Three Recent, Compelling Pieces on Mali

Recently I’ve read three new pieces on Mali, all of which were very strong and which readers may find of interest:

  • Arthur Boutellis and Marie-Joëlle Zahar, “A Process in Search of Peace: Lessons from the Inter-Malian Agreement,” for International Peace Institute;
  • Ferdaous Bouhlel, Yvan Guichaoua and Jean-Hervé Jézéquel, “The stoning that didn’t happen, and why it matters,” for African Arguments; and
  • Niagalé Bagayoko, Boubacar Ba, Boukary Sangaré, and Kalilou Sidibé, “Masters of the land: Competing customary and legal systems for resource management in the conflicting environment of the Mopti region, Central Mali” for The Broker.

Here’s an excerpt from “The Stoning That Didn’t Happen”:

The episode stresses how complicated it is to gather information about northern Mali. AFP and RFI work from Bamako and Paris, respectively 1,500 km and 4,500 km away from the town of Kidal, where the reported events unfolded. Researchers operate from similar distances for the same security reasons.

The consequence of this is that journalists and researchers rely on indirect sources of information that are far from perfect and then do their best to triangulate them. It can often be difficult to tell whether two accounts are distinct or if they derive from the same source of information, since the same story can circulate through networks under multiple guises.

[…]

The timing of the stoning story is also important. It came as some civil society activists and politicians were calling for negotiations with Islamist leaders – calls that were abruptly rejected by authorities. It also immediately preceded French President Emmanuel Macron’s visit to Mali in which he met with French troops and re-affirmed France’s pledge to fight terrorism.

And here’s an excerpt from “Masters of the Land”:

Customary institutions are still highly relevant – and legitimate – in Central Mali today. Local communities often find it hard to grasp the role of the government in resource management. Decentralization provided a national framework for resource management in Mali by establishing regions, cercles, and communes as units of local government. Governance units are entitled to manage their own natural resources, while electing assemblies or councils to manage these collectively. This decentralization process, which was accompanied by the adoption of a number of new laws for resource management, has deeply affected agro-pastoral management principles.

This overlap and competition between customary and legal institutions (and laws) for the management of resources often triggers tensions between communities and networks involved in farming, livestock breeding and fisheries, fuelling century-old conflicts between the different communities in the Mopti region. Furthermore, the priority given by most development programmes to agriculture-oriented policies, at the expense of pastoralism, has triggered intra- and inter-communal tension, resulting in the emergence of new power relations within communities involved in resource exploitation. This is especially the case within the Fulani community, where domination between pastoral and farming populations has changed since the colonial period due to the enforced settlement imposed on nomadic populations. These upheavals have upset historical balances.

“Masters of the Land” provides an important corrective to the alarmist narrative of “Fulani radicalization” that various irresponsible people are pushing. True, the piece points to a trend where Fulani pastoralists join jihadist groups in order to gain weapons with which to fight local rivals, as well as a trend where some Fulanis are nostalgic for past Islamic empires, but the piece also shows that central Mali has witnessed a growth in (non-jihadist) “politico-military militia” and “self-defence groups.” The authors note, “These groups are sometimes difficult to distinguish from each other and their followers do not fit neatly into one sociological category.” The authors conclude, “The complexity of the recurrent and violent crises, as well as the overlapping and competing customary and legal institutions involved in the management of resources, calls for security and development activities to be better grounded on the socio-cultural context in Central Mali.” Endorsing a shallow, region-wide narrative of “Fulani radicalization” would undermine, rather than advance, such an effort to better ground security and development activities.

Advertisements

Protests in Bamako and Southern Mali

Protests yesterday in Mali’s capital Bamako showed that the ongoing Tuareg rebellion in northern Mali is seriously affecting politics and interethnic relations in the southern part of the country. Reuters describes the scene:

Hundreds of Malians set up barricades and burned tyres in the streets of Bamako on Thursday, shutting down the capital in the latest protests against a rebellion that has seized several northern towns, and the government’s handling of it.

[…]

A Reuters reporter in Bamako said shops were shuttered early in the afternoon and smoke hung over parts of the city after tyres had been set on fire.

The centre of town was largely deserted except for groups of youths wandering around, the reporter said.

Yesterday’s demonstrations made international news, but protests actually began several days earlier. Military families began protesting in Kati, a town near the capital Bamako, on January 30th. Le Pretoire (French, my translation), writes that on Tuesday the 31st, “The women of the military base in the town of Kati went out and marched in the direction of Koulouba [the presidential palace], burning tires on the Kati-Bamako highway.” On Wednesday, military families reportedly “attacked government buildings and targeted at least one business run by a Tuareg in…Kati.” Protesters have also, the BBC says, targeted Tuareg shops in Segou. Jeune Afrique has begun to speak of “anti-Tuareg pogroms.”

