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The future of Mali, a country that has long enjoyed a reputation as a pillar of democracy in west Africa, is now in flux. Splintering factions of radical Islamists are causing chaos in the northern regions of the country, and its leadership is in disarray. We explore why the unrest is triggering concerns about the human rights of Mali’s citizens, and how the international community is responding.
- Valentin Tapsoba Regional Coordinator for Mali, The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees
- Sudarsan Raghavan Africa Bureau Chief, The Washington Post
- Todd Moss Senior Fellow and Director of the Emerging Africa Project, Center for Global Development; author, "African Development: Making Sense of the Issue and Actors" (Lynne Rienner); former Deputy Assistant Secretary for Africa, State Department
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast, it's Your Turn. You can call us to talk about the tragedy in Newtown, Conn., gun control, the fiscal cliff negotiations, the new Republican Senator from South Carolina, Tim Scott, the passing of Senator Daniel Inouye or anything else on your mind.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIThat's at 800-433-88850 and later in the broadcast. But first, you may not know exactly how great the distance is from here to Timbuktu, but you know it's far. You'd find the city on the edge of the Sahara Desert in the West African nation of Mali, a country once held up as a beacon of democracy on the continent, a land that is now fractured between north and south, military and civilian, extremists and moderates where a coup this spring was followed by what some are calling a mini-coup last week.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIThis, bringing confusion to the capital of Bamako in the south as many civilians in the north flee Islamist radicals and extremists who have taken control of a swath of land the size of Texas prompting the U.N. to consider expediting plans for a military intervention.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIHere to help us gain a better understanding of what's happening there and its implications in the U.S. and abroad is Todd Moss. He is vice president for programs and a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development where he directs the Emerging Africa Project. Todd Moss, good to see you and thank you for joining us.
MR. TODD MOSSThanks, Kojo.
NNAMDIJoining us by phone from Nairobi, Kenya, is Sudarsan Raghavan. He is the Washington Post Africa Bureau Chief. His professional honors include the George Polk Award, three overseas press club awards and the Livingston Award for international reporting. Sudarsan, thank you so much for joining us.
MR. SUDARSAN RAGHAVANGlad to be here, Kojo.
NNAMDISudarsan, I'll start with you. Over the past two weeks in Mali, one prime minister has been ousted, another replacing him, while reports of unrest and human rights violations in the north grow. Who is out of power and who is in?
RAGHAVANWell, as you mentioned, the old prime minister is definitely out. Who is in? What it really shows is that the military, the Mali military, which staged a coup in March is really the one in control now, still is in control now. You know, they were the ones pretty much partially responsible for the current crisis.
RAGHAVANThe coup d'etat in March created a power vacuum in the capital which allowed the Tuareg separatists and the Islamists, including al-Qaida-like militants, to really sweep through a vast arc of territory in northern Mali in March and were able to essentially split the nation into two parts.
NNAMDIIt's my understanding that the military junta that led that coup in March was supposed to cede control to civilian leaders, but never really stepped aside and that groups united in the north of the country this spring have since splintered. Who are the groups vying for control in both the north and the south of the country?
RAGHAVANWell, in the south, you know, you still have, as you mentioned, the military still in control. It's Captain Sanogo, who is the main military leader. Even though he did cede control to a civilian authority, he still -- he and his forces are still very much present in and around Bamako in the south.
RAGHAVANThey're in an encampment called Kati and from there they basically rule the southern country. Every civilian leader has to still bow to Captain Sanogo and his comrades.
RAGHAVANNow in the north you have now three main groups who control the areas. You have al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, which is the terror network's affiliate in North and West Africa. You also have a group called Ansar Dine, which means defenders of the faith, and they control mostly the (unintelligible) and parts of Timbuktu.
RAGHAVANAnd you also have a third group, which is an offshoot of al-Qaida, and that's called the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa or MOJWA for short. Now all these three groups are still very much linked and between the three of them, they pretty much control, as you mention, a size of territory the size of Texas in the north.
NNAMDIWe're talking with Sudaran Raghavan. He is the Washington Post Africa Bureau Chief. He joins us by phone from Nairobi, Kenya. Joining us in studio is Todd Moss, vice president for programs and a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development where he directs the Emerging Africa Project.
