Mali’s Porous Borders
On Friday, Bamako flashed into the European media’s consciousness. In the early morning, men with automatic weapons had arrived at the Malian capital’s Radisson Blu hotel. Shouting ‘Allahu Akbar’, they killed two security guards and took 170 staff and guests hostage. It was the third attack of its kind this year. The first was at La Terrasse restaurant in Bamako on 7 March, where five people died; the second, on 7 August, was at the Hotel Byblos in central Mali. Thirteen people died.
The Radisson is in Bamako’s business district, to the north of the Niger River. It is a luxury hotel with almost 200 rooms. The building is long and large, and the gunmen were not able to control it all. By mid-morning people could be seen escaping. By the end of the day, however, when Malian and French forces retook the building, UN peacekeepers counted at least 27 corpses. A receptionist told the New York Times that he had seen a man’s throat cut. Two of the gunmen died too.
Aliou Hasseye, a Malian journalist, arrived at the Radisson at around 8 a.m., an hour after the gunmen. Police were surrounding the building and journalists were not allowed close, he told me. The mood on the streets was tense but controlled. Passers-by were worried, though ‘the people inside were not their families’. The attack happened in the centre of town, but the Radisson Blu is not somewhere that many ordinary Malians go. Like La Terrasse and Hotel Byblos, it’s a place where you ‘find foreigners’, Hasseye said.
But Madame Keita, the editor-in-chief of Journal du Mali, told me that the attack was aimed at Malians too. ‘Each time, we forget, we return to normal life, and then something happens again and we realise: jihad has not forgotten us,’ she said. Since the Tuareg separatist insurgency in the north swept south towards Bamako in 2012, there have been peace talks and elections. ‘But they want to tell us they are still here,’ Hasseye said.
Who ‘they’ are is not yet entirely settled. Al-Mourabitoun, an African jihadist group affiliated with al-Qaida, claimed responsibility on Twitter. But not everyone is convinced. ‘I interviewed an escapee yesterday,’ Keita told me, ‘who said the attackers were speaking English, with a Nigerian accent, and wore a green Boko Haram scarf.’ The Guinean singer Sékouba Bambino, one of the initial hostages, also said he heard the gunmen speaking English.
Either way, this is a problem of regional instability that comes to Mali though what Keita calls ‘porous borders’. Borders explain something of the political difficulties that Mali is facing. The right angles and straight lines of the frontiers of the Sahel are visibly freighted with the violent colonial history of their arbitrary making.
Bamako is much closer to Guinea than to Timbuktu, more than 1000 km drive away. The UN Security Council hasn’t held a minute’s silence for Mali, but in Conakry, President Alpha Condé has announced three days of mourning. ‘Guinea and Mali are the same country,’ he said, and personally telephoned Bambino to offer his support. This solidarity came with not a little hardtalk. At his party headquarters on Saturday, Condé said that Guineans must be wary of strangers. ‘Everyone must play the policeman,’ he told supporters, to applause. He said that he would move to close Quranic schools where pupils wore ‘le voile integrale’: burqas and niqabs. ‘I don’t want this in our country,’ he said. Condé, a Muslim, has been publically critical of ‘le voile integrale’ for many months.
‘There is no talk of that here,’ Keita said, ‘and it is not banning le voile that will save us from terrorism.’ Ninety-five per cent of Malians are Muslim. ‘Here is not the same as in France, where there are problems with immigration, stigmatisation of communities,’ Keita said. ‘We don’t call them Muslims, we call them armed bandits.’
A state of national emergency has been declared as the search for the bandits continues.
‘On Saturday I passed back in front of the Radisson,’ Keita said. ‘There were policemen, sitting in chairs, relaxed, a day later… there was even the woman who sells fruit. She was just sitting there, like nothing had happened.’