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 MISMA or 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 Soumalia 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 destroy the northern economy, its security and the fabric of its community which inevitably led to the rebellion that sparked the coup d’etat which permitted the subsequent “islamist” mafia invasion which knocked the Azawad independence claims off their perch.

It was this invasion that destroyed the Azawad independence claim of the rebels. Mali, Algeria, France and the US preferred Al Qaeda to occupy the north than some separatist rebels. With Al Qaeda in control, the western world can behave as it chooses.

Now most of the northern population of Mali is displaced. Furthermore it is since the supposed French “liberation” of the north  that the majority of 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 too to top up their coffers. 

The reality is that they fled their own army, the Malian military. They fled the history of this army’s reaction to any rebellion at the outset of crisis in February 2012, a history every family remembers only too painfully and a history of which France is only too aware.

Then in April 2012 they fled after their military and police and gendarmes abandoned their posts and their towns and cities -Timbuktu, Gao, Kidal, Menaca, Hombori, Douentza – following the coup d’etat in March 2012, leaving the populations exposed to occupation by first the rebels and then followed swiftly by the mafia “islamist” forces coming in from the north.

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 the slightest rebellion, let alone a crisis that has ripped the country apart and brought it to its knees, this act, in my view, constitutes a war crime.

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, this whole thing – the drugs, the mafia, the islamists 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.

Moreover, north and south of the country were at last united in one thing – they were all glad of the help to rid the population’s number one enemy, the “islamist” forces. With these forces gone, Mali could begin 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 with only one bridge crossing at Gao and a very slow ferry crossing at Timbuktu, both between 400 and 600 kms away. To get back to their stomping ground the islamists had to cross the river. 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 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 the desert mountains and obscurity.

Iyad, as he is referred to locally, was able to drive the 600kms along the only tarred road, cross the bridge at Gao and disappear back another 500kms across flat and open desert to the north, 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 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. Why has this not been pursued by the international media? So the French advanced to the north to the obscure mountains where war could be interminable, 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 Songai militia (set up by the former President for exactly the occasion of a successful rebellion) who knew the region into market places and remote villages, abducting and killing, imprisoning and ransoming any light skinned person – and they were easily spotted as they were few and far between – mainly cattle herders and shepherds, those left behind to guard 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.

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 parents who themselves will have been born displaced.

For all, the fault lies with the politicians and the state that has for decades failed to protect its Tuareg people. The question of the north is also why these old imperial forces are back on their ground now, with their new imperial intentions, though it is not to help the people that they have come but for the wealth that lies here. 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. 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 and freedom 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 – who will win as he is the French choice, 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. 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, told me “I want to be Malian, 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 – 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 written by one of the embedded US ex-Peace Corps turned journalists or photographers who hang out in Bamako that tries to understand Mali from the northern perspective. 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”, labeling Mali as Afghanistan or Somalia before it is time, describing its 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 Aljazeera.com) 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 2008. I have seen the inner workings of this crisis at first hand, I have called upon journalists for years to look under the surface and report it to no avail. 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 about a project I left the camps back in May to pursue. I have been seeking help for the refugees to 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 return which has received strong but as yet unconfirmed support within the UN. International and domestic artists are hoped to join the caravan to bring in, hopefully, some international media. We have a provisional date of November, but we need to see how events progress after the election. I left the camps in early May promising to fight for this, hoping to stage it before the elections but this would have been too soon. But this poor election show in the camps was exactly why we wanted to make our stance before the end of July.

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 returned twice only to have to flee soon again 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!

How naive he is! How naive am I? How naive are we all?

Life as a refugee

Daily life as a refugee is not as bad as you might assume. At least
not here at MENTAO Central, Djibo Burkina Faso where I have come to
stay with my Tuareg friends.

Mali’s crisis does not follow the patterns of most of the continent’s
wars. The active combatants on the ground are predominantly foreigners
for a start when most wars in Africa are civil; most  refugees flee
warring forces seeking to control the government, these ones flee
their own national army, the defenders of the peace left behind by the
liberating French forces.

Here at MENTAO refugee camp near Djibo there are none of our expected images of refugee
poverty. There are no starving children, no one has fled battling
forces, not many have trekked miles to get here. They are more likely
to arrive in Toyota pick ups.

Indeed if you were just passing by and ignored the UNHCR signs on some
of the tents, or the OXFAM water tower, you may just think it was
another African village, albeit a rather large one, stretching off
into the bush.

Maybe this is why the media stay away, preferring to chase the shadow
of the crisis in Mali rather than the substance that is here, seeking
the image of the battling twin forces of foreign invitees, AQMI and
France, rather than the domestic crisis that sparked off all this
mess.

Of course the journalists seek the stories that interest the world at
large, the international war that this year is Mali’s turn to host.

It is outside Mali, in the camps of refugees in Mauritania, Algeria,
Niger and Burkina Faso, that the story of Mali’s domestic crisis, the
root cause and catalyst of the problems of the last year, is taking
place.

Over the next few weeks I will be telling personal stories from the camps.

Who is in the camps?
The camps here, as those in the other countries, are predominantly
filled with the Tamasheq (the correct term for Tuareg which includes
the black “Bella” Tamasheq speakers).

In MENTAO, Djibo they are 85% Tamashek, 15 % Arab. Here in Burkina
Faso they receive refugees from Timbuktu, the region east of Timbuktu
to Gao and south of the river Niger to the Burkina border. Also any
Tuareg who were in Bamako at the beginning of the crisis – students,
state functionaries, policemen, gendarmes, teachers etc – came here.

The reason for the lack of squalor here is not that UNHCR are
providing a lux camp. This is the refuge of the well to do, of those
who had the means to escape. Great families from Timbuktu who can
trace their lineage back to the Prophet, wealthy business people,
travel operators, teachers, lawyers, merchants, nomads, students,
school girls and boys. All have left all they have behind – jobs,
projects, homes, businesses, careers, studies, animals. No one who had
the means in their family to leave Malian soil has stayed.

Journalists returning from Timbuktu and Gao report that there are no
fair skins around. Many left right at the beginning of the crisis. The
first big wave was in late January and February 2012. The MNLA
rebellion had started, and the Tamasheq, remembering the consequences
of previous rebellions, began to leave, quickly, fleeing the
inevitable retribution against the northern population by the Malian
military that always follows rebellions.

The second smaller wave was around the time of the coup d’etat and the
islamist usurping of the MNLA advance to take Azawad in April 2012.
They weren’t fleeing the occupying islamist forces or the potential of
battles between the MNLA and AQMI, but the possibility of
international intervention now that AQMI were in control.

The recent big wave came with the French intervention, but this time
it was more the liberation than the intervention that caused the
exodus. It is the Malian military they flee who inexplicably have no
supervising UN, French or ECOWAS force with them. A military who are
very much one of the causes of the crisis, with no effective authority
controlling them and a history of atrocities against the northern
population, are left behind by the French army to manage the peace in
the very territory the same military abandoned without a fight,
leaving the population to their fate back in March 2012.

Here in Burkina at least they are safe, and here the Tamasheq,
normally spread out over vast distances, are all together again. I say
again, because this has become a regular thing. Every generation it
seems spends time as a refugee. There are students here who spent
their first 6 years in refugee camps during the rebellion of the
1990’s.

Although there are many people here and the camps are about 5km x 2km,
there is space, there is air, it is really just like being in one
large village. People have built homes much like they may have at
home. Grass matting, blankets and UNHCR plastic cover a frame of
sticks. Most families have a UNHCR tent complemented by their home
made shelters, some extending to large family compounds.

The women organise the children and the kitchen, the kids learn to
keep house and run errands, the young watch videos on their computers
or listen to music on their phones and the men – well there’s not much
of a living to be earned so they busy themselves with gathering news
from home, meeting and greeting and pondering their calamitous
situation.

Behind the daily procedures and the normal communal harmony, there is
a far off look in adult’s eyes. The future is very unclear, this
crisis feels more serious than others, and people who once were very
pro Malian and wanted nothing of these rebellions, now wonder how they
can ever call themselves Malian at all. “The very word, Mali, fills me
with fear now” says Randiwt Ansar, a student from Bamako who has had
to inscribe in a university in Burkina.

For me it is a pleasure to be here. I relax in the camp, visit
friends, take in their stories and discuss the situation. Wherever I
go I am warmly greeted, welcomed into tents or onto mattresses in the
shade to discuss, we have many teas, I am fed and accommodated and
watered – it is just like being in the desert.

Just as in their homeland, so here we are in an homogenous world:
there are only Tamashek around. This gives the camps a strong sense of
community.

We all miss their desert with its vast openness, its fresh winds, the
cool of the night and the early morning, the oases, the pools of azure
blue water in granite hills, their wells, their animals, their music,
their parties, the freedom of roaming in the great Sahara – all this
is another life away.

Here in the Sahel they are in sparse bush, the temperatures are
greater, the air less fresh, the nights getting stickier as the dry
season heats up towards the rains in June. Occasionally there are
mosquitos, and when the rains come they will be plenty and this they
are not used to.

If they were their animals the change in climate would have killed
them off by now – even the camel cannot cope with too much variation
of climate and forage.

People complain mainly of the interruption to their lives, of being
tired, wanting their lives back. On the plus side, whole families and
communities are catching up with each other, students have all their
old school friends about, large extended families are re-uniting and
everywhere we go we spot old friends.

The future is very uncertain and it is not an exaggeration to say they
are a people fearing worse to come, wondering when, and for some if,
they might go home. One thing is for certain, they can be asked to
return by their government, by France, by the UN and ECOWAS, but until
they feel safe from their national military, they will staying put.

For now we are safe and doing fine in Burkina, if only it wasn’t so hot!

The Berber and the Tuareg – A Snapshot of Situations

The Berbers are a proud race with one of the longest histories on earth. They called North Africa their home long before the arrival of the Arabs. Their culture is believed to date back more than 4,000 years and ancient Berber states called Mauritania and Numidia existed in classical times.

Between the 11th and 13th centuries, two great Berber dynasties – the Almoravids and the Almohads – much of north-west Africa and parts of Spain. Today, there are substantial Berber populations in Morocco and Algeria, plus smaller numbers in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt.