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Archive for February, 2013

This is the second part of a two-part analysis of the present situation in Mali. Part I, entitled “Mali: the fallacy of ungoverned space” is available here.

Preventing the fall of Bamako into Islamist hands is the official trigger of the French military campaign in Mali, which kicked off on January 11th and soon drove out Islamist forces from northern Mali main cities. Whether the Islamists really had the intention to seize Bamako is unclear. Taking control of Sevare and its strategic airport, 600 km northeast of the capital, might have been their main goal. But at the same time, French security sources argue, a coup in Bamako was being fomented by ex-junta affiliates, meant to ‘connect’ with the Islamists’ offensive southward conducted by Ansar Eddine. Hence the immediacy of France’s heavy-handed response. It is premature to make this narrative historical truth but this is a plausible one.

What can be held for certain at this stage is that the French initiative was driven by security concerns, above any others. Long before the intervention, while the US insisted that organizing elections was a pre-requisite for the recovery of Mali’s territorial integrity, France prioritised the quick military option, fearing a ‘sanctuarisation’ of Jihadist forces in the middle of West Africa, with potential devastating contagious effects, including terrorist attack on the French soil. Addressing Mali’s profound political predicament was seen as a less urgent task, even though the official plan was to pursue a ‘two-track’ approach, political and military.

Mali’s political predicament has been identified in my previous post as a poisonous system of governance linking Bamako to northern elites, silencing grassroots aspirations. Building legitimate political representation from within to prevent the resuscitation of yesterday’s ghosts is the challenge ahead. This daunting task will certainly necessitate wide, bottom-up consultations; micro-level peace-building efforts; the reactivation and eventual reconfiguration of decentralisation policies; ambitious infrastructural investments; highly sensitive discussions over the composition of security forces and their territorial deployment; religious dialogue; and, of course, electoral processes. Discussions over these issues have timidly started.

But on the ground, the military campaign is not over and its strategic imperatives and orientations, under French auspices, are critically shaping the political landscape in which these peace-building efforts are expected to develop. French intervention, volens nolens, produces provisional winners and losers and builds up a temporary order that should not pre-empt the collectively desirable inclusive political arrangements.

France has decided to ally with the Tuareg secular insurgency that started it all one year ago, the Mouvement national the liberation de l’Azawad (MNLA). MNLA’s constant pro-West stance, meant to reap the dividends of the anti-terror agenda, is finally rewarded, to Bamako authorities’ (still discrete) chagrin. But it is rewarded for strategic reasons, by the French military more than by the French diplomacy. The MNLA offers the intel and the local auxiliaries France needs on the ground, notably because France has eight citizens detained by Al Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb in the area. The political consequence is that Kidal, where the MNLA and the Mouvement islamique de l’Azawad (MIA – an offshoot of Ansar Eddine whose members were originally in the MNLA) are based, is still a no-go area for the Malian army. This situation has a good side as the undisciplined, unaccountable Malian army terrifies Tuareg populations, for good reasons. Yet it artificially co-opts two armed groups whose representativeness among the Tuareg constituency is questionable and whose record of violence in the past months needs to be scrutinised.

The political configuration in Gao is different. Elhadj Ag Gamou, a loyalist Tuareg officer whose forces had to stay in Niger, at the periphery of the Malian arena, after being defeated by the MNLA has made a come-back. Whether he asked France for permission to do so is unclear but at least French forces let it happen. The return of Gamou possibly prevents the proliferation of revenge killings against ‘light skinned’ populations in Gao but again poses a political problem. Gamou was a central actor in the ‘remote control’ type of governance established by Mali’s former regime, which he took advantage of, notably against rival factions of the Tuareg complex political architecture.

