Category Archives: Mali

Mali’s untapped resource: it’s resilience. Part 1

Disaster and conflict often shows that the indispensable heroes are found in the integrity of locals

Courtesy of @baezfer

Of the many under reported stories of the conflict, the story of the destruction of Timbuktu’s manuscripts in January was a truly global event. For centuries Timbuktu had served as not only an epicentre in the trade of silk, salt, gold and slaves but Timbuktu was also a centre of the trade in knowledge, science and art. A medieval cultural oasis at the edge of the Sahara – the mysticism of this reputation still more or less lives on today. But the conflict and the destruction of these great works have changed this. It is hard to say whether Timbuktu will be imagined with the same majesty in years to come.

Social networks and international media mourned the loss of these precious pieces of world heritage. It was a curious moment that befalls during most human tragedies; when material, or non-human, losses are met with a great outburst of sorrow. Valid reasons for sadness, but always standing awkwardly next to the human death and misery of the wider war.

Very rarely do these outbursts eclipse the emotion felt for the deaths, casualties and terror of war. However, Romeo Dallaire – Force Commander of the UN force in Rwanda in 1994 – has always insisted, coldly and hopelessly, that if it had been the endangered mountain gorillas of the country that were being butchered with the aim of extinction then perhaps international help would have been more forthcoming.

In modern conflict, the line between combatants and civilians, allies and enemies, “good” and “evil”, terrorist and liberator can be significantly blurred. Understandably, withholding empathy can be a natural response to this. It can also be a rational one, for it is uncomfortable for anyone to have to back-track on the solidarity they felt for people overseas upon hearing news that they are perhaps not as innocent as first thought.

Courtesy of @teqLink

To want to wait and learn a bit more about the fighters in a conflict before you lend your support is a healthy attitude. Perhaps responding to the destruction of the manuscripts in Timbuktu was an opportunity for a no-strings-attached outburst for many of the world’s concerned people who had been struggling to hold back their humanitarian instinct. When these inanimate and entirely innocent scriptures, maps and works of art were destroyed so much of history went with them – and for what? It was an act of violence that symbolised the senselessness of the conflict as a whole. What explanation were we given? To the Islamist insurgents the scriptures were a violation of their severe interpretation of Shiria law. It illustrated quite how deranged the logic and the conviction of the Islamist militias were and how destructive they intended to be as a means of reshaping the Sahel in to fit their image.

It was indeed a poignant moment in the war.

But were the scriptures destroyed at all? Remarkably, in the months that followed, stories arose telling of a truly heroic micro-story of the conflict. Yes, the shelves and vaults of the libraries of Timbuktu lay empty. If you went and visited them now you would only find ash and empty leather cases as evidence that these ancient documents ever existed here. However if you did visit, you would also hear rumours – just as Yochi Dreazen of The Atlantic did. His article for New Republic explains the incredible story of how a Malian man called Abdel Kader, of the large and well respected Haidara family, foresaw the coming destruction that the artefacts faced at the hands of the militias. When he was 17, Abdel was the family member of his generation that took a vow to protect the library for a long as he lives. This tradition is replicated across Timbuktu in many families. He was one of his generation’s guardians and the madness of the last year pressed him into action. He had to protect the 300,000 manuscripts and fast, but how?

As Drezen’s article explains, Abdel fell back onto the only reliable thing he could – the networks between the families of Timbuktu who had all maintained the same values, ties and traditions that bound their society together. Steadily, and with immense danger, the artefacts were moved into the homes of many families in Timbuktu. They remained here till the conflict intensified and they then made their way to Bamako over a series of months.

Courtesy of @erik_kwakkel

No doubt without the assistance of some key, brave, individuals then none of the above could have happened. But the contributions of one group must be particularly emphasised. These are the families which took the scriptures in and then facilitated, organised and funded their arduous trickle to Bamako. Even here they still are not safe. Bearing the scars of a tough migration south, the more humid climatic conditions are starting to eat away at them now they are away from their multi-million dollar institute. A fund-raising campaign has been set up to support them “in exile”.

