Photo by Master Sgt. Dennis Brewer, US Air Force (public domain)
Imagine a sandbox. Then add old Peugeot cars and Chinese-manufactured mopeds driving up and down streets littered with plastic bags and potholes, so many potholes. Imagine all of this in temperatures that range from 105 to 120 degrees, often with goats or cows roaming around as well. This, in short, is Bamako, Mali’s capital, the scene of a coup d’état in 2012, and the center of a country whose future hasn’t been determined yet.
It’s hard to see through the dust that pervades the city, it’s difficult to understand how it is kept together through these feeble links. But Bamako is a metaphor, it’s a wider reflection of the country at large, with its confusion and overwhelming size. Much like Bamako’s roads, Mali’s modern history is full of potholes. Once hailed as the beacon of democracy in West Africa, the events of 2012 drove Mali in a whole new direction.
It began with a Tuareg rebellion in the northern regions, the fifth since Malian independence, fueled by a sense of neglect by the Malian government, and thousands of now displaced and armed Tuareg fighters from Libya. The inaction of the central government quickly led to a coup d’état in Bamako ousting Amadou Toumani Touré (ATT) – leaving the country in a state of lawlessness. Shortly after, Islamist groups took over the regions previously held by Tuareg rebels. Intricate alliances of groups like AQIM and Ansar Dine, amongst others, took over the regions of Kidal, Gao and Timbuktu, applied a strict version of Sharia law, and terrorized local populations.
The conflict in northern Mali caused hundreds of thousands of refugees and internally displaced persons, countless (the exact number is unknown) instances of rape and sexual violence and the destruction of many world heritage sites, particularly in Timbuktu . In 2013 a French military intervention, Operation Serval, stopped the advance of the Islamists and pushed them into the depths of the Sahara; a UN stabilization mission, MINUSMA, moved into the country later that year.
A relative peace was restored, the northern towns were liberated from the control of Islamists, and general elections took place. Ibrahim Boubakar Keita (IBK) was voted in on a platform of unity, empathizing Malian sovereignty and territorial integrity. In May of 2014 the then prime minister took the bold decision to visit the Tuareg stronghold in the north, the town of Kidal, as a sign of peace and reconciliation. This was a move that many deemed premature, and indeed the events that unfolded confirmed this view: fighting broke out during the visit and dozens were brutally killed. Despite this heavy blow to the stability of Mali, peace talks between the Malian government and Tuareg and Arab rebels (not Islamist groups) began in July in Algiers to negotiate a deal over the contested region of northern Mali. The area covered by the regions of Timbuktu, Gao, and Kidal is claimed by different movements, which seek their independence from Mali under the name “Azawad.” The peace talks ended in March of 2015, an agreement was drafted and signed by the Malian government, but different rebel groups rejected it, citing that Mali hadn’t gone far enough to grant autonomy to the so-called Azawad region..
After eight arduous months of negotiations, the proposed peace is still failing to bring agreement between the two sides of the divide. After more than three years of conflict and instability, the future of Mali is still obfuscated like the roads of its capital city, and there are no guidelines on how to move forward. IBK’s leadership is shaky, far more worried about playing nice with his French and American allies rather than tackling the problems that the country is facing. The north is experiencing increasing violence, with regular carjackings on the roads leading to and from different towns in the Sahara, and sporadic attacks on humanitarian vehicles and UN peacekeepers. Just two weeks ago, a Red Cross convoy transporting valuable medical equipment was attacked while on its way to Gao and one Red Cross worker was killed. In late January, protests in Gao led to the death of several civilians (a recent report by the United Nations confirms that the shots were fired by UN peacekeepers, which only further complicates an already delicate conflict).
The violence in the north of the country persists, the heat in Bamako soars to even higher levels, and all the while parties in Algiers are failing to come to an agreement. The proposed peace deal recognizes Azawad as a cultural space and allows for more devolved powers to the region; the peace deal also includes a provision to transfer 30 percent of all government revenues to local authorities. However, officials in Algiers may have underestimated the demands of some of the more radical sections of the movement, who rejected the peace deal, insisting that Azawad have its own political and legal status. Many believe that the current deal is the best that the rebel groups could hope for; IBK cannot concede to more, as he is already under fire for not being hard enough in the negotiations. Rebels were undoubtedly emboldened by IBK’s political blunder in May 2014, and have since been effectively controlling the region of Kidal – it is clear that many would see this peace deal as a dramatic step backwards. The question remains, how will the country move forward?
Imagine the sandbox again. Different people are fighting over who gets to play in which part of the sandbox. They are close to agreeing, but they know that the sandbox is dirty and there are other individuals trying to disrupt playtime. Faced with violence in the north, and continued disagreements over a peace deal long overdue, Mali, the crossroad of civilizations and the cradle of culture and music, remains uncertain on what the next steps will be.
While a peace deal with Tuareg groups is essential to the stability of the country and of the region at large, Mali’s problems stretch much further than that. Terrorist groups are still active in the country; just last month a popular restaurant in Bamako was targeted by Al-Mourabitoun, a jihadist group with ties to Al-Qaeda, the first time an attack was carried out in Bamako. IBK made sure to cash in on a photo-op of his visit to La Terrasse, the scene of the terrorist attack, and made sure to condemn the actions of terrorist groups with the outmost vehemence. However, he has little to show in terms of response, besides increased security measures in the streets of the capital. IBK’s inaction seems to suggest that he would prefer to leave the anti-terrorist campaign in the hands of Operation Barkhane, the French Sahel-wide military operation that replaced Serval in mid-2014 with a base in Gao.
Mali’s answer to problems on its territory seems to lay in the overplayed and overexploited historic relationship with France. Mali should take Mali’s problems into its own hands, fill some of its own potholes and pick up the black plastic bags that are polluting its capital city and the country at large. Ironically, Bamako’s streets are currently being cleaned by a Moroccan company, reflecting a wider trend of leasing out the country’s problems. Nevertheless, Malians remain hopeful.
Resentment is often felt towards those that are providing safe havens for terrorists and inciting the violence in the north. No one imagined that Bamako would become victim of terrorism as well. The general feeling is that peace will not result solely from a signed agreement by the leadership. It’s all déjà vu; agreements have been signed and then fallen apart time and time again in northern Mali.
There is a strong feeling of national unity and an increasingly negative sentiment towards both the Malian and French governments. The seriousness of this last rebellion coupled with terrorist activity in the country has created a spiral of mistrust. Malians are attempting to get their voices heard, make their government accountable and to make sure that the conversation on the future of Mali shifts from the leadership to a more grassroots reconciliatory process. Music and the arts, for example, are widely used by Malians to send a message to the leaders of both sides and call for peace; festivals and concerts are being held regularly, bringing together singers and artists from north and south. There is a feeling that the process towards peace is too politicized, and Malians are advocating for a more people-centered process. The future of Mali is in the hands of Malians. The leadership will have to follow through on its promises, an agreement will have to be signed, but Malians still carry deep scars that will need healing through reconciliatory processes, in northern towns in particular but also with the return of IDPs.
The sandbox is becoming increasingly crowded, but under all the sand and the dirt lays a beautiful country with beautiful people. The country’s leaders just need to see past all the sand and dirt for the vision of what Mali may become again.
Giorgia spent seven months in Bamako between June and December of 2014 working with IDPs survivors of sexual and gender-based violence. If you would like to learn more about her experience, check out her blog: http://www.advocacynet.org/author/gnicatore/