Amidst the sudden coup d’état and disintegration of military positions in Kidal, Gao and Timbuktu, the international media has begun to accord the West African nation of Mali its share of due attention. However, beyond the capital city of Bamako, behind the frontlines of the North, a tremendously more consequential and lethal but less photogenic drama is about to unfold in the towns and villages which constitute the majority of the Malian population. Absent a sudden turn of events, a completely unnecessary, man-made catastrophe is about to unfold, and the international community can do little but watch as it all happens in slow motion.
The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has given the CNRDRE mutineers a 72 hour ultimatum; either step down and abdicate all powers which they now illegitimately control, or the regional organization is about to shut Mali off from all international trade. If CNDRE does not abdicate power, the ECOWAS nations – including the Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso, Senegal, Guinea, and Niger – are going to close their borders and restrict all trade with Mali – a land-locked nation. ECOWAS will suspend Mali’s account at the regional central bank, shutting it off from cash reserves. The deadline for this ultimatum is Sunday night.
Observing what is about to happen to the Malian economy is akin to watching a car speed down a two-lane highway and a much larger vehicle is driving in the same lane straight towards it, for one brief moment you can see exactly how this head-on collision is going to occur, and there is nothing that you can do to stop it.
To understand what these sanctions are going to do to exacerbate the misery of an already impoverished nation, one must understand the Malian economy in this particular stage of development. Mali’s economy is already the third- or fourth-poorest in the world, with a per capita GDP of only $1,300. The vast majority of the population is engaged in subsistence agriculture of millet, sorghum, rice and corn. This year even the rural farming class is beset by a massive food shortage as precipitation last year’s growing season was pitiful. Malian farmers call the time of year before the millet harvest in September “hungry season” because the cereals stored in their granaries is now down to the last dregs, and many families reduce their consumption to one meal a day. This year, “hungry season” has already begun for many families in March – and the next harvest is six months away.
To boot, hundreds of thousands of Tuaregs and Songraï from the North have fled from the advancing MNLA forces, creating a crisis of refugees and internally-displaced persons where a population of displaced farmers can’t farm, and their reluctant hosts don’t have food to feed them. Already, absent any government interventions, Mali is facing one of the worst food crises in a generation. Rice is now hovering around 400 to 500 CFA a kilo (~$1), which is a lot seeing that that 500 CFA is a good full day's wage in a country where very few people are even employed in the formal sector, and each wage-earner has to support between 1 and 4 wives, each with an average of 7.4 children per woman, as well as his parents, grandparents, and extended family.
A food crisis is more complicated than a mere shortage of food. During the Great Global Food Crisis of 2009, there was millet and rice in Malian markets, it was there to purchase. However, due to a global shock caused by a devastating drought in Australia, stockpiling by Thailand, speculation on the global commodities markets, the price for rice soared around the world. In just any plain food crisis, the market in food is so shocked by a massive spike in prices that a significant swath of the population cannot afford to buy it. A spike in the price of rice has a dire affects among the population of consumers who purchase all of the food they eat – namely, the urbanites of Bamako, Ségou, Sikasso, Mopti, Gao and Timbuktu. But the 2009 Global Food Crisis was not so bad for the country folk who grew most if not all of the food they eat – in fact, it was a good year for a number of farmers who could demand more money in exchange for surplus grains.
But this food crisis of 2012 is a monster of its own. This time, there is actually a great, endogenous shortage of millet, sorghum, corn, rice, and everything else. The people who farm cereals did not produce enough to feed themselves - let alone sell a surplus they don't have. A lot of subsistence farmers are dipping into their seed corn and slaughtering their draft animals. Many otherwise subsistence farmers are now forced to sell what little they have of economic value – cows, goats, sons, daughters – to purchase their food at market.
To fathom the impact of the impending ECOWAS sanctions on Mali, one must appreciate the absolute precariousness of the already-existing humanitarian crisis. When I call my friends in my erstwhile home, they tell me “the villagers are running out of millet, rice is too expensive to buy.” Rice is now between 400 and 500 CFA/kilo, but it is feared that that price might skyrocket to 1500 CFA/kilo. The Malian economy is already so impoverished that it is difficult to imagine how much more miserable it can become. We are about to find out.
