Mali: The Politics of a Prisoner Release in Mopti (and Bamako)

On 19 February, the Malian government announced that it had secured the liberation of Makan Doumbia and Issaka Tamboura; the former is the prefect of Tenenkou Cercle, one of the most troubled districts in the central Mopti Region, while the latter is a journalist who was kidnapped in Douentza Cercle, another troubled Mopti area. The two men were seized in separate incidents in Mopti in 2018, and were also liberated on different days.

As RFI details, various theories are circulating as to how the Malian government obtained the releases. RFI casts doubt on the idea that a military rescue operation occurred, suggesting that there is a greater likelihood of a prisoner exchange.

A reporter from Sahelian.com was able to meet Doumbia during his captivity (see this video and report). The kidnappers identified themselves as members of Katibat Macina or Macina Battalion, part of the jihadist coalition the Group for Supporting Islam and Muslims (Arabic acronym JNIM). It is quite possible that the journalist’s contact with Doumbia was a key step toward his release, although Sahelien has not to my knowledge commented on that aspect of the affair.

Local politicians and government officials have been recurring targets of violence and intimidation, and government authority has unraveled in Mopti partly because of the cumulative and mutually reinforcing effects of assassinations and kidnappings of village heads, sub-prefects, prefects, and so forth. Jihadist kidnappings have also targeted relatively ordinary citizens, such as teachers; such kidnappings appear designed to serve not just as sources of financing but also as techniques of control over local populations. At the same time, one feature of the Mopti crisis is its opacity and murkiness – it is not always clear who is killing whom, or who is kidnapping whom.

In any case, the government of President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta was eager to broadcast this bit of good news from Mopti – the two men met not just IBK, but also Prime Minister Soumeylou Maïga and four other prominent cabinet ministers in a highly publicized event. The proceedings seem designed to show that the Malian government cares deeply about its citizens.

But as Sahelien and others have pointed out, other hostages have died during captivity in Mopti, while still others remain unaccounted for.

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Mali: Clerics Rally to Defend Their Class and Weaken the President

On January 19, the Malian imam Abdoul Aziz Yattabaré was stabbed to death in the capital Bamako while exiting his mosque. A member of the High Islamic Council of Mali (HCIM) and director of the Islamic Institute of Missira, Yattabaré’s death evoked wide grief.

The assassination also provoked a public dispute between the HCIM’s leader Mahmoud Dicko and the government of President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta (IBK), with Dicko’s spokesman quickly casting doubt on the government’s statements concerning the assassination and the accused assassin. At the heart of the controversy are a few questions, including whether the imam was assassinated because he condemned homosexuality. Dicko’s spokesman also implied that Yattabaré’s death reflected a government effort to silence Dicko and his circle amid wider tensions between the government and several religious leaders, most prominently Dicko and the Chérif of Nioro, who is arguably the leading Sufi shaykh in Mali.

Dicko and the Chérif (the latter represented by a spokesman) followed up with a mass rally in Bamako on 10 February. The key demands made there were for (a) a new law criminalizing homosexuality, (b) better governance and security, and (c) the sacking of Prime Minister Soumeylou Boubèye Maïga (SBM).

There is obviously a lot going on here all at once. Here are a few points:

  • As a pressure bloc, Mali’s religious leaders seem to have the most influence when it comes to “social issues” and particularly ones related to sexuality; the same clerics recently got the government to back down on sex education in schools. And the clerics seem to be much less influential when it comes to determining electoral outcomes; Dicko and the Chérif, despite vocal opposition, did not thwart IBK’s re-election last year. So in denouncing homosexuality, the clerics are on familiar and, for them, very strong ground.
  • Calling for SBM’s resignation is a savvy political move in the sense that he is the strongest prime minister IBK has had so far. There was rapid turnover in prime ministers during Keïta’s first term. SBM has also been credited, rightly or wrongly, with winning the re-elect for IBK. If you want to weaken the president, in other words, calling for SBM’s firing is not a stupid tactic.
  • In terms of popular attitudes toward homosexuality, I think some Western commentators discussing the rally in Bamako came off as a bit too smug and contemptuous, forgetting that (a) it wasn’t that long ago that major Western politicians such as Barack Obama opposed gay marriage, and (b) in a context of widespread insecurity and paranoia, conspiracy theories can gain a lot of currency within information economies. I’m not saying any of this to defend homophobia, but rather to say that if you put yourself in the shoes of someone at one of these rallies, it is not incomprehensible why someone might latch onto the idea that there is a homosexual cabal running the country and seeking to undermine Islam; amid endemic violence, it often seems that people reach for explanations that revolve around a sense that “things are not what they seem,” or in particular, “the elites are not who they seem.” The circulation of conspiracy theories combines with anti-Western sentiment to allow clerics such as Dicko to present themselves as defenders of what is “authentically” Malian and Muslim against an alleged foreign onslaught.
  • The clerics may also feel some genuine fear, as a class, and are thus going on the offensive because they feel themselves to be on the defensive. Not too long after Yattabaré’s murder, another Bamako-based preacher was stabbed, although not fatally. The clerics may be feeling more vulnerable than they admit. Having been in both the HCIM offices and Dicko’s mosque, I can say that security is not tight in either place. I imagine that may change now.

