Category Archives: Mali

Why Hollande’s determination could be a game-changer for Syria

French president François Hollande and foreign minister Laurent Fabius have a strong record on successful and targeted foreign intervention. (Charles Platiau / Reuters)
French president François Hollande and foreign minister Laurent Fabius have a strong record on successful and targeted foreign intervention. (Charles Platiau / Reuters)

With 20 airstrikes on Sunday in the de facto Islamic State/Saesh capital of Raqqa, French president François Hollande made it very clear that he would stay true to his word and launch a ‘merciless war’ against the terrorist camps in Syria controlled by IS/Daesh. Mali Flag IconFrance Flag Iconcentrafrique flagSyria Flag Icon

That may seem like a tall order, especially given the geopolitical conundrums of Syria’s civil war. Russia is also bombing Raqqa and other rebel strongholds, with the explicit goal of boosting Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. France, meanwhile, opposes Assad, and Hollande nearly launched airstrikes in 2013 against Assad. The United States, along with France and the United Kingdom, have generally argued that Assad must leave power, and the United States once looked to boost anti-Assad Sunni rebels, some of whom are now allied with IS/Daesh. Now, however, US special forces are on the ground in Syria working with Kurdish peshmerga forces to pressure Raqqa as well. For what it’s worth, Turkey is also boosting the US effort with airstrikes on IS/Daesh, but Turkish forces have also been attacking Kurdish militants in southeast Turkey.

And so on and so on. Last Friday’s attacks on Paris may have simplified the French objective in the region, but it doesn’t make it strategically less messier. Hollande has now made it clear that his goal is to destroy IS/Daesh, not simply to contain it. That makes him, for now, far more hawkish on Syria than either US president Barack Obama or UK prime minister David Cameron. It’s worth remembering that Hollande played a crucial role in bringing Berlin and Athens together for a last-minute bailout deal at the nadir of Greece’s eurozone crisis in July.

The Syrian calculus may also be changing for Obama and Cameron, though. Obama spent nearly a half-hour conferring with Russian president Vladimir Putin over the weekend at the G-20 summit in Turkey, and Hollande is set to meet Obama in person in Washington on November 24, followed by a visit with Putin in Moscow two days later.

An increasingly hawkish France in the Sarkozy-Hollande era

If there’s anyone in world politics today, however, whose record of eliminating jihadist threats and restoring peace in the developing world is decent, it’s Hollande — after at least partially successful operations in Mali and in the Central African Republic.

Throughout most of the world (including France), Hollande is an unpopular and ineffective figure who has neither stood up to German chancellor Angela Merkel’s ‘austerity,’ nor enacted reforms to make the French economy more effective nor lowered France’s persistent unemployment rate. That’s, at least, when his personal love life isn’t making headlines.

But Hollande has developed an impressive record when it comes to engaging and defeating radical jihadists in former French colonies– and in prolonging a new trend of aggressive foreign policy.

His predecessor, conservative Nicolas Sarkozy, took office in 2007 with the explicit goal of closer security ties with the United States and the United Kingdom, embracing the once toxic mantle of ‘Atlanticist.’ In 2009, he ended France’s four-decade-long rift with NATO, fully integrating France into NATO’s security regime, and he embraced a muscular, hawkish foreign policy — on Libya and elsewhere.

Perhaps to the surprise of some of the more dovish members of Hollande’s Parti socialiste (PS, Socialist Party), he has embraced the new French assertiveness on the global stage. Even more surprisingly, it’s Laurent Fabius, a long-time Socialist official, who has carried out Hollande’s muscular foreign policy as France’s foreign minister.

Fabius, who served as France’s youngest prime minister in the 1980s under François Mitterrand, bucked his party in 2005 in advocating a non vote against a European constitution. Nevertheless, he comes from the left wing of the party, and he’s run (unsuccessfully) for the party’s presidential nomination.

Mali — restoring a government in the Sahel

In 2012, in northern Mali, the Tuaregs, nomadic Muslims long resentful of the southern elite, were on the verge of breaking away to form their own northern state. The pressure on Mali’s government culminated in a military coup, deposing Mali’s democratically elected president Amadou Toumani Touré and thereby plunging Mali into even greater chaos. By the end of the year, a relatively stable democratic country had become a magnet for international jihadists, including newly-armed Libyan rebels and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Together, the radicals had overtaken both the Malian army and the local Tuareg forces to create a radical Islamist pocket across northern Mali, introducing harsh sharia law and increasingly threatening the southern capital, Bamako.

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RELATED: Despite fears, Mali’s rushed presidential election seems like a success — for now

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Invited by the new government, Hollande sent a 4,000-person force to Mali in January 2013. Within days, French troops controlled the northern city of Timbuktu and, By April, the international jihadist threat in Mali was significantly reduced, and French troops began withdrawing from Mali, as a regional African force took control over regional security. By August 2013, the country held its delayed presidential election, voting Ibrahim Boubakar Keïta into power and restoring Mali back onto a democratic path, tasked with tough negotiations with Tuareg rebels.

