Wednesday, 20 February 2013


This is the second post about the conflict in Northern Mali. The first post looked at historical background that resulted in the ethnic split in the independent Mali. 

Within two years of the formation of Mali the Turaegs rebelled. The response of the Malian army was swift, savage and merciless. The rebellion was crushed with brutal force. There were allegations that the Malian army, ex cathedra, indulged in torture, imprisonment and extra-judicial killings of the suspected Turaeg militants.

The Turaegs, thus, found themselves in minority in a number of Saharan countries such as Mali and Niger. In all of these countries the Turaegs came to view themselves as increasingly marginalized and disenfranchised. Their traditional, nomadic way of life came increasingly under threat and there were violent clashes with other, neighbouring, ethnic groups. Frequents spells of drought and increasing desertification of the land added to their woes. The Turaeg’s disillusionment and anger with the national governments of the countries, which were perceived as uncaring and unhelpful, increased. (One country which offered the disenchanted Turaegs succour was Libya, where the late (and unlamented) Muammar Gaddafi opened refugee camps for Turaegs fleeing appalling living conditions.)

In both Mali and Niger, through the 1970s and 1980s, military dictators had seized power in coups, and, as the countries reeled under the onslaught of natural disasters and famines, and faced financial meltdown, responded—as dictators do— with increasingly repressive measures.

Unsurprisingly the Turaegs, who had never really assimilated with the other ethnic groups  and hadn’t bought into the idea of living in Mali and Niger under the rule of ethnic groups which were once their slaves, decided that the answer to all their problems was an independent Turaeg country.

In the late 1980s the Turaeg refugees from Mali, who were given sanctuary in Libya, formed Popular Front for the Liberation of Niger (FPLN). FPLN started armed attacks in Niger. This led to severe retaliation from Niger army. It is alleged that Niger army was involved in large scale torture and massacre of Turaeg civilians. Predictably, this led to formation of more armed Turaeg militant groups.

In Northern Mali, the Turaeg rebellion began in 1991, with Turaeg rebels attacking government buildings in Gao, the biggest town in Azawad. The rebellion ended when a new region, named Kidal, which was allowed limited self-governance, was created in the Northern part of Mali. Kidal was a much smaller territory than the Azawad, which the Turaegs wanted as an independent country and was situated within it. Turaegs dominate this region. The formation of independent Kidal did little to improve the living conditions of its inhabitants; the region remained mired in poverty.

If the hope was that the Turaegs would integrate more within Mali, it was dashed when in 1994 another Turaeg rebellion began, this time rumoured to have been funded by Gaddafi’s Libya; Gaddafi was also alleged to have supplied the Turaegs with weapons, many of which went missing and are not found to this day. The Malian army’s response to 1994 rebellion was as vicious as its response to earlier Turaeg rebellions. A peace deal was signed in 1995.

Many of the military leaders of the 1990s’ Turaeg rebellion went into exile in Libya, enlisted in the Libyan army and fought in the desert warfare. Some of them would return later to Mali and stir up subsequent Turaeg rebellions.

The fragile peace lasted for a decade, during which the Turaegs, mostly in Mali, but also in Niger, remained unhappy and restive.

In 2007 simultaneous attacks began in the Northernmost part of Mali and Niger. The Turaegs in Niger formed Niger Movement of Justice (MNJ) (although some other ethnic groups are also involved). The reasons behind the Niger rebellion were mostly socio-economic.  The Turaegs demanded greater share of the wealth coming from what they considered to be their own region. The area where the fighting began is also home to world’s largest uranium deposit and accounts for most of Niger’s foreign exchange (and it is worth noting that most of the mines are operated by the French, the former colonial masters). It is worth noting that ethnicity also featured in the conflict. Akoli Akoli (what a name!), the then secretary at the time for the Niger faction of MNLA, demanded that the Niger army in its Northern part should be formed by the Turaegs and not by other ethnic groups.  

The fighting, which began in Niger, shifted to Northern Mali when the Niger Turaegs began entering Mali, which provoked a swift and vicious response from Malian army. Mali reeling under flash floods in the South of the country and hike in international food prices turned to Algeria to broker peace, which was duly brokered.

