The War in Mali’s North–To What Effect?

The rebels--that is, the MNLA and their disavowed and dangerous allies--hold Mali hostage.

Timbuktu, by Susana Millman. Via Flickr Creative Commons Licensed.

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.

Further Reading

The skeleton in the closet

The novelist Nadifa Mohamed complicates Britain’s troubled, racist legal history through the personal tale of one otherwise insignificant person, a Somali immigrant to Cardiff in Wales.

Life to the sound of gunfire

Nigerians fleeing extremist violence at home take refuge across the border in Niger among an already fragile population. Together they proceed to carve out a way to live better lives for now.

Democraticizing money

Cameroonian economist Joseph Tchundjang Pouemi died in 1984, either poisoned or by suicide. His ideas about the international monetary system and the CFA franc are worth revisiting.