Mali, a country divided

By IndepthAfrica
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Jan 8th, 2013
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On 21 December the UN Security Council approved sending an African-led intervention force to help Mali’s army reconquer the north of the country from Islamist militants. With ECOWAS and the army warily preparing an offensive, the country is now split.
by Philippe Leymarie

“What other country has experienced so many crises at once?” asked Cheaka Aboudou Touré, the ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States) representative in Mali, early in December. There’s the political crisis: all of Mali’s institutions have been vulnerable since the coup in March 2012 that overthrew President Amadou Toumani Touré (1). Then there’s the security crisis: the army is demoralised and under-equipped, and its generals have stopped wearing their uniforms. There’s also a territorial crisis: Mali is split, with the north controlled by Islamists (especially Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, AQIM), who have joined with Tuareg rebels against a background of cross-border crime. Finally, there’s a humanitarian crisis, with 800,000 refugees and displaced people. And yet, Touré concluded, Mali is still more than alive, people are resilient and the hospitals work. “All they lack is leaders who’re up to the job.”

Touré’s words proved prophetic: on 11 December the prime minister, Cheick Modibo Diarra, made a humiliating resignation speech on television, pressured into doing so by the military under Captain Amadou Haya Sanogo, an architect of the putsch. Diarra had lost credibility with the electorate, despite having “a hell of a CV” when he put forward his nomination last April. Former minister Tiébilé Dramé, leader of the Party for National Renaissance (Parena) and a regular candidate in presidential elections, thought that might have been “a big bluff”, and that Diarra’s career — from NASA in the US to the chairmanship of Microsoft Africa — with access to African palaces and boasts of “nightly conversations with Barack Obama”, sounded like a joke: “The architects of the putsch wanted a new man. So they brought in an extra-terrestrial with no experience of affairs of state, politics or administration.”

Three-headed snake

There were known to be tensions within the transition team that ECOWAS and France set up soon after the coup in March 2012: a triumvirate of prime minister, president and army that the French embassy described as the “least bad solution”, though the singer Salif Keita called it “a three-headed snake” (2). The three agreed neither on the return to constitutional legitimacy nor on the best response to the crisis in the north: should Mali wait for the EU and ECOWAS to help the army regenerate, or launch an immediate offensive to retake the towns that had fallen to Tuareg rebels and radical Islamists?

Baba Haidara, an MP from Timbuktu who was expelled from his constituency along with all the other elected representatives in the north, had his doubts about a three-headed government consisting of army captain Amadou Haya Sanogo, “who thinks he’s de Gaulle resisting the German occupation”, Dioncounda Traoré, 70, the stopgap president imposed by ECOWAS who has no true legitimacy, and Diarra, the son-in-law of former president Moussa Traoré (1968-1991), “who thought he held genuine power and got caught in a game of ambition”. Into this mix, said Haidara, went “disagreements between the people of Mali and the political class about everything” and “the dangerous interference of religious figures in politics”. They have appointed a minister for religious affairs and imposed a family code that puts greater restrictions on women.

Captain Sanogo, who has some popularity in Bamako and is regarded by his followers as a Robin Hood, regularly announces that military equipment shipped to Conakry is on its way to Bamako and that, as soon as it has been distributed to military units, an offensive will be launched in “a matter of hours”, without necessarily waiting for the support of the regional or French military. Meanwhile, around Mopti, the army can barely restrain the ragtag Songhai and Fula self-defence militias, such as Ganda Izo (Children of the Nation) or Boun Ba Hawi (Death before Dishonour), which are desperate to attack the north with their rusty guns and sticks.

The Malians can’t understand why the army can’t end the “foreign occupation”. But the army may not be able to do it alone. The putsch destroyed the chain of command when troops rebelled against higher-ranking officers, and there was then a split between green berets (infantry) and red (paratroops). Captain Sanogo acknowledges privately that it is still not ready. Out of an official fighting force of 10,000 men, there are only 5,000 “useful” personnel, of whom just 2,000 are genuinely motivated; 2,000 new soldiers are being sought in rural areas, where recruits are likely to be keener.  The northern rebels have 4,000 fighters, many battle-hardened in the desert: the separatist Tuareg of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) and jihadist groups, including AQIM and the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MOJWA).

European experts think it will take up to eight months to rebuild Mali’s military, meaning no offensive before the end of the rainy season, in September 2013: phase one would target the towns, and a possible second phase, probably requiring air support, would go after “terrorist fiefdoms” in the mountains. But a lightning operation to recapture a few towns would risk leaving the army’s rear dangerously exposed. A specialist said: “Their opponents’ motivation may be stronger. And will a Malian from the south be able and willing to fight so easily in the north?” He pointed out that between January and April 2012, soldiers retreated in disorder from the north, abandoning equipment, traumatised by the massacre at the Aguelhok garrison in January by the MNLA and Ançar Dine; soldiers’ throats were slit in accordance with jihadist rituals.

Since the MNLA offensive in northern towns in January 2012 — the third in 20 years — the agreements between the state and the Tuareg minority have been criticised in the capital: Dramé said they were too generous and would have demilitarised vast areas, turning them into grey zones for trafficking by the jihadists, who are looking for somewhere to establish their “caliphate”. A journalist said the Malian army would be “the only one in the world that was pushed out of its own territory.”

Both the political class and the general population are tired of the north; the mood is weary and indignant. The population live side-by-side with the displaced, who often depend on their support. Saïd Djinnit, an Algerian former senior civil servant in the African Union and now a UN special representative, outraged Mali by claiming Ban Ki Moon had said that Mali’s Tuaregs had been marginalised for 50 years although, after the national pact in January 1991, more than 3,000 of their fighters, including Arab and Tuareg officers, had been accepted into the army. In 2012, many of those deserted, and some Tuareg members of parliament left to take up arms again.

Microphone as weapon of last resort

The MNLA is regarded as public enemy number one in the south, where it is accused of facilitating radical groups. Many fiercely criticise a movement that is “a minority within a minority”, uses “the microphone as weapon of last resort” and commands “a territory only as big as France 24’s [the international TV channel] studio”. The French embassy confirms the “devastating” effects of the MNLA’s frequent appearances in the French media. Few in Mali understand why France or mediators from Burkina Faso have been so keen to bring in the MNLA, since it no longer holds a single important town: Timbuktu is in the hands of AQIM, MOJWA holds Gao and Ançar Dine controls Kidal.

The president of the Collective of Refugees from the Kidal Region, Dr Akory Ag Ikhnane fears that a military operation would quickly make all these movements forget their differences. He also worries that there would be a “Tuareg hunt” in the north and south, which would mean the end of a multi-ethnic Mali (long vaunted but now undermined): Ikhnane doesn’t feel safe in Bamako.

Oumou Sall Seck, the mayor of Goundam, has, like all the other elected officials, civil servants and traders in the north, retreated to Bamako, and gets her home news by phone. Her town of 16,000 inhabitants on the strategic road to Timbuktu was pillaged, doors broken down, windows ripped out, possessions stolen: “The Islamists didn’t even spare the health centre or the chemist. The market gardens on the outskirts, which the women tended, have been destroyed, the pumps were taken.” Seck, the vice president of the Coalition for Mali, said young men armed with sticks and stones had to revolt to stop the women from being banned from the market, even if their heads were covered, or forced to sell their wares from behind curtains. The invaders looked for satellite dishes which they claimed were used to capture “bad” rays and the Islamic police arrested people over the length of their clothes, or for smoking or drinking; there have been stonings for adultery and hand amputations for theft. Unidentified drones fly over, said an employee of Médecins du Monde who works in the north, and planes have recently been seen landing at Kidal and Timbuktu: “Food, arms, drugs — no one knows what they bring. People think they come from Qatar,” said Seck (3).

ECOWAS mediators believe the transition authorities in Bamako have wasted time: “This time, it’s not a case of the European countries in front and the Africans behind. It’s an international military operation under African command.” Dramé said the basis of the ECOWAS plan is to “help the national army to play the main role.”

Worried by the precedent of French involvement in Libya, some distrust France’s role. Mohamed Tabouré, organiser of Copam (Coordination of the Patriotic Organisations of Mali) is critical of “an attack by Nato, the US or France, via Libya … They turned the Sahel into a powder keg (4), then imposed a government of their choice to prepare the welcome for the ECOWAS forces.”

ECOWAS knows it lacks the logistical capability to pursue asymmetrical warfare in a region of mountains and desert that is outside even southern Malian experience. “War takes preparation,” said Touré: between April and November 2012 there were 11 meetings of the region’s military top brass, four mediation and security committee meetings and seven meetings of heads of state.

On this basis the ECOWAS mediators — Blaise Compaoré of Burkina Faso and Goodluck Jonathan of Nigeria — succeeded, with Algerian support, in bringing the mainly Tuareg movements and the Malian government to negotiate, while affirming that they would not compromise on certain principles, such as the integrity of the nation and secularism. In practice, said Touré, this meant “no secession, no sharia, and a break with the drug traffickers and international terrorists.” Quite a tall order.

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