A more wide-ranging force, together with national African troops, remained behind to ensure that the international fighters in Mali didn’t stick around to cause mayhem in other countries in the Sahel.

While IBK, as he’s known in Mali, has not been incredibly successful in pacifying the Tuareg-led National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), who continue to clash with Malian forces and are pushing forward to create their own sovereign state of Azawad. That’s not the best potential outcome for Mali, necessarily, but it did prevent Mali — or the wide Sahel — from becoming the kind of powerless vacuum where international jihadist rule can thrive, like in eastern Syria, western Iraq and present-day Libya. Moreover, even as Mali struggles to consolidate a united country, it can do so without having to wage a war against an IS-style caliphate within its own borders.  Pushing aside hand-wringing about the perception of françafrique, the notion that France continues to play a role in its former colonies to perpetuate its own self-interested political and economic control, Hollande’s targeted and narrowly defined mission made Europe and the Sahel safer as a result.

CAR — giving peace a fresh start

A year later, the Central African Republic, another former French colony, was devolving into chaos.

François Bozizé, the CAR’s president since taking power in a 2003 coup, was himself ousted by the Séléka alliance that first took control of the country’s north in November 2012, then took the capital, Bangui, in March 2013, bringing Séléka rebel leader Michel Djotodia to power.

Yet Djotodia, even after dissolving his militia, failed to control the increasingly intense fighting between Christians-dominated ‘anti-balaka’ militia and the Muslim dominated Séléka. With the country descending back into civil war, the UN Security Council introduced a peacekeeping force, and Hollande sent 1,600 French troops to help disarm militias, after refusing an initial request from Bozizé earlier in 2013 to stabilize his regime.

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RELATED: Does Djotodia’s resignation matter in
Central African Republic?

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Isolated from the elites of the Bozizé regime and increasingly from other rebel leaders in his own Séléka alliance, Djotodia stepped down in early 2014, and the country eventually appointed an interim leader, Catherine Samba-Panza.

The French peacekeeping effort hasn’t pacified the CAR enough to allow for elections that have now been delayed numerous times. But it may helped prevent wider violence, or even mass genocide, in central Africa. Again, French forces have kept the CAR from becoming a fully failed state and a vacuum for jihadist forces that might delight at forming a base in central Africa.

Syria — a chance for a genuine political settlement

Neither Mali nor the Central African Republic today are what you might call model countries today, not even by the standards of sub-Saharan Africa. Mali’s democratic restoration remains fragile and the country is still divided on tenuous north-south lines. The Central African Republic still hasn’t held postwar elections, and it could crumble back into violence at any moment.

But by the standards of Western intervention over the last 15 years, it’s hard to think of any greater successes. Certainly not Iraq or Afghanistan after the end of US-led intervention there, and certainly not Libya, which is barely functioning today after Sarkozy and Cameron led a US-backed charge to dislodge Libyan strongman Muammar Qaddafi. US drone strikes in Somalia and Yemen have done little, either, to make those countries safer. Hollande’s record may not be perfect, but there’s at least some cause for hope.

It’s also true that Syria is different and, in many ways, from sub-Saharan Africa, and will be a much more difficult challenge for Hollande or any international coalition to pacify. For a country that’s suffered four years of civil war and brutality on all sides, Syrians may not welcome yet another international player to the mix. Intervention from the United States, Russia, Turkey and others only seems to make things worse for everyday Syrians, bringing just fleeting gains to the pro-Assad or anti-Assad forces of the day.

Hollande, like Obama and Putin, must realize that any military victory in pushing back IS/Daesh will ultimately be a Pyrrhic victory without the kind of political settlement that brings an end to Syria’s hostilities, even if that means pushing Assad from power.

14 potential game-changers for world politics in 2014


Though I rang in the new year with a list of 14 world elections to watch in the coming year (and 14 more honorable mentions to keep an eye on), I wanted to showcase a few more thoughts about what to watch for in world politics and foreign affairs in 2014.

Accordingly, here are 14 possible game-changers — they’re not predictions per se, but neither are they as far-fetched as they might seem.  No one can say with certainty that they will come to pass in 2014.  Instead, consider these something between rote predictions (e.g., that violence in Iraq is getting worse) and outrageous fat-tail risks (e.g., the impending breakup of the United States).

There’s an old album of small pieces conducted by the late English conductor Sir Thomas Beecham, a delightfully playful album entitled Lollipops that contains some of the old master’s favorite, most lively short pieces.

Think of these as Suffragio‘s 14 world politics lollipops to watch in 2014.

We start in France… Continue reading 14 potential game-changers for world politics in 2014

Despite Zimbabwe, sub-Saharan Africa is becoming more democratic, not less


African legal scholar Andrew Novak and I make the case at Reuters today that despite the reelection of Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe, sub-Saharan Africa is making gains with respect to democracy, and we examine the eight countries with elections between mid-July and September 30 alone (though as of earlier this week, Madagascar seems to be postponed until later this year).madagascar-flagMali Flag Iconzimbabwe new icon

We look to three catalysts in particular:

Recent African elections demonstrate progress in three ways.  First, long-delayed or boycotted elections are finally taking place, removing military regimes or one-party states from power.

Second, for the first time, several countries having enjoyed two or three free and fair elections in a row. This is significant because running two well-managed elections improves the odds that there will be a third, and then a fourth — turning an isolated electoral experiment into a true democratic tradition.

Third, elections once marred by violence have been carried out peacefully, improving the credibility of political leaders and encouraging coalition-building and a non-zero sum attitude toward governing.

So for every Zimbabwe, there’s a Mali, which represents a return to two decades of democratic traditions.  There’s a Kenya, where president Uhuru Kenyatta’s election earlier this spring wasn’t marred by violence, despite a close race.  There’s a Guinea, where long-delayed elections are moving forward after fraught negotiations between the ruling party and the opposition.  Even in Zimbabwe, July’s elections passed without the violence that resulted in 2008, and Mugabe’s successor will likely have to be much more responsive to economic and social pressures than Mugabe, who too often gets a free pass from Zimbabweans and other Africans due to his founding-father status in leading the country out of white minority rule in 1979-80.

Our conclusion is that there’s room for measured optimism:

It would be a mistake to view the developing African democracy with the same kind of rapture than some international investors have developed in recent years for Africa’s “cheetah” economies.  But in the wake of international discouragement over Zimbabwe’s vote, it would also be a mistake to conclude that African democracy is in retreat, when there are so many signs that it continues to grow stronger.

Photo credit to Joe Penney / Reuters.

IBK wins in Mali after Cissé concedes defeat


Mali has a new president it seems — frontrunner Ibrahim Boubakar Keïta (or just IBK), after his rival in Sunday’s runoff vote, Soumaïla Cissé, conceded defeat earlier today.  Mali Flag Icon

Results have not been announced, though Mali’s election authorities believed that formal results would be ready by the end of the week.

Here’s a profile from a couple of weeks ago on IBK and what his leadership might mean for the troubled country as it turns back along a more democratic path.  His first and most challenging task will be to secure a worthwhile peace accord with northern Tuareg separatists, whose campaign for independence triggered both the March 2012 military coup in Bamako and the subsequent destabilization of northern Mali, which led both foreign and Malian Islamists to take power and institute sharia law.  French military intervention earlier this year deposed the Islamists and propped up the transitional Malian government, and French and other western governments have been eager for Mali’s rapid stabilization.

Mali runoff proceeds peacefully, awaits vote tally for next president

By all major reports from Mali, Sunday’s presidential runoff seems to have concluded freely and peacefully, and election authorities expect to have finished the vote count by the end of the week. Mali Flag Icon

It’s a major step to restoring decades-long democratic rule in Mali after a March 2012 military coup destabilized the country and accelerated the advance of Tuareg separatists in northern Mali and the infiltration of Islamic rule throughout much of the north through the end of last year.

Ibrahim Boubakar Keïta, a former prime minister in the 1990s, led the first round of the vote with 39.2% of the vote to just 19.4% for former finance minister Soumaïla Cissé, and he received the backing of Mali’s largest party, the Alliance pour la Démocratie au Mali (ADEMA, Alliance for Democracy in Mali).

You can read more about Keïta here, more background on the runoff here, and more about the politics of Mali here.

Keïta, Cissé head to August 11 Mali presidential runoff


Six days after Malians went to the polls, the results are finally in, and, as had been previously reported, former prime minister Ibrahim Boubakar Keïta leads the pack of 27 candidates.Mali Flag Icon

But unlike reports that suggested Keïta would win outright in the first round, he’ll face Soumaïla Cissé, a finance minister in the 1990s under former president Alpha Oumar Konaré and, thereafter, president of the commission of the West African Monetary Union from 2004 to 2011.  The August 11 runoff, therefore, will be a partial rerun of Mali’s 2002 presidential election, when Cissé (pictured above) narrowly outpolled Keïta in the first round of the race — the top finisher was Amadou Toumani Touré, who went on to win the 2002 runoff against Cissé with 65% of the vote, and served as Mali’s president until last March’s military coup.

In 2002, it was Keïta’s supporters who were alleging fraud, but this time around, it’s been Cissé, who argued that he would win enough support to deny Keïta a first-round victory.

Keïta won 39.23% of the vote to just 19.44% for Cissé — Keïta’s support base in Bamako, while Cissé won more votes in the country’s interior.  The result, however, gives Keïta (or just ‘IBK’) quite a head start.  While his failure to win a first-round victory may allow an anti-IBK coalition to emerge, it will also diffuse the growing political tension during the wait for official results.  Ultimately, the fact of the Cissé-Keïta runoff will make the final result that much more legitimate for whichever candidate emerges victorious.  Mali’s next president will face the hard task of negotiating a permanent peace with Tuareg separatists in northern Mali, to say nothing of reinvigorating Mali’s economy.

Though the election, held just months after French military forces liberated the north from largely radical Islamist control, was arranged hastily, and was marked by several flaws, the vote brought a turnout in excess of 51%, much higher than in any other previous Malian election.

