Throughout the troubling events of the last two weeks, I have clung to the belief that Mali’s political crisis will be short-lived. Then last night I got some news that underscored the gravity of the present situation: Peace Corps is pulling its volunteers out of Mali.
Consider that in 41 years of working in this country, Peace Corps has never evacuated before. Through the killer droughts and famines of the 1970s and 1980s, through the popular revolution and coup d’etat that toppled a longstanding dictator in the early 1990s, Peace Corps Volunteers have been here, quietly serving the Malian communities in which they lived.
Over the years the Mali program has often received Volunteers evacuated from other regional trouble spots such as the Central African Republic and Guinea. It has never before had to order its own staff to pack up and go. As long as the nearly 200 PCVs remained in Mali’s towns and villages, I could entertain the notion that things hadn’t gotten that bad.
Yesterday I ran into a group of young Volunteers getting ready to head home. They were sad to go, and they were worried for Mali and for the friends they’re leaving behind.
Meanwhile France has temporarily closed its high school in Bamako and has recommended (though has stopped short of ordering) its 5000 citizens in Mali to leave. Now the U.S. State Department has initiated “authorized departure” of its personnel and their dependents from Mali, and the Peace Corps program is suspending its work here.
As I contend they’ve been doing all along, Mali’s coup leaders continue to improvise. They have adopted an approach that appears to be conciliatory toward the international community — promising a return to constitutional rule and a swift handover to an elected civilian government — but that stubbornly adheres to their own obscure agenda and timetable. For all its overtures and calls for dialogue, the ruling CNRDRE junta does not appear willing to make concessions in response to outside pressure.
Now the junta is offering a “national convention” with Mali’s entire “political class” to discuss the country’s future. In a move that signals it may be more concerned with looking back than looking forward, it has also proposed putting the deposed president Amadou Toumani Touré on trial for high treason. This is significant because it effectively forestalls any attempt to return the country to its pre-coup legal framework, which would restore Touré (however symbolically or temporarily) to power.
The only encouraging sign in the CNRDRE’s behavior is that so far it has refrained from demonizing the governments and regional bodies opposing it, leaving more critical responses to some of its most radical supporters. But talk of military intervention by Mali’s neighbors grows louder by the day.
The sanctions, which appear to have taken the junta by surprise, are beginning to bite. Already throughout Bamako there are long lines at banks for cash and at service stations for fuel. Some Western diplomats here predict that the junta will not be able to withstand the embargo for even three weeks.
How much worse will things get? Do I want to stay to find out?