NNAMDIIf you have questions or comments about what's going on in Mali, call us at 800-433-8850. If you've got roots in western Africa, we'd love to hear from you. What are your hopes, your fears for the region in general and for Mali in particular? 800-433-8850. Todd Moss, could you remind us of the roots of the problems coming to a head in Mali because it seems as if from 1992 to 2012, what we had there was a fairly stable democracy, but somehow or the other, the military gained control. The civilian leadership lost control. Is there some main conflict at the center of this unrest?
MOSSWell, in Mali, you've had a long-standing set of grievances between the north and the south. There have been several rebellions from the north and they've periodically cut peace deals which essentially -- the basics of the peace deal is that in the north, they would get special status and they'd get increased investment.
MOSSAnd what we saw that in the south that they basically did not live up to their end of the bargain and this saw this cycle repeat itself. But what I think is really interesting -- and Sudarsan, you know, mentioned a couple of some pretty scary names of groups that might get American listeners maybe on their toes to hear about al-Qaida groups controlling a huge area in the middle of Africa.
MOSSThe reminder here of why should we care about this country that's far away is that, you know, Africa is really starting to turn a corner. It's really starting to grow and quite frankly, West Africa is probably the most vibrant part of Africa economically, culturally and Mali is smack in the middle of it.
MOSSAnd the idea that in the middle of the West African zone there's going to be a pocket where al-Qaida is going to run free, not only to make trouble in the neighborhood, but eventually to make trouble in Europe and here in the United States, I think, is something that we should all be quite concerned about.
NNAMDI800-433-8850. Do you think the U.S. should be more involved in Mali? Why or why not? 800-433-8850. Todd, since the country's first democratic elections in the early '90s, Mali has been, as I mentioned, held up as a beacon of democracy in Africa. Why did the military overturn what had been apparently a functioning democracy in the first place?
MOSSWell, you know, the coup in March was only a couple of weeks before an election and it was an election that the sitting president at the time was not standing in. So it's kind of crazy that the timing of the coup should come just as they were about to embark on a political transition.
MOSSSo some of it was that it was a bit of an accidental coup. I don't believe that the military would start it, a bit as almost a riot by military officers because they were losing in the north to a Tuareg rebellion and that just snowballed over a series of a couple of hours and turned into a coup.
MOSSI don't believe that they set out to do this intentionally, but what it does point to is that Mali had been held up as a model of democracy in the region, as a model of a security partner for the West and really that crumbled overnight in a way that nobody saw coming and I think it should give us pause to reflect a little bit on how well do we understand some of our partners and how effective is some of our assistance. And I worked in the State Department under the Bush administration so I'm partly criticizing myself here. But I do think we need to be very, very eyes wide open in our dealings with some of our partners.
NNAMDIStability has been elusive in Mali since that coup this past spring. How will these events of the last few weeks, this shifting of prime ministers, how are those events likely to complicate matters further?
MOSSWell, I think that the region was preparing. They were getting themselves organized to invade the north and the United States, I think, to its credit, was quite cautious and did not want to participate or support a military intervention until there was a very clear political exit plan. And I think the State Department, in particular, deserves credit for being rightly cautious there.
MOSSThe fact that the military junta is still exercising power and is still controlling things, I think, is a very bad sign and will put a further delay on a regional military intervention to restore authority in the north.
NNAMDIJoining us by phone from Dakar, Senegal, is Valentin Tapsoba, regional representative for West Africa and regional coordinator for Mali with the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. Valentin Tapsoba, we're hearing reports of a growing humanitarian crisis in the north of Mali. What effect is this unrest having on civilians?
MR. VALENTIN TAPSOBAYeah, thank you for having me. As you may know, since the war started on 17th January 2012, we have received an up-score of Malian refugees and mainly into three countries, Niger, Burkina Faso and Mauritania. As we speak, we have 157,000 Malian refugees in these three countries and internally displaced people, we have 198,000.
MR. VALENTIN TAPSOBAAnd the number could be higher because there are areas and so forth that the humanitarian community was not able to access. But as I can see, 157,000 Malian refugees outside of Mali...
