Friday, 14 December 2012

"Sub-Saharan"

One of the things that's interesting about living in Mali is that it's totally changed my perspective of Africa.

Normally we're used to talking about 'Sub-Saharan' Africa, which includes Mali. But Mali isn't really sub-Saharan. Bamako is, and the south is, but a lot of the north, the part that's occupied and causing all the trouble right now - that part is definitely Saharan, and the difference matters a lot when you start thinking about the dynamics of the conflict here.

Traditionally, those of us in Europe think of deserts as a blockage. Of course I knew they aren't really, any more than seas are. Back when I was writing my undergraduate thesis, focusing on Early Islamic North Africa, I spent a lot of time reading about continuity in the cross-Sahara trade routes. So 1500 years ago there was a thriving trade across the desert in goods such as salt, gold, and slaves. Nowadays the goods have changed, but the routes still exist - transporting migrants, drugs, and smuggled cigarettes, among other things. So northern Mali, and hence southern Mali, has always been connected to the world to the north.

Even more important than the economic link to the north is the political link. When I was about 13, my family was based in Algeria. There, we faced a threat from the south - an Islamic militant group called the GIA. The GIA were nasty, carrying out massacres of civilians, but through the 90s they lost popular support and suffered defections following an amnesty law, and gradually they were eclipsed by a splinter group, the GSPC. The GSPC were mainly active kidnapping westerners for ransom, attacking Algerian security forces, and smuggling. In 2007 they formally affiliated with al-Quaeda as Al Quaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQMI), and they are now active in northern Mali, bits of Niger, and bits of Mauritania.

So the rebel group that we worried about from the north in the late 90s is the same one that we're worrying about from the south now. Algeria, with it's powerful security apparatus and it's long border with Mali, is a major player in the planning over what to do in the north - and their policy is based largely on the implications of the conflict on 'their' rebel group and their border.

So thinking of Mali as 'sub Saharan Africa' makes no sense at all. In some ways it's disconcerting - it throws an assumption into question, and suddenly I feel like I'm expected to know about North Africa - even though THAT'S THE MIDDLE EAST, NOT REAL AFRICA! What do you MEAN it's important and I should learn about it?!

But there's something about it that makes me feel connected - the thought that rather than having followed this conflict for six months, I've been following a part of it for years. I feel like I understand part of the background a little better than I otherwise might. As an historian, I instinctively look to explain events with reference not only to current tensions, but also to past events and long term currents, and I'm sceptical of stories that seem simple - such as, for example, seeing AQMI as only Al Quaeda. I'm troubled by the short term explanations that are all the analysis we have time for, with nothing prior to the last five years or so considered, but I lack the knowledge of Mali to do even that properly. It's why I read as much anthropology as I can get my hands on - histories of African societies are often hard to come by, but anthropology is much more plentiful, which is in itself pretty telling, but definitely a can of worms too far for today. Having even a little background on the trajectory of even one of the active groups makes me feel a little less rootless, and a little more at ease, in the context I'm transplanted into.

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