Timbuktu offers another, more complicated, picture. There, the French have arrived with the Malian army, in a place where Arabs form a large share of the population. The result has been immediate: shops owned by Arabs have been looted; reprisal killings have been perpetrated by the army; some members of the Arab community have disappeared. Arabs have massively left Timbuktu and have found refuge 70km north of the city, with no possibility to access livelihoods, their leaders – whom I had the opportunity to talk to directly – say. Why didn’t France adopt in Timbuktu the logic of co-optation it more or less deliberately adopted in Kidal and Gao? Ould Meydou, an Arab colonel who fought back the MNLA alongside Ag Gamou under the command of the demised Amadou Toumani Toure’s regime last year, was a natural candidate to lead the Malian army back in Timbuktu. Not bringing back Ould Meydou on the map was possibly an obligation Paris had to compose with, to avoid dangerous tensions with the ex-junta that deposed Toure. The consequence is that Arab leaders now not only fear for the survival of their constituency but complain that France is discriminating against them despite their original commitment to Mali’s territorial integrity. They go as far as suggesting that they could revive some self-defence groups of their own active in the past. Other community leaders, not yet official partners of the country’s ‘liberation’, are complaining too, like Mossa Ag Intazoume leader of the Bellahs, the former ‘slaves’ of the Tuareg.

France intervention is removing the lid on complex and heated intercommunity dynamics. It eventually grants artificial legitimacy from outside to zealous local military auxiliaries while ignoring others. This state of affairs may inflame intergroup tensions in the short term, which Jihadist groups could use as leverage for their own insurgency, as the confused battle in In-Khalil between the MNLA and the Mouvement Arabe de l’Azawad, an Arab movement suspected of entertaining ties with AQIM, seems to indicate. France intervention also provokes extrajudicial violence, as the exactions of the Malian army demonstrate. It may ultimately empower illegitimate figures, simply owing their privileged position to their savviness in dealing with Westerners.

France has pledged not to stay forever and hopes to be replaced by UN-led peacekeeping forces soon. But the latter – whose chain of command and modalities of interaction with the Malian army need to be seriously worked out – may impose their own layer of governance, based on their institutional understanding of the meandering and volatile local situation. A neo-trusteeship, as seminally conceptualised by James Fearon and David Laitin a decade ago in other contexts, may arise. This ruling system which classically distributes power among various institutional actors, under the auspices of multilateral organisations, is likely to be replete with local partners legitimate to the eyes of the West but not to the eyes of the populations. Worse, it could impede the emergence of bottom-up initiatives. To put this risk at bay, it is important to introduce now a genuinely inclusive participatory political process among Mali’s northern communities. But stopping violence against civilians immediately is an utter necessity.

Yvan Guichaoua, Lecturer in Politics and International Development, UEA

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This is the first part of a two-part analysis of the present situation in Mali. Part II, entitled “Mali: toward a neo-trusteeship?” will explore the responses to Mali’s crisis.

Repeatedly in the past weeks, UK Prime Minister David Cameron called northern Mali an ‘ungoverned space’, indulging in the classic intellectual shortcut used by those looking for easy explanations of the territorial entrenchment of irregular armed groups, including Al Qaeda-affiliated ones, in Africa and beyond. Such an assumption leads to dangerous misconceptions of political and social realities of Mali.

Crucially, it suggests that terrorists have established their stronghold in a political vacuum. The implication is that those who have shaped the political environment leading to the resumption of a separatist Tuareg insurgency in January 2012 followed by its replacement by a coalition of Al Qaeda affiliated groups and Salafist Tuareg, are automatically exonerated from their responsibility in Mali’s present state of affairs.

Why did Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) prosper in northern Mali, to gradually become the dominant force that took control of two-thirds of the national territory between April 2012 and January 2013? The answer is only marginally linked to the emptiness of the Sahara desert or its rough terrain. The Mauritanian or the Nigerien deserts display characteristics similar to that of Mali but it was the latter that was chosen as a refuge by the Algerian Salafists who fled their home country in 2003 and later founded AQIM in Mali.

