Islamists’ Harsh Rule Awakened Ethnic Tensions in Timbuktu

By IndepthAfrica
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Feb 2nd, 2013
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Malian troops stood over prisoners at a camp in Timbuktu on Friday. The army has been accused of mistreating suspects.

Malian troops stood over prisoners at a camp in Timbuktu on Friday. The army has been accused of mistreating suspects.

TIMBUKTU, Mali — Zahby Ould Ibrahim’s general store was looted to the studs this week. The horde that descended upon it took not just the shop’s stock of pots, pans and bedding but the electric sockets, the light bulbs and the doorframe, too.

A few shops away, Mahamane Dguitteye’s grocery store, its shelves lined with packets of spaghetti, bottles of olive oil and bars of soap, was completely untouched.

The main difference between the men? Mr. Ibrahim is an Arab. Mr. Dguitteye is a black African of the Songhai ethnic group.

“They bypassed my shop because I am not an Islamist, I am not an Arab, I am not light skinned,” Mr. Dguitteye said. “So they let me be.”

The looting that took place here, along with reports of army executions of suspected Islamists and their allies, has raised fears that Mali, after two decades of peace among its many ethnic groups, is headed for a period of deep ethnic tension. That prospect is dampening the celebrations over the retaking of Timbuktu on Monday by French and Malian soldiers from the Islamist militants who occupied it.

The rebellion in Mali started with disgruntled members of the Tuareg ethnic group, who have risen up three times since Mali won its independence from France in 1960 to demand a state of their own. But Islamists with links to an extremist group, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, quickly overran the secular rebels. They planned to turn northern Mali into an Islamic state, and some ethnic Arabs and black Africans joined their cause.

These alliances have driven deep wedges in this crossroads city, where the two ancient superhighways of the Sahara — the fabled caravan route and the Niger River — meet, bringing travelers from far and wide who have long found ways to live together in relative peace.

“Before, we were friends,” said Dramane Cissé, the imam of one of the city’s most important mosques. “But this is not the first time the Tuaregs have made trouble. They brought calamity on us. After this, the relationship will not be the same.”

These tensions could be exacerbated by calls to negotiate with the secular Tuareg rebels, whose uprising in January 2012 started the crisis.

France, whose troops helped push the Islamists from the northern towns they held, are pressing for African troops to come garrison the cities of northern Mali before the rains arrive in March, and they are pressing President Dioncounda Traoré to start negotiations quickly with Tuareg rebels in the north, most of whom do not hold radical Islamist views.

The majority of Tuaregs, the French contend, will agree to remain in a sovereign Mali with more guarantees of political autonomy, and the French hope that a deal will lead to early national elections. The Foreign Ministry has called on the Malian government to open talks with “legitimate representatives” and “non-terrorist armed groups” in the north, a clear reference to the more secular Tuareg National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, known as the M.N.L.A.

That is a message that President François Hollande of France is likely to reiterate when he meets with Mr. Traoré in the central town of Sévaré on Saturday and then travels with him to meet with French and Malian forces stationed here.

The Malian government has said it is open to talks with the rebel movement, which has dissociated itself from the Islamists, as long as it gives up its demand for full Tuareg independence. But the government has ruled out talks with Islamist groups, including Ansar Dine.

Several days after the looting ended, a group of young men had gathered, shiftless and bored in front of Mr. Ibrahim’s shop, Boutique Najat. They explained why they had taken part in the spree.

“We are punishing them for what they did to us,” said Aboukarime, a 17-year-old student who would give only his first name. “We suffered under the Islamists. They beat our mothers. They must pay.” Read More

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