All quiet on the Burkina Frontier as Presidential Election Day takes place in Mali. Where is everybody?

Election day went by with hardly a ripple in the Malian refugee camps in Burkina Faso, though the wind did pick up in the evening followed by a wall of sand and dust and a quick African storm.Apart from that, a lazy day was had by all.

The momentous democratic date in Mali’s history passed us by. Probably because no one seemed to care – either inside the camps or outside. No state functionary, no interim government minister, no UN monitors, no ECOWAS representative, no presidential candidate, no international or domestic journalists or media came in the lead up to the election nor indeed for the day itself.

No one seemed to know where they were to vote and nobody had their voting cards. Some had receipts which should deliver a card on polling day. At the Malian embassy in Ouagadougou a few days before the election the Ambassador was going through a few pages of electoral lists. He admitted the camps had all been mixed up and asked my friend to help identify those he knew and explain where they were.

One would have thought that camps of refugees would be the easiest place to hold a poll. All are already registered with UNHCR with their photocards that get them their 12kg of rice every month, all are in one place, all have nothing else to do. One would also have thought that a good poll in the camps would have been a good PR coup for the UN or ECOWAS or MINUSMAor the Mali state, a sign that unity was on the way, an olive branch to the displaced to say you count, to say your future is our future. The refugees vote is unlikely to swing the result, so what was there to lose? Not even Soumaila Cisse, the northern candidate most likely to challenge for the Presidency, who depends on the northern vote, came.

On the day, the polling station was 10kms from the Mentao camps in the nearby town of Djibo. So anyone who wanted to vote had to find 500cfa ($1) for their transport into town. Why could they not cast their vote on their temporary territory in the camps – it is more “Malian” than Djibo?

I went to the polling station at about midday on election day. There were 5 or 6 civilians sitting under trees, a pick-up full of 10 tooled up and armored Burkina policemen, two UNHCR vehicles with just drivers as far as I could see. I spoke to three people as they came out from trying to cast their vote. Between them they had about 15 receipts for voting cards. Not one had delivered a card. They were the few who wanted to vote, they returned to the camps without doing so.

I have heard that 50 Malians displaced in Burkina Faso managed to vote. On the national news on election night not a mention of the displaced persons or the refugees.

In the camp people fasted as it is Ramadan, women prepared the food, the children and the young and the men just idly fill their time, pushing back the boredom, wondering daily as they do what the future will bring.

Not many would have cast their vote anyway, “a waste of 500cfa” said Mamayiti. What would they be voting for? Who would they vote for? No one had come soliciting their votes, no presidential candidate had tried to address the “northern question” in any depth or with any seriousness in their campaigns.

All of course had mentioned the north, they had no choice: the northern question is the reason their country is in chaos after the biggest shock in their history since the arrival of the French colonial forces; the northern question is what led to ATT, the former President, granting Al Qaeda camping rights within Tuareg territory under the auspices of the USA and France which has produced the pretext for a new French invasion; here too was the domain of the drugs and contreband trade with its government and military backhanders.

All these things served to seriously undermine the northern economy and the security to the extent that by the time Libya was done and dusted and arms and vehicles flooded back to Mali, young men of the deep desert were in many ways left with no choice but to join up with one force or another. To not join anyone is possibly the riskiest route to take and created problems, and there was no other work.

With hindsight now the rebellion seems inevitable, certainly Mali was always going to explode in an Africa without Gaddaffi. He was Mali’s north/south peace broker, his army was full of Malian Tuareg rebels from these deals and he had just built the Malian government all their brandspanking new ministries on the banks of the Niger in Bamako. Which leads me to wonder if the British/French campaign in Libya to unseat their recently forgiven and appeased Saharan foe had a little eye to the inevitable on the otherside of the great desert.

And the rest is history in the making. The rebellion sparked the coup d’etat which permitted the rebels to sweep down and take the northern towns but also let AOMI and MUJAO and Ansar Dine – three sides of the same diabolic coin – to tag along or activate from within and they had supply lines. This is why the MNLA rebels retreated after the islamist invasion despite in the early stages being militarily stronger – because they knew the “islamist’s” supplyline was an ocean and theirs a desert. 