While conflict situations will forever attract the international development cavaliers and industrious thrill-seekers, Mali – with its networks between elderly heads of respected families – shows a rarely appreciated source of resilience in war-torn societies. Perhaps the lesson in the story of the manuscripts of Timbuktu is not only about what the world needs to do to nurture Mali’s unique cultural heritage. Actually, it is more about what Mali’s traditional societal characteristics can do to provide conflict resolution approaches for the current crisis, which in turn can be supported by the world.

We will return to the importance of Mali’s social heritage in my next post. 

May events on Mali

Two events coming up in May on Mali.

Trafficking Networks and Threats to Security in West Africa: the case of Mali

LSE: New Theatre, East Building

8th of May 2013 – 6.30-8pm

An examination of the changing strategic security environment in West Africa and the effectiveness of the response initiated by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) with the support of the international community.


Mali in Transition: Interdisciplinary Perspectives

SOAS: Russell Square: College Buildings, Room G2

29th of May 2013 9am – 30th of May 2013 5pm

rganised by the Centre of African Studies and SOAS, University of London, with the support of the MBI Al Jaber Foundation, ASA-UK and Goldsmiths’ College, this conference aims to provide an interdisciplinary and research-based platform to Africanists from Europe, Africa and the USA, to initiate a debate about the causes of the present political and humanitarian crisis in Mali, but also its impact on the country’s social and cultural diversity.

The four panels will focus on the following themes:
  • Interdisciplinary perspectives on the crisis
  • Emergency crisis and impact of humanitarian action
  • Heritage and conservation
  • Historical perspectives and future scenarios

The conference will also provide an opportunity to present the work of Mohamed Alher Ag Almahdi, a Malian Tuareg artisan who trained in restoring ancient manuscripts at the British Library and subsequently helped with the restoration of ancient manuscripts in Timbuktu.


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…?

The women of Mali offer a path to the future

The story of “Aissatou” started over 12 months ago with her heavily pregnant fleeing from the advancing rebels. At the age of 14 she was only a child herself when she gave birth to her son and arrived in Gao. The rebel forces soon caught up and tore the community to pieces. Aissatou locked herself in her house for two straight days. Only when she emerged was the full reality of the trauma made clear. Her brother-in-law’s hand had been cut off at the wrist – justice in the eyes of the rebels for alleged stealing. Worst still was the crimes and atrocities committed against scores of young girls – including Aissatou’s closest friend “Ines”. The girls of the village – aged in their middle-teens – were taken by force and transported in trucks to the bush where they were raped, abused, and beaten with blunt weapons. Discarded, Ines – a girl of only 14 years – fled and was found fallen in the road by men from the village and brought back to their hospital. This is where Ines told Aissatou her terrible story. Aissatou, on the run again, has not seen Ines since.

A representative from Save the Children Australia made a point of reporting Aissatou’s story. Very few stories that can bear be told, even when victims can be reached. The vast majority of traumas remain unreported and for many their stories are not finished. Despite a fairly comprehensive military victory on part of the Malian’s and the French, UNICEF has recently emphasised that ‘risks to women and children are far from over’ due to prevailing insecurities. While control has been restored to the north, rebel forces have reprised in suicide bombings and guerrilla warfare behind French-Malian lines. With these acts of violence, and in the chaotic disorder that ensues, the disgraceful and humiliating acts of sexual abuse and rape carry on.

