Why Mali won’t be ready for July elections

Elections must be held in Mali, and soon; of that there can be no doubt. Mali desperately needs new leadership. The current caretaker government, put in place last year after negotiations between ECOWAS and the junta that ousted the unpopular Amadou Toumani Touré (ATT) from power, has little legitimacy and even less incentive to address the country’s pressing problems. Mali’s interim head of state, Dioncounda Traoré, might be the feeblest, least dynamic leader Mali has ever seen. His most notable action during his year in power has been his decision to wear a white scarf around his neck. Some cynics in the opposition brand his regime “ATT sans ATT.”

Dioncounda Traoré: My, what a white scarf he’s got

Mali’s main donors, France and the US, have repeatedly insisted that fresh national elections be held. The US government is barred by its own legislation from providing any military or development aid to Mali until a new vote is held. So, in late January, the Malian government duly announced that elections would be organized in July, and its representatives continue publicly to stick by that timetable.

Unfortunately, there are at least four obvious reasons why a July poll date is unrealistic.

  1. Part of the country is still entirely outside government control. Towns in the region of Kidal, cradle of multiple rebellions since Mali’s independence including the most recent one, have been occupied by separatist MNLA rebels since Islamist forces abandoned them in late January. While the French have kept the separatists at arm’s length, so far the Malian armed forces have been either unable or unwilling to enter the region and confront the MNLA, which refuses to disarm or permit elections until it can negotiate some form of regional autonomy with the Malian government. Such concessions would be political poison for authorities in Bamako, however, where the MNLA is widely seen as a criminal organization which must be dealt with harshly.
  2. Insecurity persists even in some government-held regions. A spate of suicide bombings and attacks in Gao and Timbuktu since February has shown that the Malian army’s control of these towns remains tenuous. It would be simple for a few committed terrorists to disrupt the electoral process and intimidate people into staying home.
  3. Critical electoral infrastructure is not yet in place. The Malian government only awarded a contract to produce voter ID cards in April. Even if the contractor produces and delivers them on time, the mere process of distributing them to nearly seven million Malian voters would be daunting in the best of times. And, given that hundreds of thousands of Malians are still displaced from the conflict, this is not the best of times.
  4. It’s just the wrong time of year. July is a critical month in Mali’s agricultural calendar: it’s the month when rainfall becomes regular and cultivation activity peaks. In other words, Mali’s mainly rural population will be preoccupied with other things. The rains will also make travel difficult in much of the country, with flooding and impassible roads. French troops in all-terrain vehicles had a rough time crossing the Timbuktu region at the height of the dry season; how will poll workers access these areas after the rains have begun? As if all that weren’t enough, July this year largely overlaps with the month of Ramadan, which will also hinder participation in elections.

One of the great failings of Mali’s formally democratic system over the past 20 years has been the lowest voter turnout in West Africa: turnout in Mali has been consistently below 40 percent, according to the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (see chart below). In other words, even with none of the above obstacles, most eligible voters did not participate in the process. If a vote is held in July, it’s likely that even fewer Malians would take part — and the process would not achieve its purpose of establishing a new government which most Malians would regard as legitimate.

Turnout data

Voter turnout (as a percentage of the voting-age population); 1992 figure is for parliamentary elections only, while other years are for presidential elections

Recently the head of Mali’s electoral commission went public with his doubts that elections could be organized by July. Donor governments also seem to understand that such a timetable is unrealistic; the US State Department has softened its language somewhat, calling for elections “in July or as soon as technically feasible.” In France as well, many analysts believe their government’s apparently uncompromising language in favor of a July vote is an effet d’annonce, a media ploy aimed to spur action from the Malian government — a tactic similar to giving an ultimatum to a tarrying home repair contractor. According to one French policy observer, these statements are intended to compel the Malians “to move the electoral process forward. If we don’t say anything, nothing will move forward. [Even] if we’re optimistic, the presidential election won’t take place before October.”

While quick elections are therefore unlikely, there’s two reasons for hope that the eventual vote will succeed. One, despite their growing discontent with the practice of governance in their country over the past decade, Malians remain overwhelmingly committed to democratic ideals and institutions, at least in the abstract. The rate of Afrobarometer respondents expressing attachment to elections has remained consistently high (82 percent in December 2012, unchanged from ten years before). Moreover, when asked an open-ended question about the best way to “move beyond a regime that is corrupt and incompetent,” respondents in the six government-controlled regions of Mali last December identified elections more frequently than any alternative.

Two, when a vote does take place, given historically low turnout rates, any turnout above 50 percent would make the process look like a resounding success. Given the mood in the country, with many Malians keen to send a message to their leaders, such an outcome is not out of the question.

What Mali does not need now is a flawed, ill-prepared process that ordinary Malians will dismiss as another “electoral hold-up” geared to protect the interests of politicians in power. It does not need a premature vote that will not extend over the country’s full territory. The country’s citizens want, and deserve, an election that will inspire their confidence.

Postscript, 9 May: L’Indépendant, one of Bamako’s more respectable newspapers, claims that Mali’s transitional government has secretly dispatched emissaries to Paris to “negotiate the postponement” of July elections.

Postscript two, 10 May: Africa Confidential concludes that Mali’s government has scarcely begun to prepare for elections, and that foreign partners (notably France and the EU) “see the importance of credible elections” and are “sympathetic” to calls to delay the vote until the end of the year.

Postscript three, 14 May: Ambroise Vedrines of Slate Afrique has published a call to “abandon the idea of July elections.” Also, a conversation between Bruce Hall, Baz Lecocq, Greg Mann and myself about Mali’s situation has just appeared on African Arguments.

Postscript four, 5 June: Deutsche Welle’s website has published an article entitled “Mali’s Rush to the Ballot Box,” outlining the same issues discussed above. It concludes with what it calls “good news: “The biometric voter registration cards are going to be printed and distributed in time for the election.” Distributed by the manufacturer to the Malian government, maybe — but probably not to Malian voters. That process took three months in Bangladesh, where the state is reasonably intact. It will probably take at least as long in Mali.


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The floating hippo

Author’s note: a few months ago, historians Baz Lecocq (Ghent University) and Gregory Mann (Columbia University) assembled a multinational, interdisciplinary team of Mali scholars to write a comprehensive analysis of that country’s crisis. In all, eight researchers specializing in diverse aspects of Mali’s populations and their history contributed to this project. Initially we nicknamed it “the floating hippo” for reasons that the second paragraph makes clear, but the article’s official title is “One Hippopotamus and Eight Blind Analysts.” Ours is the most holistic, wide-ranging scholarly attempt so far to explain recent events in Mali. A more polished, but briefer, version of it will be published by the journal Review of African Political Economy in issue 137 later this year. Our introduction appears below; if you want to read more, download the the 10,000-word “extended editors’ cut” (PDF document).

One Hippopotamus and Eight Blind Analysts

A multivocal analysis of the 2012 political crisis in the divided Republic of Mali*

By Baz Lecocq, Gregory Mann, Bruce Whitehouse, Dida Badi, Lotte Pelckmans, Nadia
Belalimat, Bruce Hall, and Wolfram Lacher

In 2012, the political landscape in the Republic of Mali transformed rapidly, drastically, and unpredictably. The formation of a new Tuareg political movement — the National Movement of Azawad — in October 2010 and the return to Mali of Tuareg with military experience from the Libyan conflict in August 2011—bringing along heavy weapons and logistical supplies — made speculation on renewed violence on the part of separatist Tuareg inevitable. Indeed, Tuareg separatists launched attacks on Malian garrisons in the Sahara in January 2012. Mali had experienced such rebellions before. What nobody foresaw was that this renewed conflict would lead to a coup d’état by disgruntled junior officers; the near total collapse of Mali’s army and most of its democratic institutions; the seizure of all of northern Mali by Tuareg rebels and foreign and local mujahideen [1]; the precocious proclamation of an independent Azawad Republic; and the effective occupation of the north of the country by an alliance of Jihadi-Salafi movements who imposed their form of shari’a law on a suffering and largely recalcitrant population. Those events happened very quickly, and their effects will be felt for years. This article attempts to give an overview of the crisis in Mali as it unfolded through 2012, with particular attention to what was happening on the ground in Mali itself.

