Category Archives: Conflict

Peacekeeping and Elections: logistics reveal flaws of both

#Photo Peacekeepers put on new blue berets marking start of #UN Mission in #Mali @UN_MINUSMA http://ow.ly/mych9 pic.twitter.com/F5wrCAvoXQ – Courtesy of @unpeacekeeping

Mali’s economy had been torn to pieces over the last months. Economic growth figures indicated a 1.2% contraction for 2012 – the first contraction since 2001. This is despite “a good agricultural season” and steady revenues from gold extraction which are thought to have helped buffer Mali against even further economic woe.

Conflicts are inherently tumultuous but life simply has to continue. Where it cannot, it flees. People still need to find food, barter for materials, find shelter and fuel. War and violence in does not only destroy economic activity but in can also warp it; corrupting conventional channels of trade and commerce and therefore creates new opportunities for illicit and sinister ways of generating wealth. Mali has seen thousands lose their livelihoods. Though in the security void and amongst the chaos organised crime and drugs trafficking – its primary source of finance – has thrived.

Conflict-hit economies must be understood to have winners as much as they produce losers. It is with this in mind that the issue of peacekeeping must be approached. Why? Only recently has the United Nations been made aware of the enormous economic impact the deployment of a peacekeeping force has. By simply being deployed in Mali, the 12,600 strong UN Peacekeeping force – called MINSUMA – that has just arrived is already interacting and influencing Malian economics.

Peacekeeping soldiers and their support staff are usually paid enormous salaries compared to the average citizen of a country they operate in. Also the UN’s expenditure on associated services like offices, mechanics and accommodation represent an enormous injection for the local economy. The UN’s peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous stated earlier this month that Mali represented “unique challenges” due to its ravaged infrastructure. The arrival of a Peacekeeping force can be massive for small economies, and change them forever. For example, in the case of the UN Peacekeeping forces that were deployed in Timor-Leste (UNTAET), Liberia (UNMIL), Kosovo (UNMIK) and Burundi (ONUB) mission expenditure in the local economy accounted for up to and over 6% of the host country’s entire Gross Domestic Product. To put that into perspective: all the expenditure on education in the UK public and private – including student subsidies – is only 5.6% of Britain’s total GDP. For Mali the arrival of a peacekeeping mission may not only mean security, but prosperity.

Mali’s economy certainly needs a boost. This article reminds us of the continuing devastation in the country. However, Peacekeeping money can be dangerous, especially when we remember that in a conflict economy illicit and sinister forces are usually better placed to exploit new opportunities. The Peacekeeping force has already gained some recognition for its ability to negotiate access with the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) in some remote northern territories to provide a safe environment for brave Malians to come out and vote.

A #Mali refugee proudly shows his NINA card, a biometric ID doc to vote in #elections http://twitpic.com/d53v8v by @HeleneCaux – Courtesy of @refugees

However, like the Presidential elections, the current Peacekeeping operation can be equally criticised for having a regional bias. In Bamako the election looked like an election – campaign rallies and billboards. In the north, however, 500,000 Malians remain displaced. Some feel that the impact of Ramadan, especially in the sparsely populated north, has not been fully considered. It has been suggested that Malian authorities were under intense pressure to have early elections by western donor countries (that have constitutional requirements surrounding the need for elections that blocks aid payments) which meant that national voting cards were only sent out a month before the date of election – a huge administrative challenge. A good audio interview weighing up the difficulties of holding the Malian elections is available here. There is nothing to suggest that the impacts and benefits of a peacekeeping operation will not fall victim to similar bias. Even worse, in a case like Mali – where the conflict contained historic grievences about regional political and economic inequality – a poorly managed peacekeeping mission logistically could do more harm than good.

This has happened before. Benedikt Korf argues in reference to Sri Lanka that the benefits of UN interventions are usually overwhelmingly confined to the capital city. Theoretically, there are many instances whereby unintended outcomes of peacekeeping could foster, rather than diminish, the root causes for the original conflict. In the case of Sierra Leone over ninety percent of the socio-economic benefits were thought to have been confined to Freetown. This pattern was reported in other UN missions. In Burundi the UN handed out more contracts to Tutsis than Hutus. Conflict in Burundi, and neighbouring Rwanda, has revolved around the rivalry between the Tutsi and Hutu. The view that produced this conflict was partly built on the perception that the Tutsi have earned their socio-economic dominance through favouritism from external actors, from colonial times to present day. The resonance of the favouritism displayed by the UN could easily become propaganda in renewed tensions. Carnahan explains that in this instance the Tutsi show a greater ability to navigate the UN bureaucracy and therefore can better obtain contracts. Nothing sinister, but the UN possibly is not always aware of its impact on recurring historic grievances and economic divisions that have led violence in the past.

