Recent Analyses of the Sahel Conflict(s) and Relevant Themes

Clionadh Raleigh,  Héni Nsaibia, and Caitriona Dowd, “Briefing: The Sahel Crisis Since 2012.” African Affairs, August 26, 2020. This will now be the first piece I recommend to anyone new to following the region. There are a lot of rich details in this briefing about the composition, strategies, and expansion patterns of Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wa-l-Muslimin (JNIM) and the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS). Here is one very apt observation from the introduction: “The critical lesson of this briefing is that this tsunami of conflict did not initially manifest as overtly Islamist or even ideologically coherent, but grew from opportunism. Populist rhetoric, displays of weakened state authority, a brutal—or absent—security sector, the militarization of neighbors, livelihoods and communities each constitute viable ways that the Sahel violence can metastasize through the wider region.”

Edoardo Baldaro, “Rashomon in the Sahel: Conflict Dynamics of Security Regionalism.” Security Dialogue, August 27, 2020. From the abstract: “The African Sahel is a region whose geopolitical dimensions are constantly changing and evolving as a result of new intersections of international, regional and local security dynamics. In this context, various actors have initiated different regional projects in an attempt to reframe the area according to their interests and specific interpretations of security and to impose the form of order that best fits with their goals. The discursive, normative and material struggle about the definition of the region is having obvious effects on security and conflict, furthering regional instability. This article disentangles the different region-building initiatives at work in the area by identifying the four groups of actors advancing a specific project around the Sahel, namely: (1) international security deliverers, (2) jihadist insurgent groups, (3) regional governmental elites, and (4) local communities and populations. In so doing, it explores how the different spatial and security imaginaries advanced by these four collective agents struggle and interact, and shows that the Sahel can be considered the unintended result of a competitive process that is furthering conflict and violence in a shifting regional security system.” This is the kind of analysis I really want to read. The Rashomon metaphor is on a lot of folks’ minds – Yvan Guichaoua also used it in a thread this summer.

Two pieces on Sahelian jihadists and humanitarian groups/workers:

  • Yida Diall translated by Luca Raineri, “Islamic State and Al-Qaeda in the Sahel, Inhuman with Humanitarians?” Security Praxis, September 3, 2020. Some striking details: “Yet the rise of the Islamic State has challenged the influence of the Katibat Macina in central Mali. Perhaps in an attempt to be seen as more radical challengers of the status quo, IS adherents display a much more intransigent attitude vis-à-vis humanitarian agencies and workers. Abu Mahmoud, formerly one of Kouffa’s lieutenants who has defected to the Islamic State, launched his challenge to the atibat Macina in late 2019 by raiding with his men a humanitarian convoy who had already received Kouffa’s green light to access the region of Ségou, in central Mali. According to a whatsapp audio message released soon thereafter, Abu Mahmud claimed that humanitarian action is inherently non-Muslim, and therefore its agents should be treated as non-believers: they are legitimate war targets, and their goods should be considered war spoils that can be lawfully looted. Similarly, in the Mopti region, IS fighters have pillaged village clinics, water tanks and food dispensaries because they were built and supplied by humanitarian actors, although in partnership with local authorities. Reportedly, IS-linked jihadists in the region justified their actions by claiming that humanitarians are non-believers spearheading the advance of the West and that there can be no room for their projects and belongings in the dar al-Islam.”
  • Tatiana Smirnova, Anne Roussel, and Yvan Guichaoua, “Humanitaires dans les zones de conflit: ni héros ni espions [Humanitarians in Conflict Zones: Neither Heroes Nor Spies].” Ideas 4 Development, August 31, 2020. An excerpt: “Humanitarians are endowed with a ‘noble’ mission (helping vulnerable populations), framed by transcendant principles that are, a priori, consensual. But nothing is self-evident in the space they put themselves into. The information that they can glean is piecemeal and can be manipulated; the resources they distribute are the focus of competition; populations are not merely victims, they are also politically active and pursue their own strategies. Finally, humanitarians stand in front of armed actors in a strongly asymmetric relationship: the first have no weapons, the second do. And the latter can be, alternatively, a source of protection or of danger.”

Christopher Blair, Michael Horowitz, and Philip Potter, “Leadership Targeting and Militant Alliance Breakdown,” forthcoming in the Journal of Politics. From p. 2: “Militant leaders are critical for cultivating capabilities, controlling behavior, and sustaining the trust that undergirds alliances. Leadership removal, especially via decapitation, can reduce capabilities or collapse groups and undermine inter-organizational trust, triggering splits. By eliminating leaders who play a central role in alliance management, decapitation strategies drive militant alliance termination.” YMMV – I think there’s a lot of evidence, including from the Sahel, that decapitation does not work, including in terms of terminating alliances.

Nathaniel Mathews, ” ‘Arab-Islamic Slavery’: A Problematic Term for a Complex Reality.” Research Africa Reviews 4:2 (August 2020). From p. 6: “[The term ‘Arab-Islamic slavery,’ AIS] muddles religion and ethnicity into a polemical concept that does ideological work, (often inadvertently) re-dividing Africa across the Saharan boundary. In the resulting matrix, Arabs are non-African, North Africans are non-black, sub-Saharan Africans are non-Muslim, and ‘blackness is a stable [and global] category referring to a historically coherent people whose experiences of violence are necessarily tied by a common ethnicity.’ This is not to deny the existence in the canons of Arabic, of damaging and prejudicial stereotypes about dark-skinned people from Africa, nor of the need to confront them forthrightly. But the AIS term not only allows the perpetrators of enslavement to stand outside the boundaries of ethnic, linguistic and religious community, it also elides important voices of critique that emerged from within the ‘Arab-Islamic’ milieu. Al-Jahiz, Ibn al-Jawzi, Al-Suyuti, Ahmad Baba, Musa Kamara and other Muslim writers who refuted black inferiority from within a framework, whether for better or for worse, of a shared linguistic, legal and intellectual culture that spanned Sudanic Africa, the Maghrib and beyond.”

Further Perspectives on Slavery in Mauritania

Alle at Maghreb Politics Review takes note of yesterday’s post on slavery in Mauritania and offers some thoughts of his own on the cultural context in which slavery exists. Alle also makes the important observation that slavery in the region is not limited to Mauritania, but occurs in other Saharan and Sahelian countries. Check out the whole post.

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In other Mauritania news, I’ve been asking myself whether recent diplomatic talks between Middle Eastern countries and Mauritania have any special significance. This week, Mauritania and Yemen discussed expanding their diplomatic ties, and the UAE and Mauritania are seeking ways to increase cooperation. At the Organization of the Islamic Conference meeting in Turkey this week, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad reaffirmed his country’s interest in Mauritania. Maybe all these meetings are run of the mill diplomatic business, or maybe all these incidents indicate that now that the elections are over, other countries are more interested in improving their relations with President Abdel Aziz.

Mauritania and Slavery

Mauritania made headlines last week when a UN investigator announced that slavery continues there.

A 2007 law criminalising slavery in the west African desert state is not being properly enforced and victims are not encouraged to come forward, U.N. rapporteur Gulnara Shahinian told a news conference.

“There are all forms of slavery in Mauritania. There is child labour, domestic labour, child marriages and human trafficking,” Shahinian said.

“Legislation is simply a statement on paper if it is not enforced,” she added, urging authorities to bolster the legislation with specific laws relating to labour practices, citizenship and immigration.

Local human rights groups estimate that 18 per cent of Mauritania’s population of about 3 million still live in slavery that has historical roots in the ownership by a ruling Arab-Berber elite of the indigenous black population.

Reports of slavery in Mauritania surface regularly, though as Wikipedia notes the 2007 ban was preceded by major anti-slavery decrees in 1905 and 1981, as well as other initiatives. The BBC wrote of continuing slavery in 2002 and 2004, and in 2007 noted criticisms that the new anti-slavery law did not “include contemporary aspects of slavery – such as forced marriage, indentured labour or debt bondage.”

Two major figures stand out when I look at the politics of slavery in Mauritania. The first is Boubacar Messaoud, founder of SOS Slaves and himself a son of slaves, who has been recognized around the world – and jailed inside Mauritania – for his activism.

The second is Messaoud Boulkheir, also born to slave parents, who made a strong showing in the presidential elections in 2007 and was elected President of the National Assembly afterwards. Prior to the elections this summer, the Telegraph said that Boulkheir’s candidacy had put “half a million African slaves…at the heart of Mauritania’s presidential election.”

Though Boulkheir’s flawed campaign proved unsuccessful, and Kal at The Moor Next Door warned that his supporters were unlikely to constitute a long-lasting political movement, perhaps between the campaign and the UN’s recent statements the slavery issue has become one Mauritania’s leadership cannot afford to ignore. But maybe I’m naive. I guess we’ll have to see how the regime in Nouakchott responds to the UN.