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THE TIMBUKTU SYNDROME
When I write from Timbuctoo, I shall detail precisely how I was betrayed, and nearly murdered in my sleep. ... I have five sabre cuts on the crown of the head, and three on the left temple; all fractures, from which much bone has come away. One on my left cheek, which fractured the jawbone, and has divided the ear, forming a very unsightly wound. One over the right temple, and a dreadful gash on the back of the neck ... &c. I am, nevertheless, as already I have said, doing well, and hope yet to return to England with much important geographical information. The map indeed requires much correction, and please God, I shall yet do much in addition to what I have already done towards putting it right.
The Scottish explorer Alexander Gordon Laing was about to win the race for Timbuktu. It was in early May 1826 when he wrote to his father-in-law, the British consul in Tripoli, from where he had set out two years earlier on a trek across the Sahara Desert. His task was as the British colonial secretary had instructed him — to trace the course of the Niger River — yet to Laing, the race was about more than the geographical ambitions of empire. By returning alive from Timbuktu, he would claim the 10,000-franc prize given by the geographical society in Paris to the first European to set foot in the fabled city; gain glory and fame; and hopefully convince his surly father-in-law to finally let him share his new wife's bed. The sabre cuts and "dreadful gash" inflicted by Tuareg nomads in May of 1826 failed to halt Laing's onward march to Timbuktu, where he arrived a few months after penning his letter. Yet little joy awaited him in this town of supposed "golden roofs and argent streets" at the southern edge of the Sahara. Murdered by his guide upon leaving Timbuktu, Laing lost out on the prize, the European glory, and his wife's warm bed back in Tripoli. News of his rumored success was confirmed only when a Frenchman, René Caillié, arrived in Timbuktu two years later disguised as an Arab on a slave canoe meandering its way up the Niger River: and it was in Caillié's sketches, as well as in his and fellow explorers' best-selling books in coming years, that Timbuktu and its remote desert environs were finally mapped out for the coming European colonizers.
Almost two centuries after Laing sent his desert missive, in the slushy winter of an overcast Stockholm, a tall Swede walked into the canteen of the fortress-like armed forces headquarters with a slight swagger and an outstretched hand. To left and right, men in suit or uniform came up to greet him, asking for the latest news on his imminent departure. Lt. Col. Carl-Magnus Svensson smiled, responded, moved on, and picked up a canteen tray, spooning some mash onto a plate. As the head of Sweden's peacekeeping contingent for Timbuktu, Carl-Magnus was the military's new superstar — featured and feted in newscasts, a latter-day Caillié with an entourage to boot. Isn't it dangerous? the journalists would ask. How big are the risks to our soldiers? Carl-Magnus shrugged and responded, again and again; at the end of this glum last week of January 2015 loomed his flight to Bamako and onwards to Timbuktu, far away from the gray Stockholm skies.
Carl-Magnus had his challenge cut out for him. "The most dangerous mission in the world for UN peacekeepers"— this was how Samantha Power, then US ambassador to the United Nations, described the Mali operation the Swedes were now joining. In early January 2015, the UN undersecretary-general for peacekeeping had similarly summed up a dreadful year in Mali with these words: "No other mission in contemporary times has been so costly in terms of bloodshed." By this time, UN soldiers faced almost daily assaults by improvised explosive devices (IEDs), ambushes, and suicide attacks. Their task was peacekeeping with no peace to keep; their blue helmets were themselves prime targets.
But I am getting ahead of myself. The story began, for me, as my Bamako-bound plane took off from Dakar in May of 2014. This was a clinch moment in the tense standoff in the country's north that had briefly — and erroneously — come to be glossed as a "postconflict" transition following French and UN intervention. Events that May would show how fragile the outsiders' hold was on the restive desert, which kept eluding the mapmakers and soldier-spies of the new Sahara.
* * *
The African continent has long been a laboratory of peacekeeping, as conflict scholars note, and by the time of my impending 2014 visit, northern Mali had become one of its most explosive experiments. Here ever-metamorphosing jihadist factions mingled with Tuareg separatists and with smugglers of contraband, arms, and people. Targeting them was an equally complex constellation of security interventions, of which the UN mission, MINUSMA, was just one. French and US counterterror operations jostled with EU military training missions, a EUCAP Sahel policing initiative, and more. In echoes of the nineteenth-century race for Timbuktu, external forces were scrambling to control the desert, competing and collaborating in turns. However, our story here will not be the familiar one of grand political strategies for controlling distant crisis zones, though that is inevitably the backdrop. Instead, as we now descend on Bamako's Senou airport amid the Maytime dust of 2014, our task will be to discern from "ground zero" of intervention how external actors of all kinds are seeking to distance themselves from remote danger — with troubling implications for Mali's future and for the future of international engagement in crisis zones writ large.
