Grisly Arithmetic: humanitarian crisis in Mali

Some of the 50,000 Malian refugees who have fled to neighbouring Niger - almost ten times as many have fled elsewhere
Some of the 50,000 Malian refugees who have fled to neighbouring Niger – almost ten times as many have fled elsewhere

Crisis-riddled post-colonial Africa once looked to Mali as a heartening example that the continent could have peace and social stability. Now, as various ethnic and religiously driven factions fight for independence, the country looks set to tear itself apart.

Last year, sectarian violence in northern Mali forced 450,000 people out of their homes and left 1.2 million struggling to feed themselves as fighting disrupted food supplies in what was already one of the world’s most impoverished countries.

The crisis began with Mali’s Tuareg ethnic minority, cattle-herding Saharan nomads mostly living in country’s northern Azawad region. The Tuareg have spent decades chafing for independence and, last January, Tuareg militia groups took a bold stride towards realising that aspiration by rising up and expelling central government troops from their home province.

Events then took an unexpectedly national turn. The rebellion was inevitably violent, and after Tuareg militias massacred 80 soldiers, the Malian army overthrew the country’s President, Amadou Toumani Toure, over what they saw as his dithering response to the crisis.

With military leaders now in charge, and the Malian constitution quickly done away with, the army prepared itself to crush the inconvenient uprising. But before Mali’s national forces could act, the conflict took another unforeseen twist.

Radical Islamist fighters who had originally helped the Tuaregs push out national government troops suddenly turned on their erstwhile allies and seized Azawad for themselves. They strictly imposed sharia law, banning, among others things, revealing clothing for women, baggy trousers for men, and all music.

This brought yet another startling development. Mali’s new military junta turned to their ex-colonial masters, the French, for help in taking back Azawad. France agreed, and before long French troops were on the ground in Mali, taking towns back from the Islamists.

French troops in Mali
French troops in Mali

But six months on from French intervention, the humanitarian situation remains grave. Refugee camps inside Mali’s borders currently house 280,000 people. 170,000 more have fled to neighbouring countries, principally Niger, Burkina Faso and Mauritania. Separated from sources of clean drinking water, the refugees are highly vulnerable to cholera and other diseases.

Like the whole Sahel region of West Africa, Mali has been ravaged by severe drought. Before the conflict began people were already suffering thanks to the accumulated effects of poor rains and failed harvests. Rainfall was slightly up in 2012, but the food crisis only worsened as violence forced farmers to abandon their land. The UN estimates that 3.4 million people need food aid to survive. It’s another colossal-scale human disaster that has barely caused a ripple in the West. Mali grabbed our attention when the media-dazzling French tanks rolled in, providing enough spectacle for the item to briefly break into the mainstream news agenda.

But, as so often, the story gets dropped precisely when it needs the most exposure. Donations are what will keep the hundreds of thousands in refugee camps alive, and, without that money, hunger will kill thousands more than the fighting did. You can donate to Oxfam’s Mali appeal here.