During my journey to Mali few years back, I discovered why the world seemed unconcerned with what is going on in Mali today: Mali has nothing but the River Niger. The capital city, ‘Bamako’ is named after the crocodiles found in the River Niger. Since Independence in 1960; the entire country continues to rely on donor countries.
I and my team were slated to tour, northern Mali, in order to visit, one of the earliest Universities in the world. In the 16th century, the center of the world’s scientific knowledge was situated in Timbuktu- the famous world class University of Sankore. My Embassy, made frantic arrangements but the trip was cancelled at the last hours. Why?
No safety could be guaranteed; the government in power only controlled the southern fringes of Mali, a territory that is less than half of the entire nation’s landmass. Since, the Northern part was under the Tuareg militias, as of that time, Intel revealed that it would be extremely dangerous to embark on the trip, because of kidnapping and armed banditry. Apart from that, to travel to Timbuktu, you must go with extra automobiles, mainly four wheel drive and with escorts. We have special security details to ensure this, and adequate four wheel drive, had been arranged with enough back up, should incase we got stalked up in the expansive Sahara sand.
“Gentlemen, the security situation is pathetic, our Intel is very clear about this and we can’t endanger your live”. With those, few, but authoritative words, my life time quest to enter Timbuktu, that I had written gloriously about and fantasize meeting ‘Ahmed Baba Es Sudane’, came to an end. I have never tried again.
I later came to be aware that, it was at the peak of the insurrection, of a Tuareg rebel group known as the 23 May 2006 Democratic Alliance for Change, newly established by Iyad Ag Ghaly, as a response to the setbacks he experienced in the internal Tuareg power struggle. Iyad Ag Ghaly was once the leader of Malian Islamist group – Ansar Dine that has led several Tuareg uprisings against the Malian government. At a time in August 2003, Iyad Ag Ghaly was noted to have played a decisive key role in securing the release of 14 German tourists kidnapped by the Algerian Salafi Group for Call and Combat, GSPC, which later became Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
In retrospect, Mali had one of the greatest histories in Africa, and this must be a lesson to all other African nations today. So that resource endowments would not continue to be a resource curse in Africa. Ancient Mali is more or less a history of trade, wealth, and education. For centuries, Black empires from Mali, has been noted to have controlled regional trade routes. By the 8th century, Mali had come into the world’s reckoning as the “the land of gold.” Mansa Musa, an ancient king of Mali, who made a mesmerizing trip to Mecca with 500 men bearing gold in the 14th century, continued for several centuries to bedazzle the consciousness of the world. Ancient tales had it that Mansa Musa gave so much gold to the Egyptians that the value of Egypt’s gold-based currency was seriously diminished after he left.
The ancient kingdom of Ghana, known for its gold after which the term ‘Gold coast’ originated was once situated in present day Mali. By the 11th century, Mali had firmly consolidated its empire and hence had become one of the world’s largest suppliers of gold and the center of ancient scholarship. Between that period and the 19th century, Mali was the core area of three greatest empires of the western Sudan of Ghana, Mali, and Songhai.
But like any other, empires before it, Babylonia, Greeko-Roman among others, Mali declined in the later 14th and 15th centuries, due largely to internal instability as it happened again, this year 2012. By the time, the French would come in, into Mali in 1904 and made what is now Mali, a part of the French colony of Haut-Sénégal-Niger, Mali was merely a ghost of its chequered past. What remained was finally destroyed by colonialism.
Today, Mali has exhausted all its natural endowments of the past centuries, most especially its fabled gold. Hence, today, Mali is now among the 25 poorest countries in the world, as a landlocked country with at least 65% of its land area situated deep in the desert or semi desert. Mali is highly dependent on the little and sparse gold mining and agricultural exports for revenue. Its fiscal status therefore, fluctuates with gold and agricultural commodity prices and the harvest. It is therefore, no longer a big surprise that Mali remains heavily dependent on foreign aids or dole outs. According to statistic, about half the population of Mali, live below the international poverty line of US$1.25 a day (Human Development Indices, Table 3: Human and income poverty, p. 35.1 June 2009).
Geography could be said to have been one of the significant militating factors that had held Mali in great captivity. In the past, Mali had experienced one of the worst famines in world history, and devastating drought as well, which was said to have consumed more than half of the population of cities like Timbuktu. As stated earlier, this is as a result of Mali having more than half of its land mass deep in the Saharan desert. Hence, these are natural phenomenal that Mali has not been able to overcome and always rear their ugly head like a Frankenstein monster again and again. Each passing year, more than 13 million Malians are always expected to be affected by drought.
Presently, only the Niger River, offers Mali any viable economic activity, employing about 80% of its labor force, mostly in farming and fishing. Its industrial activity is therefore, concentrated on processing of such farm commodities. A very significant sector, that could have been a money spinning opportunity to Mali, is tourism but security concerns are serious limitation. It should be noted significantly, that Mali is one of the few African nations that is still having elements of the African tribal groups(the Moor) that conquered and ruled Europe ,during the Almoravides dynasty (1040-1147 A.D),( The World Factbook, 12 January 2010). The Moors constitutes about (10%) of Mali’s 14.5 million population, according to 2009 estimate.