Here’s a closer look at Keïta, a former prime minister of Alpha Oumar Konaré, and the president of Mali’s Assemblée nationale from 2002 to 2007.  Until the early 2000s, both Keïta and Cissé were Konaré allies and members of Mali’s largest party (and the party of Konaré and Touré), Alliance pour la Démocratie au Mali (ADEMA, Alliance for Democracy in Mali).  But they both split off to form their own parties, essentially vehicles to boost their own candidacies in 2002 and thereafter.  Keïta therefore leads the Rassemblement pour le Mali (RPM, Rally for Mali), and Cissé leads the Union pour la République et la Démocratie (URD, Union for the Republic and Democracy).

Perhaps their main difference in 2013 has been their attitude to the March 2012 coup that toppled Mali’s elected government.  Keïta, who talked three times with Amadou Sanogo, the military captain who led the coup against Touré, has been sometimes nuanced in his criticism of the coup.  Cissé, on the other hand, has been much more aggressive in his opposition to Sanogo and the coup, and Cissé himself fled Bamako, Mali’s capital, after suffering attacks from soldiers during the coup.

While Cissé has an image as a technocratic expert on economics and has been accused of corruption in the past, Keïta has cultivated an image of a strong leader and an honest broker.

ADEMA’s candidate, Dramane Dembélé, a political newcomer and a loyalist of outgoing acting president Dioncounda Traoré, won 9.59%, while former prime minister Modibo Sidibé, a loyalist of Touré, the former president, won just 4.87%.  In fifth place was 43-year-old, Housseini Amion Guindo, a political newcomer from Sikasso, in southern Mali, owns a football club and is formerly the vice president of Mali’s football association.  Guindo won 4.63%, and the other 22 candidate in the race won a cumulative 22% of the vote.

Who is Ibrahim Boubakar Keïta?


Though we still have not heard any official results from Mali’s historic Sunday election, which were initially due Tuesday and have now been postponed until tomorrow, it’s hard to escape notice of the unofficial word that former prime minister Ibrahim Boubakar Keïta is leading the vote, perhaps by a large enough margin to avoid a planned August 11 runoff.Mali Flag Icon

It’s difficult to know whether the delays are from the actual vote-counting itself or from behind-the-scenes talks among the various stakeholders in the election results.  Either way, when the votes are announced tomorrow (the last day that election officials have under law to announce them), it seems all but certain that Keïta (pictured above) will come out on top in a vote that saw the highest turnout in Mali’s history — around 53%.

Election observers, who have had consistent access to voting conditions in Mali, in contrast to yesterday’s vote in Zimbabwe, largely reported that Sunday’s election was essentially free and fair.  But another leading contender, Soumaïla Cissé, has already warned that he will challenge the results if Keïta, popularly known simply by his initials, ‘IBK,’ wins the first round outright, and his party has accused IBK’s supporters of ballot-stuffing.  Keïta appeared to be running particularly strong in Bamako, Mali’s capital in the south of the country, though Cissé, who was born in the northern city of Timbuktu, claimed that he was running stronger in the country’s interior.

Despite meeting the basic thresholds for a legitimate election, there have been concerns that in holding such a hasty vote after the country’s recent liberation, the election would be marred by insufficient time for a issues-based campaign, by flaws in the mechanics of holding a new vote, and by the fact that a million northerners remain displaced inside Mali or in neighboring countries.  The election was the first following a political crisis that saw the country’s elected president since 2002, Amadou Toumani Touré (also known by his initials, ‘ATT’), toppled in a military coup last March, thereby postponing what had been the planned March 2012 election to choose a successor to Touré.  The coup, however, subsequently emboldened Tuareg separatist resistance groups in the north, and Malian forces were unable to prevent the takeover of much of northern Mali, first by Tuareg groups like the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), and later by homegrown and foreign-based Islamic radicals, who introduced sharia law in Timbuktu, one of the largest cities in northern Mali.  French president François Hollande launched a military intervention in February 2013 to liberate the north and to secure the transitional government’s control of Bamako.  France and the United States have both pushed for rapid elections in order to facilitate permanent peace talks between Bamako and Tuareg separatists, in hopes that it will secure the Sahel region from transformation into a base for Islamic terrorism.

Given the likelihood that IBK is on the precipice of leading Mali — either after tomorrow’s announcement or after the August 11 runoff vote — what do we know about him, and how will he approach the myriad economic, political and security challenges facing Mali over the next five years? Continue reading Who is Ibrahim Boubakar Keïta?

Despite fears, Mali’s rushed presidential election seems like a success — for now


In an otherwise busy weekend for elections, voters in Mali went to the polls yesterday to select a new president, despite the fact that the country has a long way to go in securing a peace agreement to definitively end the crisis of the past 16 months. Mali Flag Icon

It’s no secret that the international community has pushed for an ambitious timetable, just months after France sent troops to the country to restore order by pushing back Tuareg rebels and disparate Islamist groups that had taken control of northern Mali and threatened to overwhelm Bamako, Mali’s capital in the south.  Accordingly, French leaders are anxious to have an elected president that can push for a lasting peace between a legitimate central government and the separatist Tuaregs in the north.  French president François Hollande, aware of France’s heavy-handed history with respect its former African colonies and the legacy of Françafrique, has pushed for as rapid a transition as possible to a stable Mali.  The United States and other Western governments also want an elected government in order to renew political and other humanitarian aid to the country that’s been on hold since a military coup in March 2012 that ousted Amadou Toumani Touré (known popularly as ‘ATT’ in Mali).

But given that France’s military mission only ended in February, there’s been a steady stream of criticism from both inside and outside Mali that the country was not yet ready for an election so soon after its political crisis, and that Paris and other Western governments had pushed Mali into an election sooner than necessary in order to stitch up a peace deal rather than secure a long-term political settlement.

On one hand, Sunday’s presidential race was itself an extension of the postponed election originally planned for March 2012, which was cancelled in the aftermath of last year’s coup that only exacerbated the turmoil in northern Mali, and three of the four frontrunners in Sunday’s race had previously planned to run in the March 2012 vote.  ATT, who had governed Mali since 2002, had announced he was stepping down and, before the ill-timed coup, Mali seemed set for a fairly normal election and a peaceful transfer of power from ATT to a new administration.  It’s also true that the installation of a new government with the legitimacy of a popular mandate could accelerate the momentum for a permanent ceasefire with northern rebels, and the restoration of U.S. aid will certainly boost investment.

But on the other hand, it’s not at all clear that Mali is ready to make that transition when life is still returning to normal — nearly half a million Malians have either fled to neighboring countries in the Sahel or remain internally displaced, and the rush to Sunday’s vote was plagued with confusion over establishing polling places, distributing biometric voter cards in a country of 16 million people and revising voter rolls that had not been updated in four years.  It remains to be seen if northern Malians, some of whom still support the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) that declared the independence of the northern territory of Azawad and some of whom are voting abroad or elsewhere in the country, will deem the vote to have been legitimate.

Although the French forces are largely seen as having been successful earlier this year in ending Mali’s crisis, it was Western intervention in the region that may have led to the fighting in the first place.  Although northern rebel groups have continuously agitated for autonomy since Mali’s independence in 1960, there’s a strong case that Western-provided arms made their way from rebels in Libya fighting against Muammar Gaddafi. Once Gaddafi fell from power, those arms found their way from sympathetic Libyans to nomadic northern Tuaregs, who share much more in common culturally and politically with Libyans than with their southern Malian countrymen.

Given the bumbling role of Western powers that arguably fueled Mali’s crisis, the specter of unintended adverse consequences looms large.

Sunday’s vote seems to have gone about as well as reasonably expected, however, and it may have well marked the largest turnout of any election in Malian history.  Despite fears to the contrary, the voting took place without any violence in Mali’s north, and there were no reports of massive fraud or systemic errors, and that should be deemed as an initial success.

But even if the vote took place without major incidents, there’s no way to know if the election will have been a success.  In many ways, it’s just the first step of a process that, if successful, will heal a rift that goes back more than half a century.  Furthermore, the hasty election heightens the risk that Mali’s new president might not share the same respect for democracy as ATT — by holding elections with the country still recovering from crisis, voters might prefer a candidate with strongman qualities who could lead Mali to slide backward on democracy in the years ahead.  Ultimately, the international community knows that its goal of a peaceful Sahel that’s not a sanctuary for Islamic jihad must be complemented and supported by a Mali that’s making progress toward internal stability, economic growth and national unity (and there’s no guarantee that chasing radical Islamists out of northern Mali won’t destabilize neighboring Niger or Mauritania).  It’s easy to imagine faulting Hollande for pushing Mali too soon toward normalization, ironically due to efforts to keep France’s post-colonial footprint as light as possible.  Continue reading Despite fears, Mali’s rushed presidential election seems like a success — for now

Eight sub-Saharan African elections within nine weeks highlights region’s fragile democracy


In the next three months, eight sub-Saharan African countries will go to the polls to elect a new president and/or parliament, a relative blitz that will not only highlight the region’s growing, if fragile, democratic institutions, but will call attention to many unique issues facing sub-Saharan Africa: unequal and unsteady growth rates, the role of Islamic jihad and security, improving health outcomes, the rule of law and governance standards, and further development of vital infrastructure.african union

Between July 21 and September 30, voters in countries with an aggregate population of around 100 million are scheduled to cast ballots, though of course not all elections are created equal — or conducted on incredibly equal ground.  In some countries, such as Guinea and Togo, it will be a success if the elections actually take place as planned; in other countries, such as Swaziland and Cameroon, elections will be essentially a sideshow of powerlessness.  In  Zimbabwe, where longtime president Robert Mugabe (pictured above) is seeking yet another term after 33 years in power, and in Madagascar, where voters will choose a new president and legislature after a problematic 2009 coup and a four-year interim government, the vote could herald once-in-a-generation leadership transitions.


Here’s the rundown, in brief:

Togo: July 25togo

Togo, a small west African nation of 7.15 million people, is scheduled to vote for a new parliament, despite the fact that elections have been cancelled twice — first in October 2012 and again in March 2013.  There’s no guarantee that elections this month will actually go forward, either.  While the government and opposition have apparently now reached a deal to hold elections later this month, the composition of the electoral commission remains a major open issue.