Thus the Azawad independence game, in no one’s interest apart from the Tuareg, was over. Control was back. 

Mali, Algeria, France and the US preferred Al Qaeda to occupy the north than some separatist rebels. Even now, young Tuareg men that pop back to Mali from the camps for a few days until they feel their presence is too known and they return to Burkina report that even today you are better off saying you are an ex-islamist than ex-MNLA.

Now most of the Tamashek population of Mali is displaced. Furthermore it is since the supposed French “liberation” of the north that the majority of these refugees, especially here in Burkina, have left. The myth pedaled by all involved governments and parroted by their medias is that these refugees fled the rebels and the islamists, further compounding another myth that these are one and the same.

Nor should you believe the aid agencies who will claim they fled drought and food crisis to top up their coffers.

The reality is that they fled their own army, the Malian military. At the beginning of the rebellion in January-February 2012 they fled the history of this army’s reaction to any rebellion, a history every family remembers only too painfully, and a history that was already repeating itself with attacks on civilians dressed up as attacks on MNLA positions.

Then in April 2012 following the military’s coup d’etat they people left after this same military, with the police and gendarmes were called to abandon their posts and their towns and cities -Timbuktu, Gao, Kidal, Menaca, Douentza – leaving the populations exposed to occupation by first the rebels and then followed swiftly by the mafia “islamist” forces, neither of whom had to fire a bullet against Mali to achieve their aims.

But the biggest wave of flight came after the French liberation of their lands because it was this same Malian army – an army that was in such disarray in the lead up to the intervention that they were fighting each other in Bamako – that was then inexplicably left by the advancing French campaign to manage the peace. Given French awareness of the history of the Malian army’s response to northern rebellions, let alone one that was hijacked with such serious consequences, a crisis that has ripped the country apart and brought to its knees, this act, in my view, constitutes complicity in war crimes.

Let me just digress a bit here to state an important fact about the French liberation. I welcomed the French intervention as by January 2013 the Mali situation had been left by the international world to fester in inertia and something had to happen, but I also supported it because, as I have been saying since the crisis began, these narco-traficants posing as phantom Al Qaeda “islamists” who had supposedly opened up a new frontline in the war on terror, could have and should have been swept up and disposed of very easily by a highly sophisticated, desert-trained French military, fresh from active service in Afghanistan and their training camps in Chad, with the combined intelligence support of the US the UK and Algeria – a formidable alliance indeed!

Moreover, the French were welcomed in with open arms by north and south of the country. At last Malians had one thing in common – they were all glad of the help to rid the population’s number one enemy. With these forces gone, Mali could have begun to breathe again.

And then, just as with Afghanistan, they threw it all away.

At the point of French intervention all the “islamist” forces, none of them battle hardened as they’d never had to fight for any of their gains, were trapped south of the river Niger, out in the open around Konna, with only one bridge crossing at Gao or a very slow car ferry crossing at Timbuktu as routes of escape, both between 400 and 600 kms away. To get back to their stomping ground the islamists had to cross the river and then 500kms of open flat desert. The French had timed their intervention perfectly, this could be over in a month.

But, somehow, 2 days after the intervention began, the arch enemy, leader of the AQMI forces, Iyad Ag Ghali, the poison in the mix, the Tuareg who had been islamised thus giving all the bogeyman they needed, the most detested man in both the northern and the southern populations, the Osama Bin Laden figure in the Mali crisis, was able, like Bin Laden had before him, to escape to desert mountains and interminable obscurity.

Iyad, as he is referred to locally, was able to drive with all his crack troops in convoy to his fiefdom in Kidal in the same sort of time it would take a traveller in a hurry. Despite the drones, despite the French air force supposedly sweeping these forces up, despite taking the only tarmac road route and the route with the only bridge, despite the open terrain, despite the price on Iyad’s head, despite the very swift French troop deployment and despite all their intelligence networks that were already in place, France, like the US before them in Afganistan, had let their guy go. And now we hear very little about him.

