“Large amounts of weapons were being carried from Libya to the west," a resident of a town in central Niger told me. "There was even a military helicopter.”
I heard the resident's account when I visited the West African country last autumn to interview people who had fled from Libya, which was in the midst of civil war.
As half a year has since passed, those weapons are now threatening the safety of West Africa and even affecting international security.
In April I traveled to Mali, which shares its eastern border with Niger.
In Mali, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) of the Tuareg people had increased the strength of its military in a short period of time. Before that, the rebel group had been engaging in little fighting with the government. Many members of the MNLA, who had fought for the regime of former leader Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, were armed with high-powered weapons.
Mali’s military, which was facing an uphill battle, staged a coup on March 21 on the grounds of a “lack of weapons.” But the coup gave a significant advantage to the rebel group. The government forces, which lost discipline, were routed by rebel forces and lost vehicles and weapons to them.
The MNLA took control of the entire northern region in just about 10 days and unilaterally declared its independence in April. The region, roughly twice the size of Japan, has been plunged into anarchy.
Capt. Amadou Sanogo, who led the coup, spoke to me after the revolt. He emphasized the gap in the war-making capability between the two sides.
“It is suicidal to fight the MNLA,” he said.
In Africa, a military coup is widely considered a means of bringing down a corrupt regime. Ghana, for example, has become more democratic through a coup. But Sanogo picked a bad time to launch his coup, which I believe will be marked as a major failure in Africa’s history.
“(We) have been acting, watching the people,” Sanogo said, but I couldn’t understand why he decided to stage a coup.
A presidential election had been scheduled for about a month later. Amadou Toumani Toure, the president ousted by the coup, had said he would not run in the election. Some believe that Sanogo was backed by the opposition camp. It can be said a combination of the fallout from Libya’s democratization and political fighting in Mali is responsible for creating a vast lawless area.
The MNLA is not the only group that has entered the “independent” northern region. The armed Islamist organization Ansar Dine has made its infiltration. And members of al-Qaida-affiliated groups are said to have found their way there. The region seems to be turning into a hotbed of terrorism. There are also strong concerns the lawless area will become a drug trafficking hub for Europe.
An armed group that denies idol worship destroyed a historic mausoleum in Timbuktu, an ancient city designated a World Heritage site, which had drawn many visitors. As a number of cases of robbery, assault and kidnapping have occurred there, I heard there are no tourists visiting there now.
West Africa has been stricken by a drought that covers the largest area in the past 10 years, creating food shortages for more than 15 million people. People in northern Mali have been extremely destitute as international aid has been halted because of poor security. More than 300,000 people have already fled their homes to other places in the country and some have crossed the border. And the number is increasing.
I saw many refugees when I visited an area in Burkina Faso near the Mali border in late April. Every person I talked to said there was no security on the other side of the border.
Mohamed Gamma said he came from Timbuktu and crossed the border the previous day.
“I could no longer live there because the place was too dangerous,” the 45-year-old man said, “and there was no food in the market.” He said he saw bearded strangers walking in the streets. “I have no idea if they were Ansar Dine or al-Qaida,” he said. “I never tried to find out because I was too scared.”
Many of the refugees were Tuaregs, as are MNLA members. A 30-year-old former junior high school teacher named Yaya was one of them. He said he saw no prospects of returning because, in addition to the current security problem, he could be persecuted for being a Tuareg if government forces regained control of the region.
He recalled that he spent his childhood as a refugee after his family fled to Burkina Faso amid a coup in Mali 21 years ago.
He said his son was born in a tent in the dusty camp two weeks earlier.
“Working as a teacher, I had a handsome house,” he said. “I’m just a teacher, not an anti-government group member or an extremist. But I have been living life as a refugee.”
As a result of the civil war in Libya, people in the country who came from African nations that had cozy relations with the Gaddafi regime were regarded as supporters of the former dictator. Hundreds of thousands of such ordinary people have lost their livelihoods and homes and ended up being refugees.
Libya’s democratization, achieved with the intervention of Western nations, has had various ramifications that have eventually caused many people in Africa to lose their places to live.
Sanogo’s military administration in Mali, facing threats of economic sanctions by neighboring countries, conceded power to civilian rule in early April. But seeing signs of the military trying to retain its leverage, those nations began hinting at imposing such penalties again.
Yet, the problem of the northern region has been left unresolved. It is extremely difficult to win back control of the vast area, where armed groups have taken hold. No path for stabilization of the region is seen.
The situation in northern Mali is similar to that of Somalia, which has been plagued with conflicts and food crises. A local reporter said the region was showing early symptoms of what plagues Somalia.
Somalia, which has been in a state of anarchy for more than two decades, has long been neglected by the international community. The country has increasingly turned into a hotbed for terrorist groups. Piracy off the coast has become an international headache. Gaining international attention, the country has received more military assistance and humanitarian aid.
Stabilizing northern Mali is not only an issue for the safety of local residents, but will have a global impact, avoiding a repeat of what happened in Somalia.
Editor's note: Being a foreign correspondent is not all it's cracked up to be. As Asahi Shimbun journalists--assigned to 34 offices around the world--can attest to, the challenges of getting the story in a foreign land are much greater than on the homefront. In the Correspondent's Notebook series, Asahi Shimbun journalists will write about their experiences on the road, including the difficulties, the frustrations, the long hours, the roadblocks, etc. They will take readers along with them and give them a glimpse into their lives.
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