This post is part of our special coverage on Refugees.
Coverage of Mali may be absent in the mainstream media, but it is currently facing critical challenges while preparing for the presidential elections on April 29, 2012. After the fall of Gaddafi in Libya, Mali faces the return of Tuareg armed groups posted in Libya, who threaten to seek secession from Mali [fr] for the Azawad territory, or Northern Mali.
The conflict has already forced 195,000 people to flee their homes since mid-January, according to the the United Nations humanitarian office OCHA. Additionally, a food crisis threatens 3 million Malians [fr] because of a prolonged drought in the northern region.
Mali has its hands full with its current domestic issues but it understands that it also needs to take into account regional stability and its neighbors’ wishes – Algeria, Niger and Mauritania – when handling the refugee crisis.
Presidential elections in jeopardy
One of the consequences of the refugee crisis was a military mutiny in the northern region on March 20, whose participants threatened to join the Tuareg rebels.
Sandrine Sawadogo explains [fr]:
Alors que le gouvernement malien et les combattants du MNLA se renvoient la balle en s'accusant mutuellement d'être responsables de l'exode de plus de100 000 personnes, les combats font rage autour des derniers campements militaires encore entre les mains de l'armée officielle.
In the following video, some rebels explain why they deserted the Malian army to fight with the Tuareg rebels:
Jeremy Keenan provides more context about the Tuareg rebellion:
After two months of fighting, the Malian army has lost control of most of Azawad, while the number of troops that have either been killed, taken captive or deserted is now thought to be at least 1,000. In a humiliating incident, the army base at Aguelhok was overrun on January 24 when the troops defending it ran out of ammunition.
However, from a strategic point of view, the most significant fighting was at Tessalit. Close to the border with Algeria and with an army base and airport, Tessalit is a strategic town. By March 4, three Malian army units abandoned their attempts to relieve the MNLA siege of the base. A week later, the troops retreated to Algeria, leaving the base and the airport in MNLA control. The number of soldiers killed, taken captive or deserted, along with equipment destroyed or captured in these twin setbacks is thought to be considerable.
It is conceivable that further attacks on the highly vulnerable, nomadic civilian population, may bring the rebels to submission, as has been the case in previous Tuareg rebellions. It is also conceivable that the Malian government's undercover militias, ethnic hatred campaigns, military in civilian clothing acting in mobs shouting “death to the Tuaregs” and internet propaganda might succeed in opening cleavages within the complex political, ethnic and social mix that comprises the totality of the Azawad population.
However, the signs are that the rebellion is capable of sustaining itself for much longer, especially if the MNLA receives support from Niger's well-armed and battle-experienced Tuareg, as unverified reports suggest
The prospect of a secession is unacceptable according to Presidential candidate Ibrahim Boubacar Keita and main opponent of presidential incumbent Amadou Toumani Touré (also known as ATT). In a meeting in Kayes, Mali, Keita asserted that Mali is “one and indivisible” as Madiassa Kaba Diakité reports [fr]:
Il a réaffirmé son attachement inébranlable au principe sacro-saint de l’indivisibilité du territoire national et a demandé à tous les Maliens de soutenir le chef de l’Etat, Amadou Toumani Touré, et de rester soudés derrière l’armée malienne pour qu’elle puisse repousser les assaillants afin de rétablir la sécurité et restaurer l’intégrité territoriale du Mali [..] « L’élection du 29 avril est la première des solutions car voter c’est donner une nouvelle chance à la paix », selon IBK. A l’en croire, il sera sans doute difficile de faire voter tous nos compatriotes, notamment ceux refugiés à l’étranger mais voter c’est dire non à la guerre
A prolonged food crisis
The conflict makes the relief of the food crisis even more challenging. According to UNICEF:
The dry, ‘lean’ season in the affected countries is imminent, and will be marked by rising numbers of children in feeding centres who will need life-saving treatment. The agency's Regional Director, David Gressly said: “A multiple disaster is stalking children in the Sahel. Even in a best case scenario we are expecting more than a million children suffering from severe and acute malnutrition to enter feeding centres over the next six months.
On Blogcritics, Aboubacar Guindo, a WFP school feeding officer in Mali is interviewed:
The government through the Early Warning System identified 159 communities that are the most affected by this crisis. To respond to this, WFP elaborated an Emergency Operation (EMOP) with a School Feeding component to avoid important drop-outs that schools used to face in this type of crisis. The EMOP will also include nutrition, food for work, and cash components. [..] In addition to food insecurity, WFP is assessing the needs of the internally displaced due to conflict in the north. This assessment may show in an increase in needs.
The question remains whether the presidential elections will still hold. Gaousso Yah Touré is doubtful [fr]:
le Mali est une grande nation démocratique et la tenue des élections ne doit aucunement le plonger dans le KO. En d’autre terme, la cohésion sociale et la paix doivent être vigoureusement préservées. Cela passe, bien entendu, par le dialogue et la réflexion. Quant à la question de savoir si les élections se tiendront le 29 Avril prochain ou non, une réponse exhaustive ne peut être donnée pour le moment.
This post is part of our special coverage on Refugees.
Tuareg rebellion is a subject of the very recommendable science-fiction book “Islands in the Net” by Bruce Sterling.