A coup d’état and the occupation of northern Mali by Islamists have left many searching for answers to a deepening crisis.

By IndepthAfrica
In Analysis
Oct 18th, 2012
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Fighters from the Al Qaeda-linked Islamist group MUJWA, pictured on Aug. 7, 2012. The U.S. is considering drone strikes against a similar terrorist group, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, after four Americans were killed in a Libya attack last month.

By Lydia Alpizar Duran, trust.org

West African Mali has a population of approximately 14.5 million concentrated primarily in the south. In the north, where some 1.5-2 million Malians reside, the provinces of Timbuktu, Kidal and Gao are a mosaic of traditional clans. Following independence from France in 1960, Mali suffered droughts, rebellions, coup d’états in 1968 and 1992 and 23 years of military dictatorship succeeded by democratic elections held in 1992. After its transition from dictatorship, Mali was regarded from the outside as a model of democracy in the region, but on 22 March 2012, mutinying Malian soldiers staged another coup d’état – and the resultant power vacuum  turned into an open invitation for Islamist groups to take control in the north.

In June, the media distributed images of the razing of ancient Sufi shrines and a 16th Century mosque in the UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization) designated world heritage city of Timbuktu. These fundamentalist measures gained widespread international awareness with the rebels declaring the shrines “haram” (contrary to Islam).

The rapid rise of Islamic fundamentalisms in the region, however, has disturbing implications for Malian women.  In Timbuktu, for example, the Islamists ordered women to wear veils in public and not to leave their homes except in the company of male relatives.  Recently when hundreds of women marched in Timbuktu against these new rules they were dispersed by rebels who fired into the air. According to reports from protesters some women have been publicly whipped for refusing to obey.

The coup d’état

AWID spoke recently with socio-anthropologist Lalla Mariam Haidara – native of Timbuktu and specialist on women’s rights in Mali.  According to Haidara, Mali can hardly be seen as a model for democracy: “For over ten years, Mali’s politicians were content with a system in which no one was held accountable. Politicians abused a system characterized by corruption and cronyism and profit for a select few.”

The coup d’état in March was allegedly staged in response to government inaction to a separatist rebellion led by the Tuareg-led National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA)  in the alienated and less-populated north. While secular, the MNLA has now been joined by the Ansar Dine (Defenders of Faith) Islamist group, Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the Unity Movement for Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), and Boko Haram . In addition, the Libyan government under Gaddafi had strong ties to the Tuareg, many of whom fought to defend the late dictator. With his fall, the return of an estimated 2-4,000 heavily armed fighters brought both weapons and insurgents to strengthen the MNLA.

The Tuareg population is a nomadic group that have called for greater autonomy dating back to the period of French colonisation. Following uprisings in the 1960s and 1990s, a 1995 peace settlement negotiated by Tuareg separatists and the Malian government led to a commitment towards the provision of services and investment in the north. While these promises have been realized in part, poverty and drought in the country and the limited accessibility of the vast desert-land in the north have created challenges to fulfilling Tuareg demands.

The Rise of Islamic Fundamentalisms and “Sharia” in the North

The majority of Malians are Muslim and the northern city of Timbuktu, with its historic mosques, shrines and universities, has played a central role in the spread of Islam in the region. According to Haidara however, “the Islam of Timbuktu…is a tolerant and peaceful Islam that interprets faith as a unique relationship with God”, and the profound influence of Sufi Islam on the Sunni-majority population continues to this day.

Taking advantage of the coup, Tuareg rebels alongside the Al-Qaeda linked group Ansar Dine seized control of Mali’s north, claiming the new state of Azawad. A weakened and disorganized MNLA has since seen the Islamist groups to take control, leading an aggressive campaign to implement fundamentalist interpretations of Islam across the social, economic and cultural spheres in the north.

This aggressive campaign has included using women’s bodies as part of the battleground. The taking of the north has become associated with mass rapes and the abduction of women and girls by rebels. Haidara shared reports with AWID that “in the case of marriage with indigenous women, three, even five men were present to ‘consummate’ the marriage, which is nothing other than organized rape.” She added: “In the three northern regions, the populations that have the means to do so have relocated and most women have abandoned the cities where it has become extremely dangerous to travel around.”

The MNLA have been largely driven out by Ansar Dine and its allies, who are enforcing extreme and retrogressive interpretations of Islamic law in the occupied territories. To date, stoning to death of a man and women accused of adultery as well as lashings to unwed couples and unveiled women have been reported in the north.

Government Responses and Civil Resistance

The national unity government, made up of 31 ministers from across the political spectrum (including four women) has declared winning back the north a top priority, though plans to tackle the Islamist occupation remain unclear. On-going violence and a transitioning government have left many across Mali frustrated and uncertain. Haidara describes the government as “powerless” and asserts that “UNESCO in particular, as well as the United Nations (UN) and the International Criminal Court (ICC), have put their measures in place but nothing seems to stop the Islamists at this moment.”

Haidara reports however, that civil society and other organizations are responding to the situation in the north. For example, the Northern Citizen’s Collective, or COREN, have staged sit-ins, and the “Collective of Northern Elected Politicians (Members of Parliament, mayors, and national community representatives) is also very active and has organized regular press conferences and marches. They were likewise present at the European Union to respond to representatives of the MNLA. Dozens of women from the Collective of Northern Women and national women’s groups are at the forefront of the conflict, challenging what they believe to be a lack of interest.” AWID was informed that Tuareg women in the north have been making themselves and their defiance of fundamentalist edicts visible by riding across town on their motorbikes, while hundreds of protesters gathered against the amputation of a thief’s hand in Gao, and tens of thousands have rallied for peace in the country.

While there is strong non-violent resistance, meanwhile, an ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States) military force of 3,000 awaits UN approval and a formal request from the recently formed Malian government in Bamako for possible deployment. France announced on Thursday 4th October that it “will circulate a draft U.N. resolution aimed at stepping up pressure on Mali’s government and its West African neighbors to agree quickly on a workable military plan”. A meeting scheduled for October 19 in Mali’s capital, Bamako, will bring together the African Union, the West African regional group ECOWAS, the U.N. and other key actors to hopefully come to agreement on the first steps.

Many in Mali support negotiations as a way out of the conflict, but the MNLA has a limited foothold in the region and a peace agreement with Ansar Dine would likely depend on capitulating to particular fundamentalist demands, such as the application of an extreme interpretation of Islamic law, continued aggressions against women, and violations of rights.

If stakeholders accept trading away the human rights of women, girls, minorities, and the general population of northern Mali, such a settlement can hardly be termed peace.

Research assistance by Ani Colekessian.

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