Life during war time and under oppressive occupation is exceptionally tough for the disempowered. What does Mali tell us about this issue? What does examining the conflict in through a gendered lens tell us about Mali? What stories must be shared? The history of women in war paints a bleak picture. Our understanding of the role of gender in conflict is fairly underdeveloped, but our most obvious finding so far in the long history of war is that the odds of violence, rape, humiliation and death are stacked overwhelmingly against women. Unfortunately the situation in Mali has not strayed from this sinister trend. Reports of sexual violence and abuse against women have come overwhelmingly from the northern areas of the country which were or have been occupied by the rebels. The brutality described in the stories of the victims is unbearable. According to Save the Children’s perennial report ‘The State of the World’s Women’ Malian women, and subsequently Malian children, rank in as the 7th worst-off in the world in a composite index including healthcare, life-expectancy, sexual and maternal health, socio-political opportunities and education. It is safe to say that Malian women, compared to their male counterparts, appeared to be severely less-resilient to the impending conflict and its aftermath. UNICEF has responded with a stirring report entitled Supporting Women through an Emergency which sets out its developmental agenda in Mali for 2013 with specific reference to increasing the resilience of women. This is welcome news, especially considering this battle-cry from freelance journalist Amma Bonsu which stresses the rise of Islamists in an already patriarchal society severely threatens the country’s strong and industrious women. If Mali is to recover the world must invest in its women.

But how is this achieved when the security situation on the ground is still in doubt? The main provider of physical and strategic security still has to be the French who are adamant that they are going to be leaving soon. Details surrounding an African Union force, UN Peacekeepers, or an EU delegation all remain murky, indistinct, and stink of a situation being held at arm’s length. We also must not disregard reports that the Malian army itself is a threat to the fragile security as to its people. Asking the French to stay brings its own problems with reports of ethnic violence and wanton abuse – which so often haunt peacekeeping interventions – being levelled against the French and Malian government troops themselves. Even if stability continues to improve, the emphasis on the security crisis in the north has meant that aid projects are being heavily emphasised in these areas. The EU said it will come to the assistance of women who have been a victim of abuse by releasing some of the 250 million Euros of development aid it froze after the coup in Mali in March last year – but what of the women falling ill to the reprisals and attacks in the south? Arguably, the most severe stories are still coming from the north. Only last week fresh stories of rapes, stoning, lashes and forced marriages were reported. Unfortunately, regardless of a prevailing north-south dichotomy it seems that scarce resources are going to be out of reach to many thousands of women and children all around this fragile country, in this year and into the future.

With the military victory led by the French, some improvements can be observed. One cannot help but be warmed by the sight of the recently-liberated women of Timbuktu rejoicing in acts of self-expression that for so long has be quashed. Dancing and singing, and wearing what they wanted. Talking to whoever they wanted. Inspirational businesswomen and musicians have also returned making a future for Mali where women see their quality of life improve more viable. Some commentators are fearful that an early exit from the intervening ground troops threaten to unravel all that has been gained. Amma Bonsu is of the opinion that “an occupying force must remain in Mali until the frayed interim government is replaced with an elected government committed to educating girls and expanding the rights of women”. It is a logical request, especially when we must remember that the current incumbents in Bamako were installed by coup rather than ballot. The issue remains of political will – what organisation powerful enough but also willing to stay longer than is politically viable? François Hollande has his victory – which he hopes he can translate to political approval back at home – why risk this by staying and giving the public approval gains he has made through the intervention an opportunity to fester and decay?

The Department of International Development (DFID) cites a statistic that should frighten anyone to the core: one woman in every three is beaten or sexually abused in her lifetime. These acts of physical violence and the psychological traumas that result from them are, despite their severity, too frequently left undiscovered. In the midst of the upheaval, destruction and the state of exception found during war the crisis facing the world’s women only escalates. The societal and structural factors that drive and manifest gendered violence are even more elusive. Cultural practices, historic norms and societal conventions, some enshrined in law, such as forced marriages, gendered hierarchies, and restricted access to education and work are complex and entrenched vehicles for violence.

These systems are present globally. Correspondingly, the fight for equality has to be fought globally. It extends everywhere; from debates concerning succession in the British monarchy and number of female MPs sitting in Westminster to the issue of the demobilisation of child soldiers in Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa. 40% of child soldiers are thought to be girls yet Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration Programmes (DDRs) only see girls making up 5% of total enrolment. This missing 35% – the girls in their thousands that are disproportionately excluded from these schemes – meet far grimmer fates than the boys that suffered alongside them. In Mali, Britain has yet to fully recognise the humanitarian blight that is unfolding. Like Hollande, senior politicians in Britain are more concerned with not becoming embroiled into another lengthy occupation – an obvious hangover from Afghanistan. When intervention and involvement is considered seriously it is only considered in military terms – of defeating jihadists and winning a battle in a broader geo-political war on terror. The plight of the most vulnerable is an issue that does not resonate loudly in Britain today.

