Afel Bocoum is an intelligent man. You only need to read a few lines of his interview with Belgian music magazine RifRaf or listen to a few minutes of one of his songs to realise this. In the interview with the magazine, Bocoum speaks eloquently and informatively on a range of subjects including the rights of Malian minority groups, youth culture, identity, post-colonial cultural relations between Africa and Europe and America and, of course, his own approach to music.
Curiously, Bocoum’s profession is as an Agricultural Advisor. Being from Niafunké (a town situated in the southern most part of the vast desert Timbouctou Region where temperatures frequently exceed 50’C) it is not immediately obvious what use an agricultural advisor would have. However the area surrounding the Niger River, which includes Niafunké and Timbuktu, is important farming land. Malian Minister for Culture N’Diaye Ramatoulaye Diallo explains:
“When people think of Timbuktu they think desert, they don’t think about agriculture at all, but it will be one of the main projects there.”
The project Diallo is referring to is the plan to open a £50 million university in Timbuktu. A key feature of the university’s work will be the improvement of the region’s existing irrigation program and other agricultural practices. Amongst other research focuses will be renewable energy and Saharan literature – a subject that is anticipating a great boost once the city’s treasured manuscripts have been returned to their library.
Diallo also claims that the university is central to the rejuvenation of Timbuktu in general. Even before the recent conflict there, Timbuktu’s economy was a shadow of its former self. Now the situation is even more desperate. Fortunately a dedicated group of ‘diverse stakeholders’ called The Timbuktu Resistance has been focusing on a strategy “to promote reconciliation and sustainable development in Mali through a revival of its culture and heritage, and examine broader implications for post-conflict reconstruction and for understanding Islam in its global diversity.” In this case the diplomatic and political currency that Mali gains through the international popularity of its music in particular is clear. Music is important to Mali’s internal politics too. For example, the goal of returning the ‘Festival au Desert‘ to its home in Mali’s north (which instead will once again be staged ‘In Exile’ in early 2015) could have many potential benefits for the region. In addition to the economic benefits of tourism, the Festival is also symbolic and promotes “cultural diversity, peace, tolerance and social cohesion amongst the peoples of the Sahel and Sahara.” There is also a plan to share these lessons in cultural diversity worldwide by making the sights, sounds and knowledge of Timbuktu available online through Google maps, street-view and scholar.
The north of the country sees the least amount of progress. The familiarity of military vehicles and the absence of tourists and trade continue to grind away at the residents of Timbuktu.A lack of resources is coupled with a lack of a strong presence from national institutions. For the most part, the basic ‘legal machinery’ needed in the north is still missing. The people of northern Mali are not seeing justice for crimes committed during the height of the conflict. This was a key Presidential promise going awry. Inventively, the government has responded with mobile information clinics which have been set up to gather testimony and deal with the back log. Soliders are being questioned too which is a positive sign. However, there is a major fear that even with the correct information in the right hands the population are still reluctant to give offenders up, especially if they are from the same ethnic group. A commentator warns “if there is no justice, others might seek revenge.”
Besides the conflict, the ever global spectre of ebola looms large. It must be of some national pride that the Malian health ministry has been selected by Oxford University and the Centre for Vaccine Development at the University of Maryland to trial an experimental vaccine against the virus. It is urgently needed by their West African compatriots on the ‘front line’ in the battle, where health workers have died in their hundreds. Whilst Bamako remains bruised from the continuing conflict it must count itself lucky that it hasn’t had any reported cases despite a land border with Guinea which has had over 1,200.
The song has been chosen this week to reflect this mood. The conflict rumbles on. But Mali is rumbling on too. It is relatively peaceful, but the situation is very volatile as any number of enduring issues could explode at any time. Patience is the order of the day. That and frustration. The steady but fiery rhythm of Lalla symbolises these competing emotions, and in the heart-felt, floating and roaring lyrics of Traoré there is sorrow and anger. An abrupt finish – a call for Mali to simply get its act together?
Men set up a stage for a campaign rally next to a poster for Malian presidential candidate Ibrahim Boubacar Keita (known as IBK) in Bamako, Mali, August 9, 2013. Credit: Reuters/Joe Penney
Any newly elected executive has a difficult task ahead of them regardless of the events preceding their inauguration. For a President one opening matter is to get the right balance of characters into government and getting the country up and running. Style and the setting of priorities are incredibly important. A coherent, suitably ambitious and achievable agenda for power must be made. Get the pace wrong here and you can promise too much and deliver too little or you can end up picking the wrong fights and risk isolation. The early months of a new government can also fall victim to the reliance on the wave of euphoria that delivered them to power. Some forget that this honeymoon period comes to an abrupt end. If taken for granted, a newly installed premier can find that hope and excitement subsides into disappointment and frustration all too quickly. Just ask Gordon Brown how that feels…
So looking to Mali’s new President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita (fondly referred to as IBK for short) we can expect the stakes on the early weeks of government to be even higher. A daunting in-tray faces the run-away winner of this year’s elections. How has IBK tried to deliver his election-winning message of peace, unity and technical and administrative competence? Increasingly and ever important for any modern developing world President is external relations, but getting the balance between this and national stability and reconciliation is crucial. These two sides are intrinsically linked yet IBK has urgent issues to address on both fronts – how has he approached this, have some events already forced his hands, and what can we learn already?
Mali’s new cabinet
The first decision that faces any incoming Premier – in this case Prime Minister Oumar Tatam Ly – is the creation of a cabinet. This is a great way of anticipating the attitude of a government going forward. IBK has certainly made choices to deliver a symbolically unified government. Many of the key appointments are detailed in this article. The prestigious role of Foreign Minister has been handed to Zahaby Ould Sidy Mohamed, a Timbuktu-born Arab from the North who was a senior figure in a rebellion in the 1990s. One of his key tasks will be dealing with the United Nations and issues surrounding the already understaffed MINUSA Peacekeeping deployment picking up from the work of General Secretary Sekouba Cisse. Having an individual from the north represent Mali in this way on the world stage opens the door reconciliation with the north. Mali’s Foreign Minister will arguably be the most important portfolio for providing solutions to Mali’s most pressing needs. Firstly, Mali’s relationship with its West African neighbours will be crucial to the safe return of the thousands of refugees and restoring Mali’s territorial integrity. These countries will be vital to Mali’s economic recovery and in tackling trans-continental organised crime. Looking further afield, the continued presence of French troops is a reminder of the importance of relations outside of Africa. The US is another key ally in this area as is the EU in the form of a major source of development aid. All in all, the decision to give this important role to a man from Mali’s north is a very encouraging act of trust indeed.
Potential international esteem has been gathered in the form of Boubou Cisse who has been made head of Mali’s Mining Ministry and Bouare Fily Sissoko the country’s new Finance Minister. Both Cisse and Sissoko have experience to draw on from their recent work at the World Bank as well as contacts to exploit. Sissoko is also one of four women in Mali’s 34 person strong Cabinet. Seeing women be given prominent roles is promising and perhaps deserves more credit – Mali has matched the number of women in David Cameron’s reshuffled cabinet of 27. An act of continuity comes with the appointment of Soumeylou Boubeye Maiga as Defence Minister who held the position under President Alpha Oumar Konare and the intriguing re-appointment of Territorial Administration Minister Moussa Sinko Coulibaly and Transport Minister Abdoulaye Koumare. Both these men held these posts under the military junta who came to power through the coup in 2012 and their inclusion would hopefully have the positive effect of appeasing or even bring the disgruntled elements of the military on-side. However, their presence in government could be questioned on the grounds of legitimacy – are these men here on merit – as argued here – or as a result of the coup have they effectively made their way into Mali’s political class by force?
Managing prevailing instability
On paper this cabinet shows the breadth and depth of character and experience to deliver on IBK’s promises. There is a theme of inclusivity and a good mixture of old and new faces. Their arrival however has not coincided with the timely arrival of a stable and peaceful Mali. The towns of Gao and Kidal in the north-east of the country continue to be the centre of a very precarious security situation. On the 7th of October, in the first attacks in several months, the rebel group Mujao have claimed the life of a Malian soldier after he sustained fatal injuries from rocket fire. At the same time the city of Kidal has only very recently been brought under government control. It recapture was not an easy task for government forces who mounted their assault just before peace talks with the MNLA were due to begin. The decision to pursue the MNLA aggressively at this time seems ill-judged and disjointed and has now placed further strain on negotiations.
The armed groups in the north appear to be in retreat. Contrary to this more optimistic assessment a terrifying document has emerged. An 80 page “Islamist road map” that written around 12 months ago has been discovered. It is thought that the document was prepared for al-Qaeda. Its contents could explain the change in the strategy of al-Qaeda and other armed groups in northern Mali. It reveals a significant rift occurred midway through last year’s insurgency and confirms that some figures within the rebel networks correctly predicted the problem of insurgency over-reach. They claimed that the ambition to make a charge for Bamako would inevitably lead to the involvement of international forces. As a result, the prospect of military defeat became a far more likely outcome. A rush to Bamako would spell disaster for the wider objectives al-Qaeda had for the Sahel and was an unnecessary risk. These individuals were right. In light of the rebels failure to advance south the recommendations of the 80 page document may have only been heeded now. Is AQIM defeated or in a tactical retreat?
Crucially, this document details how al-Qaeda must not rely on the military capacity of its insurgents. Instead it must emerge newly configured with the intention of implementing Sharia law slowly to earn the trust of locals. Is al-Qaeda regrouping, rethinking and slowly re-emerging in Northern Mali? If this is being pursued it would bring the improving security situation into dispute. Indeed, at the end of September more than a dozen people “were killed in a suicide car-bomb attack in a Malian army camp in the city of Timbuktu”. The likely aim of this horrendous act of terror attack was to crush the confidence of the Malian people, destabilise the morale of the army itself and tarnish the army as a symbol of government stability – right in the heart of Mali’s northern territories. Al-Qaeda has resorted to a fight for hearts and minds – not territory. It would be beneficial to them to make peace talks look like a government failure.
This is not a time for IBK to be drawn into a false sense of security. Was cutting his trip to France short a wise move? Probably, but in returning home does IBK look like he is buckling to Al-Qaeda pressure? Or does he come across as a man who knows that his country needs him most of all in the support of domestic peace negotiations? It’s an archetypal rock and a hard place situation.
No time to be complacent
The instability is not only a rebel-induced situation in the north, but civic tensions prevail across the country Bamako included. Al-Qaeda and the rest of the loosely-affiliated patchwork of rebel groups still active in the Sahel appear to be making a new war of hearts and minds. IBK and the new government must take forward the principle of unity and inclusivity symbolised in their own ranks and make it a reality on the ground. IBK has looked unflustered through-out his opening months as President. Is this professionalism or complacency? He maintains a calming presence by citing the virtues of the UN and MINUSA and by displaying the support he has from his army. At the same time, it is worth remembering that for last decade Mali has been regarded as a democratic example for the whole of Africa to follow. This view has been dramatically revised over the past months. Criticism has been levelled at the West for insisting on a narrow notion of democracy in their assessment of the country. However “it was the pre-coup status quo that led to collapse”. It appears that for IBK – as for any government – there is an urgent need to continue the strong, symbolic start and to deliver on election pledges swiftly. We will have to see whether IBK’s approach is evidence of a firm hand or “impotence” in the face of Mali’s ongoing security dilemma.
At 2:44pm on the 12th of August 2013, Soumaila Cissé sent arguably the most important tweet in Mali’s history. As the defeated candidate in Mali’s run-off Presidential election, he summarised in no less than 113 characters the strong, positive spirit that his country had expressed over the election period. Though the UN has reported that the second-round of elections occurred ‘without major incident,’ the jury should still be out till all data has been processed whether the logistical fears surrounding the elections materialised. It does appear that the greatest criticisms cited about these early elections – namely reprisal violence – have not occurred. As the BBC’s man in Bamako, Abdourahmane Dia, writes:
“Mali seems to be headed towards a peaceful end of its electoral process after Soumaila Cisse conceded to Ibrahim Boubacar Keita following Sunday’s run-off vote.
This is yet another example that politics is not an exact science -many had predicted chaos if Mali held elections so soon. France, anxious to get its troops out of Mali after routing Islamist militants from northern regions earlier this year, faced criticism for pushing for early polls.
Yet the electoral success lies more with the Malian people, who firmly believed the polls would end an era of turmoil.”
Though it is correct that these elections have occurred “without major incident” the difficulties and trauma experienced by some who were simply trying to cast your vote cannot be forgotten. It has been reported that individual Malian’s have been frequently intimidated and sometimes killed trying to vote. A chilling reminder to anyone reading from the Western world of awfully underappreciated our democratic rights sometime appear.
Importantly for Malian’s, Cissé rounded off his most gracious of election defeats with a vow to create a strong and credible opposition.Malian television showed images of Soumaila Cissé going with his wife and children to congratulate Keita and his family at their home. The whole end to the election process was a national occasion. “Soumaila’s conduct was truly impeccable,” said Aissata Camara, a pharmacy lab technician. “It was very impressive and very democratic as well. It was a relief for all of us.” Another man interviewed in the street said “I was moved to tears when I heard of what Soumaila had done. He has freed this country from any problems.” Despite all his humility, it is worth mentioning that Cissé still cited some concerns over voting fraud.
With all the news about Soumaila Cissé, it is important to remember that Mali has a new President with plenty of work to do. There is plenty of information about Ibrahim Keita on the internet. The challenges sitting in his overflowing and newly acquired in-tray are enormous. The Huffington Post immediately centres Keita’s premiership on the issue of the Tuareg while The Guardian emphasises the difficulties in reigniting the economy and managing the flow of international aid after years of endemic mismanagement. If these elections are really meant to serve as a new chapter for Mali, and putting the turmoil behind, then politics and governance must start now. Cissé appears to already begun his job. Now we will have to wait and see what IBK’s plans to do first to take his country forward.
How much can these elections put a line under Mali’s troubles? Another tweet offers a more measured and reflective point. Freelance journalist Peter Tinti aptly points out that though the elections serve as a crucial first step it is important to “keep in mind” that Mali’s problems of the last 20 years have not come from the lack of free and fair elections. The greater challenge that awaits Mali’s new incumbents – and opposition – is to resume the mission of building strong institutions. Though elections have evidently been successful in beginning national reconciliation, Mali needs to expand its democratic credentials and not rely purely on the existence of ballot boxes. It is a promising start, but a lot still needs to be done.
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.”
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?
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.
“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.
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.’
“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…?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.