Mali: A Controversy Around Sex Education

In December, the Malian government announced that it was withdrawing a proposed sexual education textbook for adolescents. The plans for the textbook had evoked opposition from Muslim leaders in Mali, including Mahmoud Dicko, president of the High Islamic Council of Mali (French acronym HCIM) – Dicko asserted that by including a chapter on sexual orientation, the textbook was promoting homosexuality. In early January, the government announced the abandonment of the initiative. (It’s worth noting that Christian leaders, and Muslim leaders beyond Dicko, were also unhappy with the textbook.)

The incident feels like a replay, in miniature, of the 2009-2011 controversy over reforms to the family code – an episode that also saw Dicko and others successfully pressuring politicians into backtracking. Both the textbook and the family code struggles reveal the power of Muslim clerics and constituencies as lobby groups. The textbook episode also surprises me a bit in that you would think Malian politicians and bureaucrats would have seen the backlash coming given the way the family code debate played out.

There are real limits to the clerics’ political influence, of course. Dicko supported President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta when he ran and won in 2013, but Keïta won re-election in August 2018 despite a public falling out with Dicko and another prominent cleric, the Chérif of Nioro. So clerics don’t necessarily get to choose who gets elected. And it seems highly unlikely that Mali will see a cleric win the presidency, or even seriously try for it, any time soon. (Some of the reason for that has do with continuity in the political elite, a dynamic I discuss here).

Nevertheless, the lobbying power is formidable. And perhaps out of a desire to reinforce that power, Dicko kept going even after the textbook was withdrawn. On December 23, Dicko led – or perhaps eagerly accepted to lead, depending on how you read events – a demonstration in Mali’s capital Bamako. It is worth noting the presence of opposition politicians at the event, but even their attendance does not yet convince me that Dicko will be able to translate lobbying influence into electoral power. In any case, for now it seems the clerics get to draw red lines on key policy issues perceived to affect Islamic morality in Mali.

 

Mali: PM Maiga in Timbuktu, and Reinforcements Promised

The violence in northern Mali is made up of multiple interrelated sub-conflicts, which makes the situation there extremely difficult to understand (including for me). I am increasingly interested in trying to better understand the conflict in Timbuktu (city and region), and am working on a longer piece about it. Timbuktu has been the site of some major attacks, including one targeting the United Nations’ Multi-Dimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) in April 2018.

In light of Timbuktu’s importance, I was interested to see that Prime Minister Soumeylou Maïga visited the city on December 14-15. Back in Bamako after the trip, he announced that the government will deploy an additional 350 security personnel to Timbuktu in early 2019 – not just to fight jihadists, but also to try to respond to pervasive banditry (see also here).

Maïga also announced that “the military region of Taoudenit will also be created in 2019,” a reference to the (to my mind, very confusing) plan to carve new regions out of the existing ones. Taoudenit in particular, which used to be part of Timbuktu Region, seems to exist in some kind of quantum state where it is always simultaneously already created and yet to be born. The other day a colleague tried to track down a map of its administrative boundaries, and only found a few rough approximations.

Below are a few tweets from Maïga about the Timbuktu trip. Note that the optics include not just displays of solidarity with the soldiers and displays of the state providing public services, but also public displays of religiosity (in a gesture toward Timbuktu’s religious status).

VOA also has a good report on the trip here.