Although we can always hope for the future. As International Women’s Day approaches journalists, political commentators, staff of national and international development agencies, as well as politicians, have an opportunity to advance our awareness of women in war and this long underappreciated dynamic of human conflict. The United Nations has taken the approach of positive canvassing this year. Instead of focusing on the terror described above, the UN has compiled statistics on why empowering women is so important – not simply as a moral cause for equality but as a way of alleviating poverty. For example; “if women had the same access to productive resources as men, they could increase yields on their farms by 20–30 percent, lifting 100-150 million out of hunger”. So can Mali show us any evidence that it will rise out of this conflict with women in greater stead? World War I saw Western women gain the vote, and the parliament of post-genocide Rwanda has the highest % of women MPs of any country in the world. Concentrating on women in conflict can not only reveal structural and systematic failures; it can also be an opportunity to empower women and realise their full capacity as a force for positive change.


March 8this International Women’s Day. For over a century men and women across the globe have marked this day with everything from acts of mass civil disobedience to fund-raising cake sales. This year a matriarch of West-African music – Angelique Kidjo – will perform at London’s Southbank Centre. She will be supported by Mali’s very own rising star Fatoumata Diawara.

Angelique has for years worked tirelessly with other artists to strengthen the hand of the world’s women through. For a detail of the kind of causes she supports please visit the webpage of the ‘Half the Sky’movement which is dedicated to “Turning Oppression into an Opportunity for Women Worldwide”.

To promote this the Mali Interest Hub is offering a free copy of Angelique Kidjo’s live music album. All you have to do is answer this question:

For what album did Angelique Kidjo win a Grammy for Best Contemporary World Music Album in 2008?

Competition closes Sunday 10th of March. Contact us here with the answer and we’ll let the winner know on the 11th of March.

[contact-form][contact-field label=’Name’ type=’name’ required=’1’/][contact-field label=’Email’ type=’email’ required=’1’/][contact-field label=’Content’ type=’textarea’ required=’1’/][/contact-form]


The benefits of an armed escort to Bamako


It really is impossible not to love Mali. However bad things seem to get here on the uber political level where acronyms play charades on CNN and BBC, talking of AQMI, MUJAO and UNHCR, things on the ground remain reassuringly human business as usual.

While to outsiders Mali may suddenly appear to be a haven of insecurity, crisis and terrorism, to those in the know and on the ground it remains what it has always been, and probably always will be: a place of music, innocence and hospitality; chilled humorous and wonderfully naive.

Hamma, one of my Timbuktu guides, has this year learnt about the parallel disconnects between the outside world’s view of his country and the reality; and reverse disconnect between the African perspective on Europe and the reality.

Like many in Africa, Hamma thought a ticket to Europe would be the answer to his dreams of work and opportunity, a life of milk and honey. And coming at the outbreak of the crisis in Mali, Hamma’s chance to move to Spain to live with his new Spanish wife seemed manna from heaven. But after a year of the European crisis with its unemployment, bitter loneliness, cold and weight loss – “see how I am thinning Guy” – he decided to try his chances back home again, despite al Qaeda being in control. He’d be better off. Knowing I was driving back to Mali he called me up to ask for a lift.

Hamma and I recently arrived in Bamako from my Sahara Overland trip. We were coming down across the Sahara for the caravan of peace with three clients, but with war in Mali the caravan had been cancelled and my clients opted for the perceived security of Senegal.

So I handed my clients over to my Senegalese operators for a cruise up the River Senegal and Hamma and I came on home to Mali.

I had been informed as I approached the border between Mauritania and Mali that whiteys would have to pay €150 for an armed escort from the border to Bamako.

Given I think the risk of kidnap these days is very small (see this post), and that I was going to be entering into the safest part of the country in the east, over 2000miles away from where the nasties are, this irked me a bit.

