Mali: Timbuktu – the End of Tourism?

The ancient city of Timbuktu

Mali’s crisis may have ruinous long-term effects on the socio-economic prospects of one of the world’s most fabled cities.

Northern Mali is no stranger to conflict. Decades of unsuccessful Tuareg secessionist rebellions have given it a reputation for instability and violence. Accordingly, the northern half of the country has long been designated a “red zone” by government foreign offices across the world, and Timbuktu, one of the North’s three major cities, has been left largely unfrequented by tourists, despite its eminent reputation in history and legend.

Rebellion and Crisis

Timbuktu has been gravely and irreversibly affected by Mali’s current dual crisis. In order to understand how, it is worth looking at the factors that have made the latest Tuareg rebellion so different from its failed predecessors.

Firstly, the Tuareg’s impressive arsenal was aided by the uprising in neighbouring Libya. The confusion of Libya’s civil war helped the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) initial organiser, Ibrahim Ag Bahanga, convince Tuaregs serving in Gaddafi’s military to abandon Libya and return to Mali with Libyan weaponry to launch a rebellion.

Secondly, the strength of the rebellion led to the dramatic toppling of Mali’s president, Amadou Toumani Touré, who was deposed in a coup d’état led by Captain Amadou Haya Sanogo on March 22, 2012. Capitalising on mutinous sentiments within the army, which had arisen due to a severe lack of resources and poor leadership in counteracting the rebels, Sanogo seized power quickly by storming the presidential palace and the state television headquarters. He subsequently cited the government’s inability to deal with the northern rebellion as his justification, rhetoric that became increasingly ironic as the Malian army lost the entire northern region to the rebels within weeks of the coup.

The third main factor that differentiates the current rebellion from its predecessors is the level of success and proliferation that it achieved, at least initially. The northern regions of Kidal, Gao and Timbuktu, which together comprise almost all of the Tuareg secessionists’ desired state, fell to the MNLA in quick succession, leading to the movement’s declaration of independence for Azawad on April 6. However, the success was short-lived, and Mali’s crisis took another significant twist when the Islamist group Ansar Dine, whose stated aim is to establish Sharia law throughout all of Mali, usurped the rebellion and outflanked the MNLA to take control of Mali’s major northern cities.

Recent events have put the spotlight back on Bamako. Mali’s interim civilian president, Dioncounda Traore, to whom the ever-influential Sanogo officially ceded power following intense international pressure, has just returned from receiving medical treatment in France. But whilst attention is focused on urgent efforts to overcome political stalemate in Bamako, the crisis in northern Mali deteriorates, and Timbuktu is reported to have become a ghost town.

Timbuktu: from myth to reality

Timbuktu mosque
Arab savages destroying tombs in Timbuktu

This image jars profoundly with Timbuktu’s illustrious history as a centre of commerce and learning, not to mention its mythological notoriety as an affluent settlement in “the middle of the nowhere”.

Timbuktu may lack the mystic aura of Mali’s southern Dogon country or the majesty that Djenne’s extraordinary mud-brick mosque brings to an otherwise similar city, but it does boast many unique treasures. These include mausoleums of Sufi saints, centuries-old mosques and some 700,000 medieval African manuscripts, the oldest of which date to the 13th Century. And yet despite these wonders, the destitution of the city makes the most dominant impression. Indeed, the poverty of Timbuktu is so abject that one struggles to make sense of its illustrious history and legendary reputation, both of which taunt the desert settlement which struggles to feed its own inhabitants.

Consequences of the crisis

With Timbuktu now in the hands of Islamist extremist group Ansar Dine, it is suffering in many ways. By far the most reported of these is the destruction of some of Timbuktu’s unique cultural heritage sites, including Sufi mausoleums and the doors to the renowned Sidi Yahya mosque. Yet whilst their ruin is a profound cultural loss, the real tragedy of Timbuktu lies at a more human level, which has been unfortunately overshadowed by international concern at the demolition of the city’s precious buildings and artefacts.

According to the city’s mayor, Halle Ousmane Cisse, life in Timbuktu has become “desperate”, as women appearing in public without veils are beaten and sometimes raped and the Arab Islamists forcefully impose strict Sharia law upon more liberal-minded Sufis. Human rights abuses are rife, refugees continue to flee across Mali’s borders, and there is an acute shortage of food.

It is hard to overstate the urgency of these present conditions. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon recently expressed concern over the breach of human rights taking place in Northern Mali and urged the UN Security Council to impose sanctions on those responsible. Clearly, all of this makes the short-term socio-economic prospects of Timbuktu dire, but the city has, perhaps, been condemned to destitution in a more fundamental and long-lasting way already.

Despite attracting only meagre numbers of visitors, Timbuktu’s main source of revenue, before the onset of the crisis, was tourism. This unfortunately suggests that the long-term socio-economic prospects of Timbuktu are just as ominous as those of the short-term. As a city dependent on tourism for sustainable economic security, Timbuktu has been robbed of its primary means of commerce, and its inhabitants must surely have lost hope of being able to attract tourists to this present-day war zone.

A lot will depend on whether Ansar Dine is successful in retaining military control of the northern cities. If they do further establish themselves then Timbuktu will probably wave goodbye to tourism once and for all. If, however, the Arab terrorist group were to be evicted – either by a resurgent MNLA, a revitalised Malian army or by foreign military intervention – a slow and difficult recovery may just be possible.

However, with both the MNLA and the Malian army depleted, and appetite for foreign intervention faltering, it seems more likely that the Islamists will further assert themselves in northern Mali, making the long term decline of Timbuktu and the advance of Arab control of African land inevitable.


By; Jamie Bouverie