Grieving for Mali

In 2002, even if Mali wasn’t literally my home, my native land it sure felt it was. At that point my family and I had been living in Bamako, the Malian capital, for five years. On summer visits back to Canada to visit with family and friends, my son usually gave it two or three weeks before he started telling me that it had been a “nice holiday” but now he thought it was really time we went “home” to Bamako. He missed the group of friends with whom he played soccer on the narrow dusty roads near our house, dodging vehicles and regularly retrieving wayward soccer balls from fetid gutters. My daughter greatly missed her friends, who hailed from all over West Africa, and the weekends when they all headed off to explore the crazy markets or just to make the rounds of each others’ homes sampling wonderful African dishes and trying out new dances they were learning in a Senegalese dance troupe.

I had no interest in ever leaving Mali. I was working as a journalist, reporting for the BBC World Service and any other international media that showed an interest in the country, its fabulous history, culture, music, or its politics and the already worrisome meddling in its internal affairs of foreign powers, particularly American, French, Algerian, Libyan and Saudi.

But — barring the BBC World Service that broadcast to Africa and enjoyed its largest audience growth on the continent — few international media outlets seemed very interested in Mali. At that point, the country was not generating the kinds of stories that editors in distant newsrooms seemed to expect from Africa. These tended to star bloodthirsty youths in rebel garb hacking off limbs of innocent civilians, white saviours trying to stem the outbreak of some new and awful disease, or perhaps a Western celebrity cuddling a starving child.

I began to realize that many in North America had never heard of the country. Sometimes, when I said we were living in Mali, people thought I meant Maui in Hawaii, or Malawi in southern Africa, or the resort of Bali in Indonesia. Even the city of Malé in the island state of the Maldives seemed better known than the Republic of Mali in West Africa.

In 1999, I received a phone call from a producer at CBS radio in Chicago, asking me to speak on air about the visit to Sierra Leone of then US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s. The producer seemed surprised when I said I was the BBC reporter in Mali, a good long way from Sierra Leone. I told him that Albright wouldn’t be coming to Bamako for another day. No, I explained, Freetown wasn’t in Mali; it was the capital of Sierra Leone.

The man at the other end of the line was quiet for a moment, before he asked where on earth Mali was and what on earth Madeleine Albright was doing going there. I said that it had been the seat of great empires, such as the Mali Empire that had covered much of West Africa. Later there was the Songhai Empire, with its religious heart in Timbuktu. It was, I said, a fascinating and complex country with much to show the world.

More silence on the other end.

I went on to explain that Mali was of strategic importance to the US, a moderate Muslim country that Washington very much wanted to keep and cultivate within its diplomatic and military sphere of influence. It bordered on Algeria, Mauritania and was within listening range of Libya, all of which the US liked to monitor closely. I told him that US generals from the European Command were constantly coming and going to Timbuktu, and that the US had started military training in the country. Now I had his interest. The CBS producer wanted to do an interview with me, not about Mali, but about its strategic interest to the US and the terrorism angle that Albright was coming to discuss. Mali, per se, didn’t interest him in the slightest. How could it when he had never heard of it?

In 2002, on the eve of the presidential elections that would bring Amadou Toumani Toure to power (and precipitate what some of my Malian friends have come to call the “collapse” of the Malian state), I had an email from a major Canadian newspaper. They wanted me to provide some background material on the upcoming elections in Mali, as Canada was helping to finance them. I wrote back right away, offering a full article on the Malian elections and the country itself, in which Canada had some big underground interests. It was a major player in Mali’s gold mines and a Canadian company had also been prospecting for oil and gas in the desert north. The reply I received was terse. In essence, I was told that I should be glad that they even asked me for a little background material and that they were considering a mention of Mali in their hallowed pages. The message was clear — the country was not of any consequence or interest to them.

