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A Transition in Sight for Mali


Protesters in Bamako, Mali
Protesters in Bamako, Mali, focused on the humanitarian situation in the northern half of the country, where people have been uprooted from fighting. JOE PENNEY

BAMAKO, Mali — The junta that upended the country here on March 22 has agreed to hand over power to Dioncounda Traore, the president of the National Assembly, in the next few days. Mali was set to hold a presidential election on April 29 before a junior military officer and his entourage ousted the president, Amadou Toumani Toure, nicknamed ATT.

“At the moment there is no state, and we can’t do anything about the north until there’s a state,” Fatoumata Maiga, a senior member of the Adema party of Traore, said. “We can no longer count on the army for anything.”

Maiga was referring to the other main problem in Mali right now: the takeover by the Tuareg nomads of the northern half of the country, a region they seized when the country’s army was distracted deposing Toure in Bamako.

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In response to the coup last month by the military, the Economic Community of West African States, a regional group known as Ecowas, imposed sanctions and closed the borders around Mali, creating suddenly high gas and food prices and a frustrated populace in the capital, which has remained amazingly calm throughout the ordeal.

Now that the junta has agreed to give up control, the sanctions are to be lifted. Toure handed his resignation in on Sunday, clearing the way for the constitutional court to formally declare the National Assembly official president.

In addition, Ecowas has readied a peacekeeping force that it reportedly may use against the Tuareg rebels, who are also competing with an Islamist group called Ansar ud-Dine, a Taliban-like entity, over domination in parts of the north. That includes the remote desert city of Timbuktu, which is a Unesco World Heritage site. Unesco urged the protection of Timbuktu’s “architectural wonders” amid the chaos.

The United Nations Security Council issued a presidential statement, instigated by France, on April 4, expressing concern over the worsening humanitarian situation brought about by the influx of refugees and internally displaced people in the north caught up in the Tuaregs’ fight against the Mali army. The council called on all parties in the country to allow access to aid organizations to help the civilians and expressed alarm by the presence of the Islamist group further destabilizing the region.

The fighting between Malian government forces and the Tuaregs has uprooted more than 200,000 people since January, with the majority fleeing to neighboring countries and some 93,000 said to be internally displaced.

At Columbia University last month, experts on a panel discussion about Mali voiced surprise and dismay over the coup. The discussion had originally been planned to focus on Mali’s presidential election on April 29, but the panelists, mostly academics, switched gears when the country took a militaristic turn.

For the most part, the academics discussed how Toure had relied too much on “politics of consensus” in Mali, which discouraged any single viable political party but led to as many as 200 parties, resulting in a malfunctioning government and economy.

Moreover, the “problem of the north,” as the panelists said the country referred to the Tuaregs and their desire to break away, has been going on for decades with little resolution in sight. The presence of the Islamist extremists in the region has intensified the sense that the north’s troubles had been overlooked for too long by Toure.

Some Tuaregs who had been fighting alongside Qaddafi supporters in Libya returned to northern Mali with weapons after the Qaddafi regime fell last year. They then used their guns against the Mali military, humiliating the soldiers, who were ill equipped and ended up pushing Toure out.

“What is on trial is the criminalization of the government,” one audience member said, adding that the soldiers have long been frustrated with Toure.

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Joe Penney

Joe Penney is a writer, filmmaker and photographer who lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., and Lagos. He directed a documentary, “Sun of the Soil: The Story of Mansa Musa,” about the reign of Mali’s 14th-century king. Penney’s articles and essays have been published by The Intercept, The New York Times, Quartz, Reuters and Paris journals. He was West African photo bureau chief for Reuters, and his pictures have appeared in Geo, Jeune Afrique, Le Monde, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and Time, among others. He has photographed presidential elections in Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Mali, Mauritania, Nigeria, Senegal and Sierra Leone as well as the 2012 coup in Mali and the French military intervention in 2013, Mauritanian refugee camps, mining sites in Niger, migrants in the Sahel, counterterrorism campaigns in Cameroon, the 2013-2014 conflict in Central African Republic and the people’s coup in Burkina Faso in 2014. Penney co-founded, a news company covering the Sahel region, in 2013. In Africa, he has lived in Ivory Coast, Mali and Senegal. He graduated from McGill University in Montreal and speaks English, French and Spanish.

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