Elections, ethnic tensions, and aid: Mali faces its future after the headlines

The world watched French troops summarily turn back rebel fighters in northern Mali, but the future remains grim for millions of Malians affected by the fighting, writes Alex Thurston.

Alain Amontchi / Reuters
Men transport humanitarian food aid onto pirogues at Mopti, Mali on Feb. 4, 2013. The aid is meant for an area recently liberated by French and Malian troops.

• A version of this post ran on the author's blog, Sahel Blog. The views expressed are the author's own.

In addition to the nightmarish physical dangers that wartime brings, there is a conceptual danger that arises for people watching Mali at this moment: the danger of being swept up in a triumphalist narrative of good versus evil.

It is one thing to know, in theory, that an American or Western European military can take territory rapidly from rebel groups. It is another to see, even from a distance, a display of Western military might unfold – to be shocked and awed by French bombs and soldiers reconquering in some 18 days what some observers had thought might take months to do, to see the French sweep Gao, Timbuktu, and Kidal without even seeming to break a sweat.

It is one thing to know, in theory, that the early phases of military interventions like these often prove popular with both domestic constituencies and liberated populations. It is another to see French flags waving in Bamako, and President Francois Hollande receive a rockstar reception. There is a danger in a moment like this of falling prey to some kind of intoxication, and pretending there is no hangover to follow.

To their credit, many voices in the international media are sounding quite sober. One hears a drumbeat of stories about ethic tensions and violence in reconquered territories, particularly Timbuktu. In report after report, one reads of Tuaregs and Arabs fleeing their homes and abandoning their shops, afraid that they will be treated as Islamist sympathizers and hurt. One reads of Tuaregs and Arabs, even less lucky, who were caught and assaulted.

At the same time one finds recurring allegations that Malian government soldiers have tortured or summarily executed captured Islamist fighters. Laudably, politicians like Sadou Harouna Diallo, the official mayor of Gao, have promised security to Arabs and Tuaregs if they return – but evidence suggests that such promises might prove hard to keep.

My fear is that actions today are sowing the seeds of conflicts tomorrow.  Historical memory – and northern Mali already has memories of ethnic violence – can play a central role in generating inter-communal violence and rebellion. What memories are being made now? If efforts at national reunification and reconstruction falter, bitterness among northern communities, combined with un-addressed grievances, could plunge Mali back into crisis a few years from now.

So I am afraid that a sense of triumphalism and a focus on preparing for elections will distract much-needed attention from the humanitarian needs of people affected by the conflict. My policy recommendations are simple to state, though I realize they would be less simple to carry out: focus on feeding people, resettling them, and keeping them from killing each other. I am thinking of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

I realize that many people, and for good reason, feel a sense of urgency concerning the question of what formal political arrangement Mali will establish now. What legitimacy the interim government of President Dioncounda Traoré currently has will likely only diminish over time. And I realize that plans are already in motion for elections in July.

But achieving a durable peace in Mali will take more than an election – it will require a durable solution to the economic and humanitarian problems of northern Mali. There is no better time to start working on those problems than the present. It is possible to address humanitarian concerns and prepare for elections at the same time. I am, moreover, recommending that those who make decisions and distribute money give priority to the former.

To give a numerical sense of the scale of humanitarian crisis in Mali, an estimated 380,000 people have already been displaced by the conflict and the UN predicts that as many as 700,000 additional Malians could be displaced. That would mean, for a country of around 16 million, that more than one in sixteen people would be displaced.

The UN also says that “over 4.6 million people in Mali are at risk of food insecurity as a result of climatic hazards and insecurity.” 4.6 million is approaching 1 in 3. This is a reminder that Mali would be in bad shape even if there had been no war. And the war, adding tragedy to tragedy, has compounded the food crisis.

As Monitor correspondent Peter Tinti has written, applying narrow counter-terrorism paradigms to the situation in Mali is a mistake. He warns, “Any intervention not delicately calibrated to local socio-political dynamics risks exacerbating the crisis, undermining the very goals policymakers aim to achieve.”

I agree with him. And what I have written here does not even begin to get at the question of what formal political arrangements might evolve in each locality. But I would submit that addressing the immediate needs of the victims of this conflict – their needs for food, shelter, and security – is one indispensable building block of any policy with a hope of success.

Alex Thurston is a PhD student studying Islam in Africa at Northwestern University.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.