Bamako — Former Malian President Amadou Toumani Touré, overthrown this morning by mutinous soldiers, said recently that tackling recalcitrant Tuareg rebels in the north is going to be an ongoing task for future governments.
"The problems of the north have been with us for 50 years now. Our elders dealt with them; we are tackling them, and the younger generation will continue to do the same. This is not going to be over tomorrow," he told Radio France Internationale.
Touré's successor government, the Comité national pour le redressement de la démocratie et la restauration de la démocratie et la restauration de l'état (CNRDRE), led by army captain Amadou Sango, has dissolved state institutions, suspended the constitution, reportedly arrested several ministers, taken over the state broadcaster, and announced a curfew.
CNRDRE says it has brought an end to "an incompetent regime" and singled out Touré's "incapacity to manage the crisis in the north of the country. and to fight terrorism".
There have been persistent complaints from soldiers of inadequate supplies and military hardware, poor direction and strategic planning and a sense of abandonment for those on the frontline, fighting a war that could and should have been prevented.
Touré, 63, having first taken power aged 42, had planned to retire gracefully, leaving after a second-five year term, as stipulated in the constitution. Until recently, he had been adamant that presidential elections scheduled for the end of April would take place, that there was no question of the military situation forcing an emergency transitional government, and that he was looking forward to retirement and more time with his family.
The current situation has an ironic symmetry. Touré's first period in office after overthrowing military ruler Moussa Traoré in March 1991 began against a background of revolt in the north and ended in June 1992 just after a Pacte Nationale was signed by the government and representatives of Tuareg resistance movements fighting for a separate territory.
Twenty years later, the long-term solutions put forward in that agreement - decentralization, reconciliation and bringing resources and development to some of the country's most isolated regions - have not taken hold.
Many Malians from different communities believe Touré responsible for the current crisis, alleging that the promises did not turn into concrete developments, too many projects were left on the drawing board, and too much of the funding was never accounted for.
Arsenal from Libya
Having dealt messily with an earlier insurgency, signing an inconclusive peace agreement in February 2009, Touré's beleaguered army found itself up against a much better organized rebel movement, flush with an arsenal taken from Libya.
The new, largely Tuareg force, the Mouvement National pour la liberation de l'Azawad (MNLA), initiated hostilities with an attack on Ménaka in the far east of the country on 17 January, following this up with a series of strikes on small towns spread across a vast expanse of the north: Léré, Niafunké, Aguel-hoc, Tessalit.
While Touré reorganized his senior command, and military communiqués pointed to a rapid recovery of lost territory, there has been little evidence in recent weeks of the national army gaining ground.
There was a serious warning for the government when widows of soldiers killed in the north demonstrated in the garrison town of Kati, 15km outside the capital, on 1 February, marching with the clear support of sections of the military.
Civil society activists have talked of the need for Malians to come together and draw on a long history of peaceful coexistence, but have warned the situation is much more complex than before, not least because parts of the north now dominated by a flourishing illicit economy that appears strongly linked to Islamist "terrorist" networks, notably Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
"This only confirms what I have believed all along", said Mohamed Ag Ossade, reacting to the overnight coup in Mali. "All Mali's children have to come and sit down together. We need to talk to each other now more than ever." For three years, Ag Ossade has run TAMUST, the Tuareg Cultural Centre in Bamako, the capital.
TAMUST plays host to curious visitors, but has also been a successful concert venue and the site is dominated by a vast tent housing Tuareg cultural artefacts, swords and jewellery.
Ag Ossade is proud of his Tamsheq heritage, but also a firm champion of the concept of `brassage' (mixing), pointing out that Mali's ethnic groups have lived together and intermarried for centuries, and that one of the country's abiding strengths is its diversity. "No culture can thrive in isolation," Mohamed told IRIN. "People have to know each other."
He says he has found the events of the past few months distressing and frustrating. "I have friends and family fighting on both sides. They should put an end to this wretched piece of cinema now."
One of the major fears since even before the conflict began is that revived tensions in the north would lead to inter-ethnic violence in the south. Both Tuareg and Arab communities in the capital have expanded significantly in recent years, partly because of the prevailing poverty and lack of opportunities in the north. Many have fled, Mohamed acknowledged, but stressed that: "nobody has been killed as far as I know and people should be wary of rumours and exaggeration".
There were ugly demonstrations in early February, particularly in Kati, as anger over government troop casualties spilled over into attacks on prominent Tuaregs. Malians have bitter memories of rebellions in the 1960s and 1990s, and of how easily armed attacks in one location could bring on a cycle of reprisals and counter-reprisals in another.
