Friday, June 8, 2012

News and Insight out of Mali and Senegal

Mali  has been relatively calm for the past two weeks or so. In Bamako, disagreements and tense politics are being played out less in the streets and more in closed-door meetings. In the north, secessionist rebels and terrorists have been more or less quietly settling their disagreements and working out power struggles as peacefully as one could expect. The absence of interim president Diocounda Traore (still in France for treatment after the recent beating he suffered at the hands of protesters) has not resulted in another power shift. Junta leader Sanogo more or less agreed to calmly take himself out of the equation when he agreed to receive a huge mansion and the salary of a former head of state. Unfortunately there are many things that people can do without making a lot of noise (especially when said people control the whole region), such as traffic arms and drugs and train terrorists.

Will the lawlessness occurring in the north continue without widespread violence? Alex Thurston writes on Sahel Blog about an AFP report of clashes near Kidal between MNLA and Ansar Dine fighters, which could be a worrying development (the status of the previously reported agreement to merge the two groups is uncertain). At this point I think the relative calm that results from a balance between them is better for Malians than infighting. There are enough weapons and fighters circulating in the Azawad that even if the MNLA and Ansar Dine destroyed each other another group would emerge or take control before order could be restored by law-abiding citizens. The same article also describes some protests against the armed groups in the region that were violently put down, another manifestation of the consistent but unfortunately moderate undercurrent against the occupation of the northern regions.

With the islamic extremism, arms trafficking, political fragmentation, minimal (or no) government presence and a number of other shared factors, the Afghanistan-Mali comparison is now commonplace for a number of reasons. In fact France24 cites an interview with the President of Niger in which he states that Afghan and Pakistani jihadists are now operating in northern Mali. Newly-appointed foreign minister for French President François Hollande, Laurent Fabius, drew the allusion again while presenting his fears that French military involvement in Mali could result in a "west African Afghanistan." The Economist makes a striking point about where the power lies in governing the northern territory and the risks involved in letting the situation continue to deteriorate asserting,
This is the closest to government that al-Qaeda, under any guise, has ever come. 
Bruce Whitehouse, the oft cited "Bamako Bruce," whose blog has attained great popularity since the military coup in March, writes another quality post about the goings-on in Bamako here. He notes that the African Union chief has acted on his pledge to take up the Mali situation with the UN, and discussions are ongoing in Abidjan. As AFP reports,
Talks on a possible military intervention in Mali opened Thursday in Abidjan between officials from the United Nations, the African Union and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).
There is no word yet on the outcome, which will be interesting considering the strong need for foreign military intervention and the strong resistance to it domestically and internationally.

The numbers of Malians displaced by the conflict (both to other parts of the country and neighboring countries) tops 320,000. The UNHCR has called for a large increase in funding to meet numerous needs in the region, but the Malian conflict in particular.

As if this all weren't enough, Mali and Niger, both facing serious food shortages, can be expecting a large locust swarm in a few months. The Los Angeles Times writes,
Now Mali and neighboring Niger are facing swarms of locusts, which were left uncontrolled while Libya and Algeria, which normally keep local locusts from moving south, grappled with conflicts and insecurity of their own.
Here at Malaria Boot Camp in Senegal, I'm lucky to be reunited with Virginia, a volunteer in Mali, as well as  two members of Peace Corps Mali staff with whom I worked. At the boot camp here in Thiès, Senegal, we are each representing our countries as members of Peace Corps' Stomping Out Malaria in Africa initiative. I'm sad to not be here to represent Mali, but I have already found opportunities to contribute my knowledge about malaria-fighting efforts in Mali. At the same time I'm increasingly excited about the many ways Peace Corps Guinea can fight malaria and how I can contribute to that effort.

Being with Malians here also provides me with an unusual opportunity to discuss how things are going in Mali from an on-the-ground perspective. Peace Corps is still hoping to reopen the program at some point in time, but it's hard to say when that will be possible. Below Mopti region (just south of Timbuktu) life has been slowly returning to normal in a lot of ways. Many banks are open; for example, in Sikasso region I'm hearing that the banks were only closed for about a week after the military took power. Banks have not yet opened up at my former site in Niono, according to my former homologue in the city. That means that people have to travel at least 70 kilometers to withdraw cash or perform most other operations.

In their assessments of the situation the characteristic Malian optimism is in play - despite all the bad things that have resulted from the rebellion and coup, Malians are determined to look toward the future and draw whatever positive lessons they can from the experience. When I started a conversation with a Malian about how negative an effect of the coup on the country, I soon found myself agreeing with him that in the end maybe this will teach Malians the advantages of committing to a democratic process. Certainly an admirable attempt to find the silver lining. I know many people who think that this perspective leads to not  strongly enough condemning the leaders of the coup and their actions. There is definitely a line between seeking out a bright spot/silver lining and refusing to see the negative effects of an event. However, the line can be hard for a foreigner to see in Malian culture. I think that the relentless optimism can lead certain people (such as youth and those with little education) to misunderstand and misjudge events such as the coup and its aftermath.