Bamako/Mopti — Drissa Keita, 42, fled south to Bamako, the capital of Mail, with 18 family members when Islamist extremists overran Gao in the northeast in early April. Once a civil servant, he now lives eight to a room in his brother's house, without electricity. "Conditions are very difficult... I want to return - all of my children were born in Gao - but we can't go back [while it is] under the current regime."
Thousands of families in Bamako and other cities are facing the same challenge: how to accommodate and care for dozens of extra relatives, mostly children, when they are already struggling to cope with high food prices and too little income. Conflict across the north has displaced some 70,000 Malians, who are now mainly living in Bamako and Mopti, an inland port on the Niger River in central Mali.
The country is being squeezed on economic, political and military fronts. "We're fighting a lot of fires at once here," said Information Minister Hamadoun Touré. With formal sector unemployment at 30 percent in good times, investment in the mining sector down, the bulk of multilateral and bilateral development aid suspended, and zero tourism activity, the country could be on its way to a "complete economic standstill", said one seasoned Malian development worker.
Incidents of violent crime in the capital have increased, say the residents of several neighbourhoods; poverty rates are thought to be rising, a government official notes; and nutrition analyses - to be confirmed - indicate that urban malnutrition is higher than in 2011.
This is the climate in which a government in disarray and its dangerously weakened army must confront the takeover of its northern territories by Islamic extremists, rebel groups and criminals, during a food crisis that has thrown four million people into hunger.
"Mali is not a fragile state yet, but things could deteriorate. The economy is down. Outsiders... do not necessarily understand the situations in the north and south. Long-term investors will pull out - urgent action is needed," a Western diplomat told IRIN.
A Mali researcher at the International Crisis Group said, "We are looking for immediate measures to stop state collapse."
Humanitarian aid has been exempt from budget cuts by most donors, and an extensive humanitarian effort is underway, but only some 45 percent of the US$213 million UN appeal for Mali has been met so far.
Food security efforts need to be scaled up, particularly in the north, said Minister of Humanitarian Response Mamadou Sidibé, but the dangerous conditions there make this difficult.
"We have received a lot of humanitarian aid but it's just a drop in the ocean compared to the needs here. We had a lot of difficulties before the crisis, and needed state aid for food and animal fodder," Mohamed Ould Mataly, leader of the Arab community in Gao, told IRIN.
NGOs and the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) are treating tens of thousands of malnourished children, but the malnutrition crisis is so vast that thousands more are necessarily going untreated, said Johanne Sekkenes, head of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) in Mali.
Northern pastoralists say they have received far too little aid and their animals are dying in the thousands. Pastoralists are particularly dependent on purchasing cereals, whose prices are still 60-80 percent higher than the five-year average, according to the Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS NET), run by the US Agency for International Development (USAID). Insecurity, theft, market closures, food scarcity and cash shortages meant that by late April prices had risen by as much as 150 percent in just one month.
"We can avoid a disaster, but only if the opportunities for a quick scaling up of the response are not missed," John Ging, Director of Operations at the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said in a communiqué issued during a recent trip to Mali. "There appears to be a misconception that without a solution to the security and political crisis in the north... little can be done... In fact, 80 percent of the country's humanitarian needs are in the south, where there is relative stability."
Doing more with less
Most observers agree that neither the northern takeover nor economic stability can be righted without a politically viable government in the south. "No one wants to work with a transition government," said Mamadou Diamoutani, the Secretary-General of the High Islamic Council (Haut Conseils Islamique) and President of the Malian Independent National Electoral Commission.
Information Minister Touré says they're making headway. "We've managed to stabilize the south, civil servants are being paid, we've passed key bills, we're forming a government, we've done everything we were supposed to."
But they have to do more with less: donor reluctance has cut the core government budget by at least 20 percent to 750 billion CFA ($1.4 billion), said Minister of the Economy, Finance and Budget Tiena Coulibaly, affecting education, agriculture, health and energy. Ministries are just ticking over said Touré, paying salaries and investing nothing.