UN peacekeeping is a very fine art and incredibly difficult to get right. Regrettably, corruption within peacekeeping missions has also been a problem historically. Provision of poorly trained troops has resulted in terrible and inhumane practice, arguably the worst example of which being the Democratic Republic of Congo. Mineral exploitation in the DRC provides a perfect example of a conflict economy. The exploitation of gold and other minerals in the DRC has been the way to raise funds for rebels to pay their troops and obtaining weapons. The case of the DRC shows the most abhorrent example of peacekeepers not only contributing to the economic aspects of political violence, but become an embedded aspect within it. Pakistani peacekeeping troops abused their position to establish a network of gold trading with some of the militia groups they were supposed to be suppressing and demobilising. Some Pakistani peacekeepers participated in handing back weapons to militias they had demobilised in exchange for gold and access to the mines rich in precious metals and minerals. The scheme resulted in multiple million-dollar deals networked out of the DRC through corrupt military personnel.

Mansa Musa – Whose Malian gold destablised Egypt’s economy in the C13 as he undertook the Hajj – courtesy of @StevieThunder

The obvious link to be made here is to the gold extraction activities that are currently crucial to the economic success of Mali. Though no foul play has been reported yet, at a recent talk at the London School of Economics, Dr Kwesi Aning stated his fears that because of a diplomatic spat between ECOWAS and the UNSC in the run up to deployment of MINUSWA African armies will not be keen to supply their best trained troops. Dr Aning believes that radicalisation and corruption will be more of a likely threat to the mission’s objectives as a result. Indeed, the African contributions to MINUSWA took a knock this month upon Nigeria’s announcement that it is withdrawing 1,200 troops to fight its own insurgency problems at home.

It is certain that restoring security will remain the central objective to Mali’s peacekeepers for some time to come, regardless of the strength of the incoming President – whoever that is. In addition to security, the MINUSWA must recognise the other responsibilities is has to Malian society. A well-maintained and sophisticated peacekeeping force is vital to Mali’s recovery. Until we can be sure that this force is structured and is receptive in a way that other missions have not been previously it is a serious concern that the presence of MINUSWA could easily fall victim to the flaws that have plagued its predecessors.

UN intervention?

#Photo of the #UN Security Council adopting resolution 2100, establishing a new @UNPeacekeeping operation in #Mali – Courtesy of @UNPeacekeeping

The situation on the ground in Mali has so far not shown signs of marked improvement. In fact, many commentators are stressing that the cracks in this fragile ‘peace’ are beginning to accelerate in size and number. The word peace is placed in inverted commas here as much of mainstream reporting on Mali has created the impression that peace has prevailed in Mali for some months. The jubilation that anticipated an imminent French victory was given a good deal of coverage in the West. But this ‘peace’ is a peace defined by the absence of physical violence. There are other notions of peace and these help explain the situation in Mali a little more accurately. Some commentators consider the harm caused by poverty and imbalanced societal structures as forms of violence. People who believe there is some mileage in thinking of peace in this way would argue that there has rarely been an instance this year where Mali could be accurately described as ‘at peace’.

With this in mind, the impression one gets now, from a glance at the news, is a slippery slope, a regression and a return to violence in Mali. There remains a threat of a significant reprise from remaining Islamist rebels who, despite being fractured, have changed tactics and are picking off intervening Chadian soldiers at an alarming rate. The familiarity and resilience of Chad’s soldiers to the rocky desert conditions have been seen as so crucial to the success of their better equipped French counterparts. The Islamists are no doubt bruised from the last months of intense combat. However early this April, Mali’s U.N. ambassador, Oumar Daou, warned the 15-nation UN Security Council that “not all of Mali’s territory has been retaken from extremist armed groups and that they are resorting to new tactics, including laying landmines and conducting suicide and car bombs, in an effort to counter offensive by French and Malian forces.”

At the turn of March to April the United Nations estimated that:

  • Around 470 000 people have fled the fighting and sought refuge either in Malian host communities or in neighbouring countries
  • More than 290 000 people are internally displaced and about 177 000 are facing a humanitarian crisis of their own as refugees in Mauritania, Niger and Burkina Faso.
  • There will be another 750 000 people in need of immediate food assistance and 660 000 children at risk of malnutrition this year, including 210 000 at risk of severe acute malnutrition.

