboré and several other key figures, most notably Salif Diallo (d. 2017) and Simon Compaoré (no relation to Blaise that I know of), broke with Compaoré in 2012 and formed their own party, the Mouvement du Peuple pour le Progrès (People’s Movement for Progress, MPP) in 2014. Simon Compaoré is currently president of the MPP.

Kaboré may be in a bit of trouble in terms of re-election prospects. Objectively, the situation in Burkina Faso appears quite bad on several fronts: 2019 was the most violent year of the country’s ongoing insurgency, and in addition to the conflict zones in the north and east, violence may be poised to tick upwards in the southwest, site of a recent joint operation between the security forces of Burkina Faso and Cote d’Ivoire. Largely due to the conflict, over 900,000 people have been displaced, most of them since the start of 2019. The security forces are accused of committing regular and serious human rights abuses against civilians, and the government is formally investigating the recent, alleged extrajudicial killings of 12 civilians in an eastern town called Tanwalbougou. Meanwhile, COVID-19 has had a substantial impact on the country, especially the economy – the World Bank (.pdf, p. 105) initially projected that Burkina Faso’s gross domestic product (GDP) would grow by 6% in 2020, but has since revised that forecast to just 2%.

In the national Présimètre poll, whose most recent iteration just came out, clear and sometimes dramatic majorities of respondents voice dissatisfaction with the government’s handling of key issues. On Slide 24, for example, 79.7% of respondents express dissatisfaction with the security situation in the country, and 83% are dissatisfied with the cost of living. Not everything is bad news for the government – on Slide 30, you can see that respondents’ confidence in key institutions is ticking upward after hitting a low in the June 2019 poll. But confidence is still under 40% for the government, the parliament, and the political parties. Furthermore, 73% of respondents plan to vote in the next election (Slide 32), but over 65% of respondents have not yet decided whom to vote for (Slide 34). 63% of respondents are dissatisfied with Kaboré’s performance (Slide 40), compared with 66% who were dissatisfied a year ago. Although respondents acknowledge that Kaboré inherited a tough situation, they also feel he “lacks the firmness that is required.” The average score that respondents gave his overall performance, on a 10-point scale, was 4.53 – his lowest score yet, in iterations of the Présimètre poll, since 2017.

Nevertheless, and perhaps quite expectedly, the MPP’s Simon Compaoré expresses confidence that Kaboré will win re-election easily. In a recent interview, Compaoré called it “a realistic ambition” to re-elect Kaboré “with a comfortable score of at least 60% of the votes.” That would mean avoiding the type of run-off that has proven electorally fatal for several West African incumbents over the years, for example Senegal’s Abdou Diouf in 2000 and Diouf’s successor Abdoulaye Wade, in turn, in 2012. Like many other West African countries, Burkina Faso has a two-round election system; if the incumbent fails to obtain 50% in the first round, it gives the (often fractured) opposition a chance to unite against him (it’s always been a him in Burkina Faso, so far) in the second round.

A few challengers have emerged so far:

  • Zéphirin Diabré, president of the Union for Progress and Change (l’Union pour le progrès et le changement, UPC), runner-up in the 2015 election;
  • Eddie Komboïgo, candidate of the former ruling party the Congress for Democracy and Progress (Congrès pour la démocratie et la progrès, CDP);
  • Gilbert Ouédraogo, president of the political party The Alliance for Democracy and Federation/African Democracy Rally (l’Alliance pour la démocratie et la fédération/Rassemblement démocratique africain, ADF/RDA);
  • Former Culture and Tourism Minister Tahirou Barry, who is supported by a coalition of parties called the Movement for Change and Rebirth (Mouvement pour le changement et la renaissance).

In the legislature, the MPP hopes to increase its share from the current 55 seats it has (out of 127). The UPC holds 33, the CDP 18, and no other party holds more than 5 seats.

The MPP is now looking ahead to its extraordinary congress on July 11, when it will formally invest Kaboré as the party’s candidate.

Various questions remain to be settled: Will the displaced be able to vote, and if so, how? Will credible voting be able to proceed in conflict zones? Will any candidacies be invalidated, and on what basis? Will a unifying figure emerge from within the opposition?

For now, if I had to predict, I would guess that Kaboré will be re-elected – despite the very low scores he and the government received in the Présimètre poll, I think that the advantages of incumbency, combined with the fragmentation of the opposition, will help him across the finish line. I also think he may benefit, electorally, from the displacement and the insecurity – and I say that not in a conspiratorial sense, not in the sense of accusing the government of fostering instability for political advantage, but rather in the sense that a smaller electorate can benefit the incumbent even if that incumbent is trying, in however flawed a manner, to address the conditions that shrink that electorate. But in any event, there is a lot of time, politically speaking, between now and November.

