Islamists Struggle to Run North Mali
By Adam Nossiter, NY Times, September 1, 2012
DAKAR, Senegal—The radical Islamists who control northern Mali appear incapable of managing basic services—including electricity, water and schools—and in some cases are asking for the return of state functionaries to run them, according to a delegation that went to the region for talks recently.
The Islamists allied with Al Qaeda appear to have gained a firm military hold in the north, and have subdued the local population with a brutal application of Shariah law, including public beatings, amputation and a stoning death. What is left of the Malian Army, divided by a military coup, has made no move to dislodge them after five months of occupation, and a talked-about West African regional intervention has yet to coalesce.
But the Islamists’ grasp on administering the vast desert region, which is larger than France, seems much less secure, members of the delegation said. The delegates—members of an unofficial group of concerned citizens called the Coalition for Mali—unexpectedly found themselves listening to demands from the Islamists that the government in Bamako send back bureaucrats to run state services.
“They asked for the state to resume its functions, because it’s too complicated for them to manage,” said Daouda Maïga, who used to run a state development program in Kidal, a region of nearly 70,000 people before the Islamist takeover emptied it. “They are not used to running things.”
About 400,000 people have fled the north since the Islamist takeover, creating a vacuum of talent that the Islamists have apparently been unable to fill. “Five months after the state, its services, and NGOs were all forced out, there is a strong need for state services,” a report issued by the coalition said last week, referring to nongovernment workers. “The new masters have themselves come to realize that they cannot replace the state.”
The Bamako government still controls the southern rump of Malian territory, while the north is in the hands of radical jihadi factions that took over last spring, after a military coup in the capital left the Mali Army rudderless and unable to defend the vast northern region.
In Mali, officially there are no relations between the two parts of the divided country. But the Bamako government recently instituted a new Department of Religious Affairs, in what has been interpreted as a nod to the Islamists who control the north.
And individual citizen initiatives, like the trip organized by the Coalition for Mali, have been on the rise. The delegation—which included Malian elected officials, development specialists and members of nongovernment organizations—made the trip from Bamako two weeks ago.
Some of the delegates were surprised by the supplicatory tone of the Islamists, many of them religiously indoctrinated guerrilla fighters used to living lives of isolation in the desert.
“There are so many things that the state does, that they cannot do,” Mr. Maïga said. “Run the water system, the electricity, schools.” In Kidal, there is electricity one night a week at most, he said, and the same was true for water and telephone service.
Delegates said the Islamists wanted help running all state services except justice and security. Factions like Ansar Dine (Defenders of the Faith), which controls Kidal and Timbuktu, have made their mark so far not by providing services to citizens, but by beating them publicly for allegedly contravening Shariah, destroying religious monuments in the historic city of Timbuktu, amputating the hand of an accused thief, and even stoning to death a couple said to have had children out of wedlock.
“They said it was the couple who demanded to be purified,” Mr. Maïga recalled from his talks with the militants in Kidal, adding that he was skeptical of their explanation.
Mr. Maïga said he was struck by the Islamists’ complaints about the difficulty of even applying Shariah consistently by their standards, the impracticability, for example, of amputating hands of all of the approximately 200 thieves they have captured. “They are really in a bind,” Mr. Maïga said. “They are really having trouble replacing the state.”
In Timbuktu, also controlled by Ansar Dine, where members of Al Qaeda’s regional franchise, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, have been seen, there have also been demands for the resumption of basic services. “They asked for the return of certain services, of course,” said Abdramane Wangara, a member of the delegation. “Electricity is very spotty,” he said. “We’ve got to listen to these people.”
But whether what remains of the Malian state is looking for a compromise, and whether such a compromise would be accepted by outside powers, is open to question.