In Niger, the government adopted a less conciliatory stance towards the MNJ. It was declared a criminal organization and the government ruled out the possibility of any peace talk with it. The situation in the Northern part of Niger remained critical, leading to claims from the international (i.e. Western) humanitarian organizations that thousands of people were displaced in the conflict. The conflict then threatened to spread to the south of Niger when the government claimed that MNJ had begun land-mine attacks targeting Niger civilians. Western media complained that they were not allowed unfettered access to the war-zone which meant they could not report the African drama for the consumption of those back home (Guardian readers salivating at the opportunity of hand-wringing). Niger government accused some of the Western media (in particular French) to have had a bias favouring the militants. Two French journalists were arrested on charges of aiding the MNJ militants, but were eventually released when the president of Gabon intervened. Algeria, itching to rival Libya in its influence in the Saharan region offered security guarantee to Niger.
The bloody civil war of attrition between the Niger army and Turaeg dominated MNJ continued and resulted in stalemate.

The Algerian-brokered peace in Mali ended when some of the faction leaders of the MNLA which had not signed the peace agreement returned from their exile in Libya and started an armed conflict beginning with a series of attacks on the Malian civilians. It didn’t last for long and was crushed swiftly by the Malian army pushing the militant leaders once again into exile, this time into Algeria. Again peace was brokered.

After the second peace deal in Mali the Niger peace talk progressed rapidly. The trigger was the kidnapping of two Canadian diplomats and four European tourists, who were kept hostage somewhere in Northern Mali. (One of them, a Briton named Edward Dyer was murdered by the kidnappers). The circumstances surrounding  the kidnapping of the Canadian diplomats and European tourists are shrouded in mystery. Initially Niger government blamed the militants while the militants blamed Niger government for the kidnapping. It is now widely believed that the Islamist group Al Qaeda in the Islamic Mahgreb (AQIM) was responsible for the kidnapping and murder. Quite how AQIM got round to kidnapping the Canadians and Europeans is not known. The Turaeg militants are believed to have been heavily involved in drug trafficking and smuggling. One theory is that the men were kidnapped by the Turaeg smugglers and were later sold to AQIM. The kidnapping of the Westerners brought intense pressure from the Western countries on the militants. Around the same time the MNJ, the scourge of the Niger government, split up dramatically and unexpectedly. The main splinter group of MNJ, which had announced that it was ready for peace talks with the Niger government, indicated that they would accept Libyan mediation. Muammar Gaddafi now swung into action. He called upon all Niger rebels to lay down their weapons, which they did. Gaddafi then organized tripartite peace talks between the rebels of Niger government in Tripoli. 

In the five decades since the end of the French colonial rule and creation of new Saharan countries, parts of the region have been perpetually involved in strife, which, like inn some other part of the world, had deep rooted historical as well as socio-economic underlying reasons. The Turaegs, spread across Northern Mali and Niger, had launched several rebellions to gain independence from Mali and Niger. Each one had ended in a defeat for the rebels and had probably worsened the misery of people in the region.

Would the Turaegs accept to live as minorities in Mali and give up their struggle for self-determination after the 2009 rebellion ended in a crushing defeat? No. In 2011, less than two years after the 2009 rebellion another Turaeg-led insurgency would begin; it would be hijacked by the Islamist militants; the surrounding African nations would waste months dithering; and would fall down to the former colonial power to step in and launch an offensive against the militants.  

Thursday, 14 February 2013


Sahel—an Arabic word, literally meaning a shore or coast—is a 1000 kilometre wide and more than 5000 kilometre long semi-arid belt that stretches across the North of the African continent.

From West to East Sahel covers several modern day African nation states; one of them is Mali.

Between 9th and 18th century many kingdoms rose and fell in this region. Their wealth was acquired mainly by controlling the trans-Saharan trade, in particular the slave trade with the Islamic world.

Slavery was widespread in the Arab world, especially in the North and East part of Africa. It is estimated that millions of Africans were enslaved by the Arab traders over a period of thousand years. (It should be remembered though that in the ancient world the term ‘Arab’ was used more culturally than racially and many ‘Arab’ slave traders were indistinguishable from the Africans. It is also worth noting that Muhammad, the prophet of Islam, had clearly and categorically rejected the idea of certain ethnic groups being superior to others. Said Muhammad: ‘There is no superiority of Arab over a non-Arab . .  .’)

The Sahelian Kingdoms were essentially decentralized conglomeration of cities which had a lot of autonomy. During the golden period of Sahelian kingdoms many cities rose to prominence in the region and became seats of knowledge, culture and wealth. 

One of the cities was Timbuktu.

Many nomadic tribes inhabit the Saharan North Africa and large parts of the Sahel region. One of them is Tuareg.

