A new report has been published by the International Crisis Group on the “protracted instability” in central Mali. As well as providing a comprehensive overview of the problems the country has faced over the last few years and providing extensive policy recommendations for the Malian government and the international community (namely the EU and UN) , the report provides a renewed focused on an often sidelined region of Mali – its very centre. Noting that issues are often presented in a north/south narrative, the report has immediately utility.
At the beginning of the year we pointed out that some hold the view that China is on a “collision course” with radical Islamic militants in both the Middle-East and across North Africa. This analysis emerged in the aftermath of the attack on the Radisson Blu Hotel in November last year where around 170 hostages were taken by the militants and 19 were killed in a mass shooting – among them prominent Chinese officials. Jihadist group Al-Mourabitoun has since claimed responsibility for the assault which it carried out in co-operation with al-Qaeda. Unsure how China would deal with what could be interpreted as a targeted attack on their ambitious plans in Africa, the world speculated on how they would respond. It appears that a slow, shaky collision has begun. China has steadily built up its UN peacekeeping contingent in Mali since the attack and in December passed its first piece of ‘counter-terrorism’ legislation allowing that allows its military to venture overseas on counter-terrorism operations. With violence in Mali spreading, the conflict in the north of the country has now taken the life of its first Chinese peacekeeper and injured five others, two of them seriously. Ansar Dine has claimed responsibility for this particular attack.
So why is China getting involved in the first place? Former Malian Prime Minister Moussa Mara has spoken publicly about his view that China is both a positive force for peace and development in his home country. It is generally assumed you cannot have one without the other and therefore the argument usually follows that, even when looked at cynically, China has simply positioned its troops in Mali to better secure its investments there. Now, Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) is a very good way to kick-start economic recovery and development so there is every chance that this arrangement can be just as beneficial for Mali as it is for resource-thirsty China. However there are no guarantees that the benefits of any infrastructural, commercial or industrial investments will trickle down to the local population. When social, political and environmental consequences are factored in this kind of arrangement can easily become highly detrimental to the host population.
Surely all foreign investors – not just the Chinese – have any interest in bringing peace to Mali? Well its appears that the powers that be have found a way to make the risk profitable. Not wanting to get into lengthy detail about the ins and outs of investing in Mali, one could assume that the presence of the war in the country would be enough to most people off. Despite this and the proliferation of the conflict throughout Mali over the past year or so a $67 million investment in a gold mine was made this week giving the project in Yanfolia near the Guinea border the green light. Arguably, the conflict is still overwhelmingly centred in the north of the country with the north/south divide more prevalent than ever. It is therefore difficult to ascertain whether the conflict has actually diminished, with the associated investment risks going with it, or that stability and reconstruction are now unnecessary and costly precursors to resource extraction. If the financial benefit for the international community is no longer inhibited by war what interest do they have in pursuing peace?
Of course, the war must stop and Vieux Farka Touré made this statement the focus of his song “Kele Magni” which translates roughly as “the war must stop” or “the war is no good”. Back in The Financial Times documented Vieux’s Queen Elizabeth Hall performance back in September 2013. Then the mood was triumphant; Vieux like many Malians was celebrating the success and assuming the finality of the French military intervention. As David Honigmann reported at the time:
“”War’s not good,” [Vieux Farka Toure] noted, introducing “Kele Magni”; “now they’ve stopped the war.” And appropriately the song, on record contemplative, here bounced with bass and drums in a joyous celebration.”
It has become apparent that the French did indeed stop the nation from collapsing. However despite a UN deployment and free-and-fair elections, three years on from Vieux’s declaration that the war was over violence is recurring and resurgent. Listening to it now the song becomes more a depressive plea; its been long, much too long. The war must end. In an interview in October 2013 Vieux descibes his hometown of Niafunke during the war and how he wrote songs like “Kele Magni” to fulfil his responsibility to “let people know” about what wass happening to their country. The radio interviewer describes the French defeat of the militant forces as a ‘rout‘. Unknowingly at the time this has become an apt portrayal. We now know that al-Qaeda and its patchworker of associate organisations was not a defeated after all, only withdrawn in disorder after sustaining heavy losses. It has been an opportunity for a change of tactics to a more wide-spread guerilla campaign – the one we see today.
So if the war must stop, who will stop it? We must have faith that there are people in Mali that are willing to fight for it. Its musicians always will. But who within all these foreign interventions? Amongst the Chinese MINUSMA peacekeepers was a soldier named Si Chongchang wounded whilst carring out his mission to bring stabilisation to the people and politics of Mali. Speaking from his hospital bed in Dakhar, it is perhaps right that he should have the last say: “When I recover, I hope to go back to join my comrades and finish what we started.” We must hope that in that mission, he is successful.
Sam Garbett is Public Affairs Coordinator for the Mali Development Group – www.malidg.org.uk.
To get in touch with Sam for further information he’d be happy to hear from you at firstname.lastname@example.org. Any comments and ideas for improving the Hub are especially welcome. We all look forward to hearing from you. Thanks for tuning in.
The Mali Interest Hub is an initiative run by the Mali Development Group, supported by the Alliance for Mali.
So with one war over, gaping holes remain in Mali’s overall security. Even the German Foreign minister, visiting Mali recently ahead of German take-over of the EU training mission, made it clear that “there is still a long way to go before the Malian armed forces can undertake the security of the country on their own.” A new frontier on the war has opened up on the border with the Ivory Coast, showing that conflict in the country is no longer isolated to the sparsely populated, desert expanse of the north.
There is still a place for Cheick-Tidane Seck then; the “Keyboard Warrior” and one part of the Malian, afro-cuban, super-group the “Ambassadors”. Of course, Seck is no conventional diplomat, preferring communication through his own brand of jazz. A great collaborator, Seck could probably teach the politicians and generals a few things about harmonising people from different cultures with different histories and ideas to create something that can be celebrated by all.
“Mali is heading less toward lasting peace than toward a new phase of confrontations …Without the participation of the Coordination des Mouvements de l’Azawad (CMA)*, signing the Bamako accord will not guarantee a way out of lasting crisis…To the contrary, it could lead to a new phase of confrontations for which the two camps have prepared. This could be deadlier than last year’s. It would lead a generation of young militants, let down by the political process, toward more radical forms of engagement.”
Frightening stuff; a peace that brings more war. So that’s why here we look to Tartit for encouragement. Thousands of Malians, men and women, across their country are expressing their dismay on their streets. Tartit is a great ensemble group with everyone, all 9 of them, working together to produce a strong, focused sound. Scale this up to a national level would it be enough to bring the peace the country needs? With the stage set for further conflict it is hard to see any impact mass demonstrations my have.
But then again, people said that about Sierra Leone and Liberia too…
Khaira Arby’s fame, adulation amongst fellow Malians and talent may be exceptional, but her story of the last 5 years is depressingly common. In this excellent short film produced for the GuardianArby’s story is put forward to illustrate what was happening for all musicians in Mali and to music in the country.
In one part of the film, Arby explains how, like everyone else, her music career before coup was very stable. She had freedom to travel, to perform where and how she liked. The coup and subsequent conflict in the north caused this freedom to collapse. Suddenly, Malians were having their instruments stripped from them and destroyed. Even a musical mobile phone ring tone could lead to serious punishment. When Mali’s music loving society came under attack and it began to unravel, Arby found that she could no sing longer as her throat was “too full of sobs”. In between sobs and speechlessness over the dire situation in Mali, Khaira was able to pen songs about the conflict and the French intervention.
