Roundup on the High-Level Meeting on Mali and the Sahel at the United Nations General Assembly

On 26 September, a “High-Level Meeting on Mali and the Sahel” took place on the margins of the United Nations General Assembly meeting in New York. The meeting focused heavily on the issue of the G5 Sahel Joint Force. Here are a few relevant links:

  • The conclusions of the event (English and French). Key quote: “Participants welcomed the progress in operationalizing the Joint Force and condemned the attack of 29 June against its Headquarters in Sévaré. They expressed solidarity with the Joint Force and concerned countries. They welcomed the European Union’s commitment to rebuild the Headquarters. Participants affirmed that mobilizing adequate support for the full operationalization of the Joint Force was critical to its success and called upon Member States to provide the necessary support to the Joint Force as per the recommendations of the Secretary-General contained in his report of 16 October 2017 (S/2017/869) and resolution 2391 (2017). They encouraged the members of the Group of Five for the Sahel to establish a political and strategic framework for the Joint Force. “
  • United Nations Secretary General António Guterres’ remarks (French and English). Key quote: “My longstanding position is that the G5-Sahel Joint Force is an important demonstration of regional ownership.  It needs a strong mandate and sustained and predictable funding.”
  • Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta’s remarks (French). Key quote: “The Malian state has modest resources, which do not allow it to implement all of the engagements accepted in the Accord within the prescribed period. That is why I reiterate my call for the rapid and effective mobilization of the resources promised by our partners.”
  • High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini’s remarks (French). Key quote: “Together, you are stronger. That is why we have decided to invest a lot in the G5 Sahel.”
  • On Twitter, Burkina Faso’s Foreign Minister Alpha Barry called for “speed in partners’ support to the G5 Sahel so that the joint force becomes operational on the ground.”
  • Here is a brief readout (French) from Mauritanian Foreign Minister Ismaël Ould Cheikh Ahmed.

French President Emmanuel Macron’s speech (French) to the entire General Assembly is also worth reading.

Here are a few relevant tweets:

Three Recent Reports on Jihadism in the Sahel

A few recent treatments of jihadism in the Sahel have appeared:

Anouar Boukhars, “The Paradox of Modern Jihadi Insurgencies: The Case of the Sahel and Maghreb.” Here are the first two paragraphs:

One of the nagging questions about the persistent wave of insurgencies in the Maghreb Sahel region is that they continue to be characterized and defined by extremist ideologies. After violent jihadists discredited Algeria’s insurgency in the late 1990’s, the assumption was that dissident rebels may want to avoid the adoption of extremist ideology, as it alienates the majority of local populations, fragment the ranks of rebels, and scare away external supporters. Given such negative marginal returns, it is puzzling that transnational and local Salafi jihadism remains the insurgent repertoire in the Maghreb-Sahel crises. More perplexing is that this extremist ideology has become the tool of war par excellence as well as the ideological focal point that rallies the support of different kinds of aggrieved populations. Since Algerian terror groups relocated to Northern Mali in the early 2000’s, rebel leaders evolving in the Sahel have become more inclined towards adopting Salafi jihadism as a means to survive, recruit and outcompete other contending armed actors.

This is a strategic choice, which is more informed by strategic conditions on the ground than by automatic commitments to a core set of extreme beliefs. In other words, rebel entrepreneurs and their rank-and-file supporters and sympathizers do not have to be die-hard ideologues, or violent religious extremists, to lead or buy into transnational or local groups defined by a radical ideological platform. They just need to think that that their choice would yield dividends in contexts of deeply polarized societies that are run by illegitimate, abusive states. As such, this article focuses mostly on the benefits that insurgents and their supporters calculate they may accrue from adopting Salafi jihadism as a tool of insurgency in the Sahel-Maghreb crises. In so doing, it illustrates how jihadi rebels are slated to remain the dominant challengers to existing regimes in the region even if ironically their chances of achieving lasting victories is slim.

Hamza Cherbib, “Jihadism in the Sahel: Exploiting Local Disorders.” An excerpt:

The implantation of Jihadist groups in the Sahel has been a twenty-year process, which adapted to the 2013 French military intervention by exploiting rural insurgencies. Overall, this strategy allowed groups to blend with the local population, find new recruits and fight security forces through guerrilla tactics. So far, Sahel states and their partners have been unable to sustainably neutralize these groups, and instead jihadist recruitment has improved and the level of armed violence has increased. In order to break what amounts to a vicious cycle of military operations feeding local jihadist insurgencies, Sahelian states and their partners should consider alternative options. There is a need to tackle the root causes of armed violence in rural areas, often more connected to socioeconomic grievances, inter-communal tensions and a loss of faith in the State rather than violent extremism. To limit jihadist groups’ ability to recruit from marginalized communities and implant in rural areas, Sahelian states should work at restoring capacities to deliver services and peacefully manage local conflicts.