NNAMDIOh, we seem to have lost Valentin Tapsoba. Hopefully we'll be able to get him back so we can talk more specifically about where people are seeking refuge and in what numbers. Sudarsan, you may be able to help us in that regard. What have you been hearing about the humanitarian crisis and where people are seeking refuge? We got some indication of the numbers of people from Valentin but what else have you've been learning?
RAGHAVANWell, sure. I mean, I was just recently in Mali and I also spent some time with many refugees that fled to the south and I was also in Niger earlier this summer. What I found that, you know, the stories that the refugees are now bringing out of northern Mali are actually growing darker.
RAGHAVANThe Islamists appear to be intensifying their brutality against the population and this is a, you know, a major cause of concern because, you know, any intervention, you know, if approved by the U.N. Security Council is really unlikely to begin until next summer or fall, most U.S. and Western African officials say.
RAGHAVANAnd of course, you know, the recent political turmoil is also adding to the uncertainty of any such military strike. Now this has raised concerns amongst human rights groups, humanitarian groups that the extremists can actually consolidate their grip over the north and further terrorize civilians.
RAGHAVANI mean, one really shocking story that I heard told to me was of this one woman who was basically dragged out of her house in Timbuktu. The Islamists beat her up, shoved her into a white pickup truck and drove her to their headquarters. And she was locked in jail where she was awaiting a sentence of 100 lashes with an electrical cord. And for what reason? She was basically punished for giving water to a male visitor who was not her relative.
RAGHAVANSo you're seeing, you know, a lot of similar reports of really horrific abuses happening. Rapes of women, forced marriages, lots of children being recruited for armed conflict. So it's a very grim situation and it seems to be getting worse.
NNAMDIJanet in Washington, D.C., you're on the air. Janet, you seem to be asking for the kind of specificity that we just heard in fact from Sudarsan Raghavan. Janet, are you there? Oh, Janet is listening to the radio and now listening to her phone so that means we can move on to Intal in Laurel, Md. Intal (sp?) , you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
INTALThank you for taking my call, Kojo. And good afternoon to your guests.
INTALI have a quick comment and a quick question. My first comment is that it sounds to me that it's the outside that always thought that Mali, before the rebellion, was doing good. I was in (word?) in Mali in 2010 and I can tell you that the level of corruption that you saw in the street was so different from what I saw like in the year 2000, for instance. The level...
NNAMDIOh, we seem to be breaking up...
TAPSOBA...we got cut off.
NNAMDIOh, that might be Valentin coming back on the phones again. This is what happens when you have long distance lines that reach across the oceans to Africa. But Todd, in terms of the issues that Intal is raising about the instability, in his case, corruption that he saw in Mali, here's the fear. Some say Mali could be the next Afghanistan. Others liken it to Somalia. Are those comparisons illuminating or do they muddy the waters?
MOSSWell, I think there's a very real concern that you could have radical violent groups roaming in the north and attacking towns. Even if the Malian authorities are able to retake the main towns in the north you'll have essentially garrison town surrounded by radicals on the outside. And that's really not a very tenable situation.
MOSSBut what I think can be quite dangerous is that the U.S. should not be viewing Mali like Afghanistan by bringing the tools that we use in a war situation to a noncombat situation in Africa. Because if we start -- if we bring our counterterrorism tools to a place everything starts to look like a terrorist. And we can actually find ourselves making matters quickly much worse than they need to be. So I'm a little cautious on the Afghanistan comparison.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Intal. We go now to Saleef in Silver -- well, first we go to a short break. Saleef, we'll be getting back to your call very shortly. If you'd like to join the conversation call us at 800-433-8850 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. If you've got roots in Western Africa we'd like to hear from you. Do you think the U.S. should be more involved in Mali? Why or why not, 800-433-8850? I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking about Mali with Todd Moss, vice president for programs and a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development where he directs the Emerging Africa Project. Sudarsan Raghavan is the Washington Post Africa Bureau Chief and Valentin Tapsoba is the regional representative for West Africa and regional coordinator for Mali with The Office of the UN Commissioner for Refugees UNHCHR (sic) .
