Monthly Archives: April, 2012

Update: Guinea-Bisssau Coup

So I’m still unclear on what’s going on in Guinea-Bissau, but here’s what I have gathered so far:

  • Elements of the country’s military have rather creatively proclaimed themselves the “Military Command.” The stated goal of the coup is to protect Guinea-Bissau from “foreign aggression,” which likely alludes to Angola’s mil-to-mil engagement to reform the country’s security sector. Oddly enough, Angola had announced on Monday that it would be ending the mission, which had consisted of approximately 200 troops deployed since last March at a cost of $30 million.
  • The “Military Command” may or may not have arrested former Prime Minister Carlos Gomes Junior (who was favored to win the upcoming presidential election), interim President Raimundo Pereira, and the Chief of Army Staff General Antonio Indjai. (Whether or not the military has detained Gomes and Pereira really depends on which news outlets you follow.) Former President Kumba Yala, who would have been Gomes’ main challenger in the upcoming election had he not threatened to boycott them due to allegations of fraud, does not appear to have been arrested. Hours before the coup, Yala threatened “consequences” if campaigning for the second round of elections went ahead.
  • Gomes was said to favor an overhaul of the military, and thus many in the military would have been hostile to his victory in the upcoming election. There had also been allegations that Gomes was supported by the Angolans. Conversely, Yala has strong ties to the military, which is allegedly dominated by his Balanta ethnic group.

Many news reports have called Guinea-Bissau “coup-prone.” I was curious as to how accurate that was, so I did some digging through the Center for Systemic Peace Coups d’Etat database (1946-2010). After adding in the coups that had taken place where the dataset left off, I looked at all the cases of successful, attempted, plotted, and alleged coups from 2000 to the present in Africa and came away with the following information:

  • With 10 coup incidents, Guinea-Bissau has actually been the country most afflicted by coups in Africa since 2000. In fact, the next most frequent instances of coups were in Mauritania and Burundi, which had 5 incidents each.
  • While the outcome of this most recent incident in Guinea-Bissau is yet to be determined, the country has had 1 successful coup (2003), 6 failed attempts (2000, 2008, 2008, 2009, 2010, and 2011), and 2 alleged coup plots (2001 and 2005). According to the dataset’s codebook, the assassination of President João Bernardo Vieira in 2009 was not coded as a coup, even though I would have coded it as such. But these are the issues one encounters when using datasets.

So it turns out that it is quite accurate to call Guinea-Bissau coup-prone.

Coup (attempt?) in Guinea Bissau

There appear to be reports of a coup, or a coup attempt in Guinea-Bissau. For those unfamiliar with the country’s political turmoil in the past few years, Guinea-Bissau had been labeled a “narco-state” due to its role as a transit point for drugs – primarily cocaine – coming from Latin America across the Sahel and into Europe. This UNODC document has some slightly dated maps that detail cocaine seizures between 2007-2008 and actual and suspected air and sea trafficking routes. In March 2009, President João Bernardo Vieira was assassinated in retribution for the assassination of his Chief of Army Staff General Batista Tagme Na Wai the day prior. Following a brief transition period, Malam Bacai Sanhá, who passed away this past January, was elected president in September 2009. After Sanhá’s death, the country held a presidential election in March, and was due to commence the second round of voting later this month.

For minute-by-minute information on the unfolding situation in Guinea-Bissau, check out Ditadura do Consenso if you read Portuguese or the Twitter feeds of @zenaidamz in English.

Are there any other sources we should be watching?

Ethnically Ambiguous Journeys through the Diaspora

On my About Me page, I alluded to the possibility of writing about my experience traveling in Africa – to add an entertaining counterweight to my more analytical rants and musings on the events unfolding on the continent. I figured a good intro to those types of posts would be the following short story:


Les totally posing in Brazil

One of the ways people attempt to understand each other is to try and pinpoint one’s origins. With me, that’s easier said than done. My family comes from Trinidad, and we have African, Indian, and European heritage. Within the African diaspora, my looks are ethnically ambiguous, which has both made me an object of curiosity and facilitated my ease of movement.

