Recently, the situation in northern Mali has gotten a lot of coverage in the international press. The in-fighting between the two groups of rebels (the Al-Qaeda linked Anasar Dine on one side and the secular Tuareg nationalists MNLA on the other) has resulted in a total victory for the Islamic extremists. The New York Times just ran an article on the people that are fleeing Mali to escape the extremists. Many have come here to Niger, and in the article they interviewed people in a huge refugee camp in Mauritania. Here are some photos that go with the article.
Obviously the most pressing and urgent concern is for the people who are suffering. Life is extremely difficult for both those who have run away and those who continue to live under the oppressive new rule of the Islamists. But there are other dangers as well. The importance of a place like Timbuktu for the cultural and religious heritage, not only of Africa, not only of Islam, but of the whole world cannot be overstated, and it is now in the clutches of people who have already demonstrated antipathy towards it. Tombs of saints have already been destroyed, some mosques have already been attacked, and there is a real fear that the great Djinguereber mosque of Timbuktu is in danger. Of course the libraries of this ancient city are filled with priceless texts which might also be in danger, but maybe not. These iconoclasts are fundamentalists, therefore texts are the only things they really respect. If they started burning holy books, what would they have to misread and misinterpret?
I know I already wrote about this, but it is important, and the situation is getting worse. Here is a (short) video that is very beautiful and very heart-breaking, and it describes what is going on very well. Watch it now.
Of course, all of this affects Niger. Aside from the fact that Mali is our neighbor, and Malian refugees have come flooding over the border in recent months, we are also in a similar situation. Like Mali, Niger also has a significant Tuareg population that, while currently at peace with the government, has rebelled (along with their brothers in Mali) before. Like Mali, Niger has also seen fallout from the war in Libya, and is also facing the same drought and food crisis. So people in Niger, and all over West Africa, are watching what is happening in Mali very closely, and are anxious to see peace restored.
One of those people is Niger’s president, Mahamadou Issoufou. He has been calling for an international intervention in Mali. He is worried that the violence will spread from what he and others have called the “Afghanistan of Africa.” But so far, nothing has happened. The rebels have been left alone, which has allowed them time to get organized, get reinforcements, and to consolidate their control. Now they have access to a few big airports as well, so no one can be sure of who or what has come into northern Mali, but there are reports that they are bringing in supplies and additional recruits from all over.
Some are arguing in favor of a military intervention (although nobody really seems to know who should be intervening. ECOWAS? The African Union? France? The UN?). Others caution against it. I don’t really know what the best solution is, but I do know that something needs to be done. The people of Mali are under attack, especially in the north. Any semblance of legitimacy the rebels may have had is now gone. This is not self-determination. This is the imposition of a foreign, oppressive and dictatorial regime on the local population, who have resisted against it and have been beaten back into submission.