NNAMDIValentin, before you left the phone, I was about to ask you about, in the humanitarian crisis that we are seeing in Mali, there's been a...
TAPSOBAWe got cut off.
NNAMDIYes, we certainly did get cut off.
TAPSOBA(unintelligible) we got cut off.
NNAMDICorrect. Could you tell us if it has been difficult -- has it...
TAPSOBAWe got cut off. (unintelligible) ...
NNAMDIOh, I think Valentin is still trying to get through because he apparently can't hear me. So let's go back with Sudarsan. Sudarsan, with a number of crisis in Syria, Congo and other nations vying for attention and money, has it been difficult both for you as a reporter and I guess the people from UNHCR to get the kind of visibility for the crisis in Mali and the kind of support that they would need for the people of Mali? You're vying with all kinds of other international crises.
RAGHAVANYes, that's a very good question. You know, it's -- there has been a call by the international (word?) community for more support, certainly from the areas I visited especially like in Segou, Mali which is about a two -- four-hour drive north of Bamako where a lot of the displaced have landed. They've complained about a lack of help from local refugees. There's definitely a lack of food and other supplies.
RAGHAVANAnd so there's definitely a sense that a lot more can be done to help those who are fleeing the Islamists in the North. And certainly when I was traveling -- when I was in Niger earlier this summer, you know, the refugees -- I mean, the UN agencies were helping out, to deal with refugees along the Malian border and Niger. But there's also a sense there that much more support was needed. And what's -- you know, and if there is a military intervention in the near future we're going to see a lot more refugees fleeing the area.
RAGHAVANAnd so, you know, the -- there's certainly going to be a massive demand for more aid. Now of course, you know, just like, you know, as you mentioned, Africa is certainly caught in multiple crises and they all require seeking help from the International Community. But certainly one major difference with Mali is what was earlier mentioned that, you know, there's a serious American interest in this because of the al-Qaida factor here.
RAGHAVANYou know, both the Americans and the Europeans are very concerned about al-Qaida linked Jihadists creating a safe haven in Northern Mali much in the same way they did in Somalia or in Yemen, and for that matter in Afghanistan and Pakistan. So in that sense, you know, I think, you know, because of this, you know, probably you'll see Mali certainly receiving somewhat more support than some of these other crises. But you never know. You know, there's a financial crises going on around the world. There's a lot of needs around the world. It remains to be seen if the world will come through for Northern Mali.
MOSSYeah, I just wanted to, you know, point out that those of you who read the Washington Post regularly, it's actually quite striking that the coverage on Mali has been terrific. It's not -- Sudarsan should be congratulated for his coverage but it's also been that the reporters that cover the pentagon and the intelligence community here in Washington have been covering Mali. And I've really been very, very pleasantly surprised at how well this has been covered. So they should be congratulated.
NNAMDIEven as we seek to increase our understanding of exactly what took place, Saleef in Siler Spring, Md. Saleef, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
SALEEFOkay. Thank you, Mr. Kojo, for taking my call. My name is Saleef and I'm from Mali. Why should the U.S. be more involved in Mali, and this particular (unintelligible) of Western countries intervention in Libya. So (unintelligible) I mean, Western countries are -- responsible of (unintelligible) ...
NNAMDIWell, Saleef, I'm glad you raise that issue because it gives Todd Moss the opportunity to explain the connection between the fall of Moammar Gadhafi in Libya and what's going on especially in the northern part of Mali. Todd Moss.
MOSSYeah, so when Gadhafi fell, of course Gadhafi had a lot of mercenaries that were on his payroll. And those mercenaries, after he fell, dispersed into the region. There were a number of Malian mercenaries, in particular Tuareg fighters from the north that came back into Mali heavily armed and very well trained. And they were really giving the Malian military a beating in the north. And that is what's -- that is what -- the spark that got -- that eventually led to the coup. So the spillover from the Arab Spring, if you want to call it that, into Africa -- this Mali's -- Mali's difficulties are very obvious example of that.