Togo’s president, Faure Gnassingbé, took office in 2005 with the support of the country’s military following the death of his father, Gnassingbé Eyadéma, who had served as Togo’s president since 1967.  Despite winning election in presidential votes in 2005 and 2010, he’s seen as somewhat of an authoritarian leader and his party, the Rassemblement du Peuple Togolais (RPT, Rally for the Togolese People) dominates the unicameral Assemblée nationale, holding 50 out of 81 seats.  Unlike its neighbors, there’s neither a Christian nor Muslim majority in Togo — out of every two Togolese adheres to indigenous beliefs, though one-third of its residents are Muslim and one-fifth are Christian.

Continue reading Eight sub-Saharan African elections within nine weeks highlights region’s fragile democracy

How to approach transatlantic security and the ‘bubble’ problem in the Sahel


Security experts — including Julianne Smith, deputy national security advisor to U.S. vice president Joe Biden — gathered at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies Thursday to discuss transatlantic security from Mali to Afghanistan.chad flag iconniger flag iconMali Flag Iconburkina faso flag iconmauritania flag

Among the newest issues on the transatlantic security agenda in the wake of France’s seemingly successful military incursion into northern Mali last month, is how NATO, the European Union, the United States and, increasingly, the African Union, can facilitate a lasting peace in the region.  Indeed,, a transatlantic online think tank, is engaging a week-long ‘theme week’ on security in the Sahel.

From Mali to …?

But even as the world — from Paris to Washington to Bamako — celebrates the liberation of Timbuktu and other key northern Malian cities from al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and other Islamic radical groups, tough questions remain about how to repair Mali, which still must arrive upon a peaceful settlement with Tuareg separatists in the north and return back to its peaceful, democratic path.

Even tougher questions remain about how to prevent another problem in any of the other countries in the Sahel — it’s not hard to draw a line between the influx of NATO-provided arms to Libya in 2011 and 2012 and the increasing instability in northern Mali.  It’s not hard to imagine that the French military success so heralded today in Mali could become the catalyst that causes, say, 2014’s crisis in Mauritania.  Or really any number of shaky nation-states in the western Sahel, from Mauritania to Chad.  Or southern Algeria.  Or, even worse, a relatively peaceful and stable west Africa.

Sarah Cliffe, a United Nations assistant secretary general for civilian capabilities, compared it to the regional problem in Central America in the 1980s — success in one country would result in another problem bubbling up in another country.  She argued that a regional solution is indeed necessary, primarily through political and security means and thereafter through economic means.

Hans Binnendijk, a senior fellow at SAIS’s Center for Transatlantic Relations, argues that Mali represents one of three kinds of transatlantic action:

  • the most formal approach, an ‘all-in’ response from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (i.e., a response based on the Washington Treaty’s Article Five that states that an attack on one NATO member is an attack on all NATO members), as has been the case with the NATO action in Afghanistan since October 2001;
  • a less formal approach is a kind of ‘coalition of the willing’ among NATO members to take action, as was the case in the NATO-led assistance provided to Libyan rebels in the service of ousting longtime rule Muammar Gaddafi;
  • in contrast, the Malian approach was even more ad hoc, because one nation (France) simply acted because Mali’s government was running out of time.

James Townsend, deputy U.S. assistant secretary of defense for European and NATO policy, argued that Mali has become a laboratory for transatlantic security, in terms of providing an example for how transatlantic responses to crises may be organized in the future, noting that we’ll see more crises like Mali (though it’s hardly clear that the French leadership, already concerned about the taint of Françafrique, has much of an appetite for becoming a near-permanent military presence throughout its former African colonial empire).

Townsend is probably right, but his remarks reminded me of the old adage — if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

That’s to say that military and security responses to Mali can only achieve a limited amount of success without economic development and political engagement — and it’s not clear that transatlantic allies have much, if any, strategy for Mali, let alone the Sahel, where military force can’t resolve the issues of, for example, how to bring Tuareg rebels to the table to build a stable version of the Malian state, how to approach water policy and climate change in the Sahel in light of more frequent droughts, how to end human slavery in Mauritania, how to address the Darfur refugees that remain in Chad, or how international institutions can facilitate the development 21st century Sahelian economies.

It’s great that AQIM has been ousted from Timbuktu, but what long-term relief can we take from a ‘whack-a-mole’ strategy that shifts the threat from country to country, year after year?

Continue reading How to approach transatlantic security and the ‘bubble’ problem in the Sahel

François Hollande’s triumphant visit to Timbuktu — and next steps for Mali



Earlier this weekend, French president François Hollande flew to Timbuktu in Mali, where French forces have only in the last week cleared the historic city of Islamist control.France Flag IconMali Flag Icon

I was quick to argue that the intervention in Mali wasn’t some neocolonial retreat to Françafrique, and for a three-week military campaign, I’ll be the first to agree that Hollande’s intervention seems to have saved Bamako, Mali’s southern capital, from pending capture — or at least from pressure from Islamist rebels that were quickly closing in on Bamako after locking down control of the northern two-thirds of the country.

