Parliamentary elections, delayed nearly two years, were finally carried out. This was the first of two rounds. There will be a second round of elections in April. Participation was low, mainly because of fears of violence from Islamic terrorists or from disease (coronavirus). Despite all that most eligible voters could vote. Most of the 19 million people in Mali don’t have to deal with the Islamic or tribal terrorism found mainly in thinly populated central and northern Mali. Everyone knows about this problem and how it has spread from the north to central Mali in the last five years. The main reason for the spread of this violence is corruption. It has been a problem ever since Mali became independent after the French left in 1960. It is a problem common throughout Africa and many other parts of the world.
The foreign aid donors have been putting more and more pressure on the notoriously corrupt Mali politicians to back off on plundering the foreign aid. When faced with this pressure a favorite ploy of corrupt African politicians is to blame foreigners for all the problems the local politicians have caused. The corruption is perpetuated because senior politicians share the looted aid with their followers. To make matters worse the most corrupt politicians try to avoid criticism by blaming foreign interference by peacekeepers (who are mostly African) and the special French counter-terrorism force (which is entirely French) for somehow causing all that is wrong with Mali. There are 12,000 peacekeepers up north and 5,000 French troops operate throughout the region against Islamic terrorists. The peacekeepers and French troops are welcome up north and that is one of many differences between northern and southern Mali.
The thinly populated northern two-thirds of the country has a population of less than three million, which is about 16 percent of the population. The north was very poor in the best of times, and several years of Islamic terrorist violence there halted tourism (a major source of income, especially in the three major cities up there) and the movement of many goods.
There are also ethnic and tribal differences to contend with. The Tuareg majority in the far north are more Arab than African and the peace deal with them was stalled for over a year because the black majority in the south did not want to even consider granting as much autonomy as the Tuaregs demanded. The two groups have always been at odds but were only united in the same country by the colonial French in the 19th century. Like most African countries, dividing the nation is not an acceptable option and the colonial borders are considered sacrosanct. The current mess began when France took swift action in January 2013 by leading a military operation to clear Islamic terrorists out of northern Mali. Aided by Chad and a growing number of other African peacekeeping contingents, this effort continues and is somewhat open ended. The French acted because in 2012 Tuareg tribal rebels (with the help of al Qaeda affiliated Islamic terrorists) in northern Mali chased out government forces and declared a separate Tuareg state. The Mali army mutinied (because of lack of support from the corrupt government) down south and took control of the capital. The army soon backed off when neighboring nations threatened to intervene. The elected government was soon back in charge and more corrupt than ever.
Lots of corruption often produces rebels and in Moslem majority nations that often means Islamic terrorist groups. There are several of these in Mali and largest of them is JNIM (Jamâ’ah Nusrah al Islâm wal Muslimîn, or Group for the support of Islam and Moslems). This is an al Qaeda coalition formed in early 2017 to consolidate the many separate Islamic terror groups in Mali. In part this was a reaction to the growing threat from ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant), which is hostile to everyone who is not ISIL and will attack or recruit from the JNIM members like AQIM (Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb), Ansar Dine, FLM and several other smaller groups. Another reason for the merger was to make it easier to pool resources, especially information and practical advice, and coordinate with other Islamic terror groups in the region. This reduces friction and destructive feuding. Making a coalition like this work is always difficult, especially considering the importance of ethnic differences. The FLM is Fulani (the largest local tribal contribution) while the other groups are largely Tuareg, Arab and some have a lot of foreigners. Note that JNIM did not absorb all of AQIM groups in the area, just local groups that had long been identified with al Qaeda. The income from the drug trade keeps a lot of these factions in business and the Islamic terrorists know that business and religious fanaticism do not mix and keep it that way. Those groups that did not went broke and withered to nothing.
Meanwhile the Islamic terror groups evolved with more radical JNOM members joining more radical groups like ISIL, which is universally hated by other Islamic terrorists and Moslems in general. Recently Malian ISIL members released a video on the Internet in which the group pledged allegiance to Abu Hamza al Qurayshi, the new ISIL leader. By 2018 there were two ISIL “provinces” in central Africa. The smaller one was ISGS (Islamic State in Greater Sahara), showed up in 2018. ISGS is currently active in Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger. The other, slightly older and larger, ISIL province was ISWAP (Islamic State West Africa Province). ISWAP was actually a faction of the Nigerian Boko Haram Islamic terrorists who had been around since 2004. ISWAP personnel are mostly in northeastern Nigeria as well as smaller numbers in Chad, Niger and northern Cameroon.
There are also a lot of tribal conflicts in central Mali but these have been active for decades and are made worse by the corruption. As long as Mali suffers from the high levels of government and bad government there were be Islamic terrorism and the threat of separatism succeeding, as it did in 2012-13 up north. France won’t always be willing to move in the deal with the problem.
The counter-terror operations by France, the G5, UN peacekeepers and the Mali Army has been successful but it has only suppressed Islamic terrorist and tribal violence, not eliminated it. There are fewer large scale terror attacks or tribal raids. But there is still lots of low level activity that does not kill but rather intimidates and extorts financial and other support for the armed groups.
March 29, 2020: The parliament elections were finally held, for the first time since 2013. The national election for the 147 parliament seats was supposed to be held in 2018 but was delayed several times because of the growing incidents of Islamic terrorism in central and north Mali as well as tribal violence in central Mali. A more recent complication was the appearance of coronavirus/covid19 cases in Mali. There are at least 20 people known to have it. The covid19 threat was a recent one, even though the disease has been ravaging China for four months. There has been little of the virus in Africa so far. Despite all the problems 98 percent of 12,500 voting stations were able to open. In addition to this several hundred thousand internal refugees were not able to vote.