The Tuareg are fiercely independent people who once, several centuries ago, controlled briefly Timbuktu before they were overwhelmed by the Songhai Empire. Indeed, according to some historians it was the Tuareg tribe which gave the city its name. (Unlike Gao, Timbuktu is not mentioned in the early Arab chronicles.)

In the late nineteenth century the European powers’ scramble for Africa began in earnest. The French invaded and colonized Western part of Sahel. Modern day Mali became part of the French Empire, first as Upper Senegal (1880 to 1890) and then (1899) as French Sudan (Republique Soudanaise).  At the turn of the twentieth century Mali, which, at its peak in the distant past controlled area twice the size of modern day France, was broken into regions some of which went on to become independent countries.

Timbuktu, in the Northern part of present day Mali (Republic of Mali) became part of the French Sudan and its different subdivisions such as Upper Senegal and Niger under the French colonial rule, before, in 1920, the French decided to rename the whole region French Sudan.

When Sahel and Mali fell to the French colonialists, the Tuaregs were subjugated by the French, but not before they had put up fierce resistance. The swords of the Tuaregs, however, were never going to be a match for the superior weapons of the Europeans.

In 1958 French Sudan became a member of the French Community along with several other member states such as Gabon, Ivory Coast, Senegal, Niger, Mauritiana, French Guana, Chad, Congo and Central African Republic (CAR).

In 1960 French Sudan and Senegal came together as Mali Republic and gained independence from France. The union lasted for only a few months before the federation disintegrated, and Senegal withdrew. French Sudan then declared itself as the Independent Republic of Mali.

Timbuktu, its glory days long since over, remained in the northern part of the newly independent country.

The Turaegs (probably with good reason) considered themselves ethnically different from the Southern Mali population. 

Although more than 90% of Mali is Muslim for centuries (after Islam arrived in West Africa in the eleventh century), there are racial divisions. 

Consisting of several sub-Saharan ethnic groups, the largest single ethnic group in Mali is Bambara, which, along with other, closely related ethnic groups such as Soninke, belong to the larger group of Mandinka people, one of the largest ethnic group in West Africa, and are spread across several West African countries. 

The Turaeg and Moors form roughly 10% of Mali’s population. 

The Turaegs, Muslim since the 13th century (although they have not jettisoned their earlier animistic beliefs altogether) like the rest of the Malian population, are lighter skinned than the black population in the South of the country. The slavery and slave trade with Arabia over centuries played a role in the ethnic divisions in Mali. Like many West African nations slavery was widespread in Mali, and persisted in the region much longer than other regions in West Africa. The French officially abolished slavery in the first decades of the twentieth century.  The French efforts to liberate slaves had most impact on the Southern and Western part of the present day Mali, but not so much on the Northern part. The Turaegs, concentrated in the Northern part of the country, continued to have black slaves (which came to form a distinct class in the Turaeg society) well into twentieth century. At the time of the Second World War, almost forty years after the French passed a decree abolishing slavery, the Turaegs were said to be still holding more than 50,000 black slaves.

When the French colonial rule neared its end, it wouldn’t be beyond the realm of imagination to consider that the Turaegs did not want to be associated with other, darker skinned, ethnic groups. Their hope was to form an independent Turaeg and Berber nation that leaned towards Arabia. That was not to be.

Right from its inception the nation state of Mali would be engulfed in a civil war type situation between its Southern and Northern part, and would see waves after waves of Turaeg rebellions which would culminate in the deadly conflict in 2012 and 2013. 

To be continued.


Sunday, 3 February 2013

Book of the Month: After A Funeral (Diana Athill)

Diana Athill, a respected literary editor of the twentieth century, is also a celebrated memoirist. In 2000, at the age of 83, she published to great acclaim a memoir of her years as an editor at the publishing company Andre Deutch (Stet). In 2008 she won, at the age of 91, the Whitbread (now Costa)Award for her memoir, more a reflection on growing old, Somewhere Towards the End. The memoirs of Athill—a total of six—attract adjectives such as ‘painfully honest’, ‘searingly painful’, ‘breathtakingly truthful’, ‘astonishingly candid’ etcetera.

After a Funeral, which was published in 1986, when Athill was 69, can be easily pigeon-holed into any one of the above categories. It describes a period in Athill’s life, in the 1960s, when she took under her wings a talented Egyptian writer in exile. The writer, referred to throughout the memoir as ‘Didi’, became Athill’s lodger for a number of years, until, on the Boxing Day of 1968, he took an overdose of sleeping tablets in Athill’s flat, and died ten days later.