Later she was once again left unable to speak after Manny Ansar – director of the legendary Festival au Desert – gave her the news in 2013 all Malian music lovers had been dreading; that the festival, scheduled for early 2014, would again be postponed, due to the threat of war. Today’s Song of the Week has been chosen to emphasise this continued source of misery by drawing attention to how much the Festival means in Malian society. Here, we pay homage to Kharia Arby’s magnificent contribution to the Festival and all it means today. A browse through YouTube reveals quite a library of her performances there over the years. This one in particular because it represents a milestone: 50 years of independence. This week, a preliminary, UN brokered, peace deal was signed in an effort to bring long-term stability to northern Mali. We have been here before and it is worth asking why it has taken 2 years to get to this point. Lets at least hope for the best: that we can look back in 50 years at this agreement as a positive, if not significant, turning point away from an ugly episode in Malian history.
It has been a long time since Cheick “The Keyboard Warrior” Seck made his way onto the Hub. Inspired by last week’s post about the ‘Festival Sur la Niger’, Ségou-born Cheick Tidiane Seck is making a fitting appearance. Seck is well known for his political beliefs and is especially outspoken on the issue of war and peace. These views are not confined to protesting against wars fought with guns and armoured vehicles however as they also extend to a range of issues including liberal globalisation. For Seck this outspoken attitude has not come with age as it is evident that his personality and political passions have long been a defining part of his character, earning him the nickname ‘Che Guevara’ in his early years.
As with Seck’s previous selection by the Hub, this week’s Song comes from his 2013 album ‘Guerrier’ (that’s “Warrior”, in French). There is a key, confusing, and ultimately troubling, reason for this. Over the last 9 months, since defeat in late May 2014, Malian’s have been dealing with the fallout from the Malian government’s failure to secure Kidal, a key northern-eastern town, from Tuareg rebel group MNLA. Frustration is mounting into violent outbursts again the UN Peacekeeping force MINUSMA, which has been authorised with the mission of stabilizing the country, re-establishing state authority and notably in expanding “…its presence, including through long-range patrols and within its capacities, in the north of Mali beyond key population centres, notably in areas where civilians were at risk”. It is on this specific point in which government and international agencies appear to be having most difficulty.
Correspondents say there are strong suspicions that the government is increasingly relying on militia groups such as Gatia to strengthen its position against the MNLA in the north. A UN source told the AFP news agency that two bombers blew themselves up in the attack near Tabankort town while a third was killed before he could detonate himself.
It is the BBC’s use of the word ‘relying’ which is most troubling perhaps. Is the state of affairs so bleak, the government’s strength so shattered that they are willing to rely on the bloody, twisted, tit-for-tat battles of suicide bombers to win their war? Its a frightening prospect. One which the UN in an ever familiar role seems, at best, only able to spectate over. And with this news another vicious blow is dealt to that other prospect, throwing it long past the horizon again. That is, of course, the prospect of there being an end to the war in Mali.
Bassekou Kouyaté & Ngoni Ba – Ladon (Live at the Royal Albert Hall)
Bassekou Kouyaté returns to the Hub again, this time with a live performance of the song ‘Ladon’ at the Royal Albert Hall in London. Its a great clip showing many of Mali’s traditional instruments and how they all work together. The density and layers to Kouyaté’s music is somewhat of a trademark. As is his band’s epic improvised sections. The studio/album version of ‘Ladon’ clocks in at 5 minutes 31 seconds. The live version? Almost twice that length. Another great feature, and perhaps a reflection of Bassekou’s generous and warm personality, is that every instrument gets a go in the lime-light. A particular highlight is the high-pitched, underarm Tama drum (or N’Tama, not to be confused with Tama drums). Its known as the “talking drum” – presumably a nod to its ability to change pitch and its popular deployment in musician to audience ‘call-and-response’.
Next month, the Royal Albert Hall will be graced by Malian musicians once again as rising stars Songhoy Blues (pictured here chilling out in Bamako a few weeks agao) will be performing alongside Damon Albarn. This video by the BBC captures the two concurrent aspects of Songhoy Blues’s music – youthful, strong and fun but always with dark and troubling imagery. For a band that is busy shooting to stardom they still find it all to easy to recall Mali’s terrible recent past. A very emotional Aliou Toure is shown recalling the early days of the band and what they witnessed together as they fled south to Bamako during the conflict. Amid the violence and the artistic crack-down at the zenith of conflict in late 2012, Aliou describes their music as being “a much better sound than the cries of women”. He talks of a song called ‘Desert Melody’ encouraging the listener to take up the arts “instead of arms” in order to counter the hatred and warmongering. To push back against it and give something for people to rally around.
Above all, to create their music was to do something innately and historically Malian. Their music aims to be unifying and stand up for the values and ideas that were under attack. The ability of these young men to carry the weight of these themes and be articulate ambassadors for their country makes them more than fitting performers in the great Royal Albert Hall – something that Damon Albarn is more than aware of.
Anyway, have a look at the following video to see how its done.
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?
The 12th of August was the first anniversary of President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita’s landslide election victory, but any evidence on the streets of Bamako might have been hard to come by. Everywhere you look in the Malian press these past few weeks there are retrospectives on the last twelve months, but unlike this week one year ago, there won’t be much in the way of flag-waving, smiling faces and music. In response to a disappointing come-down from last year’s optimism, all are looking to “the worst president that Mali has ever had” for an answer – how did he get here? What has been done with all that hope? Options are still open to the former World Bank employee, but they require compromise and a willing attitude, both things he seems increasingly reluctant to give.
That IBK has disappointed and underwhelmed is uncontroversial on all sides; despite having brought all the necessary threads together to weave a stable and economically sound future in the run-up to his election, the country has continued to unravel. However he did it, IBK’s friends have grown more numbered, and the hope and feeling of solidarity that infused his campaign has dissipated. This time one year ago, the country was recovering from a war that saw its northern regions, collectively an area as large as France, overrun by al-Qaeda affiliated military organisations, forcing intervention from their old colonial masters, the French. But a year on, the government’s control over the north is flimsy and incomplete, and two weeks ago Keita signed a defence agreement with French President François Hollande that means French troops will stay in the country on a long-term basis. Peace talks with the comparatively moderate separatists the MNLA (Mouvement Nationale de Libération de l’Azawad) were first scheduled for this time last year, but still haven’t really happened yet. A stultifying inertia seems to have gripped the country’s governing body, as deadlines seem to slip by, opportunities for opening new discourse fall at the first hurdles, and movements towards inclusion and consolidation wither from inattention. Whilst the French are very much back in the country, raising questions of neo-colonialism, allegations of corruption and nepotism have begun to accumulate against IBK, and the much-discussed multi-billion euro EU aid has once again been halted. So much of that hope and euphoria you may have seen at his election has turned to set faces, subdued and gloomy criticism, frustrated voices and scandal. IBK is pretty much all that remains of his cabinet, the whole lot of them having resigned en masse in May this year.
His position is looking lonelier as he has managed to alienate so many of that almost incredibly long list of friends that propelled him into power in the first place, and yet he seems to approach issues with an air of complacency and inattention, which is frustrating his electorate. But though lonelier he may be, he is perhaps not all that uncomfortable: from the back of his brand new $1.4 million Rolls Royce perhaps the fortunes of Mali seem a bit less pressing, the voices of exasperation and calls for his resignation surely only heard mutedly. Or they would, if the luxury vehicle were ever to leave the exclusive Missabougou quarter of Bamako where it languishes in a garage. It has been seen as a symbolic portrayal of his lavishness and abdication of responsibility; the impoverished north whose rebellion created the circumstances for his election, and whose fate is intimately and (sadly) oppositely tied to that of any state in Mali, is almost entirely without paved road. Keita seems to have turned around and gone home, filling his cabinet and government with family members, and shunning open engagement with the electorate. As one commentator put it: “IBK has lost his tongue – that with which he used to shake heaven and earth to make himself heard. It is a silence which says much about his limitations faced with the hard reality of the exercise of power”.
Others have extolled the heroism of Soumailla Cissé, who on the day of IBK’s election visited his house to concede, before the votes were counted, pledging himself to help the new President to forge a better future for Mali. It was widely seen as an act of political heroism; he had fallen on his sword for the good of the country and to maintain its forward momentum, but Keita’s use of the mandate and support he was gifted during the turbulent months at the beginning of 2013 have drawn strong criticism. In an article on this website in November of last year, Sam Garbett presciently warned of the dangers of great expectations for Keita’s presidency, in particular mentioning Gordon Brown’s abject prime ministership in the UK. Prescient because, as frustrations have risen and Keita’s reputation for having a strong hand has waned, disappointment and gloom, that must surely give way to anger and rebellion, have spread.
But all is not lost. Peace talks with the MNLA (the Tuareg separatists unaffiliated with al-Qaeda) are still on the cards, if the political will is there to pursue them. A new dialogue, agreed upon among the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), the High Council for the Unity of Azawad (HCUA) and the Arab Movement of Azawad (MAA) on the 8th of June, has already seen the release of 30 prisoners from Kidal. It may be a crucial moment for Mali, amid frustration and growing distrust over the failed peace process, since a cease fire was broken in May. On the 26th of June at the African leaders’ summit, Ban-Ki Moon called for talks with the separatists in Mali beginning August 17, again providing some political pressure for a solution. Could a meeting of MNLA chiefs, much reported in April, yet bear fruit? The antagonisms between North and South seem hardly likely to disappear overnight. In April the new Prime Minister, Moussa Mara, declared outright war against the MNLA, In May 50 government troops were killed in a failed attempt to retake the MNLA-occupied town of Kidal, a fiasco for which Mara was widely criticised, and the foreign minister disappointed a UN securtiy council meeting by labelling them Terrorists, and showing little inclination to reach out to them. If the country is to be unified, steps need to be taken to welcome the Tuareg into the nation as equal citizens, and although precious little voluntarism from the politicians in charge is forthcoming, with pressure in the right places a new integrated Mali is still a possibility.
So where next for Mali? Further into the doldrums and authoritarianism? For now, the mood suggests a dim hope that given continued support, and given a political discourse absent from petty rivalries, partisan politics and personal ambitions, Mali may yet find its untapped potential under IBK. For the moment, however, the outlook is distinctly unappealing.
Mali’s music scene has been equally cautious at climbing out of its shell. As far as most mainstream Western broadcasters are concerned, the main development in this regard has been the arrival of the Africa Express that introduced the previously-unknown and the up-and-coming of Mali to some Malian and world greats – including Salif Keita, the artist behind this week’s Track of the Week. Gemma Cairney, who was in Mali at the time with the BBC, was write to stress in this interview the difficulties Keita faced due to his albinism and the “crusading” work he has undertaken to support the albino community in Africa. Despite being a direct relation to Sundiata Keita – the founder of the Mali Empire in the early 13th century – he has battled to become the “Golden Voice of Africa”.
Sadly, the Festival au Desertis still ‘In Exile’ and just goes to how difficult the current situation is for Mali’s musicians away from Bamako. Tourism, a large part of the music industry, has taken a big hit. In the context of the present and reflecting on recent past, the song – released on the 2002 album ‘Moffou’ – takes on a nostalgic edge. This week track is a proper feel-good song, but it does hark back to an era of stability. The work of Africa Express to “revive” normality is an act which – by its very nature – continues the state of exception. The one-off air-drop into Mali has been a great contribution, no doubt, but in another 12 months can we expect to have feel-good, almost care-free afro-beat emanating from Mali on the global airwaves? What is the role of Mali’s rising stars and its legends? In the last 12 months a brave new Mali has been formed. In the next 12 we’ll have new songs and musicians to tell us about it.
For certain, Mali’s musicians have been excellent in their articulation of a nation’s feelings on the conflict and the turmoil. Unfortunately in this regard their job is not over yet.