This week sees Mali celebrate its 53rd year of independence from France. Due to the intense sadness of recent years and the recovery that is battling bravely into life, this year’s independence parties and ceremonies will no doubt have a different feel to them. Amongst the celebrations it appears that for many the day will still be a time to reflect and look back on what Mali has endured. The new President will use the day as a way of forwarding national reconciliation by organising a get together of all former Heads of State, including previous military leaders.
Back in February, some argued persuasively that the military intervention of France would undermine the perceived independence of Mali in months and years to come. On the other hand, it is widely accepted that the French intervention “brought Mali back from the brink” of total collapse.
Independence is a difficult concept to measure. Perhaps Mali’s sense of independence is still on the mend and the successful election process has been the most important aspect in its re-assertion since the intervention – Malians can begin to feel that they are back in control of their country.
Is it the same country?
This week’s track is from way back, long before Mali was a democracy. It has an undetermined date of when it was first written and it was recorded originally in the 1970s. “Timbindy” was released on Ali’s 1984 “Red” album – so called due to the bright red sleeve the record was contained in. Legendary broadcaster Andy Kershaw first heard of Ali Farka Touré by a chance selection from a Parisian record shop’s bargain-bin. Immediately it was clear to him – his radio listeners – that this guy was special and had “just got it” and soon Farka Touré was in the UK and his world wide fame flourished. Many Malians will reflect, remember and reconcile this weekend. Looking back provides us with reasons to look ahead too. Difficulties hit the Sahel in the early 90s, with violence in the north and political unrest and revolution resulted in deaths and political instability. Democracy, stability and economic growth eventually won the day, yet the recent return to violence has made many question if this was ever the recovery they thought they had achieved. Nevertheless, Mali’s people can be hopeful that their country will recover. The 12 months since their last independence day have been the some of the most difficult of Mali’s modern history. Again, democracy and stability prevailed. Of course the situation remains incredible fragile and complex. And although Mali’s resilience is difficult to explain, it is easy to observe.
By going a long way back, this week’s Track of The Week is a small symbolic way of illustrating not only the enduring and timeless strength of Mali’s music, but also of Mali itself.
We are entering a significant transition period for the nature of the emergency in Mali. The blue helmets and fresh Presidential elections are on the way. For months, the supposed ‘fractured’ remnants of the Islamist rebels have been terribly busy recruiting and recalibrating for a new period of the conflict. The landmine is now a heavily prevalent feature of the Islamist arsenal showing that their confidence in frontier combat has dissipated, yet their presence in the country and region is still daunting.
With great sadness this guardian report describes how Timbuktu’s “social fabric” – so important to its resilience – has been virtually “destroyed” by the conflict and the grand economic and humanitarian exodus of the past year. So the crisis of Timbuktu and northern Mali is not only one of materials but also one encapsulated by an ebbing sense of hope.
The resilience of Mali that has been described in previoussegments is under threat. What can be done? In this final instalment we look at the factors that are undermining typical Malian resilience which is embedded in the social networks between families, unique religious institutions and elders. In particular, what can TheElders of international conflict resolution do to help?
For a full explanation of what or – more accurately – who “The Elders” are then who better to ask than themselves? Their goals, attitude and membership are laid out quite broadly in this two and a half minute video. The Elders are a unique organisation quite simply because there is only one Nelson Mandela, Martti Ahtisaari, Ela Bhatt or Graça Machel in the world. The Red Cross, Save the Children, Action Aid, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch all have overlapping competences, expertise, resources, aims, areas of operation and members. These Elders are the only ones, a majestic club, which can only realistically intervene in a select number of issues. Here lies their power and potential. As President Carter explains:
“Where we feel a vacuum in the world, where there’s a need that can be filled by us uniquely, that’s when we decide to take on an issue.”
When The Elders “take on an issue” they are in it for the long term. The crises on the Korean Peninsula, in the Sudan, in Sri Lanka or the Cote D’Ivoire rarely make the headlines but The Elders are there plugging away. The continued work and focus of their small London-based team keeps the names of these humanitarian crises echoing around the halls and corridors of power and have done for years. From engaging the world’s youth and tackling unemployment to working towards equality and justice for the world’s women and girls.
In a way, focus is the key word here. The Elders appear to be an all or nothing organization. When they get involved they drill their support and really encourage debate and cooperation. This is the organization’s real strength. The Elders are not here to photo-bomb international conferences before jetting off to the field to chat with some peacekeepers. They maintain a continued presence and tackle issues at the root for as long as they need.
This can have limitations of course. There are those unfortunate enough not to have had their issue “taken on”. A quick use of the search engine on The Elder’s website can reveal plenty. Equally, Mali is not currently listed under the Elder’s page entitled ‘Our Work’. This of course does not mean individual Elders are not working tirelessly to help bring peace to Mali. It is merely a result of the Elders acting strategically; only lending their independent, door-opening, campaign focusing, and connective work when they feel that there is a unique advantage.
Does Mali have a unique need for this style of support? How does the work of The Elders fit into what we have already learnt about Mali’s resilience?
An interesting place to start to answer these questions is with comments made by MSF emergency coordinator Henry Gray. Speaking on the refugee situation in MSF’s magazine Dispatches he clearly identifies a limitation to his own work. MSF are doing a fantastic job in trying to feed and shelter the thousands of Malian refugees in Burkina Faso, but “until there’s a political solution and they feel safe, they won’t go home”. These refugees are the same valuable, yet vulnerable, members of Malian society that fled from northern Mali leaving civil life in ruins. The material aspect of Mali’s problems is not the key to resolution in this conflict. On this point, The Elders are not equipped with the logistical and humanitarian resources of say the United Nations or the European Union, nor need they be. Indeed, their views usually receive audience in both these organizations and can no doubt have sway on the allocation of resources. But the most important contribution The Elders can make is galvanizing political reconciliation. In Mali, honesty can only be fostered by independent bodies, but preferably from non-governmental outsiders too to avoid colonial connotations. What is rare about The Elders is that its membership is a microcosm of the globe. As the rhetoric of ‘the war on terror’ creeps ever further into the Mali conflict resolution lexicon, it would be useful to have an organization that cannot easily be aligned to a ‘Western’ or ‘Eastern’ perspective present somewhere along the road to recovery. As discussed in the previous segment, the success of post-conflict reconciliation strategies strongly depend on the perceived legitimacy of those carrying it out. The Elders, so cherished globally, are possibly the best placed individuals to ensure that this legitimacy is realized and keep whatever processes that are initiated in check.
Most importantly, what of Mali’s torn social fabric? This series will finish by illustrating the role international coordination has to play in rebuilding Mali. As of Wednesday the 15th of May a huge amount of suspended aid was re-engaged and began to flow back into the country. Interestingly, the reinvigoration of donor cash was greeted with a strange mixture of high anticipation and wracked nerves. Any increase in the flow of aid to the troubled areas of the world can generally be regarded as positive news. However, an Oxfam report published straight after called on an increasing amount of aid to be set aside for ‘civil society’ – calling on donors to ‘re-evaluate’ where their support was directed. Though not stated explicitly, Oxfam have raise suspicions about the integrity of the current support for the Malian government and its ability to govern effectively outside of Bamako. Similarly, the report is strikingly restrained, continually calling on aid that ‘does no harm’ indicating that fears remain that the Malian authorities and formal distribution systems remain infiltrated, troubled and ineffective. Ploughing money into them – and nowhere else – could just exacerbate things further. The report points out that for the past decade absolute poverty in Mali has risen, even before the conflict set in. As the title of the report explains, it is time for a ‘new development contract’ in Mali.
Could Mali’s networks of elders and trusted families combined with international co-ordination by the likes of The Elders hold a potentially unrealized asset in the fight to restore peace to Mali? There is every reason to believe so. The factor that will determine the future stability of Mali is if the international community can be brave enough to try and unlock and support Mali’s hidden assets. Oxfam’s concept of a ‘new development contract’ resonates well. However, with all new contracts one must be certain that its signatories are the legitimate representatives of the people it claims to act to the benefit of. At present, there are many reasons to be sceptical of the government to be suitable in this regard, and plenty of reasons to look to Mali’s traditional networks as the alternative.
Disaster and conflict often shows that the indispensable heroes are found in the integrity of locals
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.
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.
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.