The Malian national mascot is the hippopotamus: a quiet but potentially dangerous mastodon whose name in the Bambara language is a homonym for the name of the country. At present, the Malian hippo is floating gravely wounded in murky and troubled waters. The current political situation in the country involves different political cultures, domains and systems, including Tuareg clan politics, a contested multi-party system based in Bamako, the international domains of Franco-African relations, the position of ECOWAS (the Economic Community of West African States) and the ideology and effective networks of global jihad. No single scholar can claim full understanding of all these domains. Understanding is further hampered by a lack of reliable information on what happens on the ground, coupled with a good deal of deliberate or accidental misinformation. This article represents an attempt by a group of eight scholars, each of whom has studied one or two of the aspects that together make up a hugely complex beast, to pool our sources and analysis. In analogy to an old parable, the eight of us are like the blind scholars who, touching different parts of an object, each come up with a different explanation of its nature. We hope that in the discussion of our findings below we will clarify at least partly what the nature of the beast is.

Our inquiry will remain incomplete. First of all, despite the unusually large number of contributors to this article, our view is not panoramic, while our vision is imperfect. Second, the situation in the Sahel continues to change in unexpected ways. Between the time of our writing and the publication of this article, the situation has already changed dramatically, as it undoubtedly will do again. This then is an exercise in contemporary history, culminating with international diplomatic efforts to organize a military intervention to be led by ECOWAS, authorized by UN Security Council resolutions (July and October 2012), and materially supported by France. At the time of writing, we did not think that this intervention would be effectively organised and operational before the first months of 2013 at the earliest. Events proved us right, although not in the fashion that we had anticipated. In its published form this article may serve as a historical background to this intervention.

[1] As this article will make clear, several groups fought against the Malian government and sometimes against each other. They fall into two broad categories. The first, the Tuareg separatists known as the MNLA, are in rebellion against their own government; we refer to them as ‘rebels.’ Those in the second category are engaged in a violent jihad with ideological roots in Salafism. They see themselves as fighting for Islam, although the vast majority of their victims are Muslims who do not recognize their religion in the actions of these fighters. We refer to this second category as the mujahideen; some of them are in rebellion against their own government, but many are citizens of foreign countries. They are not therefore ‘rebels.’ As we argue below, individual fighters and commanders have shifted back and forth across the permeable boundary between these two categories, but we maintain it for analytical purposes.

[read the rest here]

*This is an Authors’ Original Manuscript of an article to be published in the Review of African Political Economy (copyright Taylor & Francis; article DOI not yet available). When citing details presented in this paper which do not appear in the definitive form in ROAPE 137, please refer to this paper under the formal title with “Extended Editor’s Cut” added and give the URL where you found it; for all other citations please refer to the final version in ROAPE 137 under its title.

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Mali’s coup, one year on

It was a year ago this morning that we woke up in Bamako to a changed reality. Soldiers at a barracks outside the city had mutinied against their commanders, taken over state broadcasting and the presidential palace, and toppled the government of President Amadou Toumani Touré.

Yesterday a journalist with France24 asked me whether, at the time of the coup, I had anticipated the depth of the crisis that would follow. My answer was no. I remember what it felt like, listening to gunfire breaking out across the Niger River, a few hours later watching those first images of soldiers in the ORTM studio announcing the suspension of Mali’s 1992 constitution. At the time many of us hoped this episode would prove a short-lived “hiccup” in Mali’s democratic transition, followed by a speedy return to normalcy. I don’t believe I would have predicted that Malians would largely acquiesce to the junta; that 60 percent of Mali’s territory would soon fall to a coalition of separatist MNLA and Islamist rebels; that the Islamists would later overpower their secular allies and make northern Mali synonymous with barbarity; that the Malian state and its leaders would prove utterly impotent to protect their citizens or reunify the country; or ultimately that France would dispatch thousands of troops to Mali’s soil.

ORTM, March 22, 2012

None of this is to say, however, that Mali’s coup arrived out of the blue. The political crisis that has shaken the Malian state to its foundations began long before those soldiers mutinied and, in hindsight, warning signs suggesting the failing health of Mali’s democratic experiment were visible all along.

Consider voter turnout. If Mali’s democracy was so vibrant, why did more than 60 percent of eligible voters consistently stay away from the process? It’s true that a large part of Mali’s population is rural and illiterate, but this doesn’t explain why voter turnout in Mali’s elections since 1992 was consistently the lowest in West Africa. At a fundamental level, most Malians didn’t feel represented by their elected officials, and the problem was growing worse. According to the Afrobarometer survey, public satisfaction with Mali’s democracy had been falling for a decade by the time the coup took place.

Another warning sign was the spike in deadly vigilante violence in Bamako, from mid-2011, as a growing number of urban residents lost faith in the ability or willingness of some of the state’s most fundamental institutions — the police and the justice system — to protect them from criminals. I mentioned this phenomenon in a post a couple of months before the coup, and returned to the subject in greater detail last April.

As for the rebellion, insecurity is nothing new in northern Mali. The latest insurgency (officially dubbed “the renewal of armed struggle” by the MNLA) was launched in mid-January 2012, but had been brewing long beforehand, even prior to the fall of Muammar Qaddafi in Libya the previous October and the subsequent return of heavily armed Tuareg fighters to Mali.

Mali’s coup and the chaos that followed were by no means inevitable. President Touré’s government was weak in early 2012 — as events have proved — but it just might have been able to limp through scheduled elections and hand power to a successor. That successor might have been able to contain the rebellion and reverse the Malian state’s decline. Of course, there’s little use speculating over how things might have played out differently. My point is that the political crisis of the last 12 months should not have come as a surprise, and might possibly have been averted if Mali-watchers (myself included) had been more attuned to the signs of trouble. For 20 years we viewed Mali as a success story, and became so heavily invested in that optimistic narrative that we failed to make an accurate assessment of the disappointments and risks.

An interesting poll conducted in Bamako last month by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation points to further evidence of popular alienation from the political process. An overwhelming majority of respondents feel that the country’s political parties pursue only selfish interests (table 4), and more than three-quarters cannot name their parliamentarian (the figure for female respondents is 85 percent; see table 2). When asked why more Malians don’t vote, the most common response is a lack of trustworthy candidates (table 9; see chart below). Maybe the only surprising finding here is that around sixty percent of respondents actually trust their interim president and prime minister (figures 1 and 2).

The causes of low voter turnout (table 9 of Freidrich Ebert Foundation poll conducted in BKO, Feb. 2013)

The causes of low voter turnout (table 9 of Freidrich Ebert Foundation poll conducted in BKO, Feb. 2013; n=384)

The same poll examines Bamako residents’ attitudes toward events in northern Mali. 98 percent of respondents approve of France’s ongoing military intervention (figure 10). They largely distrust the MNLA, and view the exclusion of Malian troops from Kidal as “unacceptable” (tables 11 and 12); moreover, 68 percent are completely opposed to negotiating with rebels for peace (table 18), though they do appear to support some kind of talks with other representatives of northern populations (tables 19 and 21). They maintain strong support for the Malian army (figure 13) and tend to be skeptical of accusations that Malian troops have committed human rights abuses (table 13). More than three-quarters favor a permanent French military presence in Mali (figure 17), and about two-thirds express favorable views toward a “permanent American presence” in Mali (figure 16). By contrast, opposition toward a UN peacekeeping operation runs fairly high (tables 15 and 16).

Capt. Amadou Haya Sanogo in REUTERS/Joe Penney

The man who led last year’s putsch, Captain Amadou Sanogo, is still in the news. Just yesterday Radio Deutsche Welle published a recent interview with the captain, in which he gives a favorable assessment of the coup’s motivations and consequences. “The current political system is working well,” he claims. “And what is more, the Malian people are beginning to understand what went wrong and to realize that this is the chance to start over.” The most noteworthy part of the interview is Sanogo’s affirmation that he will not be a candidate in upcoming election. He also told an interviewer from Der Spiegel, “I have no political ambitions, and I won’t run. But if I did, I would stand a good chance of winning, because I’m very popular with the people.” Something tells me we will be seeing a great deal more of this man, who indeed maintains a public following in Bamako and who always seems to know how to reach his audience.

On the eve of my departure from Mali last year, three months after the coup, I posted a grim assessment of its impact, writing that “the last 90 days suggest that whatever problems Mali was facing on March 21, a putsch was not the answer to them.” Nine months later, my view has not changed. But I have a little more hope now than I did then for the country’s future. If Mali’s leaders can use this crisis to confront the problems that brought down the previous democratic experiment, if they can include more of their fellow citizens in the process of rebuilding the Malian state, they might just be able to put their country back together and keep it together. Such an outcome is certainly not inevitable, but it’s possible.

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Six steps to fix a broken Mali

It’s too soon to declare Operation Serval a success, and there are already concerns about its eventual end, but the French-led military intervention in Mali has at least brought the country back from the brink of disaster, and opened up a space in which Malians can finally begin to chart a way forward for their nation. If I were advising the people who hold Mali’s fate in their hands — not only Mali’s interim president, but members of influential donor governments in North America and Europe — here’s what I’d recommend: six steps to reform the Malian state, settle conflicts and restore stability.

  1. Take the time to organize proper elections. According to Mali’s interim government, nationwide elections (originally meant to be held in April 2012) are now scheduled for July. The U.S. government, bound by legislation barring aid to any regime that ousted a democratically elected predecessor, has long insisted on a new vote, even while half of Mali was under rebel occupation. The U.S. Embassy in Bamako strongly supports the July date for elections. But premature elections could well create another crisis within a matter of months. Voter lists were already in disarray long before the country’s political-military crisis flared up a year ago, displacing half a million northerners. As journalist Cheick Tandina put it, “Mali doesn’t need hasty elections which might get botched and would confer no legitimacy to those voted in.” Mark Quarterman, Director of Research for the Enough Project, has also warned Mali against succumbing to the “election fetish”:  “elections, under the current system, could solidify the hold of the current ruling group,” he wrote last month, referring to the discredited parties and politicians whom many Malians blame for causing the current mess. Elections in Mali must take place, but according to Mali’s timetable, not that of donor governments.
  2. Hold an inclusive national dialogue to forge a political system with popular legitimacy. This dialogue must precede elections. Only leaders with a solid mandate will be in any position to negotiate with disaffected communities in northern Mali (see item 5 below). Mali desperately needs a legitimate government, and while foreign powers can aid the process, the only people who can create it are Malians themselves. Prominent voices in Bamako are calling for a national dialogue like the 1991 conférence nationale that paved the way for a new constitution and elections the following year. But the current rush to elections may take that option off the table.
  3. Reintroduce foreign aid very carefully. Misspent aid money was part of the problem under the old regime, and more misspent aid will only make matters worse. The chart below shows the vertiginous rise in official development aid to Mali in the first decade of the 21st century, from under half a billion dollars to over one billion dollars annually.
    Mali aid

    Official development assistance received in Mali (Source: World Bank Databank; figures in constant 2010 US$); thanks to Nate Allen at Princeton for this chart

    Not only did this money not make Mali better governed, it very likely contributed to its destabilization. Experts like Jonathan Glennie, Paul Collier and William Easterly have made trenchant critiques of development aid, most notably its tendency to absolve recipient governments of the responsibility of actually governing. At minimum, Mali’s donors must make every effort to ensure that their taxpayers’ funds are properly spent and don’t undermine the effectiveness of the very state they are supposed to reinforce. (See a recent op-ed and a brief on aid and governance in Mali, both by political scientist Isaline Bergamaschi.)

  4. Reform the Malian armed forces from the ground up. The European Union has launched a new mission to train the Malian military, but lack of training is only the tip of the iceberg. Northern Malians don’t trust the Malian army, which continues to face accusations of killing civilians. It’s unclear whether the Malian government will take punitive action: its chief prosecutor claims he has yet to be informed of any abuses committed by the army.
    Sanogo screenshot

    Capt. Sanogo: on TV, again

    Meanwhile, Captain Amadou Sanogo, who led the coup a year ago, still appears regularly on state television, which even last week broadcast friendly interviews with him in French and in Bambara. Boukary Daou, the newspaper editor arrested 12 days ago after publishing an open letter criticizing Sanogo’s high salary, remains in custody. It’s apparent that Sanogo and his military backers hold a great deal of political power in Bamako, and that the military has yet to be insulated from the political process and vice-versa. Mali’s army is simply a reflection of the dilapidated state apparatus, and requires more than a few EU trainers to fix.

  5. Hold talks to address northern grievances. Mali’s interim officials have expressed willingness to meet with separatist MNLA leaders, provided they disarm and drop their demand for sovereignty. But it’s not obvious what the rebels would gain from such talks: according to a statement by Mali’s prime minister, federalism is off the table, and many politicians in Bamako are eager to make the point that “rebellion doesn’t pay.” Up north, the Tuareg-dominated MNLA is now consolidating control over the territory it controls, issuing documents stamped with the name of the “Azawad Republic” they declared last year. Thus far the MNLA and the Malian government have engaged in a “dialogue of the deaf,” with the rebels accusing Bamako of orchestrating a “genocide,” and self-appointed “youth leaders” in the south labeling the MNLA a terrorist organization, “enemy number one” of the Malian people. (To get a feel for the difficulty of having a fruitful discussion on the place of Tuareg people in Mali, consider some of the comments on my post about Mali’s “Tuareg problem” last month, many of which interpreted that post as “anti-Tuareg propaganda,” others of which actually articulated anti-Tuareg invective.) Whoever should represent northerners, and however difficult such talks may be, they must take place.
  6. Support the truth and reconciliation process. Earlier this month, at the insistence of donors, Interim President Dioncounda Traoré announced the creation of a “dialogue and reconciliation” commission. Some Malians are skeptical of this idea, which they see as alien to their own traditions of negotiation and conflict resolution. But this is one instance where — my anthropological proclivities notwithstanding — I think donor priorities are well founded. Since independence, the government’s failure to address the legacy of violence has only contributed to an escalating cycle of bloodshed in northern Mali, between the army and Tuareg civilians as well as between Tuareg and Songhai militias. In the words of Malian anthropologist Isaie Dougnon,

    “after every crisis, Mali passes a general ‘amnesty’ law, which closes the records of those who are accountable to the people and those who have committed the worst crimes against the interests of the people, without putting in place a framework for understanding and reconciliation. This is what was done after the coup of 22 March 2012. It granted amnesty to coup supporters and civilians before the process of political transition was even begun.”

    One way or another, Malians must confront the injustices of the past. Doing so openly  runs counter to a strong tendency to suppress painful memories in the interest of preserving social harmony. Yet this tendency only prevents the long-term resolution of sensitive issues. Either everyone must be held accountable for their misdeeds — a process that demands a much more robust justice system than Mali possesses — or some form of truth and reconciliation process must take place.

Of course the devil is always in the details, and I’m aware that for certain readers the above list probably seems rather like the Monty Python sketch in which an “expert” explains how to rid the world of all known diseases. I’m also aware that these six steps, while necessary for Mali’s future stability, may not be sufficient to produce it.