People watch out for echoes of the mid-1990s when Ganda Koye ("masters of the land"), a self-defence militia drawn mainly from the Songhai community, took up arms, targeting Tuaregs and Arabs. The latest rebellion has not, so far, triggered that kind of confrontation, although there have been hints of an anti-Tuareg backlash in areas like Gao with a past history of inter-ethnic tension.
Politicians from Touré down spoke out against `les amalgams', or half-truths that can be used by troublemakers to stir up hate campaigns, using the rebellion as a pretext for ethnic pogroms.
Presidential candidate Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, known to Malians as IBK, made sure that his condemnations of the rebellion were combined with appeals for moderation, pointing out that "the overwhelming majority of communities in the north live in peace and want to contribute to the development of the nation". IBK called for a special conference on the north, a proposal which has been endorsed by other politicians, religious leaders and civil society organizations.
The faith in dialogue is shared by some outsiders. Prior to the events of 21 March, a Western diplomat confidently observed that: "sorting things out, finding a consensus, that's in Mali's DNA".
But there were concerns too about the potential for breakdown."People often say: "enough is enough, no more peace conferences, we must see this thing through until the end", said Jean de Dieu Dakouo, Director-General of the Centre Djoliba, in Bamako, which specializes in conflict resolution. "But they don't think through what they are saying".
With a curfew in place and the capital in shutdown mode, it is difficult to gauge the impact of the coup. "Our main priority for now is working out what is going on", a Bamako-based diplomat acknowledged.
Displacement and food insecurity
Watching with particular concern are aid agencies. The coup comes at a critical time in terms of food assistance. The north, west and several other parts of the country are experiencing severe food insecurity due to erratic rains and a poor harvest in 2011.
As the conflict goes into a third month, relief organizations like the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and Médécins Sans Frontières (MSF) have consistently highlighted the need for food, shelter, water and medical care for the 100,000 who have fled across the borders, while stressing the pressure placed on the regions taking in the influx. Northern Burkina Faso, southern Mauritania, western Niger and parts of Senegal are all grappling with serious food insecurity and malnutrition that are likely to escalate in the coming months.
But there has also been massive internal displacement inside Mali, with 93,500 making it to provincial centres, like Gao, Tomboctou and Kidal, while others remain on the fringes of conflict areas, like Aguel-hoc and Tessalit, according to UNHCR.
Germain Mwehu of the ICRC, speaking to IRIN from Niamey, capital of Niger, Mali's southern neighbour, cited the example of Ménaka, in eastern Mali, the first target of a rebel attack on 17 January and now held by the MNLA.
"Many people made for the border with Niger," Mwehu told IRIN. "Many of those who stayed are living on the periphery of the town. Food and shelter are our priorities and this in an area very vulnerable to drought." The ICRC has serious concerns about access to people in the more isolated areas and for the security of its staff. Mwehu also talked of the psychological burdens facing the target population.
"People in Ménaka are very stressed about not knowing what to do. Should they try to leave for Niger? Should they stay put? Will the conflict resume? Will the government look to stage an offensive?"
Even before the rebellion, international and national NGOs operating in the north faced security scares and access issues, sometimes being forced into a temporary suspension of activities or the withdrawal of expatriate staff.
Médecins du Monde (MDM) was forced to scale down its activities in response to worsening security in February 2012, but was able to resume in early March.
François Fille, MDM's Security Focal Point, says his organisation, like other NGOs in Mal, is still taking stock of the coup.
"At the moment, our teams in displacement camps in the north are working", File emphasized. "There has been no harassment. They are able to access our beneficiaries. That is the situation as of now".
François Fille, MDM's security focal point, says his organization, like other NGOs in Mali, is still taking stock of the coup. "At the moment, our teams in displacement camps in the north are working", Fille emphasized. "There has been no harassment. They are able to access our beneficiaries. That is the situation as of now".
But Fille said nothing could be taken as guaranteed. "We are very concerned about the situation and what could happen now with the coup in Bamako."
MDM has been able to run its nutritional and medical activities unimpeded, gaining access to populations in both MNLA and government-held areas. "Until now, we haven't noticed extra controls from both sides and hope it won't change in the future".
NGOs often have to prioritize humanitarian operations ahead of development work, and there are longer-term concerns too: how will the costs of military campaigns affect government budgets in a year of huge food security problems? "There are going to be three million people affected by the food security problems in Mali come April ," warned Abdoulaye Samoura, advocacy officer with Oxfam in Bamako. "There is a danger that the government will put all its political, financial and decision-making capacity into sorting out the crisis in the north."
Numerous small-scale development projects, covering everything from irrigation to governance, operate in isolated, war-affected zones like Kidal. "If there is no security in the north, how can the projects they need there be made to work?" asked Mohamed Ag Ossade. "Resorting to arms will never help a country to develop."
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