Yeah Samake, the mayor of Ouelessebougou and I had become acquainted over a year ago. Since then we had met on a number of occasions. I was impressed with him — a breath of fresh air in Africa’s young up-and-coming political leaders. In the presidential elections scheduled for April 29, 2012 he was a major contender. The campaign however was cut short by a military coup, that has since destabilized Mali. More than half the country is under siege by radical Islamists, both home grown and imported. Although I visited Mali in 2000, I felt it was necessary for me to return and understand the “real” conditions taking place in this destabilized fledgling democracy. Yeah had put together an agenda that would allow me to meet with government and military leaders, and visit the surrounding refugee camps.
On September 5, 2012 I paid a courtesy call on Ambassador Al Maamoun Keita of Mali, at the embassy in Washington DC. At the same time I picked up my entry visa for my visit that would begin the following day. Our discussion was open as to the dire situation that currently exists in the destabilized northern region of Mali. I found the ambassador very engaging and insightful. It appears that the Ansar Dine Islamist group, which was part of the long time separatist movement, is engaging in rogue business activities. They have also become associated with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Boko Haram from Nigeria, al-Shabaab from Somalia and other Islamists from Pakistan and Afghanistan, whose mission is to destabilize the region and take control under Sharia, the brutal Islamic law. With the elapse of five months these groups, connected in a rag-tag style, are now fully entrenched in Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal.
This instability, for some, has become an economic gain, while others want to create a Pan-African caliphate. In our discussion I learned that Ansar Dine is cashing in from kidnappings of westerners, and a larger pot of gold — the cocaine drug trade. Apparently the Latin American drug cartel has figured out a circuitous route to gain access to Europe through the West African country of Guinea-Bissau and then on through Mali and Niger across the vast northern desert reaching Egypt. From there the distribution takes these drugs into the Arabian Peninsula, and onto the European continent. A second track of drugs comes from Asia down through Nigeria, ending up in South Africa. In addition regionally grown khat, a stimulant derived from a certain flowering plant, provides toxic juices that swirl one’s head when chewed; it has become a local favorite.
After the Arab Spring the northern Tuareg mercenary fighters, who had returned from Libya, brought with them a cache of arms greater than was in the hands of the Malian military, out-sizing their power in a region the size of France. It was incomprehensible that such a small band of opportunists, thieves and radical Islamists could gain control of such a large swath of land. As a result the Malian military was not able to disarm them, and bring stability to this fledgling democracy.
It was shocking to learn that refugee camps have now swelled to almost 500,000 people over a short period of time. In asking what the main steps were going forward, Keita responded “the presidential elections.” As it stands the UN has mandated that these elections be held before May 2013. Why wait so long I asked? “It will take at least six months to get ready.” However, they must take place within one year as provided for in the constitution, or it will be considered another de facto coup, he noted. In asking about the ECOWAS states helping to bring stability to the northern region, the ambassador was emphatic that the Mali government must be in charge. However he welcomed their support of the Malian military, who would take the lead in any military incursion.
The atrocities that have taken place by Taliban style activists, and destruction of 13th century artifacts, libraries, mausoleums, and mosques needed to be stopped. The UNSC has been slow to act; the United States must help to step up efforts under UN Resolution 2056 which would empower ECOWAS to militarily underpin Mali’s efforts to subdue the radical Islamists. In addition the North African countries must do more to curb the influx of radical Islamists coming to Mali from these regions.
Secretary Hillary Clinton recently concluded her ten day tour of nine African countries, yet missed the opportunity to show support for this fledgling democracy with a visit. This would have indicated to the world that we are serious about the tenets of freedom and democracy. It would also have sent a clear signal to the Islamists that their days are numbered with their rogue activities. The U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) and Special Ops units had used Mali soil for staging and training purposes, to counteract terrorist activities in the region; more particularly the AQIM operating in the Sahel. When the region was overrun by the armed Islamists our military equipment was left behind, which included almost one hundred vehicles, satellite equipment and other resources, which fell into the hands of these radical Islamists.
Their subsequent brutal acts and threats under Sharia left a large Diaspora disbursed in the neighboring countries of Mauritania, Algeria, Niger, and Burkina Faso. The U.S. response to this humanitarian disaster has been to infuse $10 million of aid to the refugee camps — which is like putting a band-aid on a puncture wound — we can do better.
As I embarked on my last leg of the trip to Mali from Paris I was curious about the passengers, as I strolled up and down the aisles. There were a number of women dressed in their beautiful country attire, and several men in their Boubou robes and embroidered caps. Although Mali is predominantly a Muslim country most of the people were dressed in western attire. Many on board the plane appeared to be business people and visitors from France, India, China, and a few Americans. On approaching Bamako, I became reflective, looking forward to my first hand observation of the situation in Mali; the meetings with government and military leaders; and visits to the refugee camps.