Nearly half a year after Mali underwent a military coup that left its northern stretches open to takeover by rebels and extremists, nobody has mobilized to stop the chaos.
The question of how to help Mali cope is slated to be taken up Wednesday on the sidelines at the United Nations in a closely watched meeting on security in the troubled Sahel region.
“Extremism is on the rise. Arms are easy to obtain, while jobs are hard to find,” U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said Tuesday of the Sahel crisis. “The international community needs a major concerted effort to address this alarming situation. Tomorrow, I will outline our ideas for an integrated strategy.”
Though Mali has reportedly reached agreement with a West African coalition to welcome troops, the U.N. Security Council has pressed for more details about what a military intervention would look like. Outside experts have warned that simply sending in troops could backfire, igniting more conflict.
Soldiers overthrew the government in March, upset over its handling of a Tuareg rebellion. But rebels gained ground, taking control of the north and declaring their own country. Islamist armed groups piggybacked on Tuareg advances and seized on the chaos for their own ends, installing a harsh and brutal interpretation of religious law and ejecting the Tuareg rebels from the territory.
Witnesses who live in northern Mali or fled the area told Human Rights Watch of grim abuses under three armed Islamist groups: an adulterous couple being stoned to death, eight men suffering amputations after being accused of theft and robbery, children as young as 11 or 12 being used as foot soldiers and spies. Islamists have clamped down on daily life, banning music and flogging women whose heads are bare.
“They’ve even outlawed chatting in groups,” a 23-year-old driver who fled Bamako told the human rights group. “They say instead of talking we should go home and read the Koran.”
“We’re Muslims, good and faithful Muslims, but honestly, these people have taken all the joie de vivre from our lives,” a young man complained.
The violence and suffering plaguing the north has disheartened a former rebel leader, who said Monday that he was leading a splinter group breaking away from the independence movement to seek peace.
“What is foremost in our minds is saving these people whose hands are being cut off,” Col. Hassan Ag Medhi told the Associated Press in Burkina Faso. A Tuareg rebel spokesman in Mali called the move "blackmail."
Meanwhile in the south, though the military junta behind the Mali coup has since stepped down, newly selected government leaders have little ability to quell the crisis, the International Crisis Group lamented in a recent briefing. International groups such as the Economic Community of West African States, the African Union and the United Nations have also failed so far to make “rapid, firm and coherent decisions,” it stated.
Any action needs to tackle two levels of the crisis in Mali, said Comfort Ero, Africa program director for the International Crisis Group. Besides the turmoil in the north, the crisis is also tied to continued instability in the Malian government, where the junta is still acting as a spoiler to peace, Ero said.
Human Rights Watch has reported that soldiers loyal to the coup have abducted and tortured opponents. Outside observers are skeptical that the military has completely handed over power since the coup.
While Mali remains divided within, there are also disagreements with other countries over how to handle the crisis. Mali disagreed with the West African coalition over what international troops would do to assist its political transition; countries within ECOWAS have disagreed over plans.
The Wednesday talks may lead to a United Nations envoy to help bring all the players to the table and coordinate response to the crises afflicting the region, Ero said. Those problems include not just conflict, but devastating hunger and chronic insecurity.
“What needs to come out tomorrow is a very clear line from the African Union and ECOWAS that they understand what’s at stake in Mali and they understand how to map out a way forward,” Ero said. “Winning the north is going to be key, but you can’t do it if you don’t have coherence of leadership.”
-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles
Photo: Fighters with the extremist group Ansar Dine stand guard as they prepare to publicly lash a member of the Islamic Police found guilty of adultery in Timbuktu, Mali on Aug. 31, 2012. Credit: Associated Press