Posts Tagged ‘Alioune Tine’

An Afghanistan scenario in Mali? Part 4 and conclusion.

September 13, 2021

Interrupted by a very severe malaria attack on this author and a missing laptop, hence the gap between Part 3 and this, the final installment. But here it is, at last.

I do not know how close the interpretation of Islam as espoused by the Taliban is to the majority of Afghans. In the case of Mali, though, I can safely say that while the majority of the country’s population is staunchly conservative, it cannot abide by Sharia Law. The cosmopolitan, spiritual, open, tolerant, flexible, family-run versions of Islam that prevail in West Africa are proving remarkably resilient under the sustained attacks from its poor, claustrophobic, rigid and backward cousin from the Middle East. The Gulf states plus the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia continue to throw a lot of their money – paid for by the rich world’s petrol addiction – into the impoverishment of West African Islam but it remains to be seen whether the investment is paying off, especially seen against the background of diminishing revenues from an increasingly tainted commodity: oil.

Besides, the choices African individuals and families make are often informed by pragmatism. I caught an early glimpse of this three decades ago in Southern Africa, where parents sent their children to Catholic or protestant schools, not because they were staunch adherents to these religions but simply because these schools often offered the best education. This pragmatism surely persists to this day.

Similarly, the lavishly funded mosques and their attached associations provide services others do not. This does not mean that every West African – is turning into a Wahabist Muslim…there is, for instance, still a reassuringly small number of fully veiled women out on the streets. They use the service provided and keep thinking their own thoughts. After all, one of my colleagues stated with laser beam precision and clarity what it is we are dealing with: “Make no mistake. The Islamic variant coming from the Gulf constitutes a full frontal assault on our African culture and values.” Reducing women to fully covered quasi-inanimate objects runs counter to traditions that are much older and have deeper roots. In my own book on Guinea, I mentioned the destruction of sacred statutes and masks in Guinea Forestière, in the name of Islam fighting false idols. The vandalism in Timbuktu springs to mind again, described by one elder as his city being robbed of its soul. One would like to believe that after the forced departure of most of the illiterate vandals it may get some of its soul back. 

A neighbourhood bar

In short, then: popular support for this strictest of interpretations of the faith is not happening, even though people take their faith very seriously. But they also value their ancestral roots and culture, traditional music, and certainly like to be left alone to pursue their way of life in ways they see fit. And that includes enjoying their drinks and worshipping their families, the indestructible cornerstone of West African life. 

No Taliban-style force will show up in the capital the minute the French leave, which they will do before too long. No bearded “fool of god” (copyright: my Malian friends) will reside in Koulouba, the presidential Palace on Power Hill in Bamako, no matter how ardently Iyad ag Ghaly desires this – and I continue to suspect that he will remain an ardent apostle of the true Faith until a better deal comes along and he may change tack yet again…

The much more fundamental problem, as the human rights veteran and UN expert Alioune Tine argues following a recent visit to Mali, is the problem of an absent state. With no formally recognisable structures visible, however colonial-alien-superimposed they may be, the upshot is that in their absence others have moved into this void. And those filling the void have been, by and large, armed gangs whose behaviour is frequently as atrocious as that of the state representatives (read: the armed forces), they have come to replace. In the first six months of this year, the UN mission to Mali has recorded almost 600 human rights violations. All of the groups I have mentioned in this series are involved. That is a hell of a lot for the population to take. And it is the women like the ones I spoke with in Fana and Ségou, the elderly, the children, who are most at risk. It is, says Tine, so bad that this proliferation of horror could precipitate the end of Mali as a state-run unified unit. You can argue that in some areas this is already the case. Gao, as close to the Wild West as you are likely to get at this point, gets its supplies from Algeria taken across the desert by experienced drivers who have deals with the gangs of bandits reigning in and around town. The situation may be replicated in other places. 

And this is the real menace to Mali. Not a lightning takeover by an insurgent force but a slow and inexorable decline, leaving Bamako and maybe a few other key cities as islands of relative safety and stability in an ocean of chaos. Are there solutions? Yes, and the most obvious one is unpalatable: turning the country into a federation, which could in fact make this ungovernable and frequently ungoverned space of 1.2 million square kilometres governable again, at least up to an extent. This reduces the influence of Bamako, shorthand for the place where all the money goes and where all political and military power players and influencers converge. And once you’re in, the place is sweet. This is why even the soldiers running the show today are disinclined to let federation and the concomitant decline of Bamako happen. 

But circumstances may force the hand of whoever is in power. After all, as I am hearing so often: the problem is not the North or the Centre, or the militias, or the jihadists. The problem is Bamako. Solve that, and you solve the insurgency. If ever this happens it will not be pretty. But it may well save the country, as it re-emerges in a different form.