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Winning the War, Losing the Peace in Mali

After the fighting, Mali's ethnic tensions continue to fester

AFP/Getty Images

GAO, Mali—On the first day that French airstrikes hit Gao in January, locals lynched one of their jihadi occupiers. At the edge of the city, near the airport, a strike on a double-cabbed Toyota pickup full of jihadi fighters left a sole survivor; he stole a donkey cart and made a slow dash for the city center. Danny, a broad-shouldered 25-year-old Songhai, the dark-skinned ethnic majority in Gao, slowly trailed the donkey cart on his motorbike, keeping enough distance to dodge bullets from the fighter’s AK-47 assault rifle and calling out to others to join him. The donkey and the motorbike: a suspenseful, if excruciatingly slow, chase scene. Locals on rooftops threw rocks at the jihadi’s head; when he dismounted at the Islamic Police station, which his comrades had already fled, he was bleeding from the head and pleading for his life. When Danny finally caught up with him, he plunged a screwdriver into the jihadi’s neck so deep that the handle broke off.

“I couldn’t see anything, my heart was so full of rage,” Danny says. Another man slashed the jihadi’s head open with a knife and he fell to the ground. When the mob finished killing him, they cut off his ears and his testicles and smeared his blood on an Islamic Justice billboard. “I feel free now,” Danny says. “I don’t even think about [the lynching]. These people aren’t Muslim—they just use the name of Islam to traffick drugs and weapons.” When it was over, he said, he hoisted a handmade French flag and drove around Gao shouting, “Vive la France! Vive le Mali!”

The lynching, unsurprisingly, heralded only a brief period of jubilation. A jihadist insurgency began only a few weeks later. On February 8, the first suicide bomber ever to detonate in Mali, an Arab, sent limbs soaring towards the gates of Gao, targeting a military checkpoint. Two days later, a second Arab suicide-bombed the same checkpoint. That afternoon, jihadis managed to infiltrate the city, undetected by thousands of elite French and African forces. Girls had only just resumed training at the basketball court at what jihadis rebranded the “Place de Sharia” public square, when jihadis turned it into a battleground once more.

Northern Mali may have been liberated from jihadist rule, but peace and integration will be much harder won. A harrowing Tuareg insurgency followed by an Arab-led jihadi occupation deepened existing ethnic divisions in a region where most of the residents belong to darker-skinned Malian ethnic groups, such as the Songhai. Ethnic tensions now hang like storm clouds over efforts to restore peace and stability.

Gao is empty, blackened, scorched; gouged-out, blood-smeared remains stand where the rulers of the stillborn Islamic State lodged and plotted. It lacks the folkloric appeal of fabled Timbuktu, but is five times more populous and experienced a far bloodier imposition of Sharia than either Timbuktu or Kidal. The zealots of al Qaeda-splinter group MUJAO (the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa) made Gao their capital, imposing Sharia law on the population with whips and shackles.

Upon gaining control of Gao last May, jihadis set about imposing Sharia in stages, calculating that time and patience would overcome resistance. Arabs presided over jihadis in Gao but local Songhais and dark-skinned West Africans enthusiastically joined the movement, giving it a pan-ethnic appearance. Many locals were predisposed, in principle, to adhere to Sharia. Fatoumata Mahamadou, an elementary schoolteacher, told me she thought women should be forced to cover. “It is written in the Koran and it is better for society – a good husband will seek out a girl who is well-dressed, one who respects social values.” MUJAO’s edict that boys and girls be seated on opposite sides of the room did not bother her.

Abdel Hakim, the leader of the jihadists, distributed a document signed by Al Qaeda-affiliated emirs in the city’s mosques, calling on enforcers to move gently, and gradually. “They were nice with the people. It was progressively that they became more severe,” said Vieux. When residents demonstrated against an edict banning television, video games, and soccer, Abdel Hakim backed down and even bought televisions for several youth associations. And as jihadis restored civil order to the ravaged region, life improved in some ways. Without the state to tax them, prices dropped on food and gas imported from Algeria; since flour was cheaper, MUJAO asked bakers to lower the price of bread by 20 percent. Hakim even offered a financial reward to the neighborhood youth group that best cleaned its open sewers during the rainy season. He handed out shovels and buckets and got his own hands dirty helping youths carry out the work.

But the cross-ethnic goodwill was fragile and easily lost. Last August, Abdel Hakim announced on the radio that public amputations would begin taking place the next day. A march by residents forced MUJAO to delay their plans, but only by a few weeks. MUJAO carried out at least 12 amputations during their nine-month reign in Gao. And over time, the brutality increased.