Protesters are angry in part over what they see as the military’s lack of proper equipment. The protesters may also feel scared about the difficulties (French) and setbacks the military has faced so far. There also seems to be a perception among some protesters that the Tuaregs in the south are sympathetic to, or to blame for, the actions of their fellow tribesmen in the north. As Reuters comments, “The demonstrations, sparked by local reports that the military ran out of ammunition and that dozens of soldiers may have been executed during rebel attacks, have raised the prospects of clashes between Malian communities.”

Mali’s President Amadou Toumani Toure, who has only a few months left in office, has attempted to reassure his nervous nation and to defuse ethnic tensions. For the first time since the Tuareg rebellion resumed, he addressed the nation on Wednesday, “pledg[ing] not to give in to separatist demands but, in a sign of concerns that the conflict could spread, call[ing] on Malians to refrain from attacks on any particular community.” (Read the full text of Toure’s speech here, in French).

The administration is doing a lot of talking behind closed doors as well. Government representatives are meeting Tuareg representatives in Algeria; all signs indicate that the government wants a diplomatic solution and believes one is still possible. Toure is also moving to assuage the protesters’ anger; yesterday morning he met with military wives.

So long as the situation remains bad in the north, though, the possibility of protests and pogroms will remain in the south. This is a bad moment for Mali, and indeed for the region. As Fatoumata Lejeune of the UNHCR wrote on Twitter yesterday, “Touareg uprising in Mali, Boko Haram in Nigeria, Wade reelection bid in Senegal. Too much trouble in West Africa these days!”

For updates on the situation in southern Mali, I recommend following Martin Vogl, a journalist based in Bamako who frequently writes for major news outfits.

Glimpses of the Political Maneuvers Surrounding Mali’s Tuareg Rebellion

Beginning on January 17, Tuaregs in northern Mali under the banner of the National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad (NMLA) launched an armed rebellion against the government. As of last Friday they had attacked five towns, and yesterday they descended on a sixth, Niafunke.

The rebellion is a sequel of sorts to earlier conflicts in Mali in the 1990s and from 2007-2009. Causes include longstanding feelings of marginalization among the Tuareg, but the current conflict also reflects the political changes that have shaken the Sahel in the past year, especially the fall of Libyan leader Colonel Muammar Qadhafi, who had deep ties to Tuareg communities and helped broker the ceasefire of 2009. The NMLA reportedly includes fighters who were part of Qadhafi’s security forces.

Two recent news reports provide further insights into the politics of the rebellion.

Magharebia reports on Algeria’s role in the crisis:

Algeria withdrew military advisors from northern Mali last week in an effort to force a political solution to the Touareg revolt.

[…]

Algeria’s decision to freeze military support to Mali came after the country halted counter-terror operations in Gao, Kidal and Timbuktu and redirected troops towards areas now in rebellion. The decision was reportedly taken to prevent Mali from using Algeria’s military support against the Azaouad rebel movement. Algeria also froze delivery of military equipment pending an end to the fighting.

Algerian sources said that the decision was temporary and did not apply to long-term Algerian-Malian military agreements, adding that the move was aimed at forcing the two sides to reach a political solution.

Jeune Afrique (French), meanwhile, has obtained a document that details the proposals a Malian government representative made to Tuareg leaders in early January in an effort to prevent rebellion from breaking out. These proposals included offers to create new administrative arrangements and establish new political and religious posts for tribal representatives.

These reports, and the calls from Mali’s government for political solutions, suggest that the government of Mali believes a negotiated political resolution was and is still possible. The government of Algeria, for its part, appears unwilling to become implicated in violence against the Tuareg, perhaps for fear of rebellion or instability spreading into its own territory.

Seen in one light, the rebellion could appear to be less a genuine bid to establish an independent Tuareg state in northern Mali than a tactic that the Tuareg are using to force greater concessions from the Malian state. If this reading is correct, the possibility of a negotiated settlement is real, but the government’s offer  to the Tuareg as represented in the document obtained by Jeune Afrique would have to be substantially increased before the NMLA would lay down its arms.

A key question in the present circumstances, though, is whether the absence of a regional power willing to act as mediator, as Qadhafi did in 2009 and as Algeria appears hesitant or unwilling to do now, will mean that the present conflict gains momentum without any outside force acting to stop it.

A final factor to consider is the presidential election scheduled for April. The rebellion could well last beyond that date, meaning that Mali’s next president will inherit a serious political and security crisis in the north, along with tough choices about what strategy to follow in dealing (or negotiating) with the rebels.

