Thursday, May 13, 2010

The 1990s Malian Rebellion

I recently had a conversation with a former aid worker in Mali. The dialogue was quite informative as this person resided and worked there for ten years from the conclusion of the 1980s famine to the end of the 1990s rebellion. As a foreigner he/she found the actions taken by some Tamasheq individuals during these crises as irrational and ungrateful regarding the presence of non-governmental organizations (NGOs). It is understandable to have such reactions considering this person was there to help, particularly the Tamasheq who had more vulnerability than most in the droughts and revolt. His/her thoughts however showed little understanding regarding the Tamasheq grievances and actions during these events.

The first situation explained by the former aid worker involved the start of the rebellion. Much literature uses 1990 as the starting point. It is actually difficult to assign when the Malian Rebellion actually began considering the fighting was not so much conventional warfare. Hit and run tactics were used by the rebel factions while the Malian military patrolled during the day. According to this source, however, it started in Ménaka in 1989, an eastern sub-prefecture town 1502 km from Bamako and where I conducted a fair amount of my research in 2006-2008. Rebels had descended on the town during the day and caught many by surprise, killing ten soldiers and one aid worker that worked for the narrator’s organization. Some of my interviewees confirmed this but more important, this was the start of an estranged relationship between many NGO workers and Arab/Tamasheq groups in during the Malian Rebellion.

The narrator had a personal experience with two individuals perceived to be rebels. Early on in the revolt he/she had been approached by two Tamasheq, one of which brandished a pistol. The gun was placed at his/her head and it was apparent to the narrator that the assailants wanted his/her vehicle: a new Toyota Land Cruiser parked right in front of them. He/she offered the keys but this was not good enough. The two men insisted he/she came along with them under the threat of death if he/she refused.

All of them climbed into the Land Cruiser and sped away. The one assailant who took the wheel drove as fast as he could without slowing down for the check post at the edge of town. The gendarme at the post apparently flashed his gun but never took a shot. The NGO worker pleaded with his/her abductors to stop and let him/her out by explaining the mission of the organization and the importance it had on ordinary Tamasheq people. To no avail they did not stop but instead raced through the sands. At about 15 km out of Gao, the driver finally stopped the Land Cruiser and the other with the pistol ordered the narrator of the story out.

The story did not end there. Apparently the vehicle was spotted at another relief camp weeks later in Mauritania thousands of kilometers away, by an aid worker who knew the narrator and the vehicle. The appearance of the vehicle had not changed much except for the fact that the Malian license plates had been removed from the bumpers and placed on the dash.

The third experience involved the negotiations and assistance the Malian government and NGOs offered the ex-combatants after the rebellion. The aid worker traveled to Kidal (1539 km from Bamako in northeastern Mali) to conduct a needs and assessment evaluation. Since the Malian government conducted a war of attrition in the North, expectations were high for implementing programs of food aid and child relief programs. Instead, however, the only programs that were popular with the ex-combatants were work projects and small enterprise loans. This was part of how NGOs contributed to the disarmament and reconciliation between the rebels and the Malian government.

These incidents were seen by the narrator with anger, confusion, and frustration. As an aid worker, he/she viewed their mission as non-partisan, democratic, and beneficial to all Malians including the Tamasheq. This, however, was not the case. NGOs are structured much like central governments where decisions and revenue allocation is a top-down approach. Since NGOs are based in the capitals and constantly under the auspices of the national government, they can often unknowingly play into the agendas and biases of political elites. In this case educated members from the Bambara ethnic group occupied national bureaus, and were well-seated to take advantage of NGO employment opportunities and influence project implementation. This was further exacerbated by the ‘Africanization’ of NGO management. NGOs since 1982 have been replacing Westerners in lower and higher management positions with African counterparts. Once again in Mali, the Bambara had larger advantages over other ethnic groups, particularly the Tamasheq who have seen the Bambara having greater opportunities and interfering in their territories since the arrival of the French in the early 1900s.

The death of the NGO worker in Ménaka was unfortunate. The narrator who told me this story did not elaborate on whether the worker was just in the wrong place – wrong time or if his death was deliberate. If it was the later, it would be safe to assume the worker was likely to have come from Bamako and the Bambara ethnic group (many did at this point of time). The narrator of this story would not have made this observation nor seen it as important. For him/her the mission of the worker was to help and assist the local community be they Tamasheq or other ethnic groups. This however has not always been the case in Bambara – Tamasheq relations as stories of discrimination, harassment and even sexual assaults on Tamasheq women have been periodic and circulating among Tamasheq encampments for decades. Furthermore the little to no representation of Tamasheq peoples in national government and NGOs was one of the rebels’ grievances at this period. It is still one that is voiced today in Mali.

The abduction of the narrator and carjacking was also unfortunate but this was another area of misunderstanding. Whether the two men were rebels or not is the first point that needs deconstruction. The rebellion was a difficult time; more for the non-participants than it was for the military or rebels. The combatants after all possessed the guns and could forcibly requisition whatever they needed or wanted. Victims of such scenarios included Tamasheq men and women who had no involvement in the rebellion. The men themselves could have been desperate or possibly taking advantage of the situation itself. Still, as the narrator assumed, they could have been rebels themselves.

The aid worker did not want to go with the men and did not understand why they were so insistent that he/she come yet dropped him/her off after driving 15 km from Gao. Living in this part of Africa for some time now, I believe I understand why it was important for the abductee to accompany them for a short time. If it had been the two Tamasheq men by themselves, there would have been no hesitation by the gendarme to open fire at them, particularly since they were speeding by with no effort to slow down or stop in the midst of a Tamasheq rebellion. But because there was a Westerner in the vehicle with the two men, the check post guard hesitated. This was the carjackers insurance policy.

The final situation where the aid worker traveled to Kidal must have been disappointing. I say this because in my talk with him/her there was a hope of helping women and children who were certainly the greater victims of the rebellion. Instead the only assistance given was to the men, the ex-combatants, themselves. The national government was not likely to change this agreement simply because they wanted peace. Bamako did not have the funds to continue suppressing the rebellion and were undergoing some rapid changes themselves. The narrator of the story had to settle in the hope of a trickledown effect from the work and microcredit projects given to the men somehow assisting women and children indirectly. He/she had no control over this gender inequality but had no choice but to carry through with it simply because peace was needed and some assistance to the local communities is better than none. Perhaps trepidation had set in at this point recognizing that top-down approaches had failed in making the Tamasheq Malians before the rebellions and NGOs, though well-intentioned, have only reinforced inequality between different groups. Like other places across the globe, power relations consistently are abused on all scales, be it globally, in a modern African state, or even at the household level.