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Photo: Jerome Delay/Associated Press, via NYT

FOR MOST of the 36-hour bus trip from Abidjan to Bamako, my legs were tangled up in a mess of plantains that the woman across the aisle had purchased en route.

First, she bought plantains in Dabou. Then again in Toumodi. By the time she made her final purchase in Yamoussoukro, whole branches of unripened plantains protruded from the stairwell and monopolized most of the floor space in the rear of the bus.

I wasn’t about to complain. Roadside shopping sprees are normal on the long journey to Bamako. The tropical climate of southern Cote d’Ivoire lends itself to a variety of produce that is either hard to find in Mali or much pricier there. While my friend across the aisle sealed me off in a house of plantains, I purchased oversized avocados (7 for a $1) and balls of attieke (ground cassava that looks a bit like couscous) through the window.

The bus ride was crowded and boisterous. A man selling dubious medicine — an elixir that cured everything from migraines to sexual impotence — was allowed to pitch his product for several hours. Food was shared and Ivorian dance music rattled the tinny speakers of passengers’ cell phones.

All of this to say, the bus ride was exceedingly normal. There was no way of knowing we were on our way to a country at war.

* * *

But calling Mali a country at war has never seemed appropriate. Since a northern rebellion first put Mali in the headlines last January, there has been little actual fighting. At the same time, hundreds of thousands have fled their homes, and for a period of ten months, a brutal version of Sharia law was imposed on many of northern Mali’s cities and towns.

When French bombs began falling, journalists descended on Mali and many people suddenly found themselves trying to figure out what exactly was going on in this West African country that is so often called “poor and land-locked.”

As you read headlines and news stories from Mali, here are a few things to keep in mind:

1. There were/are several armed groups in northern Mali, and not all of them have the same objectives. Last January, a rebel group led by ethnic Tuareg called the MNLA (National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad) began capturing cities and towns in north Mali. Their objective was to create an independent — secular — state in the north. Their grievances reflected those of previous Tuareg rebellions; lack of development and infrastructure, and poor governance and corruption on the part of the faraway central government of Bamako were at the top of the list.

However, the north of Mali has many different ethnic groups, and while the MNLA branded themselves as an inclusive organization, they were not able to garner much support among the much greater numbered Sonrai (or Songhoy) and Fulani ethnic groups. In fact, even among Tuareg their support was divided, as the Tuareg have numerous clans and families and allegiances can vary widely depending on locality.

A separate Tuareg-led group, Ansar Dine, was less focused on independence and more on the implementation of Sharia law. Allied with AQIM (Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb) and MOJWA (Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa), they eventually hijacked the rebellion and removed MNLA from northern towns and cities by force. These groups were better armed and better funded (much of their money came from hostage ransoms paid by Western governments over the past decade) than both the MNLA and the Malian army.

It’s important to draw distinctions between these groups. At the same time, it also should be noted that many people in northern Mali did not support any of them. Each group claimed to speak on behalf of the region when many people never asked to be spoken for. It’s also clear, from the testimony of refugees and the internally displaced, and now the widespread jubilation in towns like Timbuktu and Gao, that many people did not appreciate Sharia law. This brings me to point #2.

2. Many pundits are convinced that the war in Mali is another example of French neocolonialism. Others are convinced it is a war on Islam. It’s not hard to find people comparing Mali with Iraq or Afghanistan, and there is no shortage of armchair analysts who have selectively chosen facts from the current conflict to reinforce their worldview.

Much of this analysis ignores the fact that Mali’s president officially asked for the French intervention and that most Malians were in favor of it. It’s hard to call it a war on Islam when Mali’s own High Islamic Council endorsed the intervention.

If you’re reading an editorial on Mali, read it carefully, and be on the lookout for writers who selectively pull facts from the current situation to advance a position they already held.

3. The current euphoria in Mali may be short-lived. French and Malian armies, with French air support, have been able to rapidly liberate two of the largest towns in northern Mali. They have done so with few casualties, civilian or otherwise. It is widely thought that the jihadists have fled into the more remote and inaccessible mountain areas north of Kidal. Whether this is true or not, it’s clear the hard part is yet to begin.

There is the possibility of the jihadists attacking sporadically, ambushing small numbers of troops, or carrying out terrorist attacks. Another concern is reprisals on the side of the Malian military, which has been known to target lighter-skinned Malians, often associating them with one of the armed groups in the north.

4. There is a war in north Mali, but there is also a political crisis in the south. Low-ranking soldiers took power in a bloodless coup last March. While the French intervention has empowered the transitional government and largely sidelined the junta, it remains to be seen whether Mali can effectively organize credible elections in the near future. A date has been set for the end of July, but Mali must first recuperate lost territory and then focus on political reconciliation in Bamako.

* * *

I arrived in Bamako tired and dust-covered, with swollen ankles and a headache. Clambering out of the bus, I found myself confronted with a crowd of taxi drivers and luggage porters, all of them pressed to find clients.

One taximan, a short man with gray stubble dotting his face, began calling “tubabuke!” (white man). I tried to ignore him, but he elbowed his way through the crowd and attempted to help me with one of my bags. I turned to him and told him to be patient.

Remarking that I spoke Bambara, the taximan asked for my Malian family name. I told him and he practically squealed: “You’re Dogon?! Me too!!!” Had I given a name that was Sonrai or Bozo, he would have rattled off a series of insults. The insults would have been playful — Bozos speak the language of fish and Sonrai are idiots when it comes to farming — and they would have led to joking and laughter.

This practice of joking cousins is a cultural institution in Mali. It is one layer of an exceptionally strong social fabric. It’s largely because of this social fabric that there is reason to be optimistic with respect to Mali’s long-term future. As you read headlines and stories from Mali, most of which describe war and a dysfunctional state, remember that there is a lot more to this country, which just happens to be “poor and land-locked.”

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About The Author

Phil Paoletta

Phil Paoletta is a West Africa obsessed camel drawing consultant. You can read about his thoughts and travels on his blog at philintheblank.net. He also blogs about travel health at sickontheroad.com.

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  • Carlo Alcos

    Thanks for the insight Phil.

  • Ramona Briggans

    Wow! Thanks Phil… I’ve been watching the news with a combination of sadness & curiousity since Mali is someplace I want to be in the next 12 months. This helps makes sense of the news…. I realize there’s always facts that are not reported. Right now I’m in Tunisia… dealing with the latest political unrest here :-)

  • Ramona Briggans

    Wow! Thanks Phil… I’ve been watching the news with a combination of sadness & curiousity since Mali is someplace I want to be in the next 12 months. This helps makes sense of the news…. I realize there’s always facts that are not reported. Right now I’m in Tunisia… dealing with the latest political unrest here :-)

  • Infinite Adventures

    Thanks for your insight! I have been to Mali two years ago for several weeks and it’s a shame what is happening. I love your bus experiences – these plantains are all over the floor after a few hours. good memories! enjoy travels!

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