Archive for June, 2012
Barcelona- In finishing up my tome on Mali for Jane’s it is almost preposterous how fast that story keeps progressing along an entirely negative trend line. I was knocking around google this morning as I like to do from time to time to see where my citations end up. In post the citations mostly for my own records on twitter, someone replied, “Great article but dated considering events unfolding. Mali needs all the help it can to fend off radical Islamists.”
Of course I wasn’t posting these implying they were up to date but that’s mostly what twitter is about, breaking news, not last week’s news. Anyhow, my CNN piece from the other week was cited in Mint Press” “Expanding US Spy Network Across Africa Augments Negative Views Of Drone Use” and Global Integrity: “Mali – A Coup that Might Foster Corruption.” The situation in the north keeps spiraling downward just when one thinks it can’t get much worse. After MUJAO’s rout of the MNLA at the governor’s complex in Gao, we awake to find out that the MNLA has been reportedly entirely run out of Timbuktu by Ansar Dine.
I spoke to a noted silversmith from Timbuktu’s Maison des Artisans called Mohammed al-Mahmoud by phone from France yesterday. He explained that the most difficult thing to deal with for his family and residents still left in his hometown is the constant degree of uncertainty. His family has fled to villages outside the centre-ville for their own safety and some of his extended family have fled beyond Mali’s borders to Mauritania and Niger. Mohammed felt that the sand was truly running through the hourglass for northern Mali’s lost regions and that the next three months were critical if any serious effort to recover the territories is to be launched. In contrast I spoke to a PAO at Stutgart’s AFRICOM offices who didn’t have terribly much to say. Not surprising as is the nature of bureaucracy but it’s nearly a decade down the drain for US taxpayer-funded anti-terror training in Mali that seems to have been all for naught. In the meantime, the peoples of the Sahel will continue to wait and wonder.
Barcelona- The above title is a line from the remix of M.I.A.’s Paper Planes single with Bun B and Rich Boy. It kind of capture’s my day today in a way. Sitting in the First World which seems at points in danger of slipping in the Second and writing and wondering about the volatile politics of the Third in Mali that verges on Barcelona’s own Manuel Castells‘ Fourth World in the north. I know Alfred Sauvy’s Third World is supposed to be long out of fashion in the post-poltical correctness era of the Global North and South or Majority World not to mentions the BRICS but maybe that’s why I continue to use it. Sometimes I simply like a passé expression out of sheer sentimentality. Other times it’s just a more evocative term than something bland-sounding coined by a present-day economist, demographer or sociologist.
I have a new article out from my trip to Sévaré the other week in today’s Christian Science Monitor. Despite a nuisance of a government minder, a confrontation with a fearsome man from the security forces and close to 100º F temperatures, I’m somehow managing to get some work out into the internet-o-sphere this week. The eurozone is in what seems like constant crisis and Spain here is chief among the economic enfants terribles. Well after Greece that is…
Nonetheless summer is here and things are plodding along. Unemployment is at record levels but at least there’s a beach. And at least the perennial post-Franco nationalism and separatism here in Catalunya is confined to flags, football, and mostly civil politics unlike dear Mali from where I’ve come in recent weeks.
The cliché goes that Mali was West Africa’s [lone?] success story under ATT in terms of democracy, good [or decent?] governance, corruption, and rule of law. Some Malians I spoke with over the weeks there strongly disagreed with all or parts of that characterization when describing day-to-day life under the “Soldier of Democracy” ATT’s rule but dissatisfaction was setting in even amongst some in the pro-coup camp as the weeks turned to months and the politics went from roller coaster to quagmire.
There was a report today in a Bamako paper (Français) that Malian forces began an assault on Monday on a very northerly garrison called Taoudéni not far from the Algerian and Mauritanian borders. The logistics for such an operation would seem impossible without the direct military assistance of either Algiers or Nouakchott. But one report in one local paper doesn’t necessary cut it. If there was renewed war in Mali, I’d think others would be breaking the story. Could just be a bit of regurgitated propaganda from Kati. We’ll see if anything else filters through in the coming days.
Farewell- Yesterday I awoke to tragic news in my inbox. My editor at Asia Times Online, Anthony ‘Tony’ Allison, died of complications from a heart ailment in Hua Hin on the Gulf of Thailand. He was 59. I immediately wrote an email expressing my condolences and proceeded to mostly put it out of my head for the rest of the day. I was busy finishing up some edits on the CSM article featured in the box above and alternately worked on a piece for Jane’s Islamic Affairs Analyst stemming from my trip to Mali. I then busied myself with petty tasks like doing laundry and went skateboarding at my favorite neighborhood spot at the entrance to the Barcelona zoo at the end of an incredibly hot day.
