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Will Mali be Africa's Afghanistan?

Mali was hit by two successive shocks to its system this year – with the north seized by rebels and a coup in the capital – leaving its government fragile and the international community mulling intervention.

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Aid agencies, meanwhile, say much preparation is needed to cope with humanitarian problems that military intervention would likely generate.

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  • Mali

    Graphic Mali
    (Rich Clabaugh/Staff)

The UN's agency for refugees says that fighting could more than double the number of refugees and internally displaced, currently tallied at 412,149 people. To date, the agency has obtained just over half of the $123.5 million needed to deal with the situation, says its West Africa director, Valentin Tapsoba. Intervention would raise costs dramatically.

Other aid agencies, like UNICEF, warn that intervention forces must be trained in human rights and the needs of families and children.

"In conflict, you can have children being killed or injured, or recruited as soldiers," says Gabrielle Menezes, a UNICEF communications officer in Bamako. "It's something we're very concerned about."

'Three pillars of power'

Where armed bullying, lack of goods and services, and sheer violence have disrupted life in Mali's north, Bamako is the scene of a different kind of breakdown. While daily life there proceeds normally, politics are stuck in crisis mode.

An interim government was named in August, five months after the initial coup. But diplomats say coup leader Capt. Amadou Sanogo still wields influence from his military headquarters at Kati, outside Bamako.

"Just look at any delegation," says the diplomat. "They'll have meetings with the [interim] president and prime minister, and some ... will go up to Kati and meet Sanogo as well. It's fair to say there are three pillars of power now."

In theory, presidential elections are scheduled for next April. But the uncertainties surrounding a possible intervention by West African countries, backed by Western governments, have cast that into doubt. Diplomats in Bamako say many here feel elections must come only after victory in the north.

The US has pushed hard for Mali to restore democratic rule sooner than later. While some European countries have restarted development aid, the US will not do so until after elections, says the diplomat.

"It's absolutely in the interest of the Malian people to have elections soon," the diplomat says. "The longer you wait, the more people become entrenched in the status quo."

'A place at the table'

At present, the status quo in Mali is marked by divisions: between north and south, and among armed groups and political players. Some Malians fear crisis will leave their society – a tapestry of languages, races, and cultures – torn along sectarian lines into similar disharmony.

That fear is compounded by the recent appearance of anti-Islamist militia groups – how well-armed remains unclear – that have formed in areas of Mali bordering the north. Some Tuareg also fear reprisals because of anger at the MNLA over the initial takeover.

For the Western diplomat, these fears underscore the need for dialogue. Ansar al Din, one of the Islamist groups currently ruling in the north, has met recently – albeit so far inconclusively – with neighboring Burkina Faso's president, Blaise Compaore, who is acting as a mediator with the Malian government.

Some hope that negotiations "will result in ... minimizing the enemy," the diplomat says.

Maiga, the schoolteacher from Gao, wants leaders to remember that Mali is larger than the sum of its combatants. "Dialogue must include not only those with weapons," he says. "Even those without deserve a place at the table."

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