Map of Recent Tuareg Rebel Attacks in Mali

Tuareg rebels in Mali have recently launched a number of attacks on towns in the northern part of the country. Reuters and the AP have detailed accounts of the fighting, including some analysis of how the absence of Qadhafi (who was a key mediator in defusing past conflicts) is affecting the situation. The Washington Post reports on claims by Mali’s government – and denials by the rebels – that Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) is fighting alongside the rebels.

Let’s look more closely at the geography of the uprising. The rebels call themselves “National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad.” But what is Azawad? The AP explains:

The group was formed in October and seeks self-determination of the north of Mali, an area it refers to as the Azawad. Azawad can also refer to the Tuareg-speaking zone covering northern Mali, northern Niger and southern Algeria where many of the blue-turbaned nomads live, but NMLA leaders say their demands relate only to the area within Mali.

Wikipedia has more on (the geographically broader interpretation of) Azawad:

AzaouadAzawad, or Azawagh is the collective non-officially recognized name for the main Tamashek-speaking parts of northern Mali, northern Niger, and part of southern Algeria. Azawad is mainly made up of Sahelian and Saharan vast flat lands inhabited by Tuareg nomads. It does not correspond to any single administrative region of Mali, Niger, or Algeria, but it includes portions of the Kidal Region of Mali and theTahoua Region and Agadez Region of Niger, and large portions of southern Algeria. Azawad has a strong and distinctive Tuareg character, different from the official identities and characters of the central governments of Mali, Niger, and Algeria. Azawad emerged recently as a geopolitical issue due to the recent separatist movement, the Mouvement Populaire pour la Libération de l’Azawad (MPLA), that aspires to establish an independent Azawad republic with a Tuareg idenitity.

This provides some introductory context for the map I’ve put together. Google Maps occasionally distorts the locations of some towns, but this map will hopefully give at least some idea of where the hotspots of fighting have been so far.

What Fallout for Mali, Niger, and Chad from Libya’s Civil War?

In March, as reports swirled that Sahelian mercenaries were fighting in Libya for Colonel Moammar Qadhafi, Joshua Keating asked, “What happens when the mercenaries return home?” As Keating noted yesterday, we now have a partial answer. AFP reports:

“Hundreds of Malian and Nigeri[e]n Tuaregs are coming home from the Libyan front. Among them are former Malian and Nigerien rebels, but also Tuaregs of Malian origin who were in the Libyan army,” said a security source at Gao in the north of Mali.

The Tuaregs from the army obtained Libyan nationality in the 1990s and mostly fought alongside Kadhafi’s other troops. Some of them were integrated into an elite military unit, the same source said.

“Mali has the same problem” as Niger, which borders Libya, the source added.

Officials from Niger on Sunday told AFP that Nigerien mercenaries, mainly Tuaregs, had begun returning to the northern town of Agadez on the edge of the Sahara desert, after Kadhafi’s forces were routed by Libyan rebels.

“We need to fear a destabilisation of the whole Sahel with this new development. States like Mali and Niger are not prepared for this situation,” said Mamadou Diallo, a teacher at Bamako University in Mali.

“What’s going to become of these fighters? They have vehicles, weapons and expertise,” he added. “This is dangerous.”

Even this brief excerpt underscores some of the difficulties in understanding who fought for Qadhafi. As I said in February, there are multiple categories of foreign fighters in Libya, including the Tuaregs mentioned in the article, who had been there for years, as well as fighters who only went to Libya this year. There are also black-skinned Africans who are targeted in Libya on suspicion of being mercenaries.

Regarding Sahelians who actually fought in Libya, though, whether they were there for a decade or a month, their return to Mali, Niger, Chad, or elsewhere could, as Mamadou Diallo told AFP, prove destabilizing. This movement of fighters also points to a new political reality in the Sahel: the absence of Qadhafi’s presence as a political mediator (and sometime instigator) in various internal conflicts throughout the region. Sahelian governments have been working to prepare for a post-Qadhafi future, but they are deeply concerned not only about security issues, but also about the potential economic and humanitarian impact that returnees will have on poor and remote areas.

I am no expert on the Tuaregs, but it would seem to me that new rebellions are not inevitable. Still, a period of uncertainty seems likely, as individuals, communities, and nations adjust to the changes that the fall of Qadhafi is bringing.

For two relatively recent pieces on the Tuareg, see here and here.

Niger’s “Diplomatic Offensive”

Niger’s President Mamadou Tandja is suddenly concerned to win back the friendship of his neighbors in West Africa.

Niger’s opposition rejects the results of last week’s parliamentary election, in which supporters of President Mamadou Tandja claimed victory with 76 out of 113 seats. But boycotts and protests did not sway the president’s course at any point in the last four months. As I commented on Friday, the regional and international politics around Tandja’s rule may stand a greater chance of affecting the president’s behavior than domestic protest, which has largely fallen on deaf ears in Niamey.

Significantly, initial bluster by Tandja’s regime regarding Niger’s suspension from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has given way to a “diplomatic offensive” in which Tandja’s top lieutenants will visit neighboring countries. Afrique en Ligne analyzes Tandja’s motivations:

Sources said the shuttle diplomacy was aimed at reassuring friends of Niger that the situation in the country was the expression of the choice of the people.

Tandja is hurriedly organising the mission less than one week after ECOWAS suspended Niger from its activities for violating the protocol on democracy and good governance.

Observers believe that Niger’s suspension from ECOWAS is a prelude to sanctions by the African Union (AU) and the European Union (EU).

These have put the Tandja regime under pressure and experts say, very soon, the Niamey government could face stiff opposition at home like the ugly situation in Guinea.

This is an important reminder, too, that the separation I’ve been making between domestic opposition and international pressure may be overly neat. The two forces can feed off of each other, especially if this ECOWAS suspension affects the economic life of ordinary Nigeriens. While I doubt that Niger will become “Guinea Part II,” Tandja is concerned enough about the possibility of being isolated in the region that he is making rapid and serious overtures to his peers.

Meanwhile, his regime continues to pursue peace with Tuareg rebels in the north. On Friday, state television in Niger reported that Tandja has offered amnesty to the Tuaregs. I’ve been reading Tandja’s peace efforts partly as his means of extending control over the north at a time of political uncertainty, though a knowledgeable commenter (see linked post) questioned whether that tactic would work. In any case, stability seems to be the main goal in Niamey – domestic stability, political stability for the president and his party (even if it requires temporarily managing outcry and conflict in order to consolidate power), and now, stability in regional relations. Whether the regime can achieve that goal is open to question, even more so now that pressure from the outside appears to be having a stronger effect than I, at least, predicted.

The Controversies Around Robert Fowler

I had not intended to write on the controversies surrounding Robert Fowler, but the story keeps making headlines, so I will try and piece the events together as best I can.

In July 2008, Ban Ki-Moon appointed Fowler, a former Canadian ambassador, as UN Special Envoy to Niger. Fowler was tasked with helping to find a solution to the Tuareg conflict in the Agadez region in the north of the country.

Fowler was kidnapped near Niamey in mid-December 2008 by militants who turned out, the BBC later reported, to be affiliated with AQIM. A group of four European tourists were kidnapped in January 2009 and held with Fowler and his aide Louis Guay. Fowler, Guay, and two of the tourists were released in April; of the remaining captives one, British citizen Edwin Dyer, was executed by AQIM in June, while the final hostage was released in July.

So far as I understand it, those are the facts. Now the controversies begin:

Fowler said the government of Niger and in particularly President Mamadou Tandja “hated my mission”.

“It was clear from the first time I met him in August that he [Mr Tandja] was offended, annoyed and embarrassed by the fact that the secretary general of the UN [Ban Ki-moon] had seen fit to appoint a special envoy for his country.”

Analysts say Mr Tandja has had a fractious relationship with the UN during his 10 years in power.

During a food crisis in 2005 when 3.5 million people were left hungry, he accused UN agencies of exaggerating the country’s problems in order to get donor funds.

Speaking in detail for the first time about the circumstances that led to the diplomats’ release, Mali officials said they felt under heavy pressure to find ways to resolve the hostage situation, to the point they were worried that Canada might withdraw aid if the hostages were not freed.

Canada’s aid to Mali has increased sharply in recent years, from about $20-million in 2002 to more than $100-million last year. Mali is now one of the five biggest recipients of Canadian aid, and it is one of the few African countries to remain on Ottawa’s trimmed-down priority list for foreign aid this year.

Mohamed Ag Mahmoud, director of the Northern Mali Development Agency in the Mali government, said the four prisoners were released because Canada is a “big partner” of the country and needed to be kept happy. The prisoners who were involved in bomb-making were “very dangerous” but “not very well-known,” he said in an interview.

So there you have it. I am not in a position to evaluate all these different claims, but at the very least it’s clear that few of these actors – whether the individuals or the governments involved – trust each other. That lack of trust makes untangling the different accounts complicated, if not impossible, for the outside observer. And that lack of trust also suggests that these actors had a difficult time coordinating their efforts, and may again if a similar situation arises.

Any insights welcome – drop them in the comments.