One of the contenders for this year’s foreign film Oscar — the Pulitzer Prize of movies, I am told by a source in Hollywood — is Timbuktu, by the great Mauritanian director Abderrahmane Sissako. The film, which could not be shot on location due to the continuing civil strife in northern Mali, relates the story of a family and a community hit by tragedy. A dispute over a cow that leads to an accidental death would be shattering by itself. It is made worse by the conquest of Timbuktu and the surrounding villages by al-Qaeda-affiliated Tuareg tribesmen, as in fact happened in 2012.
Timbuktu endured a year of horror under the tyranny of a violence-prone band of Muslims intent on establishing a caliphate in Bamako, Mali’s capital about 500 miles to the west and south of the areas they conquered. They were beaten back by a French-led coalition but the war for the Sahel — the desert-and-savannah belt that separates North from black Africa — rages on. Its most desperate front is currently in Borno State in northeastern Nigeria, on the shores of the great (though shrinking) Lake Chad. The Chadians, a key factor in the Mali war, are gearing up to fight again. The U.S. has thus far been tactful about what it might or might not do, but it is difficult to see how it cannot be drawn into a conflict imperiling the most populous African nation and our major foreign supplier of petroleum after Saudi Arabia.
Early in 2012, Timbuktu fell, almost without a shot, to the Ansar al-Dine (“defenders of the faith”) movement, led by a notorious guerrilla chief and highwayman named Iyad Ag Ghali. Iyad learned his Islamist politics in Saudi Arabia, a U.S. ally, while serving there in an official capacity as a Malian envoy. This was during a period of détente between the northern Tuareg and the southern Malian political establishment, led by President Amadou Touari Touré, known as ATT (a U.S. favorite).
It was surely the most symbolic victory in the Tuareg war of 2012, which very few outside the region realized was a continuation of ancient territorial disputes opposing the desert nomads and the farmers of the Niger’s riverbanks. The proximate casus belli in January 2012 lay in the north’s exasperation with the southern political establishment’s inability to implement the reforms promised following earlier revolts.
North-south cultural clashes are found in most countries of the Sahel. They are not necessarily fueled by religion. Mali, for example, is mostly Muslim on both banks of the Niger, while Nigeria becomes progressively more Christian as you travel south (there is a significant and growing Christian population in the north as well). “Ethnic” diversity can play a role in dividing regions; but there is plenty of simple love, too, that is blind. In the Mali north, the Tuareg are the largest minority and they live side by side, even as they sometimes fight, other minorities.
The Tuareg very nearly succeeded in their aim of claiming — or re-claiming, from their perspective — all of Mali north of the Niger. Their tactical success was due, as much as anything else, to the foreign policy decision-makers in three of the world’s great capitals — London, Paris, and Washington — whose combined campaign to overthrow the Libyan dictator Moammar Gaddafi did not foresee its regional consequences.
One of these consequences was that large quantities of the top Tripoli pirate’s armaments fell into the hands of his erstwhile Tuareg praetorians. There are African military men who assure you privately the Western allies encouraged this grand larceny, maybe even enabled it, as an incentive to get the desert fighters, who were Gaddafi’s best troops, to leave the theater of operations where the white men were engaged.
Which they happily did, going home to Mali (their ancestral nomadic stomping grounds are centered there but stretch all across the Saharan region) to start a fresh revolt; but they themselves apparently failed to consider two further consequences. One was that there would be a falling out between the hard-line Muslims of Ansar al-Dine and the more secular Tuareg who had joined the Azawad national movement (Azawad being the Tuareg name for their homeland), and who were interested in territory not caliphate.
The caliphocrats won, mostly kicking the nationalists out after tactical alliances to rout the ill-equipped, ill-trained Malian army forces in the north. They imposed their idea of the good society. Muslims they were without any sort of appreciation for their own religion’s traditions and mores, certainly not as it was practiced here. They bullied the imams, they enslaved and terrorized the locals. They banned music. They carried their guns into mosques, they were on their cell phones and other gadgets more than they were face to face with human beings or face to page with real books.
