Commentary: Gadhafi's ghost stalks Malian Sahara

Special to McClatchy NewspapersMarch 28, 2012 

Moammar Gadhafi is reaching out from his grave — this time threatening Mali.

For more than 20 years Gadhafi used his oil wealth to meddle in the affairs of Black Africa, overthrowing governments friendly to the U.S., Britain and France.

When I was in Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso, some years ago, people told me that at night they heard the planes landing and taking off, bringing Libyan weapons to be passed on to rebels or dictators in Liberia, Gambia, Sierra Leone, Ivory Coast, Senegal, Chad and Western Sahara.

His weapons enabled the most horrible militias in modern history to chop hands off small children and massacre thousands. One client, former Liberian dictator Charles Taylor, is on trial in The Hague for war crimes and crimes against humanity in the Sierra Leone civil war.

Another client, Yahya Jammeh, remains dictator of Gambia since 1994.

Now Mali is the latest country to be uprooted. Its 20-year legacy as a pro-American democracy is shaken.

Ethnic Tuareg rebels seeking a separate state have launched an uprising and taken over much of the country. Islamists have been kidnapping, killing and threatening foreign tourists, travelers, academics and journalists. March 22, the army staged a coup, upset at the lack of heavy weapons and support needed to turn back the Tuareg advances.

Gadhafi’s ghost can take credit.

The weapons he distributed to ethnic Tuaregs from Mali, Niger and other nearby countries, recruited to fight in his failed effort to remain in power, are now being turned on Mali’s government, army, and all who resist the rebels seeking to carve out an independent Tuareg state.

As in so many wars, it is the civilians who suffer the most. These poor people have fled to Niger, Burkina Faso, Algeria, Senegal and Mauretania.

Meanwhile, rebel forces continue to push south and threaten to take – and to damage – the historic cultural treasure of Timbuctou – a city containing ancient manuscripts of Islamic culture from the Middle Ages and mud built mosques and houses dating back hundreds of years.

The Malian army, distressed because of a lack of adequate weapons to match the ones given to the Tuaregs, and upset because of heavy losses and a failure to compensate families of dead troops, launched the coup Thursday, March 22, and drove President Amadou Toumani Toure into hiding. Troops ransacked his presidential palace, seized the radio and television station and arrested cabinet ministers and others.

In a communiqué on the website of the Mouvement National de la Liberation Azwad (MNLA), Tuareg rebels have cancelled upcoming elections, dismissed all government officials and called for creation of an independent state roughly carved from northern Mali.

I was told by a former senior USAID official that these events are a great tragedy because Mali had been a shining example that democracy can take root in a troubled region, and that U.S. assistance can, in fact, help to build democratic processes despite illiteracy and poverty.

There had not been a coup in Mali since 1991, and governments were changed through the ballot box.

But when rebels seized half the country in the past days – albeit the most barren and arid half consisting entirely of Saharan desert – the 7,500 strong army panicked and felt the direction and leadership of the country was inadequate to keep the country intact.

U.S. and French governments have been quick to threaten a cut off in foreign aid, except for food aid and for anti-terrorism assistance. Ironically, the coup leader is one of those who had already received U.S. counter-terrorism training – a sign that such skills can cut both ways – against enemies of Mali or against the duly elected government.

What can be done now that the rebels hold much of the country, al Qaida cells are roaming the desert, the president is in hiding and the rebel troops have ordered the air and land borders closed?

The regional grouping of 16 West African nations – ECOWAS – could be asked to intervene. It has previously taken on peacekeeping roles in the region.

The former colonial ruler France could send in troops to separate the warring sides – it was able to defuse the Ivory Coast conflict.

The African Union could authorize or assemble forces to intervene, separate the sides, restore order and hold new elections – albeit delayed by several months from the original schedule.

And the United States could play its Africom card, using the resources and good will of the U.S. Africa Command created under former President Bush. It is still based in Germany but has sent many training missions to work with friendly armies in Africa.


Ben Barber has written about the developing world since 1980 for Newsday, the London Observer, the Christian Science Monitor,, Foreign Affairs, the Washington Times and USA TODAY. From 2003 to August, 2010, he was senior writer at the U.S. foreign aid agency. His photojournalism book — GROUNDTRUTH: The Third World at Work at play and at war — is to be published in 2012 by He can be reached at

McClatchy Newspapers did not subsidize the writing of this column; the opinions are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of McClatchy Newspapers or its editors.

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