But today, in reading his obituary and tributes from us hacks, the news is really sinking in. Life is entirely unpredictable. When I saw Tim Hetherington standing outside the entrance of the hospital in Ajdabiya, Libya last year, I could never have guessed that just a few weeks later a guy of his stature in our industry would be killed. It’s partly a product of getting older I suppose. The longer you live, the more likely it is people you know (or have been in the presence of) will die. I have this idea about when I was in my 20’s, nothing in life seemed to change that dramatically. You could not talk to a friend on the opposite side of the country or the world for six months or even a year and the odds were their life had changed little in that interim. In the 30’s, all that went to pot. Unromantic, dull-sounding terms came into play like “marriage track relationships.”
Friends who were in these forced-sounding social constructs suddenly seem to drop off the face of the earth. People began to say predictable things with increasing consistency about buying houses and cars, sonograms and painting nurseries. New friendships then grew out of the commonality of those who eschewed such societal norms (ie those who were still out at the bars on Tuesday nights at 2am). No amount of pseudo-security or inherited wealth of one form or another can prevent the inevitable. We all eventually end up in the same place. It’s what we do until then that matters. No one I’ve known or met who died in the decade of the 9/11 wars ever thought as they were packing their bags, “OK, this is my final trip.” The first guys I knew who died in my field died in 2002. That was a decade ago. And somehow I am fortunate enough to look out at the brilliant blue skies over northeastern Spain 10 years on with what seem like endless possibilities still laying ahead.
Barcelona- I threw together a short clip of my brisk tour of Djenné on the way from Sévaré back to Bamako. Djenné is one of the twin centers of medieval Islamic learning in Mail-the other being cut-off Timbuktu. I’d always wanted to see the mud mosque and couldn’t resist the lure of a short side trip.
As I’ve done in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and other places in conflict, I always manage to sneak in a trip to the ancient sites that captivated my imagination well before political violence began to consume my day to day thoughts. Djenné was certainly one such place. Like the Hellenistic columns of Ai Khanoum in Takhar, the spiral Abbasid-era minaret of Malwiya in Samarra or Cyrene in Cyrenaica, Djenné held a particular place in the mental landscape of history for me.
The Bradt guide to Mali describes Djenné is the country’s “pre-eminent tourist attraction.” Passing through a village on the way to the Bani River crossing, my fixer said normally the villagers charge cars carrying foreigners a “toll” of 1000 CFA in order to pass through their area. He said the fact that such people didn’t bother to stop our car was indicative of the end of tourism in Mali for the time being.
The schizophrenic way things are going amongst the Azawadis with Ansar Eddine having gone to Burkina Faso to negotiate with President Campoaré while the MNLA is setting up a transitional administration, who knows what will happen next with regard to northern Mali. If ECOWAS and the AU have their way, the winds of war will be blowing through the country in the near future. Whatever the outcome of the current military stalemate partitioning Mali, I’m grateful to have been able to visit Djenné and dance in the dust with the lizards.
Barcelona- Niger’s President Mahamadou Issoufou has come out as the most hawkish of the ECOWAS leaders on the Azawad issue as of late. To frame things in somewhat simplistic terms, Issoufou perhaps better than any other head of state in West Africa understands the challenges Mali currently faces.
For Niger was in a coup and constitutional crisis loosely from 2009-2011 triggered by the previous president Mahamdou Tandja’s trying to alter the constitution to potentially remain in power for life. To make a very long story short, Issoufou and the democratic opposition eventually prevailed (though it took a coup d’êtat replete with gunfire to do so). The junta that took power in Niger eventually allowed for elections in early 2011 which has so far has not happened in Mali (though the junta there is ‘officially’ no longer in power).
The reason I’m really posting the AJE interview though is the very end of the segment where the interviewer tacks on the subject of Bush’s ludicrous 16 words in which “Africa” was actually Niger and the greatest fraud of the early 21st century was perpetrated on the world stage. Issoufou has rather specific knowledge of the subject due to his having been National Director of [Niger’s] Mines in the early 1980s. Of all of Mali’s neighbors, Niger has the most to lose the longer the Azawad secession festers in northern Mali unabated. Issoufou is using the Azawad/Islamist-AQIM issue as a platform to boost Niger’s profile on the world stage. His recent speech at UK think-tank Chatham House is the first visit of a Nigerien leader to London. Issoufou came to power challenging dictatorial tendencies and militarism in his own country. Circumstances have him now strongly advocating for some form of military intervention to break apart the gestating salafi-jihadi haven on Niger’s northwestern border. Very interesting stuff in my view.
Barcelona- Wanted to post some more images from my two weeks in the broken, beautiful Malian republic. I’ve noticed that there seem to be two black-or-white schools of thought on Mali: it is painted as either not nearly as bad as some media reports and politicos have been suggesting or as Mahamedou Issoufou, president of neighboring Niger has recently stated “It [Mali] is not just a threat for the region, but the world.” The ‘West African Afghanistan’ meme has thus been circumambulating the web. There are a couple of problems with the writing and reporting situation on Mali.
One is that the majority of reports about this troubled state are written by those who are either not in the country at present, or as I suspect, certain think-tank types who have never been there in the first place, instead relying on a mix of regional state media sites and rebel statements via their own sites to inform them of what is going on there.
The other issue is that it seemed to me after going to the trouble and expense of actually going to Mali, the CNRDRE junta does not want journos in their midst whatsoever. My first day in Bamako I went out cautiously with a very small camera to try and feel out the city. I approached what appeared to be a small pro-junta gathering on an open, public street in front of the National Assembly.
Before I could even raise my lens to take a single frame, a pair of plain clothes Sanogo guys promptly escorted me out of the area, telling me that one cannot simply begin shooting photos in Mali of anything remotely political in nature without first seeking permission. Doesn’t sound like the echo of a functioning democracy, does it? According to a good many Bamakois, not only is the north lost, but no one knows when the democratic process will return to Mali.
In sum, Mali is simply a difficult place to both write about and report from.
The FT’s Xan Rice did a nice little article about the weeping Mali billboards dotting Bamako’s roadsides. I featured one of them in my Christian Science Monitor piece which is linked two posts down from this one. Oh and you are interested here and hereare links (en Français) about the North Korean firm that was (or is?) active in Mali under ATT. Wonder if Sanogo will maintain ties with Kim Jong-un?
In unrelated business I’m cited by UPI in their article “U.S. risks getting dragged into Yemen war” stemming from my Fahd al-Quso piece in Asia Times Online last month.
Bamako- Back in the steaming hot Malian capital after a semi-disastrous northern excursion which resulted in me being made persona non grata in Servaré and Mopti when my fixer and I ran afoul of a rage-aholic gendarme commander. Officialdom up that way was either friendly but entirely ineffective, obstructionist, or deceitful. Nonetheless, I got to see a whole lot of red Malian countryside and gnarled baobab trees and some brilliant full moon nights in the Malian Sahel. At least I was able to interview people from Timbuktu and hear their stories before getting the subsequent boot.
Don’t have time to write up the whole debacle here but it was all an adventure and provided me with a way to see famed Djenné on the way back to Bamako. For now I’ll just post a few photos.
Bamako- Got my first dispatch out from from here today and trying to work on a couple of other projects concomitantly. Had a great interview today with the man above in one of the buildings of the sprawling air conditioned ministry complex here in the Malian capital. Messr. Sidi Lamine gave me a good, long view of the Tuareg conflict that has rattled this country nearly since its inception after decolonization. As a friend of mine said here regarding the potential reconquest of the northern regions by the Malian military should a peaceful solution be not plausibly feasible, “the war for the north of Mali has not even started.”
It may appear that Mali is in a state of quiet partition that can be negotiated through some kind of vaguely stated future settlement but that isn’t how many people I’ve been fortunate enough to talk to here view things. The man I interviewed above was incredibly well-versed in pan-African post-colonial political history. Such indigenous perspectives are absolutely critical.
In my own sort of simplistic view, the struggle for Tuareg identity and territory echoes the unrealized visions of both Pashtunistan and Baluchistan in South/Central Asia. Messr. Sidi Lamine-without prompting-made some analogies between his people and those in Pakistan/Afghanistan. For me one of the biggest questions is whether there will be the domestic and or internationalist political will to put Mali back together. This is the intellectual node where the perspective between more pessimistic locals who I’ve talked to thus far and how perhaps the struggling interim administrations sees things. Interesting stuff…