A drama of major proportions is unfolding in Mali, where a coup d'état, combined with violent regional rebellion, has resulted in both the collapse of the state and the loss of significant territory. At stake are many lives, as well as historical documents and artifacts of incalculable importance to African history.


Last week brought reports that rebels had "pillaged and looted" archives in Timbuktu documenting the city's golden era of scholarship between the 12th and 15th centuries. It's vital that the United States and the United Nations take an active interest in what is happening in Mali, take a stand and advocate for peaceful negotiations to remedy the current state of affairs and save these priceless treasures. 

On March 22, 2012, junior officers led by Captain Amadou Sanogo took control of the military and removed President Amadou Toumani Toure from power. Disgruntled by the failure of the Malian army to reverse losses in the war against rebel forces in northern Mali, and disenchanted with widespread concerns of unacceptable levels of corruption in government, a number of Malians were initially supportive of the coup, while others were opposed to having the democratic process disrupted.


With the populace divided, disaster suddenly descended in the north, where rebel troops, taking full advantage of a government in disarray, launched an all-out assault on principal regional towns. In a matter of a few days, from March 30 to April 1, combined insurrectionary forces had established full control over not only Kidal but the fabled cities of Gao and Timbuktu as well. 

Rare African Archives at Risk

Gao was a state of considerable significance in West Africa from at least the ninth century A.D. until the 15th, when it became the political center of the Songhay empire and presided over lands stretching from what is now northern Nigeria in the East to the Atlantic Ocean in the West, while extending far north into the southern reaches of what is now Libya. Gao became twinned with the intellectual and commercial center of Timbuktu during the legendary rule of Sunni Ali (d. 1492), and under the succeeding Askia dynasty when scholarship reached new heights. 

In Timbuktu, the learned pursued all branches of erudition, including medicine, mathematics, astronomy and poetry, while contributing in large measure to the knowledge of Islam. So important were developments in Timbuktu that it became a leading intellectual center, comparing favorably with those found in North Africa. All of this came crashing down with the Moroccan invasion and military defeat of Songhay in 1591. History is arguably repeating itself some 420 years later.

Over the last several decades, substantial efforts have gone into the collection and preservation of manuscripts throughout northern Mali. In places like Timbuktu, Gao and Jenne, thousands of books, treatises, letters, commercial records and other documents have been placed in public and private repositories, a written literature encompassing all of the aforementioned areas of study, revealing a centuries-long love of learning that characterized a region inclusive of a much larger portion of West Africa. 


Places like Timbuktu and Gao constitute the principal nexus to medieval West Africa's famous past, and in these centers that past continues to live. Books not only written in West Africa but also originating from other parts of the world are stored there, gathered for safekeeping. As such, these places constitute a priceless treasure house of intellectual and material culture, together with illustrious buildings going back hundreds of years.

These treasures belong not just to Malians but also to Africans and the African-descended everywhere and should be cherished by the entire world. That such should be the case is supported by UNESCO's recognition of the entire city of Timbuktu as well as the tomb of Askia al-hajj Muhammad in Gao as World Heritage sites.


But all is at considerable risk as conjunctive forces with seemingly conflicting agendas currently occupy Gao and Timbuktu. The National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, also known as the MNLA (Mouvement national pour la libération de Azawad), is one of theses forces, without any apparent ideological or religious program, while the other two major groups are al-Qaida in Islamic North Africa (AQMI, al-Qaïda au Maghreb islamique) and Ansar Din (Defenders of the Faith). Reports suggest that Ansar Din wants to establish Shariah, or Islamic, law in northern Mali and may actually be in firmer control than the other two groups.

Since the military defeat of the regular Malian army, there are very disturbing reports of the violent seizure of property in Gao, where significant infrastructural damage was inflicted. All of this has taken place during a drought affecting major portions of North and West Africa and biting especially hard in Gao and Timbuktu, which lie in the semiarid Sahel region just south of the Sahara Desert. 