The reasons why they did so and subsequently expanded their influence are detailed in a report by the International Crisis Group I had the opportunity to work on. AQIM’s presence in northern Mali has been tolerated for years by authorities in Bamako. It was first assumed by Western powers that a lack of national military capacity caused Bamako’s passiveness towards AQIM. But as foreign anti-terror assistance poured into Mali and produced no tangible reduction of the terrorist threat, Western donors gradually doubted the authenticity of Malian authorities’ commitment to confront AQIM. Quite schizophrenically, they also fuelled this stasis by paying generous ransoms to AQIM for the release of their hostages, hence propping up a profitable business not only lining the pockets of the Jihadists but also those of the middlemen involved in the liberation negotiations. Iyad Ag Ghaly, who later became the dreaded leader of Ansar Eddine – one of the prominent Islamist groups which took control of Mali in 2012 -, was one of these middlemen. He was working hand in hand with the Malian regime at the time, which also took its share of the hostage money.

The rise of AQIM under Bamako’s lenient eyes was paralleled by a nefarious evolution of relations between the central authorities and their tumultuous north, regularly shaken by Tuareg rebellions since Independence from France in 1960. Over the last five decades, Tuareg militants have claimed for more autonomy and more development for their region, without managing to build a consensus among their heterogeneous Tuareg constituency and even less so among the highly diverse non-Tuareg communities living in the north, notably Arab, Songhay or Fulani.

Between 2006 and 2009, Ibrahim Ag Bahanga, a young Tuareg officer turned rebel from the Kidal region, showed particular resistance to any settlement with the central authorities. To mitigate the troubles Bahanga and his men were causing, the Malian government armed militias, recruited among northern communities and clientele networks at odds with Bahanga’s agenda.  They happily used the protection of the state as a lever for their sectional interests, including  cross-border drug-trafficking. In the years preceding the insurgency of the secular separatist Mouvement national de liberation de l’Azawad (MNLA) – to a large extent Bahanga’s baby – informal armed groups proliferated under Bamako’s auspices, as part of a loose system of governance providing a semblance of order. This system collapsed as the MNLA, invigorated by the bounty of Libyan open arms depots, drove out the Malian army from the north in early 2012. But a large share of its actors resurfaced with a vengeance as the separatists entered Timbuktu and Gao: in a dramatic shift of loyalty, they abandoned their allegiance to Bamako and aligned with the AQIM-led coalition that eventually chased away the MNLA and took control of the north.

The Islamists, now officially sworn enemies of the French and the Malian army, are the contingent creatures of the governance system put in place in the past years by a web of converging political and economic interests bridging Mali’s capital Bamako, and the northern provinces of Gao, Timbuktu and Kidal. The de facto partition of Mali of the last months did not occur because of characteristics typical of northern Mali’s ‘ungoverned space’; it occurred because of poisonous relations established between the north and the south.

Following the ‘ungoverned spaces’ approach is thus likely to yield unwelcomed solutions to the crisis. It contains a built-in response to the conundrum it names: to repel terrorists, it suggests, let’s replace the political void they have taken advantage of by the deployment of the legitimate administration! As, to international donors, legitimacy is overwhelmingly considered to be located in central authorities, this would entail rebuilding Mali by relying on the very powerbrokers and representatives in Bamako who bear a huge responsibility in the country’s present crisis. Giving back to Mali the chunk of territory forcibly detached from it by Tuareg separatists, then occupied by allied Islamist groups, without drastically reconsidering the country’s north-south relations would be foolish.

In the past years, northern Mali has in fact been a heavily governed space, yet not by the standards of a rational legal system. This system of governance was adverse to development and only benefitted a few, in Gao, Timbuktu and Kidal, but, also, crucially, in Bamako. The challenge that Malians now face is not about deploying on its territory a chimerical Weberian administration. It is about giving a voice, particularly in the north, to those whose lives have been confiscated by criminalised elites and their armed proxies.

Yvan Guichaoua is a Lecturer in Politics and International Development, UEA. He has conducted research in Niger, Mali and Côte d’Ivoire and is a main source of knowledge on conflicts in francophone West Africa.

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TV host from a distant news channel: How is it in Mali now that the War is over, Marc-Andre…. Buoy-z-vert?