In six chapters Athill lays bare the five years of sometimes pleasant, often turbulent, but never less than wholly absorbing relationship she came to have with Didi.

Athill recounts the excitement with which she went to a dinner party in the summer of 1963, as she knew Didi would be there, too. Athill had loved a novel Didi had written. The book was funny and in it, Athill felt, the author had been able to capture the quirks of the human behaviour, apparently effortlessly. The book, she thought, was the real thing, and she was curious to meet its author. And Didi did not disappoint. True, he was a ‘stiff, small man’, who looked ‘more like a goat’, was ‘dressed formally’, and was ‘gravely courteous’. However, once the party got going, Didi regaled people with anecdotes about Germany (where he was living in exile at the time) and German people. He was well informed on politics and trends in public opinions.

Over the next two-three years, Athill got to know Didi well. He came from a once rich and influential family in Egypt. His mother married young and her husband, Didi’s father, who was much older than her, died soon after Didi was born. His mother had ‘little time’ for him, and he was raised by his grandparents and an aunt. Although his family was rich—some of them very rich—he was a poor relation, and was generally treated as an embarrassment. The family also got most of his money via lawsuits. A cousin remembered Didi as a boy who was ‘always very angry and shouting’. As he grew up and his political awareness expanded, Didi hurled himself into the nationalistic ‘Away With the British’ movement. However, when the revolution happened, he soon was disillusioned with it too, as it was not left-wing enough for him. After his Egyptian passport was withdrawn, Didi made his way to Germany, as he was unable to get a work permit in England. In Germany, he lived in Hamburg, and led hand-to-mouth existence by doing one soul-destroying unskilled or semi-skilled job after another. Matters were not helped by his gambling and drinking; both ran completely out of control and took over his life.

This was the state of affairs when Athill met Didi, and decided that he needed to be rescued from his demons.

 What follows is an unfeigned, at times high-minded, but always (there is no escaping it) painfully honest account of a degringolade. Athill holds nothing back and, in her efforts to appear as much transparent and reasonable, quotes liberally from the voluminous diaries Didi left behind for her in addition to his suicide note. Indeed, as you read page after page, chronicling Didi’s apparently devious, cruel, manipulative, and frequently irrational behaviour, you can’t help noticing how unreasonably reasonable Athill’s response to it was. As you read Athill’s heroic attempts to ‘understand’ Didi and her quasi- psychological explanations of why he turned out to be how he turned out, you might wonder whether her almost inhuman reasonableness was making a bad situation worse. (Yep, it all goes back to Didi’s less than happy childhood, Athill hints. In a moving end to the memoir, Athill writes: ‘It was not intolerable that he [Didi] had killed himself. It was intolerable that he had been right to do so—that he had no alternative. It was intolerable that a man should be so crippled by things done to him in his defenceless childhood that he had been made, literally and precisely, unendurable to himself.’)

The picture of Didi that emerges out of this account is of a tortured soul. The man is depicted as a walking catastrophe. Maybe he was genetically programmed to be that way; may be the absence of a loving and nourishing parent figure in his ‘defenceless childhood’, as Athill suggests in the memoir, made Didi an emotional cripple; it seems he was unable to form long-lasting, mature relationships. This handicapped him greatly in his relationships with women, whether non-sexual (as with Athill, for the most part) or sexual. When he came to live in London in Athill’s flat, Didi wasted no time in forming a big circle of friends, rather several circles of friends, which he attempted to keep separate, partly, you suspect, because he was sponging off all of them, and was (understandably) anxious that they did not meet; but he had very few close friends. People felt sorry for him; people, especially middle-aged women, wanted to mother him and many, like Athill, rescued him repeatedly; but he would not dare to let them penetrate the carapace and witness the black hole inside. His relationships with those, who dared to come closer to him, was inevitably marked with emotional extremes.  Didi was apparently one of those men who literally fell in love; and repeatedly. Whenever a love affair began he was convinced that he had found his soul-mate; that the woman was the best thing that had happened to him. When he fell out of love (usually after 2-3 weeks) the same woman became ‘stupid’, ‘boring’, and ‘disgusting’. The reader is informed that during almost all of the five years that Didi lived with Athill, he never offered to pay rent; repeatedly asked her (and her cousin, and quite a few of her friends) for money, giving barely convincing excuses, which he then proceeded to lose in gambling or blow on alcohol; and told repeated lies and gave false cheques to (ineffectually) cover his lies. A classic trap of alcoholism, you might say. In his diaries, he was full of disgust and self-loathing for his behaviour, yet could not stop fleecing people. 

