peter tinti

politics, culture and security in west africa

Suits and Suicide Vests

For as long as I knew it, the building that housed the Mayor’s Office in Gao, a town in northern Mali, was a graceless mass of concrete. It may have been designed and built with care, but the off-brand, neo-Sudanic structure lacked upkeep. I went there for the first time in August of 2008. As a new resident preparing for what was meant to be a two-year stint as a Peace Corps Volunteer, I went to introduce myself to the bureaucratic powers that be.

Over the course of that year, my Malian counterpart, who was also a government official of sorts, brought me to the Mayor’s Office at least a dozen times. These visits were almost always carried out as a matter of protocol. He knew, and I would soon learn, that while the people who staffed these government offices could do little to help us with projects, they were fully capable of blocking of them. Such is the petty, suffocating power of local officials in broken systems of government.

A Poet In the Ancient City

On Conspiracy Theories and Uncomfortable Truths

The Talent of Mariam Ahmed


25 year-old Mariam Ahmed is a guitar player from Agadez, Niger. Although women often feature prominently in Tuareg folk music, female guitar players are few and far between. I had the good fortune of meeting Mariam during a recent trip to Agadez. Here are some notes from our conversation, as well as video of Mariam and her cousin, Adam Aghali, performing on the rooftop of Radio Sahara.

AGADEZ, Niger — It was the same refrain every time I asked about Mariam Ahmed: A woman who plays guitar? I don’t think so.

But thanks to Chris Kirkley of the indispensable Sahel Sounds, I knew that such a woman was somewhere in Agadez. Chris posted an audio recording of Mariam in January 2014 and wrote the following:

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Boko Haram: It’s Not Just Nigeria’s Problem


Referring to the crisis in northern Nigeria as an imminent threat to Nigeria’s neighbors obscures the fact that for many communities in Niger, Chad, and Cameroon, the crisis has already arrived. One such community is Diffa, in southeastern Niger, where an influx of over 50,000 displaced persons has an entire region hanging in the balance.

Diffa is a small, regional capital in the extreme southeast of Niger, 1,360 kilometers from the capital of its own nation, but just four kilometers from the epicenter of the Boko Haram insurgency in northern Nigeria.

I travelled there in early March as part of an embed with U.S. Special Forces for Flintlock (see my reports from that trip hereherehere, andhere). In the days prior, government officials, diplomats, and analysts in the capital city of Niamey all outlined scenarios in which the crisis in northern Nigeria could spill into Niger.

But on the ground in Diffa, local officials were not speaking in abstract terms. With tens of thousands of refugees and displaced persons pouring into the region, the looming crisis in southern Niger was already well under way. In case there was any confusion as to where Boko Haram — the Islamist sect that burst onto the international scene this week after kidnapping over 300 girls from school and threatening to sell them into slavery —  fit into the equation, one official made it perfectly clear: Boko Haram “weekends” in Diffa.

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On Africa’s Human Trafficking Trail

Wall Street Journal

Ibrahim and his colleagues, none older than 40, are smugglers who specialize in the transport of a very specific commodity: humans.

AGADEZ, Niger — It’s 8 a.m., and Ibrahim is chain-smoking in a clandestine flophouse with his new business partners, Adam, Ahmed, Barka and Sidi. They sit on a cheap plastic mat that does little to soften the concrete floor. As soon as one of them finishes a cigarette, another tosses the communal pack in his direction. When one carton is kicked, a new one is ripped open without hesitation.

Ibrahim grew up in southern Libya, where he attended university in the town of Kufra. After earning his degree in agricultural engineering, he landed a job at a large-scale farm. He lived comfortably off his salary and even saved enough to open a shop that sold canned goods, bottled drinks and American Legend cigarettes.

But on the stifling Tuesday morning that I meet him, Ibrahim is in the darkest corner of a filthy room in Agadez, Niger, 1,000 miles across the Sahara from Kufra and a world away from his previous life in Moammar Gadhafi’s Libya.

“Did you tell him there are no human rights in Libya?” a fidgety Ibrahim asks my translator. “Tell him human rights do not exist in Libya,” he insists, glaring at my notebook to make sure I am writing something down.

Ibrahim and his colleagues, none older than 40, are smugglers who specialize in the transport of a very specific commodity: humans. They move migrants who have come to Agadez from all over West Africa into southern Libya, where many will work their way to the Mediterranean coast—a process that can take months if not years. From there, they pay their way onto boats that smuggle immigrants to Europe.

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Ladies Love Mazan Daga de l’Aïr


Mazan Daga de l’Aïr is an up-and-coming Hausa rock band from Agadez, Niger. The group combines the guitar riffs and idioms associated with Nigerien “orchestres” with rhythms and tempos more commonly found in contemporary pop from Niger’s southern neighbors. The result is not only singable and danceable, it apparently drives local women crazy. Here is some video I shot during a recent trip to Agadez, and a three-track Mazan Daga de l’Aïr mixtape.

