Source: The Guardian
Aid agencies have warned that security issues are harming the health, education and nutrition of children in Mali, where the unchecked spread of Islamist extremist violence has left many schools and health centres beyond the reach of humanitarian programmes.
The targeting of hotels has raised international awareness of attacks in the Sahel region by groups affiliated to al-Qaida – last week’s massacre in Burkina Faso, for which al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb claimed responsibility, followed an attack on the Radisson Blu hotel in the Malian capital Bamako last November in which 21 people died. But the main obstacle to humanitarian efforts is in rural areas, according to World Food Programme (WFP) country representative Sally Haydock.
“In rural northern Mali, criminality is the biggest challenge in terms of reaching beneficiaries,” said Haydock. “Impromptu roadblocks are put up by armed groups where our drivers have to pay bribes or are robbed.
The spread of violence caused the closure of rural schools and school feeding programmes in the central Mopti region last year, added Haydock.
“In the Mopti region, 32 schools have not reopened since violence began [there] in June and July,” she said. “There are maybe 600 children in each school and they are not getting lunches. In health centres, a fair number of beneficiaries are no longer getting malnutrition support.”
The WFP provides food assistance for 100,000 Malians throughout the year, said Haydock, with the number rising to about 350,000 people during the lean season from January to June.
Alessandra Dentice, the deputy representative of Unicef, the UN children’s agency, confirmed that access to rural areas was a problem, pointing out that the difficulty of reaching vulnerable communities was compounded by an absence of government security forces.
“The main challenge is the lack of humanitarian access,” said Dentice. “This is due to the security [situation], but also to the lack of government personnel in certain areas.”
In the northern town of Kidal, Unicef is supporting the reopening of schools for the first time in three years. Qualified teachers are in short supply, however. Like many former state employees displaced by fighting in the north – civil servants, doctors, nurses and judges – teaching staff have been slow to return to their posts, despite the promise of government bonuses. In Kidal, local volunteer tutors will take their place.
However, the apparently successful disentanglement of Islamist militancy from a concomitant Tuareg rebellion – following protracted negotiations, peace-signing ceremonies in May and June, ceasefire violations and hours of discussions by robed men over cups of mint tea – could mark an important breakthrough.
Tuareg discontent had been fuelled by decades-old hostility to the misgoverned state and feudal rivalry over routes for smuggling drugs, fuel and migrants across the desert. In recent weeks, however, Tuareg rebels and government militias have signalled they are ready to start disarming, potentially paving the way for the emergence of al-Qaida and its affiliates as the common enemy.
Mongi Hamdi, the outgoing Minusma head, said he considered the rebels united with the government and Minusma against al-Qaida. “We now have a situation where they [the armed groups] are friends,” said Hamdi. “There are just two camps now – the camp of peace and the camp of negative forces.”
Some diplomats and observers have questioned whether the lull in fighting between Tuareg and government forces represents a real victory for Minusma. They suspect the armed groups – some with political ambitions and others with feudal territorial claims – may simply have carved up desert smuggling routes between them.
Hamdi said no time should be wasted in capitalising on the relative calm, whatever its background. “We have to move fast with cantonment [garrisoning of rebels], then swiftly to the process of DDR [disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration],” he said. “The delivery of peace dividends – such as power, water and the reopening of schools – is what will cement peace.”
Hamdi, who has handed over to Chadian Mahamat Saleh Annadif, suggested the slow progress of peace may be to blame for the expansion of insecurity from northern Mali to the Mopti region and the south. By the end of last year, amid the emergence of new groups affiliated to al-Qaida, only the western region of Kayes had remained untouched by a terror attack.
“Mopti became a problem in 2015 because the people of Mopti were not involved in the negotiations,” said Hamdi.
While there have been no recorded ceasefire breaches by the Tuaregs and pro-government militias since September, the militant threat means Minusma remains the most dangerous peacekeeping mission in the world. Since 2013, 53 UN peacekeepers have been killed in Mali, mostly in attacks on their patrols.
According to the latest UN security council report, two-thirds of Minusma’s 10,600-strong infantry capacity is occupied with escorting food and fuel convoys and securing camps and stores. “On average, two out of three Minusma convoys between Anéfis and Gao, and four out of five between Gao and Ménaka, were hit by improvised explosive devices,” said the report.