Impatient for action

The growing consensus regarding international military intervention to address the emergency in Mali is that it is now inevitable. But that doesn’t mean it’s imminent.  Hervé Ladsous, the UN’s Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping and Romano Prodi, the UN’s Special Envoy to the Sahel, have both described an internationally sanctioned operation as unlikely before September 2013. That’s right — nine months from now, and a full 18 months since the scope of Mali’s troubles first gained global media attention.

Demonstrators in Bamako call for UN intervention, Dec. 8; the sign at upper left reads "Mali cannot be divided."

Demonstrators in Bamako call for UN intervention, Dec. 8; the sign at upper left reads “Mali cannot be divided.” The sign at right demands Chapter 7 or peace enforcement under the UN Charter. (Photo: AFP)

There are voices pressing for a swifter approach. France and the African Union are advocating a mission that can begin in early 2013. But there are reservations: U.S. Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice recently characterized the French/AU plan as “crap.” The U.S. government wants to see an elected government in Bamako before any effort to retake Mali’s Islamist-held north can begin. Important regional powers, most notably Algeria, are still reluctant to commit to any action.

What do people in Bamako want? A poll conducted last month of 384 Bamako residents (funded by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, linked to Germany’s Social Democratic Party) found that 92% want elections only after the “liberation of the north.” And there’s evidence that a growing number of Bamakois don’t want to wait for September. Among the signs of impatience: 2000 demonstrators recently rallied to call for immediate military action, according to the AP (although the AFP put the figure at only 1000). Recent TV5 reportage also suggests public opinion in Bamako supports action to retake the north sooner, not later. “We want war, very much,” a female displaced northerner tells the camera. The same video, however, also features some voices of those in favor of negotiation.

What does the Malian army want? For months army representatives (particularly Captain Sanogo) have been claiming that they have sufficient men, skills and morale to take on the Islamists; all they lacked was equipment. They have been demanding that the government of Guinea release a shipment of weapons, ordered by the Malian government before the March coup and shipped from Bulgaria, which had been seized (apparently under ECOWAS orders) at the port of Conakry. Earlier this month, that shipment finally arrived in Kati (the garrison town where political power these days truly lies).

Sanogo says the army won’t wait for next September, and that with or without international assistance, they will act soon. He claims that Mali’s army is ready to launch its liberation war.

But there is some skepticism among Malians that their troops are willing to fight. Last week I discovered what I suspect to be the first-ever “Downfall parody” video dealing with the Mali crisis. (For those unfamiliar, this parody genre, which inserts new subtitles into a scene from the 2004 German film “Downfall,” is a meme unto itself; the genre even has a dedicated YouTube channel.)

“They all fled dèèè,” an officer tells Hitler, seemingly briefing him on events in northern Mali last March. “Sanogo even left his shoes behind.” “The Malian army, fleeing like women!” Hitler responds, before beginning a rant that lambastes the Islamists, Mali’s interim leaders, its soldiers and even soldiers’ wives. “And what bugs me most,” the dictator fumes, “is that Sanogo has tasted money, and once a soldier gets a taste of money he will never return to the battlefield…. He just comes and shoots everywhere, scaring civilians, when he should be up north fighting the MNLA!” I don’t know who wrote this skewering of the army’s alleged incompetence and cowardice, but judging from the wording and its street-wise mix of French and Bambara (call it framanankan), it can only be the work of a Malian.

The army was recently called out from a different source: a couple of months ago, a pop-music singer who goes by “Roberto Magic Sapeur” (real name Harouna Sylla), released a song chastising every branch of the security forces (army, air force, gendarmes, police, customs officers, even firemen and game wardens) for “running away” from the enemy.  The singer has subsequently faced threats and accusations that he’d accepted money to sully the reputation of the Malian army. But he defends his musical intervention as more of a pep talk than an insult. His lyrics exhort Mali’s soldiers that there is no shame in death, and he recites the names of great military leaders from Mali’s history. “In Segou, Da Monzon didn’t run away,” he sings. “In Sikasso, Tieba didn’t run away. The Mande emperor Sunjata didn’t run away.”

Abroad, there are doubts that Mali’s armed forces have what it takes to reunify the country. American government sources I’ve spoken with believe the Malian army is still too weak. Consider the France5 news footage below. A few minutes into the video,  troops on maneuvers near Sévaré apparently lack the ammunition for live-fire exercises, so they pretend to fire their weapons and provide their own sound effects. Members of the Ganda Iso militia in Sevare are subsequently shown: they have no equipment and are fed just once per day. Logistics and air support capacities are almost nonexistent.

The last several months have brought disturbing signs that Mali’s army is broken, undisciplined and increasingly brutal. In July Amnesty International issued a report alleging a pattern of enforced disappearances, torture and extrajudicial killings carried out by the Kati-based junta; a video of torture committed by troops in Kati has even been posted on the web. September saw the massacre of 16 unarmed civilians by soldiers outside the town of Diabaly; despite thorough, courageous reporting on this incident by the AP’s Rukmini Callimachi, the crime remains unpunished, and authorities in Bamako have completely hushed it up.

Is the army up to the task ahead of it? Will deteriorating conditions on the ground force the international community to intervene before it’s ready? Will the tenuous political alliances in the south or the north break apart, leading to chaos? The BBC has posted an excellent analysis of possible scenarios for Mali in 2013. I doubt anyone can predict which way this thing will break. But we know that the status quo can’t hold indefinitely. Mali’s economy is far too weak, and state coffers, deprived of foreign aid, are depleting rapidly.

I suspect we will all be hearing a lot more about Mali in the months to come. And I’m afraid the news won’t be good. Here’s what I’ve been asking myself a lot lately. Is Bamako today in a situation like that of Freetown in 1999, with tough days but a brighter long-term ahead? Or is it more like Mogadishu in 1991, at the beginning of a long downward spiral that may never be fully reversed?

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9 Responses to Impatient for action

  1. Coleman says:

    Bruce, great post. Yeah, that Hitler parody has some cutting edge framanankan! That N’ko writing has got to be the same artist as the last one — same phrase with the same artistic touch. Can you reveal your source for the picture? I’ll get back to your message soon — I swamped here right now!

  2. marijata says:

    I worry about why nobody is talking about the harm the worst of the Islamists could do to Timbuktu’s cultural heritage by all this war talk. Of what use will the north be without its cultural heritage? Why should Sanogo be the agenda-setter anyway?

    ECOWAS should first make sure that Bamako is in the hands of a legitimate/credible government. Then this govt should be ordered to negotiate with that part of the Islamist formation that is not too extremist. Together, the Bamako and (I hate the word) “moderate” Islamists could then take on the Al Qaeda types who want to rob Mali of its multi-religious/secular status ,

    • brucewhitehouse says:

      By “moderate Islamists,” do you mean the Haut Conseil Islamique? Or the Kidal-based Ancar Dine? Or did you have someone else in mind?

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