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Bloomington Herald-Times

January 24, 2013

Fighting, instability in Mali reverberate in Bloomington
Widening conflict, presence of al-Qaida has many worried
By Mike Leonard
January 23, 2013

Musicians from the West African country of Mali have been the most frequently booked African artists and among the top audience favorites over the nearly two decades of Bloomington's annual Lotus World Music & Arts Festival.

Their music often is joyous and mesmerizing and their performances rarely fail to be anything less than colorful and crowd-pleasing.

"Malian people are said to be the most gentle and hospitable people ever," said Sachiko Higgins-Kante, who is an administrative assistant for the Neal-Marshall Black Culture Center at Indiana University and whose husband, Mamadou, currently is working in the capital city of Bamako. "I am saddened by what is going on," she wrote in an email this week.

The affinity for Malian artists is only adding to the anxiety felt locally and worldwide after a coup last year destabilized the central government in Bamako and, in a related development, Islamic extremists — including al-Qaida — moved in to gain control over the vast and difficult terrain in the north.

When some of these same extremists seized a natural gas facility in eastern Algeria and took hostages last week in a bloody confrontation that resulted in the deaths of both workers and militants, the ongoing developments in the north and west of Africa got the world's attention. And when the French military saw Islamists moving south from northern Mali toward the cities of Segou and Mopti, the former colonial power moved swiftly with air strikes to prevent any escalation of the conflict toward the more populous south and the capital city.

Local residents with ties to Mali and its politics and culture all say the same thing at some point: "It's complicated."

The current troubles cut across tribes, religious sects and secular and religious divisions. Militants in the north come from across the Middle East and North and West Africa, including Mali.

And just about everyone is worried.

"Most Malians do not want this at all," said Maria Grosz-Ngate, associate director of African studies at Indiana University. "I have friends who are devout Muslims and this is not what they want. What is happening is not reflective of what the majority of the people would endorse."

Grosz-Ngate said Mali had its problems during its transition from a French colony to an independent country but has been remarkably stable for nearly two decades, with the various factions that make up the country essentially getting along well.

"Mali was the poster child for democracy for 20 years," she said. "But what's happening now shows us that elections themselves are not an indicator of the health of a democracy."

The seriousness of the current situation is fueled by the surprising strength of rebel forces. The fall of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi left an enormous amount of sophisticated weaponry available, and military observers say the forces in northern Mali have amassed arms from both the Gadhafi regime and Malian bases overrun in the past year.

IU historian John Hanson said the northern conflict originally was local, with a segment of the indigenous Tuareg people looking for more autonomy in the north, which is separated from the south by inhospitable territory in the Sahara Desert. "What happened was that the rebellion took off and that led to the coup that has been hijacked by external forces," he said.

"The dream was sort of a secular state would come of that and people wouldn't have to worry about their views or particular form of Islam," Hanson said. "You get a sense the secularists got played a little bit. They were bringing in some Tuareg who had associations with al-Qaida and hid them."

The presence of al-Qaida in Mali has everyone worried. A story in the Washington Post recently flatly declared that Mali has essentially become the extremist group's new home country.

Still, IU's Grosz-Ngate said the French air strikes on Malian extremists last week proved unsettling. "The concern is always, once you go in militarily, where does it stop and what does it do? There is the concern that this type of action can be as much of a recruiting tool as anything."

Hanson agreed and said, "Diplomacy can work wonders because there are so many groups that are going to be actors in this. We can separate them and talk to others who made alliances with them (al-Qaida). There is a lot of hope for diplomacy doing more work than military action."