Mali after the storm

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Flaking 2013 election posters, Bamako

This blogpost has also been published on the LSE Security in Transition website.

May was the cruellest month that war-weary Mali has seen in quite some time. The trouble started with a fraught visit by the country’s new prime minister to the northern town of Kidal, during which rebels occupied the governorate and local administrators were killed and taken hostage. Then, a botched attempt at routing the rebels – centred on the Tuareg separatists of the MNLA – led to a massacre in Kidal and the flight of Malian soldiers, who hid in the bases of the UN peacekeeping mission, Minusma. Next followed mass protests against the French force Serval and against Minusma, accused of seeking the partition of Mali. Amid the turmoil, fear of repercussions set northerners on the road again – just as refugee returns were being planned from the camps sprawling in Mali’s neighbourhood.

It wasn’t meant to be like this. The French military intervention of early 2013 was thought to herald an era of renewed stability, paving the way for the UN mission, the resumption of aid and elections. As each of these steps was accomplished, optimists began to talk of a “post-conflict” transition – yet the calm is now quickly being shattered. As the dust settles over the latest battles, more unanswered questions keep emerging. The fallout has just begun.

For a newcomer to what has long been a complex and much-analysed scene  (see, for examples, pieces here, here and here), three factors weighing on international interventions in Mali have occupied my mind in recent days: economics, risks, and rumours, all of which are intricately entangled.

First, echoing Syria’s emerging “war economy”, continued fighting may prove of great benefit to northern Mali’s armed groups. Such outfits have proliferated, going by shifting abbreviations, membership bases and objectives. For those on the make, such as the recently resurgent Islamists of Ansar Dine, battle can certainly mean business. It allows for controlling strategic areas, key smuggling routes, potential checkpoints and new constituencies at “home” and abroad. Pushing the point, armed groups may be involved in a reflexive insecuritization, living up to the urgent security threat they are variously accused of constituting by Malian and foreign politicians.

In parallel to the economy of war is that of peace – or if not of peace, then of peacebuilding or peacekeeping. Like its war equivalent, this economy is a makeshift, uncontrollable thing. The aid money presumably poured in from on high has so far failed to convince many locals, accompanied by the usual accusations that resources are being frittered away by the wily and well-connected. Meanwhile, gifts of equipment to the Malian army have not just proven insufficient – in addition, following the fighting at Kidal recently donated vehicles are now in rebel hands. As for the UN peacekeeping mission itself, the economic benefit of its local purchases and hires has so far failed to outweigh the perception – however partial – that it is rather adding to pressure on scarce resources and contributing to price rises.

Second, the flare-up also illustrates the risks haunting the aid effort in Mali’s north, which is being reshaped in response to rampant insecuritization. The handful of international NGOs active in Kidal withdrew amid the fighting, triggering doubts over who would distribute aid. A few days later, two people were killed when an aid vehicle hit an explosive device outside Timbuktu. This follows on from the kidnapping of local ICRC staff, and from carjackings, banditry and other attacks. Wary of such security threats, aid organisations have in recent years sought to manage risks through remote programming or more local recruitment. This has created a new demography of aid in the north: local partners and national or foreign African staff man the operations while their western colleagues fly in for brief visits. Such insecurity-based divisions of labour have downsides, to be sure: less financial oversight, a transfer of risk to national staff, and a potential dependence on local groups who may themselves not be politically neutral.

Similar side-effects beset risk management techniques at the UN, whose security apparatus is most concretely on display in the roadblocks and tanks outside Minusma’s headquarters, the Hotel de l’Amitié. Like the barriers erected around the French embassy, these spectacular stabs at securing staff and operations provide but a fragile – some would say illusory – shield against the dangers lurking outside while visibilising the international presence.

Third, the rumour-machine may prove a key factor in Mali’s future, and in the fate of its international guests. This week, an image spread through social media of Minusma peacekeepers photographed together with a northerner holding a separatist “Azawad” banner. Notwithstanding the quick official response, the rage kept growing, just as had happened before the mass protests outside Amitié and the French embassy barely a week ago. But an internet connections is hardly needed to hear the latest rumours about alleged international complicity in Mali’s troubles; suffice to speak to any taxi driver in Bamako, or to any of the young men drinking tea into the night on street corners, and you will hear how the French made sure that Mali lost the Kidal battle. Conspiracies are voiced, elaborated upon, and circulated by Chinese whispers. Local politicians, who know they may end up being either beneficiaries or targets of such sentiments, are surely taking note and adjusting their messaging accordingly, further fuelling the tensions.