As I have traveled through Latin America and Africa, and even the United States, the people I’ve met have made a hobby of trying to determine where I come from based on what I look like. I first became aware of this challenge to ethnically define me when I studied abroad in Salvador da Bahia, Brazil. Despite not speaking a lick of Portuguese when I arrived, Brazilians believed that I was a baiana– a native of Bahia. I attributed this to the fact that the racial makeup in that part of Brazil was very similar to that of Trinidad.


Les getting rained on in DC

But when I moved to D.C. a few years later (and was subsequently stranded in Addis for a few days – story to follow), the Ethiopians I encountered swore up and down that I was Oromo, and that my parents had been lying to me about being Trinidadian. Being very proud of my ancestry, I objected at first but in the end, the allure of free food and drink won the day and I acknowledged my “true” heritage.

When I traveled to Africa, I encountered yet more speculation on where I was from. In Ghana, for example, people knew right away that I wasn’t from there, but speculated that I might be from somewhere in southern Africa – like Namibia.

In Uganda and a handful of other countries, so long as I adhered to local social norms and didn’t speak first, people would address me in the local language. As an analyst (and a generally curious individual), I found that if people assumed I was from their country, I was able to be relatively inconspicuous in situations where it might have been kind of awkward to have such an obvious foreign presence. (There may be a story to follow on that point.)

Then there was Rwanda, which took the cake. When people addressed me in Kinyarwanda, confusion set in when I sheepishly responded “English? Français?” Wherever I went, schoolgirls and waiters alike would stare at me as if I was a circus freak. It was fine for a few days, but it quickly made me extremely uncomfortable. I never was able to figure out what it was about Rwanda that made people’s reaction to me so bizarre.

Each time I travel somewhere new in Africa – or in Latin America, for that matter – I’m always curious about where people will guess that I’m from and how that might affect the way I’m able to interact with people and move throughout society. We’ll see what country will be next to claim me 🙂

How to Create Your Own State: Lessons for the MNLA from Africa’s Successful Irredentist Movements

Today, the MNLA released a statement that they “irrevocably declare, as of this day Friday, April 6, 2012, the independent state of Azawad.” However a cursory look at post-colonial African history demonstrates that a declaration alone does not a state make. Signed in 1963, Article III of the Charter of the Organization of African Unity (the predecessor to the African Union) states that “The Member States…solemnly affirm and declare their adherence to the…respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of each State and for its inalienable right to independent existence.” It is this part of the OAU Charter that cemented the subsequent practice by the OAU and its successor organization of rejecting attempts by irredentist movements or predatory nation-states to alter the borders of African countries as they existed at the time of their independence from European powers. Nonetheless, two examples stand out – Eritrea and South Sudan, which gained independence from Ethiopia and Sudan in 1993 and 2011, respectively. In thinking about these two cases, a few thoughts come to mind.