AGADEZ, Niger — Of all the cities I have visited in the Sahara and Sahel, Agadez might just be the most treacherous… musically speaking. To walk from a given place to another on a weekend afternoon or evening is to risk a live music encounter

Local drum ensembles, guitar-driven rock bands, Tuareg folk groups, and traditional horn players all lurk in the city’s sonic shadows, where patrons and benefactors include drug kingpins, prominent businessmen, traditional leaders and everyday citizens.

I stumbled across Mazan Daga de l’Aïr walking back to my hotel after photographing a marriage at the Palace of the Sultan of the Aïr (click here for photos and music from that event),  knowing full well that my earbuds might lead me off my intended path.

On this particular day, a band was playing a party in honor of a bride to-be. Though it was around 3pm, when the desert heat in Agadez has reached its most oppressive, a large group of adoring young women had gathered at the widened end of an alleyway. The fuss, I quickly learned, was aboutMazan Daga de l’Air, undisputed heartthrobs of Agadez’s Hausa rock scene.

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Contextualizing Boko Haram


With last week’s rush-hour bombing of a bus station outside the Nigerian capital of Abuja and the subsequent kidnapping of over 200 schoolgirls in the country’s northeast, Islamist sect Boko Haram appears to be as dangerous as ever. The goal of this article is to fill in the gaps between breaking news accounts and existing academic scholarship to offer readers an accessible look into Boko Haram, its history, and the current socio-political context in which it operates.

Last week, Islamist sect Boko Haram bombed a bus station just outside the Nigerian capital of Abuja. That same day, as authorities were tabulating a body count from the explosions that would eventually reach 71, Boko Haram militants disguised as Nigerian soldiers kidnapped over 200 girls from a school in the country’s northeast.

Several of the girls have since escaped, but the majority are still missing and there is a growing fear that most of these girls — aged 15 to 18 — are likely to be used as cooks, servants and sex slaves by Boko Haram.

Though the dual attacks were particularly pernicious, Boko Haram and its offshoots have been launching deadly attacks throughout northern Nigeria for the better part of five years. 2014 is proving to be a particularly lethal year, with at least 1,500 dead since January.

With some notable exceptions, most of the violence surrounding Boko Haram has been limited to Nigeria’s northeast. Concrete details of the horrific, day-to-day violence rarely register in the south of the country. In Nigeria’s largest urban center, the megacity of Lagos, news of the bloody insurgency is often reported with the indifference of a weather update.

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Breakfast with Bombino


In late March, I grabbed coffee with Bombino, a Tuareg musician whose heavy blues riffs, blistering guitar solos, and energetic live shows have garnered international acclaim. A few days later, I caught him live in his hometown of Agadez, Niger. Here are some notes from our chat and a video from that performance.

AGADEZ, Niger — There is very little about the way in which Omara “Bombino” Moctar carries himself that would suggest he is a rock star. But Bombino isn’t like most rock stars.

When I met Bombino for breakfast at an upscale hotel in Niamey, the capital of his native Niger, Bombino arrived precisely on time. We met in the parking lot and claimed a place at the hotel restaurant.

In person, Bombino comes across as a gentle, unassuming guy. He punctuates sentences with a smile, rarely makes eye contact, and often breaks awkward silences with a giggle. It is a demeanor that seems to run counter to his official bio, which highlights a rebellious streak.

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Album Review: Silt, by Alsarah and the Nubatones


A review of Silt, the long-awaited debut album from Alsarah and the Nubatones. Alsarah and her band are self-proclaimed practitioners of East African retro-pop whose music blends a variety of influences with traditional Nubian and Sudanese sounds.

I cannot recall who or what first steered me in Alsarah’s direction, but for some time “Vote!” was the only track I had heard by the Brooklyn-based Sudanese songstress who spent some of her formative years in Yemen. “Vote!” is a collaboration with American rapper Oddisee, who comes out of the DMV hip-hop scene but is connected to Sudan by way of his father. The synth-laden political track places Alsarah’s singing over a mix of hip-hop beats, traditional Sudanese instrumentation, and the low end of a piano.

In 2012, I stumbled across Alsarah again, this time singing a traditional Sudanese wedding song with her sister, Nahid. It’s a delightful bit of music that not only shows off Alsarah’s voice, but the pride she takes in sharing her culture with audiences who might not otherwise be familiar with Sudanese music. There is even a short explainer at the end, putting the song and lyrics in context.

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Lines in the Malian Sand: Tuareg Fractures Widen as Talks Continue to Stall

Think Africa Press

Divisions within northern Mali’s various Tuareg groups have slowed down negotiations with the government and reawakened old regional rivalries.

NIAMEY, Niger– Two years ago, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) was celebrating the establishment of a newly-declared independent state in northern Mali. The Tuareg secessionist group’s forces had enjoyed a series of victories against government forces and had taken control of large parts of the region, including major cities, towns and military bases. After various failed rebellions in the past 50 years, it looked this one might finally be a success. This seemed to be the best-organised and best-equipped uprising so far, and the Malian government seemed utterly unable to cope.

