By Ani Colekessian
A coup d’état and the occupation of northern Mali have left many searching for answers to a deepening crisis. AWID spoke with Head of Cooperation at the Netherlands Embassy in Mali, To Tjoelker, and socio-anthropologist Lalla Mariam Haidara, native of Timbuktu and specialist on women’s rights in Mali, to shed light on the situation.
Mali is a landlocked West African country with a population of approximately 14.5 million concentrated primarily in the south; some 1.5-2 million Malians reside in the northern region. The population in the northern provinces of Timbuktu, Kidal and Gao is a mosaic of traditional clans, among them, the Songhai (the largest group), the Tuareg, the Arabs and the Peul.
The majority of Malians are Muslim and the city of Timbuktu, with its historic mosques, shrines and universities, has played a central role in the spread of Islam in the region. According to Haidara, “the Islam of Timbuktu...is a tolerant and peaceful Islam that interprets faith as a unique relationship with God”, and the profound influence of Sufi Islam on the Sunni-majority population continues to this day. Still, a predominantly Salafist High Islamic Council has had significant influence in the 2011 Family Code, which despite some intense lobbying by women’s rights groups for a more progressive code, eliminates protection and perpetuates discrimination in the areas of inheritance, marriage and custody of children in the country.
The Actors Involved
The Tuareg population is a nomadic group in the north of Mali. Feeling marginalized from the south, the Tuareg have called for greater autonomy dating back to the period of French colonisation. Following Tuareg uprisings in the 1960s and 1990s, a 1995 peace settlement negotiated by Tuareg separatists and the Malian government led to a ceremonious burning of weapons and a commitment towards the provision of services and investment in the north. While these promises have been realized in part, poverty and drought in the country, the limited accessibility of the vast desert-land in the north, and a Malian population residing mostly in the south, have created challenges to fulfilling Tuareg demands, reviving uprisings around the 2005 elections and present day.
The Libyan government under Gaddafi had strong ties to the Tuareg, many of whom fought to defend the late dictator. With his fall, the return of an estimated 2,000-4,000 heavily armed fighters brought both weapons and insurgents to strengthen the Tuareg-led National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA). While secular, the MNLA has been joined by the Ansar Dine (Defenders of Faith) Islamist group, Al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the Unity Movement for Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), and Boko Haram to conquer the north. Haidara adds, “It would also appear that Saudi Arabia and Qatar have become allies in terms of financing,” adding to the politico-religious dynamic of the conflict.
A Coup d’état and the Rise of Islamic Fundamentalisms
Following independence from France in 1960, Mali has suffered droughts, rebellions, coup d’états in 1968 and 1992 and 23 years of military dictatorship succeeded by democratic elections held in 1992. After its transition from dictatorship, Mali was regarded as a model of democracy in the region, but according to Haidara, “For over ten years, Mali’s politicians were content with a system in which no one was held accountable. Politicians abused a system characterized by corruption and cronyism and profit for a select few.”
On 22 March 2012, mutinying Malian soldiers staged another coup d’état in response to government inaction to the MNLA Tuareg separatist rebellion in the north. Taking advantage of the situation, Tuareg rebels alongside the al-Qaeda linked group Ansar Dine seized control of Mali’s north, claiming the new state of Azawad. A weakened and disorganized MNLA has since allowed the Islamist groups to take control, leading an aggressive campaign to implement fundamentalist interpretations of Islam across the social, economic and cultural spheres in the north.
As in many conflict scenarios, the battlefield includes women’s bodies. The attack in the north became associated with mass rapes and the abduction of women and girls by rebels. Haidara also shared reports that “in the case of marriage with indigenous women, three, even five men were present to ‘consummate’ the marriage, which is nothing other than organized rape.”
She adds, “In the three northern regions, the populations that have the means to do so have relocated and most women have abandoned the cities where it has become extremely dangerous to travel around.” The Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reported last week that there are nearly 174,000 internally displaced people (IDP) in Mali (105,000 in the north) in addition to 261,624 refugees in bordering countries such as Niger, Burkina Faso and Algeria. Those remaining in the country are particularly vulnerable; as Haidara explains, “food convoys sent by Mali and its allies are arriving intermittently due to Islamist hijackings.” In addition, a recent UNICEF report indicated that armed groups in the north continue to recruitchild-soldiers.
“Sharia” in the North
While the MNLA identify as a secular group, they have been largely driven out by Ansar Dine and its allies (AQIM, MUJAO), whom are enforcing extreme and retrogressive interpretations of Islamic law in the occupied territories. Fundamentalist measures gained widespread international awareness in June 2012 with the razing of ancient Sufi shrines and a 16th Century mosque in the UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization) designated world heritage city of Timbuktu; the rebels declared the shrines “haram” (contrary to Islam) for encouraging idol worship.
Along with the destruction of the shrines in Timbuktu, the Islamists have called for the adoption of dress codes for women and the implementation of an extreme interpretation of Sharia. To date,stoning to death of a man and women accused of adultery as well as lashings to unwed couplesand unveiled women have been reported in the north.
Government Responses and Civil Resistance
On-going violence and a transitioning government have left many across Mali frustrated with the situation. According to Haidara “a powerless government issues press releases condemning the actions through the media…UNESCO in particular, as well as the United Nations (UN) and the International Criminal Court (ICC), have put their measures in place but nothing seems to stop the Islamists at this moment.” Nevertheless, she adds that, “civil society organizations and other northern organizations have responded through convictions, sit-ins, and protest marches.”
In one instance, we were told that Tuareg women in the north have been making themselves and their defiance of fundamentalist edicts visible by riding across town on their motorbikes, whilehundreds of protesters gathered against the amputation of a thief’s hand in Gao, and tens of thousands have rallied for peace in the country.
Haidara adds that “many organizations, notably COREN (Northern Citizen’s Collective, which includes civil society from Mopti, Gao, Kidal and Timbuktu) have staged sit-ins. The Collective of Northern Elected Politicians (Members of Parliament, mayors, and national community representatives) is also very active and has organized regular press conferences and marches. They were likewise present at the European Union to respond to representatives of the MNLA. Dozens of women from the Collective of Northern Women and national women’s groups are at the forefront of the conflict, challenging what they believe to be a lack of interest.”
While there is strong non-violent resistance, “other organizations have been created and associated with the civilian militias (Ganda koy and Ganda iso) currently training in defense of the rebel army,” says Haidara. Meanwhile, an ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States) military force of 3,000 awaits UN approval and a formal request from this week’s newly formed Malian government in Bamako for possible deployment. The national unity government, made up of 31 ministers from across the political spectrum (including four women) has since declared winning back the north a top priority, though plans to tackle the Islamist occupation remain unclear.
A Challenging Situation
In general, many in Mali support negotiations as a way out of the conflict. But the questions remain: with whom? and at what price?
There appears to be a window of opportunity to exclude AQIM from the negotiation process “as an outsider,” but challenges from both the MNLA and Ansar Dine remain. The MNLA has a limited foothold in the region and a peace agreement with Ansar Dine would likely depend on capitulating to particular fundamentalist demands, such as the application of an extreme interpretation of Islamic law, continued aggressions against women, and violations of rights. If stakeholders accept trading away the human rights of women, girls, minorities, and the general population of northern Mali, such a settlement can hardly be termed peace.