But the French want out. It has been announced recently that France aims to have 75% of its forces out by the end of this year. It’s a steady draw-down and not the cut-and-run scenario which many thought would result in a disastrous unravelling of all gains the intervention made in the first place. To confuse the picture, many diplomats have suggested that any future UN Peacekeeping operation should be built around the French forces already deployed in the country. But the French are leaving, and thus it’s now time to explore how the groups that are staying on to try and shape Mali’s future – for better or for worse – have responded to this news. What could be the next results from this withdrawal?

Minister Mushikiwabo has an exchange with HE President Idriss Deby of Chad and Chairperson of ECCAS. Courtesy of @MinaffetRwanda

The situation is becoming unstable enough for Chad’s President Idriss Deby to recall his 2000 troops. This is significant in many ways. It serves as evidence that Western countries are not the only places to suffer from the ‘quagmire syndrome’. Secondly, Chad’s soldiers were the only African force in Mali performing a major combat role. Other African contributions remained thinly spread around the Malian capital Bamako, far from the most intense fighting. If African soldiers can justify withdrawing, who will step-up to provide military personnel to serve in a country that so desperately needs them?

The United Nations is considering an intervention. It has made some head way. There are two plans at the moment. In the first option, the current 7,000-strong African-led force, known as AFISMA, remains in the country but is linked to the United Nations and is funded from the UN budget. The second option transitions and expands this force into a “full-fledged UN stabilization mission” of about 11,200 troops.  Alongside it, a parallel force would be created to conduct “counterterrorism operations”. The performance of the Economic Community of West African States’ (ECOWAS) 6,400 strong AFISMA force has won praise from around Africa and from the United Nations. However a full-fledged UN controlled force would have unique terms of engagement and would potentially have to show greater constraint in its combat operations. This could in fact be a boon rather than a flaw – and the Malian ambassador to the UN has already expressed it finds the second option – that of a full-fledged UN mission – more favourable. The more inflexibility the UN has to stop it being enlisted and marched off into a wider War on Terror in the Sahel, the better. If it does come to that, it is a situation that the UN rarely wins. Either it over extends, as in Black Hawk Down, or it gets swept aside, along with its credibility, as it did over Iraq.

Lori-Anne Théroux-Bénoni – of the Institute for Security Studies, Dakar – is right to ask what mandate should this UN mission be handed? Again, there are two options. The first is a mission similar to the one currently underway in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), which is charged with the (not so) simple task of keeping warring parties apart. The second is the opposite, a Somalia 1992-93 style intervention characterised by actively seeking and destroying the opposition rebels. The first option seems more favourable here, as problems prevail in defining and identifying a coherent opposition force.

Also, another factor that has been tragically misunderstood so far is the presence of the disgruntled, dissatisfied yet ambitious Tuareg rebels. The Tuareg are a seminomadic pastoral people of North African Berber origin. They represent a minority in Mali, and the other countries of the western Sahel they live in but their cultural unity is profound. The UN Under Secretary for Political Affairs Jeffrey Feltman said that while “arbitrary acts of violence” against Tuaregs and Arabs had recently slowed, “there is still a risk of reprisal against members of these communities.” Now that combat operations have diminished and the French have scared off al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the Tuareg are prepared to begin acting as their own security providers.

Andy Morgan illustrates their difficulties through the story of a Tuareg musician, “Hamid”:

“The Tuareg musician lived under the puritanical rule of the Mujao militia from April 2012 until the French army drove them out in January…life under sharia law was difficult and occasionally dangerous for a musician. But for many Tuareg – identifiable by their lighter skin – the prospect of living with the Malian army was worse. “I’m more frightened of the Malian Army and tribal militias like the Ganda Koy, than the Mujao (Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa),” he said. “All they look at is your colour.”

Morgan continues to explain that “As many feared, wresting the northern two thirds of Mali back from the Islamists has been easier than reuniting the nation.” Tuareg have split from Tuareg – some “do not even begin to see themselves as Islamists” whilst other separatists have been cooperating with AQIM for years.

Clear msg from Northern Malian leaders: credible elections & robust US security assistance critical to Mali’s future Courtesy of @SenJohnMcCain

Malian national unity in general is a huge problem. Perhaps the UN could find its footing after the Haiti cholera outbreak scandal in its more traditional role as a mediator. Dr. Roland Marchal, a specialist on the economics and politics of conflict in sub-Saharan Africa, warns that this also entails problems. By acting as mediator the UN risks legitimising both unelected government and rebels alike. Historically interventions from external actors often undermine the forces and structures they ought to promote. For this reason Dr. Marchal believes that any UN mandate must be cautious of setting out to heal cultural and historic conflict in Mali: a new social contract for peace and justice must be forged by the Malians themselves. Dr Marshal suggests a “National Conference…” – a broader affair than traditional peace negotiations – “…that would encompass many actors rooted in the political, social, religious and cultural arenas.” He states that it “may offer a greater chance to reach a sustainable agreement” and may be more sustainable as it would confront the fact that all parties involved face allegations of huge human rights violations.