But given that the Timbuktu trip had a ‘mission accomplished’ feel to it, after just three weeks of French military effort, I’m not sure whether Hollande will ultimately come to regret such a high-profile event — as former U.S. president George W. Bush learned, prematurely spiking the ball is not smart politics.

For a country that’s often had a troubled post-colonial relationship with its former colonies, especially in north Africa, it’s perhaps an odd thing to see huge crowds of French-speaking Africans praising Hollande over the weekend:

As Mr. Hollande, ringed by security guards, plunged into the crowd to shake hands, some waved banners that said “Papa François, the mysterious city welcomes you.”

“Hollande is our savior,” said Arkia Baby, a 24-year-old college student, who wore a purple batik dress of a style banned by the Islamists. “He gave us back our freedom.”

You might think that Hollande’s success so far in Mali should be helping him at home politically, but budget woes, tax policy and continued economic weakness have nonetheless kept Hollande’s approval ratings incredibly low as he enters only his 10th month in office — only 35% of French voters continue to have confidence in Hollande, opposed to 61% who do not, pursuant to a TNS Sofres poll from January 30.

First and foremost, where does Mali go from here? If and when the French forces leaves, won’t the Islamist and Tuareg rebel forces simply re-emerge from their northern rural enclaves?

In contrast, if French forces really stay long enough to push the more radical Islamist elements out of Mali, won’t they just create a new problem in another country?

Mauritania doesn’t seem like an incredibly bad place for al-Qaeda in the Maghreb to target next.

Given that the French-backed effort to arm rebels in Libya against Muammar Gaddafi might have destabilized Mali by flooding north and west Africa with additional weapons, it’s not too early to wonder if the Mali effort will result in further unintended consequences, like so many falling dominoes.  It’s no secret, too, that U.S. aid to the mujahideen in the 1970s and 1980s in Afghanistan empowered the radical Islam that bloomed in the 1990s and turned against the United States by sponsoring al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups and, indirectly, resulted in the current U.S. quagmire in Afghanistan.

So there’s no way to know what follow-on effects the French offensive will have.

And that, of course, is probably a best-case scenario — there’s a risk that France could get stuck fighting an increasingly unpopular stalemate in Mali if it stays.  Continue reading François Hollande’s triumphant visit to Timbuktu — and next steps for Mali

Mauritania warily eyes internationalized conflict in neighboring Mali


If Mali had two decades of practice with democracy and rule of law and still couldn’t prevent a northern revolt that’s torn the country apart, leading to this week’s French military action to salvage the secular government in Bamako, it’s downright fortuitous that Mauritania, with virtually no experience of progressive, liberal democratic government, has so far avoided being dragged into the conflict. mauritania flag

Like Mali, Mauritania gained its independence from France in 1960.

Like Mali, which is 90% Muslim, Mauritania is nearly 100% Muslim, and it’s divided, ethnically, between a more Arabic north and a more sub-Saharan African south.

Like Mali, it’s a west African country that’s traditionally been at the bottom of an already-grim range of economic growth on the continent.

So there’s plenty of reason to believe that if the conflict in Mali spreads throughout the region, it will spread first to Mauritania,  a country with which Mali shares its largest border.  Although Mauritania has sealed its borders with Mali, and its current president Mohamed Ould Abdelaziz has been relatively aggressive against radical Islam, the relatively sparse Sahara country would seem to be an easy target for al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).  In recent years, Abdelaziz has authorized raids against AQIM agitators across the border in northern Mali.

Let’s say that post-independence Mauritanian history doesn’t give us much optimism in the event that it does. Continue reading Mauritania warily eyes internationalized conflict in neighboring Mali

M. Hollande’s little war — and what it means for French-African politics

malifabius Over the weekend, France found itself engaged in a new, if limited, war — and a new theater of Western intervention against radical Islam.Mali Flag IconFrance Flag Icon

French president François Hollande confirmed that French troops had assisted Mali’s army in liberating the city of Konna — in recent weeks, Islamist-backed rebels that control the northern two-thirds of the country had pushed forward toward the southern part of the country, threatening even Mali’s capital, Bamako.

On Tuesday, Hollande said the number of French troops would increase to 2,500, as he listed three key goals for the growing French forces:

“Our objectives are as follows,” Hollande said. “One, to stop terrorists seeking to control the country, including the capital Bamako. Two, we want to ensure that Bamako is secure, noting that several thousand French nationals live there. Three, enable Mali to retake its territory, a mission that has been entrusted to an African force that France will support.”

Hollande and his foreign minister, Laurent Fabius (pictured above with Malian foreign minister Tyeman Coulibaly), now face the first major foreign policy intervention of their administration, extending a trend that began under former president Nicolas Sarkozy, who spearheaded NATO intervention in support of rebels in Libya against longtime ruler Muammar Gaddafi and for the apprehension of strongman Laurent Gbagbo in Côte d’Ivoire in 2011.