Even for the most pious locals, the hypocrisy was impossible to ignore. In the Islamic Justice Tribunal, formerly the mayor’s office, a rape-room still bore dozens of condoms, torn women’s underwear, and anti-epileptic drugs that jihadis used as sexual stimulants. Every single victim of Sharia punishment belonged to local black ethnic groups; light-skinned, often foreign judges decided their fates in foreign languages and communicated them via translators. A notorious local thief-turned-MUJAO-informant, Sadidi, was the sole source of evidence against a handful of victims of Islamic justice. Mohamed Bello, a convicted homosexual whose execution was staved off by the French intervention, said Sadidi denounced him simply because he refused to let him eat for free in his restaurant. Ajalas, a pitiful, malnourished Bella amputee told me Sadidi denounced him because he had refused him his sister’s hand in marriage. Public whippings increased and a ban on TV, cigarettes, and soccer was aggressively implemented.

MUJAO was also known to be working closely with Gao’s infamous Arab drug traffickers, like Baba Ould Cheikh, who allegedly landed a Boeing 727 filled with 10 tons of cocaine in the desert in 2009. Residents saw MUJAO leaders including Abdel Hakim visit Cheikh’s Gao villa often, and say he supplied them with money and fighters. Local Songhais, Peuls, and Bellas now view the words “Arab” and “trafficker” as synonyms. “They all are trafficking arms and drugs,” one told me.

Nevertheless, locals overwhelmingly state they preferred MUJAO rule to the reign of terror that preceded it, when Tuareg rebels, having joined with jihadis to chase out state forces, descended like furies upon the northern Malian territory they claimed to be liberating. Tuareg rebels looted, murdered, raped, pillaged, and shot into crowds of demonstrators, targeting state symbols and dark-skinned ethnic groups, setting the stage for jihadis to grab power by restoring civil order and a simulation of justice.

For the darker-skinned ethnicities like the Peul, the Songhai, and the Bella, rebel crimes were magnified by their shared history with the Tuareg: they had traditionally been subjected to slavery by the lighter-skinned Tuareg. Rebel control of the northern territory thus portended a return to white-on-black slavery. In the nearby village of Gossi, a local elected official recounted how Tuareg rebels had given a speech announcing the official return of slavery. “Now that the land belongs to us, the old customs will return,” they said. Eighteen dark-skinned children were reported stolen by Tuareg rebels in the Gossi region, according to Abdoulaye Macko, the director of Bamako-based anti-slavery NGO Temedt. In one case, locals said, MUJAO fighters retrieved a nine-year-old boy who had been abducted by Tuareg rebels, and returned him to his distraught mother.

At the Sevare office of the Ganda Koy, a paramilitary of Songhai and Bella fighters, thirty militia members gathered to plot near a ram whose blood would bless their immanent deployment. Oyahit Cisse, a Ganda Koy fighter from Timbuktu, recounted how he had witnessed MNLA rebels steal two four-year-old Bella children from his neighborhood last year. “If the MNLA wins, it is not only Bella who will be reinslaved,” he said. “Every black person will be enslaved.”

Though the international community, led by France, intervened in Mali under the pretense of ending terrorism, locals and the Malian military voice again and again the feeling that light-skinned northern ethnicities were the core of the country’s problems. When I visited the Malian special police office in Gao created to protect Arabs and Tuaregs from ethnic reprisals, I found the gendarmes drunk on sacks of gin. One of their leaders pointed his AK at me and was talking loudly to himself as I entered the station. They were detaining a dozen Arab and Tuareg men in squalid conditions.

Malian Colonel Abdoulaye Coulibaly attributes the vertiginous deterioration in security in northern Mali over the past two decades to a decision to transfer local power to Tuareg and Arab officers. After the rebellion of the 1990s, Mali forged peace by integrating Tuareg fighters into its security forces and removing key military outposts in the North, forming brigades headed by Arab and Tuareg officers. Colonel Coulibaly, who has been stationed in the north for the past decade, says this set the stage for the arrival of drug traffickers and Al Qaeda-linked militants.

“[The Tamanrasset accords] said ‘OK, remove that military post here; now remove that one…’ and then the north became a no man’s land where people were conducting all kinds of trafficking.” “Twenty years ago, we used to see tourists coming from Mali to Algeria or Mauritania – it was not a problem. Sometimes there was just one vehicle with no escort. But in the last ten to twenty years, it is very difficult for even a military convoy to move freely in that area.”

Another Malian commander, who spoke on condition of anonymity, refuses to cooperate with Tuareg soldiers ever again. He was in Gao when rebels attacked the city; 95 percent of his Tuareg soldiers defected to join the rebels. “There is no one more false than the Tuareg,” he said. “You can collaborate with him day and night, welcome him into your home, but one day he will turn on you.”

The West's counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism strategies may suit the foreign forces leading the effort, but they obscure the deep fissures that rent Mali apart during the course of the past year’s events. Malians, of course, are all too aware of these fissures. Indeed, regardless of when French forces depart from the country, locals are expecting the ethnic recriminations and guerilla reprisals to continue into the forseeable future.

Hannah Armstrong is a fellow of the Institute of Current World Affairs.