But, it seems, it was not to be. Today, most of northern Mali is back under state control − at least as much as it ever was − and a recent defection by a prominent MNLA leader has left many wondering if the group is on brink of internal collapse. What a difference two years, an Islamist takeover, and a French-led intervention make.

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A Royal Wedding in the Sahara


The day began with an unambitious attempt to photograph the Grand Mosque in Agadez, Niger. It turned into a rendezvous with the Sultan of Aïr and an opportunity to attend a royal wedding. Here are my photos and audio recordings from that day.

AGADEZ, Niger — I started my Saturday morning in Agadez as most visitors might, walking to its famous Grand Mosque to prepare for a photo shoot. Originally built in 1515 and restored in 1844, the magnificent mud and clay structure is one of the most iconic images of Saharan culture.

The mosque sits adjacent to the palace of the Sultan of Aïr, the traditional ruler of Agadez and a broader area known as the Aïr.

Agadez was first established as a Sultanate in the 1400s, and though the empires that once dominated this region — Songhai, Ottoman, French — have come and gone, the Sultanate remains.

Thanks to its location at the southern edge of the Sahara, Agadez has long thrived as a crossroads, linking north African oases and the mediterranean coast to Saharan cities such as Timbuktu and sub-Saharan commercial centers such as Kano.

These days, Agadez still exists as a diverse, cosmopolitan trading hub, functioning as a desert outpost where licit and illicit goods — food, fuel, narcotics, arms, people — are transported and trafficked freely in all directions.

I arrived at the center of town to ask permission to photograph the mosque later that evening from inside the palace grounds. The shopkeepers outside the palace told me that taking pictures should not be a problem. They advised me to come back in a few hours when an important wedding would be taking place.

When I returned, my interlocutors from earlier that day had arranged for me to meet with Oumarou Ibrahim Oumarou, the Sultan of Aïr. With the Sultan’s blessing, I spent the day shooting photos of a wedding ceremony on the palace grounds. On this particular day, two marriages were taking place, both of which involved relatives of the Sultan.

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Album Review: Balani Show Super Hits- Electronic Street Parties from Mali


A review of Balani Show Super Hits: Electronic Street Parties from Mali, the latest release from  Sahel Sounds. Balani Show Super Hits takes listeners deep into the melange of traditional sounds and trans-global beats that have come to define Bamako’s fabled street soirées.

Balani Show Super Hits: Electronic Street Parties from Mali, is the latest release from Sahel Sounds, a label run by Christopher Kirkley, a self-described“explorer/music archivist/artist/curator/and occasional DJ.”

Mr. Kirkley has spent the better part of the five years charting the contemporary musical landscape of the Sahel. Since its inception, Sahel Sounds has made a habit of introducing listeners to artists who are not well-known outside their region or even their community. Balani Show Super Hits is just the latest example, highlighting a genre and cultural phenomenon that has only really been accessible to those who can scour for mp3s in Bamako or swap microSD cards with Malian youths.

As Sahel Sounds explains, the street parties that are colloquially known as “Balani Show” began in the late 90s in Bamako when DJs — much to the chagrin of traditional musicians — emerged as a less expensive alternative to hiring live acts.

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Flintlock 2014 in Photos


Yesterday marked the end of Flintlock 2014, an African-led military exercise sponsored every year by U.S. Africa Command in the “Trans-Sahel.” This year, Flintlock was held in Niger. Here are some photos from the three forward operating bases that served as the key locations for the exercise.

NIAMEY, Niger — Over the last three weeks, special forces from over a dozen countries, including the U.S., descended on the West African nation of Niger as part of Flintlock 2014.


Below are some of my photos from Flintlock 2014, which I hope will give readers an added sense of what the exercise looked like on the ground.

Click here to view the photos.

If You Have to Go to War in the Sahara, Make Sure You Go to War with These Guys.


Meet the Chadian Special Anti-Terrorism Group: the U.S.-trained force that went deep into Adrar des Ifoghas mountains of northern Mali, an area then considered the backyard of Al Qaeda’s most formidable franchise, and won.

DIFFA, Niger — It is a truism that every student of military history, every child who grew up playing Risk, and every fan of The Princess Bride knows by heart: Never start a land war in Asia.

I would like to propose a maxim that is less well known (because I just made it up), but no less true: If you have to go to war in the Sahara, make sure you go to war with the Chadians on your side.

In 2013, when the majority of Islamist rebels who controlled northern Mali retreated to mountainous hideouts in the wake of French air power, it was the Chadians who proved themselves as a willing and able “tip of the spear,” enduring 38 casualties in the process.

“Everyone talks about the French, but we are the ones who won that war,” a Chadian soldier who fought in Mali told me earlier this week.

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