Hunger, rebellion, coup: Mali’s crisis has its history
Mali is a landlocked country in West Africa, about two times the size of France. It is dominated by vast expanses of sparsely inhabited desert and the fertile surroundings of the Niger river. In historical times, the area was home to powerful empires and the ancient city of Timbuktu, with its architectural wonders, still tells of this era.
Mali is again in the news these days, but not favourably. There are no stories about enthusiastic tourists or cultural richness. Instead, Mali currently lives through a triple crisis: After a devastating drought, potentially millions of people face a hunger crisis. At the same time, a rebellion led by Tuareg fighters has engulfed the North of the country. And if this wouldn’t be enough, a coup d’état has brought a military junta into power in the capital and resulted in harsh sanctions by neighboring states.
The three crisis are strongly related and interdependent. But most importantly, they have their common roots in decades of neglect of the environment, willful marginalization of parts of the population and a deep running corruption of the political elites.
Ostensibly the easiest crisis to comprehend is the hunger crisis, which currently puts around 13 Million people in the whole region – including the countries of Mali, Chad, Burkina Faso, Niger and Mauritania – at risk. Its immediate cause is natural: rainfall has been low over the last rainy season. Over the region, this has resulted in a 20 to 30% lower harvest than typical, with some districts producing only a quarter of the staple foods they do in a normal year.
While drought cycles are a natural phenomenon in the Sahel, the number of years with insufficient rain has dramatically increased since 2000. Much points to the responsibility of global climate change for the increased erraticness and lower volume of rainfall in this anyway volatile region.
These changes were compounded by population growth and a degradation of the soil due to overuse and non-food crops like cotton. Additionally, African governments have sold large parts of their prime agricultural lands to investors from cash-rich but agriculturally-poor countries from North Africa and the Middle East.
Historically, the droughts and famines of the last century always contributed to the other perennial crisis that Mali faces (again): an armed uprising by Tuareg rebels. Like hunger crises, these uprisings have happened repeatedly since the 1960s, but the current one may well be the most serious yet.
Since January, Tuareg fighters have chased the Malian army out of every town in the North, the region they call “Azawad” and where they want to create an independent state. As motivation, they cite the marginalization of their people during colonization and after the independence of Mali. Part of this marginalization was always insufficient help, when the pastoralist communities of the North were hit by the effects of drought. The government – since independence dominated by southern Malians – has invested little into the economic development of the North and even less into specifically making sure that environmental catastrophes don’t turn into human catastrophes. Multiple peace treaties have changed little about this practice.
While earlier Tuareg rebellions could be contained militarily quite well, this time the desert fighters have the upper hand. Having amassed a huge arsenal of modern weaponry, partly brought back from Tuareg who had been part of the Libyan army until the fall of Gadaffi, the Tuareg have flushed out the army in a vicious and fast campaign.
The Malian military has put up little resistance, often abandoning military bases and towns without a fight. Soldiers have cited a low morale due to corruption in the higher ranks of the military and lacking equipment. In several cases, rank-and-file soldiers are said to have run out of ammunition and food, while the government has spent millions of Dollars on helicopter gunships and other fancy weaponry over the last years.
Under these impressions and citing the general level of corruption in the political elites of the country, the soldiers and junior officers of a garrison near the capital Bamako embarked on a protest during March. More by accident than by planning, this protest first evolved into a mutiny in several other garrisons across the country and then into a full coup d’état. President Tourè was chased out of the Presidential Palace and the soldiers presented themselves on state television, declaring that they formed a military committee for the “restoration of democracy”.
While one of the reasons for the coup – the faltering military campaign against the Tuareg – was immediate, the others were not. High levels of corruption in the military and political leadership of Mali are endemic. Politicians and high officers alike are said to profit from the drug trade and other smuggling activities, ironically accepting at the same time massive military aid amounts from Western governments to curb exactly these activities.
So far the coup had disastrous consequences. Thrown into total confusion and devoid of senior officers, the army gave up the three main cities of the North – Kidal, Gao and the historical Timbuktu – practically without firing a shot. And in a regional political context (luckily) very intolerant of military power graps, the junta was quickly isolated by the neighboring countries. The African Union suspended Mali’s membership. ECOWAS, a regional organisation, declared an embargo, that will deprive the landlocked nation of virtually all its petroleum and consumer goods imports.
But while this is certainly an adequate way to address the unconstitutional coup, it adds to a constellation of events that could result in an humanitarian disaster of stunning proportions.
The faltering of the army in the north – aided along by the coup – has already led to a suspension of relief activities in that area. Additionally, every town that falls to the rebels produces a stream of refugees who fear plunder and violence. These refugees, of which already 200,000 have fled to other parts of Mali or neighboring countries, become instantly more vulnerable to starvation once they leave their homes.
The coup also means that international organizations and NGOs have no functioning authorities to talk to, when they want to organize relief activities in the country. And all initiative of the state itself to address the hunger crisis has collapsed. Meanwhile, the embargo will lead to even more problems when it comes to transporting food and other relief items into and within the country.
The immediate reasons for the three crises in Mali are all fairly recent. But their roots are deeply intertwined and go back decades. They are to be found in unsustainable policies regarding the use of environmental resources and the relationship between elites and the general population, between the center and the periphery of the state. The responsibility for these policies bear colonial administrations as well as modern Western governments and the dignitaries of the independent Mali.
Other countries and societies would do well taking note: living with unsustainable policies – environmental or otherwise – may be comfortable in the short term. But in the long term it can have catastrophic consequences.