David Anderson, a professor of African politics at Oxford University, shared his take on the current crisis in the country with Sunday's Zaman readers. He noted that the country's transitional government, which has been in place since a coup d'état earlier this year, is not effective and rebels of various groups active in the north of the country should be demilitarized, most likely with international support for the Malian military to restore order in the country.
From the 13th to the 17th century the African nation was a focal point of Islamic teachings. The northern city of Timbuktu played a pivotal role in spreading Islam in West Africa. However, once the French colonized this African nation in the 17th century, the cultural ethos of Mali seemed to disappear, being replaced by an ardent need to assimilate the “indigenous” population. As is the general rule, colonialism cost Mali most of its resources, which subsequently led to the formation of unruly militant groups in Mali, such as Ansar Dine, which has been destroying Muslim shrines one after another, arguing that they are “idolatrous and un-Islamic.”
Anderson explains that the military has been the main force in Mali's politics since its independence from France in the 1960s. Although the military is reasonably well trained, it has been unable to suppress the rebellion in northern Mali which has been going on for many ears. “[The rebellion] has flared up whenever additional resources become available -- more arms -- or the weakness of the government in Bamako presents opportunities that can be exploited. At present, both factors have come together,” Anderson explained of the current situation.
Following the military coup that took place in April of this year, the situation in the country has been “very tense.” The government is far from being effective. Anderson stated: “The original plotters have been challenged by a counter-coup, and even those forces thought to be loyal to the elected government have now joined in the unrest, making demands of their own. The transitional government seems to have little effective authority. In effect, there is no longer a civilian government of any kind. The military are competing amongst themselves for the right to rule Mali, and that right will be won by force of arms.”
“Army factions now call the shots, in every possible sense. The rule of law has broken down, and large swathes of the north -- including the entire principal towns, not least the historic centers of Gao and Timbuktu -- are in rebel hands,” Anderson noted.
He noted that Mali's neighbors are increasingly concerned that the disorder will spill over the border, and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) is considering an intervention, although African states would prefer a UN intervention. Even though he admits that an intervention would restore “a semblance of order,” Anderson notes it would not end the problem. “So long as there remains a broader Tuareg [a traditionally nomadic people spread across the Sahara Desert] demand for secession, then this problem is not going to go away.”
Ansar Dine, which is one of several factions supporting the rebellion against Bamako, aims to assert a more conventional Islamic authority in the north, says Anderson. “Ansar Dine is also believed to have links with al-Qaeda in the Maghreb, and it has been widely reported that Salafist jihadists are among their ranks,” he added. However, in addition to its ideological goal of Shariah law, Ansar Dine is part of “a long tradition of mercenary militia activity in this region,” Anderson explained.
But why are they attacking World Heritage Sites? Anderson says there has always been a debate within Islam in West Africa about the place of shrines and saints in religious observance. “In addition, it is important to remember that these sites represent a connection with the West and the wider world through the recognition that has been given by UNESCO in its designation of the World Heritage mark. Timbuktu and its mosques can thus be presented as a symbol of Western influence in the region, as an entry point for tourism and for American capitalism and imperialism to enter the region and pollute its Islamic practices. This rather simplistic political interpretation appears to also have driven the assault on the tombs and shrines.”
To restore order in the country, Anderson says, a legitimate and non-military, but effective, government must be restored in Bamako. “Without this, no possible solution can be devised. Leadership, to this end, must come from within Mali -- it cannot be imposed by outside intervention, no matter how friendly or well-intended that intervention might be. The Malian military must be persuaded to return to its barracks and, instead of fighting its own people, turn its attention to restoring order and the rule of law in the troubled North. But this does not look likely to happen anytime soon, and we may be entering a protracted period when Mali will be ranked as a failed state, with all of the problems that suggests.”
Another key issue that needs to be tackled is demilitarizing the country's North. “Mali's regional neighbors may have a role to play. The rebellion must be settled, whether by negotiation or by force. Splits among the rebels now make it more likely that a settlement of some kind can be made with the Tuareg secessionists, and this might then isolate the Salafist jihadists. That would be a good first step. After that, it is to be hoped that the Malian army can restore order, but it seems more likely that an international force of some kind may be needed to keep the peace.”
However, neither of these issues is easy to resolve, Anderson notes, saying, “We are in for a long period of trouble and concern in Mali, which in turn will mean destabilization and trouble for the Sahel [a region between the Sahara Desert and the south of Africa] as a whole.”