March 25, 2020: The government announced that the first two cases of coronavirus (covid19) had been discovered. The two patients had recently returned from France, where they caught the disease (which takes up to two weeks to make the patient fell ill). A nationwide curfew (from 9 PM to 5 AM) was declared and people who thought they may have covid19 should seek testing. Within a few days 20 confirmed cases were found. The virus is not expected to be a large a problem in Africa as in the rest of the world. That’s because Chinese researchers found, and other scientists confirmed, that Africans are less likely to catch covid19 because they have one fifth as many cellular receptors in their lungs than Chinese. That difference enables covid19 to cause breathing problems more. Other researchers found that this genetic difference was most helpful for Africans and most harmful for East Asians. People in other parts of the world have less resistance to covid19 than Africans.
Lung damage is the most frequent cause of death among covid19 victims. So far Africa, with 18 percent of the world population has only suffered less than one percent of the covid19 infections. Africans are not immune, just less likely to get infected or suffer the breathing problems that cause most covid10 related deaths. Such genetic differences are common and account for some ethnic groups having different health problems, or advantages. For example, Africans are more prone to have sickle cell anemia. This genetic mutation helps those with it to resist the deadly effects of malaria but also brings with it the high risk of blood disorders. Many of these genetic differences are useful with no bad side effects. That would include the unique eyelid structure of East Asians, which provides more protection from fine sand driven by high winds. Those sand storms still regularly blow into China from the Gobi Desert. Covid19 is feared in Africa because if you are exposed to it there is still a ten percent chance you will catch and suffer ill effects that are similar to flu. Being sick for a week or so is something to be avoided.
In the north (outside Timbuktu) Islamic terrorists of ISGS (Islamic State in Greater Sahara) ambushed a convoy carrying Soumaila Cisse, the most powerful opposition leaders in parliament. He was accompanied by 11 associates, bodyguards and drivers. One bodyguard was killed and two wounded during the ambush. The killers released four men and took the seven others somewhere else. Cisse was campaigning for the parliament elections. No ransom demand has been received yet, probably because the ambushers didn’t expect to capture a major politician and are now trying to figure out what they can demand for his release. ISGS has been around since 2018 and is currently active in Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger. This is the group that has been under heavy attack for most of 2019. The main reason for that is the ISIL strategy of inflicting lots of casualties on the Mali army and destroy soldier morale and willingness to fight or even remain in the military. This is not a new tactic and the battles with ISIL up north are something of a bloody endurance contest.
March 24, 2020: The EU (European Union) agreed to provide $126 million over the next four years to keep the G5 (Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger) counter-terrorism force going for another four years. In 2017 the EU and France agreed to create and finance the G5 Force of a 5,000 troops from the five African nations involved, That support will be based on what has already been established for the French counter-terrorism and UN peacekeeping forces in the area.
March 23, 2020: In the northeast (south of Gao) in the tri-border area were the borders of Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso meet, 1,700 French, 1,500 G5 and 1,500 Mali troops completed a 20 day operation to sweep the area for known or suspected Islamic terrorists camps and bases. Using nearly 5,000 soldiers, with air support, for this operation is the latest of several operations like this carried out in the last few months. The Islamic terrorists in the area know they are facing a very large force that has air support, so the usual tactic of ambushes defending a fortified position with a large force is not an option. The latest operation cleared areas in Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso, in part to demonstrate that the Islamic terrorists could not depend on escaping across borders as they had in the past. The entire counter-terror force was mechanized and the vehicles available included nearly a thousand armored ones. While the enemy fled when they realized they were under attack, or about to be, they had to abandon a lot of weapons, vehicles, equipment (tents, electronics, generators) and supplies (ammo, food, medical). The captured vehicles included 80 motorcycles. These are a favorite mode of transportation for scouts or raiders. The bikes can move faster, get into more kinds of off-road terrain and are harder to spot from the air. The French have Reaper UAVs, fighter bombers and two armed helicopters, plus transport helicopters, available.
March 19, 2020: In the north (outside Gao) JNIM and al Qaeda cooperated in a three pronged attack on an army base that left 29 soldiers dead and five wounded. The attackers looted the base of weapons, vehicles and other portable equipment and then left before reinforcements showed up.
March 15, 2020: The growing Islamic terrorist activity in neighboring Burkina Faso is forcing many Mali refugees from similar violence in Mali to move back to Mali. There are over 700,000 refugees in Burkina Faso, more than three times as many as in Mali and the 25,000 of them are from Mali. But in the last month at least ten percent of the Mali refugees in Burkina Faso have gone back to Mali. Apparently there will be more returning.
March 14, 2020: Two foreigners (from Canada and Italy) who were kidnapped by Islamic terrorists in Burkina Faso during 2018, escaped and made it across the border into Mali where they encountered some peacekeepers. The two were moved to the capital and arrangements made for them to return home. No ransom had been paid. The two lived in Canada and were on their way to Togo, to work on a foreign aid project, when they were taken.
March 12, 2020: Islamic terror coalition JNIM called on the government to negotiate a peace deal, but only after French troops left Mali. The government is not inclined to accept those terms because it as the French intervention in 2013 that ended a military coup and Islamic terrorist led separatist rule of northern Mali.
March 1, 2020: In central Mali (Mopti region) five soldiers were killed when Islamic terrorists fired several RPG rockets at parked vehicles near a checkpoint. The attacked then fled but were tracked and an airstrike killed or wounded several of them.