The war in Mali’s North–to what effect?


There is war in Mali’s North, and there doesn’t need to be. Some of this conflict is hard to stop–the shadow boxing of distant powers, the scattering of weapons, the spiraling circuits of revenge. But some of this conflict people chose, and they are choosing it now. Let’s leave why for another time and place. Let’s ask instead, to what effect?

There is a lot of talk of hostages in the Sahara. In a video posted on OkayAfrica today (it was recorded in November last year) Tinariwen bassist Eyadou Ag Leche says there might be too much talk, too powerful a “media narrative” of kidnapping and insecurity. I’m sure he’s right, at least in part. This is what Achille Mbembe calls the problem of African stories being too rarely told for themselves.

Still, let me talk about other hostages. The rebels–that is, the MNLA and their disavowed and dangerous allies–hold Mali hostage. Hostage to their own violence; to that of Salafist splinter groups and local militias; to the hunger that stalks the region; to the possibility of worse to come. What else does the rebellion hold hostage? Two ancient cosmopolitan, polyglot, and multi-ethnic cities: Timbuktu, not a Tuareg town; Gao, not a Tuareg town. What else? A lush weave of striking difference, one of Africa’s gifts to a world that hasn’t always known how to value it. A library of African thought, re-discovered and largely unread. Don’t visit it, not just now. Read the work of another hostage, Ahmed Baba, who in the 17th century wrote from Morocco of Timbuktu, celebrating the tolerance and diversity of his homeland. Listen to Ali Farka Touré, or even Tinariwen, in which they sing theirs. Mourn with me, for this is a loss, and if an ethno-nationalist state replaces a multi-ethnic, secular one, it might be a terrible loss.

Or don’t. Don’t mourn, don’t organize, and if bad gets worse, don’t read the news. Don’t feel involved, engaged, responsible. And don’t ask.

Comments

comments

Gregory Mann

Gregory Mann is Professor of History at Columbia University. He is author of two books, ' Native Sons' (2006) and From Empires to NGOs in the West African Sahel (2015).

10 Comments
  1. A French reporter in Le Monde last week mentioned that oil explorations were going on in Northern Mali – any confirmation that this plays a role in the fighting?

    1. No role in the fighting, perhaps a deep background role in the conflict, but the evidence is very thin.

      Explorations for oil have been going on for some time, but a number of the parcels have not yet been studied, and the depth and profitability is not yet known (at least by me, and I think more generally). Whether there is any strong causal link is not clear to me. I doubt it, not least because oil is a long game, but it’s hard to say.
      The article says that “for the moment, petrol in Mali remains a mirage,” and that the biggest player is Algeria. That is, if the article you are referring to is this one, taken from le Monde:

      http://www.malijet.com/actualite_economique_du_mali/41246-au-mali-le-petrole-est-pour-le-moment-un-mirage.html

  2. Pitch perfect. I lived in Gao from 2008-2009. I loved that city and the people that breathed life into it. For one group to claim it as their own is an affront to everything that makes it a special place. Its music, its architecture, its crafts, even its cuisine are all the product of diversity and cultural intercourse. This is about so much more than two beautiful cities, it’s about the very concept of cosmopolitan, polyglot, and multi-ethnic cities. It’s about whether the international community values them and if so, whether we are willing to let groups eradicate these values under the guise of religion and/or self-determination.

    1. Thanks for this.
      Let me just say, since my post might be unclear, that I am not in favor of external intervention and I am not proposing anything like it, or even a consciousness-raising campaign. If cosmopolitans are going to organize anything, let it be our thoughts!
      I do think intelligent, informed, and empathetic _listening_ is right on.
      And I wish music journalists would work harder…

      1. Amina. When it comes to northern Mali, I think we would do well to read more than we write and to listen more than we talk. Thinking critically and reflecting deeply is an act of cosmopolitan solidarity.

        That said, you should keep writing.

  3. Yes, thanks for info and discussion.I read the following article by the same journalist:
    http://www.lemonde.fr/afrique/chat/2012/04/10/mali-comment-surmonter-la-crise_1682992_3212.html
    I was a bit amazed that ‘Africa’s best read’, the M&G in last week’s print edition, did not even have one small news item about Mali which develops into a conflict that seems to say much about current African politics and history. See also: At the Edge of the World: Boundaries, Territoriality, and Sovereignty in Africa,by Achille Mbembe, translated by Steven Rendall, Public Culture, 2000, 12(1): 259–284

  4. I have been getting excited over the Timbuctu manuscripts and as soon as I heard about a war in Mali, I had a feeling they would be in jeopardy.

  5. I’ve also been noticing a pattern on the map of Africa working it’s way from the Mediterranean down. from the Red sea, to the Atlantic. Many of these changes appear indirectly or directly related.

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