Timbuktu in Northern Mali, so long used in the English language as a byword for a far away and fabled place, is today at the centre of a far more prosaic and all too real struggle. For Mali is in the grip of a deep (and largely unreported) crisis, the most severe since it achieved independence from France in 1960.
What began as one of the frequent Tuareg tribal rebellions in the north of the country, as escalated to such an extent that not only the future of Mali but security of West Africa and beyond is now potentially threatened. Mali has been effectively cleaved in two, with the Northern part of Mali declared independent as Azawad.
Azawad theoretically is a Tuareg homeland, the product of a people seeking self determination and control over their own affairs. The reality is however rather different. For the original rebels have been largely supplanted by proponents of radical Islam, many of whom have travelled from, what was for them, a failed campaign in Libya.
Battle hardened, they have proved more than a match for the underfunded and demoralized Malian army who were quickly driven from the entire Northern half of the country. The jihadists then turned on their erstwhile allies, the Tuaregs, and now Northern Mali is firmly under their sway.
The people of Mali may be overwhelmingly Muslim but with a long tradition of tolerance and moderatism. The thousands of people who have fled the north since the radical Islamists gained control, attest to the incompatibility of two conflicting visions of Islam. Strict sharia law has been implemented in much of the north while the state’s rich cultural and Islamic history has come under attack. Timbuktu, for centuries a centre of West African Islam (with its historic centre recognised by UNESCO as a world heritage site), has had some of its shrines to saints destroyed by the Islamists, who view such veneration as idolatrous.
Given Al-Qaeda’s presence in the deserts of West Africa, and the stated desire of the Islamists to export their radicalism and violence beyond the borders of Azawad, the lack of international action/intervention in the Malian crisis seems surprising. However a coup led by junior members of the army in March, has robbed the Malian state some of its legitimacy. Neighbouring West African states are understandably reluctant to endorse the current Bamako regime, for fear of the precedent which might be set. Thus foreign intervention hinges on the military regime stepping aside.
However the officers have thus far refused to do so, arguing that it was ineffectual civilian administration and governance which created the conditions for the rebellion to thrive in the first place. An impasse has therefore been reached. The officers who led the March coup d’etat won’t step down until the threat from the Islamists has receded, the international community won’t intervene until they do so but the threat is likely to remain until there is international intervention.
The challenge for all those who wish to prevent the Malian state (or parts of it) from falling into the hands of radical Islamists, is to find a way around this conundrum. Until this is achieved the Islamist fighters will keep pouring in, Mali’s cultural treasures will be eroded and most distressingly of all, human life will continue to be routinely degraded and squandered.