Now that the guns have been collected and publicly burned in a ceremony known as the “Flame of Peace,” there’s music in the air in Mali. Currently part of a folk festival held at the desert oasis of Essakane, the history of the “Flame” goes back to Mali’s 1996 symbolic ceremonial bonfire. In that ritual, 3,000 firearms were burned, marking the end of a long period of violent conflict, and the beginning of peace.
While the United Nations promotes gun-burning festivals all over the world, Mali is generally regarded as the greatest success of the gun-burning movement, as a society that moved from discord to harmony when guns were destroyed. But the claims of the gun-prohibition movement about Mali do not survive careful scrutiny.
Knowing some of the background helps. Landlocked in western Africa, Mali is among the poorest countries on the poorest continent. Its capitol is Bamako. At one time, the nomadic Tuareg people and their unorthodox Islamic culture dominated a large region in Africa. Tuareg lands have become part of the countries of Niger, Algeria, Burkina Faso, Libya, and Mali, yet the Tuareg influence has diminished as non-nomadic governments have taken power over their territories.
Although the Tuareg population is difficult to measure because of their mobile lifestyle, they are believed to number up to several million, with over 600,000 Mali alone.
While the Tuareg account for only about ten percent of the Malian population, they are concentrated in the sparsely populated northern deserts that comprise 70 percent of Mali’s total territory.
Severe drought descended upon the nation in the late 1960s through the mid-1970s, and again between 1980 and 1985, destroying the social fabric and economy of the north. Very little foreign aid reached the drought-stricken Tuareg, however; the entrenched system of kleptocracy in Bamako ensured that foreign aid mainly enriched the corrupt ruling class. As in most other African nations, Mali’s capital in the 1970s and 1980s was the center of a parasite economy that thrived mainly by plundering the rest of the nation.
Because of the droughts and the resulting economic upheaval, many young Tuareg men were forced to emigrate, and many of them were welcomed into Muammar Khaddafi’s Libyan army. There, the Tuareg men were trained and armed, and also exposed to the religious, social, political, and economic ideas posed in Khaddafi’s Green Book. The three-volume work includes many benign statements of social egalitarianism and freedom, although Khaddafi’s rule in Libya has been far from benign.
This set the stage for uprisings in Mali in the early 1990s. Led by only about 3,000 angry young men with guns, the rebels drew broad popular support because of discontent about government paralysis, and because of the atrocities committed by the incompetent Malian regular army.
There were many incidents in which the army failed to abide by the rule of law. For example, Tuareg leaders, called together for discussions in Léré in 1991, were murdered instead. In 1994, the Swiss consul met a similar fate. Although Alpha Oumar Konaré, the president democratically elected in 1992, had earnest intentions of ending the civil strife which had plagued northern Mali, peace proved impossible until he gained control of the army in late 1994. Colonel Siraman Keita was brought in as chief of the general staff of the Malian army, and Boubacar Sada Sy was installed as minister of defense. The military in the north, which had been guilty of excessive use of force and abuse of the civilian population, was withdrawn and sent south. In effect, the war against the people of Mali was ended by the Konaré government and the new army leadership.
Violence was greatly reduced in 1995. The gun-burning movement insists that disarmament was the reason. But actually, disarmament did not even begin until mid-November 1995–after the violence had already diminished. The most important change was that, earlier in the year, army atrocities against the civilian population ended.
There were yet other factors that contributed to the reduction in violence, aside from the withdrawal of an out-of-control army. One of these was a series of meetings held in 1995, led by Kare Lode, a representative of Norwegian Church Aid (AEN). At that meeting, the Tuareg became convinced that the government’s desire for peace was in earnest. Lode said: “Even the organizing of the meeting was a positive factor: in [many] cases armed robbery in the area had stopped completely by the time the meetings were held . . . .” Again, disarmament had not yet begun.
In the excellent book A Peace of Timbuktu: Democratic Governance, Development and African Peacemaking (1998), United Nations historians Robin-Edward Poulton and Ibrahim ag Youssouf describe the process of disarmament: “At first there was barely a trickle of candidates, larger numbers arrived later as confidence was built.” Although the disarmament process was expected to last four weeks, it was extended until Flame of January 10, 1996, because so few combatants showed up in the first month.
In the course of disarmament, a total of 10,000 ex-combatants surrendered. Three thousand of them arrived armed and gave their guns to the authorities. Those were the 3,000 weapons which were burned on March 27, 1996 in the dramatic Flame of Peace ceremony. There have been several subsequent such ceremonies, in which far fewer weapons were destroyed.
Poulton and Youssouf admit that the weapons are not all gone from Mali and can be easily replaced: “While nobody believes that we are rid of every illicit gun in Mali, making a start on disarmament mattered enormously. The number and quality of the weapons are unimportant: anyone can obtain another weapon, for guns are all too easily available from nearby flash-points like Chad and Liberia. The important thing is that the Flame of Peace symbolizes the end of ethnic violence in Mali . . . Here is an African success story, [an] island of peacemaking in the continent of civil disturbance.”
But could the anticipated collection and destruction of 3,000 weapons in a purely symbolic ceremony in March 1996, have been cause enough for the reduction of violence during the prior year? In science, one looks at the date of an event and then the outcomes that might be affected afterwards. The gun-burning advocates fail to acknowledge that peace broke out months before the disarmament occurred; this failure is surprising, since the U.N. has meticulously documented the timing of the events.
As the Tuareg were beginning to trust in the new Malian government, the U.N. implemented a new program in 1996, PAREM (Programme d’Appui à la Réinsertion socio-économique des Ex-combatants du nord Mali), intended for the reintegration into civil society of those ex-combatants who were not brought into government service.
The bureaucracy for the PAREM program was kept to a minimum. There could be little doubt that this program was implemented solely for the benefit of the people–not for the benefit of government, nor the U.N. bureaucracy.
Additionally, the benevolent behavior of Konaré’s government was exemplified in devolving power to the people through a massive decentralization program, which created 682 villages in the north (there were only 19 villages prior to this decentralization), which would now control how their own funding was to be spent. The central government in Bamako even steadfastly refused to succumb to the lure of kleptocracy.
So which is the true cause of peace in Mali? Is it the schools, wells, jobs, animal restocking programs, and the fact that government aid replaced government repression? Or is it the collection and destruction of 3,000 easily replaceable weapons? It was, in fact, Konaré’s willingness to change the oppressive nature of government, and pay meticulous attention to the human rights of Mali’s citizens, that created and fostered the trust essential for the success of any peace process. And it was Konaré’s willingness to “destabilize” his own government by changing and devolving the existing power structure that, in the end, provided more stability than the collection of weapons ever could.
The U.N. and the entire gun-prohibition movement have trumpeted Mali’s weapons collection as a model for the successful resolution of conflict. But the actual events in Mali teach a different lesson. Although propaganda has been disseminated about the central role of disarmament in the peace process, it is becoming increasingly clear that it had nothing to do with any successes achieved in Mali. Gun burning was simply a superfluous publicity stunt brought along for the ride.