Mali's road ahead: Reprisal fears and desert warfare

A man drives a motorbike in Mali's capital, Bamako, decorated with French flags among others to show his support for the international forces -24 January 2013 Image copyright Reuters

"If I could I would get rid of this skin. It's like I have 'terrorist' written on my forehead," said a Tuareg friend of mine - let's call him Boubou - here in Mali's capital, Bamako, as he pinched the light brown skin on his arm.

"It is not safe here for us."

We had first met a few years ago in Timbuktu, well before the ancient town, along with the rest of northern Mali, had been overrun by a Tuareg separatist rebellion and a loose coalition of Islamist militant groups early last year.

Now Boubou, like many Tuareg people, fears a terrible backlash from darker-skinned soldiers and civilians as French forces enable Mali's vengeful army to recapture Timbuktu and other northern towns in the months ahead.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Not many Tuaregs support the MNLA rebels, says Boubou. This Tuareg soldier is in the Malian army

"We Tuaregs are finished," he lamented, angrily blaming the MNLA rebels who he insisted had no support among the Tuaregs - themselves a minority group in the north - whom they claimed to represent.

But is he right?

As the military campaign here slowly gathers momentum, this fractured country is swirling with all sorts of predictions - both dire and optimistic - about the path head.

Here, for what it is worth, is my sense of where things might be going.

Plan in tatters

Mali's humiliated army will be itching to march into Timbuktu - on Saturday if possible.

But the French will be anxious to slow them down, waiting for West African troop reinforcements to arrive in central Mali in the next week or so.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Chadian soldiers are experienced desert warriors

There is no sense in advancing if your rear is exposed, and so, when they finally get the logistics sorted out, the Nigerians and others will be given the job of patrolling newly recaptured towns, and trying to prevent the Islamist militants from returning.

Chad's army is a case apart - they are highly experienced in desert warfare and will be pushing in from the Niger border towards the eastern town of Gao.

There are other reasons for slowing the pace.

Mali's ill-disciplined army is already being accused of summary executions and rapes - justifying my friend Boubou's fears of reprisals against Tuaregs.

The original international plan had always called for a long military build-up to give European soldiers a chance to retrain the Malians and hopefully minimise human rights abuses by them against civilians.

That plan is in tatters now, but a training programme is being accelerated.

Putschists sidelined

Malian politics could also do with some time, and some heavy outside pressure, to get things moving.

That applies for power-brokers in northern towns who may - as the recent Ansar Dine defections in Kidal suggest - be looking for ways to surrender; although who is going to take any of them seriously now is another matter.

It also applies, perhaps more acutely, here in Bamako.

Remember last year's military coup? And the painstaking negotiations that created a transitional government? And all the talk about a roadmap to democracy that has not yet materialised?

As former Communications Minister Hamadoun Toure put it to me: "We need another perspective - and to prepare for democratic rule in the future.

"It means preparing for elections now, while trying to liberate the country.

"All this [the coup, and the conflict] happened because of a lack of good governance, so we need to address this issue in a very, very urgent manner."

The encouraging news is that Mali's coup leaders - not an inspiring crowd - have been emphatically sidelined by events on the ground.

But it remains to be seen whether other, more credible leaders can now harness public frustration and pull this country towards a properly accountable democracy.

The French, presumably, will expect a clean election as the first down payment on their rescue mission.

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