Geoff Porter, “The Renewed Jihadi Terror Threat to Mauritania.” Here’s the abstract:

A decade ago, terrorism was rampant in Mauritania, but then it stopped, even as terrorist activity was rapidly proliferating all around it. Instead of being a target of terrorism, Mauritania became a node of passive jihadi activity. Various explanations were proffered as to why this was happening: Mauritania was good at counterterrorism; the government had made a deal with the devil; jihadi groups respected Mauritania’s neutrality. On May 8, 2018, however, al-Qa`ida in the Islamic Maghreb issued a communiqué that specifically mentioned Mauritania in a call for attacks, signaling a possible renewed jihadi terror threat to the country.

Also worth reading is MENASTREAM’s recent post on the death of a jihadist commander in northern Mali.

Armed Drones in Niger Wouldn’t Be My Recommendation


The United States started arming drones in the West African nation of Niger earlier this year, according to the U.S. Africa Command.

“In coordination with the Government of Niger, U.S. Africa Command has armed intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) aircraft already in Niger to improve our combined ability to respond to threats and other security issues in the region. Armed ISR aircraft began flying in early 2018,” Samantha Reho, spokeswoman for U.S. Africa Command, told The Associated Press.

The armed drones are currently deployed to Niger’s Air Base 101 in Niamey. The effort was supported by Niger, and is part of the long-term strategic partnership between the U.S. and Niger to help counter violent extremists in the region, she said.

As a matter of operational security, Reho said she could not discuss whether strikes have already been carried out by the armed drones.

Regular readers will not be surprised to hear that I do not favor the use of armed drones or policies of assassination in the Sahel (or anywhere, really). I understand the main argument for their use, I think – namely, the idea that killing key bad guys will make a bad situation less bad. But evidence from elsewhere seems to suggest that things often don’t go that way. For example, much has been written in a critical vein about the U.S. drone campaign in Yemen. To take one critic’s comments, here is Jillian Schwedler, from 2015, discussing Yemen:

I would like to focus on different metric: the longer-term impact of the drone strikes on the legitimacy and attractiveness of al-Qaida’s message in Yemen and its ability to recruit among Yemenis themselves. Drone strikes are widely reported in local media and online and are a regular topic of discussion at weekly qat chewing sessions across the country. Cell phone calls spike after drone strikes, which are also widely reported on Twitter and Facebook. The strikes are wildly unpopular, with attitudes toward the United States increasingly negative. An Arab Barometer survey carried out in 2007 found that 73.5 percent of Yemenis believed that U.S. involvement in the region justified attacks on Americans everywhere.


The dual effect of U.S. acceleration in drone strikes since 2010 and of their continued use during the “transitional” period that was intended to usher in more accountable governance has shown Yemenis how consistently their leaders will cede sovereignty and citizens’ security to the United States. While Yemenis may recognize that AQAP does target the United States, the hundreds of drone strikes are viewed as an excessive response. The weak sovereignty of the Yemeni state is then treated as the “problem” that has allowed AQAP to expand, even as state sovereignty has been directly undermined by U.S. policy – both under President Ali Abdullah Salih and during the transition. American “security” is placed above Yemeni security, with Yemeni sovereignty violated repeatedly in service of that cause. Regardless of what those in Washington view as valid and legitimate responses to “terrorist” threats, the reality for Yemenis is that the United States uses drone strikes regularly to run roughshod over Yemeni sovereignty in an effort to stop a handful of attacks – most of them failed – against U.S. targets. The fact that corrupt Yemeni leaders consent to the attacks makes little difference to public opinion.

It’s not hard to imagine a similar set of interactions playing out in the Sahel – strikes that feed both anti-Americanism and contempt/mistrust for national states that willingly cede their already limited sovereignty.

I also question whether it’s really worth it to kill the top guys, especially the smart ones. Is it better to have a smart enemy, or a dumb one? It might seem intuitive that it’s better to fight a dumb guy, but dumb guys can be vicious and impetuous and if they sometimes act against their own long-term interests, their vicious and short-sighted moves can nevertheless make everything worse for everyone, including you. Then, too, dumb guys can be hard to talk to when it eventually comes time for jaw-jaw instead of war-war. Dumb guys also sometimes have a harder time holding coalitions together, so maybe that means when the dumb guy takes over from the smart guy, before too long you’re dealing not just with one smart guy but with the new dumb guy and with a couple of other guys (smart and dumb!) who didn’t want to take orders from the new dumb guy. Does that make your life better or worse? Or maybe you never get the top guy, because his whole life now turns into hiding from you and bragging about how you can’t get him, so now you content yourself with killing second-tier figures, but somehow guys keep signing up for that role. And then all of a sudden you’re killing quite a few people, and you make mistakes and kill a lot of civilians, and then you find yourself in something like the situation that Schwedler describes above, with broad swaths of the civilian population turning against both you and your “partner” governments.

