peter tinti

independent journalist

The New French Militarism In the Sahel

Beacon

Though most of the troops and materiel for France’s new counterterrorism mission, Opération Barkhane, are already on the ground in Africa, it would be a mistake to characterize the mission as mere reshuffling of French military assets in the region. As an operation committed to actively hunting Al Qaeda-linked militants across five countries in Sahel, Barkhane represents a stunning rejection of recent French policy toward the continent and could radically alter security dynamics throughout the region.

French government officials have been publicizing their plans to launch a new counterterrorism initiative in the Sahel, code-named Opération Barkhane, for the better part of a month. The mission will consist of over 3,000 troops spread across five countries, who, according to The Economist, will be supported by 20 supply helicopters, ten transport aircraft, six fighter planes, three drones, and 200 armored vehicles.

Although the bulk of the forces and equipment required for Barkhane are already on the ground in Africa, it would be a mistake to characterize the operation as a mere reshuffling of French military assets in the region. In fact, Barkhanerepresents a stunning rejection of recent French policy toward Africa, which in turn was meant to be a departure from France’s previous post-colonial posture toward the continent.

“The objective is principally one of counterterrorism,” French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told reporters in Paris last month. “The aim is to prevent what I call the highway of all forms of traffic to become a place of permanent passage, where jihadist groups can rebuild themselves between Libya and the Atlantic Ocean.”

The operation is likely to deepen existing counterterrorism cooperation between France and Mauritania, as well as strengthen partnerships with Burkina Faso, from where France already carries out operations crucial to its counterterrorism efforts in the region.

Early indications are that approximately 1,200 troops will be based in N’Djamena, Chad, where France has maintained an uninterrupted presence since 1986 as part of Opération Épervier. Another 1,000 troops will remain in Gao, Mali, the launching pad for Opération Serval, France’s recently-concluded mission to drive Islamist rebels from northern Mali that began in January of last year.

Other troops will operate from of a constellation of forward-operating bases and sites in Mali and Chad, as well as Mauritania, Burkina Faso and Niger.

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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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Contextualizing Boko Haram

Beacon

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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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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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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Legislative Elections Could Signal Mali’s Return to Politics as Usual

World Politics Review

Voters in the West African nation of Mali will go to the polls this weekend for legislative elections that may offer insight into the country’s uncertain political trajectory. Mali descended into chaos last year, when a coup d’etat in the country’s south paved the way for Islamist militants linked to al-Qaida to take over the northern two-thirds of the country.

In late-July, Malians turned out in record numbers for a presidential election that the international community—particularly, France and the U.S.—had been calling for as a condition for unlocking nearly $4 billion in pledged assistance. That election came just six months after a French-led military intervention drove the mosaic of Islamist and Tuareg nationalist rebels from their northern strongholds. Despite calls for delays by prominent NGOs and some local politicians who feared that a rushed vote might further destabilize the country, the election was ultimately deemed free and fair by international observers.

But serious questions remain regarding Mali’s political transition, and lingering security concerns in the north have many analysts wondering if Mali—once wrongly considered a model democracy in Africa—is actually on a viable path to stability, or rushing headlong back toward the failed “politics as usual” that characterized the pre-coup period.

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Africa Express Strikes the Right Note

The Wall Street Journal

André de Ridder, one of the world’s most daring conductors, has hit a minor snag. His flute-player, Cheick Diallo, can’t play F-sharp.

Mr. de Ridder is based in Berlin, often working in London. Mr. Diallo normally plays at Tempo, a small nightclub here in Mali’s capital. Otherwise, he gets by from the money he earns playing traditional ceremonies—”weddings, baptisms, funerals . . . all of that,” he says.

Messrs. de Ridder and Diallo are recording this particular session in an impromptu music studio just off the banks of the Niger, on the third floor of the Maison des Jeunes, a not-quite-dilapidated art space that doubles as a bar and hostel of sorts.

Mr. Diallo is playing the traditional flute of his ethnic group, the Peuhl, also known as Fulani in much of West Africa. When he delicately trills in the lower registers of his long, wooden instrument, he produces a sound that would embed inconspicuously within a Western orchestra.

