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Timbuktu and Mogadishu, too

For the first time since you studied Mansa Musa’s empire in the fourth grade, Mali is trending. A long standing, if low-intensity, rebellion by the Tuareg in the northern part of country has boiled over since the defeat of Muammar Qaddafi’s forces in the fall (another strange benefit from an odious regime). Thousands of Tuareg, often well-armed, returned to Mali from Libya and the government in Bamako has been losing the war for months. Eventually, a cadre of junior officers in Mali’s army had had enough: they removed democratically-elected President Amadou Toumani Toure on March 22nd. Reviews have been negative. The US suspended some aid. The Economic Community of West African States cut off ties and closed borders. The African Union even added on some predictably lame sanctions. France, too, quickly denounced the new military junta of its former colony. Led by Captain Amadou Sanogo, Mali’s rookie leaders seem doomed: they acted due to the president’s neglect of the military, only to see the country’s economic and diplomatic position instantly decline—and therefore weaken the armed forces. Why the global fuss? The West seems annoyed that this “jewel” of African democracy was defiled, though widespread dysfunction led some to see the last twenty years as a gilded era. And one in which America’s fixation on counterterrorism, according to journalist Peter Dorrie, didn’t help solve the insurgent issue. While we don’t tend to apologize for coups (and acknowledge the State Department’s view that the Tuareg have grievances), these strong reactions against a weak state—and one further weakened by Western intervention in Libya, notes diplomat Robert Fowler—risk letting the rebels simply win. The consequences of such a victory seem as thoroughly unconsidered as the possible effects of Qaddafi’s removal. Famine already grips the Sahel (the Sahara is only getting bigger), and who knows how much worse an already bad refugee situation could get? Ready to take advantage of the chaos—if it’s competent enough—lurks the great bogeyman: Al-Qaeda. Additionally, the Tuareg live in other states in the region (Burkina Faso, Niger, Algeria, and Libya), and though they remain tribal and acephalous, the creation of a Tuareg state out of nothern Mali could be highly destabilizing.1

While Mali faces the looming twin threat of famine and political fracture (the rebels have seized Timbuktu—there’s that fourth-grade lesson again), on the other longitudinal end of Africa, morning might be breaking in the continent’s poster child for failed states. Somalia, ravaged for over thirty years by international and civil wars, drought, food shortages, and terrorism, appears to be making a comeback. African Union and Ethiopian forces have pushed its al-Qaeda affiliate, al-Shabab, out of the capital of Mogadishu, leading to the longest stretch of relative peace in the city since at least 1991: eight months, or roughly the equivalent of a full-length NBA season. Consequently, Somalis have begun to return to the capital in droves, driving up the price of real estate and the value of the Somali shilling. Artists are painting, people are playing sports, and hope fills the air.2 Credit not only those troops, says Kenya-based Rasnah Warah, but Turkey for leading the charge to raise Mogadishu from the ashes by investing in its architecture.3 If in fact Somalia is beginning to heal and al-Shabab becomes obsolete, the myriad factors leading to its recovery will be well worth poring over, especially as countries like Mali threaten to follow in its footsteps.


  1. Worse yet, will Volkswagen feel compelled to aid the people in whose name they built a marginally successful SUV? Only time will tell, but it is interesting that the German car company is now calling the vehicle something else. 

  2. Gone are the days when visitors were reportedly greeted with a customs sheet asking what caliber of weapon they carried. 

  3. Turkey was the first state in two decades to open an embassy in Mogadishu, Warah says, and Turkish Airlines now offers the first commercial long-distance international flight to Somalia since before University of Kentucky basketball star Anthony Davis (or his unibrow) was born. 

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