 

Burkina Faso: The Apparent Summary Executions at Tanwalbougou and Wider Questions of Accountability

Tanwalbougou is a town in the Gourma Province of the Est (East) Region of Burkina Faso. On the night of May 11-12, the Defense and Security Forces (French acronym FDS) detained 25 men near the town, of whom 12 died in custody back in Tanwalbougou. All of the men who died were Peul, an ethnic group now widely subject to collective punishment in Mali and Burkina Faso.

Here is Human Rights Watch on the incident:

Witnesses told Human Rights Watch that the arrests took place between 1:30 p.m. and 2 p.m. during an operation on market day in the town of Pentchangou, 5 kilometers from Tanwalbougou. They said that during the approximately hour-long operation, defense and security force soldiers, along with several members of a village-based defense force, known as Volontaires pour la défense de la patrie (VDP), blocked the village entrances and arrested numerous Peuhl men who were trading in the market, near the mosque, or in the street. They dragged some out of hiding places. The convoy left in the direction of Tanwalbougou.

[…]

While the government statement did not speculate on the deaths of the 12 men, family members and witnesses who retrieved the bodies from the morgue in Fada N’gouroma and participated in the burials, said they believed the men had been shot in the head. “It is obvious, clear, and evident that they all had head wounds,” said a man whose brother was among the dead. “Some had crushed skulls.”

Two prominent Burkinabè civil society organizations, the Mouvement burkinabè des droits de l’homme et des peuples (Burkinabè Movement for Human Rights and Peoples’ Rights, MBDHP) and the Collectif contre l’Impunité et la Stigmatisation des Communautés (Collective Against Impunity and the Stigmatization of Communities, CISC) have challenged government accounts of what happened at Pentchangou and Tanwalbougou. The two organizations undertook a joint visit to Tanwalbougou in mid-May.

In a statement, the MBDHP decried the apparent summary executions at Tanwalbougou and placed them into the wider context of past incidents at “Yirgou, Kain-Ouro, Barga, Barsalogo and other localities.” Of these other incidents, the one at Yirgou, involving a series of events from December 31, 2018 to January 1, 2019, is the most infamous; I wrote a bit about it here. Turning back to the MBDHP’s statement on Tanwalbougou, the organization calls for “the dismantling of death squads,” the creation of “an independent commission of inquiry,” a renewed effort to promote national cohesion, and for the state to reorient the counterterrorism campaign in line with human rights standards. These are all strong and necessary recommendations – security force abuses, whose exact mechanisms remain partly opaque at least to me, have become a major driver of violence in Burkina Faso and across the Sahel’s conflict zones.

At a May 23 press conference (French), Burkina Faso’s President Roch Kaboré called the deaths at Tanwalbougou “unacceptable” and announced that both a judicial investigation and an administrative investigation were underway.

Other than Kaboré, the face of the state’s response has been Judicaël Kadeba, Prosecutor for the Est Region. It is his accounts that MBDHP and others have challenged. On June 3, Kadeba announced (French) that 8 of 12 detainees in Tanwalbougou had been released; if I understand correctly, this means that after the other 12 men died in detention on the night of May 11-12, another 12 were held until June 3, and now only 4 are being held. That leaves one person unaccounted for out of the original 25 who were detained.

Meanwhile, the investigation into what happened to the 12 who died is a big test for authorities – investigations have been promised in the past, but I at least have not seen major demonstrations of accountability. Unfortunately, as many have noted, there is a vicious cycle at work here where security forces accelerate authorities’ loss of control in conflict zones, and then they perpetrate further abuses in an attempt to show force and regain control. It is very difficult to interrupt that cycle.

For more context, I wrote a short post earlier this week about recent violence in northern and eastern Burkina Faso. I will also link again to this report (French) by Sophie Douce on the grim situation some villages in the east, “besieged by terrorists,” find themselves in.

Map showing Tanwalbougou:

A Cabinet and Military Reshuffle in Burkina Faso [Updated]

On January 19, the cabinet of Burkina Faso stepped down, including Prime Minister Paul Kaba Thieba after three years of service. The country’s security crisis seems to have been the trigger. A new prime minister, Christophe Joseph Marie Dabiré, soon took over. According to his official biography, Dabiré served in senior positions under both Thomas Sankara and Blaise Compaoré, and was a deputy in the National Assembly from 1997-2007. A new government was announced on January 24, and it contained familiar faces from Burkinabé politics, with several key ministers (Alpha Barry at Foreign Affairs, René Bagoro at Justice) keeping all or most of their previous portfolios.

A military reshuffle soon followed (more details here), with some of the most important changes and promotions affecting the Armée de Terre and its three military regions.