Seconds later, the entire room jumps when Mr. Diallo employs more indigenous techniques, attacking each note with a jarring yelp, then creating two-note harmonies as he hums and plays simultaneously.It seems like Mr. Diallo can make just about any sound come out of his simple instrument. Any sound, that is, except an F-sharp, which Mr. de Ridder needs him to play as part of his attempt to re-create Terry Riley’s minimalist classic “In C” with Malian musicians.

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Despite Nigeria’s crackdown, Boko Haram continues its killing ways

CS Monitor

The radical Islamists of Boko Haram appear to have killed 40 students asleep at a college in Yobe on Sunday. Is Nigeria’s get-tough approach working?

Abuja, Nigeria: Suspected members of the rebel sect Boko Haram stormed an agricultural college in Yobe, northeastern Nigeria, on Sunday, killing at least 40 in the latest of a string of attacks that have rocked northern Nigeria.

The surge in violence comes amid a four-month state of emergency covering three states in northeastern Nigeria, and after a spate of summer slaughters, including what appeared to be the gunning down of school children and of Muslims considered too religiously moderate, even as they prayed in their mosque.

Boko Haram has increasingly set its sights on civilian targets, prompting many Nigerians to question claims by the government and the military that they are winning the war against violent extremism.

Though exact numbers are hard to verify, Boko Haram and its affiliates are thought to have killed thousands since it first launched an Islamist insurgency in 2009.

Initially established a decade ago as a religious movement opposed to Western culture, Boko Haram has since morphed into a militant group determined to establish an Islamic state in northern Nigeria.

The group rose to international prominence in 2010 and 2011 when it carried out a series of deadly attacks against the Nigerian government and detonated a car bomb after crashing into a United Nations building in Abuja, the capital.

The gunmen in Sunday’s attack are reported to have killed dozens of students as they slept and rounded up others for execution. Several more students were injured trying to flee.

The attacks also come as Nigeria – Africa’s most populous nation, top oil producer, and second largest economy – prepares to celebrate its 53rd year of independence amid concerns that Boko Haram is planning more attacks to coincide with the national holiday on Tuesday.

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Niger: The Stable Sahelian State, For Now

Think Africa Press

Despite an outward image of stability, Niger can’t be used as a model for Mali’s reconstruction.

When Mahamadou Issoufou was elected President of Niger in March 2011, he inherited a country which lacked many of the basic trappings of a state. A desperately poor, landlocked nation of 17 million straddling the southern edge of the Sahara, Niger has suffered from violent rebellions, chronic famine, cyclical droughts and flash floods, all of which are exacerbated by limited state capacity and decades of failed governance.

External shocks emanating from the multiple weak states with which Niger shares long borders have further threatened Niger’s stability. The fall of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 saw some 200,000 Nigeriens who were living in Libya, some of whom were working as mercenaries, return to Niger. The result was a sudden influx of arms, unemployed battle-hardened men, and the decimation of livelihoods for entire communities reliant on remittances earned abroad.

The ensuing conflict Mali in 2012 saw tens of thousands of Malians seeking refuge in Niger, straining local communities who were already on the brink of starvation. Most recently, several thousand more refugees have spilled into southern Niger from northern Nigeria, where the government is caught up in a nasty counterinsurgency against Boko Haram.

In late May, Islamist militants affiliated with Mokhtar Belmokhtar — an Algerian national and veteran terror operative in the Sahara and Sahel with links to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) — carried out twin bombings in northern Niger, targeting military barracks in the town of Agadez and a uranium mine near Arlit. The attacks were allegedly carried out to avenge the death of Abou Zeid, an AQIM leader who had been killed by Chadian troops in Mali. Subsequently, many feared that the destabilising violence that has plagued Niger’s neighbours had finally arrived within its own borders.

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Mali 2.0

Foreign Policy

The French military intervention and a successful election have given Mali a chance to reboot its democracy. But it’s going to be an uphill climb.

BAMAKO, Mali — In late July, the people of Mali, a poor, landlocked West African nation once considered by many to be a model democracy, turned out in record numbers for presidential elections. Amid lingering insecurity, northern Malians from towns such as Gao and Timbuktu defied threats of violence to cast their votes.

In muddy courtyards across the lush riverside capital city of Bamako, women in colorful wax-print outfits stood next to women in all black, their faces veiled by the niqab. Young men in skinny jeans and fashionably tight T-shirts impatiently rubbed elbows with elders wearing religious caps and flowing traditional robes.