So perhaps there is a role for the UN as a facilitator; to table a fresh set of elections and channel international support. Unlike in Rwanda and Angola where this strategy failed spectacularly, some democratic norms are already prevalent in Malian society. Perhaps Mali will be responsive and succeed in places where other interventions failed. Statements following a recent week-long from Assistant Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations Edmond Mulet appear promising in this regard. He stressed that any UN force would be limited and would focus on supporting the Malian authorities and protecting civilians. As AllAfrica reports:

‘“The sovereignty of Mali is the main objective of this international support,” Mr. Mulet said. “It is not to create a buffer between the north and the south. The members of the Security Council and the member states are very clear on the need for Mali to extend its authority over all its territory” he added.’

Equally Théroux-Bénoni adds that:

“While attention is focused on the type of peace operation to put in place in Mali, the international community should not lose sight of the fact that a peace operation alone will not suffice to bring about a lasting solution to the profound security and governance crisis that has led Mali to its current predicament.”

From the moment the French arrived, or even when Mali’s government sent a plea for help, the governance and future of Mali has been internationalized. As James Schneider – editor of Think Africa Press – explains that Mali is being described using a “false narrative” which “places the effects of Western policy far above the moods and motivations of Malians”. It seems that a narrative prescribing to a wider War on Terror has influenced policy for a long time. The United States made up its mind on this one some time ago. The Obama administration has “spent more than $550 million over the past four years to help train and equip West African armies to fight militants so that the Pentagon would not have to”. An article in the New York Times caught up with the US soldiers training African forces in the southeastern corner of Mauritania, about 100 miles from the border with Mali. The detail of the article exposes a deep preparedness in the persona of the US soldiers. It hints how long Mali has been taken seriously as the next potential battlefield in the War on Terror, and how involved the US has been with Mali’s neighbours in drawing up the agenda for Mali’s future. Is the UN really calling the shots here?

The United Nations does have an opportunity in Mali to prove it is not just full of hot air. The UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations has plenty on its plate at the moment; with the crisis in Syria ever out-of-hand and the already massive mission in the DRC seeing troops increases and a strengthening mandate . Regardless of this, it is the view that a UNPK mission for Mali could be ready by July. However as this article points out a deployment date and the length of time the mission’s mandate will run for have not been formally written out. Equally ambitious are the Malian government’s hopes to hold elections in July, and while Security Council diplomats and UN officials said that goal may be overly ambitious the EU has waded in stating that it is ambitious, of course, but surely it is also desirable? Someone needs to take the plunge and throw their weight into this plan soon before Mali’s unelected regime is left to manage this crisis itself.

It would be a surprise if France is forthcoming with troops again, and the UN knows this. The UN has made plans to give President Hollande a ‘Peace Prize’ to stick on his mantelpiece. Now, he wouldn’t want to gamble that chance away now, would he…?

Crisis over? Why else would France want to leave…

The French army gives the Malian army ammunition recovered in the field of battle

 Courtest of Mbokoniko Nicolas Frébault


This time next month the major component of the French military intervention in Mali 
is going to be heading home. However, this has not halted the debate over the reasons for France’s involvement in Mali in first place. Interestingly, it is the African journalists rejoicing and describing France and Hollande as their saviours, making the whole thing seem like a jovial neo-colonial favour. Meanwhile, parts of the Russian and Arabian press remain highly critical, citing geopolitics and West Africa’s resource endowment as the real pull-factors in the French decision to intervene. These arguments are compelling, however a huge part of the French timing of their intervention and their withdrawal are linked to the domestic political landscape in France.

Quite incredibly, as this research shows, France has conducted 46 separate Military Interventions in Africa between 1960 and 2005. What constitutes an intervention may be contestable, but by the standards set out in the research above the military campaigns France has led in Libya and Mali in 2011 and 2013 should bring this total up to 48 – averaging just under once-a-year since a wave of African states, including Mali, gained their independence 53 years ago.

