Posts Tagged ‘Gao’

An Afghanistan scenario in Mali? Part 3

August 22, 2021

So the parallels, superficial or less so, between Mali and Afghanistan, have a limited shelf life. This is illustrated very well by Lyammouri’s assessment, which I share, that we are not going to see gun-toting turbaned men at the presidential palace (called Koulouba) on the Colline de Pouvoir, along the road to the military base at Kati. In fact, Koulouba’s current occupant is the colonel from Kati who took power a year ago, Assimi Goïta. And he shows no signs of departing. Mali’s decadent political class – propped up by the West – that brought the country to its current lamentable state was not removed by a religious insurgency, as happened in Kabul this week; they were kicked out by a popular movement followed by a coup. And what the people now want most of all from this military-dominated government is a return to security. And this is where things get really complicated.

Because there is not one dominant Islamic insurgency. When discussing religious insurrectionism in Afghanistan, talks are generally restricted to one word: Taliban. (Whether this is fair or not I don’t know.) Mali is home to a dizzyingly large number of outfits with guns that often fight each other, like the Al-Qaeda and Islamic State franchises (JNIM and Islamic State in the Greater Sahara) that have been at each others’ throats on and off for roughly two years. There are also any number of self-defined self-defence militias that attempt to secure their communities and then go out and attack other communities. Some of these attacks have been particularly bloody. We also have the old phenomenon of proxies. The Malian army has been working with them for decades and they have also been associated with Opération Barkhane in the border region with Niger and Bukina Faso, near the town of Ménaka.

But most of all, we have widespread and spreading banditry that can take the guise of any of these groups. It also happens that they throw away any and all pretence and just go after your stuff and your money. “Not a single road in and out of Gao is safe,” asserts a friend who lives there. And he cannot even properly describe the tit-for-tat killings going on there because he knows that some of these hired guns enjoy protection at the highest possible official level. And we just had the revelation of yet another scandal that implicates a private businessman and army personnel with the sale of arms to jihadist and/or self-defense units. Reports of hold-ups, break-ins, armed robberies and active gangs of highwaymen come in from all corners of the country. Mali is far less safe from folks with empty pockets, a propensity for crime – and, crucially, in possession of guns, mobile pones and motorbikes – than it was even three, four years ago.

If this is giving you vertigo, worry not. You are not the only one. Take a boat stroll on the calming waters of the eternal river.

Understand, then, that the simple “us” versus “them” scenario (“the single story”) that the media are so fond of and that is portrayed to be playing out in Afghanistan simply does not exist in Mali, which is why international media, by and large, igore this story. Too darn complicated.

The proliferation of armed groups – including those self-styled, self-professed and sometimes genuine jihadis – is the result of a collapsed state. State collapse did not happen overnight or in a blitz offensive by an insurrectionist army. It happened slowly, death by a thousand cuts, scandal after scandal after scandal. Bribes over here, reported by Malian journalists and blithely ignored by Mali’s so-called “partners” in development. (Thou shalt not speak ill of a donor darling.) The importation of unusable agriculture inputs with some well-connected traders getting rich and farmers left destitute and desperate. A drugs flight here. A deal with insurgents there. Kickbacks from lucrative negotiations for the release of Western hostages. Unvetted rebels like the one we met yesterday sent to diplomatic posts. And on and on it went. By the time, early 2012, that the MNLA made its ill-fated invasion and established its stillborn Azawad, the army had been demoralised to the point of immobility, the jihadists Algeria had tossed across its border ito Mali’s vast desert were already waiting in the wings as the state lay on its death bed. And yes, as always and everywhere, the poor and the vulnerable end up paying the highest price.

What is left of the state in Mali is kept in place by donor money and revenue from gold mines, all but one foreign-owned. It is kept safe principally by foreign troops that are on the way out. And in the meantime, it continues to rot from within. Nobody seems to care. The assault on the country by a bewildering array of armed groups continues and even though none of them will run this country (and certainly not under an Islamist extremist flag), the horror they visit on ordinary people continues unabated and goes unnoticed by the world at large. As if they do not even exist.

An Afghanistan scenario in Mali? Part 1

August 19, 2021

The August 16 Taliban takeover of Afghanistan has – supposedly – sent shockwaves through Mali. In fact, what was more on Malians’ mind was the first anniversary, the next day, of the coup d’état that ended a failed experiment in democracy that lasted a decade longer than America’s “longest war”.