These were images that seemed unthinkable only six months earlier, when France intervened to drive a mosaic of Islamist groups — some with ties to al Qaeda — from the country’s desert north. During the run-up to the polls, several analysts and prominent international NGOs expressed concern that hastily planned elections might further destabilize an already fragile nation.

But despite these warnings, Mali plunged ahead with elections that the aid donors, specifically France and the United States, had been calling for as a condition to releasing nearly $4 billion dollars in pledged assistance. When the second round of voting ended with runner-up Soumaila Cissé graciously conceding to the winner, Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, the international community breathed a collective sigh of relief. Somehow, Mali had pulled off the “good enough” elections that were seen as a prerequisite to helping the country move forward.

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As Security Focus on Niger Grows, U.S.-France Tensions Brew: Part II

World Politics Review

Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part investigative series on U.S. and French counterterrorism efforts in Niger. Part I examines Niger’s emergence as a target of terrorist groups active in the Sahel region. Part II will examine the growing U.S. security presence in Niger, and the nascent tensions with France over how best to counter terror and bolster Niger’s security.

Though much has been made of Niger’s recent ascendance as a key U.S. ally in the Sahel region, the country had already begun to distinguish itself as a useful counterterrorism ally in Department of Defense circles as early as 2006. However, political issues, namely a constitutional crisis in 2009 and a military coup in 2010, complicated the relationship. Once elections were held and Niger’s democracy was restored in 2011, the U.S. was eager to “re-normalize” relations and expand cooperation.

Further impetus to deepen security ties was added by the fall of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi in 2011—which drove an estimated 200,000 Nigeriens living in Libya, many of whom were armed fighters, back to Niger—as well as the ensuing collapse of Mali in 2012.

The U.S. and Niger signed a status of forces agreement, which had been in the works since 2007, in January 2013, after which U.S. military activities in the country significantly increased.

In February, President Barack Obama announced the U.S. would be sending about 100 troops to Niger. Their mission, according to a U.S. Africa Command spokesperson reached by email, is to provide support “for intelligence collection and facilitate intelligence sharing with French forces conducting operations in Mali.”

However, one U.S. government official, speaking on condition of anonymity, suggested the number of U.S. military personnel, some of whom might be contractors, is “almost certainly” higher than 100. Several sources, including Nigeriens and outside analysts in Niger, described the U.S. military presence as “palpable,” “very visible” and “obvious.” In February, the U.S. also began flying an unspecified number of unarmed Predator drones out of the national airport in the capital, Niamey.

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As Security Focus on Niger Grows, U.S.-France Tensions Brew: Part I

World Politics Review

Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part investigative series on U.S. and French counterterrorism efforts in Niger. Part I examines Niger’s emergence as a target of terrorist groups active in the Sahel region. Part II will examine the growing U.S. security presence in Niger, and the nascent tensions with France over how best to counter terror and bolster Niger’s security.

Until May 23, Niger, a desperately poor, landlocked country of 17 million that shares long borders with volatile states including Mali, Algeria, Libya and Nigeria, had been spared from the violence that has plagued its neighbors over the past two years. But when Islamist militants launched simultaneous attacks in the country’s north, killing 26 and injuring dozens more, Niger suddenly found itself fighting battles at home that it had hoped others would fight abroad.

The coordinated attacks, which included armed gunmen and suicide bombers detonating two car bombs, targeted a military camp in the desert city of Agadez and a French-operated uranium mine in the remote town of Arlit.

The Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, an al-Qaida offshoot known locally as Mujao, claimed responsibility for both attacks. An online statement reportedly signed by Mokhtar Belmokhtar, an Algerian national and veteran jihadi who led the deadly attack on the In Amenas gas plant in southern Algeria last January, claimed that he “supervised” the attack on Arlit in conjunction with Mujao.

Nine days later, 22 inmates, some of whom are linked to terrorist groups, escaped after Islamist gunmen attacked a prison in the capital city, Niamey. Though the prison raid was initially attributed to Mujao, suspicion quickly turned to Boko Haram, an Islamist sect based out of Nigeria that has been at the forefront of bloody, intercommunal violence in northern Nigeria.

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After war and two elections, Mali has a president

CS Monitor

Former prime minister Ibrahim Boubacar Keita wins runoff, paving the way for $4 billion in aid.

Bamako, Mali: Malians weary of war and two rounds of elections sighed with relief Tuesday night when it was announced early that they had a president. The former finance minister, Soumaila Cisse, conceded defeat to the former prime minister, Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, despite some qualms.

Mr. Cisse had charged voter irregularity in the hours after Sunday’s runoff vote. But Mr. Keita’s lead was so great in the initial polling that he decided not to contest the outcome and instead visited the winner’s home last evening — and later today announced that he was creating Mali’s first serious opposition party.

That now leaves the West African country with Keita as president, a tough veteran and member of the political elite who is known in Mali as “IBK.”

Keita is regarded as a wily negotiator, a friend of the military, and the choice of the French, the former colonial power, whose troops entered Mali in January to stop the advance of radical Islamist forces at the invitation of the acting Mali government.

Keita was the favorite to win after scoring more than twice the percentage of votes, 40 percent, than did Cisse, who came in at 19 percent. Under Mali election rules (as in France), a runoff is held unless one candidate wins an outright majority.

Last evening, French President François Hollande phoned Keita to congratulate him.

The clear victory also now opens the path for some $4 billion in aid that was tied by donor nations to the completion of fair elections.

A US State Department spokesperson said the elections meant the US government would begin to “normalize our foreign assistance to Mali,” along with more than 100 other states that attended a pledge meeting in May.

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Malians grateful to put elections behind them, after a coup and war

CS Monitor

A runoff vote for president on Sunday saw torrential rains, mud, and long lines in Bamako. But the vote was peaceful and orderly.

Bamako, Mali: Ballot-counting is under way in Mali after voters took to the polls Sunday in the final round of presidential elections that are widely seen as a first step to rebuilding the war-torn West African nation.

Mali forged ahead July 28 with a first round of elections despite calls for a delay by some local politicians and several prominent international NGOs that said it was too early. In January Mali saw a French-led war against Islamic radicals that itself followed a military coup last year.

The July vote saw a record turnout but not an outright majority winner, setting the stage for a runoff between former prime minister Ibrahim Boubacar Keita and ex-finance minister Soumalia Cissé.

Yesterday’s vote was orderly and peaceful. In the morning, Malians in Bamako braved torrential downpours in the early morning to cast their votes. In muddy courtyards throughout the city, long lines seemed to favor male voters but represented a mix of Mali’s diverse population.

Most women, many with a child in tow, wore new, colorful wax-print outfits purchased for the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. Other women dressed in all black with their faces veiled by a niqab, a growing trend among women in some neighborhoods. Businessmen in suits stood next to men in flowing traditional robes, rubbing elbows with youth in skinny jeans and fashionably tight t-shirts.

Results are expected to be finalized as early as Wednesday.

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Battered Mali will vote again Aug. 11 as two veterans face off

CS Monitor

Western nations have linked the elections – which follow Mali’s brief war to oust Islamic militants in the north – to $4 billion in assistance.

Bamako, Mali: Mali’s first elections after French troops arrived in January to drive out Islamic radicals did not yield a first-round winner. The West African nation will put together a runoff vote on Aug. 11.

The two contenders for Mali’s top job, neither of whom received a clear majority of votes, are Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, the former prime minister, and Soumaila Cissé, the former finance minister.

The United Nations has called the elections – the first since the brief war with radical Islamists, and the first for president since a coup toppled Mali’s twice-elected government in March 2012 – a critical first step in putting the war-torn county back together. They also linked them to the release of $4 billion in aid.

Mr. Keita, known locally by his initials, IBK, and who is rumored to be the preferred choice among some French and international diplomats, secured 39 percent of the first-round vote on July 28, which saw a record turnout of 51 percent.

Mr. Cissé, a veteran political insider who has run for president before and has served as head of the West African Monetary Union, took 19 percent. Both men are firmly entrenched in Mali’s often-maligned political class.

The announcement of the totals eased tensions in the capital of Bamako, which had grown steadily last week after Col. Moussa Sinko Coulibaly, minister of territorial administration, held a chaotic press conference stating that Keita was likely to win the first round outright.

When only a third of the votes had been counted, several news outlets began reporting a Keita victory as all but inevitable.

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