Special: Mali, from north to south
As the drawdown begins for French forces in Mali, the jihadists have melted away but has their ideology been defeated in the often-forgotten north of the country? As Malian authorities struggle to take charge - and to step out of the shadow of the military, France 24's François Picard takes you to Bamako and Gao for a special two-part report.
It’s not just economists who are great at predicting the past. Good luck finding Malians today who claim they failed to forsee last year’s takeover of the north by a loose coalition of Tuareg separatists and jihadists, or the ensuing coup in Bamako that called time on two decades of multiparty rule.
Rather, they say the surprise came with last January’s French intervention. A welcome surprise, say residents of the northern city of Gao who recall how Islamist militiamen admitted before fleeing that they had dug in for a firefight but hadn’t factored in aerial bombardments.
Malians long knew that trouble was brewing in the forgotten north of the country. Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) leader Abdelhamid Abou Zeid was first spotted in Mali in 1993, says columnist Adam Thiam, recent founder of the news website www.arawanexpress.com.
“What France has done has broken the work of two decades by the Islamists,” says Thiam, who’s also a special advisor to the country’s interim president.
It’s hard to find a politician today in Bamako who denounces Paris’ January judgement call to step in, although they do exist. Over the phone, opposition politician Oumar Mariko denounced “a second colonization” and “groupthink” on Opération Serval before refusing to grant France 24 an interview. Most politicians who supported the January 2012 coup and the reluctance at the time to allow foreign forces in to recapture the north are today keeping a low profile.
You understand why at Alassane Maïga’s roadside shop in the sleepy town of San – halfway between Ségou and Mopti on the long road north. “The politician who says you’ve got to let France go, we’re going to give him a hiding,” said the shopkeeper. “Someone who comes here to die in your place, no, he’s your brother forever.” In five minutes flat, Maïga succeeded in pouring scorn on the politicians in Bamako, jihadists and the Malian army which he saw fleeing south when the rebels made their move on Konna back in January in the offensive that triggered the French response.
Along the roadside before you enter Konna, the trophies of the first aerial bombardments are in plain view. There and in Gao, the Malian army is back, although it’s not yet welcome in the far north where French and Chadian troops patrol alongside the Tuareg seperatists of the MNLA. After quickly being pushed aside by the jihadists during the occupation of the north, the MNLA went back on its claim to independence when the French intervened but still want no part of the Malian army in cities like Kidal in Tessalit.
“That’s a political decision that has to be worked out over time,” said Colonel Didier Dacko, head of the Malian forces in Gao, who firmly believes the army will return soon to the far north. In Gao itself, citizens are not ready to forgive the MNLA who they accuse of widespread looting and rape. Many Tuaregs and Arabs are still too scared to return to their homes, either because they collaborated with the occupiers, or out of fear of guilt by association.
Those who did collaborate come from all communities. “People don’t understand how some who helped the Islamists are still here going about their business,” said one Gao native pointing at a marabout preacher going about his day job as a cloth peddler on a high street slowly returning to normal.
The jihadists are gone but most in Gao have little hope that a truth and reconciliation commission being formed in Bamako will mend longstanding ethnic rivalries that were laid bare by the crisis. The solution to preventing insurgents from returning and filling a new power vacuum is not only military. So is there a blueprint for developing the north and offering an alternative to the contraband and hostage trafficking that bankrolled the rebellion? “I haven’t heard of one, but I hope so,” says a dubious Adam Thiam.
And yet, the former African Union Commission spokesperson is optimistic. Jihadist attacks may flare up but their infrastructure in Mali has been broken, and the coup leaders have lost a lot of their clout (even if they remain in the wings at the main barracks at Kati on the outskirts of the capital) and it’s no longer possible to ignore landlocked Mali’s longstanding issues with poverty and corruption.
My first trip to Mali was in 1992, one year after the revolution that overthrew longtime military dictator Moussa Traoré. The whole world reveled in the post-Cold War tale of the poor African state that fought for multiparty rule. For two decades, the West clung to that donor darling story and ignored the rest.
“That’s the outside world’s problem, not Mali’s,” says Thiam. “We all knew.”