  • It can be very difficult for an irredentist movement to secure foreign support and/or recognition from the international community. Many countries do not wish to be accused of destabilizing the region, and some fear that other countries might support irredentist movements in their own country. I am more familiar with the case of South Sudan than I am with Eritrea, so I will use the former as an example. The late Southern People’ Liberation Army (SPLA) leader John Garang espoused, at least in rhetoric, a vision of “New Sudan” which was essentially a reformed Sudan in which all of Sudan’s people could live in a pluralistic democratic state. He was not only able to garner support from Sudan’s other peripheries for the SPLA’s vision, but he was also able to gain foreign support, since he did not openly agitate for independence. (The internal politics of the South during the second civil war are outside the scope of this commentary, but the “New Sudan” vision created numerous divisions within the South and largely faded away with Garang’s death in 2005 and the South’s vote for independence in 2011.) The lesson the MNLA can take from the case of the SPLA is that they might have been better off couching their struggle in terms of a war of liberation for all of Mali’s peripheries, as opposed to a purely regional independence struggle. The former could have been taken seriously as a legitimate struggle for human rights and civil liberties, while the latter is perceived as a threat to the international community’s notion of de jure statehood.
  • It not only takes a region to aspire to independence, but it also takes the acquiescence of the national government and the international community to make these aspirations a reality. In both Eritrea and South Sudan, independence came at the end of decades-long civil wars, was agreed to by Ethiopia and Sudan, and was the result of an internationally negotiated and moderated process that culminated in an internationally monitored referendum on self-determination. One difference between these cases is that Ethiopia agreed to the referendum and subsequent separation because they had been militarily defeated in Eritrea. In contrast, one of the reasons Sudan agreed to the Comprehensive Peace Agreement was in order to facilitate its access the oil in the South during the time between the signing of the agreement in 2005 and the South’s independence in 2012. The lesson for the MNLA is that whether or not the Malian government is able to regain control over the Azawad region (doubtful), the group will need the government to agree to an internationally supported process that results in a referendum on self-determination in order for the international community to recognize the independent state of Azawad.
  • Previous cases of post-colonial state creation in Africa demonstrate that the success stories were administered as separate entities during the colonial period. Eritrea became an Italian colony, then a governorate of Italian East Africa, then a UN-mandated British protectorate, then an autonomous unit federated to Ethiopia in 1950 by a UN-resolution, and then was annexed by Ethiopia in 1962. The case of South Sudan is a bit different. As part of the Anglo-Egyptian Condominium (1899-1955), southern Sudan was administered separately from the northern part of Sudan between 1922 and 1946 as a result of the Closed Districts Ordinance (also known as the “Southern Policy”), but was then reintegrated with northern Sudan during preparations for independence in the late 1940s and early 1950s. With respect to this point on a region’s history of administration by colonial powers, Somaliland, which declared its independence from Somalia in 1991, is a slight exception. This region was administered as British Somaliland (with the exception of a few years as part of Italian East Africa), and then united with the Trust Territory of Somalia in 1960 to become the Somali Republic. Despite remaining relatively more stable than the rest of Somalia, Somaliland has been unable to secure international recognition as an independent state for the past 21 years. (This is complicated by the border dispute between Somaliland and Puntland – the autonomous region of Somalia to the east. Somaliland’s claims to legitimacy and territorial sovereignty are based on the colonial borders of British Somaliland, which are at odds with the borders of the clan-based, mainly Majerteen administration in Puntland). The MNLA’s state of Azawad is different from Somaliland because it lacks the legitimacy Somaliland claims in terms of colonial boundaries. However, Azawad is similar to Somaliland in that both territories lack the acquiescence of the central government (to the extent that they exist) and have secured no agreement with the international community for a referendum on self-determination.

The bottom line is, in spite of the international community making an exception for the independence of Eritrea and South Sudan, a line has been drawn that dictates which irredentist movements get their own state and which do not. Countries that are above the line, like Eritrea and South Sudan, were able to either defeat the original state or negotiate a separation, and were able to get the international community to agree to a referendum on self-determination. Aspiring countries like Somaliland and now Azawad, are below the line, as they have not been able to check the necessary boxes for international support. Despite the complete fabrication of many African countries’ borders, there is tremendous danger in diverting from this de facto pathway of negotiated and agreed upon independence that follows a war of liberation. Otherwise, we have no way of drawing the line between recognizing entities like Eritrea and South Sudan and not recognizing others such as Azawad, Somaliland, Cabinda, Katanga, Biafra…

Instability in Mali Complicates Regional Approach to AQIM

(Originally published in World Politics Review on April 5, 2012)

Over the weekend, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) seized Kidal, Gao and Timbuktu, the three major cities of northern Mali that lie within the region the Tuareg rebel group refers to as “Azawad.” This development highlights the inability of the military-led junta currently ruling the country, the National Committee for the Restoration of Democracy and State (CNRDR), to stem the MNLA’s advance, despite having deposed Malian President Amadou Toumani Touré for his anemic response to this latest round of Tuareg rebellion. Before his overthrow, Touré had also come under fire from regional and international critics for his inability to definitively address the presence in Mali of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), which has been increasingly active in the northern part of the country since 2007. With Mali’s territorial integrity under threat, the military in disarray and the CNRDR increasingly subject to significant diplomatic and economic pressures, there are concerns that AQIM may benefit from the mayhem reigning in the country.

AQIM is a descendant of jihadi terrorist groups that sought to replace the Algerian government with an Islamic state during the 1991-2002 Algerian civil war. Due to the effective targeting of these groups by the Algerian security forces, AQIM was largely pushed out of the country, but it found safe havens in northern Mali near the Algerian border and in the Wagadou forest near the border with Mauritania. …

(You can find the rest on or at

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