Hope and many obstacles in Mali

On Tuesday, I had the chance to listen in on historian Gregory Mann and French researcher Roland Marchal discuss the situation in Mali, in a panel on the Columbia campus. Some of the big questions about Mali’s future and the road to stability there remained unanswered, but the discussion, which extended long past its scheduled hour, underlined the fact that the situation in Mali is exceedingly complicated, and far from resolved.

That may not seem like a revelation worth reporting. But for those trying to fit the Malian tumult and French military campaign into the convenient narrative of a preexisting framework — whether as an obvious case of the benevolent deployment of European force to stop a state from failing, or just another instance of neocolonial intervention disguised in humanitarian garments — this statement has to be the starting point of the discussion. The disintegration of Malian internal affairs is begging for fresh ideas, and challenging some of the best-equipped thinkers on Africa. One surprising result is that some voices hardly known for being pro-intervention have taken less rigid positions — or even endorsed the French campaign, albeit with major caveats.

Whatever one’s reaction, one comment Gregory Mann made on the panel seemed especially important to me. “Intervention is not a solution,” he said. “It changes the problem — hopefully in a way that makes it easier to deal with.” He’s written more on that here.

This is another statement that might seem pretty obvious. As self-apparent as it should be though, the thinking of drone-happy US strategists ignores this. Too often, the American approach is to smash a problem with missiles and hope that’s the end of it — or to invest an infinitesimally smaller amount of resources in feeble diplomatic efforts after the fire stops raining.

For Mali’s sake especially, I hope the French are a little smarter. There’s no real reason to think they are. At least for now, though, we can acknowledge one positive outcome: the march of an unpopular and tragically destructive takeover of Mali’s north has been reversed. A Malian friend spells out the hope and obstacles the country now faces (things in brackets are my additions):

I share [the] principle that Africa (or any other region) should be policed by neighbors helping each other out.
That being said…. I think the French were extremely courageous to come help the Malian forces. For one thing, the African Union and the regional organization (ECOWAS) have been doing little to help Mali out… The country was under embargo and was being pushed to negotiate with Al Qaeda affiliated groups. It has received so little help that the army doesn’t even use blank or real bullets during training exercises (you have to see it to believe it: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PkFBjBqWzAc). The Malian state is still very unstable with the former coup leaders holding on to power.
Over the past year or so, this only allowed militant groups to recruit/train to subdue the rest of the country. They have millions of dollars in ransom money. When they started their new offensive, the (still!) ill equipped and trained Malian army was losing the war, and if not for the French, the Jihadists probably would have been in the suburbs of Bamako by now. This would have been an even bigger humanitarian disaster and probably turned Mali into another Somalia and Al Shabab. Right now +500,000 Malians are refugees or internally displaced people. [See UNHCR figures here.] Bamako has close to 2,000,000 people.
Another thing is that most of the West African countries are as troubled as Mali was a year ago. To this day, the African forces have not made it to Mali. In my opinion, it took a lot of courage for the French to jump into this mess. Mali is not much of a geo-strategic country and not an oil/uranium producing one either.
The French clearly didn’t want to be involved and waited until the very last moment. People see them as liberators, not a colonizing force. [….] This is a country where +95% of the people are already Muslims but they are still having their cultural heritage destroyed by Islamist movements. [….]
Now that there is a clear air superiority, I think the long term solution should reside with the Malian and African forces. It should be relatively easy to liberate the cities. [….]
There is so much left to do… We still don’t see the light at the end of the tunnel. Nonetheless, this past week was a good week for Malians (the post D-day equivalent for one of the poorest countries on earth).
EDIT: Some technical snafu resulted in a draft version of this post being published yesterday. I’ve made some changes, based on conversations I’d earlier had with the emailer quoted above, and the realization that I had probably severely overstated the connection between the Libyan intervention and Mali’s crisis. For more on that, take a look at this post on Sahel Blog and especially the comments below it.

Too much to keep track of

A few of my loyal readers have asked me why I haven’t been more vocal as of late. It’s a darn good question. The events in the Arab world in the last few weeks are a culmination of all the things that I have written about most on this blog.

Below, I offer a few rather pitiful explanations for my silence, which I hope you will indulge.

  • This is a particularly bad time for half-baked long-distance punditry. The information we have — and I am, of course, expecially thinking of Libya here — is mean and unreliable. With real lives in the balance, I have been reticent to contribute to the din without having firsthand information to contribute.
  • Events are unfolding too fast for me to offer the kind of thoughtful commentary for which I try to reserve this blog. My last post was practically irrelevant, news-wise, in about a day. Should I write a blog post about how calling the Libyan government’s apparent massacres of unarmed protesters does not qualify as genocide? (Which is how a number of interviewees, including defecting Libyan officials, are describing it on TV.) Such points are important (HT @texasinafrica), but it doesn’t feel right devoting a whole post to them from afar.
  • Most of all, there’s just too much to keep track of. I admit this reluctantly. As much as the wave of revolt washing across the MENA region emanates from some common urge for freedom, the local grievances of people are dizzyingly different from place to place. Bahrain’s Shiite majority is not Egypt’s multitudinous shebaab are not Yemen’s impoverished throngs are not Libya’s dying young people are not Syria’s somewhat more restrained malcontents, etc. The uprisings are all drawing from the same font of dignity, but they are nurturing different species of trees. Analytically, this makes it very difficult to comment on them en masse. And I would need to spend all day, e’eday blogging to comment on them all individually. Regrettably (for this purpose), I have a day job.

By way of consolation for these unsatisfying explanations, let me offer a list of what I am following in a vain attempt to keep up with everything.

Got recommendations for other good resources that I should be on? Please let me know.

Finally, a ditty I was thinking about for some reason today:

My thoughts with the people of Libya tonight.

ممكن يسقط؟ - Pic taken during unfortunate 26-hour layover in Tripoli airport, 2006.