Even as they squabbled over turf and goals, Mali's foreign visitors shared one thing: an "interventionist's dilemma" of ambivalent engagement and highly selective withdrawal. They had to venture into the desert in order to stabilize the country, quell terrorism, and crack down on smuggling routes, but the risks were too high to put large numbers of boots on the ground. The solution to this dilemma was to roll out remote controls over Mali's north — yet these often amounted to little real control, and they brought precious little prospect of recovery from war, or of a better future for the region's inhabitants. But besides these practical implications, a larger story lurks behind the fortified walls and drone-humming skies of intervention. As we shall see, the interveners' arm's-length dealings in the desert — on display in the daily struggles of peacekeepers and aid workers alike — were symptomatic of a revived Western fear of, and strategic concern with, putative global margins. Timbuktu stands as an exemplar of this "syndrome" of intervention, as we will go on to call it: an intractable state of ambivalent deployment into remote danger zones, carrying faint echoes of the age of precolonial exploration.
* * *
As I flew in that May morning from Dakar, the red soil and scattered concrete dice of Bamako's outskirts finally came into view. Soon the familiar heat of the Sahel hit my face as we stepped onto the landing strip of Senou airport. On the tarmac stood seven UN military planes, black-painted and brooding, lined up in waiting for the cargo and personnel making their way to Mali's war-scarred north. Inside the airport terminal, a Western woman scuttled between the police booths, overseeing Malian officers grappling with newly installed biometric equipment. Police aimed infrared pistols at us, screening for Ebola. Mali, it was amply clear after only a few minutes back on its soil, was a country under international tutelage, its security assured by UN and French soldiers and its borders controlled by Western devices and expertise. It was also a country marked by an edginess I had never experienced before, I thought as I finally found a taxi in a remote corner of the airport parking lot. As we bumped our way down empty streets toward central Bamako, I kept looking over my shoulder, as if on guard against an unlikely ambush.
The international tutelage was far from new, even if it had been growing more extreme since the start of conflict. On my last visit to Mali, in 2010–11, I had investigated Bamako's role as a transit point for migration toward the Sahara and, eventually, Europe — long the top concern of European states in the region. Spain, France, and the European Union had furnished new border posts and equipped and trained forces in Mali and nearby Mauritania, and the EU had launched a program to strengthen the administration's control of Mali's desert north. Yet the Europeans had despaired at lack of progress. The Malian military was "absolutely hopeless," one EU official had told me in despair; only some 10 percent of its underpaid and ill-equipped forces were operational, according to his estimates, and many "ghost soldiers" graced the rolls. This frank assessment was indicative of things to come, in 2012, when combating terror would rise to the top of the European agenda.
I pulled down the taxi window and breathed in the hot, dusty air. Mali's capital seemed much as I had left it in 2011, despite the vicious northern war, coup d'état, and French military intervention that had followed: fume-choked streets, searing heat, children selling water sachets by the traffic lights. Subtle changes were evident as I arrived at my destination, however. At Hotel Djenne, a beautifully wonky piece of Africana and once a focal point for visiting culture vultures, my bathroom tap coughed and spat out some rust-red water. For good reason: by the second night, I was the hotel's only guest.
My trip to Mali had not been all that easy. The north was a no go zone, while the capital had "none but essential" travel advice in the United Kingdom because of the kidnap and terror threat. My university had asked me to complete a drawn-out risk assessment, fill in long forms, attend security meetings, and read up on safe procedures. The university's private security contractor had asked me to provide detailed information to be used in case I was kidnapped, and they had given me a security app through which I had to log in regularly as proof of life. My top-up kidnapping insurance mounted to £1,000 for a month — discounted, after some hard bargaining, to £750 as long as I did not leave the capital. With these rates and procedures, none but the most dedicated would even attempt a trip to Mali, at precisely the time when the country was thirsting for renewed connections.
The security risk bureaucracy might have been a hassle for academics, yet it was but a small example of the new risk-based geography of intervention rolled out for agencies working in Mali, which were multiplying by the week now that the €3.2 billion of aid promised by donors had started to trickle in following successful elections in 2013. To these newcomers, danger now divided Mali's map, splitting it along its north-south axis into a patchwork of red and green zones. Bamako, a sprawling city sometimes dubbed "the world's largest village," was becoming home to peacekeepers, EU military trainers, and European NGO workers, all of which were reluctant to send their expatriates up north. The fissure between capital and northern hinterland might have predated the conflict, yet with their arrival it was swiftly deepening.