Mali’s New Cabinet

Following his re-election in August, Mali’s President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta (IBK) retained Prime Minister Soumeylou Boubèye Maïga (SBM), whom I and others have accorded a significant role in IBK’s victory. But the president did reshuffle the cabinet. The list of the thirty-two members can be found here. A good analysis of the new cabinet can be found here (French), but I also want to highlight and amplify a few things:

  • During his first term (2013-2018), IBK regularly reshuffled his cabinets and fired four prime ministers, three of whom spent less than a year in the position. So no one’s job is exactly safe, even SBM’s.
  • There is a great deal of continuity in this cabinet. Only twelve people left the cabinet altogether. Some prominent ministers have been retained, such as Salif Traoré (see a bit of biographical data here) as Minister of Security and Mohamed ag Erlaf as Minister of Territorial Administration and Decentralization (who took a bit of heat during the elections, one should add). Another retention is Nina Wallet Intalou, Minister of Crafts and Tourism and someone associated with the Tuareg-led National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), a rebel movement that played a central role in the 2012 rebellion and its aftermath. Yet another retention is Tierno Amadou Diallo, Minister of Religious Affairs, who (if I am correct) has been one of the few ministers to survive all the cabinet reshuffles since 2013.
  • Another form of continuity is familiar faces coming back, just in new positions. This is the case with Tiéna Coulibaly, now Minister of Justice but previously Minister of Defense. It is also the case with Tiémoko Sangaré, previously Minister of Mines and now Minister of Defense.
  • In terms of new entrants, the appointment of Kamissa Camara as foreign minister has been widely hailed in Mali and abroad, for two reasons: (1) because of her strong reputation, including in Washington, where she worked for the National Endowment for Democracy and other institutions [for full disclosure, I have been in contact with her several times and where she has helped me with my research, although I do not believe she has ever met] and (2) because the appointment of a young woman is seen by many as an exciting development for Mali, for Africa, and for female representation in government generally.
  • In terms of party politics, the above-mentioned analysis notes that of the thirty-two cabinet members, twenty represent political parties. A total of seven parties are represented in the cabinet, and six of those belong to the presidential coalition. Another analysis floats the idea that the prominent party ADEMA-PASJ is something of a loser in this reshuffle, losing two seats and gaining only a symbolic prize with Defense – according to the writer, it is actually IBK who manages that portfolio.,

A readout of the new cabinet’s first meeting can be found here.

Notes on the August 2018 UN Panel of Experts on Mali Report

This week, the latest report from the United Nations’ Panel of Experts on Mali came out. The big headline coming out of the report has been allegations that some signatories to the 2015 Algiers Accord are implicated in terrorism and drug trafficking.

I learned a ton from the report and I salute the panel for what must have been an extremely intense amount of labor and travel.

Here are some of the passages that stood out to me from the report:

p. 2, “Antiterrorist operations conducted by the Malian army in northern and central Mali, as well as by ‘compliant’ armed groups — those who are part of the Plateforme or CMA or have declared that they will observe the Agreement — have led to civilian killings and amplified intercommunal violence.” This is Mali’s core challenge, now, I would say – to find a way out of the violence that does not lead to more violence.

p. 4, “The Panel began its work on 1 February 2018. During the reporting period (February to June 2018) the Panel visited Mali on four occasions and travelled to the northern regions of Gao, Kidal, Timbuktu and Ménaka and the central region of Mopti…In addition to its visits to Mali, the Panel also visited Belgium, Burkina Faso, France, Mauritania, the Netherlands and the Niger. Visits proposed by the Panel to Algeria in April and June were not accommodated.” I’ll just leave that there.

p. 6, “The current Malian conflict started in January 2012…” I don’t blame the panel for this phrasing and this is probably the most comprehensible way to put things. But on another level, the current conflict started in 1990, in the sense that many of the same faces from the early 1990s are still key actors today: Iyad ag Ghali, El Hadj ag Gamou, etc. Experts would do well to remind the lay audience that the roots of this conflict are deep indeed.

p. 7, “Regional and local elections that would have replaced interim measures were scheduled for December 2017 and April 2018, but both were postponed. A revised road map of actions adopted by signatory parties on 22 March 2018 has not provided a date for those elections but rather puts them after a revision of the decentralization legislation, which is to take place in 2019. Though it confirms the extension of the interim period until sometime in 2019, or even beyond, international mediation team members have generally welcomed the March road map. Several of them mentioned to the Panel that the engaged role of the Prime Minister, Soumeylou Boubèye Maïga, as well as the start of the work of the independent observer and the Mali sanctions regime — both mechanisms envisaged in, respectively, articles 63 and 64 and article 54 of the Agreement — have given new impetus to the Agreement.” The role of Maïga remains crucial and fascinating, as always. I am thinking about a post that would try to look at him in some kind of structural sense, rather than just as an individual (one often discussed as hyper-competent). But in any case he is clearly a key link between the administration and the politicians in the north.

