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Mali: everyone’s favourite destination

Patricia Daniel
10 May 2006

The mysterious city of Timbuktu (Tombouctou) in Mali witnessed a larger-than-usual celebration of the Mawlid – the anniversary of the birth of the prophet Mohammed – in April 2006. The event is always highly symbolic, since "(it) gives power to Islam and creates solidarity among Muslims", in the words of local TV journalist Ali Timbo. What helped make this year's event special was that it was initiated, and partly financed, by, Libyan president Colonel Muammar Gaddafi. The Muslim presidents of neighbouring Senegal, Niger, Mauritania and Sierra Leone joined their Malian counterpart Amadou Toumani Touré along with an estimated 30,000 Malians – all camped out in the desert.

"Timbuktu" has acquired a symbolic charge as a name connoting the most remote place on earth. The real city, built of mud on the edge of the Sahara, has for centuries been a centre of Islamic learning and religious pilgrimages. Western tourists come to visit the great mosque and libraries, then are taken out at sunset to visit Tuareg camps, to drink tea and maybe see a passing caravan. The experience is full of tranquillity and wonder.

Yet things are hotting up in Timbuktu and this has nothing to do with the scorching temperature. It is becoming an interesting place to study what has become known in Canada, the United Kingdom and the rest of the European Union as the "3-D" model for diplomacy, defence and development

This is not Gaddafi's first visit to the area. In February, Libya suddenly opened a consulate in the even-more-remote city of Kidal. The stated aim: to support economic development and thereby combat insecurity in the north of Mali. The vast, isolated desert region, traditionally marginalised, is home to an impoverished and disadvantaged nomadic population. Gaddafi launched this project at the Mawlid, in memory of the prophet's teachings on peace, justice and good deeds. But, while some welcome his intervention, a number of Malians are suspicious about the motives of "the Tuareg guide", who seems to be encouraging the concept of an independent northern Mali.

The new Libyan consulate is a highly unusual development, guaranteed to be regarded with equal suspicion by other interested parties, notably the governments of Algeria and Mauritania, which share a border with Mali (while Libya does not). This is especially so since the consulate was established in secret, with the agreement of Mali's president, and presented to the world as a fait accompli.

Move and counter-move

The sudden involvement of Libya can be seen as a counter-move to the interest of other foreign powers in the area – and not only because of the (fairly remote) possibility of finding oil in northern Mali.

The United States president has referred to the Sahara as the "greatest terrorist threat in the world" – raising the idea of al-Qaida training camps in the Malian desert and terrorists crossing the "porous border" from Algeria. In June 2005, the US ran its own special Flintlock training camp at Timbuktu, involving 700 US troops and 3,000 others from nine countries in west Africa, with the stated aim of promoting a common approach to patrolling and protecting their shared borders.

In addition, the US has provided military aid to all participating countries, in the form of weapons, technical assistance and hundreds of instructors. A similar training exercise is planned later in 2006 but on a grander scale, with 700 US Special Forces units and 5,000 African troops.

This is part of George W Bush's "Trans-Sahel Counter-Terrorist Initiative", which was discussed at a secret meeting in Stuttgart in March 2004 involving the US European Command and the heads of eight west African armies (see Pierre Abramovici, "The Mali connection" Le Monde diplomatique, July 2004).

In fact, both internationally and locally, there is a lot of scepticism about the "terrorist" threat. It is based solely on the kidnapping of a group of (mainly German) tourists in 2003 by the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), who are known to be dangerous bandits but with no proven link to al-Qaida.

The US foreign-policy analyst Conn Hallinan argues that the Bush administration needs enemies it can label as terrorists in order to implement its new military strategy, "netwar". This involves an increased use of special forces and local proxy armies, so that the US will have "the capacity to operate in dozens of countries at once … relying on direct (visible) and indirect (clandestine) approaches". The openDemocracy columnist Paul Rogers emphasises the significant shift of resources to pursue its strategy in his comments on the Pentagon's quadrennial review, published in February 2006.

