The remote village of Tessalit, way up in northern Mali close to Algeria, holds the key to the future 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.
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.
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 bank 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.