Making Sense of Mali

Herve Bisseleua, Shefa Siegel, Allison Greenberg
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Herve Bisseleua, Shefa Siegel, Allison Greenberg

At 4 AM on Thursday, March 22, Malians were informed through the national broadcasting station that a military coup, led by a mid-ranking army captain, Amadou Sanogo, had unseated the country's elected president, Amadou Toumani Toure.

The coup surprised most people in Mali, including perhaps the army itself, whose demonstrations on March 21 were meant only to protest the government's handling of a rebellion in the country's north. But while it is possible the coup was unplanned, demonstrations had been going on since January, after 160 Malian soldiers were killed by Tuareg rebels in Aguelhok, in northern Mali. Most of the murdered soldiers were from a base outside Bamako. When gruesome photos of their bodies - some torn limb-from-limb after being tied between vehicles - reached the capital, the wives, mothers and sisters of soldiers began protests petitioning the government to properly equip the military and confront the rebellion rising in the north.

For more than two decades, Mali has been viewed as stable and part of an emerging democratic bloc in West Africa. The coup came five weeks before a national vote, in which President Toure was not standing for re-election, in compliance with the term limits set by the constitution. The stability and democracy have helped support a tourist industry and made Mali a darling of international aid and development organizations.

But the desire of Western governments and various aid organizations to support democratic governments may have obscured realities of inequality, poverty, ecological stress and a marginalization of remote regions, whose explosive convergence of deprivations are now being exposed.

Mali is enormous - the size of California and Texas combined - but paved road networks into its northern part are still limited, making river and air travel the standard means of reaching the popular medieval salt- and gold-trading post of Timbuktu.

Among the northern population, the Tuareg, resistance to the post-colonial state started in 1962, two years after Mali's independence from France. This is not a movement to which the world pays much attention, or people whose identities are commonly understood. We use the term "Tuareg" today in a fashion similar to the way Europeans identified Moors in the 18th and 19th centuries, heaping numerous tribes and allegiances from the Sahel and Sahara into a single nomadic identity.

This complexity was exposed on April 1, when the Tuareg took Timbuktu and the towns of Kidal and Gao, declaring them part of Azawad, intended to be an independent state covering 50 percent of Mali. Initial reports were that Azawad was under control of the National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad, or MNLA. Now it seems a different group, the FLNA, may have significant control in a power struggle whose participants include Islamists and groups tied to Al-Qaida. One member of Mali's parliament from Timbuktu told Reuters, "It is total confusion."

Prior to the coup, humanitarian organizations were mobilizing to respond to massive crop failure across the Sahel. And now, a looming food crisis comes as tens of thousands of refugees - some say more than 100,000 - have reportedly been displaced because of fighting between Tuareg groups and pro-government militias.

Following the coup, electrical power outages and the breakdown of the banking system have made it increasingly difficult for aid groups to operate. And after taking Timbuktu, rebel groups ransacked World Food Program storehouses, emptying them of supplies meant to support more than one million - of a projected 3.5 million - people at risk of famine because of the droughts. Last week, World Food Program staff boarded boats on the Niger River and left the region. Many of our colleagues from the Millennium Development Goal Center who had been working on poverty-alleviation projects in Timbuktu were aboard the same boats. Also last week, a convoy of 11 vehicles carrying our international staff, including our lead author (our third author was marooned in Ghana ), crossed from Bamako to Senegal, at least temporarily relocating the central office out of Mali.

It remains to be understood how much the timing of the coup and capture of the northern territories was influenced by identity, by accident, by the struggle for oil and mineral resources, or by destabilization from the fall of Muammar Gadhafi in Libya, whose patronage ran deep in Mali. As development and environment practitioners, what concerns us is the descent into ethnic and civil conflicts in an area, and at a time when the convergence of extreme poverty and environmental degradation makes an already-fragile population even more vulnerable to instability.

In much of the world, there remains a tendency to shrug off African conflicts as intractable or as beyond global influence. Just the opposite is true. Like many remote regions, northern Mali is deeply affected by climate change, international resource competition and extreme poverty - all global insecurities.

As the effort to explain this unexpected coup expands, there will undoubtedly be temptation to emphasize the Islamist or Al-Qaida influence on the Tuareg, turning the discussion away from conflict over physical resources and toward metaphysical disputes of identity and religion. But remote areas like northern Mali are largely neglected by governments' focusing on more densely populated areas closer to urban capitals, and by international organizations whose support for democracy has not been accompanied by sufficient efforts to overcome the deep inequalities that divide people by region, by race and, increasingly, by access to resources.

Until this volatile convergence of extreme poverty and ecological collapse - and the radical inequalities they perpetuate - is confronted, we will continue to see abandoned remote regions descending into unrest and rebellion.

Dr. Herve Bisseleua is a tropical agricultural ecologist and sustainable development expert at the Millennium Development Goal Center of West & Central Africa. Dr. Shefa Siegel is lead environmental policy researcher at the Vale Columbia Center on Sustainable International Investment, a joint center of the Earth Institute and Columbia Law School. Allison Greenberg, M.A., is a program associate at the Millennium Development Goal Center of West & Central Africa.