The sun was rising in Timbuktu, amidst the great Sahara desert of northern Mali. Since its founding by nomadic Touaregs, the legendary city has been a place of multiculturalism, trade, and spiritual exchange, attracting people from the remotest lands. As the city was enjoying the celebration of its 1000th anniversary, it became the centre of a different attention too; and far from the regular tourist interest.
On this sixth day of January, Timbuktu was getting ready for the launch of two weeks of cultural celebrations. Part of those was the much-hyped festival of the desert, which was originally established to revive the old Touareg customs of inter-communal meetings. They traditionally met to exchange ideas, debate about the future of their community, trade goods while playing music and performing all sorts of arts.
The festival usually gathers the greatest African music acts, along with artists coming from all around of the world. This year’s edition was no exception even though a last minute change of scenario was introduced. The festival had been delocalised from its usual site of Essakane, 100 kilometres further north in the desert, due to safety reasons following the recent kidnapping of a French humanitarian worker by Al-Qaeda. Ambassadors from western countries strongly advised their nationals against all travel to the region, provoking a lack of comprehension by the president of Mali, festivities promoters and the tourism industry.
Tourism plays an important role for Mali’s economy. The various calls from those Ambassadors made a certain amount of Westerners reluctant to go to the African region, which has had a negative impact on many local businesses. Many hotel owners complained that very few tourists came this year, putting their business in turmoil.
The danger is also that the lack of business will have terrible consequences regarding employment. Some locals fear that the young people who usually work in the tourism field will fail to get a job. Now jobless, they could therefore be potential recruits for armed groups in the area, leading way to an infernal vicious circle.
The Malian government claimed western governments and media exaggerated those security issues. Mohamed El Moctar, Minister of Culture, called it pure disinformation. He insisted no one had the right to deprive Mali from its main source of development and assured the safety in the region has been guaranteed.
The festival has attracted lots of western visitors over the years. Many of them frequently come back without having faced any kind of trouble. Marta Amico, an Italian student who spent a few months in northern Mali, did not notice any obvious signs of tension. ‘Not one moment I felt in danger but I figured there was something at stake in the area’ she added.
‘The Bronx is more dangerous than Timbuktu,’ Mohamed Ali Ansar, the head organiser for the festival, argued at a press conference. ‘My problem is that I can’t say there is no Al Qaeda in northern Mali, because Al Qaeda is everywhere. They do their attacks in London, in New York City, in India, in Spain, but nobody says don’t go to Madrid or London because of Al Qaeda. Why only to us?’
So why are western authorities so eager to declare the zone unsafe? Issa Dicko, a Touareg intellectual and co-founder of the festival, is puzzled by this attitude. ‘I don’t understand. Many diplomats attend the festival every single year and yet they tell Europeans not to come because of insecurity.’
The Sahara is a region whose main assets are natural resources and in particular petrol and uranium. Mali’s neighbouring country of Niger has been facing a lot of instability in its northern part due to the exploitation of uranium. The Touaregs, who are in majority in that region, have been fighting the government of Niger, claiming the uranium mining industry has been generating great environmental problems and their community does not even get any benefits from it.
In Mali, the northern regions have historically been geostrategic positions. Recently, officials from major economic countries have constantly been present in the area. ‘There are always people from China, France, Canada or the US here. They just wander around and watch,’ Issa Dicko asserted. ‘Today, Americans are everywhere. They’re supposedly here to help Mali fight Al Qaeda. They’re saying after Afghanistan, Sahara is the main danger. But we know it’s not the reason why they’ve come. Actually, they’re interested in the strategic point around the city of Tessalit [in the region of Kidal, northern Mali]. And also recently there’s been a satellite discovery of uranium reserves in the region of Kidal.’
The US has in fact been officially increasing its control over the whole continent of Africa for the past two years. In May 2007, the Bush administration established the US Africom (African command), whose official mission is to ‘conduct sustained security engagement through military-to-military programs, military-sponsored activities, and other military operations as directed to promote a stable and secure African environment in support of U.S. foreign policy.’ Beyond that statement, Africom represents an expansion of the US’ sphere of influence on the African continent. Following the ongoing war in Afghanistan or the recent events in Yemen, only a few would need a crystal ball to figure what could possibly happen in the region. The US has a tradition of asserting its power via its army and the so-called war on terror is always a perfect excuse to engage a military invasion.
It is not a matter of ignoring the problems in the region because they do exist. However, the Touaregs have proved to be the only effective opponents to the Al Qaeda threat. Therefore a US intrusion would not solve anything. On the contrary, it would only generate more problems that could develop insecurity in both Mali and the western world.
Far away from the political concerns, a few hundred tourists ignored the recommendations of their governments and attended the festivities, to locals’ delight. After three days of intense music performances, the festival in the desert was a success despite all that stood against it. The organisers proved that Sahara is neither the end of the world or hell and they can proudly say: ‘we did it!’
Read also: Sahara’s got blues
Photos by Tania Natscheff and Brigitte Schwabe-Hagedorn