At the heart of the interveners' remapping of Mali was the United Nations, yet before we decry it too loudly, we must note that in Mali as in Somalia and Iraq before it, the world body was not for the first time being deployed to clean up the mess of others. The conflict in Mali's north was in many ways a direct consequence of NATO's military intervention in Libya. Western powers, wary of ground engagements, had launched a remote-controlled war in the country, bombing a path for rebels to oust and kill Gaddafi in 2011. As the Libyan regime imploded, and as no "boots on the ground" were deployed to secure weapons caches and bring stability, unsecured arms and Tuareg fighters formerly in Gaddafi's pay started streaming south. A violent insurgency — the fourth since Mali's independence from France in 1960 — soon began and was swiftly hijacked by jihadists roaming the desert.
With some justification, many Malians saw the brewing conflict as the responsibility of Western countries. As a rangy Malian military officer told me that May in his Bamako barracks: "It's NATO which went along and did all that in Libya, and it's Europe which has let all these terrorists lose." He pointed a finger at the TV in his office, which showed the recent advances of ISIS (or Daesh) in Iraq, as his voice rose to falsetto pitch: "It's you! It's you!"
Not that the army — or indeed the administration — could absolve themselves of responsibility, as academic diagnoses of Mali's ailments have pointed out. In late March 2012, a hitherto unknown, US-trained general launched a coup in Bamako, putting an end to the unpopular, corrupt, and aid-backed regime of President Amadou Toumani Touré. In the ensuing chaos, the northern rebels saw their chance. Joining forces with various jihadist groups, they had soon taken over the vast desert north and proclaimed the independence of their own state of "Azawad." After months of international reluctance to intervene, France finally launched military action in January 2013 as the jihadists advanced toward Bamako. The ground and air forces of Operation Serval swiftly pushed insurgents out of the northern towns of Timbuktu, Kidal, and Gao. Unlike NATO's air campaign in Libya, Serval was broad and put boots on the ground — yet as the French launched into military action, they were already eyeing the exit. Soon enough, African peacekeepers started arriving as part of a regional force, AFISMA, replaced by the UN mission MINUSMA that summer after French pressure at the Security Council.
In the aftermath of Gaddafi's fall, the specter of terrorism in the Sahara was finally rearing into full view. Much has been written on the deadly and absurd consequences of the "war on terror" on African soil since 9/11, and accusations of neocolonialism were soon coming thick and fast from Malian and foreign intellectuals as France launched its military action. Yet we must note that Mali's descent into chaos was more complicated than simply the result of a neocolonial desire to intervene and grab the desert's resources. While France initially seemed rather ambivalent about intervention, the United States was even more reluctant. Their desire to combat terrorism in the Sahel was accompanied by an understanding that conflict might be localized and that large deployments might generate blowback, besides accusations of colonialism in Africa and headlines about body bags back home.
Still, for the Europeans, fears over regional instability and uncontrolled migration kept stoking the desire to intervene. Given the risks, the ideal solution was a partial presence: counterterror spearheads up north combined with a multilateral UN mission doing the heavy lifting, with African and Malian forces manning the front lines.
For the UN, getting entangled with Western security objectives was a risky prospect. As it came to cohabit with counterterror, the UN peacekeeping machinery was soon to find its old norms — of impartiality, consent of parties to conflict, and nonuse of force except to defend its forces and its mandate — on ever-shakier ground. In addition, as large aid programs got under way, the lines between military and aid operations blurred even more. No bunkers, barriers, and neat divisions of responsibilities across Mali's map of danger could avoid this larger political dilemma of the interveners.
As I watched the news of conflict safely back in London in 2013–14, it was with a sense of dismay and resignation that I saw Mali transform in front of my eyes. Western donors had long treated the country as an "aid darling" and a "model democracy" for the region, yet now media pundits — security experts of uncertain extraction and expertise — started referring to it as "Africa's Afghanistan." On CNN and BBC, I heard how jihadists had imposed sharia law, chopped off hands of presumed thieves, banned music, and desecrated Timbuktu's shrines. Yet even as their dismal reign came to an end in early 2013, and as French president François Hollande paid Timbuktu a visit that February to tricoleur-waving crowds, my unease lingered. By the time of my 2014 trip, Mali's north remained poised in a fragile truce, and those displaced still feared returning to their homes. Neither the celebrated French intervention nor the UN mission that followed it had put order back in Mali. As the events that May would show, something rather more complicated was in the making, drawing the internationals into an ever more dangerous embrace with a problem they had perhaps rather avoided altogether.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "No Go World"
Copyright © 2019 Ruben Andersson.
Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of ContentsList of Figures
List of Maps
Introduction: Into the Danger Zone
PART 1: THE STORY OF THE MAP
1. The Timbuktu Syndrome
2. Remoteness Remapped
3. The Tyranny of Distance
Interlude: The Drone, the Web, and the World of Mirrors
PART 2: CONTAGION
4. Wolves at the Door
5. The Snake Merchants
6. Where the Wild Things Are
Conclusion: Danger Unmapped
Power of Narration, Narration of Power: An Anthropological Appendix