Almost five months after French troops liberated Timbuktu from Islamist fighters, the ancient desert town, like much of northern Mali, is struggling to recover from the effects of the nine-month occupation as well as longer-term security and development problems.
Few of the things a city needs in order to function - electricity, fuel, banks, marketplaces, and basic government services such as the town hall or judiciary - are fully up and running.
There are other, less visible but equally pernicious problems, including a breakdown in the very fabric of a citizenry long-famed, thanks to Timbuktu’s location at the crossroads of the Sahara, for its cosmopolitan mix of cultures and skin-hues. Mali also contends with a chronic regional food security crisis that leaves millions of people teetering on the edge of catastrophe every time the rains fail.
These issues and more are explored in IRIN’s latest multimedia In-Depth, Trouble in Timbuktu - Northern Mali after the Islamist occupation.
“Timbuktu is free again, but it is a town where there is no economy at all, a town where everything is gone, everything is lost, apart from hope,” said Hallé Ousmane, the town’s mayor.
“Eighty percent of the civil servants are absent. Even if they were here, their offices are empty. There’s no equipment, no computers, nothing - not even a chair. It’s impossible to work,” he said.
Electricity in Timbuktu is only on from 7pm until midnight. There are no petrol stations; instead fuel is sold in mismatched bottles from roadside stalls.
In early 2012, Tuareg separatists launched an offensive in the north, taking over large swathes of the country. After an army coup in March, the separatists were sidelined by a range of Islamist groups (see box) who moved in to towns like Timbuktu. Many people, including most civil servants, fled.
The occupiers imposed their own interpretation of Islamic law, anathema to Timbuktu’s Sufi inhabitants. Women were to wear the veil, men to grow beards, and the two not to associate with each other unless married. Violators were whipped in public or locked up in crowded cells.
“We lived in fear. Armed men roamed the streets. Nobody knew what would happen from one day to the next,” said Seydou Baba Kounta, a professional tour guide.
“They cut off people’s hands, people’s feet. Schools were abandoned… Every day, people fled the town on trucks, on boats, or 4WDs,” he said.
The increased insecurity in northern Mali had wide-ranging effects on the population, according to Patrick David, regional food security analyst with the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, including loss or theft of livestock and jobs, rising prices and the closure of markets.
“People had great difficulty obtaining basic foods because of lack of supply and price hikes. Livestock mortality was higher than normal. Many herders left for Mauritania. Even now livestock markets are poorly stocked,” he said.
Some 1.3 million people in northern Mali currently need immediate food assistance.
Social fabric destroyed
When French forces chased the Islamists from their strongholds in January 2013, many Arab and Tuareg residents left also, fearing reprisals for their suspected association with the occupiers.
“We have seen that the social tissue in places like Timbuktu is broken. The Arab and Tuareg communities, they have left these areas. A lot of the economy used to be run before the war by these groups… It’s been run by them for thousands of years, but now they are absent, so to a great extent the economic engine of the north has come to a stop,” said Fernando Arroyo, head of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Mali.
For recent returnee to Timbuktu Ousmane Maïga, “Now it’s up to the government to bring peace and reconcile the different communities.”
This task will be carried out by the newly formed National Dialogue and Reconciliation Commission.
“We are going to spend a lot of time listening, listening to the whole population,” its chairman, Mohamed Salia Sokona, told IRIN recently.
“Many people think it’s just about north-south reconciliation. In fact, it’s everybody. It is inter- and intra-communal, so north-south but also north-north and south-south,” he said.
“It is about the whole of Mali, because this crisis was not just about the rebellion in the north, but also in the south there has been an institutional crisis which has created divisions that need to be healed,” he added.
As IRIN recently reported, further divisions have arisen over the prospect of holding elections at the end of July.
The gravity and complexity of the security and governance challenges ahead are underlined by the current deployment of the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA), whose mandate includes protecting civilians, monitoring human rights, creating conditions for the provision of humanitarian assistance and the return of displaced persons, and the extension of state authority.
While recent international attention has focused on the activities of Islamists in the north, many analysts believe that jihad and terrorism are lesser drivers of Mali’s chronic instability than governance vacuums, corruption and the international narcotics trade.
In the mid-2000s, northern Mali, because of its remoteness and lack of state presence, started to become an increasingly important staging post in the trafficking of cocaine from South America to Europe. The smuggling of other products, notably cigarettes, was nothing new to the region, but cocaine, according to the International Crisis Group (ICG), “dramatically increased the financial stakes and significantly altered the economic and political dynamics”.
“Alleged alliances developed over the years between the political elite, smugglers and drug dealers greatly undermined the country’s stability and development,” according to political analyst Imad Mesdoua.
Still, one of the key unknowns in Mali and neighbouring states today is the extent of the threat still posed by the foreign-led jihadists.
Since the liberation of Timbuktu and other northern towns, jihadists have staged several attacks and suicide bombings in what the regional army commander described as the “asymmetric phase of the war”.
What residents of Timbuktu look forward to now, after so many months of hardship under occupation, is development, said Kounta the tour guide.
“Since the Islamists left, nothing has been done. We don’t sense the presence of the state. The state is not here. I appeal to the state to work hard so that Timbuktu emerges from this obscurity.”
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions
Help make quality journalism about crises possible
The New Humanitarian is an independent, non-profit newsroom founded in 1995. We deliver quality, reliable journalism about crises and big issues impacting the world today. Our reporting on humanitarian aid has uncovered sex scandals, scams, data breaches, corruption, and much more.
Our readers trust us to hold power in the multi-billion-dollar aid sector accountable and to amplify the voices of those impacted by crises. We’re on the ground, reporting from the front lines, to bring you the inside story.
We keep our journalism free – no paywalls – thanks to the support of donors and readers like you who believe we need more independent journalism in the world. Your contribution means we can continue delivering award-winning journalism about crises.