Monday, May 28, 2012

The Deteriorating North

For Mali the hits just keep on coming. The North continues to deteriorate with additional armed groups making their presence known in the past weeks, some attempts by locals to rise up against the occupiers of Timbuktu, definitive news that the Islamist group Ansar Dine is the one really in control now instead of the  MNLA and horrifying accounts of the punishments authorized under the proclaimed shari'a law in northern Mali. On top of all this AQIM continues to operate freely, reportedly bringing in hundreds of operatives from around North and West Africa. After all, there is nobody to stop them from doing what they want to entrench a base of operations in the desert region, and they have suggested that from Mali they will stage attacks on Algerian targets. Other recent Al Qaeda movements include foiled attacks on the Mauritanian capital of Nouakchott, and while this attack may not have been ordered from top AQIM leadership, it is another example of the organization's reach in the region. On his blog Bruce Whitehouse quoted the President of Benin as warning of the "Afghanistanization" of Mali. Indeed, the heads of the WFP and UNHCR stated,
“Now is the time to mobilize resources, including timely financial support as well as coming together in order to find political solutions necessary to avoid the Mali crisis further threatening regional security and evolving into a global threat to security.” 
Emphasis on the last few words: evolving into a global threat to security. As difficult as it is to accept that the situation in the country I left just over two months ago might now evolve into a global threat to security, that is an accurate analysis. The disastrous and unprecedented developments have already created a dangerously  unstable situation, and it is unfortunately easy to imagine the situation deteriorating. Worryingly, on Saturday, the previous self-proclaimed "secular" FNLA leadership and Ansar Dine agreed to the imposition of Shari'a law in the "newly independent Azawad." This could be further evidence of Ansar Dine's current dominance in northern Mali, since earlier this year the FNLA stressed that it was not a religious movement.

It's increasingly difficult for the rest of the world to stand by and watch what Amensty International is calling "Mali's worst human rights situation in 50 years." In other words, the greatest human rights crisis since the independence of Mali in 1960. ECOWAS continues its attempts to be aggressive in opposing Sanogo and the coup. This is not an easy task since the stakes are high, the situation is complicated and the military muscle of ECOWAS is limited. According to an article quoted on Alex Thurston's blog ECOWAS is just waiting for the green light from the United Nations to send in troops to stabilize the country, and perhaps  some other states will step forward with tactical support as well. The US has repeatedly voiced its support for the ECOWAS transition plan, and is now considering offering logistics and military planners. In a move to appease Sanogo, ECOWAS offered him the benefits of an ex-head of state, which include a large house and equally large salary.

The political situation in Bamako is faring no better, as the military recently allowed a large group of protesters to enter the presidential palace and attack the interim president Dioncounda Traore. Traore was rushed to the hospital with head injuries and has since flown to France, ostensibly for further medical treatment (although people close to Dioncounda are now saying that the trip had been planned for months). I fear this is a bad sign for stability in the coming weeks since Traore, who was already widely criticized, may see his legitimacy reduced even further in the eyes of Malians because of his trip to France. The rumor mill which has been so active and destructive since the coup could easily make a big deal about Traore's trip to their former colonizer. The story could easily be maliciously turned from a legitimate medical consultation to scheming between a puppet president and the Elysée. Fortunately, however, from what I hear President Hollande is more popular in Bamako than outgoing president Nicholas Sarkozy.

According to the FAO statistics as reported by IRIN, the price of a 100kg bag of millet in Bamako has more than doubled from this time last year. A rise in food prices is not unexpected, but price volatility this great has the potential to be disastrous. The increase is not solely a product of the instability within Mali, as other countries such as Burkina Faso are experiencing similar rises in price, and the rises are expected to continue up to the end of hungry season (approximately August). It is further evidence of a great need for a strong, swift and coordinated response to the famine warnings.

Tribal violence flared up on the border between Mali and Burkina as well, as Dogon and Peul clashed over livestock herding routes. This has historically been an issue and is not a direct result of the coup or rebellion. However ousted President ATT was instrumental in orchestrating cooperation between the two groups, namely the use of specific paths to keep cattle from trampling crops. Even if the same violence could have occurred were a democratic government intact, the current absence of any central government and a weak  military raises the specter of such violence continuing without accountability.

In other regional news, an American citizen was kidnapped in Benin. For the moment responsibility has not been claimed and there is no evident motive.

UPDATE: According to AFP, the agreement between the FNLA and Ansar Dine has "unraveled." At the same time, Jeune Afrique reports that Ansar Dine and AQIM are working more closely together than ever. And worryingly, news has broken that AQIM has taken control of a huge underground weapons cache belonging to the Malian government. According to AFP:
A regional security source confirmed the seizure, saying the vast cache of weapons will "really boost AQIM's striking power", and adding: "It is really impressive what AQIM has found in the underground depot."
The source said the group "is today more armed than the combined armies of Mali and Burkina Faso", Mali's neighbour to the east.
This news is dismaying to say the least. Given the flow of military aid from the United States to Mali in recent years and the general lack of equipment in the Malian military, the tone of the "security source" quoted in this article makes me wonder whether some of the weapons in the cache may have been acquired through military aid. In addition, it's worth noting that despite being completely out of government control for two months, this is the first we've heard about the weapons cache in Gao. How did it take AQIM, or any other group for that matter, two months to access find or it?

On Sunday Al Jazeera also published a video on their website with a lot of footage from inside the conflict zone that is northern Mali.