Ilagala Ag Amin, former Tuareg rebel fighter at Mentao Red Cross Camp, northern Burkina Faso. He was trained in Moammar Qaddafi's military. Image by Peter Chilson. Burkina Faso, 2012.

Timbuktu: A Primer on Mali

The U.S. presidential debate on foreign policy in October 2012 and more recent articles in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Al-Jazeera, and elsewhere, make it clear that events in Mali are important—but why? The conflict in Mali is difficult to understand due to the numerous players involved and the country’s complex history. Pulitzer Center grantee Peter Chilson offers a comprehensive analysis of the conflict in Mali in his project, "We Never Knew Exactly Where: Dispatches from the Borderlands of West Africa". To better understand the basics, here is a brief primer on Mali.

Statistics
Mali is a large, land-locked country in West Africa. With a population of 15.4 million, it is relatively populous, but also quite poor with a GDP per capita of $1,100. Most of the population of the country is Muslim (90 percent), and a majority of the citizens identify as Sunni Muslim practicing Sufi traditions.

History
In 1892, Mali fell under French colonial rule. France called the territory French Sudan; its colonization lasted until September 22, 1960, when the Mali Federation gained its independence. From the late 1960s to the early 1990s, Moussa Traoré ruled Mali under a single-party state. After his overthrow, Alpha Oumar Konaré was elected president in the country's first democratic election in 1992. A new constitution was drafted, and Mali began a 21-year period of multiparty democracy. Democracy ended when Amadou Sanogo, a military officer, seized power in March 2012. Now, due to an insurgency in northern Mali, the country has been driven into chaos.

The Current Conflict
The National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) is a secular Tuareg rebel movement that emerged in January 2012, sweeping the northern two-thirds of Mali, and declaring an independent state called Azawad. Many of these rebel fighters served as mercenaries for the Qaddafi regime in nearby Libya. Once it was clear that Qaddafi would be overthrown, the Tuareg rebels returned to Mali with training, weapons, and, sometimes, Qaddafi-style hatred of the West and Mali’s government. In March 2012, there was a military coup in Mali’s capital, Bamako. This ended the country’s 21-year streak of democratically elected government. With the capital in distress, the Tuareg rebellion quickly took the north.

Not long after the MNLA declared independence, two breakaway Islamist groups, Ansar Dine, which has recruited Arab fighters from al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and the “Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa,” also known as MOJWA, overtook the MNLA.

There are many international players in this escalating conflict. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has deployed 3,000 soldiers to help Mali’s military. France has also deployed and continues to send troops and airstrike missions, and countries such as the U.S. and Britain are sending military aid but not soldiers. These united forces have fought back and pushed rebels out of key cities such as Konna.

What is at stake?
The West is very concerned about a terrorist stronghold forming in the heart of North Africa. In fact, the U.S. has been trying to prevent this for years with a quiet mission in northern Mali to train local counterterrorism forces, a mission that has proven to be less than successful. France is also concerned because of its geographical proximity to North Africa and its former colonial ties. The French government feels compelled to act, and their military involvement has been generally popular among French citizens.

The direst consequences of the conflict are for the people of Northern Mali. People who consider themselves devout Muslims are being questioned on their faith. The Islamist rebel groups are inflicting cruel punishments under Sharia law not unlike the Taliban and other Islamic extremists elsewhere. Since France’s intervention, humanitarian organizations have reported an increase in the number of Malian refugees. Almost 1,500 crossed into Niger, Burkina Faso, and Mauritania from January 11-17, 2013. This figure could multiply each week if the fighting persists, displacing many thousands more.

It is still too early to know how this conflict will resolve and there are many nuances and complexities in this story; for more information, follow Peter Chilson's project and post your questions or comments below.

Peter Gwin, a former Pulitzer Center grantee, and senior writer for National Geographic magazine reported from Mali in 2009 and 2010 for his project "Saharan Insecurity." He shares his views in a useful explainer about the roots of the Mali crisis.

Project

Europeans drew Africa’s borders long ago. Today these lines are often deserted and sometimes dangerous. Mali is the legacy: A crumbling state, rump of ancient empire between desert and forest.

Recently

February 4, 2013 /
Peter Chilson
Peter Chilson discusses Mali, regional borders and migration issues at Washington University in St. Louis.
January 30, 2013 / Al Jazeera
Peter Chilson
Al Jazeera English's program "Listening Post" examines why journalists are finding it difficult to cover the story in Mali. It features an interview with Pulitzer Center grantee Peter Chilson.