Meanwhile, in the Malian capital of Bamako, the military has ostensibly handed over power to a transitional government led by President Dioncounda Traore and newly appointed Prime Minister Cheick Modibo Diarra (the former head of Microsoft Africa). They are responsible for establishing a timetable for electing a new government at a time when a humanitarian crisis is unfolding in the north, with inadequate supplies of food and water and medicine intensifying the suffering. At least 268,000 Malians have already fled the borders to escape these horrors.

A Catastrophe Long in the Making

What is transpiring in northern Mali did not materialize out of thin air. To be sure, there have been uprisings in northern Mali in seemingly every decade since Mali's independence in 1960. Led by the so-called Tuareg, or Kel Tamasheq ("speakers of Tamasheq," as they refer to themselves), these rebellions have for the most part focused on the failures of the central Malian government to address the developmental needs of the north, which is essentially desert and impoverished.


But recent developments represent a qualitative departure, since the MNLA has now completely rejected the idea of remaining part of Mali by declaring Azawad a sovereign state. How this all came about is directly connected to the foreign policy of the present American government and merits scrutiny.

With unrest fomenting in Libya in February of 2011 as part of the larger Arab Spring, Western powers, including the United States, initially intervened by declaring a no-fly zone over Libya under a U.N. Security Council mandate, only to become more actively involved in supporting the Libyan resistance by engaging in air strikes under the auspices of NATO. By October of that year, Muammar Qaddafi was dead, suffering an ignominious death well below the dignity of a world power like the U.S. to allow, notwithstanding Qaddafi's troubling history. Whatever one's view of Qaddafi, it was the West's decision to topple him from power.


One consequence of that decision was the streaming of at least 2,000 Qaddafi loyalists south across the Libyan border with Mali and Niger, all heavily armed. Once in Mali, they reinforced existing oppositional forces with an amount and quality of weaponry for which the regular Malian army was ill-prepared. The collapse of the Malian state in March of this year was all the rebels needed; the result was an utter rout of the Malian military.

Why the World Must Act

Although hindsight is invariably twenty-twenty, this is more than a case of unintended consequences on the part of Western governments. There was sufficient warning about what could happen in Libya, along with appeals to find ways of ushering Qaddafi out of power without so much bloodshed. Instead, the United States boasts of his ouster as a foreign policy "victory," largely because it was achieved absent the loss of American lives.


But what of Libyan lives? By September of 2011, Libya's own transitional government estimated that some 30,000 people had been killed. Since the revolution, rivalries among ruling factions have broken out, frequently with deadly results. The Tubu (or "Toubous" in the French sources), described as "black nomads," have been assaulted repeatedly and have called upon the international community to rescue them from what they describe as "ethnic cleansing." 

Mali does not attract the level of interest it deserves on the world stage, especially since it represents the junction of both local forces and those found elsewhere in the Muslim world. ECOWAS, the Economic Community of West African States, understands what is at stake in Mali and has threatened military intervention to restore the integrity of the Malian state, fearful of conflict spreading throughout the region. Meanwhile, other world powers wait for events to unfold in Mali.


Let's take a different approach and not simply wait. We should petition legislators to take an active interest in what is happening in Mali, to take a stand and to advocate for peaceful negotiations to end the impasse there. Rather than going in with guns blazing, which far too often has been the American way (and may only further endanger the lives and cultural patrimony of Mali), we should encourage our political leaders to create an atmosphere of negotiation and resolution because the situation is quite delicate. 

The Obama administration in particular should be lobbied to use its extensive repertoire of incentives to encourage all relevant parties to come to the table of conciliation. We must effect long-term remedies to the challenges facing the inhabitants of northern Mali, ending cycles of impoverishment and violent recourse. Then Gao and Timbuktu can resume their rightful places as African sacred spaces.


Michael A. Gomez, Ph.D., is a professor of history and Middle Eastern and Islamic studies at New York University.

Learn more about the efforts to save the Timbuktu manuscripts by reading "Targeting Timbuktu" by Paul Stoller on the Huffington Post, and see the Petition to Save the Manuscripts of Timbuktu

Share This Story

Get our newsletter