A window of opportunity opened for further emasculation of Mali, when a military coup d’état led by Capt. Amadou Haya Sanogo, overthrew the government of President Amadou Toumani Touré, in March 2012, claiming that the government had not adequately supported the Malian army’s fight against an advancing Tuareg-led rebellion in the north(i.e the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) and other Islamist groups), as its main thrust for overthrowing the government ,barely a month before a presidential election was scheduled to take place. Initially, it was a protest march against the presidential palace, but spontaneously turned into a military coup, when the opportunity opened wide for such.
However, this has now turned out to be the greatest opportunity that the Tuareg militia, presently backed by Al-Qaida has been waiting for since 1916, when it started its insurgencies for self-determination, and January 2012 when it renewed its insurgency. As the confusion, tense conditions and dicey situation in Bamako escalated, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), aided by Ansar Dine (cited earlier), a group noted to have hitherto been killing Malian regular soldiers and capturing territory sporadically, quickly stepped up its unhindered advance by claiming control of vast swathes of territory. Like a pack of cards, Mali’s three largest northern cities, Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal, were quickly overrun by the militia, barely within three days of determined but unhindered sporadic attack or incursion.
There is no doubt that the ‘rebels’ tactically took a great advantage of the army’s disarray across the country , most especially the seemingly power vacuum and instability in Bamako, to seize the whole of the north, an area the size of France and three times the size of the United Kingdom. In all, the MNLA has been noted to have captured most of the northern cities, without much fighting, and hence celebrating its victory with equal gusto: with great pomp and pageantry by carrying the Azawad flag on pick-up trucks around the city.
And so, as expected, from such fast passed roller coaster victories, on the 6th of April, 2012, MNLA proclaimed Azawad’s independence from Mali. So many analysts on Africa’s affairs, still maintain that, this latest derring-do is as a result an influx of arms and fighters from Libya, most of whom have been noted to have fought side by side, either for Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s army, or the militias in conjunction with multinational forces, determined to sack the government of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi.
However, the latest scenario has triggered concomitantly a serious humanitarian crisis in Mali. According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), 53,000 Malians have been noted to have fled to Niger and 96,000 to Mauritania. UNHCR estimates that 174,000 Malians are internally displaced. While the World Food Program (WFP) official, estimates that 77,000 need food aid. Medicines sans Frontiers estimate that 30,000 of acutely malnourished children have been treated by aid agencies and the government. While, close to 120,000 have been left unattended to. It has been estimated that pastoralists’ access to pasture is drastically reduced, while animals are dying, and cereal prices are high because of the pervasive drought and conflict. There are also estimates that rice production will be reduced by 20-30 percent this year, aggravating the food and health crisis. Adding to all these, is the fact that many health workers had fled and clinics or hospitals had been closed with the coming of the Islamists, who had been known to hardly leave any enemy behind.(Mali’s Humanitarian Crises, by John Campbell, August 27, 2012).
However, a more recent record on the 4th April 2012 shows that there are now roughly about 200,000 displaced persons, and up to 400 people a day were crossing the borders into Burkina Faso and Mauritania. The UNHCR’s spokesperson Melissa Fleming said: “The north of the country is becoming more and more dangerous due to the proliferation of armed groups in the region. Acute shortage of water and food has been reported to have hit more than half of the entire nation.
In the past, in anticipation of the incessant drought and famine, there are several donors insitu in Mali. However, with the escalating daily inferno in many cities of Mali, most especially in the north, the donors quickly pulled out en masse. (‘The international response to Mali’s crisis has been woefully inadequate’ by Afua Hirsch).
Meanwhile, Mali rebels have been accused of serious and gross extrajudicial executions, gang rapes, looting of banks and the use of child soldiers in their ‘putsch’ against the government. And like every other conflicts in history, ‘where carcasses are, vultures must surely gather’, left in the wake of the rebels exploits are the looting of public buildings by civilians, to finish off what the rebels were not able to totally finished. This is apart from colossal destruction of archaeological relics, religious shrines and several others precious historical artifacts in the ancient city of Timbuktu, a major act that has been regarded as “a war crime” by the International Criminal Court (ICC).This latest wave of crisis has prompted Amnesty International to warn that Mali was “on the brink of a major humanitarian disaster”. To worsen the scenario on ground, Ansar Dine had begun imposing Sharia Law on almost all the territories under the rebel’s control.
As one of the greatest catastrophe in West Africa in recent time, developed at a fast rate, the world is extremely busy somewhere else that really matters to the world’s consciousness-Syria. West African Economic Community (ECOWAS), a sub-regional body and African Union (AU) a regional body, both of which Mali has been a ‘card carrying’ member; continue to play a different dissonant tunes. Trailing therefore the cacophonous beats from Mali is a concomitant terrible babel of muted voices of silence from the world. Perhaps, if Mali is endowed with some of the rare natural endowments like fossil fuel, a major fulcrum of power in global economics and political matrix, the world by now could have acted otherwise.
By; Shola Adebowale
Mr. Adebowale is a prolific freelance writer, syndicated columnist, researcher, and blogger. He specializes in telecommunications, Internet trends, and investment portfolio.