Sure, in the many “grins” (pronounce this in French), the nighttime talking circles around cups of tea you see everywhere, the Taliban takeover will have come up for debate. But the subject will then have been followed by discussion about last year’s military takeover, the corrupt leftovers from the previous political era, the chances of Mali’s national soccer squad in the next African Championship…

We have been here before. When the “Arab Spring” happened (a historically illiterate moniker if ever there was one) we were told that “Africa” – yes, it’s always the ENTIRE continent – was waiting its turn, patiently, to have a stab at democracy, too. Never mind that popular movements against unpopular autocrats have been part of the political landscape since the 1960s and earlier, from South Africa to Burkina Faso (twice) by way of Zanzibar and…Mali, 1991.

So, Mali and Afghanistan, then. Are there no parallels between the two? Of course there are. But they need careful examination, rather than the hurried hackery of the easy comparison. Both countries have religious insurgencies on their hands, even though methods and status are widely different. The similarity is that Western powers have used the might of their military to blunder their way in and out of these situations, leaving some success in their wake and a lot of damage. The US Army, the French Opération Barkhane – both of which are in the process of being dismantled after 20 years and 8 years respectively – have been employed to tackle issues that were either non-existent or tagged on the original mission for good measure. In many parts of the receiving countries, they will largely be remembered for drone strikes on wedding parties.

The US invasion was the result of 9/11; the French invasion was the result of an armed jihadist outfit crossing a red line and threatening Bamako, the capital city. The US got its attacker in the end; the French chased away the menace. Both suffered mission creep and engaged in things they should have left to the people living there. The pretence that you can bomb a country into becoming a nation, for instance. Now, presidents Biden and Macron must paper over the multiple cracks left behind by their policy wonks with the kind of smooth rhetoric both are very good at.

The French and US operations tagged lots of partners along, from NATO to the EU to individual states including my country, The Netherlands and, of course, the bewildering alphabet soup of NGOs wanting a piece of the action. Their presence illustrated more than anything else the intimate links, pioneered by France in Biafra, between the civilising mission that NGOs have become to personify and brutal military action. Mali became the scene of MINUSMA, the UN multidimensional integrated stabilisation mission, one of the deadliest UN operations in the history of the organisation. MINUSMA has clear nation building pretenses, even though there is no peace to keep or enforce, nothing to stabilise and the dying is mainly done by African troops, in the best colonial traditions.

When it comes to pretenses, the other protagonists are pretty serious about one thing and here’s a second parallel between the two countries: the religious insurgents in Central Asia and the Sahel have as their goal to establish Sharia Law in the areas they control. Now that the Taliban are back in power in Afghanistan, their brutal rule from 1996 to 2001 is the obvious reference and the first signs do not look good. Jihadist vandalism in places like Bâmiân and Timbuktu leaves no illusions of how Islamic extremists treat the culture and traditions of the areas they occupy or colonise. Let alone the people…

The original attraction of jihadist rule is that it restores order. This happened, for instance, when one such group (called MUJAO, Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa) removed the thieving looting unruly rebels of the Tuareg rebels of the MNLA from the remote town of Gao in 2012. But the new Islamist order soon solidified into asphyxiating oppression – and the people of Gao took to the streets again. Any imposition of Sharia Law in Mali will prove deeply unpopular and I do not get the impression that the idea is universally shared in Afghanistan either.

Are they lurking on the other side? This is the Djoliba; it runs through Bamako and past Ségou, Timbuktu and Gao. In Ségou, they are said to be “just behind the river”. I never saw them. In Timbuktu and Gao they are hiding among the population. Mali’s sole artery has become a dangerous place, a haven for bandits instead of a prospering waterway.

Sure, Malians profess support for Sharia Law and applaud the Taliban takeover – on that most modern of communication vehicles: social media. Facebook messages are blindly copied and shared. None of this sharing makes you any the wiser about what a country run by the Taliban actually looks and feels like. The pro-Taliban position in the capitals around the Sahel is much better explained by a profound and widespread detestation of everything Western, in particular, France. Opération Barkhane is seen as an occupying force, although not necessarily by the people living in the North. They know, from experience, that the presence of foreign troops is some guarantee that Mali’s national army will behave itself.