To this end, the US has also established military bases in the north of Mali, although these are not official and few people are willing or feel able to speak openly about them. The US has a GIS satellite located above the triangle formed by the three northern cities of Tombouctou, Gao and Kidal. While enabling the US to monitor the Sahara and its borders, this particular location is also strategic on a wider scale, since the satellite provides a link between the US and the eastern hemisphere, right across to New Zealand.

German aid workers in Timbuktu suggest there are a number of explanations for American involvement in the region. However, as one Malian observer commented to me: "By the act of carrying out the training in the Sahara, the US has pointed the finger at Mali. Now it will be a target for terrorism."

The Mali chess-game

Other embassies claim ignorance or lack of interest in US military activity, dismissing it as unimportant. One Malian development worker told me: "They can't be here and not know what's going on." European diplomats may shrug their shoulders, but as we shall see, this may well be because they are playing similar 3-D games in Mali.

The country's history as a French colony makes it easy to forget that United States-Mali relations go back a long way. Many Malian officers, as well as members of the current government, have had training in the US. Former president Alpha Oumar Konaré sought closer collaboration with the US. His adherence to the US-dominated International Monetary Fund's guidelines increased foreign investment and helped make Mali the second-largest cotton producer in west Africa. The newspaper editor Amy Sagogo (L'Inter de Bamako) says that this also turned Mali into the "worst kind of American-style corrupt capitalist economy".

But France too still has a strong hold on the country. Mali was nominated by Jacques Chirac to host the twenty-third France-Africa summit in Bamako on 3-4 December 2005, which was attended by representatives of fifty-three countries. France provided €5 million to support the event, providing new roads, pavements and buildings in Bamako.

Such largesse must be balanced against the fact that the event's organisation required a large number of people to be taken away from their regular jobs in an already overstretched public service. The stated purpose of the summit was to strengthen solidarity with France, but few people in Mali were convinced the rhetoric would lead to any real gains for Africa.

In 2003, France relocated its peacekeeping school from Côte d'Ivoire to Koulikoro in Mali, sixty kilometres outside Bamako. The school, established in 1999, is a key element in the French concept of the "reinforcement of African peacekeeping capacity" (Recamp). There was probably a push factor in the relocation, given the instability in Côte d'Ivoire and the French handling of its disastrous Operation Unicorn, during which hundreds of protestors were killed in election-related violence in late 2000.

There has also been significant Canadian input into training in Mali (and francophone Africa in general) since 2001, through collaboration between the Canadian Agency for International Development and the Pearson Peace-Keeping Centre (PPC). The PPC has worked with African counterparts, and other international donors, to ensure that security sector institutions have the capacity to maintain and deliver their own peacekeeping courses.

Canada also instituted a pan-African UN military observer training programme, the first of its kind, which was run at the Koulikoro school by officers from the Canadian Forces Peace Support Training Centre in Kingston, Ontario. This initiative was co-financed by the governments of France and Mali, with a second three-week course being held in December 2005.

But all this "military cooperation" is obviously not enough. In March 2006 the Malian president welcomed ninety high-ranking officers in training from the prestigious Collège Interarmées de Défense (CID) in Paris The former school of war, CID now trains officers from all over the world and carries out regular exercises with such Nato partners as Britain, Germany, Italy, Spain and Sweden. The focus of the visit was to give participants a deeper understanding of "the role of Senegal and Mali in regional stability".

This phrase is also the title of an academic study carried out by six CID trainees, which suggests that Senegal and Mali together form an axis of democracy and stability. Through their active participation in regional activities, they could be a prime mover in the stabilisation of the rest of west Africa.

Mali's economy in flux

But how stable is Mali? Are foreign powers really contributing to stability? And who will benefit most from it? Does Mali's internal stability have a positive impact on the region? Or – perhaps a better question – what would be the impact on the region if Mali wasn't stable?

Stephan Klingebiel of the German Institute for Development Policy points out: "It is not peace and security per se which is the issue, but rather the threat that insecurity brings to the concrete long-term interests of Germany" (and of other European countries).

