Mali's long wait to reclaim the north from Islamists

By Afua Hirsch

Image source, Thinkstock
Image caption,
Since occupation by Islamist forces, visitors have largely stopped coming to northern Mali

As details emerge about a military plan to recapture parts of Mali currently occupied by Islamist rebels - involving up to 4,000 soldiers mostly from West African nations - some in Mali doubt that it will be a success.

Like many former French colonial towns in Africa, Mopti, in northern Mali, was built to maximise luxury for its rulers.

In the administrative quarter of the town - a trading post between the Sahara desert in the north and the Sahel in the south - grand, Mediterranean-style colonial buildings overlook the picturesque river Bani. The Bani and the river Niger together almost surround the town, creating a deceptive sense of lazy calm, and transforming Mopti into a one-time tourism hub for Mali and the whole West African sub-region.

A small jetty on the river is home to a few dozen pinasses (traditional covered canoes) that, not long ago, transported tourists all the way from Bamako - Mali's capital, 900 km (600 miles) to the south - to Timbuktu, the ancient town and world-heritage site in the Sahara.

Hundreds of foreign visitors savoured the slow journey along the river, taking in the savannah landscape, camping overnight and eating local food cooked over small fires by their guides.

Now the same guides, mostly young men, sit listlessly on their pinasses, playing cards or staring into space. More than half of the long boats have already been taken off the water, they say, their owners unable to repair wear and tear as their source of income has steadily dried up.

Nearby, the Hotel Kanaga - the grandest of Mopti's hotels - insists it is open. But it has had no electricity for days. And does not have a single guest.

Ever since a military coup toppled the civilian government in March, and Tuareg separatists and al-Qaeda linked fundamentalists seized control of the entire north of the country, the once popular tourist hub has been transformed into one of the most dangerous places in the world.

Mopti is the last government controlled town in Mali and only 50km (30 miles) from the area where Islamist control begins.

But not all the businesses in Mopti are floundering.

Papou Siby, a jovial, chubby man, tells me trade is booming. His bar, Fiesta, attracts many young women who have fled al-Qaeda rule, enjoying their newfound freedom to dress up and go out for a drink in the evening.

"My bar is doing fine," said Mr Siby. "Before the Islamists came to the north, these young women were ordinary people. Mali is a liberal society," he told me, "these women want to drink, dance, smoke, just like everyone else. But those who stay on in their occupied towns, they're unable to do anything."

Mr Siby added that Fiesta was also a popular drinking spot for the numerous soldiers based in the city. They come drinking at 22:00 every evening, seeking light relief from the approaching likelihood of a war to reclaim the north.

Last month a United Nations Security Council resolution paved the way for an international military intervention in Mali. With the Mali army and troops from the Economic Community Of West African States (Ecowas) fighting on the ground and the US and the EU providing logistical support and training.

Image source, AFP
Image caption,
Foreign fighters are said to have gone to Mali to support the Islamist rebels

"The situation is extremely serious," says Boubakar Hamadoun, editor of the newspaper Mali Demain (Mali Tomorrow).

"A military intervention is the only thing that can save the country now," he says. "It's the least the international community can do to support us. Our so-called friends stood by whilst we lived for years with the facade of a democracy and whilst the army fell apart, with no training and no resources. Now we have a tragedy on our hands, how can anyone be surprised?"

And yet, Mr Hamadoun said, Malians do not like Ecowas. They remember what happened in Liberia and Sierra Leone. "The troops did not create a good impression there," he told me.

"Plus Ecowas troops don't know the terrain in the north of Mali and they will not be welcomed by the people. It's like Vietnam," he said. "It should be the Malian army to recapture the north. If we are given the means and the weapons, then we can do it."

At the army barracks - elsewhere in Mopti, preparations are under way for the impending war in the north. The base is one of the largest under government control.

Heavy tanks swelter in the sun and soldiers mill around running errands whilst their superiors sit and drink tea in the shade.

On the road driving from Bamako to Mopti, we passed not one but four army vehicles - heavily loaded trucks tilting sideways towards the bush as they languished, broken down, on the side of the road.

"How can this army fight a war in the desert?" said Arber Kadi, who drove with me on the long road north.

"They can't even cope with the drive to Mopti."

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