Clinging to power

The Economist

EVERY morning a bus caked in dust pulls into Bamako bringing the latest rumours of war. Looking dazed and dehydrated after 24 hours on the road, Mohammad Maiga explains how Tuareg separatists and Islamist militants have turned his native Gao, northern Mali’s most populous town, into a ghost town. “Everyone is leaving,” says Mr Maiga. “There’s no food, no supplies.” Blackouts last all day. Banks and offices have been pillaged by rampant rebels.

Mr Maiga says he saw a truck of National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) rebels abduct three young women on the street in front of his house the day before he fled. “They had no choice,” he explains. “The rebels had weapons.” His claim is impossible to verify but it is one of many alleged instances of murder, robbery and rape laid at the rebels’ door. The UN has called for international action to halt the worsening crisis. Aid agencies reckon that over 200,000 people have been displaced though no one knows the exact numbers.

The clearest winners so far from Mali’s chaos are a trio of jihadist groups—Ansar Eddine, a Salafist outfit that emerged from the secular MNLA’s slipstream; al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb; and another terror group called the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa. The black flag of militant Islam has been spotted over all northern Mali’s big towns and residents say public awareness campaigns about the dictates of sharialaw are underway. Yet far from berating the Islamists for imposing a strict and alien form of Islam, some inhabitants actually offer guarded praise. Ansar Eddine, in particular, they say, is attempting to rein in the MNLA’s rapacious fighters.

Meanwhile, Mali’s speaker of parliament, Dioncounda Traoré—who was sworn in as interim president last week to oversee the country’s return to democracy—promised “total war” if mediation with the rebel factions fails. But his stridency was meant for those Malians angry and bewildered by the de facto partition of their country following the rebel onslaught. It bears little relation to reality. Malian troops may be massing in Mopti, the staging post for any attack against the rebels, but they are in no shape to launch an offensive.

Mr Traoré’s inauguration does not conceal the fact that the junta has yet to cede power. During a televised address soon after he had purportedly bowed to international pressure to restore the constitution, coup leader Captain Amadou Sanogo told Malian viewers that his junta “is not going anywhere; when a group of soldiers takes power, nobody can sideline them, and that’s no joke.” Far from dissolving the junta, he went on, he would meet with Ecowas, the 16-state West African economic block, after Mr Traoré’s 40-day tenure expires to decide the next steps. The junta bungled its way to power. Now it seems determined to stay there.

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