So my two cents is, don’t start the cycle in the Sahel. And if you’ve started, stop it now.

Sahelian Food Crisis: Portraits from Niger and Mali

Two days ago, UNICEF spokesman Patrick McCormick stated that next week will likely see the “peak of admissions of children suffering from severe acute malnutrition into centres across the Sahel.” As he pointed out, the crisis is exacerbated by a number of factors, including locusts, the armed conflict in northern Mali, and human displacement from war and drought.

In Niger, described as the “worst affected country” in the Sahel by McCormick, some 161,000 children under five years old had severe acute malnutrition based on a survey taken at the beginning of July.
In Chad, the agency has seen the monthly caseload doubled compared to 2010, with 630 children under five admitted to treatment centres.
The next few weeks will be “critical to see whether we can keep things under control and the funding coming in to treat the children with the special food they need which is incredibly expensive”, said McCormick.

Deutsche Welle profiles a program in Niger that is trying to make a difference amid desperation:

Because of the drought in the Sahel, oxen and cows have hardly anything to eat. [The German NGO] Welthungerhilfe buys the weakest cattle from the farmers at a price which they would never get if they went to market. In and around [the village of] Yatakala these animals now end up in cooking pots and save human lives.

Willi Kohlmus is Welthungerhilfe’s regional director for Africa. He says they are trying to do everything they can to stop people leaving the area, because that would be the worst that could happen. “It would mean they would stop growing crops and the next harvest would also be a disaster. That in turn would mean more dependence on foreign aid, in refugee camps,” he warns.

The strain of displacement is visible in Mali:

Thousands of families in Bamako and other cities are facing the same challenge: how to accommodate and care for dozens of extra relatives, mostly children, when they are already struggling to cope with high food prices and too little income. Conflict across the north has displaced some 70,000 Malians, who are now mainly living in Bamako and Mopti, an inland port on the Niger River in central Mali.
The country is being squeezed on economic, political and military fronts. “We’re fighting a lot of fires at once here,” said Information Minister Hamadoun Touré. With formal sector unemployment at 30 percent in good times, investment in the mining sector down, the bulk of multilateral and bilateral development aid suspended, and zero tourism activity, the country could be on its way to a “complete economic standstill”, said one seasoned Malian development worker.

Refugee flows out of Mali have increased hardship in neighboring countries.

Some Malian pastoralists are also finding the current situation unsustainable:

Hundreds of pastoralists in the Mopti Region of central Mali are stuck between floodplains to the south and armed Islamists and rebels to the north. They are used to the hardship of successive droughts across the Sahel, but with little or no aid for their animals and severely limited access to pasture, many are becoming desperate as their livelihood and way of life becomes increasingly untenable.

“It’s all over – it’s finished,” Ibrahim Koita, head of the Society of Social Welfare in Mopti Region, told IRIN in the capital, Bamako, where he is trying to pressure donors for more aid.

Aid is coming in – Canada recently pledged $10 million – but the situation remains grim.

A Look at the Food Crisis in Chad

The Sahel currently faces a food crisis that could affect as many as 15 million people.

This includes 5.4 million people in the Niger (35 percent of the population), 3 million in Mali (20 percent), around 1.7 million in Burkina Faso (10 percent), around 3.6 million in Chad (28 percent), 850 000 in Senegal (6 percent), 713 500 in the Gambia (37 percent) and 700 000 in Mauritania (22 percent).

The looming crisis is due to a combination of factors, including drought; sharp declines in cereal production and high grain prices; a shortage of fodder for livestock; a reduction in remittances from migrant workers in several countries; environmental degradation; displacement; and chronic poverty deepened by chronic crisis.

Total 2011 cereal production in the Sahel was on average 25 percent lower than in 2010, but as much as 50 percent lower in Chad and Mauritania. There were also localized, huge food production deficits in other countries (up to 80 percent).

As the above quotation indicates, Chad is one of the most affected countries. IRIN gives a ground-level perspective on the crisis, and sets Chad’s problems in the context of broader fallout from the civil war in Libya and the violence in Northern Nigeria:

Late Chadian government recognition of a food crisis, a slow build-up from aid agencies, and severe pipeline constraints due to closed Libyan and Nigerian borders mean food aid has not yet arrived in Chad, despite many thousands of people having already run out of food.

Residents of Eri Toukoul village in Kanem Region, western Chad, told IRIN they have nothing to eat. Most are surviving by leaving for towns and cities. Grain stores are empty and the animals they used to rely on are dead.

“Before we had 10-15 animals each, now we have nothing,” said Fatou Su Hawadriss, who has seven children. Almost every family in this village once had at least one relative working in Libya who sent back money, but now all have fled the violence there.

Oxfam, meanwhile, has produced a video on the situation in Chad.