In their own words, one would suspect that the French would describe their mission as overwhelmingly successful. As Oussama Romdhani summarises:

Five weeks after the start of their military campaign, the French believe they have already achieved about “70% of the set-objectives”. They have indeed retaken the cities of Gao, Timbuktu and Kidal. Then, with the help of Chadian and Malian armies, their expeditionary forces have dealt heavy blows to Jihadist positions in the Ifoghas and Timetrine regions, north east of Mali….Compared to the relatively limited casualties in the French expeditionary force, hundreds are said to have been killed in the ranks of Ansar al-Dine, the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MOJAW) and Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM)…”

But the important question remains begs to be answered: “… is there reason to believe there is a clear endgame in sight here?” Does the timing of the French troop withdraw going to impact positively on Mali?

There is much doubt that this was a consideration in the decision to withdraw at all. It is end-game time for France, and that’s that. As Romdani points out the “quagmire syndrome” is choking the halls of the French foreign ministry. The quagmire syndrome is a historic problem, a ghost that haunts countries who have ever had a fairly miserable experience conducting a military intervention and fear a recurrence of the rolling difficulties, plunging approval ratings, spiraling costs, and mounting body count. The enthusiasm for the war in Mali amongst French people, especially people of the political right, is quickly departing. This war in Mali – a victory for Hollande – is slowly becoming a vulnerable flank to attacks from the hawks of French security policy. The press is turning and it is time to get out. April has been announced as draw-down date and will see all but a fraction of the French forces return home, or relocate to relocate to Niger. As William Terdoslavich writes in reference the American experience of Vietnam; botched and bloody interventions haunt political elites long after they finish.

But as Romdani wisely notes “quick military victories alone will not provide an endgame for the Sahel’s widening arc of crisis.” Reprisal suicide bombings are jeopardizing the French’s ability to get out swiftly and successfully state the case that everything is done and dusted. This violence is a potential spanner in works for the way the world will view French withdrawal plans, but it seems pretty clear that France are leaving next month anyway. If France adamantly stick to their self-declared withdraw date – in this setting – they run the risk of appearing to be trying to wash their hands of their responsibility of not getting a the job done. France is getting out of there and is medicating the ‘quagmire syndrome’ with a strict regime of treatment and is willing to take a risk on its credibility for it.

Where does this leave Mali, and what does the rest of the world planning to do about it? The Malian army cannot be left to fend for themselves just yet. During the most intense period of the conflict “some of the Malian soldiers ran out of ammunition before the jihadists did.” But everyone isn’t leaving. Yes, it is the plan that the majority of the fighting will not be done by the armies of Western countries from now on, but that does not mean these armies have not remained behind in some capacity. The EU is introducing a force this spring for a period of about 15 months which will aim to support the Malian army in securing the gains of the last few months. The French, joined by the Czechs, will retain a combat role in defence of infantry training personnel from the Republic of Ireland and 40 troops from the United Kingdom. Whilst most of the British troops will carry out mortar and artillery training, it is a welcome sign that four UK personnel will be headquarters-based alongside three civilians from the Foreign Office’s Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative who will provide human rights and gender awareness training. The UK government continually stresses that its contributions will not be in combat roles, further evidence of our obsession in avoiding the quagmire. This leaves the remaining French forces to do the taxing job of scouring Mali’s dry, rocky and unforgiving landscape, or ‘Planet Mars’ as it has become known.

The stability of the situation on the ground remains confused. Diplomats from the United States are convinced everything is chugging along smoothly and have already committed $6.6million toward elections. Instability remains widespread. Malian everyday tells a slightly less chirpy story. As was suggested in an earlier article written by the author, militarism usually brings more militarism. “Striking knives into wounds rarely cause them to heal any quicker.” In response to “France’s Crusader Campaign” Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) have appealed for the “sons of Tunisia, Morocco, Libya, and Mauritania, to thwart the attack of Crusader France and defeat its agents in the region, and empower the Islamic project.” France can claim to have dented this call to arms by killing one of the leaders of AQIM. But when in the War on Terror has decapitation ever stunted the long term war-preparedness of Al Qaeda and its associates? These wars are not frontier wars with battle lines drawn, with enemy armies to crush and rout off a designated battlefield. It’s not about seeking terms and surrender. Taking out significant members of armed rebellions rarely translate into a crushing the willingness to fight, because the reason for taking up arms isn’t mercenary. The difficulty in attempting to deliver ‘knock-out’ blows on any large network of armed groups is that reports of enemy deaths can be so easily contested. For example, the world seems unable to confirm whether the notorious architect of the Algerian hostage crisis, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, is dead or not.

