Photo courtesy of Times of London
Mali is a landlocked country (a former French colony) on the west coast of Africa; it’s primary claim to fame is that it is the location of the fabled city of Timbuktu. It also has a lot of gold. It shares a border with Algeria, Côte d’Ivoire and Sierra Leone among others. It does not have the most stable of neighbors, yet until early last year, Mali was considered to be a shining example of democracy in Africa. Now, Mali can be considered a failed state; its government has no control over half of its physical territory and what government it does have appears to be engaged in infighting, revenge, and oppression of citizens rather than security and infrastructure.
In March 2012 a military coup toppled the elected government and the military took over. The military staged the coup d’etat in response to what it said was a failure by the government to deal effectively with a rebellion by Taureg tribes (nomads who have traditionally followed the caravan routes across the Sahara) in the north; the rebels managed to seize control of the northern half of Mali and declared it to be an independent state. Unfortunately for all concerned, an Al-Qaida linked group. Ansar Dine, has taken over in the desert. This group has imposed their own version of Sharia law on the areas that they control (here is a detailed account of some of the activities they have engaged in). In addition to terrorizing the civilian population, the Islamist group has been busy destroying the historical tombs, mausoleums and shrines of Timbuktu (the city has been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site); the Taliban did the same in Afghanistan and destroyed the Bamiyan Buddhas. These groups have no interest in history or culture except that which they create themselves. In both cases, the tombs and the statues were considered “un-Islamic.”
Although the situation is atrocious in the north of Mali (over 90,000 refugees have fled and more and more stories are starting to come out), it’s not much better in the south. The army has no effective leadership. Despite 20 years of democratic government, the military leadership still appears to view itself and the army as a part of the political system. Charges of massive human rights violations and atrocities committed by the army have been raised by Human Rights Watch and others. The army appears intent on settling political scores rather than insuring the continued existence of Mali as a state.
And herein lies the heart of the problem. If the army does not believe it is accountable to elected civilian leaders, it will not follow orders nor will it be effective except in pursuit of its own ends. Thus it has been unable to maintain a stand against the rebels/occupiers in the northern half of Mali. The village of Konna, held by the army, was taken over by rebels just this week and the rebel leaders announced their intentions of moving on into the rest of Mali.
Today, France announced that it has begun airstrikes in Mali which will continue “for as long as is necessary.” French troops have also been deployed to Mali and it is expected that they will move to recapture Konna. The rebels insist that they still hold Konna and their spokesman declared that “any intervention by France would be evidence of an anti-Islam bias.” So, now, trying to fight against a group bent on toppling a government, which uses torture, stoning and other barbaric means to control the population, and which uses the Koran and Islam to justify such actions, is anti-Islamic. You know, some people will probably buy into that. After all, who are we to discuss or condemn the religious practices of others?
After much dithering around in the UN Security Council, it is nice to see that a Western power has finally decided to intervene and stop the collapse of yet another African state. Last month, the UN and France declined to intervene in the Central African Republic despite its governments requests for aid in fighting rebels; the U.S. evacuated its embassy there in late December.
What does this all mean for the United States? Well, if we as a country and government truly believe that we care about human rights, we need to at least step up and say and do more than evacuate an embassy, or send 100 special forces in to capture Joseph Kony. However, given the current administration’s reluctance to say or do anything in Syria (whose government has been engaged in a two year civil war and has chemical weapons http://www.neurope.eu/article/analysis-us-israel-concerned-over-syria-s-chemical-weapons), Egypt (whose new leaders leap-frogged over the parliament to impose a new constitution giving all power to the president), or even Libya, where our own ambassador was killed, it looks like it’s business as usual with regard to Africa; meh, there’s nothing of value there, why bother?
UPDATE: As soon as I posted this I saw that the president of Mali has declared a state of emergency today.