Both Oxfam and the United Nations are calling for millions of dollars to support relief efforts across the region.

The debate continues about how best to address the problem of food insecurity, with NPR recently showcasing new research on where relief organizations should purchase food supplies. The findings seem fairly common-sense to me:

Simple, unprocessed grain or beans were clearly cheaper in local markets; processed food such as oil sometimes was cheaper to ship from the U.S. The lesson from this is a simple one, the researchers concluded: Don’t set up rigid rules that require food to be bought in any particular place. Buy food wherever it makes most sense.

The larger question about the region’s recurring food crises still remains, however: What is the best long-term strategy for reducing food insecurity? For Chad and many of its neighbors, that question is of crucial importance.

Wikileaks Roundup for Africa

See my general position on Wikileaks here. Briefly, now that the information is out there I feel it’s worth discussing it. To that end, I thought a (partial) roundup of what leaked cables say about different African countries might be useful.


  • Miami Herald: “From the Saudi-Yemen border to lawless Somalia and the north-central African desert, the U.S. military is more engaged in armed conflicts in the Muslim world than the U.S. government openly acknowledges, according to cables released by the WikiLeaks website.”
  • VOA interviews Liesl Louw-Vaudran of South Africa’s Institute for Security Studies and looks at the impact of the cable leaks in Nigeria, Kenya, Libya, and across the continent. Louw-Vaudran says, “I think many Africans are a little bit disgusted, a little bit shocked, at the sort of flippant way that these American diplomats are talking about, ultimately, African heads of state.”
  • BBC: “Cables from a senior American official in Nigeria describe China as ‘aggressive and pernicious’, and that ‘China is in Africa primarily for China’. However, the memo goes on to say the US does not consider China a military, security or intelligence threat.” What about an economic threat? More here.
  • Radio Netherlands Worldwide has its own roundup here, and Christian Science Monitor‘s Scott Baldauf looks at the implications for Nigeria, Kenya, and South Africa.


  • NPR: “Among the cables in this week’s dump of WikiLeaks documents are memos concerning shipments of arms through Kenya to Sudan. The cables suggest that the U-S turned a blind eye to the situation until Somali pirates brought it to public attention by seizing a tanker carrying 32 Soviet-made Ukrainian tanks, apparently bound for Sudan’s south.” Kenya’s Daily Nation has more on the arms shipments from Kenya to South Sudan.
  • Reuters: “One [cable] said Egypt had lobbied for a delay in the referendum for South Sudan’s independence.”


  • All Africa: “Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi told top visiting American officials before elections in May this year that he would ‘crush… with our full force’ opposition leaders who ‘violated the laws of Ethiopia,’ according to a diplomatic cable published by WikiLeaks.”
  • The Guardian: “US ambassador portrays [Eritrean President] Isaias Afwerki as part menace, part weirdo.”


  • Reuters: “U.S. drugmaker Pfizer hired investigators to find evidence of corruption against Nigeria’s attorney general to convince him to drop legal action against the company over a drug trial involving children, the Guardian newspaper reported, citing U.S. diplomatic cables made public by WikiLeaks.” BBC: “Pfizer has dismissed as “preposterous” reports that it hired investigators to uncover evidence of corruption against a former Nigerian attorney general.”
  • CNN: “Royal Dutch Shell has people in ‘all the relevant ministries’ in the Nigerian government and has access to ‘everything being done in those ministries,’ according to leaked diplomatic cables published by WikiLeaks and posted on the website of the British newspaper The Guardian on Thursday.” Business Week has Shell’s denial. Al Jazeera English has a video report.

Finally, I have some comments on Wikileaks and the Sahel here, and Congo Siasa has a roundup concerning Central Africa here.

Do you see any patterns? Any surprises? Let us know.

A US Military Perspective on AQIM and Ransoms

I missed this a few days back, but it’s worth reading given the frequent conversations we’ve had here about the pros and cons of paying ransoms to AQIM:

Paying ransom for hostages held by al Qaeda in Africa just encourages more kidnappings and hands the militant network a global propaganda boost, a U.S. military official said on Tuesday.

The same goes for the practice of releasing jailed militants to win freedom for hostages held by al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), added the official in a briefing about U.S. military support for governments in Africa’s Sahel region.

The official said the tactics also stirred disputes between regional countries, potentially damaging fledgling cooperation on counter-terrorism, because some governments opposed paying ransoms while others appeared to tolerate the practice.

“The countries are at each other’s throats over payments. It hurts us regionally,” the official said, adding that kidnapping also deterred tourism, an important revenue source.

“It ends up that these countries will not cooperate on various issues because a country has decided to pay…(Al Qaeda) makes hay with this. They get a lot of bang for their buck.”

The official wanted to remain anonymous, Reuters says, so we can’t contact him for a follow-up, but at any rate this article offers food for thought.