The land of dead is alive

The vast problems facing Mali and the greater Sahara region can be illustrated geographically. To provide a sense of scale, a map of Mali, superimposed over a map of the United States, stretches from Minnesota, down to Texas, west to New Mexico and east to Ohio. Have a look.
mali over usa

Conversely, a map of the United States superimposed on Northern Africa:
USA over N Africa

When we criticize national and international forces for not doing a better job transforming the North African region and ridding it of insecurity, it is important to keep in mind the geographic scale of what they are dealing with.

Eamonn Gearon of John Hopkins SAIS and the Middle East Policy Council began his presentation this week at the Center for American Progress with these powerful visuals.  Geographic context also needs historical context. As far back as ancient Egypt, the land west of the fertile Nile river valley was referred to as the land of the dead. Egyptians saw the Sahara as insecure and unstable, and its inhabitants ungovernable.

When discussing conflicts in North Africa, everyone wants to hear about the jihadist threat or al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. But these are part of the larger security threat in the region.

Mali’s problems are political, social and economic. They are also interconnected and overlapping.
Politically, Mali’s democracy is a lightweight. Voter turnout around 30% suggests weak community engagement in politics due to jaded attitudes in the northern, more impoverished regions of the country. They see the elite population in the south as corrupt and self serving. This has been a problem in Mali for more than 30 years and is a major roadblock to fixing its democracy.

The political dynamic overlaps with the social dynamic of the country. Northern populations are mostly Arab and identify as white while most of the southern population identify as black. This north/south divided is not however a clash of civilizations.  Ninety per cent of Malians considers themselves Muslim.  Their Islam is heavily influenced by Sufism. The influx of foreign jihadist elements has only occurred in the past 15 years. Without the Muslim Brotherhood as an alternative to Sufism, Salafist Islam has gained a strong hold.

Economically, Mali has never been an easy place to live. Poverty, violence and failing crops all create desperation that feeds criminal and terrorist activity. Criminal gangs have the ability to pay off struggling families more effectively than the Malian government. Crime and corruption is rumored to exist in the highest rungs of the government as well.

Ransoms are the key mechanism perpetuating criminal and terrorist groups in Mali. Some millions of dollars are requested every year in kidnapping cases.  Every ransom paid fuels these groups for more. Groups are forming faster, and splintering more often. As a result, they are smaller and more difficult to track down. Drone usage for surveillance is an important tool for counter terrorism, but it should be used with caution and in conjunction with other practices. International efforts in Mali have a bad reputation, but in Gearon’s opinion this comes from a dearth of development and training. The international community should be stepping up itsefforts and shaping its efforts towards long term development.

Any solutions proposed to fight Mali’s problems should come from the Malians themselves. International forces should seek to partner with willing groups within the country. Often, when the British or French attempt dialogue with the people of Mali, they go to the Tuareg population because of their familiarity. The Tuareg are fine interlocutors, but dialogue at any level within Mali must become more inclusive and diverse than it is now.

Gearon posed strong objection to the upcoming July elections in Mali. Many regional and international players are pushing to hold elections as soon as possible, hoping it will move Mali towards greater stability. But elections this soon will not be credible. Mali is facing a massive internal displacement issue, rendering a large part of the population unable to vote. Additionally, infrastructure and roads are still lacking in the northern part of the country. Travel is made more difficult in the July rainy season, when many roads will be washed out and communication is often down. Take into account the size of Mali, as illustrated above, and understand how much of the country could be excluded from the democratic process.

Gearon concluded with some thoughts on Libya’s role in the Malian crisis. The fall of Qaddafi was an accelerant, not a catalyst, to the violence  in Mali. Libya faces big problems, but they are different from Mali’s.  Libya is wealthy enough to pay for whatever it needs from abroad. The West should be providing training, not arms, to the Libyan security forces.  Regarding the attack on the American facility and ambassador in Benghazi, Gearon believes that the tragedy is not central to the future of Libya. Continuing to play the blame game will make us miss the opportunity to ask the Libyans what they need to prevent it from happening again. The attack should not distance America from Libya, but instead should lead to more engagement on the ground and more efforts toward finding solutions to Libya’s economic and political woes.

When proposing any solution, Gearon added, whether in Libya or Mali, we must remember that these countries are alive and always evolving. There is never a point when every problem is solved and society becomes utopian. Solutions must be adaptable and continuous.

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