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Mali: Refugee flows and increased hunger point to need for a Mali Federation
by Rene Wadlow
2012-06-05 09:24:19
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The UN High Commissioner for Refugees in a recent statement has highlighted the increased flow of refugees from the conflicts in Mali.  Refugees and internally-displaced persons add a dramatic dimension to the already-existing shortage of food due to lasting drought and poor harvests.

Refugees are legally those who have crossed a national frontier while the internally-displaced are within the country in question. However, both are in reality “uprooted” and forced to live in alien and frequently hostile environments.

The socio-economic situation in Mali would be critical even if the country were not divided into two by hostile political factions with political tensions within each half.

Basically, refugee problems are political and need to be treated as such. The plight of internally displaced people is often much worse than that endured by refugees as often the whole country is the victim of disorder and the breakdown of institutions.  Refugees often go to a neighbouring State — which may be poor but may not face the same political troubles. The United Nations and non-governmental organizations have competence and experience in dealing with refugee flows, in providing tents, water, food and medical care.

However, dealing with political issues is more complex.  While neighbouring States can provide advice and apply some pressure, they are rarely able to deal with root causes — problems which have grown up over time.

Since March 2012, Mali has been effectively divided into two roughly equal half. The northern half is under the control of two rival Tuareg groups, the Mouvement  national de libération de l’Azawad (MNLA) and the Ansar Dine. The MNLA is the larger but less armed group. Its main aim is to create an independent State, Azawad, and the MNLA has already declared its formal independence. Ansar Dine is an Islamist group which says that it wants to apply Islamic law to all of Mali.  As most Malians are Muslim, it seems that it is only the most repressive aspect of Islamic law that it wishes to apply.  There were talks among the Tuareg to unify the two groups, but no agreement was able to be reached. Different segments of the north are held by each group, but some of the larger towns such as Timbuktu and Gao are also divided, different neighbourhoods held by one or the other.

In the more populated and developed southern half, there is political instability.  The Army, while hostile to the Tuareg, is in no rush to die in retaking the north. From 22 March to April 6, 2012, a military group of young officers led by Captain Amadou Sanogo had taken control of government buildings in Bamako claiming that the government of President Amadou Touré was incompetent in the struggle against the Tuareg.

There was a strong negative reaction to the coup from the African Union and the 15-member Economic Organization of West African States (ECOWAS).Thus on 7 April, there was a return to a civilian transitional government, but the Army officers have their supporters. The government is unstable.  The transitional government has not been able to deal adequately with the internally displaced or the broader issue of food shortages and food security.

The representatives of ECOWAS met in Abidjan 26-27 April and set a 12-month deadline for a transition period in Mali. A transition period of 12 months may seem like a long time, but given the deep divisions among leaders of north and south Mali, time is not the only factor.

Tuareg leaders in the past have called for the creation of an independent State of Azawad.  However, this is the first time that a formal declaration of independence has been proclaimed.  Thus, it may be difficult for the Tuareg leadership, now in a position of force , to return simply to promises of greater autonomy within a unified Mali.  The creation of a federation of north and south Mali rather than having the country split into two independent States with uncertain frontiers could be a measure acceptable to both the MNLA and the government of Bamako. A federal constitution could maintain the unity of the country while at the same time providing the needed autonomy to the north and a preservation of the Tuareg way of life. There needs to be the creation of a positive atmosphere in which the drafting of such a federal constitution could be carried out.


Rene Wadlow
, President and Representative to the United Nations, Geneva, Association of World Citizens



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