Mali : the unexpected crisis, a year later…. (guest post by Marc-André Boisvert)

When I moved to Bamako a bit more than a year ago, the international community praised Mali for being a beacon of democracy and stability.

I did not see that. I am not pretending that I knew that almost two-third of the country would fall under the control of rebels link to Al-Qaeda, nor that the military will take over in one of the most useless coup in West Africa, ousting President Amadou Toumani Touré (locally known under the acronym ATT).

What I knew was Malians did not see their country as the model that the international community kept referring to. They talked about corruption, lack of real democracy and injustice.

Nevertheless, there was such a consensus of Mali being the good Western-friendly pupil that I started to believe in it myself. Then the double crisis hit.

Being both a journalist and a researcher, the constant flow of news forced me in 2012 to be more of the first than the second. One day, I was making an interview with an academic. I felt something was wrong while writing my article. I sent him the article for review. He answered me: “You got more or less everything wrong”.

He was right. I was not alone getting everything more or less everything wrong about Mali this year. Mali has been out of the radar of most Sahel specialists, and there have been terrible reporting and analysis since the beginning of the crisis.

Parts of it come from the confusion over the chain of events. Most Malian actors that I have talked to had no idea that things would happen that way, and could not figure out what will happen next. Main politicians did not expect to be marginalized. The Green Berets did not expect to take power (the coup was a mutiny that turned out to be a coup when two pick-ups drove towards the presidency). The Red Berets and the elite battalions did not expect to lose their prestige. The Tuaregs did not expect to control the territory. And nobody expected Islamists and Al-Qaeda to seize control of the North. From the inside, the whole crisis has been a question of seizing opportunities while a failed state fell apart. And now, nobody seems to have an idea on how will 2013 look like.

Analysts’ narratives of the crisis have work mostly with dichotomies. First, it was the Tuaregs vs. the rest. Then, it became the Islamists/Al-Qaeda/Ansar Dine vs. the secular (Tuaregs + State). And now, the lines are more and more Malians vs. foreigners. In parallel, there was Bamako’s politico-military game that has also been simplified in pro-ATTs vs anti-ATTs. Those dichotomies seem more like ad-hoc creation to provide temporary guidance than real explanations on the cause of the crisis.

It seems to me that the current crisis is the sum of several social points of tensions that do not matter individually. The earthquake has been caused by the accumulation of individual clashes, like tectonic plates. Confusion over the direction of the crisis comes also from the fact that there are too many fault lines to bring the crisis in one single direction.

Three tectonic plates are more relevant.

First, ethnicity matters in Mali, even if it has not been utterly politicized in comparison to other neighboring countries. Mali has known several episodes of ethnic tensions since its independence. Tuareg rebellions have been the main incarnation of ethnic politics in Mali for many years, but the reactivation of Ganda Koy, ethnic militias that have been created by ethnic Songhais for self-defense of “their” territory, reinforce ethnic identity.

Ganda Koy members have committed several atrocities against Tuareg populations during the 90s. Its members have never been worried for the trauma they have caused to civilian population. Now, they are back to fight Tuaregs. Recruitment goes beyond Songhai communities and includes all ethnicities, including Bellas, the so-called black Tuaregs. If leaders of the new militias try to avoid talking overtly in terms that could be perceived as genocidal, their recruits are radicalized.

As the economy in the south is worsening, there are already growing tensions between Southerners and Northerners. The ethnic fiber is not as harmonious as it has seemed to be in the last decade. Politicians, to face the political crisis, are themselves using more and more ethnic mobilization. Nobody can speak for “all Malians” anymore.

Second, the rise of political Islam is an important factor. Mali has been described as a secular country. But it was difficult to see Mali as such when Malians took the street in 2011 to protest a new family code granting women’s equality and forcing the president to step back.

Mali’s High Islamic Council is the only Malian organization able to fill stadiums with supporters. No political parties or civil society organization can achieve that. Not even unions. The High Council has always been involved in every aspect of Malian life. But with the double crisis, it has been able to play a political role, mediating tensions, sending envoys to the north and putting pressure on all actors.

ATT has always tried to restrict the Council’s influence over politics. Now, it is stronger than ever, and as several of its members have received training in the Gulf countries, more politicization will occur. This does not mean that the Council endorses AQIM or the application of the Sharia. This only means that Islam is increasingly political and that the next regime might not enforce a secular western-friendly the way ATT did.  It also means that Malians have lost faith in their secular politicians and that the Council has been able to channel the anger of Malians who saw a corrupted elite taking all the spoils.

A third fault line lies within the army.  This year, the clash between the Green and the Red Berets (from which ATT is from and who have received particular favors from the president) has been evident while both factions fought directly in Bamako’s streets last May. The army is more fragmented than that. There are the former Ganda Koy members, angry for having been recruited in the army in the 90s at lower ranks, while seeing Tuareg rebels integrated at higher levels. There is the Colonel-Major Elhadji Ag Gamou and several military followers that have sought refuge in Niger and are considered suspicious by the rest of the army. There are the junta members, including Captain Amadou Haya Sanogo, who seem now to be mesmerized with power, money and influence, and other young ambitious young men who also want their share as it is now not uncommon in Bamako to see flashy SUVs driven by arrogant young military. Besides, there are all those young men joining militias preemptively expecting a retribution for liberating the north. Western countries made a priority of reforming and training the Malian army. Its first mission will be to bring together several irreconcilable factions.

Of course, several other fault lines can also matter, notably the relationship with former colonial power France. No matter how many there are, upcoming shocks can only be more brutal as Malians is facing a social crisis, as well as humanitarian and an economical one.

Military-wise, the United Nations and ECOWAS are now preparing a intervention to liberate the north. Politically-wise, plans to bring back a democratic regime in Bamako are compromised with the inability to hold credible elections without two-third of its territory. The outcome of the transition is even more uncertain than ever since the recent dismissal of Prime Minister Cheick Modibo Diarra.

Besides, there are no plans to fix the social fault lines that brought the military and political crisis.  The international community seems to believe that once the Islamists will be out of the territory, everything will go back like in 2011.  Malians do not believe it.

Every time I need a taxi in Bamako, I call the same cab driver. His name is Maiga. He is reliable, he is on time, his car is in perfect order and he offers me his own analysis of the events. He helped me when I had problems with the army and he did not hesitate to move me around when the situation was tensed in Bamako.

Last time I requested his services, he was late, his car was dirty and it kept stalling on the way. Maiga was confused and sick. Like most Malians, Maiga is obviously suffering for the crisis. But he provided me a short piece of advice about Mali’s infortunes: “Nothing will be the same.  We will get back the North. We will have a new elected government. But, us, Malians, we will never be the same.”

My resolution for 2013: always follow local advise rather than the international rumors.

Marc-André Boisvert is a freelance journalist and researcher who has worked and lived in Bamako and Abidjan during the last few years.

1 Comment

  1. Thank you for writing such an informative, personal and moving account of your experience in Mali. This type of writing helps me to empathise with people in tough situations rather than seeing it as just another news item.

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