Marc-André: Well…

The last weeks have been a marathon for me where I have multiplied media intervention with hosts from all over the world, some not understanding a word of what I was trying to say.

This brought me to short answers to complex questions in the like of:

“The War in Mali occurs in one of the harshest, poorest and most isolated place in the world. Beyond the complexity of the terrain, there are also numerous actors with centuries of history behind. “

We, journalists, cannot tell you more than that. We need to get stories before our editorial staff will call us back to tell us that we cost too much or that we need to move to the next emergency. And the War in Mali has not been easy for us journalists. There have been a lot of complains about the media handling and military boycott at the beginning of the crisis (see: http://www.cpj.org/security/2013/01/in-mali-a-war-without-images-and-without-facts.php).

The most experienced war journalists lining up in Sevare or Diabaly to pass through checkpoints had to wait for days before they could do anything (but also junior ones… and non-war correspondents like me). To our defense, we knew that we did not have much time to get those stories before the world gets bored of Mali. And the combined French/Malian forces knew that it is a difficult terrain that does not need the complex and often troubling boost of extra actors such as journalists (thus forgetting that some of us frequented these areas and often had much more useful knowledge than the so-called military experts).Despite these problems a lot of great reporting has been done.

Mali was clearly the under-reported crisis in 2012. We were four foreign journalists based in Bamako before the coup in March 2012. Now there are a couple of hundreds correspondents all over the country. Malians appreciate it. Feelings of happiness and relief are genuine all over the country as Islamists were not welcomed. Malians have suffered and probably felt forgotten by the rest of the world. I was shocked when three displaced that I first met early in the crisis told me last week that they actually were relieved to see journalists coming to them. One told me “it is therapy to repeat my story and knowing that I am not alone with it. The whole world seems to listen to us”.

I actually hope that the humanitarian answer will be as great as the journalistic one. So far, all humanitarian agencies are still begging for money, but operations move fast and all humanitarians that I have met were very optimistic.

So, with the War in Mali, everybody is happy except journalists. Yes. It is unclear when the capitalized “War in Mali” started; probably when the Tuaregs launched their offensive in January 2012.  It was probably on when the coup happened on March 22nd and it became obvious that it was a War when Salafists took control of two-third of the country one week later. Then nothing happened until the French army “supported” the Malian Army in the liberation of the North. The big capitalized War will end soon. François Hollande’s visit might not sport the sign “Mission Accomplished”, but in spite of a very elegant and humble speech it seems almost like the final dot of the War in Mali. Journalists will have to move on, even if most of them have the feeling in their guts that they will have to come back and that this is not end. Like they did in Libya.

There is no clear beginning to this un-capitalized war (and in many ways it has been going on at least since the country’s independence) and just as uncertain is the ending of it. I wrote in my latest post on this blog that “the international community seems to believe that once the Islamists will be out of the territory, everything will go back like in 2011.” And now we are back to the status quo of 2011. Here are some of the symptoms and consequences I foresee:

First, civilians will suffer. Over the last year, Malians have heard horror stories about how their military ran away rather than protected civilians. On facebook and on youtube they saw the pictures of whippings, amputations and harsh treatments of their brothers and sisters. They simultaneously faced harsh economic conditions that severely constrained everybody’s budgets and nobody knows how many years it will take to recover.

There is a deep trauma within Malian society and it will take more than some French flags to soak it away. This war on the people of Mali is difficult to date. Every time I asked the question to a new specialist, he/she dates her answer further back than the specialist before.

 Second, the enemy has neither won nor lost. Al-Qaeda affiliated groups simply moved back without picking a real fight, now hiding in the bush. We know they know the area only too well. They have fuel, water and food reserves. They will continue to make great profits through various forms of illegal trafficking across the Sahara. Just the profits of the drugs trade is enough to keep them fighting. They have mingled with the locals during the past decade, sometimes through marriage. We know that as soon as the attention will decrease, they will come back: they are patient and will wait the time it takes. And they will take advantage again of the local conflicts to strengthen their powers. Doubtless these conflicts are far from resolved.

