In 2013, for the eighth year in a row, more countries registered declines in political rights and civil liberties than gains. Even as the number of electoral democracies in the world increased, nations like the Central African Republic, Mali, and Ukraine suffered devastating democratic setbacks. Thirty-five percent of the world’s population, living in 25 percent of the polities on the planet, found themselves in countries that aren’t free. As we enter a year in which more people will vote in elections than ever before, democracy appears to be in a holding pattern around the world—if not outright retreat.
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Islamists are able to take advantage of porous borders, weak central governments, undertrained militaries, and flourishing drug trades.
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Gao, the largest city in northern Mali, is a place of extremes. It’s a sprawl of one- and two-story mud-brick houses that lack power lines and running water, but it’s also home to the garish, McMansion-style estates of Cocainebougou, or “Cocaine Town,” a deserted neighborhood that once belonged to Arab drug lords who controlled the region’s smuggling routes for hashish and cocaine but fled, fearing reprisals from local citizens who blamed them for the Islamist invasion. The city has few high schools and no universities, but many of Mali’s leading guitarists and percussionists learned their craft in Gao’s decades-old youth orchestras; it is a proudly secular city that also houses the Tomb of Askia, one of the oldest mosques in Africa, built in the 15th century to honor a regional ruler. Gao was for centuries best known as the capital of the ancient Songhai Empire, which once controlled a region larger than present-day Mali. In the summer of last year, an al‑Qaeda affiliate known as AQIM, for “al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb,” took over Gao and made it the capital of the rump state the group created after forcing the Malian army out of the north. Months earlier, the Tuareg, a separatist minority long bent on independence, had laid the groundwork for AQIM and its Islamist allies when they captured the city. When I visited northern Mali in March of this year, a black-metal billboard the extremists had erected on the main road leading into the city was still welcoming visitors to the “Islamic City of Gao.”
French air and ground forces reconquered the north this past January, bringing the region back under the nominal control of Mali’s fragile central government. Camouflage pickup trucks full of Malian soldiers now rumble down Gao’s otherwise empty streets, and a handful of small bars and restaurants have reopened. Castel and other Malian beers, strictly forbidden under the Islamists, are freely available, though they’re usually served warm because of the city’s frequent power outages. I walked through the main bazaar one afternoon with Baba Douglass, an affable, rotund man who works as a top adviser to Gao’s mayor, Sadou Diallo. Teenagers hawked Nokia cellphones and women in brightly colored blue dresses and head scarves peddled warm bread and cake, calling out prices as we passed. Douglass pointed to a pair of canary-yellow bulldozers looming over a fenced-off expanse of dirt and stone. “That’s where the new central market building is going,” he told me. “If things stay quiet, it will be open by the end of the year.”
That’s a big if. Mali’s central government now runs Gao, but many locals believe that the jihadists who controlled the city last year have melted away into the surrounding countryside, where they are waiting out the French. France launched its military campaign on January 11 with a series of air strikes on insurgent targets. Thousands of French ground troops poured into the country later that month and began pushing north. At the peak of the campaign, more than 4,000 French soldiers were in Mali, but the French military has announced plans to withdraw about 3,000 of them by the end of the year. Paris will pull out the remaining troops next year, leaving behind an unspecified number of special forces and trainers to mentor the Malian security forces, and will also support a new United Nations peacekeeping force of 12,600 troops drawn from other African countries. But many ordinary Malians still fear that their country’s armed forces won’t be able to fill the void.
After saying goodbye to Douglass, I made my way through the remains of a walled compound that once housed the mayor’s offices. About a dozen militants had snuck in days before and lobbed grenades at a convoy of passing Malian military vehicles, kicking off a fierce gun battle that raged for more than seven hours. French forces relieved the overmatched Malian soldiers and eventually killed all the attackers, but the fighting left the compound in ruins, two of its yellow walls reduced to piles of scorched concrete and rebar. The ground was littered with spent cartridges, scraps of clothing, and razor-sharp shrapnel. The compound’s custodian, Hasan Haidara, led me into a garage and pointed to a splotch on the floor that looked like brown paint. “Blood from one of the jihadis,” he told me. Haidara, who’d been trapped in the compound during the attack, said several of the fighters were Arabs. “They were not from Mali,” he said emphatically. “They were not from here.”
I heard a similar refrain from an array of Malian and American security officials. Gao’s central jail is housed in a defunct two-story health clinic a short drive from the mayor’s compound. When I visited, the warden, Captain Ballo Banfa, told me that many of his prisoners had come from Algeria, Tunisia, Nigeria, and other neighboring African countries. Captain Ibrahim Sanogo, an intelligence officer at a nearby Malian military base, told me that he’d listened in on radio conversations between rebels speaking English, Fulani, and Hausa, three of the primary languages of neighboring Nigeria, and personally interrogated captured fighters from Burkina Faso and Chad. France captured two of its own citizens allegedly fighting alongside the Islamists in northern Mali and is holding them on terrorism charges. U.S. officials say foreign fighters from across Africa have been flowing into Mali to earn their jihadist bona fides and gain tactical experience battling a well-armed Western military. “Northern Mali has become a jihad front,” said a U.S. official familiar with the region, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “People think of northern Mali like they thought of Chechnya in the late ’90s—as someplace where you can go and do your part to restore the caliphate.”
The foreign militants battling Malian and French troops across northern Mali are part of a little-noticed but hugely important shift.
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Two weeks ago, the French military launched Operation Serval, intervening in a complicated, months-old conflict in northern Mali. A year earlier, Tuareg rebels had attacked government positions throughout northern Mali, temporarily seizing control of a large area and declaring it a new state named Azawad. The rebels soon lost control though, displaced by several Islamist groups, including elements of Al Qaeda, intent on imposing Sharia law in the region and possibly establishing a base for terrorist activity. Those militant groups began pushing south recently, prompting a planned U.N. action, but France felt compelled to act sooner than anticipated, to prevent further damaging gains. More than 2,000 French troops are now involved in Mali, pursuing and attacking anti-government forces from the air and ground, with support from nine other western countries and several neighboring African nations.
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Those who don’t get it will, for the most part, continue to not get it. The truth, distasteful as it may be to those who imagine that we live in a “post-racial” era or believe it’s small-minded to apply identity politics to art, is that we still haven’t reached a point in our history at which the discrepancies between the way people of different races (or genders or religions or sexual orientations) experience life are negligible.
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Mali, a West African nation of 15 million people, is facing serious hardship following a March coup d’etat that has since collapsed. Islamist militant groups have filled the void, forming an extremist mini-state in northern Mali, resulting in sanctions imposed by other African nations. The collapse of state governance has chased away foreign investment, and tourism has dropped precipitously. Djenne, a UNESCO World Heritage-listed town, saw its annual tourist count drop from more than 10,000 to fewer than 20 total foreign visitors this year. Although Mali’s cotton and gold industries appear to be weathering the insecurity well so far, future development is on hold as the interim government in the south works to resolve issues with the patchwork of militant Islamists and Tuareg separatists who rule the north. Reuters photographer Joe Penney has spent months in Mali this year, returning with many photos such as these collected here.
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