Les peurs du Mali

Important things are happening in Mali, and there’s woefully little coverage coming through in the US. I’ll try and sum up what’s going on, because I don’t think it’s even getting as much coverage in English as it deserves, and explain why I care and you should. But first it’s HUGE DISCLAIMER TIME: my French is really rather rusty, so it is possible that I’ve misconstrued things I’ve read. I’m also probably a bit too reliant on one filter: freelance journalist Martin Vogl’s twitter stream @martinvogl. Most of his writing is in English, but most of the sources he retweets are in French, so it’s the up-to-the-minute stuff and the diversity of views that are dependent on my half-remembered language skills.

My understanding is that Mali has de facto split into two countries. Here’s a map of the whole country from Wikipedia:

Notice the preposterous shape. I don’t understand how this came about, since every neighbouring country is also a former French colony, and historically only the southwestern part and the southern bits of Tombouctou and Gao were part of the pre-colonial Malian Empire. In any case, it’s come apart along the narrow bit with half of Mopti and all the provinces SW of that still ruled from the official capital of Bamako, where there has been a coup, and may be a counter-coup or two, but in any case general chaos, under cover of which the 3 big Sahelian provinces of Tombouctou, Gao & Kidal, along with maybe part of Mopti, have seceded….

….Except that no-one’s quite clear who is really in control of them either. There is a predominantly Touareg organisation called the MNLA (Mouvement National pour la Libération de l’Azawad) which is claiming to control the whole area as the new state of Azawad. Of course it’s more complicated than that. Only Kidal and the immediately neighbouring parts of Gao and Timbouctou are majority-Touareg, and even within the majority-Touareg area the parts bordering Algeria appear to be controlled by Ansar Dine, which may or may not be affiliated with Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, but is certainly an Islamist group of some stripe (the name means “Defenders of the Faith” in Arabic, their flag has the Shahada on it, and they are actively imposing Sharia law in the cities they control). Ansar Dine and the MNLA seem to be cooperating for the moment, but their longer term goals also seem to diverge: the MNLA just wants the region it claims free of outside rule, while Ansar Dine appears to want a unified Mali under Sharia law. Oh, and if you’re wondering why the MNLA is claiming an area beyond where it represents the ethnic majority, the satellite photo sort of answers that question:

The majority-Tuareg areas are the north-northeastern part; so completely arid that I don’t think they could ever be a self-sufficient state.

Meanwhile, all of the groups who claim to be the legitimate government of Mali in Bamako claim the whole country, but because they’re too busy fighting among themselves they can’t do anything about it. Neighbouring countries are starting to freak out and make strange statements that veer between threatening military intervention and begging more powerful outsiders to step in. As far as I can tell, the freaking out is triggered by a combination of genuine fears about Al Qaeda, opportunism, and fears about contagion into their own separatist or potentially-separatist regions.

Anyway, I know that’s not a great summary, but it’s as clear as I am about the situation right now. If you know more or have conflicting information, please do comment – I would like to have a better sense of it than I do. Here’s why I care and you should:

  1. Coups matter because they always turn some peoples’ lives upside-down, even in the relatively rare cases in which most people are unaffected.
  2. Separatist movements inherently interest me, and have a huge impact on peoples’ quality of life. Depending on how Azawad turns out, I can see at least three possible scenarios: glorious freedom for the historically-mistreated Tuareg; the next Taliban oppressing the Tuareg; or Bamako getting its act together, reimposing control and massacring people. At this point I’m pretty pessimistic about which we’re going to see, but all would be dramatic.
  3. The neighbours freaking out carries some risk of this turning into a regional war like the bloody mess that the Democratic Republic of the Congo has been for most of my lifetime.
  4. The chaos has a lot of potential to give Al Qaeda a fresh base. Certainly there seems to be a sense that right now only the Islamists can make cities safe for their residents, which is very reminiscent of Afghanistan in the 90s.
  5. Sooner or later the fear of Al Qaeda is probably going to suck the U.S. in. It would be for the best if our population had a clue about the situation before that happened.

Over the past few days 4 & 5 seem to have started bringing more English-language coverage to this story, but frankly it pisses me off that there has to be a “this could breed international terrorism” angle for our media to care. Reasons 1-3 are already enough that the story is worth covering.

The tardiness and paucity of English-language coverage has also renewed my interest in bringing back my half-remembered French. As confused as this post is, I have far more of a clue because I’m not limited to English sources, and I’d probably be less confused if I could read French as easily as I could when I finished school.

Update the following day: Oh, and there’s a plague of locusts on the way. Literally.

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