I sought out a remote border post, hoping the directive may not have got through. It was so remote that the police in the last Mauritanian town of Selibaby weren’t too sure if they needed to stamp me out or whether the post at the frontier 40 kms further on had their own stamp. In the end the frontier post had lost their stamp, so they just scribbled a note in my passport that they’d seen me pass.

We crossed a dried up river to the Malian side. As we approached the custom’s shack, a man dozing in a chair opened one eye. Once this eye had registered my white skin, the other opened as though this evidence before him indicated that he must have been a sleep for a long long time.

After welcoming me into his office, he began organising my laisser passer for my vehicle. As I had no local currency he took my word for the euro/cfa exchange rate, issued the laisser passer and welcomed me back to Mali.

I asked how security was in the region: “Pas de problem, rien de tout ici”. “Ah good, so i don’t need an armed escort?”. “Ah, you will have to ask the Captain”.

He called a young lad over to show me the way to the military post.

Here I was greeted by the Captain with the tightest handshake i have ever received – with him I was in secure hands. He and his “elements” were just having the second tea, for life, so we all sat and discussed the current “life” situation in the surrounding region.

He explained that although it was true that there was no problem in the region, there was a directive from on high that all tourists have an armed escort to Bamako. So he’d send me to Kayes with three of his guys. I could stay at the military camp there and go on with their chaps to Bamako in the morning.

Our escort was made up of a Tamasheq (Tuareg), an Arab and a Bambara – a good example of the essential racial harmony that this country enjoys in normal times. We had a very pleasant journey through the early evening, listening to my Tuareg music and discussing the news and Tamasheq women. We stopped off for a wee break. Suddenly some headlights appeared from behind us in the bush. As they approached my “elements” grabbed their rifles and demanded “who goes there”. I hid behind my car and slowly backed into the bush just in case!

The vehicle stopped, rabbits in the headlights – just a bush taxi, shooed off into the bush to follow “any other track but ours.”

“Let’s go, we don’t want their dust”.

Night had long fallen when we rolled into Kayes. At the Kayes camp I tried again to argue that I was happy to proceed to Bamako without an escort, but to no avail. My new captain – Mali is full of captains –  put forward his future career as the main reason he could not let me go on alone.

For my security, I must camp here in the military camp. I suggested that the Malian military themselves were the number one target now for our “islamist” friends so perhaps the camp was not the safest place for me to stay, but the captain shrugged that these were his directives. And furthermore, if I wanted to go out and eat I must take a guard. How absurd! If Mali was that dangerous did he think I would have been allowed into the country?

Having crossed the Sahara desert in charge of my own destiny, I felt I could go out in Kayes for a drink and some food without putting myself at too much risk, even though this was my first night in war torn Mali. It was time to test this guy’s resolve!

After a very welcome bucket shower and plenty of sprucing up  – first time in a couple of days – and clear indications that we were soon to go out as I was starving, Hamma and I got into the car, drove about the compound a bit to give them warning and approached the gate. But the discussions over tea and the champions league football on the tv seemed to be more engaging and no one noticed me champing to leave.

The one soldier guarding the camp gate didn’t bat an eyelid as I drove out, so out we went, into the Kayes night.

We grabbed some street food and I practiced my Bambara again, rusty but as always mirth inducing, had a much longed for beer (Mali is the first beer stop after south Spain) and chatted to a rather drunk head teacher before returning to the camp a couple of hours later.

Nobody had noticed our absence.

The next morning, before leaving with our new armed escort, I decided to try my chances again with the captain. I told him about our night’s wanderings and how, given his country is at war and yet he was asking me to pay for my own security to Bamako, the one sleepy guard at the gate had not exactly made me feel strongly protected from his “possible” AL Qaeda attack, and I wasn’t sure today’s guard were going to be doing much more for me.

I told him I knew a little bit about what was going on in Mali and that I knew “our friends in the north” probably better than he did, and knew very well that the chances of an ugly Algerian big-beard, who has the French military might on his shoulders right now, wasting energy trying to nab me, an Englishman (so there ain’t even any cash in me – if they take me they kill me) between Kayes and Bamako (perhaps the safest 600kms in the country given it is as far from any danger zone that you could get in this vast country twice the size of France) were far more remote than his chances of staging a third coup d’etat over that other Malian captain, Mr SANAGO.