NNAMDIGlad you mentioned the Arab Spring because yesterday it turns out was the second anniversary of Mohamed Bouazizi setting himself on fire which led to the African Spring. But back to the connection for a second because the fighters in the north who were apparently fighting with Gadhafi are members of the Tuaregs. But they're not the radical Islamists that we're talking about here, are they?
MOSSWell, it's -- you know, it's -- there are a lot of different groups in the north beyond the three that Sudarsan had mentioned. There have been a number of Tuareg separatist groups in the north. They're an ethnic group. They're not even a majority in the north, but they're a very prominent ethnic group in the north of traitors that had been urging for many years for some increased autonomy for that part of the country.
MOSSAnd many of those groups took the opportunity of the chaos in the south to start to seize power in the north. And they made temporary common cause with radical Jihadists. And very quickly after the north had fallen some of the Tuareg groups fell out with the radical Islamists. And the Islamists had the upper hand. And some of these Tuareg groups had been marginalized.
MOSSSo to no surprise now that we're seeing the region get prepared to invade the north we're starting to see talks led by the African Union with some of these Tuareg groups about what a post intervention Mali might look like. And really this is critical. I know it sounds like inside baseball here but it's really critical because long term Tuareg interests are fundamentally misaligned with radical Jihadist aims. They do not have the same vision for what Mali should be in the future. The Islamists want Mali to fall under Sharia Law. And the Tuareg separatists would like some kind of autonomy for themselves in the north, probably under a secular state.
MOSSAnd really the U.S. and the Western powers that are interested in resolving this crisis, they need to drive -- continue to drive a wedge between legitimate Tuareg groups and radical Islamists. And that's what we're starting to see.
NNAMDISaleef, thank you very much for your call. And speaking of radical Islamists, Sudarsan, Timbuktu is a place that has captured many an imagination. It's long been a cultural crossroads considered a place of great academic and intellectual achievement and religious tolerance. But we talked earlier about the nature of the humanitarian crisis. Sudarsan it would appear that the arts, in music especially have been adversely affected in Northern Mali. What are you hearing from musicians, both in and from Mali about how they're being treated especially in the north?
RAGHAVANFor them, too, it's a very grim situation, it's actually very sad. I mean, Northern Mali is basically a major reservoir of music for the continent. Some of the continent's most famous musicians who have worked closely to Western artists have come from Northern Mali, particularly Timbuktu. In fact, Timbuktu was often the home of the Festival of the Desert, which for the past decade has attracted artists from all over the world to come -- and tourists as well to come and listen to some of the best music the continent can offer.
RAGHAVANAll that is gone now. The hundreds of musicians have basically fled the north. The Islamists basically decree any form of music as against Islam. In fact, you know, one really well known singer Khaira Arby told me -- and she's now in Bamako as a refugee basically, and she essentially told me that she -- the Islamists had threatened to cut her tongue out. So it's a very, very grim situation for musicians.
RAGHAVANAnd you have to understand that, you know, this is, you know, this is a place where moderate Islam has thrived for centuries. I mean, they -- you know, the local people just basically have never really experienced Sharia Law. And to them it's always come as a major surprise in the front to their own interpretation of Islam. So when it comes to musicians right now, you know, they're -- many are in Bamako without jobs because they actually sing in different languages in the south.
MOSSSo it's hard for them to get work, unless it's one group of musicians who basically practice in a small dingy apartment in Bamako. And this is basically the only outlet they have for their music these days. So, as I said, it's a very, very sad situation for musicians in Mali.
NNAMDIHere is Rita in Arlington, Va. Rita, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
RITAHi. Yes, I was hoping your callers could comment on the security situation and the threat of the contested territory known as the Western Sahara.
NNAMDITodd Moss. That's a whole other kettle of fish, as they say.
MOSSIt is. You know, I don't think it's directly relevant to the situation in Mali. This is an area that Morocco claims and is an area that remains under dispute. But what I think that it points to is that the entire border area of the Sahara Dessert, you know, they were drawn by French Colonialists. They really don't make that much sense. And we're now trying to live with maintaining these countries that are huge that have no real match to the organic nature of the societies or geography that exists there.