Third, we still have not found an answer to “The Tuareg Question” and now there is also the feeling of revenge. We learnt during the last year that the Tuaregs have grown impatient and have thus been quite easy to manipulate. Now that their claim for independence is more impossible than ever, they still attempt to negotiate their way out. Tweeters make fun of them with the #mnlafacts. The MNLA has lost a lot in 2012. Malian politicians will try to avoid it, but the MNLA will have to negotiate for something.  Malians have been resilient to the numerous previous Tuareg rebellions, but this one might be the one that is too much. Several of my acquaintances, who were quite moderate a few months ago, are now asking for blood to be shed as they do not trust those traitors. And in the other camp Tuaregs who have seen themselves as Malians first are now afraid of retaliation. Several of them are stuck in refugee camps and it is obvious that the MNLA has infiltrated many such sites.

Vengeance will also go towards non-Tuaregs who joined one group or the other. Several young men – often boys too young and too naïve to take the right decision lured by money to join the jihadists –will now learn their fault quite harshly when the community where they grew up in will reject them.  Malians are soft-spoken, respectful and most non-confrontational West Africans, but there is now a real seed of violence planted in society. They won’t accept negotiations either. They want justice for the blood and the pain. And they are closer than ever to get it. The issue is how many summary executions will there be before a state of law and order allows real justice?

Fourth, the Malian army and other related institutions are still unreformed. The Malian military look smart in their new boots, lining up behind the French army, but they are much weaker after a year of fighting. It needs serious reforms. And yet, in spite of a constant reiteration of this fact in multiple forums of the world over the last year there are no real plans besides an improvised African deployment to fill the vacuum. There is a need for professional peacekeeping now that the peace-enforcers have done their job. But the next move should not be petty revenge makers that only want to clean up their military honor. Fortunately, a few Malian militaries appear to have understood what their country needs.

Finally, Bamako’s political crisis is also far from being resolved. Elections date has been set for no later than next July, but it is difficult to see how this will work out. Bamako’s political institutions also need a real in-depth reform to get rid of what allowed the whole thing to develop into the capitalized War. Really the war in Mali (the one with small letters) is the one I wish to tell you about. But right now there is little space, however when French forces and senior correspondents are gone there will be time for this as the war in Mali will last a couple of years more, I feel.

Marc-André Boisvert is a freelance journalist based in West Africa who has been covering Mali for several years.

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Military efforts combining French, Malian and most recently troops from Niger and Chad have quickly managed to uproot the various militia groups in Northern Mali and driven them into deserted mountain areas. During the last weeks we have seen an unprecedented drive against a common goal among such diverse actors as France, Algeria, Mali, AU and the West African states. This is in itself a victory. It may be argued that without the backup by troops from Niger and Chad, French and Malian troops would indeed have managed to retake Gao and Timbuktu and secured the territory south of the Niger river, however daring the push to take Kidal should be seen in the light of troops support from Niger and Chad. With these two countries having support lines across their respective borders more long-term control over the Kidal region becomes a possibility. At the same time involvement by Nigerien troops risks creating new problems with their Tuareg populations in that country.

The ease with which troops have retaken territory from northern militia groups shows several things: first that the number of militia are much fewer than foreign observers have anticipated, secondly that the military organization is weaker and also that these groups have less arms and ammo than has been estimated (it should lead to new speculations of where the advanced military equipment that got missing in Libya went as it hardly went to Mali), thirdly it points out that these militias have rather limited support by the civilian population. All these are good signs for Mali and the sub-region; however it is difficult to believe that the extremist groups will just vanish. Northern Mali is a vast and inaccessible territory where it is easy to hide and borders to neighboring countries are porous. Furthermore some of these groups form part of regional trading networks with international ties and even Big Men in Bamako will likely continue to trade with them. Finally international intrusions like the French/West African will typically lead yet others in Northern Mali to join militias as resistance will rise. If the West African PKO that we will see taking over from French ground forces will not proceed with great care radicalization will be on the rise.

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