peter tinti

politics, culture and security in west africa

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 at large 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.

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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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War, Peace and Civil Affairs in Niger

Wall Street Journal

Flintlock demonstrates both the commitment and the limits of U.S. military engagement in West Africa.

TAHOUA, Niger — Just outside this nondescript transit hub nestled between the rocky badlands of the Sahel and the encroaching Sahara, soldiers from Burkina Faso jog in unison. Senegalese commandos march toward a training tent. A Toyota Land Cruiser with an anti-aircraft gun affixed to its cab carries Nigerien military police into a dusty horizon. U.S. special forces lift weights at an impromptu gym.

All of these troops are in Tahoua as part of Flintlock 2014, an African-led military exercise sponsored annually by U.S. Africa Command. Apart from 2012, when Flintlock was cancelled after the proposed host nation Mali descended into chaos, the exercise has taken place every year since 2005 to strengthen the capacity of militaries in the increasingly unstable Sahel region.

This year, Flintlock is being held in Niger, a desperately poor, landlocked West African nation of 17 million that shares long, porous borders with volatile states including Mali, Algeria, Libya and Nigeria. The exercise, which began on Feb. 19 and will run until March 9, focuses on security, counter-terrorism, and humanitarian support. In addition to special forces from the U.S., troops from Burkina Faso, Chad, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Canada, France, Germany, Denmark, Norway, Italy, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom comprise the approximately 1,000 personnel scattered across four locations.

Though U.S. special forces and their counterparts pride themselves on their ability to leave a light footprint, their presence during these weeks is palpable. A network of military aircraft fly low over villages, shuttling troops and supplies between a transit hub on the outskirts of the capital city, Niamey, and a constellation of forward operating bases further afield.

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Our Time Has Come: Cult Politics and Violence in Central Nigeria (Part III)


On Tuesday, May 7, 2013, approximately 100 Nigerian security operatives, including members of elite combat units and intelligence officers, approached the remote village of Alakyo. By the next day, almost all of them were dead. This is Part III in a series of articles about Ombatse, the “cult” that stands accused of kidnapping, forcibly converting, and killing hundreds of people in Nigeria.

If you are new to this story, please read Part I and Part II of this series, which can be found here and here, respectively.

ASSAKIO, Nigeria — During my investigation into the killings in Nasarawa state, I obtained hundreds of pages of documents and official testimony from a range of people and organizations. The accounts read with a false precision that clarifies little. As with most attempts to reveal dark plots and definitively discredit the claims of others, much of the testimony relies on giving an impression of extreme specificity.

Many of these documents dwell on the alleged rituals of Ombatse, emphasizing mysterious gatherings, the use of potions, and forced conversions. Few of these reports examined the possibility that Ombatse’s rise might be tied to something less extraordinary but no less lethal: electoral politics.

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Our Time Has Come: Cult Politics and Violence in Central Nigeria (Part II)


On Tuesday, May 7, 2013, approximately 100 Nigerian security operatives, including members of elite combat units and intelligence officers, approached the remote village of Alakyo. By the next day, almost all of them were dead. This is Part II in a series of articles about Ombatse, the “cult” that stands accused of kidnapping, forcibly converting, and killing hundreds of people in Nigeria.

If you are new to this story, please read Part I of this series, which can be found here.

The snake causes the trouble, but the ground receives the beating. – Alago proverb

ASSAKIO, Nigeria — At the start of my investigation into Ombatse, a violent “cult” that stands accused of killing, kidnapping and forcibly converting people in central Nigeria, few who knew anything about the group were willing to talk to me. In fact, the only thing I could confirm, through an ethnic Eggon friend of a friend, was that Ombatse did indeed mean, “our time has come” in the Eggon…

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Was Qatar Funding Islamist Rebels in Mali? Maybe. Why? Not Sure.


The tiny, hydrocarbon rich emirate of Qatar stands accused of providing cash and weapons to Islamist rebels in northern Mali. But serious questions remain as to whether these allegations have merit and how support for jihadist groups throughout the Sahel and southern Sahara fits into Qatar’s broader foreign policy goals.

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — Mali’s newly elected President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita has wasted no time reaching out to international partners as he seeks to rebuild his war torn country. Mr. Keita has made trips or sent high-level delegations to meet with counterparts throughout West Africa and the Maghreb, as well as Europe, but the tiny gulf emirate of Qatar was a surprising choice for one of his first trips abroad.

Qatar’s leadership has spent the better part of the last two decades cultivating its image as a willing mediator and pragmatic regime guided by a realist approach to foreign policy. Yet Mr. Keita’s trip comes at a time when Qatar is adjusting to seismic shifts in the political landscape across the Middle East and North Africa. As Qatar seeks to recalibrate its foreign policy to the new geopolitical realities of its region, analysts and diplomats are openly wondering what a more assertive Qatari foreign policy might look like, and what repercussions it might hold for international peace and security.

At the heart of these questions is the issue of Qatar’s support for Islamist movements abroad. While most analysts understand the rationale behind Qatari support for rebel groups during the overthrow of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi and in the ongoing campaign to topple Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Qatar’s alleged support for other movements abroad, particularly jihadist movements in Africa, remains one of the more opaque trends in the…

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Album Review: Danger, by Lijadu Sisters


In the first of a series of music reviews to come on Beacon, a review of Danger, the Lijadu Sisters’ 1976 afrobeat-reggae-waka-soul classic. Danger might just be the best album that, unless you came of age in 1970s Nigeria, you probably haven’t heard.

LAGOS, Nigeria — Identical twins Taiwo and Kehinde Lijadu comprise the Lijadu Sisters, a Nigerian duo that has dominated my playlist of late. Despite rising to prominence in the 1970s, the music of this oft-mentioned enigmatic duo remained frustratingly elusive for much of the last few decades. Until recently, if you wanted to listen to the Lijadu Sisters outside of Nigeria, you had to get your hands on the original vinyl pressings and cassette tapes released by the likes of Decca and Afrodisia. Good luck with that.

But in 2009 and 2010, Strut Records and Soundway Records (Nigeria 70 Vol. 1 and Soundway Records Presents The World Ends Afro Rock And Psychedelia In 1970s Nigeria) each released compilations that included a Lijadu track. On comps that boasted the likes of Fela Kuti, Tony Allen, Orlando Julius Ekemode and Kind Sunny Ade, the Lijadu Sisters stood out, all but guaranteeing that they were unlikely to remain an Afrobeat anecdote (they aren’t really Afrobeat, anyway).

In November 2011, Knitting Factory Records re-released the Lijadu Sisters’ 1976 classic, Danger, making their music widely available for the first time. Knitting Factory has since emptied out more of the Lijadu catalogue, re-releasing three more…

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Our Time Has Come: Cult Politics and Violence in Central Nigeria


On Tuesday, May 7, 2013, approximately 100 Nigerian security operatives, including members of elite combat units and intelligence officers, approached the remote village of Alakyo. By the next day, almost all of them were dead. This is Part I in a series of articles about Ombatse, the “cult” that stands accused of kidnapping, forcibly converting, and killing hundreds of people in Nigeria.

ASSAKIO, Nigeria — Doris Alliu teaches humanities at an elite private school in Abuja, Nigeria’s tranquil if graceless capital city. Most of her students are between 6 and 7 years old. “I much prefer them to teenagers,” she tells me, “they are still sweet at this age.”

On Thursday, May 9 of 2013, Doris received a phone call her from sister-in-law, Mariam. She wanted to know if Doris had heard from Shehu, Mariam’s brother and Doris’ husband. Doris told Mariam that she last talked to Shehu that Tuesday, two days earlier. The conversation ended abruptly.

Doris, who was pregnant with her first child, thought the phone call was strange but continued about her…

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Breaking Bad in West Africa


Long a transit point for the trafficking of narcotics, West Africa has quickly become a key hub for the production of methamphetamine destined for Asia. 2013 saw a string of high-profile busts in Nigeria, and officials throughout the region are concerned that meth labs are proliferating across West Africa.

BAMAKO, Mali — I recently authored a report for The Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime titled, “Illicit Trafficking and Instability in Mali: Past, Present and Future.” Here is the thrust of the piece, which draws on fieldwork and dozens of interviews with government officials, diplomats, alleged traffickers, and interlocutors throughout the country:

…focusing on quantities misplaces the analytical imperative as it pertains to peace and security in Mali. While figures would be useful for monitoring trends, the impact of organized crime and illicit trafficking on Mali depends not on the quantity of product, but rather the manner in which trafficking affects more nebulous concepts, such as good governance and state capacity. For these reasons, a more qualitative approach to analysis is necessary.

If the current post-conflict phase is not to relapse into yet another iteration of instability in northern Mali, then the international community must gain a better understanding of the illicit economy. It is only by engaging the impact of organized crime and illicit trafficking in Mali that outsiders can begin to play a constructive role in creating an environment where democratic governance, rule of law, and citizen security can take root and…

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