However, he admitted that with better governance, money could be used more wisely, an issue being pushed by several donors, including the World Bank, said Ousamane Diagana, its Mali Head of Operations.
While other aid is down, humanitarian aid is up, but "Humanitarian aid will do nothing to alleviate the causes of the current humanitarian crisis - [efforts to improve] resiliency will not work in this climate," said Timothy Bishop, head of the international NGO, Catholic Relief Services.
In rebuilding the government, civil servants, aid workers and diplomats say more consultation with opposition political parties and civil society groups must take place. To evade fragile statehood, building a legitimate, consensus-driven government with strong institutions is key, according to the Overseas Development Institute.
A key opposition party, SADI (African Solidarity for Democracy and Independence), was not consulted by the president or prime minister in the formation of a new government, according to its administrative head, Nouhoum Keita. Nor was the once influential High Islamic Council. "We haven't been consulted at all... we need a government that responds to citizens...People are not very happy," Diamoutani told IRIN.
Much is expected from interim President Diacounda Traoré - recently arrived from Paris where he underwent treatment after being attacked in Bamako - given the lack of popularity and perceived weakness of Acting Prime Minister Cheick Modibo Diarra. "There is a political vacuum here," said the development worker. "Meanwhile, the UN won't take action, and ECOWAS [Economic Community of West African States] leaders are in large part acting in their own national interests... Where is the real power centre?"
Not all views are so bleak. The World Bank's Diagana said institutions are weakened but still functioning. "To say Mali could become a fragile state... we cannot reach that conclusion yet."
Helping the army
The army's capacity is at an all-time low after years of underfunding and lack of direction. A diplomat interpreted the formation of youth militias all over the country as a sign of how "scared" and undefended people feel.
When Islamists arrived in February to take Hombori - Boubakar Traoré's village near Douentza, a large town in Mopti Region - they killed the chief, at which point the gendarmerie and military fled. "We realized we could rely on no one. We had no protection," he told IRIN in 'La Maison de Chauffeurs', a temporary shelter for 500 displaced persons just outside Sévaré near Mopti town.
Reinvigorating the army would include restructuring, reinstating a clear chain of command, and better training of commanders, said the International Crisis Group. Military leaders also prioritize boosting morale in a seriously demoralized force, and rearmament, including combat helicopters, given both under-investment and heavy equipment losses in the north.
The government is no longer burying its head in the sand, and stresses restructuring and re-equipping the army, with the assistance of "certain partners and friends", an unnamed Ministry of Defence adviser told IRIN.
No clear strategy
Which strategy would work in the north is still not clear. Many say a politically viable government and strengthened army should be in place before any action can be taken, while others fear that the armed groups will become further entrenched in power the longer they maintain control.
Negotiation and mediation are traditional in Mali, but there is no agreement on whether to try negotiating with one bloc in a power-sharing deal, or take an approach that would break up the Islamic coalition by for instance splitting Ansar Dine from the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA) - both of them Islamist groups intent on imposing Sharia law.
Behind the scenes talks are taking place. Mediation has not worked in the past - "Mali's soft approach landed it in this situation today," noted one diplomat - but military intervention could only work with heavy Western backing say several analysts. Malian military officials are wary of ECOWAS intervention, and their negotiating role is seen as "aggravating existing fault lines in Malian society", said the International Crisis Group. The President's office is pushing for more engagement by neighbouring Algeria, Mauritania and Niger, and the African Union. The Mauritanian president said on 6 August that it would not engage in war with northern groups.
With few clear solutions mapped out, many Malians who remained in the north are starting to rise up against their new rulers. Widespread looting by rebel groups meant some individuals initially appreciated the relative law and order brought by Ansar Dine, but this has changed. Hundreds took to the streets of Gao, the regional capital, on 5 August to protest a planned amputation of a petty thief's hand, a few days after a couple was reportedly stoned to death for alleged adultery - both punishments are in accordance with strict conservative interpretations of Sharia law.
People displaced from Gao shared their shock. At her sister's home in Bamako, one told IRIN: "It has gone too far, the violence has to stop."
[ This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations ]