BAMAKO, Mali – When Canada’s first peacekeepers to this West African nation arrive at their new home Sunday, they will find a country riven by rampant poverty, internal divisions and strife — but where sprigs of optimism exist.
Driving through the streets of Bamako, even an experienced traveller is struck by the poverty: children in rags begging at car windows, garbage filling open ditches on either side of the road, rusty cars and rundown buildings.
The heat is bearable but sticky — a good day, says one local — while dust from the red dirt fills the air and lungs and coats surfaces. Then there is the smell: burning garbage, diesel and exhaust.
While the dozen Canadian soldiers scheduled to fly into the United Nations’ base outside the northern city of Gao are the first to deploy to the country, Canada has actually been a player in Mali since the 1970s.
Those interests have traditionally focused on mining in the east and south of the country as well as foreign aid, with Canada having contributed an estimated $1.5 billion in international assistance since 2000.
Canadian Ambassador to Mali Louis Verret says those investments have established one of Africa’s first auditor general’s offices, provided text books to children, helped Mali with its tax collection and funded training programs for women.
And though there is still a very long way to go, Verret says there have been signs of progress over the past year as the country’s overall poverty rate declined while agricultural production and access to electricity increased, and more children attended school.
At the Canadian-funded Centre d’apprentissage feminin de Kalaban Coura, or Cafe, in Bamako, an observer can see Canada’s investment at work as dozens of women are taught skills that can earn them an income.
Sunlight filters into the dimly lit classrooms as women braid hair attached to mannequin heads or work with sewing machines while others gather around a brick table in a courtyard to dye a piece of clothing.
Like many other Malians, Biassow Toure has some schooling but couldn’t find a job and turned to the centre to learn how to become a hairstylist in a country where 45 per cent of the population lives below the poverty line.
She acknowledges that Mali faces many tough challenges, not the least of which is the dire lack of development and opportunity that has made it hard just to survive.
Compounding the problem is one of the fastest growing populations in the world, drought and desertification caused by climate change and a decaying security situation marked by fighting between numerous groups.
“I am afraid about the war,” says Toure, who has family in several parts of the country that have been roiled by conflict. “Many kids have died, many families have died, many women have died.”
The UN was initially tapped to intervene in Mali after a rebellion in the north involving a loose alliance of nomads and Islamic extremists in 2012 threatened the capital, which was itself in turmoil because of a coup.
Until then, Mali had been widely regarded as an example of stability and democracy in a region of the world where both were — and remain — in short supply.
Once calm was re-established in Bamako and the French military helped beat back the rebels in the north, the UN was called in to oversee implementation of a peace deal between some of those groups and the central government.
However, even the UN admits that progress has been much slower than expected, which many experts blame on a lack of political will in Bamako, where providing money to the north and giving it more of a say in state affairs has proven unpopular.
At the same time, the overall security situation has significantly deteriorated as various groups fight over Mali’s profitable smuggling routes, through which drugs, weapons and other goods flow into Europe.
Different ethnic communities — egged on by groups linked to al-Qaida and the Islamic State — have also started to turn on each other in the centre of the country as agricultural land becomes more scarce due to desertification.
The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum warned in a report released in April that there were increasing signs “mass atrocities” against civilians could occur in Mali unless the situation was addressed.
Yet even the Malian military, which is responsible for bringing peace and security to the country, and which the UN supports, has been implicated in serious abuses, including the extrajudicial killing of civilians.
The UN has been hardpressed to respond to the array of challenges despite the presence of a French counter-terror mission, the involvement of EU military trainers and the creation of a joint military force by Mali and four neighbours.
The Security Council is currently reviewing the mission’s mandate, which expires at the end of the month, and deputy force commander Maj.-Gen. Amadou Kane of Senegal argues strongly in favour of continued co-operation with Mali’s military.
“No force alone can deal with these terrorist threats,” Kane says in his office at the mission headquarters, a sprawling complex of low buildings surrounded by concrete walls, barbed wire and watch towers on the edge of Bamako.
“We need to synchronize our efforts so that we can be effective on the ground. So our goal is to make Malian forces more effective on the ground.”
The fear often expressed by those who support Canada’s involvement in Mali is that if the country is allowed to fall into anarchy, the world could face another situation like in Afghanistan or Somalia where extremists can proliferate.
However some, such as Thierno Diallo of Mercy Corps, an NGO that Canada is funding to promote intercommunity dialogue among women, feel the world is putting too much emphasis on military action to address Mali’s many problems.
“Building peace in a complex conflict like this, we think a battlefield is not the solution,” Diallo says as he notes the UN and others are reporting shortages of funding for humanitarian aid and development to Mali.
“Yes, some areas need to be secured by the army. But there is a shifting focus toward more military instead of addressing the root causes of this insecurity: food insecurity; malnutrition; health services. And that is worrying.”
Despite the many complex challenges facing Mali, Diallo and others such as Verret remain optimistic that, given enough time, the country will regain its footing and begin the climb back to stability, peace and — one day — even prosperity.
Back at the women’s training centre in Bamako, Cafe director Balkissa Souma Toure says she can see signs of improvement and progress, and that the security situation isn’t as bad as many believe.
“Mali is going through a difficult time,” she says. “But I hope with international assistance and forces, it will be OK.”
— Follow @leeberthiaume on Twitter.