Terror in Timbuktu

France has been choosing its battles wisely, unlike the Americans who get into unjustifiable and unnecessary “shock and awe” wars that tend to become interminable tales of body counts and body bags

(Daily Times, 13 February 2013)

For French President Francois Hollande, the events in Mali have been a godsend.  Hitherto assumed to be somewhat weak in contrast to his macho predecessor Nikolas Sarkozy, Hollande now swaggers like a conquering hero on African soil, cheered by Malians with slogans of “Vive la France!”  Could there be a more beautiful sight or a more inspiring sound for the French!  Many a French nationalist would have watched the coverage from Mali on his television screen with moist eyes.

Lately, France has been choosing its battles wisely, first Libya, now Mali – cheap, short, sure and photogenic, to an extent. Unlike the Americans who get into unjustifiable and unnecessary “shock and awe” wars that tend to become interminable tales of body counts (“the bad guys” who go to burn in hell) and body bags (“the good guys” who come home to live forever).  

In a complete reversal of the age-old rules of war and peace, the US sacrificed its men and materiel in Iraq to destroy Saddam Hussain, the enemy of its enemy (Iran).  In Afghanistan, it is chasing the Taliban to protect a corrupt, partisan regime, allowing its declared enemy (Al Qaeda) to spread its tentacles to Mali.

Most people the world over probably had never heard of Mali until the recent events.  Many of them, however, would have been familiar with the name Timbuktu, as an exotic and remote, even a fabled place, somewhere very far.  Now, both Timbuktu and Mali are world headlines.  Television viewers may even find Timbuktu a disappointment, for it is no Shangri-La, rather a barren, wind-swept, waterless, god-forsaken place.

Mali encapsulates all that is wrong with the Third World, particularly Africa.  The government of mineral-rich Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is so rife with corruption that it can’t even find the money to pay the salaries of civil servants and soldiers. So there are desertions, coups and insurgencies. Rebel soldiers and rogue battalions roam the land.  Neighboring countries meddle although they are hardly doing any better themselves.

The world’s largest UN peacekeeping force in DRC, established in 1999 and now consisting of over 20,000 troops from thirty countries and costing nearly $9 billion, essentially safeguards the status quo, which perpetuates a corrupt regime. Congo’s tragedy, of course, began with Belgian colonial rule and continued, after independence in 1960, with US and European political interference and economic exploitation.  This included the overthrow and assassination of Congo’s – indeed Africa’s – first popular leader, Patrice Lumumba.

About the same time as the recent flare-up in Mali, in the Central African Republic (CAR), a rag-tag rebel army, composed mainly of deserters from the national army, occupied large parts of the country and were on the verge of taking the capital, Bangui, when troops from other African countries arrived to save yet another corrupt regime. On this occasion, France preferred to ignore the call for help, opting not to get bogged down in an unpopular domestic conflict. 

But, for the African countries only too ready to send in troops to maintain the rotten status quo, it is a case of “you scratch my back, I will scratch yours.”  So we have troops from a group of African countries arriving first in CAR and now in Mali to help out the same regimes that brought forth the crises in the first place. Even Chad, with its long history of anarchy, coups and mutinies, has sent troops to northern Mali.

The current crisis did not descend on Mali overnight. The Tuareg insurgency has been going on intermittently for decades both here and in neighboring Niger.  The core issue in both countries is denial of the rights of the light-skinned Tuareg of the north, who are Berbers, by the black Africans of the south, who control the government in Bamako. 

The Tuareg number over one million and are concentrated in Niger and Mali (about 10% of the population of both countries), with smaller populations in Algeria, Burkina Faso, Libya and Nigeria. They are semi-nomadic pastoralists as opposed to the more sedentary black agriculturists.

The secular National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) launched the current uprising for an autonomous Tuareg region. But it was soon outgunned and outmaneuvered by the Islamists of “Ansar Dine”, “Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb” and the “Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa”. 

These are purportedly Salafist movements, claiming descent from or links to Al Qaeda, but really a fellowship of the frustrated.  Some are descended from Afghanistan via Algeria (or vice versa) who found easy pickings in Mali, others are opportunistic smugglers and kidnappers who gained prestige by aligning with a religio-political movement. 

When the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) was on the verge of winning elections in Algeria in 1992, the Algerian military with the support of both France and US cancelled the second round and declared martial law.  Here, as in Palestine some years later when Hamas won free elections, democracy (like “weapons of mass destruction”) was seen by the West to have fallen into the “wrong hands”, to quote Robert Fisk.  Battered by the army, many Algerian Islamists and their cohorts survived to fight another day.  And that day was to come in Timbuktu.

The army of Mali is corrupt, incompetent and power hungry, with a history of coups and counter-coups.  It is powerful enough to arrest one president, as Captain Amadou Sanogo did on March 22 last year, and to beat up the next, forcing him to resign.  But it fled before an armed group, allowing the Islamists to make a clean sweep of the entire north, where they terrorized the population with their Salafist ideology – which habitually delivers pain without gain.  In Timbuktu, a few weeks of Salafism left many laborers without limbs and saints without shrines.

Having so recently fled the battlefield, the Malian army is now only too ready to return to the north on the heels of the French troops, to engage in violence, vendetta and looting, further alienating the Tuaregs and sowing the seeds of another insurgency.

By Razi Azmi


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3 Responses to Terror in Timbuktu

  1. Tony says:

    Hi Razi Astonishing, An article which purports to discuss the events in Mali with hardly a mention of the “I” word. The fact that the people of Mali were delighted at their salvation is not mentioned – instead we are told that this is a struggle between light skinned northerners and dark skinned Africans. Hmmmmm….The corrupt western media of course presented it as the removal of lunatic Islamic fundamentalists who believe in chopping off the hands of robbers and the destruction of ancient libraries.

    The poison of Islamic intransigence pollutes all of North Africa and is the source of the recent invasion of Timbuktu. To see the recent events in Mali as a part of the “problems of the third world” is to ignore the inescapable fact that Islamic societies throughout North Africa and the middle east are riddled with conflict, intolerance and terrorism. It also ignores the fact that all around the borders of the Islamic world there is conflict with non muslims. Mali was not an “African” problem. It was not a “third world” problem. It was a problem with the Islamic fundamentalists.

  2. Javed Agha says:

    After reading your article and the comments from Tony, I am a bit confused over the issue. I think you need to write another article clarifying the situation keeping in mind the comments of Tony.

  3. Zulfiqar Ali says:

    In reference to Tony’s comments above , it is relevant to mention that being a student of African and Middle Eastern history, I would share that there is nothing wrong with the Islamic belief or Muslim societies in these regions. The reading of the recent literature on terrorism and conflict reveals that the conflict and violence are a worldwide phenomena in recent decades, and also in these regions too, but it is not limited to the followers of any particular belief. Terrorists are not followers of any religion or belief system. No society approves of terrorist activities in today’s world. The solution lies in not blaming followers of any particular religion or society for the ongoing ills, rather the deeper causes of violence, conflict and terrorism need to be addressed through good governance and dialogue. Razi has pointed out towards this significant issue in the region. It needs to be considered by all the observers and readers that there are multiple causes of crises originating from a host of frustrations of the populations with poor governance.

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