Someone who had met Belmokhtar on quite a few occasions is Dr. Abdoulaziz Maiga, a family practitioner and aspiring surgeon at the Hospital of Gao. According to Anne Jolis of The Wall Street Journal Belmokhtar is ‘just another patient’ for Dr Maiga – “sometimes he came to the hospital and sometimes we went to his house. But it was purely medical.” In an amazing article, Dr Maiga takes us on his journey through his experience of the war, occupation and his interactions with the Belmokhtar and his soldiers. Despite the strength of the French in battle, he states that the militants remain “strong and they’re dangerous. With all that we’ve survived here, no one feels secure. Even with the French here, they’re still capable of doing things.” As Jolis continues:

It’s not hard to see why Dr. Maiga does “not have confidence” in French talk of an imminent troop drawdown—and why he might dread that development. If the jihadists ever manage to retake Gao, it will likely mean a return to the most harrowing period of the doctor’s professional life…assisting in the dismemberment.”

Dr. Maiga was forced to cut, repair and dress the stumps of their victims. He found it very difficult. He went into medicine to combat disease and infection, but now appears to be burdened with the guilt of assisting in nine Shariah-prescribed amputations. Like every other resident of Gao with whom Jolis spoke, Dr. Maiga doesn’t really believe the jihadists have gone anywhere. “Mujao is very powerful,” he says.

So the French are leaving, but the situation does not seem one primed for their departure. There is an explanation. As the editor of Think Africa Press explains, the reason the withdraw has to be now is in line with the justification for intervening in the first place. It’s not neo-colonialism. Despite France’s “sorry record of neo-colonialism in its former colonies” this intervention “is not an example of it.” Apparently it’s not as a result of Mali’s resource endowment or “strategic importance” either, but rather a combination of three prevailing narratives. One is combating Islamist militants in a broader War on Terror and another is salvaging a chunk of domestic popularity. The third is because France was asked to by the government of Mali. This narrative is not so much a neo-colonial one but is instead because “Mali is a victim of structural dominances related to colonialism and its subordinate position in systems of global power. France’s intervention is an expression of that rather than an extension of it.” In this position of authority, France only has to stay for as long as the other two narratives permit it. Sinking support for the war domestically and the fear of being stuck in a quagmire in the Sahel means it’s definitely time to go. Sadly, Mali’s domestic affairs have no weight in this equation.

 

Mali News #6 – The end has not begun

It’s tempting to celebrate as French forces enter Timbuktu, much like the Malian people did as the French forces entered Gao as Channel 4 news reported. The level of excitement is heartening and exhilarating for many.

But the story isn’t as clear cut as that. French forces may have retaken Timbuktu today, only for the rebels to burn priceless manuscripts as they fled. Kidal is still held by either the MNLA or other forces, and the terrorist forces still include many child soldiers. The death toll is still not clear due to a lack of proper monitoring of what has happened, and the French and Malian military are still limiting access to the areas so people who need medical treatment are still not receiving help.

The human cost has been irredeemable, the cultural losses are a damaging blow to Mali’s vibrant culture and the world’s understanding of medieval Islam. So what now as the French and Malian government claim the war will be over in a few days?

The first question is of course, will it really be over? The relative ease that French forces found on entering Gao and Timbuktu make a strong contrast to the heavy fighting and resistance they found around Konna a little over a week ago. Only now are people beginning to consider that this access to Urban areas leads to a, “shadow war” where terrorists blend back into the cities, or retreat into the deserts, where they know the territory well and have much more freedom of movement.

Bruce Whitehouse neatly lays out the political, social and economic problems laid out ahead in Mali, entitled, “Next, the hard bit”. He deftly highlights the effect of the terrorist’s forces dispersal but leaves one clear message that has been continually missed in the western media.

“Mali’s conflict must be resolved not only in the wastes of northern Mali but in the corridors of power in Bamako. The country’s political leaders must now get down to the difficult business of working out how Malians will coexist in a single republic, under a democracy worthy of the name. Recent history may be discouraging, but one hopes Malians will rise to the occasion.”

It will not be an easy process, many people in the south still blame the Touregs for this crisis and the various economic and political struggles leave the capital and country divided. Retaliation attacks are already happening, harming reconciliation. Leaders at all levels of Mali must now come together to reforge the country as a strong nation. One that takes democracy beyond a process, but into every community and home, whether in the North and South, which empowers Mande and Toureg alike.

Economically Mali has been given a $18.4m loan from the IMF to help stabilise the economy. But while this may stabilise the economy in the financial markets, 400,000 Malians are still refugees and may take months to return. Mali itself is still considered a war torn country, damaging it’s international image.

This is where Britain and British people can help. The Sahara Soul events in London and Glasgow alike are highlighting the solidarity of British people with Mali as a whole. David Cameron has stated his ongoing support for France and Mali, and has since committed to non-combat military support. There are a series of events on Mali this week by Chatham House and the Royal African Society. In the next post I’ll be outlining what the British public are doing in Mali to raise awareness, support and funds for Mali.