Here, then, are some key civilian and military members of the reconstituted national security team:

  • Minister of Defense: Chérif Sy, former president of Burkina Faso’s transitional parliament. (Read more on the challenges he faces here, and an old but useful biography can be found here.)
  • Minister of Security: Ousséni Compaoré, longtime United Nations official and commander of Burkina Faso’s gendarmerie during the 2014 revolution, retired gendarme (according to some sources, head of the gendarmerie under Sankara, or at least high up in the gendarmerie), and in any case a close ally of Sankara.
  • Chief of Staff of the Armée de Terre: Colonel Gilles Bationo, former commander of the first military region (replacing Léon Traoré – read a bit more about the handover here; one interesting detail is that Bationo reportedly speaks both English and Arabic).
  • Head of the first military region: Colonel Yves Patrick Ouédraogo (some biographical details available here).
  • Head of the second military region: Colonel Adam Néré (short biography here).
  • Head of the third military region: Colonel Moussa Diallo (read a bit on his background here). [UPDATE]: Apparently there are two Colonel Moussa Diallos, and this one is different than the figure profiled at the link.

In terms of patterns, it’s tempting to say that within both the cabinet and the military, President Roch Kaboré had an eye out for not just his own men, but also Sankara loyalists, some of whom had opposed Compaoré. But I would need to dig a bit deeper into the bios to confirm that hunch.

Mali/Burkina Faso: Continued Fallout from Koulogon and Yirgou Violence

On the night of December 31-January 1, two consequential attacks occurred in villages in Mali and Burkina Faso. In Mali, Donzo hunters attacked the village of Koulogon, targeting ethnic Fulani/Peul and killing thirty-seven people. In Burkina Faso, suspected jihadists attacked the primarily Mossi village of Yirgou, which elicited a reprisal attack by Yirgou villagers against nearby Fulani. In Burkina Faso, the death toll soon approached forty.

Koulogon is located in the Bankass cercle of Mali’s Mopti region (see Bankass town on this map), while Yirgou is located in the Barsalogho Department in Sanmatenga Province of Burkina Faso’s Centre-Nord Region (see Barsalogho town on this map).

The two incidents reflect the wider “ethnicization” of Sahelian, and particularly central Malian, conflicts that many analysts have been pointing to in recent years. That is, a dynamic takes hold where jihadists are assumed to be Fulani, the Fulani are targeted for collective punishment, and then both the jihadist violence and the intercommunal violence reinforce the overall dynamic of insecurity, where people organize violence along largely ethnic lines.

These two incidents have received major attention for a few reasons. First, they exemplify this dynamic of spiraling violence, providing instances that the media can readily understand and convey. Second, the death tolls are high in each instance, reflecting wider escalation:

Third, the violence marked a grim start to the new year, and the timing undoubtedly plays a part in the media’s focus on the incidents. And fourth, the attacks underscored how authorities are falling short when it comes to preventing violence. Regarding that last point, it is worth noting that Burkina Faso had already declared a state of emergency in parts of seven out of thirteen regions even before the Yirgou attack.

Here is some of the attention the incidents have gotten.

For one thing, there have been presidential visits to the villages:

Regarding Koulogon, notably, Malian President Keïta promised to establish a military base in the vicinity, and a gendarmerie unit has been deployed to Diallasago.

Burkina Faso’s President Roch Kaboré has also met Fulani/Peul leaders, attempting to defuse the ethnicization issue:

There are also calls and plans for investigations, with a United Nations inquiry underway regarding Koulogon, and with various civic and ethnic associations calling for other inquiries. For example, in Burkina Faso an association (Fulani-led, from what I can tell) called the Collectif contre l’impunité et la stigmatisation des communautés (Collective Against Impunity and the Stigmatization of Communities) is giving press interviews and organizing marches.

The Collective is also calling for the disarmament of Koglweogo militias (see here for background), depicting the militias as vehicles for ethnic violence.

In short, the conflicts in Mali and Burkina Faso comprise a whole swath of complex, localized but interconnected dynamics and conflicts, and the Koulogon and Yirgou incidents throw a lot of those dynamics into sharp relief. At the same time, there is a limit to how “legible” the violence is when viewed through the prism of individual incidents. This is an important note to conclude on, I think:

Burkina Faso: President Kaboré’s Public Comments on Human Rights Abuses and Allegations of Abuse

On Sunday, June 24, Burkina Faso’s President Roch Marc Kaboré appeared on three Burkinabé television stations to discuss a variety of issues. Fasozine offers a roundup (French) of the president’s statements on various controversies. Here is one excerpt that caught my eye:

Every time I have a meeting with the General Staff of the Armed Forces, I have always insisted on the fact that we must be respectful of human rights. It is true that we are on the ground, but we must have the confidence and the collaboration of the populations, which we must treat with maximum respect and consideration. This message is consistently repeated. At the level of the security forces, work is also done on all these human rights questions. [Human Rights Watch] really sent a message to the Burkinabé government to take action on a certain number things. We have asked them to come meet the minister of defense, to go on the ground. We have opened an investigation to apportion responsibilities on all of these questions. Everywhere that problems have been brought up, arrangements have been taken up in terms of investigation, in terms of sanctions. We think that there is more dramatization than reality. We always wait for proofs to be established and that they be shown to us.

For context, here is the report from Human Rights Watch.