This fact is never mentioned in reporting but spoken about all the time on the ground – by the Tuareg that is, the people who hate Iyad the most. Why has this not been pursued by the international media? Who is Iyad working for? He is certainly not working for his people.

So the French advanced to the northern desert in pursuit, to the obscure mountains nicely positioned in the centre of the Sahara within range of Algeria, Mali and Niger, who could ever know what was happening there? And in the process they leave the Malian military behind in Timbuktu and Gao to manage the peace.

After the “liberation” of Mali, the re-occupying Malian army began “sweeping up the islamists”. This entailed being escorted by locally activated militia (Songai and Arab, set up by the former President for exactly the occasion of a successful rebellion) who knew the region into market places and remote villages, seeking out the light skins, the “red’ population, initially abducting and killing, then imprisoning on suspicion of “terrorism”, some ransomed back to their families. They were easily spotted as they were few and far between – mainly cattle herders and shepherds, those left behind to be with the animals.

This obviously induced further terror in any clear skinned Malian left in the Gourma, Timbuktu and Gao regions of Mali encouraging them to flee and the refugees to remain in the camps. The result of this fear campaign plus the rushed forwards election is that there are very few Tuareg left now to vote in these regions. And from seeing France as initially their liberator they now feel betrayed and angry.

Again, in Mali’s half century of history, the north has erupted, again the north/south fault line is at cause, again the northern population are the victims, again families find themselves repeating flight from their country. And yet no politician has the balls to talk about the north seriously, with equanimity, with concern, with truth.

No pressure from the outside world is brought to bear on Mali to finally resolve its northern question: oil is more important than people.

The truth is that children born as refugees in the early 90’s are now finding themselves refugees again in their early twenties, their lives as students, newly weds, wannabes all in tatters, their dreams a distant fog. Some of these students have grandparents who themselves will have been born displaced in the 60s rebellion or the terrible drought of the 70’s. Are the Tuareg condemned to cyclical exile?

For all, the fault lies with the politicians and the state that has for decades failed to protect its northern and particularly Tuareg peoples’ rights, development and security and who allowed their land to become the latest backdrop in the western world’s latest epic drama:” The Great War on Terror in the Sahara Desert”.

The question of the north is also why these old imperial forces are back on their ground now, with their new imperial intentions. The US and France backed up doggedly as ever by the UK, are taking back control of Africa’s future. We are at the beginning of Africa’s re-colonization by western economies that need African resources to get them out of their economic mess. We have created the war and now, as with Iraq and Afghanistan, we will provide the security, bringing in new exploitation – sorry exploration – and “free market capitalism” so that West Africa can do a Latin America of the 70’s, a UK and Asia of the 80’s, a Russia of the 90’s, an Iraq and an Afghanistan of the 00’s.

And the enemy this time? The foe we are protecting ourselves from? Not Al Qaeda – that is a smoke screen, a phantom, it is not really there. No our real fear, here in Africa, this time is China. I’ll leave that one with you for another day!

So the US and France have insisted on this election now, before Mali has had a chance to breathe, to get itself together, have a conversation and debate its future. The purpose is for the old order to be put back in control, the old status quo that plied their “haram” trade before will allow the new forces to ply theirs now. We’ll be back to loads of aid money piling in, NGOs everywhere, USAID further entrenched to ‘help”. The old European model of democracy bequeathed by France at independence will be re-instated with a majority (ah the democratic curse of the majority that allows a big people to shit on a little within the constitution!) “elected” president with whom we can at least all start doing business again.

It doesn’t matter to the outside world whether the restored democracy is good for Mali, whether it will resolve the north/south divide, whether it has legitimacy and whether it will bring prosperity and peace and equality to the people of Mali. What matters is that we have a man we can do business with, and in Ibrahim Boubacar Keita – or IBK as all refer to him in line with the tradition of acronyming their presidents’ names – we will have that.

People in the camps are beyond hoping for anything from their future, beyond expecting the UN or the US or France or ECOWAS or the EU or the AU or the Mali state to help them as they face repeated cultural extinction, ethnic cleansing, exile or a return as guests in their own country, on their own land.

