You can come back now (unless you are a refugee from north #Mali)

by phil on April 9, 2012

Karate class at Palais de la Culture in Bamako

For a bit of background on the political crisis in Mali, please see my last post.

UPDATE: Yesterday, the details of the ECOWAS accord were released and they are not promising. Most notably, Sanogo is not going anywhere. What’s more, he held a press conference in Bambara last night that seemed to be a “whisper in Mali’s ear so ECOWAS and the international community can’t hear” type of moment. Please read the latest from Bruce Whitehouse here and take much of what I have written below on the return to civilian rule with a very large grain of salt.

I spent the past week watching most of the expat community in Bamako leave for other countries. Embassys called their citizens home, many NGOs closed up shop, and even some foreign run businesses stopped operating.

My Malian friends found this exodus peculiar. After all, they said, the fighting is in the north, not in Bamako. When I brought up the possibility of fuel and cash shortages, and the general uncertainty that occurs when a relatively young, low-ranking soldier seizes power with arms, my friends would often shrug and say “ca va aller” (it will get better).

Most of my friends were not pro-coup or pro-Sanogo, but they were anti-ATT. According to them – and almost everyone you ask in Bamako – the army budget was squandered due to pervasive corruption. ATT was never one to step on toes. He tried to be friends with everyone. The problem is not everyone can be a good friend. They often want something. ATT obliged, money ended up in places it shouldn’t have, and Mali’s institutions, including the military, suffered for it.

Most westerners dismissed the coup as an idiotic power grab. While I also found the coup unjustifiable, it’s important to note that it was an expression of popular discontent. Even if most Malians opposed the method, they welcomed the change. There are many who would have likely welcomed the coup several months ago, when news broke that dozens of Malian soldiers in Aguelhok had the their throats slit, and ATT had no response, militarily or otherwise.

Now the Sanogo Show is over. During his short lived run as President of the CNDRE, Sanogo watched the country unravel: dissolution of the Malian army in most of the country, the complete fall of the north to at least two rebel groups, international condemnation and sanctions – all of this at the cost of throwing Mali’s democracy under the bus.

Many Malians will say that the north, with ATT’s poorly equipped military, was going to fall anyway, and that Sanogo at least asked for international help, something that ATT did not do.

I will say this about Sanogo, he controlled his soldiers. Under Sanogo, they were no more willing to fight the rebels in north Mali, but they were also mostly well behaved in Bamako. Ok, so there were several days of shooting in the air, looting, and at least one journalist was threatened with death. All of that said, and not to excuse any of those things, the looting was brought under control and the military did not perpetrate any violence. I’m not applauding him for this, but things could have been much worse.

During this political crisis, there is also something to be said for Malians themselves. It seems silly to say “Malians are nice people,” but there are some cultural tendencies here that make that statement true. The state more or less dissolved and Malians continued to go about their lives as normal, peacefully and with consideration for their neighbors. There wasn’t any panic, chaos, looting, or violence.

So ECOWAS put the squeeze on and Sanogo, realizing that he was now in charge of a poor landlocked country, agreed to step down. ECOWAS deserves some credit here. They acted decisively and it seems like it wasn’t just heavy handed sanctions – it appears that the Burkina envoy engaged in some good diplomacy. Credit Sanogo for being a rational human being who must have realized that he was holding no cards.

Yesterday, ATT resigned without protest. Today, Sanogo is meeting with Dioncounda Traoré, who as President of the National Assembly, will become interim President until elections are organized. The accord signed by ECOWAS and Sanogo states that elections will be organized in 40 days, but both parties have acknowledged that this may not be possible given the situation in the north. Few Malians are happy with Traoré (he has been in the game a long time and he is closely associated with ATT), but they are relieved that he can not run for President after serving this role. For more on the transition, this is some essential reading from Bruce Whitehouse.

Other than daily 10 hour power cuts, life in Bamako did not change much after the coup. We never had cash or fuel shortages, markets operated normally, and price hikes never materialized. But uncertainty lingered and no one really knew what Sanogo was going to do. The transition back to civilian rule is welcome and it at least suggests that Mali will soon be back on solid ground – the southern part of the country, that is.

The North

First, I recommend reading this piece by Baz Lecocq and this by Andrew Lebovich to get a sense for what’s currently happening in the north, as muddled as it may be.

The family I stayed with in Timbuktu in early January is still in Mauritania, still living in a refugee camp. They have limited cell service and every now and then they receive an SMS from friends in Timbuktu. They are hearing everything under the sun. The fact is, no one, not even northern residents, knows what the power dynamics are right now. In any case, it seems that a showdown between Ansar Dine/AQIM and MNLA is inevitable.

Throughout the conflict in the north, fighting has largely been avoided. There have been negotiations, retreats, and defections. The body count is low on all sides. We can hope it stays that way, that somehow a peaceful resolution will emerge, but right now, there are too many parties that don’t see eye to eye.

MNLA declared independence of Azawad over the weekend. Mali, ECOWAS, the AU, France – just about everybody – has said that they do not recognize this declaration. There is a possible political solution that involves increased autonomy and decentralization for the north, but it’s unclear whether that deal would even be on the table, or whether MNLA would accept it. What’s more, it’s unclear who has the upper hand in north Mali as Ansar Dine continues to assert itself. Meanwhile, there are reports that another armed group has formed to counter both MNLA and Ansar Dine.

Caught in the middle of all of this are the people that actually live in these places. MNLA has a well-oiled media machine and lots of support from the Tuareg diaspora, but they never had the support of all Tuareg in Mali, let alone that of the other ethnic groups, which are far more numbered. Yet they speak for the entire population of north Mali. At the same time, Ansar Dine is trying to impose a brand of Islam that is not compatible with local culture.

MNLA may be capable of organizing a state in north Mali, perhaps one that is better managed than the neglected region that is currently there. At the same time, they may be just as vulnerable to the many vested interests that lurk in the Sahara and beyond. The point is this, they are acting on behalf of a population that did not ask for this.

Some like to say that this most recent incarnation of Tuareg rebellion is reflective of the Arab Spring. This is silly. The Arab Spring was and still is characterized by mass mobilizations. MNLA skipped a step. Instead of making their case to the northern populations, they picked up weapons. Now the north is a mess and over 200,000 people have fled their homes. It is after taking towns by force, that the MNLA is now trying to win hearts and minds. They are having to do so while Ansar Dine is also trying to impose a program of their own.

I don’t have anything else to say about northern Mali. I hope that a major conflict is avoided and I hope that those that fled can soon return to their homes and live in peace. How those things will be accomplished, I don’t know.


I will be going back to Cote d’Ivoire sometime this week or next. I will be there for a couple of weeks mostly working with Faty and David on restaurant/catering things (we now have 4 clients, Air Mali, Air Burkina, an insurance company and CNPS). Expect an update on that in the coming weeks. After that, back in Bamako before a possible trip to Guinea or Senegal. In late May, I will be in Lisbon before going back to the states for a bit. Let me know if you are in any of those places and want to meet up.

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