Sometimes, back then, Malian friends would muse about, be amused by the fact that the name of their country was less known internationally than was the name of their great ancient city of scholarship, Timbuktu. And even that had become synonymous to many people around the world with the proverbial end of the world, a place so remote it could not possibly even exist. Malian friends would watch tragic other countries in the region disintegrate in conflict, as Sierra Leone and Liberia did during the 1990s, and conclude aloud that they were fortunate not to feature in global headlines the way other nations on the continent did, but only because of conflicts or famines or other disasters so huge that even American prime time took notice. Mind you, that coverage was often sorely lacking all the context that would explain the causes of the catastrophes, which quite often had their roots on other continents where decisions were still being made about economic policies, resource extraction, and the availability of aid money and military weaponry — sometimes one and the same in African countries.

But all that was then. A decade later and now Mali is making the dreaded headlines many of us never imagined could come from the country. A military coup in 2012, extremist Islamic militants, many from outside the country, pushing aside the secular Tuareg nationalists to take over the north of the country, amputations, mass exodus, and then conflict and reprisal killings as French, Malian and Chadian forces battle the Islamic extremist groups. Suddenly all sorts of people are pumping out news reports and opinion pieces, and prognosticating about a country that, until last year, some would not have been able to place on a map. Some of those now pontificating on Mali — including Western politicians — have never paid any attention to what was happening there and really don’t have any idea of what has led to the mess.

And I think that’s why I am finding it so difficult to read and listen to so much of what is being said by the world’s mainstream media have to say about the tragedy that is Mali in 2013. Just as those that cheer-led and wildly applauded the hunting down and slaughtering of Libya’s Muammar Ghaddafi hailed the NATO-led operation in Libya as an unqualified success, a great victory. They studiously ignored the fact that it would lead to the inevitable return to Mali of angry, heavily armed and highly trained Tuareg forces that had backed Ghadaffi and to chaos, turmoil and suffering that has not abated. Some victory.

How many of those claiming knowledge of the events in Mali and making grandiose statements about the importance of foreign intervention to quash Al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb are familiar with works of the real experts on the country, countless Malian scholars and thinkers? How many have read, for example, the writings of Malian sociologist and former culture minister, Aminata Dramane Traoré, who has for years denounced the devastating effects of interference of foreign governments and financial institutions in Malian affairs and warned of the inevitable divisions we see today in her country, warned against foreign intervention? How many have ever read or even heard of the works of great Malian writers like the late Amadou Hampate Bâ, who depicts so deftly with his deadly wit the French colonial period in his country, which helped lay the foundation for today’s inequities and divisions? How many have read the writings of British anthropologist Jeremy Keenan, who has devoted his life to the study and understanding of development, security and globalization in North Africa, the Sahara and Sahel regions of Africa? Keenan has unravelled the web of lies and deceit that has been woven by the US and Algeria about fighting Islamic extremism, Al Qaida and terrorism, which he argues that the US and Algeria have been supporting and fomenting all along.

Anyone who knows Mali knows that any news reports that boil the tragic conflict down to the simplistic George W. Bush-style narrative of Islamic extremism (the bad guys) out to conquer the “civilized world” (the US and anyone willing to join its military adventures) are simply nonsense. What is happening in Mali is extremely complex and it goes back a long way. It may begin with the marginalization of the desert-dwelling Tuareg and Arab populations by the French colonists and then more of the same by Malian governments after independence. But that is hardly where it ends.

More than a decade ago, and then on each subsequent visit I’ve made to the country on research or journalistic trips, Malian friends have told me over and over about the growing political problems and looming crisis in their nation. They spoke of the American war on terror in the region that they feared was actually promoting terrorism and terrorists. In 2004, a government minister told me that the US was quietly arming rebel groups in the north of the country in their GWOT (military-speak for their Global War On Terror), just a few years after the United Nations had spent millions of dollars convincing Tuareg groups to relinquish their arms after a peace agreement with them that was ratified in 1996. Malians also worried about the growing disenchantment of their unemployed and marginalized youth, who were refused visas to enter European countries in the so-called “free world” and who fell victim to human smugglers when they tried to get to those forbidden promised lands by crowding into leaky boats or into trucks crossing the Sahara Desert. I was told at desert outposts that the young migrants died like flies en route.