Timbuktu shows this brutalization with simplicity and subtlety that, according to credible reports — regrettably, though TAS has not yet made it to a screening, it can vouch for the genius of Abderrahmane Sissako on the basis of his earlier work — are stunning and moving. By all reports, the film, regardless of whether it wins the Oscar for Best Foreign Film this year, should be required viewing for anyone wishing to sound off in the debate — a crucial debate — on “Islam” vs. “Islamist,” and no one more so than Muslims residing in the dar al islam. Mali is not Nigeria, but the film should be viewed by anyone concerned with what is taking place there, as well.
After the seizure of Timbuktu and Kidal, the other major city of the Azawad, by the forces of Ansar al-Dine, the Tuareg warriors (with assorted “internationalistas”, in the best tradition of the Stalinist Comintern which the contemporary jihad so obviously mimics, but I digress) prepared to march on Bamako (Mali’s capital) but they were slowed by the shrewd and courageous rear-guard tactics of Colonel Alhadji Ag Gamou, a legendary desert fighter whose dislike of his notorious rival was well known. The colonel (since promoted to general) retreated in good order into Niger. Meanwhile a moronic state of affairs prevailed in Bamako, where a U.S.-trained junior officer knocked off the U.S.-promoted democratic regime, which evidently fell short of turning Mali into the West African showcase of our diplomats’ dreams.
It appeared the next consequence of our lead-from-behind policy that had been so great in Libya was going to be the fall of Mali, but the French, who by now had voted themselves a new government that had a better appreciation than its predecessor of the merits of planning policy with the Obama administration, were ready. As the black flag men crossed the river at Mopti and got to within artillery range of Bamako, “choc” (assault) battalions that had been discreetly (though not secretly) preparing in nearby countries of the old imperial dominions jumped into the fray before it turned to rout. After three months of warfare, the main population centers of the north, including Kidal and Timbuktu, were free of Muslim terrorists.
One of the underappreciated factors that assured success was the assistance the assistance the French received from Chad’s army. The U.S. provided air transport, logistics, and reportedly some intelligence from drones, but the Chadians were crucial on the ground. They knew the terrain and they had an institutional memory of war in the Sahel, three decades worth, some of them holding off Gaddafi’s attempts to subjugate them, with support from us and the French, others sometimes asking for, and receiving, support from him for their own plans.
Blue-helmeted Chadian troops remain in northern Mali, still prone to low level strife and terror attacks. They serve in the trans-national, U.N.-sponsored peacekeeping force. Now they are being called to the front once again.
A movement that calls itself Boko Haram, political cousins of the Ansar al-Dine, a couple weeks ago overran and destroyed the town of Baga in northeastern Nigeria. “Boko Haram” are a gang that Nigerian military men, with the clipped accents of the British officers who trained their grandfathers, refer to as “a bad lot, sah.” The name is taken from the B.H. slogan, “Western education is wicked,” which they adopted some five years ago in launching their terror war. Nigerian army and political spokesmen, who have no incentive to overstate the carnage, as they would be confessing their own shortcomings, estimate 350 villagers killed per week in the past month’s offensive. Analysts now suggest the Boko Haram controls territory almost as extensive as the Arabs’ Islamic State in Mesopotamia.
It is not at all sure “control” is the apt word, as no one knows what it will mean after they have stolen everything they can eat or carry away and have killed everyone who protests their presence or looks like a heretic or a kaffir. Are they religious fanatics, plain gangsters, or both? At this point, this scarcely matters to the people who are suffering under their onslaught.
Which, too, is why work like Timbuktu matters: without a human sense of the war in the Nigerian north, how can anyone far away really care? Nearly two million people marched in Paris last week to show their feelings after Muslims killed some 17 people (including several Muslims); this is understandable, because it was so close to home. It is only human to fail to feel the same empathy for people you have never heard of living in places you cannot name. It would be phony to say otherwise.
Observers working for human rights and refugee organizations report thousands, if not tens of thousands, of refugees streaming out of Borno State in the Nigerian northeast, heading either east toward Chad or south toward Maiduguri, the state capital. There is no reason to think this could not be Boko Haram’s next target, but with the city’s airfield and road access into the Nigerian heartland, it seems a riskier gamble than Baga, the town that prompted the recent mobilizations of the world’s chanceries.
Baga is at the northeastern tip of Nigeria, a lakeside port that is also next door to Cameroon, whose northern sliver points up like a finger between its Chadian and Nigerian neighbors. Actually, it looks on the map sort of like the northern slice of Idaho where Mr. Stein lives so happily, despite his tendency to worry too much. The crazies who are slaughtering villagers and kidnapping children (whom they turn into sex slaves and suicide bombers) may be crazy, but they must possess some elements of geostrategic sense. Who controls the eastern banks of Lake Chad has a central base from which to launch offensives in every direction, plus an escape route into the nearly impenetrable Sahara.
The strategic flaw is no less obvious, however. Suffering murderous attacks on their northern villages, the Cameroonians appealed to the Chadians for help, something the Nigerians, for their own reasons — including pride — were reluctant to do. With its own interests and real estate now under threat, Chad was affirmative. Its capital, Ndjamena, is within striking distance of Baga, and while it is even less likely to be targeted than Maiduguri, President Idriss Déby, who has been fighting off threats to his rule for nearly three decades with ballots as well as guns, is in no temper to allow the city previously known as Fort-Lamy to come under attack.
Distrust of President Déby is not uncommon in Nigeria, and indeed throughout the region. He was not above meddling in Sudan’s many wars and is widely believed to have materially supported the militant groups known as Janjeweed who turned Darfur into a killing field.
The Nigerian military’s cautious reaction to Idriss Déby’s announced strategic shift was not unexpected; it has to ask itself whether it wants him getting involved in the northeast. Sending the tough, experienced, battle-hardened Chadian troops into the field against Boko Haram is not exactly like sending them against Ansar al-Dine in Mali, because in the latter case the French army was there to remind them to stay on the program.
In any case, victory over Boko Haram depends on the Nigerians deciding what they want to do about the north. With a presidential election scheduled for mid-February, and a northerner, retired general Mohammedou Buhari, in the campaign, running against incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan, who is a southerner, the war is inescapably a central issue.
Jonathan recently visited the northeast to pledge more and better security and support for the army. Buhari, though lately vociferous in his insistence that Boko Haram must be crushed, expressed support for imposing sharia beyond Northeast State (of which he was governor before it was divided into smaller ones including Borno); and in the early stages of the Boko Haram insurgency he explained it as a reaction to southern discrimination against the north.
The Nigeriens, to the northwest, must, geography oblige, get into the act and, inescapably, all these countries’ nominal Western friends, the U.S. in particular, must make some hard decisions, some of which are likely to be of the “least bad” kind rather than the “best possible.”
As ever, war is also politics, and politics implies policy. Even if the Western democracies are too weak to own up to policy errors in Libya, they can plainly see that the Sahel line has been breached. Unlike the Nigerians, we do not have an election upon us, but the price we will pay for our policymakers’ inattention can only go up.
Idriss Déby is a man for whom war is a normal state of affairs. He may be an elected president, but he has the mentality of a warlord, or of a warrior king of earlier eras. For now, he has reasons to chase Boko Haram out of Cameroon, out of Borno, and, one hopes, into the ground. He has fought all his life, with Gaddafi and against him. He overthrew his old comrade, ex-president Hissène Habré, now lying low in Senegal with an ICC indictment for crimes against humanity hanging over him. These are not men who would ever underestimate the Boko Haram. They know them. In fact, there are Nigerians who, while they have not demonstrated it with hard evidence, strongly believe Déby, for profit and for regional power politics, helped Boko Haram get its start.
Boko Haram since 2009 may be responsible for the slaughter of 13,000, for sending a million more into flight, either internally within Nigeria or across the wild borders of the African badlands. While African statesmen diplomatically approved Déby’s aggressive attitude, they called for meetings and discussions in the proper venues, such as the forthcoming meeting of the African Union.
They agree that maintaining security in their region is their responsibility, and note that support from the West would be appreciated.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s response to this was that it seems that African troops should be on the ground, but there was no reason why, given the relations between the two Unions, African and European, financial support should not be made available to maintain the needed force.
Division of labor. In all likelihood it will not be so neat. The next few weeks, leading up to a fresh presidential mandate for the incumbent or his challenger, ought to see plenty of overtime in Washington as the experts figure out what — if anything — the American share in this division of labor in Nigeria will be.
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