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Story Publication logo April 14, 2015

Rebels, Food Supplies and the Nature of Aid Work in Northern Mali


Image by Chris Arsenault. Mali, 2015.

In 2009, Libya bought 100,000 hectares of prime territory in Mali in what critics consider a "land...

Media file: chris.jpg
Local residents of Menaka, in northern Mali, gather to hear updates from UN officials about aid projects in the region. April 2015. Image by Chris Arsenault. Mali, 2015.

There's no runway, just a patch of loose gravel where the white World Food Programme plane touches down in rebel-controlled northern Mali.

Several waiting pickups mounted with heavy machine guns take position around the aircraft; U.N. soldiers in green camouflage and blue helmets fan out into dry, leafless, trees, scanning for a possible ambush.

While much of the north has been subdued, and peace talks with the rebels are ongoing, this area is outside of government control.

The National Movement for the Liberation Azawad (MNLA), ostensibly a secular nationalist organisation fighting for an independent Tuareg, calls most of the shots here. Other armed groups including the al Qaeda-linked Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) also have a presence, aid workers said.

Before meeting villagers to discuss food supplies and other development programmes, the U.N. has to meet with local Tuareg commanders. They are, like it or not, the ones in charge.

This is the nature of aid work in conflict zones, so with a truck of soldiers in front and another taking up the rear, two SUVs full of U.N. and NGO officials head to visit a local MNLA boss.

In a villa sloppily painted with the green red and black flag of Azawad, territory encompassing parts of the Sahel the Tuaregs consider their homeland, a rebel official greets the visitors.

Not known for their administrative skills, the MNLA angered residents when they swept through the north in 2012, surprising the Malian army and taking control of half of the landlocked country.

Their insurgency opened a power vacuum in the desperately poor north, and Islamist groups including MUJAO and Ansar al Dine entered the fray, wrestling some towns from the nationalists and drawing in outside forces.

France, Mali's old colonial master, deployed troops in 2013 fearing a possible al Qaeda advance on the capital and eventually beat back armed groups from northern cities including Gao and Timbuktu. But the MNLA, and their fractious rivals and allies, still control Menaka and other towns like it.

At their villa, the rebels seem relaxed. Unarmed, they throw a dusty mattress on the patio and bring chairs for the visiting aid workers. After reviewing papers explaining plans for a community meeting about the state of food aid and projects for returning refugees, the rebel boss smiles to himself and nods approvingly.

Unlike insurgents in much of the world, the MNLA doesn't impose a tax on outsiders organising projects in the territory they control, NGO workers and World Food Programme officials said. Once the local boss is satisfied, everyone shakes hands and the convoy led by troops from Niger, India and Bangladesh gets back on the road, heading for an office of a local NGO that coordinates aid operations with U.N. money.

The caravan passes a hive of activity on the town's main road. It's a market day, and traders, buyers, and livestock breeders descend on the town from the surrounding areas and as far afield as Algeria hawking their wares.

Women in colorful robes haggle with salesmen and stores like 'Dubai boutique' display scarves, cloths and packaged food products. It's difficult to gauge how much public support the MNLA have from local residents, and no one seems to want to talk politics.

At the NGO office, about two dozen residents are waiting in a cramped meeting room to hear about new projects, including a cash-for-work scheme, food aid and support for displaced Malians who have recently returned from Niger and other neighboring countries.

"Thanks to the people who have the courage to come here," said Luouftoul Ag Ramihoun, a local community leader.

There doesn't seem to be any government presence here, so NGOs and their U.N. backers form a key outlet for questions and frustrations.

The meeting lasts less than an hour, much to the chagrin of the assembled residents who want more time to discuss their grievances and aspirations. People say their goodbyes and U.N. soldiers snap some photos before the outsiders head back to their plane and return to government territory.

The Mali government has said it would sign a U.N.-brokered peace accord on April 15 but the MNLA has signalled it is not ready to back the deal because the proposal doesn't grant enough concessions to the Azawad region.

But whatever happens at the expected signing ceremony in Algiers, it is clear that after four Tuareg revolts since independence in 1960, convincing people here to trust the government and eschew the rebels won't be an easy task.


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