All of this account seems calculated to encourage the reader to form the impression that, talented Didi might have been, living with his was less pleasurable than a spending a night in a vermin-infested cellar.  So why didn't Athill show him the door at the first available opportunity? Why did she allow this man, who didn't seem to be in a hurry to produce anything to follow up his d├ębut novel, and was, into the bargain an emotional and financial drain? Athill, from time to time, attempts to understand her own motives behind taking Didi under her wings in a manner that is (here we go again!) candid. Athill was in her late forties when she first met Didi, who told her that he was 13 years younger than her (when he was only eight years younger, as Athill discovered after his death and which she feels obliged to inform her readers). Athill says that in middle aged woman who are also childless, the sexual impulse is almost always mixed with the mothering impulse. This, she feels, is the reason why the toy-boys of middle-aged women are rarely impeccable. Because if these young men were impeccable, they would not attach themselves to older women. But they are peccable and need rescuing. Whatever else you might say about Didi, if Athill’s account is to be believed, the inescapable conclusion, about half-way through the memoir, is that he needed rescuing pretty much all the time. Athill candidly admits that she was sexually attracted to Didi, and, being in an ‘open’ relationship at the time with a man she calls ‘Luke’, she was, as they say, up for it. Didi successfully resisted Athill’s charms, saying that he did not want their friendship to suffer, although, in—another candidly described incident—Athill tells how Didi came into her room one night when she was legless after an evening of heavy drinking, and ‘penetrated’ her. The whole incident is described in a manner that gives it an eerily surreal quality, and you wonder that what Didi did wasn’t close to statuary rape. Athill, however, is very clear that she did not regard what Didi did as a violation and, in as much as she could remember, enjoyed the experience!

Athill comes across in the memoir as exceptionally tolerant of all of Didi’s misdemeanours, which would have crossed the threshold of most people’s patience by the width of Siberia; but what she could not countenance was Didi finding her loathsome and phoney. A whole chapter is devoted to a three-week trip to Yugoslavia Athill undertook with Didi and her friends, during which it would appear that Didi and she got on each other’s nerves all the time. This trip and the contretemps must have rankled enough in Athill’s mind for her to go into the minutiae of who said what to whom and when and how almost twenty years after the trip. As you read this chapter (which barely manages to rise above the level of school-ground politics) Athill allows, albeit inadvertently, a glimpse into the quirks of her own character.

After A Funeral was published eighteen years after Didi’s tragic death, and it would not be a misrepresentation to say that Didi’s was a long forgotten name by then, the only novel he published having been out of print for a number of years. Athill obviously continued to have feelings about the tragic life and death of this tragic unfortunate man; the memoir ends on the note: ‘this record has been written for him [Didi], and for people who are going to have children.’ It is therefore curious that she chose not to reveal the real identity of Didi. Didi in real life was the Egyptian writer Waguih Ghali. Ghali published only one novel in his life, entitled Beer in the Snooker Club, recently reissued in paperback (and available in paperback) after being out of print for many years. Ghali is described in the ‘product description’ as a ‘plain spoken writer of consummate wryness, grace and humour’. A ‘reader’ who has reviewed the novel provides the additional information that Ghali belonged to the extended family of a former UN secretary of state. When Ghali killed himself in 1968, this became his only published novel. In her memoir Athill informs us that Ghali worked for a long time on another novel; however, during one of his psychological crises which resolved miraculously on that occasion after he read Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, he destroyed it, realising, so he told Athill, that what he had written was not up to scratch. At a later point in the memoir Athill seems sceptical of this claim, as Ghali was an inveterate hoarder and found it near impossible to throw away anything. However, since this unfinished novel has never been published we have to conclude that either Ghali really destroyed the manuscript, or Athill—to whom he bequeathed all of his written material—decided to respect the dead author’s wish. And seeing as it was Athill who was instrumental in publishing Beer in a Snooker Club (it was published by Andre Deutch), the old dame must have had a good reason to not publish the unfinished novel. Either way, it is a shame. Beer in the Snooker Club is a superb novel, and one would have loved to read his second offering, even if unfinished, of this talented, if deeply flawed (as per Athill’s account), writer.