I accepted that Mali was in a state of emergency so I didn’t mind taking the escort, but I couldn’t see why I should pay for it.

Touchéd a little by my challenge, this clearly thoroughly decent and capable captain politely and kindly – everyone is always polite and kind here – assured me that my protection was stronger than it seemed, that perhaps there was only one sleepy guard on the gate, but I couldn’t see “les elements chachés” – that would have been all the hidden snipers whose shadows I sensed jumping from roof to roof covering my movements last night!

Bottom line was that the governor of the region had set this directive, his career was ahead of him, it was not worth the chance of something happening to me falling on his shoulders. But he’d give me a 25% discount on the price. I would now only be paying for the “elements” and not their bus fares back from Bamako.

Yea yea OK let’s go.

So 40,000cfa was the deal, €60. I only had euros on me.

The Captain whistled in two guards, one was Gendarme, one was National Secuirty, blue with flecks and green, Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee and two old looking rifles.

First I needed to get my police and immigration stamps sorted. My guard directed the way. Within a few turns I realised they were taking me to the wrong Police station – I had made this mistake before. No no they inisted, they would just get it done here.  Ok. In we March.

“Ah no, that is done at the Commisariat”.

I took them to the Commisariat, the old French Prison house with its Romanesque cell as you walk in, and soon I was legalised into Mali.

Last stop, bank to withdraw money and our guards wanted to change their euros.

ATM, bop bop bop, I’m sitting back in the car cashed up waiting for Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee to exchange their euros. After 20 minutes they return.

We’re off! Bamako. “Attends”.

What now? Dum jumps out and runs back to the bank. Two minutes later he’s back, with his rifle.

Our whole journey back to Bamako was wonderfully laid back. My guards dozed most of the way, when we stopped to eat they left their rifles in the car and they went into one food stall Hamma and I went into another. We all discussed Mali and what was needed, my opinion as valid as theirs, the one supported what Sanago had done the other not so sure.

When we needed more fuel, the sheep occupying the first pump forced me to pull up to the second unmarked pump and without questioning me the attendant put in 2 liters of unleaded petrol into my diesel tank. We waited here for an hour while a mechanic was called to come and drain the tanks. I fought my own battle with the pump attendant, forcing him to at least pay for the bloody mechanic he’d forced himself to call, seeing I had lost 20 liters of good diesel because of his stupidity.

Throughout the day though I was happier then I had been for three months. I was back in Mali again!

This piece was originally published by Guy Lankester at

Mali events in Britain

These posts will be semi-regular updates on events featuring Mali happening in the UK. If you know of an event not on the list here, please get in touch.


Rising radicalism in the Sahel: Mali & Regional Destabilisation– 5.30pm 6th February 2013

Royal African Society – Room 3B20, Strand Campus, King’s College, London, WC2R 2LS

Speakers: Mr Ali Soufan (CEO, The Soufan Group) and Dr ‘Funmi Olonisakin (Director, African Leadership Centre). Chair: Professor Jack Spence OBE (Department of War Studies, King’s College London).

Focusing on Mali, this event will look at the wider implications for the Sahel. We will examine the structural causes of the rising tide in extremist movements and ask – what will be the regional and international response that will succeed in stopping the fall of the Sahara?


Downing Street Mali Demonstration – 9.30am 8th February 2013

Malian Community Council & Malian Consulate – Parliament Square

Malian Community Council – “A demonstration in Parliament Square, to be completed by a march on Downing Street to hand over a declaration/letter to the PM’s office. In this letter we will express our thanks and those of the malian people to the coalition that helped the Malian Army to oust the islamic extremists from Northern Mali and ask the British government for more involvement.”


African Music Event – Peterborough’s Key Theatre – 4th May 2013

Further details to come

Live music from Batanai and Shumba Mbira.

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.