(14 March 2012)
We are living through interesting times for Mali. The recent resurgence of the Tuareg rebellion is the region’s first direct consequence of the toppling of Gaddafi. and yet it is not even making the front pages of the African sections on the web sites of the international media.
In my relationship with Mali over the past 6 years I have lived with what I call my “mistress irony”. On the surface the irony is this: of the 28 African countries I know, Mali is my favourite because of its contagious friendliness, its ubiquitous hospitality – from the army and the police to absolutely everyone you meet in the streets – and consequently the sense of personal safety and security I feel whenever travelling through the country.
But Mali is also the country I spend the most time assuring travellers about for their safety.
Hitherto, there has been little valid reason for this concern on the ground. Since 2009 there has been an Al Qaeda presence in the very north of the country, but its ability to attack beyond the remote desert border regions has been limited.
Before 2003, or to put it in its correct context, before Iraq, the Sahara and the Sahel – so the countries of Morocco, Algeria, Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Libya, and Tunisia – was a remarkably safe place for tourists to travel. When you think that the open desert regions of these countries, which are pretty impossible to police, take up an area the size of the United States, its safety record for tourists has been remarkable. This is largely thanks to the Tuareg.
Since 2003 the insecurity in the region has been to do with the complex international politics of the war on terror, not tribal or national tensions on the ground. These have at times been there, but they have not impacted on westerners.
Fear of insecurity was first stoked up by western governments’ travel warnings. Then it began to happen. Since January 2009 there have been about 10 kidnapping incidents. The first within Mali were the Hombori and Timbuktu kidnappings in November 2011.
Before November 2011 Mali had never had anything resembling a terrorist attack or a kidnapping away from its remote borderlands. Yet since January 2009 the country as a whole has been on red alert on western government travel advice as high risk.
The big question to date has been, with Al Qaeda numbering only a few hundred lightly armed and camped up near Algerian, Malian and Nigerian troops, with the US and French forces on the ground supporting with “counter terrorism”, why has nothing been done to rid the region of its cancer?
Over the coming weeks I am going to attempt to explain what is happening in Mali, and how it fits into the events of the Arab spring and the war on terror.
When I talk of Mali I am always aware of a schism, as really there are two Malis, the north and the south, the desert and the sahel, divided by the great river Niger. They are two countries, in everything except name and legality, bound together as one during France’s decolonization of the region in a classic case of colonial divide and rule.
As so often when two distinct regions are forced to live as one, there come times when the tension blows up. Now is such a time. The two Malis are on the brink of civil war.
Mixed up in this story are western powers (principally the US and France) and their “national interests”, the War On Terror, the consequences of the NATO involvement in Libya and the fall of Gaddafi, and the power plays between the region’s other countries – principally Algeria, but also Niger and Mauritania.
Over the coming weeks I will be blogging about the situation in Mali. I will be giving a brief history of the players in this game and how they relate. I am not a historian, nor am I a journalist. I come to this as a traveller of the region. What will follow is my opinion and my perspective. I welcome your comments and please feel free to correct me, argue me down and call me a misguided fool.