Even before 9/11, I had attended large meetings of Muslim leaders in Mali in which loud criticisms were made of the Western interference and influence and those that perpetrated it behind closed doors. After 9/11, after the attacks on Afghanistan and Iraq, the criticism became even more strident along with the accusations that the US was waging war against Islam. No Western diplomats were there to hear the criticisms. When I aired them in reports on BBC, American “public diplomacy officers” warned me that I had “big problems” in Washington. I reported on two demonstrations in front of the US embassy in Bamako, one over the closing of the market streets around it for security reasons, another for its support of Israel, and both times I was apprehended by security forces on the instructions of US personnel inside the embassy. They didn’t want to hear the message so they intimidated the messengers.

Muslim leaders, opposition politicians, scholars and ordinary citizens had all protested loudly into my microphone that the outside world, in propping up corrupt regimes in Mali that had come to power through fraudulent elections, and calling the country a “model” democracy, were signing a death warrant for peace and stability in the country. From 1992 until 2002, Western ambassadors just couldn’t seem to heap enough praise on Mali’s president, Alpha Oumar Konare. After 2002, they did the same with their dear friend Amadou Toumani Touréor “ATT”, under whom corruption spiralled out of control and the Malian state essentially collapsed. Some were more focussed on what was to be got from Mali’s underground — gold, and possibly oil, gas and uranium in the north — than they were what was happening all around them on the streets of Bamako. Nary a public word did the Western diplomats utter about what was going dreadfully wrong in the “model” democracy they had invented.

And much was going wrong. There was crushing debt and poverty in a country that was the third largest producer of gold in Africa. There were rigid economic austerity programs that the World Bank and Western “donors” — or more accurately “creditors” — imposed like shackles on the country. These neo-liberal recipes for disaster are the pinnacles of disaster capitalism, and they involved what Naomi Klein calls the “free market trinity” — privatization, deregulation and cuts to social spending. In Mali, they were leading rapidly to gaping and ever-widening disparities between the extremely wealthy few and vast majority of extremely poor, a kind of monetary Apartheid that was starkly evident in Bamako. A changing climate was leading to environmental disaster, frequent droughts, degrading lands, a falling water table, and the southern spread of the Sahara Desert.

At the same time the Sahara was becoming a hotbed of international crime networks involved in the trafficking of contraband cigarettes, cocaine, weapons and human beings. Kidnapping became a popular way to bring in millions of dollars, and the profits were shared with corrupt officials in Bamako who helped in the “negotiations” to free the mostly European and North American hostages. And always there was also the simmering tension between the northern nomadic Tuareg peoples who felt marginalized and oppressed by the Malian government in Bamako, tension that had already erupted over the years in serious and prolonged conflicts.

But none of this background makes it into mainstream media reports from Mali. No lessons are being learned. Instead, the French are finding themselves mired in a mess they helped to create, the Algerian regime can continue to wage a dirty war on its own citizens and foment terrorism while pretending to fight it. The American military, now operating under the African Command, have succeeded in opening up a whole new front in their war on terror, with permission to station their drones in both Burkina Faso and Niger, to keep track on everyone in the oil- and gas- and uranium-rich outback band of resource-rich real estate known as the African Sahel.

The losers in all of this, as in every geo-political tragedy, are the civilians — the women and men and children — the farmers, traders, labourers, teachers, nurses, doctors and other innocent citizens, who are always the pawns in the strategic machinations of the global powerbrokers who have created the tragic mess that is Mali today. It is for them that we should all be grieving, and speaking out for justice and transparency as the United Nations and international community try to heal a deeply wounded nation and society.

There can be no more hidden agendas, no jockeying for access to natural resources, to military and political control by any of the countries claiming to support the effort to restore peace to Mali.

Recently, a Malian friend said to me that the very people today claiming to be the firefighters in Mali are the same people that helped set fire to the country over the past two decades. And as for the French intervention that she says was an unfortunate necessity to prevent the extremist Islamic groups from taking over the rest of her country, she says that was like sending in the doctor after the patient — her beloved country of Mali — had already died.

I dearly hope she’s wrong, but that doesn’t mean I’m not already grieving for the Mali that was, the country that offered us a welcoming, wonderful and peaceful home for more than six years.

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