20 Aug 2012

Mali: the great democracy that never was?

Mali used to be feted as a beacon of democracy in Africa. Now a junta is effectively in control in the south while al-Qaeda roams unfettered across the desert north. European governments are worried that foreign jihadis are gathering in the ungoverned spaces of the Sahel, and using northern Mali as a new base.

A Tuareg family who have fled to Mauritania in fear of Islamist rule in northern Mali. Picture Mike Goldwater.

In fact, Mali was never the great democracy it was made out to be. “It was model for outside world but for us we had a lot of problems of bad governance,” said Tiebile Drame, a former foreign minister who now acts as an advisor to the country’s interim president. Few bothered to vote. Elected officials were lazy and corrupt. Aid flowed in but much was stolen. The north of the country was neglected.

While politicians in the capital, Bamako, grew fat and rich the north was rapidly spinning out of control. The Tuaregs were getting restless – they had rebelled several times in the past, and now saw others prospering while they were deprived. Militants from al-Qaeda in the Mahgreb recruited disaffected Tuaregs and others, and started operating in northern Mali, taking control of drug smuggling routes and kidnapping western tourists and workers.

After the first hostage taking in 2003, European governments asked the Malian government to intervene with the jihadis to negotiate the release of their nationals. Hundreds of millions of dollars were handed over – and who knows who got exactly how much of a cut each time a hostage was released.

“Foreign TV crews came, and the hostages were happy but it was the beginning of a disaster for this country, for Mali,” said Tiebile Drame.

“The government turned a blind eye to the activities of the jihadis, and they finally set up in the north east of the country. They ended up less than 400 kilometres from Bamako.”

The situation turned critical late last year. Colonel Gaddafi had recruited thousands of Tuaregs to fight on his behalf. When his government collapsed after the Arab Spring rebellion and Nato bombing, they picked up the heavy weapons he had given them and crossed back through Niger into Mali. In January they started an uprising – they weren’t Islamists but separatists – they wanted an independent Tuareg state.

Mali’s army couldn’t cope – most soldiers simply fled. Many hadn’t been paid, and money which should have been spent on weaponry had disappeared in corruption. Junior officers staged a coup, the government collapsed and the north fell into the hands of the Tuareg separatists.

In the chaos, al-Qaeda saw its moment. At first they worked alongside the Tuaregs. Then they drove them out, and raised the black al-Qaeda flag. Now the jihadis are in control. They rule northern Mali – an unintended and disastrous consequence both of the Nato campaign in Libya, and the practice of paying ransom for hostages.

You can follow Lindsey on Twitter @lindseyhilsum


This  is one of a series of three articles on Mali by Lindsey Hilsum:

Gaddafi, Mali and the Tuaregs: the law of unintended consequences

Mali music falls silent as Islamist repression bites



Tweets by @lindseyhilsum