Failed states are common these days, and the latest of them is Mali. Most of it is the Sahara desert, awesome and beautiful in its way but not productive. When I was there, the British taxpayer had just made a gift to the Malians of 250 Land Rovers. Vandalized as soon as they were unloaded, 250 unusable carcasses filled a derelict lot. After the desert came miles and miles of sandy scrub, with here and there villages too remote to be in touch with each other. The villagers had open sores due to diet deficiencies which should have been easy and cheap to remedy.
Nomads, the Tuaregs are different from the villagers. They have their own language, too recently codified to have a literature yet. The men are tall, turbaned and often veiled, and nobody is allowed to see Tuareg women. There’s not much to be done locally except camel-herding, so Tuaregs enrolled as mercenaries in Libya. Some seem to have been with Qaddhafi to the end. Returning embittered to Mali, they staged a coup, drove out the president and declared the Tuareg state of Azawad.
It’s none too clear how al-Qaeda in the Maghreb, AQIM for short, got into the act, but they did. So did affiliates and rival groups, all of whom are now struggling for power in a free-for-all of Islamists and war-lords. Reports describe public executions and floggings, and the destruction, Taliban-style, of historic mosques and mausoleums built of hardened mud bricks for Sufis, that is to say the wrong kind of Muslims. On my journey towards Gao and Timbuktoo in old days, I stopped in the desert to search for the battlefield where the Moroccan sultan had conquered the Songhrai emperor in the fifteenth century. Out of nowhere, the police arrived and stuck a parking ticket on our Land Rover, with a penalty larger than the one current in London. Three days of negotiation followed with the police chief, the chef de gendarmerie.
Mali now is like Somalia, Afghanistan, or Yemen, a mess that nobody has any practical ideas for cleaning up. The African neighbors know the danger. Nigeria is already bedeviled by the Islamist fanatics of a movement called Boko Haram. The United Nations, France, the Obama administration, occasionally chatter in a way that proves their lack of resolve and inability to get to grips. Another part of the landscape is disappearing, as it looks as though nobody yet is likely to give even a parking ticket to AQIM and the Islamists.