Danger is ever-present for elephants in Africa. Fortunately the desert elephants of Mali have been shepherded through the recent conflict, protected by fully-engaged communities as described in previous blog entries: Local communities are heroes in the fight against elephant poaching and Protecting the Mali elephants from war.
Our brave and committed brigades have also faced great danger, and now we learn the very sad and tragic news that Moussa Aly, the popular and greatly respected leader of our brigades at Banzena was shot while he slept. The assassination sent shock-waves throughout the Gourma. Investigations suggested that the murderers of Moussa Aly had been acting on the orders of a rival for election as Mayor of Bambara-Maoude, who had joined the jihadists while Mayor, and was currently in exile in Mauritania.
The problem of post-conflict insecurity seems intractable with small groups of bandits hiding in the thicket forests, launching attacks, robberies and hijackings, and moving on to avoid pursuit. These are individuals who joined the armed groups and who are reluctant to return to their communities for fear of retribution. Pursuit is difficult in these vast spaces of dunes and seasonal mires, peppered with impenetrable thickets and devoid of roads (although watch this space for how the project is working to facilitate their capture).
There is, however, and immense desire among Malians to restore peace and harmonious social relations. The extensive media coverage of our national reconciliation workshop findings is indicative of this, but how can this desire be turned into action?
After the project’s Field Manager, Nomba Ganame’s television interview, his phone was buzzing for days with people congratulating the initiative, showing their support for the findings and asking what could be done next, what actions would ensue.
One striking observation was the breadth and diversity of the people who had bothered to call in. They came from every walk of life, all over Mali and internationally. They included local herders and farmers; refugees; business men and the professions; clan chiefs, mayors and council members; local, regional and national civil servants; the military; MPs, ministers and an ex-Prime Minister.
A common theme was frustration at the lack of progress, and a desire to contribute. Government workers in particular lamented the lack of resources available for them to be able to put the recommendations into practice. This lack of resources stem from what the New York Times called Mali’s oldest enemy: the corruption that laid the groundwork for the country’s recent implosion (1). The article reports that donors have tentatively promised about $4 billion in aid and loans but want assurances that this will not go the way of past aid money, and are waiting for concrete measures to this effect. In the meantime there is a risk that “the present window of opportunity to stabilize Mali and the region will be squandered”.
At the local level in the Gourma, however, things look somewhat brighter. Those who called had urged the project to take the messages to the local communities, to those people who don’t read newspapers or watch television.
During the following month the project did just that. It convened meetings throughout the elephant range to discuss the report findings and what it meant for local lives and livelihoods, in particular focusing on the three main conclusions and developing community solidarity in dealing with their common problems.
Following the assassination of Moussa Aly, the 92 year-old, highly respected Chief of Boni deeply lamented the ongoing situation – his own son had been shot and is still critically ill in hospital after 4 months. The murder of Moussa Aly made him realize that something had to be done to stop the violence. He requested that the project support him in convening a large general assembly for the communities and armed forces of over 12 communes including the border regions of Burkina Faso. This meeting would enable a debate with the aim of developing a concerted community response. People had been dissuaded from giving information by retribution killings of several informers, but by launching a request for information about the whereabouts of bandits at a general public meeting, anonymity could be assured because any of the assembled could have been the source of information that led to subsequent arrests.
Over 1,500 people attended. The project contributed a third of the cost, with the remainder raised by contributions from the communities themselves.
Two days after the meeting 4 were arrested with a large cache of arms in a forest just 10 km from Douentza, planning to launch an attack on the town. They disclosed several caches of arms and confirmed the identities of Moussa Aly’s murderers.
A further 32 names led to 12 additional arrests and the discovery of large arms caches, the remainder having fled to neighbouring countries immediately after the meeting as they knew investigations would follow.
Meanwhile the project’s work continues in its aim of empowering those wanting to make a difference, demonstrating that committed individuals and small groups can turn around apparently intractable situations, when they are acting from a genuine motive of wider interest. In this case repairing the social fabric required for the social and environmental resilience is the key to survival in these variable environments and uncertain times.
It is hoped that such courage and leadership will be matched at the national level in getting to grips with the culture of corruption, and unleash those committed individuals within government to take the lead in promoting peace and reconciliation throughout Mali.
(1) For Mali’s New President, Corruption Issue Lingers by Adam Nossiter. New York Times, August 21, 2013
Over 1,500 people attended and some pictures of this remarkable event
can be found in the photo gallery below: