Briefs for Wednesday, May 9: Afghanistan-on-the-Niger?

We are hearing more and more worrisome news from the north. Reports from both RFI and the Algerian press indicate that jihadis from Pakistan have been arriving in Timbuktu and Kidal to join forces with Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and the local Salafist movement Ansar Dine. Mujao, the shadowy new Islamist group in the region, has issued an ultimatum that it will kill the seven Algerian diplomats it kidnapped last month if a 15-million Euro ransom is not paid. These reports come in the wake of the desecration of the tomb of Sidi Mahmoud Ben Amar in Timbuktu by Salafists, a symbolic act that has provoked verbal discord between “Sufist” and “reformist” Muslims in Bamako. Add to this the mounting humanitarian crisis, and it’s no wonder Benin President Yayi Boni has raised the specter of the region’s “Afghanistanization“.

Meanwhile in southern Mali, the hunt for alleged “mercenaries” continues, with the recent arrest of 18 Senegalese and an unknown number of Cameroonians in Bamako, and fears of mercenary presence in Koulikoro. Legitimate crackdowns, or arbitrary harassment of defenseless foreigners? There is a long, sad history of African governments scapegoating African migrants for all sorts of terrible things (on this subject, see the conclusion of my book, Migrants and Strangers in an African City.) And while I would like to say that time will tell, unfortunately the truth of such matters has a way of never quite coming to light around here. Rumors and misinformation merely give way to more rumors and misinformation.

Hamadoun Traoré, secretary general of the AEEM student syndicate who survived an apparent attempt to kill him on April 30, is still alive. It was earlier reported that he was gravely wounded, then it was rumored that he had died, then we heard from some sources that he had never in fact been injured at all. (A more recent article based on interviews with AEEM members and eyewitnesses to the attack claims that Traoré was indeed wounded and is recovering.) It was the rumor of his death on May 2 that prompted a student demonstration, the dispersion of which caused the panic in Bamako that day. A theory is afoot that dastardly politicians spread the rumor and paid off AEEM leaders to get students in the streets in hopes of fomenting a wider uprising against the junta. Whatever the case, given the AEEM’s status as a highly politicized organization, with the power to mobilize students (or at least prevent classes from being held), some are wondering whether its purpose should be reevaluated. Since the violence of April 30-May 1, schools in Bamako, from the primary to the university level, have remained closed as a security measure “until further notice.”

A university rector named Salif Berthé has been under arrest since May 1, the day after the attempted “counter-coup.” It’s unknown what Berthé might have done to get on the wrong side of the junta. A linguist by training, he was only named rector of the Université de Bamako last June, and subsequently was put in charge of the newly autonomous Université des Sciences Juridiques et Politiques (USJP, the ex-FSJP).

There have also been reports of a wave of arrests among members of the armed forces, which so far have included high-ranking officials such as ATT’s former military chief of staff, a son of former President Alpha Oumar Konaré, one of Konaré’s former bodyguards, and the army’s commander for the Sikasso region.

And to close, I offer a bit of news concerning me directly: this week the Fulbright program  terminated its grants in Mali due to the security situation, meaning I no longer carry any affiliation with the U.S. Embassy in Bamako or with the State Department (which administers Fulbright grants abroad). I intend to stay on for a few more weeks to finish up my research — though I must add that all-purpose disclaimer insha’allah (God willing), because in Bamako these days, we just never know what will happen next….

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19 Responses to Briefs for Wednesday, May 9: Afghanistan-on-the-Niger?

  1. It is unfortunate that you will no longer receive the amenities offered by the US official affiliation with the Fulbright. We will miss your informative and timely posts.

    • brucewhitehouse says:

      I will try to keep posting as long as I’m here, until mid-June inshallah. After that, I haven’t decided whether to discontinue the blog or perhaps maintain it more sporadically from the USA.

  2. jeanerz says:

    I ni baara, Bruce. Keep on keepin’ on. By the way, did I miss the underwear reference?

  3. Brooks says:

    Must be going all around re: the Fulbright, got the same news for a pending Public Policy application in Nigeria

  4. stephenwooten1964 says:

    thanks for another thoughtful post bruce. in terms of the student situation, i read that two students were killed in the demonstrations. you don’t seem to mention them. were there deaths also part of the rumor mill? sorry hear that fulbright has ended the grants. not surprised but sorry that you won’t have that affiliation. as your blogging evidences, you are a strong and resilient man and i am sure you will stand tall without without the official linkage. be well.

  5. Saskia Brand says:

    Hey Bruce, I’ve been enjoying your blogs and other articles over the past few months and I was kind of hoping we would finally get a chance to meet over the summer (when we’ll be spending some time in Mali inshallah), but now it seems you’ll be gone by then. I’m sorry to read that your scholarship ended abruptly. Stay well, hopefully we will get another chance! Saskia

  6. Lynn says:

    I have so enjoyed your blog, since my son was sent home from a study abroad program in Mali, shortly after the coup. You have made the news much easier to understand and much more personal, since you are actually living there. I am greatly disheartened by the situation, of course, but have been glad to be able to stay informed. Sorry about your change in status, however it is as you stated: we never know what will happen next in Bamako, these days. I hope to continue to keep up on the (accurate) news and wish you all the best. Do take care! Thanks again!

  7. brucewhitehouse says:

    I’d like to correct a misconception: My fieldwork is not in fact being cut short — only the funding for it! We plan to return to the U.S. (inshallah) on the originally scheduled date in mid-June, less than six weeks from now. I was offered the opportunity to leave much earlier, within the week in fact, but we decided to stay on for a number of reasons. As long as I have an internet connection here I hope to continue updating the blog.

  8. AA says:

    I read the article about Berthe’s arrestation. I am surprised that he was arrested in his office on May 1st. That day is usually a public holliday. Did Malians work that day ?

    • brucewhitehouse says:

      You’re right, I hadn’t thought about that. Everyone I knew was home that day, not only because of the holiday but because of the fighting and gunfire the previous evening. I wonder if the date was a typo ?

  9. Jen says:

    Bruce, once again, thanks for your posts and keeping us all current on the situation. Your insight and experience with the situation is something we cannot get from the news these days. Stay safe and well.

  10. Adam says:

    Bruce can this story get any worse. Your blog was the only bright light in this miserable situation. I thank you for your insights, you seem to be the only one in Mali with any sense. Good luck!

  11. Sagu Dolo says:

    Have greatly appreciated your regular updates. Has helped us expats stay informed.
    Amasagu Dolo

  12. Sanjay says:

    Bruce, so perhaps now is the time to crank out the piece about dojos in Bamako. I have really enjoyed your social commentary as well as the political side. All the best.

  13. Eva says:

    Thank you so much for being such an interesting and informed source of what is happening in Mali! Me and my incidental flatmate (evacuated from Bamako since six weeks) are keeping updated through you and trying to not get all depressed by reading fe the Soutrama-peace 🙂 I really hope you will be able to keep your blog even if you go home! All the best, Eva in Nairobi

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