Mali and the Long Road to Recovery and Reconciliation

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By Graeme Mackay | July 6, 2013 3:18 AM EST

Coup leaders apologizing for the consequences of their actions is not something that happens very often.  In Bamako, the capital of Mali however, a rare example of it took place on 26 June 2013 when Captain Amadou Aya Sanogo did just that in front of an audience which included Interim President Dioncounda Traoré, recently reconciled factions of the Mali Army, religious and tribal leaders and the media.

American-trained Captain Sanogo described the events after the coup as "an accident" and said that he wanted to "ask for forgiveness from Malians as a whole", adding:

"Above being soldiers, we are humans and we make mistakes without meaning to...We dare to hope that our apologies will be accepted".

The coup was started by a mutiny of rank-and-file soldiers and Captain Sanogo very quickly became its spokesman.  Complaining against corruption in the Government and senior ranks of the military in late March 2012, matters came to a head when (yet another) Tuareg rebellion in Northern Mali pitted the poorly armed Malian Army against Islamist rebels, flush with abundant supplies  of weapons and transport from the arsenals of the recently deposed Colonel Qaddafi.

Immediate condemnation against the coup by many western countries probably rang a little hollow in the ears of those at the coalface.  After all, where had been the condemnation and help a couple of months earlier after 82 Malian soldiers had been taken prisoner in Aguelhok by jihadist groups Ansar Dine and MUJAO (Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa).  The 82 were beaten, bound and summarily executed by having their throats cut.

It was actually a demonstration in Bamako, Mali's capital, against the Government by the wives and relatives of the butchered soldiers, many now left destitute, which sparked the mutiny that would lead to the toppling of President Amadou Toumani Touré.  Within days Mali's three northern Regions of Tombouctou (Timbuktu), Gao and Kidal, 66 per cent of the country's 480,000 square mile landmass, were under the control of the secular Tuareg rebel force of the MNLA (National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad) and its (then) jihadist allies, MUJAO and Ansar Dine.

Could this be the "accident" that Captain Sanogo was apologizing for?  Much more likely that that dramatic sequence of events was simply coincidental as it happened against a backdrop of attacks by other groups, some with al-Qaeda links, throughout the Sahel and beyond.

In an article on the Nigerian terrorist organisation, Boko Haram, by Jacob Zenn for the Combating Terrorism Center West Point on 14 January 2013, the author highlights a shared misfortune of several countries in sub-Saharan Africa.  After commenting that until the fall of Qaddafi, Boko Haram was known as a "machete-wielding mob", but now has greater capability than some of its al-Qaeda affiliates, he warns that:

"As evidenced by the collapse of the Malian state when Tuareg fighters based in Libya returned to 'Azawad',...the transfer of Boko Haram fighters from Nigeria to other countries in the Sahel does not bode well for the region...Like Northern Nigeria, these countries have majority Muslim populations, artificial borders, ethnic conflicts, insufficient educational and career opportunities for youths and fragile democratic institutions...all (have) witnessed Islamist militant infiltration in their countries and their countrymen travelling to Northern Mali to join Islamist militias in 2012..."

In case Mali, the Sahel and troubles of West Africa all seem very far away, a feature in the Nigerian Tribune on 13 February 2012 indicates just how international the tentacles of terrorism spread:

"Sources confirmed that while (Boko Haram) relied on donations by its members in the early days, its links with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) opened it to funding from groups in Saudi Arabia and the UK".

Saudi Arabian funding is not 'new' news; the UK addition came as a revelation, at least for me.

Although there is no doubt that there are fundamental grievances between Mali's 14.5 million "Black" African population and the 1.6 million Tuareg/Moor tribes, mostly from the north of the country, and that undeniably Mali is one of the world's poorest nations being ranked 175 out of 187 countries in the UN's Human Development Index, it did have at least one redeeming feature.  The 90 per cent of the population who follow Islam did so in a manner that was moderate and tolerant of others, largely due to the religion being influenced by centuries of local customs and traditions.  Hopefully, such moderation and tolerance will continue in the future.

This tolerance and the chance that it could act as a conduit for reconciliation between the two communities was reflected in an interview by Channel 4's news presenter Jon Snow, when he spoke to the internationally acclaimed Malian singer Fatoumata Diawara on 29 January this year.  The striking Ms Diawara from Mali's "Black" majority, said that she loved her Tuareg "brothers", appealing to the relatively few jihadists among them to "return and be reconciled so that Mali would soon recover and everything would be alright".

If only both sides were of the same mind as Ms Diawara!  Regrettably the divisions run rather deeper and are exacerbated by the Tuaregs' long-held feelings of being marginalized and ignored by the Government in Bamako, with further friction arising over perceived unfairness in the distribution of their pastoral rights - ever a sensitive issue in a country which is mostly desert.  

Too many of Mali's majority, on the other hand, look upon all Tuaregs with suspicion.  Even the secular MNLA which has constantly condemned the terrorist actions of Ansar Dine and MUJAO is regarded by the peoples of the south as a terrorist, criminal group which brought down the country.  No matter how fake the boundaries drawn up by agreement between former European colonial rulers are, there were sufficient historical and cultural bonds between the peoples of Mali for it to develop in recent times, a distinct Malian identity and a greater sense of nationhood than many of its neighbours.  These peoples now blame the Tuaregs for spoiling that.

Towards the end of June, talks between the Tuareg and Bamako factions were successfully concluded and French Foreign Minister, Laurent Fabius was pleased to announce a "preliminary" agreement with the help of the Government of neighbouring Burkina Faso.  Unfortunately, the agreement in principle also demonstrated just how far apart the two sides remain and how little they trust each other.

There is to be a phased deployment of Malian security forces in the Kidal Region, still largely under the control of the MNLA, and at the insistence of the Tuaregs, the initial force will be composed of French soldiers and United Nations troops - these coming from neighbouring West African countries.  The Tuaregs are to withdraw to specially designated camps.

That's the easy part.  Problems abound, not least that the authorities in Bamako want to proceed with judicial charges against MNLA leaders, but there's also supposed to be enquiries into corruption and incompetence, distribution of emergency funding of food programmes for an estimated 3.5 million people and dealing with at least 500,000 displaced persons who have had to flee their homes because of all the fighting.

Will the Presidential Election go ahead on 28 July?  Doesn't look good.  Tiébilé Dramé, Mali's chief negotiator in Ouagadougou and one of the contenders for the Malian Presidency, told Agence France-Presse on 04 July that the "conditions have not been met" for the vote to go ahead, claiming that it was "very clear" that the elections would be "botched":

"...There is a form of autism on the part of the administration.  The Government is not ready, the Minister of Territorial Administration is not ready, contrary to what he said, and the (Election Commission) is not ready".

All too usual one suspects in the governance of Mali.   

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