The shifting economies of war and peace, rampant risks and rumour-mongering: clouds are darkening on Mali’s horizon. But there may be some promising signs after May’s debacle, too. Minusma acted promptly to secure Kidal’s airstrip and help evacuate or shelter distressed locals, in a first stab at protection of civilians for the mission. UN flights shuttled staff, including Tuareg workers afraid of repercussions, to Bamako and back again once things calmed down. The government’s discourse softened, and a couple of high heads have rolled, showing (besides the politics of blame) at least a measure of accountability. And aid has been distributed in the north, despite the security dangers to brave staff on the frontline.

Amid the calm after the storm, everyone – humanitarians and soldiers, analysts and donors – is now cautiously waiting for what will happen next. For the incidents this May above all illustrate the unpredictability of events, which keep eluding the sophisticated risk management tools of international agencies. Uncertainty lingers over the upcoming renewal of Minusma’s mandate; over what line the government will take on the international presence; over donors’ fickle priorities; over who the armed groups will target; and over the fragile alliances among these groups. Amid the unpredictability, one thing is clear: the international structures that have rapidly been erected in the country, for all their apparent solidity, are already teetering precariously atop Mali’s shifting political sands.

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Jeudi à Bamako

The heat is on in Bamako. The rain hammered down on our roof a few days ago, staining the streets red with mud and relieving the suffocating Saharan temperatures. Now we’re baking again in the Malian oven, and in the streets – and in the faraway, troubled north – another furnace is all ablaze. Yesterday, rebels took two northern towns after a botched Malian army attack. Today, protests are unfolding in downtown Bamako: against the government, against thIMG_20140522_181202216e United Nations, against the French who just over a year ago were welcomed as liberators. Western officials in town are in lockdown mode. It’s only been a week back after a few years away, and already things are looking distinctly different to the Mali I knew.

The new Mali was on display as soon as my plane landed from Dakar last Thursday. On the tarmac of Senou airport, I counted seven UN planes, ready to carry humanitarian cargo, UN personnel and NGO workers up towards the war-scarred north. Inside the airport terminal, a western woman scuttled between the police booths, overseeing Malian officers grappling with newly installed biometric equipment. Mali, it was amply clear, was a country under international tutelage, following the conflict and coup d’etat that so recently saw it grace headlines and newscasts.

And now the conflict is back.

An unwelcome turn of events had long been anticipated. Downtown, the French embassy and cultural centre are barricaded. Close by, the city’s most well-known landmark, the Soviet-era Hotel de l’Amitié, has been repurposed as the Minusma peacekeeping mission’s headquarters. Rattling past in a taxi last week, I spotted coils of razor wire on the hotel drive. In anxious response to the conflict, Bamako – in a weak reflection of the no-go areas of the north – has been subtly reconfigured as a tense new security landscape.

Arriving at my hotel, another change is painfully clear. Mali’s once fledgling tourism industry, choked by travel restrictions well before the conflict, is now well and truly dead. At Hotel Djenne, once a focal point for visiting culture vultures, my bathroom tap coughs and spits out some rust-red water. For good reason: by the second night, I am the hotel’s only guest.

The tourists have been replaced by another, growing bunch of foreigners – soldiers in fatigues, young European NGO workers, suited UN officials and bureaucrats. With them the nightlife of Bamako has returned, in a new, edgier guise. Rents are shooting up. Taxi prices are shooting up. Food prices are shooting up. And in the distant north, a different economy threatens to return big-time – that of war, with its sinister speculators, its winners and losers.

If many things have changed since my last visit in 2010-11, Bamako also remains much the same. A few days ago, I walked the streets of the neighbourhood Missira at night and got invited for cups of strong Sahelian tea, again and again. My Malian newspapers made their round among the tea drinkers, who flipped the pages and muttered about the president’s recent purchase of a new jet at a time of frequent electricity cuts. These are the more subtle, more insiduous realities that have the population seething in Bamako’s popular quartiers. No jobs. Soaring prices. Widespread unease about a government that initially promised so much, yet seems to have delivered so little.

Mali, the gentle Mali I have known for many years, has lost none of its djatigiya, its warm welcome of strangers. Yet today I am not courting my fellow tea drinkers. All my meetings have been cancelled amid the clamour of protest. Instead I’m staying inside, waiting for the latest bout of anger to cool, and for the rains. Anything for a bit of tepid Sahelian rain.

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