MOSSSo when we talk about things like trying to secure the border in Mali, you know, it's almost a farce. Nobody has ever secured those border areas. Very few people live there. And the idea in particular in the case of Mali that we'd be able to do so with 3,000 troops I think just points to the tremendous security challenge. And that we need to think about how to resolve this issue in a different way. If we have difficulty in the United States trying to secure our border with Mexico, even if we throw unlimited resources at it, imagine trying to do that with very few people and virtually no resources.
NNAMDIThe UN African Union forces have been considering military intervention in Northern Mali for some time now. You say it's unlikely to happen before, oh, maybe the middle of next year, the summer of next year. But Todd, you also say that military intervention alone won't solve this problem. What do you think might?
MOSSWell, it's clear that an international effort, if it's well organized and well resourced, that they could take back the largest towns in the north. I don't think that there's a big -- I don't think it will be easy but I don't think there's a question that they couldn't do that. The question is what do you do next? And if you're going to have a sustainable peace deal in the north you need to cut a bargain with the Tuareg -- the legitimate Tuareg separatist groups in the north. And in order to do that you need to have a legitimate government in the south.
MOSSAnd where we started this conversation was with the second coup that's occurred in Mali within the last year shows that there is no credible transitional government right now in Mali in the south. And if I was a Tuareg separatist I wouldn't know who to negotiate with. I wouldn't know who I could trust to cut a deal, and that means that a sustainable peace is going to be quite tricky, and that we should not be looking for purely a military solution. Even if we're genuinely concerned about terrorism in that area, and I believe we should be, we can't be looking for purely military solution in this case.
NNAMDISudarsan Raghavan, last question, where do those plans by the U.N. and African Union Forces for military intervention stand right now as far as you know?
RAGHAVANWell, it's pretty much as it's been for the past month where the U.N. Security Council still has yet to decide whether to approve the mission or not. I mean, they're supposed to have done it a couple of weeks ago, but they've yet to do it, and I suspect it's largely because of the political crisis that's now unfolding in Bamako. You know, it just adds -- it brings a whole new level of uncertainty to any military intervention, but, you know, the number still stands the same.
RAGHAVANIt's 3300 force being proposed by Mali's neighbors, and other African countries. The supposed model, you know, some people have said could be like what happened on Somalia where you had African Union Forces led by Uganda, also Kenya, and Burundi go into Somalia and -- to help fight the al Shabaab Islamist Militia there. But, you know, everyone has to remember, though, that that has taken several years to even accomplish what it has done so far, that is pushing the al Shabaab out of major cities, and there's still a major threat to Somalia.
RAGHAVANSo having said all that, I mean, I think where we stand now is that you're really seeing -- well, yeah, the international community, particularly the U.S. and France, and other European countries really looking at to see where the political -- how the political situation is going to unfold in the south, and -- but I think, you know, people are just what you see. I mean, particularly the U.S.
RAGHAVANThe U.S. right now legally cannot provide any military assistance to Mali because of laws, U.S. laws that prevent any aide to countries that have been -- democratic countries that have been the subject -- I mean, that have basically been taken over by a military coup. So, you know, I think as we go forward in the next few months, much is going to depend on how Mali addresses its political crisis, but at the same time, it's also going to depend on what, you know, how the Islamists are going to continue to rule Northern Mali, whether or not they're going -- whether or not we'll see more Jihadists entering the country, whether or not we will see a -- full-fledge haven for Jihadists there that can become a potent threat to the west.
RAGHAVANAnd all of these factors are really going to determine what sort of action the international community is going to take in Northern Mali.
NNAMDISudarsan Raghavan is the Washington Post Africa bureau chief. He joined us by telephone from Nairobi, Kenya. Todd Moss is vice president for programs, and senior fellow at the Center for Global Development where he directs the Emerging Africa Project. Thank you both for joining us. We're going to take a short break. When we come back, Your Turn. If you're on the line, you can stay there, but you can also call us, 800-433-8850, whether you want to talk about gun control, Tim Scott, South Carolina's new Senator, the passing of Senator Daniel Inouye of Hawaii, or the negotiations over the fiscal cliff, gun control, anything on your mind. 800-433-8850 when we come back, I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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