Monday, April 30, 2012

Intervention, factions, and complicated aid

In Bamako the situation may be a little calmer but there is an ongoing power struggle between the interim president Dioncounda Traore (supported by regional body ECOWAS) and the leader of the military coup, Amadou Sanogo. Sanogo's soldiers are still arresting opposition leaders and potential presidential candidates. He has also explicitly rejected the presence of any foreign troops on Malian soil (after previously calling for international assistance to defeat the rebels in the North), which is raising questions in light of the ECOWAS announcement that it plans to send troops to Mali. No specific mandate has been announced for the mission, meaning that it could be strictly to ensure a complete transition to civilian rule or it could include the retaking of the North. ECOWAS is clearly concerned about the territorial integrity of Mali, but is also unhappy with recent statements and actions by Sanogo who seeks to assert himself as a key player, hindering the transfer to complete civilian rule. According to a Reuters article, there are guesses that the ECOWAS force may number between 3000 and  5000 troops. I think that given the scale of the problems, if ECOWAS is going to successfully intervene in Mali 3000 is an absolute minimum level of support to assure political stability and/or retake the North. It seems to me that the previous offer of 2000 ECOWAS troops would at this point in time be inadequate to the point of being dangerous.

In the north, politics between the numerous armed groups operating in and around Timbuktu seem to be increasingly complicated. A new armed group, the National Liberation Front of Azawad (NLFA), took over at least part of Timbuktu last Thursday. After negotiations between the various groups in the city the NLFA shortly thereafter pulled out, declaring that fighting for control of Timbuktu would result in a counterproductive "bloodbath." The emergence of the group provides analysts with another unpredictable piece of the puzzle and yet more complex shifting of goals and alliances. As stated in an article by the AFP, the NLFA rejects the current actors in the conflict:
The group has declared it opposes both the secession of northern Mali -- as demanded by the Tuareg nomads, many of whom are hardened veterans of the Libyan conflict -- and the imposition of strict Islamic law.
I'm still waiting to find out where exactly the NLFA stands ideologically aside from its opposition to other groups, but I am struck by the assertion in the same article that despite being of fair size and well-armed, the group apparently deferred to AQIM in deciding to leave Timbuktu. For more information on the groups jockeying for power in and around Timbuktu, see IRIN's interview with three analysts who focus on the Tuaregs, providing some interesting perspectives.

Quick shifts in power, unstable alliances and the emergence of new armed groups are some of the results of having a lawless region as large as northern Mali, which some are now likening to a failed state. Other effects include increased difficulty in the coordination and distribution of aid. Even if with the help of ECOWAS the "capitals of the Azawad" are cleared of fighters, many will simply slip back into the desert and live to fight another day. This is a key reason why the past Tuareg rebellions have been so difficult, as they know the challenging terrain the best. Security for aid workers in the North was already in question in the months before the coup as carjackings, kidnappings, and other threats were commonplace. I imagine the different factions now operating in the North and the resources and experienced gained from the current period of unrest will result in a wider proliferation of arms over a longer period of time, making routine operations for groups like the ICRC and the WFP even more difficult. For a start the regional offices of almost all foreign organizations north of Mopti have been looted in the past weeks.

International aid organizations including the UN are announcing that their funding goals for the  famine in the Sahel have been less than half met. This means that in addition to the added difficulty of instability in countries like Mali, there will be an even more significant gap than expected between the amount of aid needed and the amount which these organizations will able to provide to local populations. The number of displaced persons from the simultaneous threats of conflict, instability and food insecurity in Mali are now estimated at 260,000.

On Sahel Blog Alex Thurston has written another good summary of the Islamist aspect (and what that really means) of the power struggle in the North. His attention to the way that groups like Al Qaeda successfully implant themselves in communities by providing basic services recalls an interesting piece I blogged about in early December of last year. I certainly never imagined seeing AQIM have the chance to develop its methods on such a large scale as the city of Timbuktu. All the way over East Africa the practice is well underway as Al Qaeda teams up with the Islamist group Al Shabab to provide aid to displaced people in Somalia as shown in an eleven-minute video by the Guardian.

Looking for something to be optimistic about in the midst of all of this troubling news? On Tuesday a Swiss woman who was kidnapped in Mali by armed men was released unharmed. According to a Swiss website, no ransom was paid. The millions of dollars collected in ransom money over the past years has been fueling organizations like AQIM and allowing them to expand their operations, notably permitting them to take full advantage of the security vacuum in the north.

Bambara Word of the Day:
Basa = lézard/margouillat = agama lizard

For a photo of one, check out the website of Cathy Wu, my fellow volunteer from Mali. Basa are ubiquitous in Malian villages, climbing up walls, stealing food from kitchens and looking for other small things to eat. Some of them have rather dull shades of grey and brown while others display vibrant colors of blue, red and orange. Kids often like to kill them with slingshots and then roast them over a fire, using the meat to supplement their daily diet. One of our language instructors during PST described Basa as the "sweetest meat." I had planned to try one but never got the opportunity before leaving Mali.