Foreign Policy‘s Joshua Keating has already called the Malian operation the return of Françafrique. Françafrique refers to the post-colonial strategy pioneered largely by French African adviser Jacques Foccart in the 1960s whereby France’s Fifth Republic would look to building ties with its former African colonies to secure preferential deals with French companies and access to natural resources in sub-Saharan Africa, to secure continued French dominance in trade and banking in former colonies, to secure support in the United Nations for French priorities, to suppress the spread of communism throughout formerly French Africa and, all too often, source illegal funds for French national politics.  In exchange, French leaders would support often brutal and corrupt dictatorships that emerged in post-independence Africa.

But to slap the Françafrique label so blithely on the latest Malian action is, I believe, inaccurate — French policy on Africa has changed since the days of Charles de Gaulle and, really, even since the presidency of Jacques Chirac in the late 1990s.

After all, the British intervened just over a decade ago in Sierra Leone to end the decade-long civil war and restore peace for the purpose of stabilizing the entire West African region, and no one thought that then-prime minister Tony Blair was incredibly motivated by contracts for UK multinationals. Given the nature of the Malian effort, it’s quite logical that France — and Europe and the United States — has a keen security interest in ensuring that Bamako doesn’t fall and that Mali doesn’t become the world’s newest radical Islamic terrorist state in the heart of what used to be French West Africa.

Fabius, a longtime player in French politics, and currently a member of the leftist wing of the Parti socialiste (PS, Socialist Party), served as prime minister from 1984 to 1986 and as finance minister from 2000 to 2002, though his opposition — in contrast to most top PS leaders — to the European Union constitution in 2005 has left him with few friends in Europe.

Nonetheless, Fabius argued yesterday that it was not France’s intention for the action to remain unilateral — African forces from Nigeria and elsewhere are expected to join French and Malian troops shortly, UK foreign minister William Hague has backed France’s move, as has the administration of U.S. president Barack Obama — and today, the United Nations Security Council has also indicated its support for France’s efforts as well.

For now, Hollande has the support of over 75% of the French public as well as much of the political spectrum — and it’s hard not to see that the effort will help Hollande, who’s tumbled to lopsided disapproval ratings since his election in June 2012 amid France’s continued economic malaise, appear as a decisive leader. That doesn’t mean, however, that there won’t be trouble ahead for Hollande and Fabius. Continue reading M. Hollande’s little war — and what it means for French-African politics

Malian coup works out well for candidate and now interim president Traoré

When Dioncounda Traoré decided to run in Mali’s April 29 presidential election, he had no idea he would be sworn in as president — on April 12, nonetheless.

But the president of the national assembly and president of the Alliance for Democracy and Progress found himself in precisely that position as he was sworn in as interim president Thursday, following a coup on March 21 that saw the removal of Amadou Toumani Touré, who had served as president of the west African country since 2000 and was set to step down in advance of the planned presidential election.

In the wake of general international condemnation and further unrest in the north of Mali — northern Tuareg rebels, encouraged by the opportunity of the coup, declared their own nation of Azawad last week — coup leaders stepped down in favor of Traoré, who has been tasked with organizing new elections within 40 days.

Captain Amadou Haya Sanogo, who organized the coup from within the military as a result of frustration with the relatively soft-touch approach of Touré’s government to the northern uprising, will likely go down in Malian history as one of its most incompetent actors, having served as a catalyst for accelerating the very movement he hoped his coup would squash.  The coup simultaneously transformed the image of his nation from a poster child of democratic stability into an international pariah.  Pretty staggering for less than a month.  It will be up to Traoré to begin the process of cleaning up that mess. Continue reading Malian coup works out well for candidate and now interim president Traoré

Good golly, Miss Mali

Perhaps this was inevitable, given that the coup leaders who deposed President Amadou Toumani Touré have wavered with indecisiveness in the face of international and regional backlash since taking power on March 21.

But the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad declared the north’s independence Friday, making an already tense situation worse.

It is ironic to note that Captain Amadou Haya Sanogo led the original Mali coup out of frustration that the current administration was not doing enough to retard the progress of the Tuareg rebels, but it seems as if the latest move has somewhat stymied the coup’s newly installed government, Comité national pour le redressement de la démocratie et la restauration de la démocratie et la restauration de l’état (“CNRDRE”).

The Mali dynamic has featured some of the same north-south tensions as Sudan — but in reverse: in Mali, the northern, nomadic Tuaregs have long complained of mistreatment and a lack of support from Bamako and the south, where the majority of Malians live.  While the overwhelming majority of Mali is Muslim, the Tuaregs have more in common with Algeria and Libya than with southern Mali, which has correspondingly more cultural ties to other west African Francophone countries like Senegal.

With plenty of access to arms from the recent campaign in Libya to Mali’s north and the example of South Sudan to Mali’s east, it is not exactly surprising that this could have happened.  Unlike with South Sudan, however, the fear among the United States and Europe that al-Qaeda and other Islamic fundamentalist groups could turn the north into a terrorist haven, don’t expect the international community to leap at the opportunity to recognize the new nation of Azawad anytime soon.

So it’s looking like Mali is even further removed from holding a new presidential election anytime soon, which was originally scheduled for April 29.