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Lecturer examines Mali conflict

In January 2012, Bruce Whitehouse witnessed the beginning of a violent uprising in Mali.

“From my house in downtown Bamako, the capital of Mali, we could hear gunshots all over the city,” said Whitehouse, a Frank Hook assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology and Sociology at Lehigh University.

Whitehouse spoke about the problems Mali has encountered since the overthrow of President Amadou Toumani Touré yesterday at Lucy Stone Hall on the Livingston campus.

“We woke up the next morning and saw on the TV that the constitution had been suspended, and President Touré had gone into hiding.”

Whitehouse said he served as a volunteer for the Peace Corps about fifteen years ago, and said his wife is from Mali.

“Mali is a country that is very close to my heart,” Whitehouse said. “It’s the part of Africa I know the best. We were all quite surprised when things went sour.”

He said a separatist group called the Tuareg, who worked with Islamist groups to gain control of Azawad, the northern region of Mali, headed the coup d’état.

Whitehouse said in the summer of 2012 the Tuareg were overthrown by their Islamist partners. These Islamist groups now control Azawad, which is a serious threat to Malian citizens, he said.

The conflict is a humanitarian emergency for the citizens of Mali, Whitehouse said. There are ungoverned spaces that weaken the nation-state system and present a national security threat to the region, he said.

Over 400,000 Malians were displaced in the North, he said. The rebels have imposed a strict Muslim ideology on the people and instituted harsh punishments for disobedience, including executions for robbery.

Jacob Briggs, a School of Arts and Sciences junior exchange student, said students have a part to play in solving the crisis.

“I’m sure there will be vested interest within the Rutgers community on what is happening in Mali,” he said. “Students can communicate these types of problems here at home.”

Charles Thomas, a professor at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, said the issue is bigger than Mali.

“This involves transnational communities like the Tuareg, and international efforts,” he said. “The solution will probably be seen in French intervention and international aid that can accommodate the Tuareg and get Islamist groups out.”

While Whitehouse said the country has long been touted as a model democracy in Africa, he disagrees.

Whitehouse said Mali’s democracy was an empty shell and the coup represents why the government was so easily overthrown.

There was rampant corruption, including cabinet members who embezzled huge sums of money, he said.

Whitehouse said the government has trended toward absolutism and that it was geared toward receiving more foreign aid, rather than enacting social and economic policy.

Mali also had a weak rule of law, he said. People were removed from land they had full ownership of, and the courts were never on their side.

Of the democratic countries in Africa, he said that Mali had the lowest voter turnout.

In 2011, Capt. Amadou Sanogo, an army officer and popular candidate in Mali, took control at a time when citizens were discontent with their government, Whitehouse said.

Now, Sanogo has very little power, if any, he said, since the Islamist groups have taken control.

The United States has been pressing for elections to be held before the country can be unified, Whitehouse said. But the Obama administration is unable to negotiate diplomatically with the groups now in control.

France began Operation Serval this month, which teams up 3,500 French and 5,000 African troops with the hope of capturing the Islamists, said Whitehouse.

So far, there have been several unsuccessful airstrikes. He said the rebels often withdraw to areas they know best when French forces move in, similar to the groups the U.S. faces in Afghanistan and Iraq.

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