My mind, frankly, was on anything but peace as I entered the United Nations conference hall to participate in a Culture of Peace and Non-Violence event. On that same day – 21 September 2012 – yet another UN resolution had been released on the crisis in Mali. I felt overwhelmed by the ponderousness of the UN machine. That the UN, in association with African political leaders, recognised the danger posed by fundamentalist aggression to the Sahel and west Africa was not in doubt. The sense of urgency, however, lagged so far behind my own that it was a marvel I did not invade the conference hall with a banner, screaming: TAKE BACK MALI – YESTERDAY!
The security council had already set out a “roadmap” for a west African force of intervention in the Sahel – it required the secretary general to report back on “progress” a few months later. This, it struck me, was an instruction not to the secretary general, but to the fundamentalist invaders to report to the world on the progress they would have made in destroying the ancient libraries of Timbuktu; amputating the arms of a few more Malians; and stoning to death deviationists from their “moral code”.
It was an invitation to Ansar Dine’s allies Boko Haram to nudge a few more terminators into Nigeria; demolish a few more educational, cultural and religious institutions; eliminate what was left of the UN presence after its bomb attack on the UN HQ in Abuja; and continue its project of unleashing death and destruction in southern Nigeria.
Before the conference, I had button-holed senior Nigerian officials at every opportunity. None needed any persuasion about the danger to west Africa if the fundamentalist menace were not contained, rapidly. President Jonathan himself, I was assured, was sensitive to the ramifications of Mali’s northern takeover. So were a number of African heads of state. What was lacking was the practical preparedness for action. To any student of the fundamentalist temperament, this imperative of urgent response should be second nature. Africa’s political leadership should be in a state of permanent consciousness – and responsiveness. We are not novices, after all, to the ruthless nature of fundamentalist insurgency, its territorial desperation and, above all, its contempt for humanity.
Logically, Mali’s neighbours should have taken the initiative – and within weeks of the expansion of what had been a local, opportunistic insurgency into the global arena. As it was, evidence accumulated that northern Mali had been infiltrated by al-Qaida fighters dislodged from Libya, Somalia and other former sanctuaries, as was acknowledged by the Nigerian government.
Nevertheless, in the end, it took a former colonial power to seize the leadership. Humiliating? Not quite. This invasion was not just a Malian affair, or even an African one: it was a global challenge. It had become clear that a few more weeks of inaction would have empowered Mali’s invaders and, by extension, the murderous campaign of Nigeria’s own Boko Haram.
Unlike most commentators, I confess that I find it impossible to regard these al-Qaida clones as either political or religious movements, even of the extremist kind. That their ability to recruit footsoldiers is a reflection on society’s failures is not in doubt; nonetheless, it is naive to attribute this solely to unemployment, marginalisation and other social inequities. The world is facing viral mutations of the human psyche. Take Joseph Kony, the Christian warrior of Uganda whose idea of “resistance” is child conscription, abduction and rape, spiced with the slicing off of lips, ears and noses of unbelievers. People such as he belong to a special category that is part-criminal, part-psychopathic – hence my warning to that UN meeting:
“Let us recall that it is not anti-Muslims who have lately desecrated and destroyed – and with such fiendish self-righteousness – the tombs of Muslim saints in Timbuktu … The orientation – backed by declarations – of these violators leaves us with a foreboding that the invaluable library treasures of Timbuktu may be next.”
The truth, alas, is that the science fiction archetype of the mad scientist who craves to dominate the world has been replaced by the mad cleric who can only conceive of the world in his own image, proudly flaunting James Bond’s 007 credentials – licensed to kill. The sooner national leaders and genuine religious leaders understand this, and admit that no nation lacks its own dangerous lunatics, be they Ansar Dine of Mali, or Terry Jones of Florida, the earlier they will turn their attention to the issues truly deserving priority.
The treasures of Timbuktu appear to have been saved from total destruction. Mali, finally, is being restored. For Africa’s leadership, however, it is yet another wake-up call – and one that goes beyond a mere call to arms.
Wole Soyinka is a Nigerian playwright and poet who won the Nobel prize for literature in 1986.