Saturday, 28 April 2012

Reflections on Mali and the current West African Food Crisis

I have now been at home for more than four months, and it’s like I’ve never been away. I’ve settled into my (relatively) comfortable lifestyle at home, and it’s easy to forget that Mali even exists sometimes. That’s not been the case over recent weeks however, and it’s for the most unfortunate of reasons.
When I was living in Mali, we were troubled by several worrying news stories – when Gaddafi died, and when several western hostages were taken in the northern regions. None of this created the backlash that we expected at the time however. Apart from a few protests and a slight restriction on our travels, we didn’t really notice any difference to normal life. We know now however, that this was the beginning of a ripple that would lead to the overthrow of ATT, the successful Malian president that served nearly two terms in Africa’s ‘model democracy.’ If we’re being honest, the ripple was set in motion many years earlier. The Tuaregs number around three million, all across the Sahel, and the largest number (around one-third) live in Mali. The country has experienced rebellions throughout the past decades, the most serious being in 1962-4, 1990-95, and 2007-9, but all were put down and the country carried on as normal. The Tuareg’s argument is that they want to reclaim their land, and to create a separate country for themselves as they disagree with the so-called ‘southern government’ in Bamako. They don’t want to take over the whole country, merely annex the north and claim the region they call ‘Azawad’ as their own.
If this has been going on since the 1960s, then why has this one succeeded? Well one of the main arguments ties in with one of the key events that occurred whilst we were living in Mali – the death of Gaddafi. As I have mentioned previously, Gaddafi had a lot of support and influence throughout Africa, including in Mali. He had spent a lot of money on the main government buildings, owned a series of hotels in the capital, and had paid for a lot of the momuments throughout Bamako. This is not the only reason he had support however. Gaddafi disagreed with western interventionism, and wanted instead pan-Africanism, for which there is a lot of support on the continent. Therefore, there were a lot of people, mainly Tuaregs, fighting for Gaddafi in Libya. When the dictator was killed, they fled the country and returned to their home territories. The rebellious community now had thousands of well-equipped, organised and well-trained individuals to lead them and to create a strategy. This of course takes time, as does creating an increased feeling of discontent throughout the region, and waiting for the time to be right. This is why we didn’t experience an immediate backlash whilst in-country. Several groups united, and they eventually became strong enough to create a movement of their own – the MNLA (Mouvement National de Liberation de l’Azawad). With a national election coming up in just a month, they felt that March was the right time to strike. The military had long since complained of being ill-equipped to fight the rebelling Tuaregs in the north, and their discontent was used strategically in the coup, as it was they who fired on the Presidential Palace the night that the coup occurred.
Simultaneously, West Africa has been suffering a serious food crisis. Many people began fleeing from the northern regions of Mali into Niger, Senegal, Burkina and other surrounding countries since the death of Gaddafi, and coupled with a drought and other factors, West Africa simply does not have enough resources to feed its inhabitants. This was always going to be a problem, due to low rainfalls and failed harvests, and is something that aid organisations spotted and started helping with months ago. However it has since been exacerbated by the thousands of extra people now in Niger and other West African countries. Some of the poorest countries in the world simply cannot cope with such a crisis.
According to WorldVision, 15 million people are affected by the crisis, and 12 million of those are in Mali and Niger alone.
In March, the MNLA fired on the presidential palace in Mali, and Amadou Toumani Toure was forced to go into hiding. The country was left in complete confusion for days, until the rebels announced they had control, placing Amadou Sanogo in charge. Within hours they had unveiled a new constitution. To say they had complete control over the country was a bit of a stretch however. Ex-pat friends over there said that all Malian TV was cut off (apart from military broadcasts), power was shut off and they were under a 24 hour curfew. Within days however, widespread looting was occurring across the capital, with people panicking about possible lack of fuel and cash as a result of impending sanctions from ECOWAS, the Economic Community of West African States. When the coup was first announced, heavy gunfire was heard throughout the night, as the military fired in the streets in celebration. The air was one of general panic and uncertainty, and not that of a strong, stable government.
As a result of the political uncertainty, two groups took advantage; the Tuaregs and AQIM (Al-Qaeda in the Maghreb) both situated in the north. Both began to take control of key, influential towns such as Kidal, Gao and Timbuktu, and Sanogo and the military soon began to lose control. Citizens in the north began fleeing in earnest as heavy gunfire rang out throughout the northern towns, and Niger was inundated with thousands of refugees. All westerners in the country were advised to leave, and the current group of DFID-volunteers were flown home early (they had been trapped in the office for days). The ex-pat family I had made friends with over there also left the country in a hurry; not only were they leaving Mali behind, but they were leaving their lives behind as, although they were planning on moving back to England this summer, they had to bring it forward and leave with very little preparation or planning. My Malian friends are well, but worried at the current uncertainty. I don’t think anybody could have seen a coup occurring, but discontent with ATT was certainly rife when I was there. As I mentioned in a previous post, Adama didn’t think he was doing enough for education or poverty, and although respect for the President bordered on deifying him at times, it was always very superficial.
So the question is what happens now? Well nobody is sure. There is now a temporary president who has reformed the previous constitution – Sanogo was forced to give up power when ECOWAS sanctions meant that the country had no access to imports such as fuel or cash (not great for a poor, landlocked country), and the threat from the Tuaregs became too much to handle. Dioncounda Traore is only in power for 40 days (though it will likely take longer than that to organise elections), and he faces many problems. First and foremost is the trouble up north. Recently, and by their own admittance too early, the Tuaregs announced the independence of Azawad, which was promptly rejected. However, they have control of key towns and garrisons, as do AQIM. It is hard to differentiate between the two, but they are two very different groups with different aims. Whether they are working together or apart doesn’t matter – the Tuaregs do not want control of the country, and aim to be peaceful once they have claimed independence. AQIM however, have imposed sharia law in some towns, and they have begun to distance themselves from the Tuaregs. They pose the biggest threat but are now difficult to fight without hurting innocent civilians.
It’s a worrying time for such a beautiful country, and coupled with a food crisis the country is being crippled. In the worst-hit areas, families are only able to feed their children once a day, and there are fears by aid organisations that ECOWAS sanctions could make things worse. Food prices are increasing as a result of the blockade on imports, which means that already poor families cannot afford food at all. This also affects fuel, which has also been blocked, which therefore affects the power supply. Those who have not fled to neighbouring countries are displaced and there are no funds with which to help them. Niger is crippled by poverty and drought itself, and cannot cope with the influx of refugees from the stricken Mali.
If you can afford to help at all, please do. This is a country and a region very close to my heart, and I know people who have been directly impacted by this crisis. I met many Malians who relied on the tourist industry to survive, which was already small as a result of the Tuareg rebellions in previous decades. With this coup, there will be no tourism at all, meaning that thousands of people will have no income. Mali does not have a healthcare system, or a benefit system, and there is no-one but us to help them survive. There are many aid agencies trying to help at the moment, but the best I have found are:

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