Yet over the past month as I’ve joined colleagues both in and out of academia for discussions about Mali’s current crisis and how it developed, I’ve been struck by how many experts don’t even see some of these steps as necessary. Some believe speedy elections and some vague form of regional autonomy for the Tuareg will be sufficient to solve the problem. I think this is deeply misguided. Peace in Mali rests as much on events in Bamako and Kati as in the Adrar des Ifoghas, in Gao, or in Kidal.

[Author's note: Greg Mann and I recently co-authored a shorter opinion piece making some of these same points. This blog post represents my own views and does not necessarily coincide with Greg's.]

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The north, the army, and the junta

The Chadian government’s announcement of the deaths of two top commanders of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, Abou Zeid and Mokhtar Belmokhtar, made headlines in the last week — although the French and Malian governments have so far given no explicit confirmation of these deaths, and the Algerian press is skeptical. The heaviest fighting has occurred in the Adrar des Ifoghas mountains north of Kidal. Earlier today, a fourth French soldier was killed in action, this time in a skirmish near the village of Tin Keraten, 100 km outside of the city of Gao.

Adrar des Ifoghas mapAnother story has all but escaped the notice of the international media: Mali’s armed forces have been almost shut out of military operations in the northern-most combat zone. Since late January Malian troops, alongside counterparts from France, Niger and Chad, have occupied Gao, Timbuktu and other towns along the Niger River; Malian soldiers were patrolling jointly with French counterparts near Tin Keraten, according to the Associated Press. But further north, in the region of Kidal (birthplace of many rebellions over the years), the fight against Islamist rebels is being waged by troops from France and Chad, who have now been present there for more than a month. The Chadians have taken heavy casualties, with at least 27 dead thus far. Occupying Kidal alongside these forces are fighters of the Mouvement National pour la Liberation de l’Azawad (MNLA), the Tuareg separatist rebels who a year ago were allied with the Islamists. But the Malian army is not there, at least not in force. (A handful of Malian troops are reportedly in the area: last week Malian Army Col. El Hadj Ag Gamou told the French newspaper L’Humanité that 19 of his men, all Tuareg, are there acting as guides for the French and Chadians.)

“It’s the lack of means that explains the absence of the Malian armed forces in Kidal. If they give us the means, we’ll go beyond Kidal,” the deputy director of Mali’s armed forces public information bureau told a press conference in Bamako. Public reactions among Malians have been skeptical of this claim; army spokesmen have little credibility with the Malian people these days.

The truth is that France and the MNLA don’t want Malian troops in Kidal. Given the army’s track record over the last several weeks — torture and summary execution of prisoners, plus recriminations against alleged “collaborators” — Tuareg residents there have every reason to fear a massacre. The army, no doubt under pressure from France, recently arrested some of its own soldiers suspected of carrying out abuses against Arab civilians. The Malian armed forces may lack the means to send their troops to Kidal, but more importantly, they lack discipline and a credible command structure to keep their men in line.

Still, the Malian army’s absence from Kidal rankles some Malians, who see it as an affront to national sovereignty. Bamako newspapers routinely cast the MNLA as an unreformed terrorist organization. “The MNLA’s presence today in Kidal not only contradicts the principal of Mali’s territorial integrity, but also calls into question the reconquest of northern Mali,” wrote an editorialist in today’s Le Flambeau. “And from this endorsement flows, on the one hand, the MNLA’s legitimacy in Kidal, and on the other the Malian state’s disinterest toward this part of its territory.” Other papers have accused the MNLA of continued collaboration with Islamist groups.

Army Colonel Ag Gamou, for his part, dismissed the MNLA as bent on “political banditry,” and having no more legitimacy than any of the Islamist groups now targeted by French and Chadian troops. “The MNLA is nothing but an aircraft carrier for all the jihadists,” he told L’Humanité. Such warnings against the MNLA’s “rehabilitation” will complicate prospects for serious national political dialogue.

Col. Ag Gamou with some of his troops near Gao

Another complicating factor is renewed dissension within the Malian army’s ranks. In an open letter published in today’s Le Républicain, a junior officer complained about what he sees as unfair benefits given to Captain Amadou Sanogo, the ex-CNRDRE junta leader who last month was sworn in to head a military reform committee. The letter reads,

Dear Mr. President:

We have learned, as we are dying in the grand desert, that Captain Sanogo, for having mounted a coup d’etat, and put the country in its present situation, will receive a salary of four million [CFA francs, approx. US$8000 per month]. And the others in his group, which is to say, his clan, who refuse to come fight, also receive the same treatment. We do not understand this and demand of you, we other soldiers of the Malian army, a clear explanation. We want to know if mounting a coup d’etat to be compensated and recognized as a good soldier [sic]? We will never accept this. If this decision is not annulled within two weeks, we will cease, that is to say me and my men, to fight and we are ready to accept all the consequences.

Capt. TOURE, Gao, March 1, 2013

Touré’s use of the term “clan” to describe the group of soldiers loyal to Sanogo is reminiscent of the way critics described ousted president ATT, whose corrupt entourage was one of the Malian public’s primary complaints against him (see, for example, the 2007 book ATT-cratie: La promotion d’un homme et de son clan). Such language clearly troubles the powers that be in Bamako, including the junta whose members retain control of the security services: only hours after this letter was published, according to a statement on the paper’s website, Malian state security agents arrested the publication director of Le Républicain, one of Bamako’s most respected newspapers.

This episode illustrates the many challenges Mali now faces. The question of who’s really in charge in Bamako, and what influence the junta’s members have in the political process, must be settled definitively. The military must be reorganized and kept on a tight leash. And Malian political leaders, while avoiding the appearance of caving in to illegitimate groups, must engage in open discussions with representatives of disaffected northern populations, including the Tuareg, whose grievances are both legitimate and long-standing. Accomplishing these tasks will make killing a few hardened Islamist leaders in the desert look easy.

Correction: An earlier version of this post stated that it was Adam Thiam, editor in chief of Le Républicain, who was arrested earlier today.  Information subsequently posted on Maliweb indicates that it was Boukary Daou, not Thiam, who was taken into custody.

Postscript, 10 March: Malian soldiers posted in Diabaly have reportedly left their positions and headed south toward Segou, firing into the air to protest not having received combat pay, according to a report by the AFP.

Recommended viewing: Reuters photographer Joe Penney’s set of portraits of young women in Gao wearing headdresses that had been banned under Islamist rule.

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Corruption is for everyone! (Part 2)

Last May I wrote about the ways the phenomenon of corruption in Mali is not restricted to the political elite, as one could conclude from the voluminous public criticism Malians make of their leaders on Mali news websites. Now comes this comment posted to a recent news item about Mali’s political class, ostensibly by a Malian named Kassin in response to compatriots. His critique gets to the heart of the matter far better than I ever could, and I thought it worth translating in its entirety.

Kassin: “When I read these comments, I fall down laughing, Malians are so dishonest!

“You attack the politicians as if they were the only thieves in the country.

“They embezzle from their state offices and from development projects to win candidacies in elections, to traffic in real estate, build houses, buy apartments overseas, send their children to study or show off, their wives to give birth or show off overseas….

“Yes, they are big-time thieves. But they’re far from being the only thieves in Mali, otherwise the country wouldn’t have collapsed like it did in 2012.

“There’s the SOTRAMA apprentice who rips off the driver who rips off the owner who rips off the state through the vehicle’s customs and insurance fees.

Overloaded SOTRAMA (philintheblank.net)

“There’s the traffic cop who takes 1000 francs to let the vehicle go on its way, even though it has no spare tire, doesn’t meet regulations, has no windshield wiper, no safety belts, it’s overloaded, and 15 meters down the road there will be carnage with 10 dead and 15 gravely wounded.

Gabriel Touré Hospital, Bamako

“In Gabriel Touré Hospital [one of Bamako's big public hospitals], doctors’ first concern is to treat the best-off among the wounded, neglecting the others… if, that is, [the doctors] haven’t already gone off to private clinics (Farako, Pasteur), the better to sell their services to sick people in good shape, even though they’re paid by the state for a full-time job, and nobody complains.

“There’s the nurses who try to sell the medications they swiped from other sick patients.

“There’s the school principals and public school teachers who charge their students registration fees (300,000 to 500,000 francs), trade exam grades or exam answers for sex or money, and nobody complains.

“Placement in civil service recruitment competitions for Customs, the Tax Office, theTreasury, the Kati military school, the Koulikoro military academy, the National Police, the Gendarmerie, are all sold to candidates for millions of francs, and nobody complains.

“Scholarships for students and interns, generously offered by donor countries, are illegally haggled over in the Ministry of Higher Education like commodities, often sold to foreigners who don’t even have Malian passports but who for a few hundred thousand francs will take the place to study abroad of a young Malian who deserved it.

“Study fees paid by students for the public treasury are embezzled by their schools’ accountants, who lend the diverted money to traders to enable them to get their shipping containers out of Customs to make an illegal windfall, and nobody complains.

“There’s the traders who prefer to pay a few thousand francs to the Customs agent building his multistory house rather than pay the official duties for their vehicles, so the money never goes into state coffers.

“There’s the senior army officers who bicker over fuel allocation for operations or for UN peacekeeping missions.

“There’s the mayors and municipal advisers who sell off the same plots to 5 different people.

“There’s the lawyers and judges who settle their cases among them before trial, having sold the verdict to the highest bidder, and nobody complains.

“Those who win government contracts systematically kick back 10% to the ones who award them, then build defective projects that are nevertheless approved by the public works agency.

“There’s the state electricity workers who take 5000 francs to reconnect service to a subscriber who’s never paid his bills, or help him bypass the electrical meter.

“There’s the civil servant who shows up for work at 10 a.m. and goes home at 2, even though the workday begins at 8 or 9 and ends at 4, and who takes 10,000 francs from anyone who wants to collect an official document, and nobody complains.

“There’s the emigrant abroad who sends money to his brothers, parents and friends to buy a plot or build a house and who is systematically robbed of half his money — and that’s if he’s lucky, otherwise it might be all of it, and nobody complains.

“In short, when we talk about corruption in Mali, 98% of the population does it, so to blame only the ones who go into politics is to lie to oneself and won’t help the country move forward.

“We have to get to the root of the Malian problem by putting justice at the center of our preoccupations.

“If those in the legal system won’t budge, it’s the the conscious young people who must force them to change, otherwise this country will never get back on its feet.”

My own comment: To fix this broken state, it won’t be enough simply to change Mali’s leaders, nor to find more patriotic politicians. The rule of law must be established, and institutions of the state (meaning, the people who work for them) must be made capable of resisting the pressures from society to bend or break the rules.

So, how to do that? I don’t share Kassin’s view that “nobody complains.” In point of fact, Malians complain incessantly about all this these instances of corruption in their lives. But they generally go along with them, because when the rules are not enforced (or selectively enforced to aid those in power*), only a sucker plays by the rules. And until that changes, it doesn’t matter who’s at the top, or how disaffected the people are; Mali’s culture of corruption will go on.

* I recently heard an apparently popular saying among the Brazilian ruling classes: “For my friends, anything. For my enemies, the law.” Do Malians have their own version of this saying, I wonder?

Postscript, 6 June: Malian singer Rokia Traoré said something in a recent interview with Jeune Afrique which touches on the same theme as this post.

In this country, when you run a company, your relatives won’t understand it if your niece doesn’t get a job there. When you’re a civil servant and you offer Tabaski sheep [an expensive end-of-Ramadan gift] to everyone, nobody wonders where you got the financial means to do it. A leader doesn’t fall from the sky, he comes from the people; he reflects the environment in which he grew up. And if embezzling money has become almost normal, how can you expect him to be more concerned with the public good than with his personal comfort?

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Understanding Mali’s “Tuareg problem”

Last week I took part in a “teach-in” organized by Michigan State University devoted to the ongoing crisis in Mali. A half-dozen Africanist scholars joined a pair of retired U.S. ambassadors to discuss the origins and consequences of that country’s state collapse, ethnic tensions, the rebel takeover and French military intervention. The audience, mostly MSU students and faculty, included several Malians. One recurring subject was the Tuareg people and their place in the Malian nation. Various non-Malian participants spoke of the need to grant the Tuareg some kind of autonomy, while Malians in the room rejected such an arrangement. At one point a Malian graduate student in attendance stated flatly, “There is no ‘Tuareg problem’ in Mali.”

This remark reminded me that listening to Tuareg and non-Tuareg Malians talk about their intertwined history can be like listening to Israelis and Palestinians talk about theirs: the two groups’ respective visions of the past they share are fundamentally divergent, with each group casting itself as victim.

Plenty of analyses by Western officials and journalists these days are structured around simple binaries dividing Mali’s population into north and south, white and black, North African and sub-Saharan, good guys and bad guys. Such crude dualisms need to be dispensed with. Below are a few facts about northern Mali generally, and the Tuareg specifically, that can help in this regard.

  • Even in northern Mali, the people we call “the Tuareg” are a minority.

    Map by National Geographic (click on image for larger version)

    It’s notoriously difficult to count nomads, so we cannot know precisely how many Tuareg live in Mali, or anywhere for that matter. The CIA World Factbook estimates that the “Tuareg and Moor” account for 10 percent of Mali’s population. The Malian government doesn’t collect statistics on its citizens’ ethnic affiliations, but it does sometimes ask what languages they speak. Figures from the 2009 census suggest that about 3.5 percent of Malians speak Tamasheq, the language of the Tuareg, as their mother tongue; in the country’s three northern regions (Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal), Tamasheq speakers account for about 32 percent. They probably constitute a majority in the Kidal region, which in 2009 had a population just shy of 70,000 people — the size of a modest Bamako neighborhood. But the Songhay, a sedentary, phenotypically “black” population, are the biggest group in northern Mali. (Arabs or “Moors” make up about four percent of the population in those three regions, and one percent nationally.)

  • Most of the people we call “the Tuareg” are black. Tamasheq speakers are divided into racial categories determined not only by skin color but by lineage. Dark-skinned descendants of slaves held by high-status Tuareg are known as eklan in Tamasheq, or Bella in Songhay, and they are more numerous than the light-skinned descendants of slave owners. (See Bruce Hall’s A History of Race in Muslim West Africa on the evolution of racial categorization in this region.) Historically they have little interest in Tuareg nationalism. Dark-skinned Tamasheq speakers were among the first victims of war crimes — including looting, rape and murder — committed by rebels of the Mouvement National pour la Liberation de l’Azawad (MNLA) last year. “For the MNLA, dark-skinned Tuareg are fit only for enslavement or death,” a dark-skinned, Tamasheq-speaking woman recently told Sky News. Maybe there’s no such thing as a dark-skinned Tuareg. In Sikasso I used to frequent a Tamasheq-speaking family of blacksmiths, all of them of dark complexion, who had moved there from Gourma-Rharous (southern Timbuktu region) in the 1980s. Later in Bamako I met a light-skinned, turbaned Targui (the singular form of “Tuareg”) who knew them, but he objected to my assimilating them with his own ethnic category. “They are not Tuareg,” he scoffed. In his eyes, no member of a servile sub-group qualified as Tuareg.
  • The people we call “the Tuareg” are not united on anything, least of all separatism. In addition to race, Tamasheq speakers are divided into multiple categories of tribe, clan, and hereditary status. The MNLA — the group that, in the eyes of many Malians, north and south, brought this current tragedy upon the country — has no legitimate claim to speak for “the Tuareg,” still less the Texas-sized chunk of territory which it declared sovereign last year, in which Tamasheq speakers constituted less than a third of the population. An online petition now circulating among Tuareg Malians disavows the MNLA and its separatist aims. “We have been, remain, and will always be full-fledged Malians,” the text claims. Those who seek an independent state for the Tuareg are a “minority within a minority,” as the Bamako press likes to point out.
  • The people we call “the Tuareg” have not been excluded from Mali’s government. Following the Tuareg rebellion of the early 1990s, thousands of Tuareg fighters were integrated into the Malian army, and Tuareg leaders have long held prominent roles in the Malian state. President Amadou Toumani Touré’s first prime minister (2002-2004), and two ministers in Mali’s current government, are among the many Tuareg officials who have served the Malian state. It would be foolish to argue that Tuareg Malians have been underrepresented, let alone shut out, of the political process in Bamako. Like Malians everywhere, they may not have been well represented, but they have been represented.
  • Innocent civilians identified as “Tuareg” have been abused and murdered. 

    Bodies in a well in Sévaré: Who are they? Who dumped them there? (Photo: Jerome Delay, AP)

    Far too often, Malians who point out the above facts downplay or deny the systemic violence against light-skinned Tuareg in Mali. Their claim that the MNLA and other rebel groups have carried out far more crimes against Malians is probably correct: several MNLA leaders are now under international arrest warrants for war crimes. But surely the Malian state must be held to a higher standard, and reports of its troops killing civilians in northern Mali have grown too numerous to ignore. (The MNLA is keeping a list of reported abuses by Malian forces and claims to have filed suit against the Malian government in the International Criminal Court.) The recent statement by Dioncounda Traoré, Mali’s interim president, that “the Malian army has not committed any exaction,” failed to convince even his own partisans. Since French and Malian forces took Timbuktu last month, Arab civilians too have been “disappeared” after being taken into custody by Malian troops (see a heartbreaking report by France24 including footage of an Arab woman finding her husband’s body in a shallow grave outside town). The French are growing uneasy amidst mounting evidence that their own allies are committing war crimes. Remember that Tuareg civilians in Kati and Bamako were already the targets of mob violence in early 2012. Harsh repression by the Malian army of earlier Tuareg uprisings dates back to the 1960s. And yet…

  • The label of historically oppressed minority does not easily fit the people we call “the Tuareg.” Despite all the abuses just described, it’s inappropriate to cast southern, “black” Malians as aggressors and northern, “white” Tuareg as victims in any uniform sense. Generations of enslavement, raiding and domination by light-skinned Tuareg over their dark-skinned neighbors has left an indelible mark on inter-group relations (again, see Bruce Hall’s book on that sordid history). Due to this legacy, some non-Tuareg Malians just cannot perceive “the Tuareg” as victims of oppression. They perceive them, instead, as racists who refuse to accept black majority rule (see Greg Mann’s commentary on the racial politics of Tuareg nationalism from last year).

This last point was brought home to me after I was interviewed on NPR last month about Mali’s Tuareg population. My remarks included the statement that “even in Libya, the Tuareg were still subject to discrimination.” Amadou, a Fulani Malian with whom I’ve  exchanged friendly e-mails, wrote on an online forum, “With ‘even’ and ‘still’ one may wonder if in Bruce’s mind Tuareg are ‘subject to discrimination’ in their places of origin.” I responded that indeed they were. His prickly retort read, in part, “You know very well that attacks on Tuaregs [sic] were just reactions of misguided people who were acting out of frustration rather than inherent or systematic prejudices against a group of people.” For Amadou, the burning of Tuareg-owned homes and businesses wasn’t discrimination, it was a misunderstanding. Perhaps the MSU student who thinks Mali has no “Tuareg problem” feels the same way.

I’m no expert on the Tuareg or northern Mali in general, and I don’t claim to offer any solutions. But I know three things. One, whatever the “Tuareg problem” is, an independent or autonomous state for “the Tuareg” is unlikely to solve it. Two, simplistic categories used to describe these people and their relations with neighboring groups actually keep us from understanding, let alone preventing, the race-based injustices that have occurred in Mali and throughout the region. And three, until Malians of all backgrounds can meet for open dialogue about the crimes they have endured — and carried out — they will continue talking past each other, and their divergent views of their common history will only grow further apart.

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What threat from Mali’s Islamist groups?

Last month British Prime Minister David Cameron said Islamist terrorist groups in North Africa pose a significant threat to global stability. The Islamist presence in Algeria and Mali, he said, is “linked to al-Qaeda, it wants to destroy our way of life, it believes in killing as many people as it can. We need to work with others to defeat the terrorists and to close down the ungoverned spaces where they thrive with all the means that we have.”

British pundits were quick to heap scorn on Cameron’s assessment. Simon Jenkins in The Guardian wrote that

the so-called al-Qaida menace appears to be a ragtag coalition of Tuaregs, gangsters and dissidents, armed with weapons mostly released by Nato’s regime change in Libya. They managed to grab a barely accessible Saharan base, but have melted away at the first sign of serious opposition.

Tom Stevenson on the website of the UK monthly Prospect claims these groups pose no “existential threat” to the West and its interests. British former diplomat Carne Ross states that while the armed Islamist groups across Africa may be collaborating, there is “no evidence of a coordinated network with international terrorist ambitions.” Unlike real terrorists who fight for global jihad, Ross claims, Africa’s jihadist groups have strictly local origins and local agendas. Such skepticism has also been voiced in official circles in Washington.

The French government, by contrast, has taken the Saharan terror threat very seriously for some time. According to the French weekly Le Nouvel Observateur, members of the departing Sarkozy administration in May 2012 informed François Hollande’s defense staff that “the French people don’t know it, but the risk of [terrorist] attacks coming from this region are very high.” Since 2009, these sources claim, French intelligence services thwarted three planned attacks on French soil and five attempts to infiltrate jihadist fighters.

Today, after a week or two of calm in most of Mali, it’s apparent that reports of violent jihadism’s demise in the country were greatly exaggerated. Over the weekend, the northern city of Gao was the scene of Mali’s first-ever suicide bombings: two separate bombs exploded, one involving a jihadist on a motorbike, the other a jihadist on a donkey. Malian security forces carried out arrests on Saturday, then on Sunday engaged in fierce firefights with Islamist rebels; news footage from France2 (below) shows French armor and helicopter gunships coming to the aid of Malian troops in the city. The Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, an offshoot of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), has claimed responsibility.

There’s a tendency among some analysts to dismiss AQIM as a primarily criminal enterprise, more concerned with its lucrative smuggling and kidnapping activities than with jihad. I used to think this way, but now I’m not so sure.

For those who want to learn more about AQIM, I recommend two books. The first, published in French last year, is Al-Qaida du Maghreb Islamique : L’industrie de l’enlèvement, by the Franco-Beninois journalist Serge Daniel. Daniel, the veteran West Africa reporter for Agence France Press and Radio France International, spent over two years interviewing the region’s security officials, political leaders, and even detained radicals. His book minutely details AQIM’s origins in the Algerian civil war and its decade-long history of kidnapping Westerners for ransom, a strategy that has netted the organization up to €100 million by some sources. (In this regard, the supposed bombshell revelation by a former U.S. ambassador to Mali that France had paid ransoms to AQIM came as no surprise.) Somewhat less thoroughly, the book also outlines AQIM’s Algerian-dominated command structure, its involvement in drug smuggling, its finances, its ideology, and its recruiting methods. (The AQIM fighter’s average age, Daniel says, is 16 years; reports of child soldiers in the Islamists’ ranks have been legion both in Malian and Western media). The book portrays the group’s members as driven first and foremost by intolerant dogma and virulent anti-Western zeal.

The second book is A Season in Hell: My 130 Days in the Sahara with Al Qaeda by Robert Fowler. This is an account by a senior Canadian diplomat who was himself kidnapped by AQIM during a mission to Niger in December 2008. He and another Canadian hostage were held in the unimaginably remote wastes of Mali’s Kidal region for four months before being set free (at the price, according to Daniel’s book, of the release of AQIM members from Mauritanian custody). “I have never met a more single-minded and committed set of individuals than the AQIM katiba [unit] that held us,” writes Fowler, who describes at length his erstwhile captors’ operational prowess, their austere lives, their harsh environment, their fervent faith and their many (unsuccessful) attempts to persuade and harangue their hostages into converting to Islam. His portrait of Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the AQIM leader who coordinated last month’s hostage drama in Algeria, is especially telling: the man may have a reputation as a smuggler of stolen cars and cigarettes (he’s been branded “Mister Marlboro” in the Western media), but in these pages Belmokhtar appears so puritanical he’s visibly ashamed to inform his Canadian hostages that some of his fighters ate part of a package of cookies meant for them after it broke open en route. Fowler characterizes the question of whether AQIM is “really Al Qaeda” as “startlingly moot: if they think like Al Qaeda, are motivated by and want to achieve the same things as Al Qaeda, behave like Al Qaeda, fight, kill, and die like Al Qaeda, and say they are Al Qaeda, then, quite simply, they are.”

[Fowler has recently returned to the public eye in Canada through his outspoken advocacy of a larger Canadian role in international military intervention in Mali.]

At the onset of Operation Serval last month, AQIM was estimated to have up to 1000 fighters. (Its allies had a few thousand more; some have reportedly turned up in Darfur, others in Libya, while still others have no doubt sought safer careers since French airstrikes began.) The organization seeks to “internationalize the conflict as best as they can,” according to an EU adviser quoted in The Washington Post. In addition to its role in orchestrating January’s In Amenas attack, AQIM brought fighters from Nigeria’s Boko Haram to train for several months in Timbuktu.

Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and its partners in the region may not have held their ground against the French army and air force last month, but they are by no means vanquished. Reports indicate that they carried out an orderly withdrawal to their desert stronghold, where they will be exceedingly difficult to find and kill. They are ideologically driven and flush with cash. They have the desire and growing capacity to sow terror and instability throughout West Africa and the Sahara. In light of the renewed violence in Gao this weekend, it would be prudent to expect them to put up a determined, bitter fight  lasting not weeks, not months, but years. If they are not eliminated or effectively contained, and if what Daniel and Fowler have written about them is at all accurate, there’s no reason to believe they’ll be content to remain in the Saharan sands and leave the rest of the world alone.

Postscript, 14 February: A description of life under Islamist rule in Timbuktu, based on Arabic-language court documents discovered in that city, appears on the website of Foreign Policy. Rukmini Callimachi of the Associated Press describes an AQIM “manifesto” left behind in Timbuktu.

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Intoxication by information: fighting over facts in Mali

The remote village of Tessalit, way up in northern Mali close to Algeria, holds the key to the Tessalitfuture of the Saharan region. Anyone in Mali will tell you this. The Guardian‘s Afua Hirsch spoke to a few of them before writing about Tessalit’s “geostrategic importance” this week. According to one of her sources, in fact, Tessalit is among the top three most important locations on the planet.

Set aside for a moment that the source in question was a tour guide. Last month I discussed the misuse of the term “strategic” in recent writing about Mali. To recap: a location is strategic irrespective of the events swirling around it. The bridge over the Niger River at Markala is, by definition, strategic:  to drive a truck or tank across that river anywhere between Bamako and Gao (a span of over 1000 km), Markala is the only way to go. Places like Diabaly and Konna, on the other hand, happened to be the sites of early confrontations between Islamist and Malian government forces in January, but lack inherent strategic value: the battles could just as easily have taken place somewhere else. Once the Islamists left, these towns were no longer important to the security of government-held territory.

French armored vehicles cross the Markala bridge, Jan. 2013

In Mali it’s said that Tessalit has long been coveted by Mali’s neighbors and by the great world powers. During the Tuareg rebellion early last year, the press in Bamako was rife with speculation that Sarkozy incited the rebellion because President Amadou Touré had refused to grant France a permanent base there. Tessalit’s vital importance is one of those things people in Mali simply know to be true.

Another thing they simply know to be true is that their country’s population has twice as many women as men. (Opinions vary: some say three times as many.) Another is that Mali’s King Aboubakar II led a fleet of canoes from West Africa to the New World, more than a century before Columbus. Yet another is that the U.S. has 52 states. It doesn’t matter that there’s no evidence for any of these things; people like Hirsch’s tour guide nonetheless accept them as fact.

Maybe Tessalit has “geostrategic” value, maybe it doesn’t. The problem is that, as with so much pertaining to Mali these days, it’s impossible to say for sure. There’s simply no way to verify many of the claims being made about events in the country, no way to know which are accurate, which are exaggerations, which are erroneous, and which are downright deceitful.

Has the emirate of Qatar been supporting Islamist rebels? This is another charge taken as gospel truth in the Bamako press; similar allegations have appeared on Algerian websites.

Was there a plan under the Touré regime to sell off part of the city of Kidal to the Algerian government, as the Bamako newspaper Le Combat recently claimed, citing a former cabinet minister? (Not according to the same former minister’s article in Le Républicain.)

Did Malian soldiers in the recently liberated city of Gao indeed find “drug money” and proof of Gulf Arab states’ financial assistance for the rebels? Consider this video from a recent news broadcast on state television.

“This is proof that the combatants were paid,” a soldier announces, holding up a sheet printed in French. Yet it’s hard to know from the footage exactly what was found. A close inspection of a still image (below) shows the sheet to be a Western Union money transfer receipt from a BDM banWU 1k branch, received before the Islamist takeover (the banks in northern Mali all closed after the Malian army was expelled in early 2012). We are also shown images of handwritten Arabic documents, which the newscaster tells us record the Islamists’ payroll and financial transactions. But is this “proof” convincing?

Have Malian troops committed human rights abuses against civilians, as foreign watchdog groups maintain? Absolutely not, according to one Malian rights organization, which accuses Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International of mounting a disinformation campaign to discredit the Malian government.

Did the Malian armed forces in fact spearhead the counter-offensive against Islamist rebels last month, making French military intervention unnecessary? This is what Dr. Rokia Sanogo, a leader of the MP22 political movement, has recently claimed. She and her boss Oumar Mariko have been railing against foreign intervention ever since the coup last March, and the popularity of Operation Serval notwithstanding, they’re sticking to their line that the Malian army never needed anyone’s help to restore the country’s territorial integrity. Forget about that negative coverage in the Western media describing Mali’s army as a shambles, clearly part of an imperialist plot to undermine the country’s sovereignty. (Forget, for that matter, about a candid video showing coup leader Captain Amadou Sanogo lambasting his troops on 12 January for their indiscipline and cowardice during the Islamist assault on Konna.) These days you can believe whatever you want and find reporting to back you up.

French-speakers like to draw a rhetorical contrast between “info” and “intox,” i.e. truthful claims and disinformation. What I’m noticing more and more is the impossibility of distinguishing between these two categories. Mali’s vibrantly free press and the rising (though still small) numbers of internet users have not fostered an informed populace. If anything, new media technology has only muddied the waters, turning the country into a fact-free zone.

For Mali-watchers in the “reality-based community,” sorting truth from fiction has become an ever-more frustrating task. Maybe the U.S. and France actually do want to set up secret military bases in Tessalit. Maybe President Touré actually did take kickbacks from drug smugglers and kidnappers. Maybe foreign mercenaries actually did take part in the failed “counter-coup” on 30 April last year. My concern is that, amid the flood of innuendo, speculation and distortion, we’re not seeing hard evidence for these claims. People like to say that time will tell, but in Mali time has a way of keeping its secrets buried.

********************************

TO READ: For anyone tired of premature declarations of victory in Mali, I recommend this piece of careful reporting from McClatchy’s Alan Boswell: “Islamist retreat in Mali was orderly, witnesses say, suggesting force will return to fight again.”

Postscript, 20 June: Rumors of US and French interest in setting up a military base in Tessalit have resurfaced on the website Saharamedias.net.

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What’s to love about Mali? Four things.

Several days ago, an American living in Bamako wrote the following account on his blog:

I was in a SOTRAMA (Mali’s take on the minibus, a green shell ringed with wooden benches, infinite division of space, unlimited passengers) the other day and I watched a guy scoop up a baby from the arms of a mother who was burdened with several bags and a large plastic bowl overflowing with toothbrushes and tubes of toothpaste.

After she climbed into the SOTRAMA and arranged her merchandise, she did not ask for her baby back. Her baby remained in the arms of a stranger, who was now smiling and laughing with the woman’s daughter on his lap.

Two other women – strangers to each other – began a conversation that ended with reciprocal benedictions when they parted ways.

Everyone sucked their teeth in unison when a policeman stopped the SOTRAMA and asked to see IDs. But everyone quickly laughed when the prentike [the driver's apprentice] mocked the policeman and then dodged the outstretched hand intending to give him a playful slap on the head.

A Bamako SOTRAMA

At a time when Mali has become unjustly branded around the world as a den of violence, religious zealotry and ethnic strife, this anecdote helped me remember what it is about Mali that made me fall in love with the place years ago, and what it is that keeps me going back. I want to highlight four of what I consider the most admirable qualities of Malian society and culture, and reflect on how, if properly harnessed, they might help the country cope with the challenges now before it.

(Although I use terms from the dominant Bambara language, having lived in Senoufo and Soninke communities in Mali, I know the Bambara have no exclusive claim to these qualities, and that equivalent concepts exist in other Malian languages.)

1. Mɔgɔya. This is what’s evident in the SOTRAMA story above — a spontaneous familiarity found even among strangers, an eagerness to engage with other people socially in almost any situation. The Bambara word mɔgɔ means “person,” and you could translate mɔgɔya as “personhood,” but that wouldn’t tell the whole story. In Mali, as in much of Africa, the person is not reducible to the individual; mɔgɔya is expressed through social relations, which exist prior to the person. “It is only by means of social ties that one can achieve personhood,” writes anthropologist Saskia Brand in her ethnography of Bamako, Mediating Means and Fate. An individual human being does not necessarily qualify as a person because, as Brand notes, someone who is anti-social may not be considered a mɔgɔ.

I think of mɔgɔya as a parallel of social capital, something that constitutes a public good, and the decline of which in American society has been noted by social scientists like Robert Putnam. Whatever you call it, Mali has it in spades. For outsiders like me, everyday displays of mɔgɔya can lift the spirits. For Malians, mɔgɔya is what holds society together.

2. Danbe. This term can be equated with dignity, honor, and reputation. Danbe stems in large part from what anthropologists call “ascribed status” — that part of one’s reputation one inherits from one’s ancestors, closely linked to one’s place of origin, as described in my own book. Malians take great pride in their history, both at the level of the family and of the nation. A whole category of people (known as jeliw or “griots”) make their living reminding other people of their danbe. They make sure the memory of illustrious forebears, of legendary heroes and great leaders from Mali’s precolonial history stays fresh in the public mind.

Malian jeli women at work

Malian jeli women at work

Malians consequently tend to have a solid sense of who they are and where they came from. They exhibit comparatively little desire to mimic outsiders, whether it’s the French, the Americans or the Saudis. They have their own ideals to emulate, rooted in centuries of oral tradition and in their own understanding of their faith. “For us, danbe is at the center of everything,” a Malian man once told me. “It’s like water, you cannot live without it.”

3. Faso kanu. This term literally means “love of father’s house,” but a better translation would be “patriotism.” People unfamiliar with Mali might be tempted to dismiss the country as another African basket case built around arbitrary European-drawn borders  lumping together ethnic groups that ought to be separate. But all borders are arbitrary, and overall Malians coexist quite well within the borders they inherited (I’ll address a notable exception below). They relate to their nation-state in a way many other Africans don’t, in part because of the danbe complex of dignity, honor and historical memory that goes back to the 13th-century founding of the Mali Empire. Watching recent news footage from Timbuktu and elsewhere in newly liberated zones, I’ve been struck by the scenes of jubilant crowds greeting the troops and journalists, and by hordes of children chanting “MALI! MALI! MALI!” Even as the country has been at war, Malians have been transfixed by their national soccer team, les Aigles, who on Saturday battled their way past South Africa to reach the semi-finals in the African Cup of Nations. Don’t tell them their national identity is a meaningless colonial-era construction; they’ll think you’re stupid or crazy.

4. Senenkunya. Definitely the most idiosyncratic of the four, senenkunya is a system of joking relations that cross-cuts distinctions of ethnicity, caste, and clan. When two strangers in Mali meet, the first thing they do is ask each others’ jaamu or clan name. If for example one’s a Traoré and the other’s a Diarra, or one’s a Coulibaly and the other’s a Keita, or one’s a Fulani cattle herder and the other is a blacksmith (both statuses readily revealed by clan name), the second thing they will do is ritually insult one another. They will belittle each others’ intelligence, ancestry, and diet, often accusing each other of flatulence. And then they will get along like old friends.

Bizarre as it may appear, senenkunya is about a lot more than ritual insults (see a recent BBC article). It lays out a shared cultural blueprint to help people from all walks of life relate to one another. If two people in conflict learn that they are “joking cousins,” the conflict is immediately ended. Senenkunya is a system of alliances, some characterized by joking, others by deep respect and even avoidance. Like danbe, its origins can be traced to the earliest period of Mali’s precolonial history. If mɔgɔya is the glue that holds Malian society together, senenkunya is the grease that facilitates social relations and exchange.

(A couple of my colleagues in France, Etienne Smith and Cécile Canut, have questioned the utility of senenkunya and other African systems of joking relations, describing analyses like mine as outmoded functionalist irenicism. While I don’t know what irenicism is, I do consider their argument a fitting contribution from two dim-witted, flatulent eaters of donkey meat.)

Mali’s combination of strong social capital, concern for dignity, national identity, and joking relations described above can, I believe, help the country survive the conflict that now engulfs it. To paraphrase Bill Clinton, there’s nothing that’s wrong with Mali that can’t be fixed by what’s right with Mali. But Mali’s history since independence also suggests that these cultural assets have not extended evenly to all parts of the country. While the Tuareg are joking cousins with the Songhay, this fact has not prevented conflict among these groups, and one Malian has even told me that Songhay-Tuareg cousinage is “non-binding.”  The “Tuareg problem” in the north is the one ethnic divide in contemporary Mali with political salience, and groups on both sides of this divide consider themselves the historical victims. Light-skinned Tuareg point to a history of periodic repression by the Malian state and its associated ethnic militias, while their darker-skinned neighbors point to a history of being enslaved and attacked by the Tuareg. Recent recriminations against Tuareg and Arabs in Timbuktu are rooted in this history.

For Mali to break the decades-long cycle of conflict in the north, two things must happen. One, Tuareg leaders must face up to the legacy of slavery and racism that marks their people’s relations with black Africans. Two, officials of the central government must face up to the pattern of neglect and abuse that marks their relations with the Tuareg. At a juncture when even some Europeans are calling for an independent Tuareg state, perhaps we should think instead about how Tuareg and non-Tuareg can forge new bonds of peace with each other. The inclusiveness of Malian society simply needs to be taken a step further. It is not so far-fetched to imagine that all citizens of Mali, regardless of ethnicity or skin tone, might someday soon unite behind a common national identity.

Allez les Aigles!

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