The majority of the refugees in Burkina Faso – as with those in Mauritania, Niger, Algeria – before this crisis would have counted themselves as Malian 100%. Very few would have wanted the rebellion, as few have ever wanted any of the rebellions, but none of them have been given any support from their country and now they don’t know who they are. They know they are Tamashek but they don’t know what nationality they are or should wish now to be. Are they better off becoming Mauritanians, or Burkinabe? My friend Randi, who spent her first 6 years as a refugee in the 90’s rebellion and is now a student absent from her studies in Bamako after fleeing immediately the rebellion started, told me “I want to be Malian but my life as a Malian now seems like a dream. Now Mali doesn’t want me. So who am I now?”

For me the biggest scoundrels of all are those who really have no excuse, those who should be protecting the rights of the weak, the poor, the dis-enfranchised and the exiled, those who should be looking to tell the world of the truth of the situation in Mali are the vast majority of the international journalists and media. Throughout 2012 they helped create the fog for war by their ignorance of the issues, their absence of interest and their acceptance of government propaganda from wherever it came.

This media is now contributing to the western agenda with their lily livered levels of enquiry. Throughout the crisis they have parroted US and French policy, they have said what they are expected to say, they have investigated nothing, turned over no stones, enquired nowhere beyond the remit of their fighting masters.

Point me to an article or a blog written by one of the many ex-Peace Corps turned journalists who hang out in Bamako that tries to understand Mali from the northern perspective. Have you read anything about the refugees or why they fled or who they really are? Show me where the BBC or CNN or any other major media channel doesn’t use the same terminology as their government’s press briefings, that doesn’t make the same mis-leading mistakes, calling rebels “jihadists” and mafia “islamists”, talk of Tuareg allainces with Al Qaeda, labeling Mali as Afghanistan or Somalia before it is time, describing its recent past as “a shining example of democracy in the region”. Who, other then Jeremy Keenan (in his books The Dark Sahara and its sequel, The Dying Sahara – and on questions the western narrative?

Albert Einstein said: “”The world will not be destroyed by those who do evil, but by those who watch them without doing anything”. The media has much to contemplate on this in reference to Mali.

I am on the ground, as I have been on the ground in Mali, north and south, in the desert and the sahel since 2006. I have seen the inner workings of this crisis at first hand, I have watched it develop. I am seeing evil done and I am seeing a world “watching and doing nothing”.

I did come to the camps with one good piece of news. I have been seeking help for an idea to help the refugees return home which has led me to some well connected and intentioned people linked up with the Festival In The Desert. Together we are planning a caravan of returning refugees to Timbuktu which has received strong but as yet unconfirmed interest within the UN.

My news was generally received well, but I felt a new dimension has come into play, a new doubt, a new worry. As Mufta Ansar said to me: “The return is good, we all want to return. But what after? What about a year’s time, or two year’s time, or even ten year’s time. In the 90’s my family tired to return twice only to have to flee again soon after they returned. If it is a return to be dumped in the same impasse we were in before, if we are are going to be back here again, why bother returning now? We’d be better off starting afresh elsewhere”.

Mufta is an important man in the community – not just the Tuareg community, for he lives in an area where the Tuareg are a minority: over the past 10 years he had financed and built a school, a health centre, community farming projects, irrigation schemes without a penny coming from the state. Now all is lost, he must begin again. “I am a Malian patriot, I loved my country but I don’t know anymore. I am older now, I have my children to think about. I cannot work the next ten years of my life to have it all taken away again. And so far I see no sign that anyone is going to do anything to resolve the problem, and if they don’t all this horror will come back to haunt us again”.

Mufta sits back in the moonlight and repeats a charming concept he has pondered with me before: “where is the world’s humanity?”.

How quaint! Mufta thinks the UN and ECOWAS and the AU were set up to safeguard humanity. He thinks the US and the EU guide their foreign policy and their war on terror and their hunt for resources along humanitarian principles. He thinks those journalists, those cameras, the Peace Corps volunteers planted in every village and those signs of USAID all over the place are all about witnessing and helping humanity in its struggle against poverty and oppression and FREEDOM!

How naive he is!

How naive am I?

How naive are we all?