The European Union's policy on Peacekeeping in Africa (2004) also makes the point quite clearly: "EU interests are primarily economic. There are promising prospects of greater trade with Africa … rich in land resources and raw materials, whose commercial exploitation has been hit by the unstable environment."

But it's not only the EU member-states and the United States which have economic interests in Mali. Libya is financing the construction of the new ministerial and diplomatic quartier in Bamako, known as ACI 2000. This will bring together all the government departments, presently scattered across the capital, and at last provide proper roads to embassies. Libya's investment has worked as the leverage to set up its consulate in Kidal. Other Muslim states, such as Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, are also putting a lot of money into infrastructure.

More and more of the construction work is being carried out by Chinese companies. Their workers are alleged to be Chinese prisoners, allowing Chinese companies to keep their costs down in comparison with contractors from other countries. China's embassy rivals that of the US in size. Although there are a number of Chinese restaurants, you don't see Chinese people on the streets. Despite the conditions, though, they stay and settle down.

The influx of Chinese is said to have contributed to the rise in prostitution in Bamako. Chinese entrepreneurs buy bars, traffic in prostitutes, build brothels and rent out the rooms for four euro an hour. In particular, they prey on young girls from the Malian countryside, who come or are sent to the capital to earn money for their dowry. They have nowhere to stay and are particularly vulnerable, especially as traditional social networking and solidarity is lacking in the newer quartiers.

Undercover work by female police officers has resulted in some of the Chinese bars being closed down for the moment. However, there also are Lebanese entrepreneurs involved in trafficking Russian prostitutes, with one of their restaurants fronting the operation (allegedly for someone of power in the police force).

The Japanese connection

Japan too has become involved in the "push for Africa", seeking its share of the opportunities opening up for land, work, trade and living space. In March, Japan made an initial contribution of €1,250 million to support a new national programme to build small-scale dams; a substantial follow-up contribution is under negotiation.

In development terms, this is very good news for a Sahelien country which experiences annual drought. The barrage system for "kitchen gardening" has already been successfully established on a small scale. In Bandiagara, for example, farmers are able to diversify crops and harvest three times a year, thanks to support from the German Development Agency. Other communities as far away as the Burkina Faso border have heard about this and see it is a key strategy for providing employment and income for young people and so prevent urban migration.

Nevertheless, a gift of €1,250 million also establishes a rather strong bargaining position – the entire EU aid budget for Mali for the period 2003-2007 is a mere €375 million. Even when bilateral contributions are added to the calculation, the European total falls far short of the Japanese (average annual sums in euro, as analysed in the European Community's country strategy paper for Mali, are: France, €55 million; Netherlands, €35 million; Germany, €30 million; Belgium, less than €10 million; Luxembourg, less than €5 million.)

Japan is also sending out increasing numbers of volunteers worldwide under the Japan Overseas Cooperation Volunteers (JOCV) scheme. Its mission is to promote the participation of Japanese citizens in international cooperation activities and – similar to the original US Peace Corps concept – to spread an understanding of Japanese culture and language and develop positive cross-cultural relationships.

In 2005 there were still over 150 Peace Corps volunteers in Mali, working in isolated communities. And, in relation to cultural understanding, it is interesting to note that Usaid is the only western bilateral agency to develop collaboration with mainstream Islamic organisations in the country and to provide support for Islamic schools (Libya does the same). The American Cultural Centre also collaborated with Islamic groups in running a workshop in April 2006 on the "role of religions in conflict prevention". At the same time, aid workers observe that US influence has pushed out a number of the international Islamic non-governmental organisations formerly active in Mali.

In the light of this, perhaps the maintenance of cultural links by European partners becomes more and more a symbolic gesture. Even Germany has laid claim to a small part of Timbuktu: in 2004, to mark the 150th anniversary of the arrival of the German explorer Heinrich Barth, the embassy restored his original house there, which now contains a small museum. Yet, as one Malian writer observed about the French Cultural Centre: "Cultural missions can still operate like a territorial power, providing opportunities for support, especially to travel and study abroad, and sometimes have more influence than diplomatic missions. "

Questions of development

Development in general in Mali depends on outside funding and, unlike other parts of the world, civil-society organisations are almost entirely donor-dependent. Usaid puts 60% of its funding into local non-governmental organisations for specific projects. The focus for all donors in recent years has been on supporting the decentralisation process. This focus has had the effect (deliberate or not) of weakening central government, which means the supposed "transfer of competence" from central to decentralised bodies is also affected.

