Mali Burns, Malians Shrug

The fighting hits Timbuktu, but soccer's still on television.

by Anna Badkhen | January 31, 2013

photo credit: Ruud Zwart

DJENNE, Mali—The evening French and Malian troops entered the former Islamist stronghold of Timbuktu the men of Djenné, 200 miles to the southwest, gathered under the thatch awnings of mercantiles that flank the dusty square before the Sudanic clay steeples of the 12th-century Grande Mosque. They arranged overturned plastic buckets and rope chairs and wooden benches into impromptu amphitheaters in front of the small television sets they had balanced on cases of water bottles and soda and crackers. They have done this each night since January 19. Eyes glued to the TVs, the men sat stock-still in observant silence, consumed by the action onscreen.

They weren’t watching dispatches from the front. They were watching soccer. The Africa Cup of Nations was on, and that night, Mali was playing against Cameroon.

The French intervention this month has forced the conflict in Mali into international limelight. But in southern Mali—which comprises a third of the country’s geography but is home to the majority of its 15 million people, and where the Islamist rebellion has not reached—this latest frontline in the global war on terror seems no more than a mise en scène, a facet of the daily ration of woes that beleaguer this West African nation.

“There is no feeling that the country is at war,” the Bamako sociologist and political scientist Moussa Djiré told me last week. “I don’t want there to be psychosis, but it’s good for people to feel that there is a war on in the country. To have that awareness.”

Djiré was driving me from the airport to my hotel in Bamako. I had arrived on an Air France flight from Paris that bespoke that its destination was a war zone: half of the passengers were Malian, the other half, relief workers and journalists. I have been on such flights before, bound for Baghdad, for Kabul, for Tel Aviv. But the similarity ended when I stepped off the plane. The Bamakois rushed to school and work on motorized scooters, took laundry to the bottle-green banks of the Niger, sold kola nuts and animal fetishes by the central mosque, laughed, scraped together enough rice for the next meal, and, by night, drank beer in front of televisions tuned to the Africa Cup. Few conversations mentioned the war, although many bemoaned the exodus of tourists. On our twenty-minute drive from the airport to my hotel—a cheap hostel whose only few guests were journalists—we passed one checkpoint, manned by gendarmes sweltering in wool greatcoats with brass buttons. The gendarmes saluted us through without checking our documents.

Two days later, nobody checked the documents of the men and women on my bus to Djenné, which at the time still lay only 50 miles west of the front line. My fellow passengers passed the thirteen-hour ride napping, sharing around bits of grilled goat meat and severe, old dates, nursing infants, complaining about the road that has been in perpetual state of repair for years and that coughed clouds of red laterite dust into the bus each time the chassis hit a pothole. No one talked about the war.

How to explain this laissez-faire attitude toward a military campaign that has mobilized the world’s anxious attention? Perhaps one factor is that Mali—crippled by a year of three successive coups and counter-coups, devastated by systemic humanitarian crises, splintered by fragmented alliances, and ruled by a paralyzed and unstable government of putschists—is lacking the feeling of national unity that would make a coherent case for the war.

“We’re making this war to preserve what, exactly? Which government, which state?” demanded Naffet Keïta, an anthropologist at the University of Bamako whose work has focused on the Tuareg independence movement.

Mali’s democratic dream of the 1990s soured slowly over two decades of corruption, favoritism, and misallocation of resources and fell apart precipitously last March. A U.S.-trained army captain seized power in a coup. A counter-coup followed; last May, a crowd nearly lynched Mali’s interim president before the military took charge again. Capitalizing on the political disarray in Bamako and armed with weapons looted from Muammar Qaddafi’s caches, Touareg rebels rekindled their fifty-year-old insurgency and proclaimed northern Mali an independent state, Azawad. That state was quickly hijacked by Salafi radicals, who turned the country’s north into a medieval hell of amputations, floggings and, the West feared, an al Qaeda training ground. As the Islamists advanced steadily south, tens of thousands of refugees poured into Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast and Niger and into areas of southern Mali, adding to the thousands of Malians already displaced by last year’s severe food crisis. (The aftershocks of that crisis continue: the U.S.-based agency CARE estimates that 660,000 children under five in Mali will suffer from acute malnutrition this year.) In December, the military threw out Mali’s interim prime minister.

“If we don’t have anything to protect, what is the point of fighting?” Keïta said. “Which values are we defending?”

At the same time, the war's public presentation has been highly sanitized. Malian and French troops have kept reporters away from the fighting. There are no lists of casualties, no images of war wounded or dead, just images of charred trucks and buildings that supposedly once had belonged to the insurgents. Each day brings new footage of Malians in newly liberated towns waving French flags at 
columns of armored trucks. The images, lacking context, seem unnatural, even cartoonish. The campaign's sense of unreality gives the campaign an emotional distance.

It also permeates the expectations of how it will end. Judging from Afghanistan, Chechnya and Iraq, Islamist militants can be exceptionally skilled at insurgent warfare, and U.S. officials have warned that it would take years to defeat the extremists in Mali. But in Djenné and in Bamako, in fishermen’s villages and in Fulani nomad camps on the floodplains of the Inner Niger Delta, Malians have assured me that the war will be over in three months, tops.

“All will be back to normal by April. The Islamists will be gone completely,” said Alphamoye Traore, a marabout from Gao who had fled the Islamists last spring and has been squatting with his wife, five children, and two young students of his Koranic school in two tiny rooms of his uncle’s house in Djenné. Around him, fellow marabouts dressed in pale blue and white embroidered boubous nodded in agreement.

The other night, at a bar flanked by a grove of eucalyptus trees, Amadou Cissé, a local entrepreneur, received a phone call from a general on the front line. He hung up, whooped, and shouted to his friends: “It’s finished! Gao has fallen! The French and Malian troops have taken Gao! You can say this war is over now.”

Their eyes fixed on the small screen of a color TV in the corner of the bar, the men nodded and grunted approval. Seconds later, they, too, jumped to their feet and cheered and slapped each other’s palms and shoulders. South Africa had just scored against Morocco.

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