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Voices from Contested Territory: 531 Messages for President Obama from Northern Mali

- January 17, 2013

The following is a guest post from University of Notre Dame political scientists  Jaimie Bleck and Kristin Michelitch.


The French government launched a military intervention in Mali on Friday in response to Islamist expansion southwards from their rebel stronghold in the north of the country (see map). The three northern provinces of Mali had been conquered and claimed by Tuareg secessionists in the wake of the March 2012 military coup.  Since then, the North has been infiltrated by rebel groups with disparate goals including Al Qaeda of the Islamic Maghreb.

Most international actors have come out in support of the French move. The intervention has also been largely welcomed by those in the capital city of Bamako, where residents report that stores have sold out of French flags.

We wish to introduce the perspectives of over 500 Malian villagers whose location on the border of rebel and state-controlled territory has recently become a focal point of the conflict.  In January 2012, anticipating the scheduled presidential elections, we conducted a baseline survey in ten villages as part of a field experimental evaluation of a radio distribution program. Our research team returned to the villages in summer 2012 – during a period when the villages remained isolated from political conflict. We were able to gather villagers’ perceptions of the political crises including optional open messages to President Obama, which we promised to publicize in the American media (see timeline).

Is armed conflict worth it to reunify the country, or is it better to peacefully separate? What type of intervention should be launched, and by whom? The majority of our respondents were in favor of military intervention: 78% said it was worth the fight, 9% wanted to peacefully separate, and 23% were undecided (July). When asked how the northern crisis should be resolved, 50% of our respondents mentioned negotiations, while 60% cited military intervention as important to restore territorial integrity (May). Most respondents who felt that military intervention was necessary preferred exclusively domestic involvement by the Malian military (43% of respondents).  Of those citing the need for foreign intervention, the US was the most popular of the potential allies (23% of respondents favored US intervention), followed by France (18%) and then ECOWAS (15%).  In light of changing public opinion in Bamako it is possible that if asked today, villagers would be more pro-foreign intervention and pro-French.

What are the villagers likely to do, now that conflict has reached their locality? Five percent of respondents said they would flee to safety, but 50% would stay in the village. Yet others would engage in the struggle: 18% said they would enlist in the Malian military and 14% would join a local militia against the rebels (July).  Rebel movement and the French military response triggered a new exodus out of the region, but these survey data indicate that many respondents are likely to have remained in their home villages.

Yet, while the international media has fixated on political crisis, the respondents actually cared much more about a different sort of crisis: daily survival in the context of increasing desertification and unprecedented drought.

We asked villagers the open-ended question: what policy area would you prioritize if you were President of Mali? Most individuals prioritized human development issues (health, education, water, agricultural support) both before and after the rebellion. In the January baseline survey, 51% of respondents cited development issues, while 9% mentioned peace and security. After the villagers found themselves on the border of rebel-controlled territory, 67% cited development issues and 14% peace and security (July). Regardless of the level of political stability, the vast majority of respondents would focus on basic human development needs.

Perhaps most tellingly, when respondents were given the opportunity to record an open message to US President Obama, the vast majority of messages requested humanitarian relief and basic development infrastructure rather than aid in resolving the ongoing political crises (July). Seventy-three percent of messages cited food security/access to water, 48% of requests called for improved infrastructure including roads, health, and education facilities, and 35% mentioned assistance in agricultural production/animal husbandry. By comparison, only 11% percent of messages mentioned political assistance – often referring to peace and stability (4% specifically referenced the northern secession and 2% addressed the coup). We posted all 531 messages here.

Many people who discussed the political crises were predominantly concerned with the effect on their basic livelihoods. As one respondent said, “President Obama, here we are hungry. We want you to bring us food. The rebels tire us a lot, our goats, our cattle can no longer be brought to graze in the North because they risk being stolen. Do your best to quickly help us (#441).”

Elections and territorial integrity, while clearly valued, are secondary concerns if you don’t have food in your stomach. One respondent articulated the primacy of these basic needs, “We are hungry and we don’t have enough water. A person who does not have anything to eat or drink cannot lead a normal life. Therefore we ask for humanitarian aid from President Obama. We are counting on his good faith and good will to help us out of this poverty (#37).”

Despite facing tremendous hardship, these villagers said they were willing to shelter fellow Malians, more than 400,000 of whom have fled the North in the last year.  When asked “would you welcome those fleeing the North in your village?” a remarkable 89% of our respondents reported they were willing to accommodate displaced persons into their village, demonstrating the Malian values of generosity and hospitality.

Mali faces a challenging road ahead.  In addition to the current military intervention, a permanent solution will require political mediation to restore representative government in Bamako. However, an even more difficult challenge will be addressing the infrastructure and humanitarian concerns raised by these villagers.  We hope that their testimony is a reminder of the many underpublicized crises that rural citizens experience every day, regardless of political instability. Coups and rebellions incite international action and capture headlines, but access to food, clinics, and potable water continually create life-or-death situations for many Malians.