For now I’ll leave you with a quote from Desmond Tutu. People in Britain are doing their little bit, so are people in Mali, now we just have to keep it up, and encourage others to do the same.

“Do your little bit of good where you are; its those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world.”

Mali News #5 – Forces enter Diabaly and Douentza

Journalists queue to enter Diabaly this morning. All rights @joepenney

First of all Bruce Whitehouse’s situation report from the 18th of January is a must read for catching up on what has been happening in Mali.

Beyond that though there are a few interesting perspectives and pieces that it’s worth reading. First of all, lest anyone focus overly much on the conflict, it’s important to continue to highlight the extreme humanitarian crisis arriving in the wake of the conflict zones. The UN is predicting up to 710,000 people will be forced to leave their homes due to the crisis, and the international aid organisations can not cope with those numbers and the acute nature of the deprivation they are seeing. 

Civil society’s response to what they rightly see as a foreign invasion continues as people in Gao lynch an Islamist Chief who had a popular journalist killed (fr). These are not scenes that we would want to see, but they give a strong indication to the Malian people’s thoughts in the areas still occupied by the terrorist organisations in the North.

Today French forces took the central towns of Diabaly and Douentza from Al-Queda linked rebels. Quickly followed by a horde of journalists who follow the action as you can see above. As government sponsored forces continue to advance we will hear more harrowing stories of life under the terrorists, “With a razor, one of the rebel leaders traced a circle on my forearm before chopping it off with a sharp knife”.

The final update from Northern Africa has been the Algerian hostage situation which was widely linked to the situation in Mali. While it’s unclear to what extent the attack was related to what is going on in Mali, what is important is the Prime Minister’s announcement today that, “We must support effective and accountable government, back people in their search for a job and a voice and work with the UN and our international partners to solve long-standing political conflicts and grievances.” Strong rhetoric from the Prime Minister in his speech, which referred to Mali, and we can hope that Britain will commit to building resilience in Mali after this conflict has finished.

For those who want a thorough and insightful understanding into the roots of Al Qaida in the Sahara region they should look no further than this extract from Andy Morgan.

Finally, the conflict has given greater prevalence to other aspects of Mali’s offering to the world. The guardian highlighted, ‘Mali’s magical music’. And Mali’s opening 1-0 over Niger in the Africa Cup of Nations. Hopefully the powerful nature of these two facets of Malian life will show the world that there is more to Mali, and bring  people together in solidarity, supporting Mali.

Mali News #4 – The fightback begins?

The current situation in Mali; picture originally of Mali Un Et Indivisible.

When the end of ceasefire was announced last week, it was a worrying sign. Little did we expect the series of events following this when, on Thursday Islamists forces announced they had re-entered the key town of Kona. Government forces exchanged fire fairly quickly in response to this new incursion. This is an important strategic moment for two reasons. Firstly it showed that the Islamists felt able to expand the area under their control, and that the for the Malian Government, further Islamic advancement to the south was a line in the sand that they couldn’t allow the northern forces to cross.

This resulted in a raising of tension across both sides of the border on Thursday night as civilians in Mopti and Djenne started to evacuate, fearing more violence.

The fears of civilians near demarcation zone were confirmed as on Friday the Malian President announced a state of emergency in the country(fr) for an initial ten days saying, “the situation on the front is generally under control ” and called for , “general mobilization “around the Malian army. The Malian army moved north to secure the demarcation zone and beyond to re-take Konna with the support of French troops that were pledged by President Hollande. As this occurred international support across Africa and the EU swung behind Mali, but coupled with calls from the French and British Governments for all of their nationals to leave immediately. While reports of Nigerian and Senegalese troops supporting Malian troops out of Sévaré were made, the Senegalese government at least denied their troops were present. The United States  also pledged support with logistical support and drones (fr).

On Saturday French forces continued air strikes on targets in northern Mali and even as far south as Mopti. Saturday also brought the confirmation that 500 troops from Nigeria and Bukina Faso would support the Malian army. Friday also indicated that the French forces had lost a pilot in the fighting due to small arms fire. France has now stepped it’s national security in the wake of this intervention and their recent actions in Somalia. Despite that risk, this piece, gives an opening analysis of why France decided to act now.

In the fighting around Kona and the Demarcation zone, eleven Malian soldiers were reported dead and at least eleven civilians including 3 children who drowned trying to cross the river to safety.

