It’s the end of March. Iwalan, the hot season, has started in Northern Mali. I’m not talking about politics now, I’m simply talking about temperatures (in the shade) of over 45°Celcius / 110°Fahrenheit. The first time I ever spent the hot season in the Sahara, I learned how to drink two litres of water in under a minute, and how to eat: a lot, and heavy. Your body needs the energy to keep cool under the onslaught of a heat that does not even go below body temperature at night, when you lie outside in the middle of your roof terrace, trying to sleep, praying for a gust of wind. If you don’t eat enough, the feverish feeling you have the whole time because your body has trouble keeping itself on a stable 37°C will become a real fever, you fall sick.
This year, there is no food surplus and no pasture left to sustain people and herds through the heat in Northern Mali, and in many places the wells dry out quicker than they should, so drinking will soon be difficult too. Those who have not already fled the fighting in early January will have a very hard time getting out now, if they have any time at all. The drought of recent years is building up to a hunger season that could well become a famine on a disastrous scale.
Back in Bamako, a group of half literate NCOs (really, their diction in reading their own communiqués is a disgrace) was whining about a lack of material to fight the MNLA. I still don’t understand their main complaint that led them to try to destroy democracy in Mali. In the last years, the Malian government has spent millions on the purchase of fighter jets, helicopter gunships, and armoured vehicles. If there was one thing not lacking, it was equipment to fight with, only perhaps the skills to handle it and, thankfully enough, the political will to use them blindly. It doesn’t matter at this moment – the soldiers are too busy rewriting the constitution to fight the MNLA. Whatever position you want to take on the political side of the matter, however you want to interpret the illegitimacy of it all, one fact remains: Mali has no effective government at the moment, and the administration is in shambles. The sacking of the customs offices (happy smugglers?) is but one example.
The MNLA might be the only winner in this situation. They certainly took advantage of the chaos, advancing a bit further south in the Azawad, reinforcing their position. Now they have launched their attack on Kidal from the southeast, while Ansar ud-Din comes from the north, and it looks like they are winning. According to some comments from Malians on Malijet.com, the garrison has left Timbuktu already. Ansar ud-Din holds both Aguelhoc and Tessalit (with its important airbase, sometimes used by USAF) and has started to ‘apply sharia law’. We can only guess what that means, but most Tuareg see it as a dangerous development because, who knows, maybe Ansar ud-Din likes the whole idea of takfir too, and then where would everybody be?
The trigger happy NCOs of the Malian Army are now too busy trying to legitimize their coup to even think of fighting the rebels, but when they do get round to it, they will discover that without the leadership of the generals they have arrested in Gao they won’t get far. And iwalan is against them. If you think Bamako is hot in April, try Kidal in a shady noon around 50°C/130°F. The fighters of the MNLA are used to it. They take pride in being able to fight on less than three litres of water a day. The conscripts of the Malian Armed Forces from their side won’t be able to sustain any effort in the hot season; we know that from previous conflicts. Chances of a quick Malian military victory will now be slimmer than they already were, the conflict will be prolonged.
Regardless of who is fighting who and why – the Malian Army, the MNLA, or Ansar ud-Din – prolonged fighting means prolonged insecurity and thus prolonged delays in relief aid coming into Northern Mali. Not all inhabitants of The North are seasoned Tuareg warriors. Regardless of ethnic background – Songhay, Tuareg or Arab – the hot season will certainly take its toll, a toll already predicted to be higher than usual given the drought, and now likely to become even higher. According to well informed journalist sources, the International Red Cross has been unable so far to establish working contacts with the MNLA to coordinate relief aid, and for the moment there seems to be no one in Bamako who could answer their calls either.
Drought and food shortages, plus continued fighting and insecurity in the North, plus no government in Bamako, is no way for anyone to effectively help the victims of drought and fighting internally in Mali. Perhaps we’ll soon see skin clad skeletons burying skin clad skeletons again on TV. Last year Somalia, now Mali. This, I think, should be the main concern when thinking about Mali right now.
Baz Lecocq Lectures African History at Gent University