Thinking About Seeing #Mali
So I was thinking about Mali today after seeing a whole batch of new photos coming out of Timbuktu following the French paratrooper arrival there earlier this week. Here’s one that was run by the NY Times earlier today with the headline “Pressing Mali Effort, French Forces Enter Rebel Stronghold”.
Or how about this AP Wire story running over at Pantagraph titled “Freedom returns to the storied city of Timbuktu”.
Although I haven’t read much on it yet, I know there was also an African Union summit last weekend that was also dealing with Mali, among other issues, and which was followed by a big international aid donor meeting focused on Mali. Jenny Vaghan of the African Report authored a piece titled “Mali crisis set to dominate African Union summit” discussing some of the underlying issues up for debate. There is also an interesting opinion piece worth reading there by Lee Mwiti, who reflects on the politics of the AU at the summit and donor event afterwards. The informal blog title really says it all: “Stand back Africa, the Sheriff is in town again“.
The assault on northern Mali was mooted last year as Islamists rapidly seized huge swathes of the country. The UN in keeping with its penchant for bureaucracy, needed former colonial power France to draw up an intervention plan. Even then, boots could only be on the ground in September, the clever people in New York said. This should have been a golden chance for the AU, and more specifically West Africa through its Ecowas grouping, to seize the moment and chart a solution—political or military—for Mali. Instead Ecowas and AU heads shuttled leisurely between capitals, while military chiefs from member countries were as late as last week still engrossed in planning meetings. France had to swiftly step in as the militants begun an ominous advance south, threatening Bamako, the capital.
It remains manifest that the West will always find a reason to intervene as long as African leaders lack spine and continue to shield each other’s regimes from regional and international justice. And with each intervention, a little bit more of the continent’s much-touted sovereignty, and pride, is chipped away. It was telling to hear France say that its goal in Mali is “total reconquest.”
Would anyone bet against the next round of neo-colonialism?
It’s precisely this tension in my thinking that I had been wrestling with earlier in the evening. Here’s how I see the tension in thinking about the case of Mali right now as seen through changes in Timbuktu. Seeing the pictures above of the women without veils moving around in the city and dancing in the streets without fear of attack (couples as well) from the Ansar Dine Islamic rebels. Recall that for most of the past year Timbuktu has been living under a shadow of strict fundamentalist understanding of sharia (Islamic law). The video below from Al Jazeera reports on just a few women’s stories that have been coming out for the past year.
Al Jazeera also has some other good background reporting on some of the issues in Mali. I’m glad that the women of Timbuktu are now free of this oppressive situation. The problem is not women wanting to veil or follow sharia in Mali or Timbuktu, it’s the gender discrimination under the guise of religious morality. It’s an important distinction to remember. I think it’s too easy for white Americans to lapse into the mindset of seeing only a primitive and backwards Islamic culture in Africa, thereby reinforcing the old Orientalist tropes that we should instead be continually challenging.
But therein is precisely where we find the dilemma.
One the one hand, the women of Timbuktu being free is a good thing. On the other hand, it came at the cost of a French neo-colonial intervention that may not end there. Which was precisely Mwiti’s point. What I wish for is the freedom of women in Timbuktu without the necessity of French military intervention. But the reality is that it took France virtually acting alone, with the help of an anemic Mali armed forces, to run the Islamic rebels out Timbuktu and surrounding areas. At best it is a temporary solution, as the deeper issues of Mali political stability and internal division are ongoing. I won’t pretend to have any real knowledge on these intricacies to comment much more than that, but the problematic colonial politics leave me uneasy all the same. But at the same time, in lieu of a strong or viable African Union presence in the area to help, it’s not clear what else to do?
It was also quite disheartening at first to hear reports that an important collection of African and Islamic manuscripts at the Ahmed Baba Institute of Higher Learning and Islamic Research may have been stolen or burned by the Islamists as they retreated from Timbuktu this week. As one scholar noted about the importance of the Timbuktu archives:
The libraries of Timbuktu are significant repositories of scholarly production in West Africa and the Sahara. They are part of a larger regional phenomenon of book collecting across the Saharan and Sahel regions. These manuscripts are a unique and invaluable treasure and heritage which sheds light on this vast area’s African past, from the age of the great African states of the pre-colonial and into the colonial periods.
But the latest update from the Institute says that in fact most of the manuscripts were secretly smuggled out or otherwise saved, and in fact the loss may not be as bad as first thought. I hope that continues to be the case.
Until next time…never waste a book, it may be the last of its kind.