Clashes between the Malian government and the rebel forces have driven hundreds of thousands of people from their homes. Some refugees, like the ones pictured, have fled to Burkina Faso. Photo by: Anouk Delafortrie / ECHO / CC BY-NC-ND

Mali is under siege, caught in a vortex of violence from within and without that threatens to reshape not just the country itself but what is called the global “war on terror.” The humanitarian crisis could get much worse before waning.

Two years ago, most Malians would’ve scoffed at the idea that their country was about to descend into chaos. In fact, during a visit right around that time, that’s what I heard, from Bamako to Timbuktu. The country had enjoyed stable government for years, I was told repeatedly, and the upcoming elections would result in a peaceful handover of power.

Religion or ethnicity would not determine the vote, but who had the best plan for curbing corruption and putting food on the table. (I drove by acres of agricultural land which a crop expert told me had become infertile due to mismanagement by the local hires of a project funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development.)

Yes, the Tuareg were pushing vigorously for independence in the north, and drugs and weapons were being smuggled across the Sahara. There were kidnappings and killings - during my visit, a French couple met its tragic end in the desert sand.

But unemployment appearead to be the biggest problem. One young man I met on a cross-country truck ride was ashamed to tell me that he still lived at home. Because he was unemployed, he had no money for dating, let alone marriage - and as long as he was single, he was resigned to living on his parents’ compound. Many of his male friends had emigrated to Europe, mostly to France - illegally, of course - to earn a bit of money, send it back and eventually return to build their own home.

I could see a sense of sorrow in his eyes: Why am I still here? He felt less of a man for it.

Then began the Arab Spring. And as Moammar Gaddafi’s government fell, fighters returned from Libya to join Ibrahim ag Bahanga’s rebel and form the Mouvement National de Libération de l’Azawad. The Malian government was weak, as were its forces, and when Azawad, in April 2011, declared an independent state, the international response was muted.

Fast forward past an election and botched coup attempt to today: French forces engaged in airstrikes with the backing of international leaders, and pan-African troops getting ready to join the fight. It’s a series of unfortunate events if there ever was one. Could it have been prevented? In this case, at least, the blend of military, development and governance support that the international communtiy has provided the Malian government for years appeared to have failed.

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About the author

  • Rolf Rosenkranz

    Rolf Rosenkranz oversees a talented team of in-house journalists, correspondents and guest contributors located around the globe. Since joining Devex in early 2008, Rolf has been instrumental in growing its fledgling news operation into the leading online source for global development news and analysis. Previously, Rolf was managing editor at Inside Health Policy, a subscription-based news service in Washington. He has reported from Africa for the Johannesburg-based Star and its publisher, Independent News & Media, as well as the Westdeutsche Allgemeine Zeitung, a German daily.