In addition, there are a large number of national and international actors in the field who are carrying out similar work. But there has been duplication of effort because of a lack of central coordination and communication. Only now are some of the small-scale projects beginning to be up-scaled at national level, although financial, strategic and technical competence is still in the process of development.

It is also important to highlight that the sums pledged by donors are misleading. One observer in Mali comments: "Every year, the government spends less than 18% of its international aid. Whatever the reason, it's good for the donors. They can over-calculate their contribution and look as if they're being very generous in their reports. But they know they will never have to pay up."

From the Malian perspective, one of the reasons is the application of donor conditionalities. "At any one moment, they just release 10%; the rest is conditional, but what we get is never enough to properly get programmes under way, which means we can never meet the conditions…"

Details of donor contributions to Mali, available on the IFZ website, show how money is leaked out in small amounts.

Donors complain that widespread corruption is one reason for ineffective implementation of projects and programmes. Money is siphoned off in bribes at each level of operation, for contractors and sub-contractors. The system is so common that donors are now said to include it in their cost calculations, particularly for infrastructure contracts.

Yet many Malians see that donors encourage corruption: "They shower us with their own vices." In the 3-D model, development aid itself is the bribe. "Of course it's linked to defence and diplomacy. Donors won't finance anything unless it's in their own self-interest." As a result, social capital is being undermined internally as donor nations reinforce their own strategic relationships.

Maybe this explains why monitoring and evaluation of financial and technical assistance is still so weak. Does it really matter to the donors whether there is sustainable impact? Is this the reason that, while various embassy websites proudly proclaim their countries' commitment and financial input into Mali since it achieved independence in 19601, the country is still at the bottom of the Human Development Index?

After all, a weak central government has its advantages: it's susceptible to outside pressures. President Touré was elected as an independent candidate in 2002 and intends to stand again in 2007, with the support of the Citizens' Movement, a coalition of political parties and non-aligned groups. Yet how independent is he? And how can real social transformation take place if civil society continues to be instrumentalised within the international donor system?

"International relations are not democratic", says one academic. "They are based on economic and military strength. The well-known activist Aminata Traoré reinforces the point in her open letter to the president of France (2005): "Aren't you just taking us all for a ride in using the concepts of good governance and democracy to exact institutional reforms that will benefit your own enterprises? "

Keeping the peace

Security-sector reform in Mali has emphasised the role of the army as an agent of peace, developing open relationships with civil society and contributing to national development. Regionally Mali has played a recognised leading role in promoting peace and stability through the Organisation of African Unity, the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) and the United Nations moratorium on small arms and light weapons.

Yet there does seem to be a contradiction between the international focus on peacekeeping in west Africa and the current system of donor assistance, which continues to undermine national stability.

One African military officer attending the UN military observer course, who had also benefited from high-level training in the US, says: "As poverty gets worse, people are more susceptible to turn to violence. And there'll never be peace in Africa while the west continues to sell us arms…"

At the same time, Stephan Klingebiel suggests that peace-training programmes herald disengagement by the west; in other words, "African countries will be left to sort out their own problems."

Gaddafi's push for Mali may be, for some, a welcome development in light of increased US military influence and activity in the region. But Libya's own contribution is not altruistic, even if it helps to maintain stability rather than sparking conflict. Everyone wants a piece of Mali. And recent reports suggest that Gaddafi is planning to repatriate thousands of Malian soldiers, veterans of the Libyan army, through the consulate in Kidal.

The public image of Mali is that of a good neighbour, a peacemaker, whose door is always open. But is she really just another underage prostitute, who still depends on the whims of the rich foreigner for her survival and will never be mistress of her own destiny? Her options are limited. But one thing's for sure: the 3-D model was never really intended to be of benefit to Mali.

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