Washington — President Barack Obama on Thursday authorised the release of 10 million dollars in emergency funding to help with the refugee crisis stemming from continued violence in northern Mali, in response to warnings that international aid efforts were in danger of drying up in coming months.
The move comes as hundreds of thousands of Malians remain displaced from their homes amidst a near-civil war following a March coup that resulted in a political vacuum.
According to the most recent statistics, nearly 230,000 Malians are thought to have fled to neighbouring countries - Algeria, Burkina Faso, Mauritania and Niger - in addition to some 155,000 who are internally displaced within Mali.
The U.S. aid will be routed through the United Nations' refugee agency, UNHCR. The U.N. has called for 153 million dollars in assistance for the Malian refugee crisis, but to date has received just 22 percent of that.
"We have said that if we didn't receive additional funding by the end of September, there was going to be disaster," a representative of UNHCR's Washington office told IPS, requesting anonymity.
"So this 10 million dollars is very badly needed. Because of limited funding, UNHCR is currently focusing on protection and immediate lifesaving, offering limited humanitarian services. Many of the refugees are living on daily water allotments below emergency standards."
The U.S. funding is not earmarked for any particular use or group of refugees, and comes in addition to 17 million dollars pledged earlier by the United States.
In the aftermath of the March coup, several armed groups seized control of much of the country's massive northern region. The two most notable of these are an Islamist group - Ansar Dine, alleged to be an affiliate of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb - and an ethnic Taureg separatist army, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA).
In late May, a month after the MNLA announced that northern Mali would secede, the two groups entered into a rickety alliance that included the imposition of Sharia law.
Much of the subsequent violence has been blamed on Ansar Dine, including some of the most headline-grabbing acts. In recent weeks, for instance, Ansar Dine fighters have repeatedly targeted U.N.-protected buildings and artefacts, strengthening comparisons by international analysts between Mali and Afghanistan under the Taliban.
Yet while such acts, alongside the humanitarian outrages taking place in the north, have tended to receive the majority of international attention in recent weeks, many have been calling on the U.S. and other actors to keep in mind what is taking place in Bamako, where political manoeuvrings and power grabs have created a fluid, volatile situation.
Analysts have repeatedly pointed out that little can be done in stabilising the north of Mali until the political situation in the south is sorted out.
"The recent advances of Ansar Dine raise immediate concerns for the international community," Susanne Wing, an Africa specialist at Haverford College, told IPS. "But we must not forget the urgency of stable and legitimate government in the south."
Indeed, in releasing the funds, U.S. National Security Council spokesperson Tommy Vietor called on the interim government to "issue its roadmap for elections without delay so that preparations can begin in earnest."
Vietor also called on the military-led National Committee for the Restoration of Democracy "to refrain from any interference in political matters".
Drums of intervention
In lieu of optimism that the political situation will right itself anytime soon, however, calls for foreign intervention have been ratcheting up by the day.
Earlier this week, the Malian Justice Ministry announced that it would be requesting an investigation by the International Criminal Court into what has been taking place in the north, including into the use of child soldiers.
Indeed, on Thursday, the International Federation for Human Rights, an umbrella organisation of more than 150 groups, warned that Mali is "descending into hell" due to the "rapes, summary execution and lootings" taking place in the north.
Also on Thursday, the French foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, made one of the strongest pronouncements yet on what is to be done in Mali, suggesting that "In the north ... there will probably be the use of force."
Fabius clarified that he was referring to military action led by Africans, but said that this would most likely be supported by international forces.
Thus far, the United States and the U.N. Security Council have publicly resisted talk of Western participation in a military intervention in Mali.
On Jul. 5, the Security Council passed a resolution calling on two regional groupings - the African Union and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) - to come up with a document explaining the broad outlines of a "stabilisation force" by the end of July.
While the United States is widely seen as stretched too tightly to allow for any significant participation in a military intervention - particularly with presidential elections in November - some have been making note of sections of the U.S. military that may be agitating for such an option.
Former CIA station chief Robert Grenier recently pointed the finger at the United States Africa Command (AFRICOM), a department created in 2006 and headquartered in Germany.
In an article published on Wednesday, Grenier notes that since 2001 the U.S. generals overseeing Africa have been "nearly beside themselves in their efforts to find relevant work which would gain them at least some measure of relevance and recognition."
He suggests that the rise of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, with whom Ansar Dine is said to be connected, has thus been "something of a godsend ... to those of an aggressive turn of mind."
Grenier notes that recent months have seen an increase in reports of U.S. Special Operations forces across northern Africa.
Discussing the still-unexplained deaths, in April, of three U.S. Special Operations soldiers in Mali, veteran Africa researcher Nick Turse, in an article published Thursday, refers to the U.S. military's "scramble for Africa" - a continent that had almost no U.S. military presence whatsoever just a decade ago.
"With the Obama administration clearly engaged in a twenty-first century scramble for Africa, the possibility of successive waves of overlapping blowback grows exponentially," Turse writes.
"Mali may only be the beginning and there's no telling how any of it will end. In the meantime, keep your eye on Africa. The U.S. military is going to make news there for years to come."