Mali’s army, FAMa, is an inheritor of a long and proud military tradition that has been thrown to the dogs during the democratic era, when successive presidents sought and succeeded to divide and corrupt it. This is not to say that there have not been excesses before; the ultra-violent suppression of the first Tuareg insurrection after Independence (1963-64) has left deep scars in the soul of a nascent nation, which have never received proper treatment. But the rapid decay in morale and resources – the direct cause for the 2012 and the 2020 coups – happened during the era of democracy, while the international donor community held its nose, looked the other way and praised the country to the heavens while pretending nothing was amiss as the rot set in.

part 2 tomorrow.

Mali. Again (part four of six)

August 8, 2016

Yes, you noted that correctly. Inevitably, as a piece like this develops and new ideas come up, it gets longer. And I don’t want to bore you to tears with endless screeds, so I cut it up one more time. This one’s a bit longer than the others but the last two will be brief – again. Here goes: 

Now, let’s take a closer look at events in the place where the Dutch have their camp. Gao.

Not looking promising and there is little hope that the end is in sight. We are still not entirely clear what caused this particular outburst but previous experience tells me that Minusma will not have a clue. The military are often dilligently unearthing info they deem relevant – only to find it gathering dust in a civilian drawer. An age-old UN problem. In addition to that, those that are supposed to do the gathering should master five or six local languages; Dutch and English will not do. (But then the Dutch government does not tell its citizens why it is in Mali. I refer my Dutch readers to some of the observations made by Mali veteran Aart van der Heiden in that respect.)

***

Then there is Kidal, north of Gao, where the CMA (the Azawad independence movement’s umbrella) is in a precarious standoff with a pro-government militia called Gatia, after a series of deadly clashes in July. This was not the first time Kidal burst into flames.

In May 2014, Prime Minister, Moussa Mara made a tactically sound move to prove to the world that the Malian state was in charge of all its territory. This was, after all, the job that Minusma had come to do: help Mali in its effort to regain control of all the terrain inside its formal (be it colonial and deeply flawed) borders. The Malians had put General Alhaji ag Gamou in charge of the storm troops headed for Kidal;. Not a wise move: Gamou does not like Kidal and those who run it, which, as it happens, was the Tuareg independence movement MNLA at the time. Gamou decided to take them on, on behalf of himself (first and foremost) and Mara (second).

The result was a rout. 50 Malian soldiers dead.

Kidal sees frequent clashes between groups that hold differing allegiances and have different opinions about whether or not an independent Azawad is possible or even desirable. At the same time, there are tensions among family-based tendencies within the Touareg community (the Ifoghas are in charge of Kidal and Imghad like Gamou want to capture the town) and almost inevitably these outbursts are also manifestations of clashing business interests. Some of this can be traced back all the way to French colonial shenanigans last century.

***

Ah oui, les Français! Let’s talk about them for a bit.

When jihadists crossed the line at Konna in central Mali, French president François Hollande ordered Operation Serval. This was in January 2013. Serval was warmly welcomed and restored some semblance of order.

Its objectives were to: (1) secure Bamako and the French citizens living there and (2) ensure that nobody (in principle) departed from Mali with the intent to throw bombs and shoot people in France. It succeeded in the first objective; the jury is out on the second. Still – and this is the point: having secured Bamako and French passport holders, Serval should have been on the next plane home.

Instead, it was folded into the much larger Operation Barkhane, based in the capital of Chad, N’Djamena, at the pleasure of François Hollande’s newfound friend, a ruthless autocrat by the name of Idriss Déby Itno, now in is fifth uncontested term as president of Chad. As is the case with the Dutch (and the Americans for that matter), we have some idea of what Barkhane is doing, but not much. Do we have to wait, Libya-style, until one of their aircraft comes down and they will have to explain (in part at least) what the hell they are doing in their former backyard? The answer is, unfortunately: yes. 

***

Malian suspicions the French troops are enormous. ‘Do you know that half of their so-called military are geologists?’ I hear this frequently. Can you blame them? No. Neither can you be at odds with Burkinabè when they tell you that French troop presence attracts terrorists and that they resent the implicit assumption that Burkinabè troops are unable to secure their own country.

In Mali, the French are, to all intents and purposes, the boss. When Air Algérie Flight AH5017 came down just inside Mali (close to the border with Burkina Faso) on 24 July 2014, French warplanes went looking for the aircraft, French ground troops secured the area; they then recovered the flight recorders and sent them to…Paris. A great way to make new friends.