p. 14, “The single priority action under the economic development component of the Agreement concerns the creation of a development zone for the northern regions. According to the Agreement, the development zone is based on a development strategy and financed through the sustainable development fund. A concept note for the development zone has been drafted by the Government and transmitted to the signatory armed groups, but at the time of a meeting of a subcommittee of the Agreement Monitoring Committee on 21 June a formal response was still pending. A legislative text is foreseen by November 2018, as indicated in the March road map.” It will be worth keeping an eye on this, although I will not be holding my breath for November.

p. 17, A whole section on Ménaka, the Daoussak, the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (referred to by its French acronym EIGS throughout the report), and the Kidal elite begins here. It is probably too complicated to summarize, but it makes for an important case study of how many fault lines cut through different communities and how those can play out in terms of who fights whom. Here is one key quote from p. 18: “The main political actors in the newly created region of Ménaka are: the aménokal (traditional leader) of the Oulemiden (Iwllemmeden) and Member of Parliament Bajan Ag Hamatou, traditionally close to the fraction Idoguiritane of the Daoussaks; the Governor, Daouda Maïga, who originates from Tidermene and was instrumental in the constitution of the GATIA/MSA-D alliance and the return of GATIA in Ménaka on 27 October 2017 (Daouda Maïga is reportedly close to GATIA General Gamou, also born in Tidermene); and Abdoul Wahab Ag Ahmed Mohamed, President of the interim authority, known to be close to Moussa Ag Acharatoumane of MSA-D.”

p. 22, Getting deeper into the question of who is coordinating with whom, there is a fascinating but inconclusive section dealing with a visit by Alghabass ag Intalla, one of the most prominent politicians in Kidal and the secretary-general of the CMA, the umbrella group for ex-rebels who signed the 2015 Algiers accord, to Menaka. A relevant quote: “Despite allegations that a shared strategy was being implemented following Alghabass’s visit to the Ménaka region in December 2017 and reported meetings with members of terrorist armed groups, the Panel found no evidence documenting a connection between CMA and terrorist armed groups in the Ménaka and Gao regions.”

p. 25 and 27-30, Here is where some of the most explosive assertions about the participation of certain armed factions in terrorist/jihadist activities appear. Since it has been covered a lot in the press, I won’t get into it here.

p. 33, Here are further allegations that the major government-aligned militia GATIA (Self-Defense Group for Imghad Tuareg and Allies) is involved in smuggling illicit drugs, as well as further data on how conflict over drugs fuels clashes between armed groups: “In Mali, the Panel obtained further information about the role of GATIA associates in securing drug (cannabis) convoys. Malian authorities, a diplomatic source and an armed group representative referred to Ahmoudou Ag Asriw of GATIA as having led a convoy transporting cannabis resin in April 2018, together with a member of MAA-Plateforme. The convoy was heading from Tabankort to the Tamesna desert, presumably on its way to the Niger. On 13 April 2018, near Amassin, south of Kidal, it came under attack from MNLA and unidentified armed elements from the Niger. The assailants were reported to have taken part of or the entire 4-ton shipment of cannabis resin north to cross into Algeria at Tinzawaten. The confrontation reportedly claimed three victims.” And from further down the same page, a key quote: “The legitimacy of both the Plateforme and CMA as signatory armed groups has motivated drug traffickers to seek protection from their members rather than members of terrorist armed groups in order to be less exposed.” on p. 35, there is some discussion of GATIA, the CMA (namely one of its components, the HCUA) and migrant smuggling.

p. 43, There is some good detail here on operations by the G5 Sahel Joint Force.

p. 46, The recommendations begin here. They lead with this: “Proceed without delay to consider the designation for targeted measures of individuals and entities engaging in or providing support for actions or policies that threaten the peace, security or stability of Mali.” I certainly understand the logic, but I don’t think I would take this path unless you are confident that you can really squeeze these actors in changing their behavior – if you can’t accomplish that, though, then “targeted measures” might simply alienate people whose participation will be key to any eventual (hopeful) political solution.

The main body of the report ends on p. 47, but sixteen annexes follow, including social media posts from armed/political groups, official documents, correspondence, and other interesting sources.

 

 

 

 

Mali: How Did IBK Win Re-Election?

Yesterday, 16 August, Mali’s Ministry of Territorial Administration and Decentralization announced official results from the second round of Mali’s presidential elections. The first round, held 29 July, narrowed the field to two candidates – incumbent President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta (IBK) and long-time opposition candidate and former Finance Minister Soumaïla Cissé. The first round results gave IBK approximately 41% of the vote to Cissé’s nearly 18%, leaving around 41% of the electorate undecided. The second round was held on 12 August. The official results from the second round give IBK 67.17% to Cissé’s 32.83%. Turnout is estimated at 34.5%, which is dismayingly low but which is also in line with turnout figures from previous Malian elections, especially in the second round.

How did IBK win, especially in the face of Mali’s terrible problems? Three factors occur to me so far, though the list is surely non-exhaustive.

First, and most immediately, the opposition did not rally around Cissé in the second round. As I discussed here, in Francophone West Africa’s two-round systems, an opposition candidate hoping to oust an incumbent almost always needs a wave of endorsements and alliances between the first and second rounds if that candidate is to win. That bandwagon effect did not happen for Cissé – the lower-scoring candidates almost all stayed neutral, with some of them professing open derision for both IBK and Cissé. Fourth-place finisher Cheick Modibo Diarra, for example, said on 10 August in a communiqué (French), “My belief remains that neither the one nor the other corresponds to our ideal of change. To replace Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta with Soumaïla Cissé is not an alternation, it is not change for us, it is nothing more and nothing less than a game of musical chairs.”

Diarra, a former acting prime minister, may not be in the best position to denounce games of musical chairs – but the sentiment he expressed may have been more widely shared by voters. Clearly, if we go by official results, many people saw no point in voting; insecurity in northern and central Mali can explain some of the low turnout, but some of it should be attributed to apathy/cynicism/disgust as well. Cissé was unable to convince sufficient numbers of elites or voters that he represented a credible alternative to the political status quo. There is a broader fatigue, it seems, with the whole political class, and IBK benefits from that fatigue in the sense that he won almost by default. The devil you know, etc.

Second, it’s worth according a role – although I’m still thinking through how big of one – to current Prime Minister Soumeylou Boubèye Maïga (let’s call him SBM). Since SBM, a former intelligence chief and defense minister, was appointed in December 2017, various observers have seen that appointment in the context of the then-upcoming elections. According to these theories (and here I’m mixing in some of what I heard on short trips to Bamako in January and March of this year), SBM’s appointment had a triple purpose: (a) removing a potentially formidable competitor from the field of presidential candidates, (b) appointing someone seen as more competent and well-connected than the cycle of short-lived prime ministers IBK had run through since 2013, and (c) appointing someone from the north (Gao) with a mandate to making the political and logistical arrangements necessary to have a credible and victorious election throughout the whole country and especially in the north. The north is obviously not the most populated part of the country, but it seems IBK was keen to (a) have the election take place there at all, at least to an extent that would satisfy foreign powers, and (b) to win there, likely to argue that he had a truly national mandate. SBM, through visits to the north and the center, as well as through numerous visits abroad, may have played a key role in convincing various elites (domestic and foreign) that a second term for IBK would be better for them than any realistic alternative. Worth noting too, with regard to the north, is that many of the leading politicians there, despite past or current involvement with rebellions and past or current tensions with the central government, are nevertheless members of the ruling party. In any case, SBM’s appointment seems to have both accelerated and clarified some of the intra-elite agreements that have allowed IBK to take a second term.

Third, we obviously have to take the issue of fraud very seriously – or, because “fraud” conveys a narrow sense of same-day ballot-box stuffing and tampering with vote tallies, let’s use the broader term of manipulation. It’s hard to sort through all the allegations (example) that voter blocs were bought and paid for (especially in the north), that backroom deals were struck, etc. But the allegations are widespread (as is the satirical commentary), and Cissé himself has rejected the results (even before they were published). A rejoinder might be that opposition candidates in West Africa (and in Africa more broadly) regularly call foul when official results are released – but that doesn’t mean those candidates are always wrong! The question, really, is to what extent IBK’s people used the levers of incumbency to make deals that predetermined or influenced the outcome. It’s hard for me to say, but I think two points stand out: (a) if IBK’s people did manipulate the process, they were not confident enough about their power/position to blatantly rig the results, especially in the first round; and, relatedly, (b) if IBK’s people did manipulate the process, they were careful to ensure that it would still be credible enough for the international community to accept the outcome. The domestic arena is not the only one that matters, after all.

Hopefully, the availability of more precise voting data in the coming days and weeks will shed further light on these questions and on other mechanics of IBK’s victory. For now, though, Malians and outsiders will be pondering what the next five years will bring for the country.