5 February 2013

Mali: Northern Mali Faces Food and Currency Shortages

Photo: Tugela Ridley/IRIN
Children selling cassava roots near Timbuktu (file photo).

Niamey — Communities in northern Mali are in need of humanitarian intervention following the recent military intervention in Gao and Timbuktu, leading non-governmental organisations to call for deliveries of food aid, fuel and even currency notes.

"Since last year, Malians have had to face a triple crisis: firstly, drought and poor harvests; then a political crisis and finally open conflict when radical Islamist groups took control of the north," said Kristalina Georgieva, the European Commissioner responsible for International Cooperation, Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Response during her visit to the capital Bamako, Jan. 22.

The European Commission has announced that it will release emergency aid worth 20 million euros for the West African country.

The funds are highly needed, as residents of Gao and Timbuktu, the two largest cities of the north, are struggling to keep food on the table as supplies dry up.

"As French and Malian forces advanced on the Islamist militia ... many of the key suppliers of food and fuel fled the area, especially in Gao," international NGO Oxfam International said on Monday.

"There have been no food supplies in Gao for the past two weeks," according to Lucile Grosjean, the spokesperson for the international humanitarian organisation Action Against Hunger (ACF).

Since April 2012, northern Mali has been taunted by a coalition of armed groups composed of Al-Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), and Ansar Dine, an Islamist group among Mali's Tuareg population that live across the country's southeast.

"Because of the occupation by the Jihadist groups, farmers have not had the support they normally receive from the Ministry of Agriculture to improve rice production on plantations on the banks of the Niger River," Grosjean expained. "So the harvest has been much lower than in previous years."

In addition, "many of the livestock markets are closed as movement between Algeria and Niger is difficult and the prices are not good."

A spree of animal thefts has locals fearing for their livestock, according to Grosjean, while looting adds to the insecurity that still characterises the overall situation in Gao and the surrounding countryside, which suffered the brunt of the occupation by the MUJAO forces.

Since the Islamist groups took flight as a result of French air raids, Arab-owned stores were looted, leading Arab and Tuareg shop owners to close their doors and hide their stock till the situation improves, further adding to already limited food supplies.

"Goods have gone up 30 percent in general and 66 percent for fuel," Grosjean said, adding that even if the supplies were there, there is simply no money left in Gao.

"After the closure of banks, traders went to Bamako to get cash to bring to the north, but since the start of the bombing, there has been nothing."

The need for a political solution

In Timbuktu, the humanitarian situation is less alarming, but there is a great fear of reprisals. There, too, Arab- and Tuareg-owned businesses were looted on Jan. 29, following the arrival of French and Malian forces.

France has called for the rapid deployment of international observers to prevent inter-ethnic tensions from throwing northern Mali into chaos.

Meanwhile, the most urgent priority is to restore access to healthcare in northern Mali.

"We are waiting a day or two before we open the Gao health centre, as we are expecting a huge inflow of patients," Grosjean said.

Aid to Mali, particularly from the European Union (EU), was suspended in March last year, when the Malian army ousted the democratically elected civilian government.

Following the onset of France's so-far-successful offensive against the rebels, International governments, including the EU have pledged over 450 million dollars for Mali, as well as human resources to support the training of the country's army.

Political leaders and international organizations are expected to meet in Brussels on Tuesday, Feb. 5 to discuss a political process that would lead to democratic elections and ways to strengthen development and human rights in Mali once political order has been restored, according to Reuters on Monday.

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