Britain also pledged support, with the Prime Minister saying, “These developments show the need to make urgent progress in implementing UN Security Council resolutions on Mali, and ensure that military intervention is reinforced by an inclusive political process leading to elections and a return to full civilian rule”. This initial encouraging statement that thinks beyond the crisis is important, however many Malians may see the use of British transport aircraft in the conflict as more important right now.

On Sunday French Pilots continued to bombard targets in Northern Mali, including Gao. While external commentators see this as, “an emergency patch in a very dangerous situation” many Malians see this as the start of the fight back, “We are very proud and relieved that the army was able to drive the jihadists out of Konna. We hope it will not end there, that is why I’m helping in my own way” (ibid).

What is unclear right now is which one of these two options this is. If it is just a patch, that leaves the options of a prolonged and bloody series of battles as the status quo is maintained. If it is the fightback, the question of whether this was planned, and whether the respective armies and countries are capable of pushing out the forces of Northern Mali. What already raises concerns is the limited reporting of the civilian cost to this conflict, and whether this fast tracking means that long term thinking about the civilian cost in and after the battles have been fought will result in a long term disaster for the people of Northern Mali.

Mali News #3 – New year, new prospects?

On Friday the hopes of the new year was negated as Ansar Dine announced that they were suspending the cessation of hostilities claiming that the Malians had made a mockery by gearing up for war. It strikes me as interesting that the quote Reuters obtained from Ansar Dine referred to the, “Malians” which would imply to me that Ansar Dine see themselves as separate from Malians in general. An interesting shift in language, and quite hypocritical considering the reports of the underground fortresses and general fortifications being made in northern cities.

To understand Ansar Dine and the Magreb this first part of a piece on the Jihadi perspective on the Mali crisis makes very interesting reading. Especially as videos continue to be published from Gao showing amputations and other punishments.

In Bamako, many are continuing to agitate for war as Tiken Jah releases a single using historical imagery to encourage national mobilization in Mali. Something which Bruce Whitehouse thinks will both resonate and could be used more often in the coming months.

Meanwhile in France, a judge has claimed that the continuing occupation of Northern Mali paves the way for militant attacks on France. Despite the rhetoric of the piece it’s unclear whether there is significant evidence to give this report a lot of credence.

Mali News #2 – Government swept away

As our last update was posted, we received news that the Malian Prime Minister and his government had resigned, through coercion. News was not complete, so we’ll review what happened and look at some of the implications and analysis around this latest trial for Mali.

Peter Tinti’s article gives a brief overview of the events a week ago, with suggestions that Diarra’s initial strength of being a political outsider, eventually led to his resignation as he tried to move away from Captain Sanogo’s Military Junta.

International condemnation swept down on Mali and the Military Junta, with the UN threatening sanctions on a country already experiencing famine.

Mali’s new Prime Minister, Diango Cissoko, started drawing up a unity government based upon the belief he could co-ordinate the retaking on Northern Mali through military means. The ICG, who have a good understanding of the situation in Mali commented that Cissoko might stand a better chance or achieving this aim. Despite the international criticism around the resignation of his predecessor, ECOWAS and other nations responded fairly neutrally to this new appointment. Clearly foreign observers are still unsure of the political stability in Bamako while Captain Sanogo is present to undermine what democratic structures that remain in Mali. In fact they still aren’t united in believe in the efficacy of the most publicised plans, as Susan Rice, the US Ambassador to the UN, calls the French intervention plan for Mali, ‘crap’.

To really understand the reality of the power of the coup in March, and it’s clear continuing implications, a read of this article from Bruce Whitehouse, an American Anthropologist, gives a great insight. Bruce reported on the situation in Mali as the tsunami of the current crisis hit Mali and Bamako through his blog: Bridges from Bamako. He continues to report occasionally with excellent blog pieces.

In his latest post, Bruce talks of Sanogo’s call that he can start the war of liberation before an election, as some Malians want. He also links to this BBC article which provides an  analysis of the possible scenarios for Mali in 2013, which in the run up to the holiday season including the New Year celebrations in Britain, leaves much to think on for the coming year in Mali.

It’s worth noting that the option of settlement through negotiation and dialogue isn’t present in the four scenarios given, despite suggestions that this route might be effective and is making marked progress. Mark Doyle gives three lines at the end of the article on the prospect. An unsettling reaction rises, and without generalizing from one news piece, you can wonder whether too many people outside Mali are brushing aside the chance for a non-violent solution that might lead to an enduring peace. Dishearteningly that position is something being seen and heard (fr) inside Mali too, although not universally. As conditions continue to deteriorate in the South and the North a thought out route to an enduring and just peace in Mali becomes ever more important.