The Malian agricultural sector does not produce enough food to adequately feed its own population, so the food economy is significantly dependent on rice and other foodstuffs imported across the borders with the Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso, Senegal, and Guinea. If the nations of the ECOWAS bloc close their borders to Mali, all Malian imports of rice, corn, and all other foodstuffs will cease (but for the inevitable black market). Mali’s food crisis will deepen even further.
The Malian economy is completely dependent on imported gasoline which is shipped from the Persian Gulf to the port of Abidjan, then trucked overland across the Ivory Coast to the Malian border. As of Saturday, March 31, the price of gasoline had already spiked from 750 to 2000 CFA per liter. Without gasoline, transport and commerce will come to a standstill beyond the local village economy, what little goods can be sold by foot, bicycle, donkey cart, and canoe. Mali’s urban population of roughly 3 million, entirely dependent upon a commercial economy, without any fields to farm, are going to suffer as Malian commerce completely and utterly collapses into a subsistence economy.
In addition, ECOWAS is about to freeze Mali’s account at the central bank from which the Malian Ministry of the Treasury receives its currency to put into circulation. If all goes as planned, on Monday the various private banks of Mali will have no more bills and coins to distribute to account holders when they come to withdraw money. Last week, the banks were already like a scene out of It’s a Wonderful Life; people are waiting in lines 50 people deep to withdraw from their accounts, and the banks are telling patrons that they can withdraw a maximum of 500,000 CFA (~$1,000). By Monday or Tuesday, the banks will have no currency to distribute at all. Soldiers in the Malian Army, gendarmes, all civil servants and teachers will be unable to cash their paychecks.
The point of the ECOWAS sanctions on Mali is to replicate what occurred in the Ivory Coast last year when dictator Laurent Gbagbo refused to abdicate power to the elected president Alassane Ouattara, and ECOWAS froze the Ivorian account. Without the power of the paycheck, the pro-Gbagbo forces demonstrated that their loyalty was contingent upon a paycheck, and they lost all will to fight. Some innocent people suffered, but Gbagbo fell within a few weeks.
If ECOWAS does in fact impose crushing sanctions on Mali beginning this next Monday, one might hope that the embargo succeeds in achieving its intended goal: Sanogo & Co. step down as soon as possible. However, there remains the distinct possibility that the CNRDRE mutineers cling to power for an extended period of time, during which the Malian people are going to suffer dearly. Even after the disaster of collectivized agriculture, the droughts of the 1970s and 80s, this impoverished nation might know a period of deprivation unlike no other.
Capt. Sanogo and the CNRDRE junta apparently don’t care. In judging his reaction to recent events, is clear that in Sanogo and his junta have only contempt for the international community and brazen disregard for the Malian people whom they purportedly govern.
Make no mistake; the ECOWAS sanctions on Mali are not the result of other states' "imperialism", but the inevitable conclusion of the CNRDRE mutineers' virulent conduct towards its economic partners. The junta showed its true colors by preventing a delegation of ECOWAS heads of state from landing their planes. Planes carrying the respective presidents and prime ministers of Ivory Coast¸ Burkina Faso, Niger, Liberia, and Benin were in en route to Bamako to meet with the CNRDRE faction to diffuse the politica crisis, when they turned around amidst reports of a security breach at the Bamako airport. The press reported that the airport runway had been taken over by a violent demonstration of junta supporters. Read between the lines; the Bamako airport is one of the few government installations which the CNRDRE mutineers tangibly control; they have prevented almost all planes from coming or going since the coup began. "These protesters... couldn't have got to the runway if the military didn't want them to," says Bruce Whitehouse, an anthropology professor at Lehigh University. In other words, instead of negotiating with ECOWAS presidents and prime ministers, Sanogo & Co. chose to orchestrate a threat on their lives in order to prevent a dialogue from even commencing.
Therefore, the Presidents of Ivory Coast, Nigeria, Niger, Burkina Faso and Benin did not come to Bamako to negotiate with CNDRE to step down because CNDRE effectively threatened to assassinate them if they landed at the Bamako airport These are not grown-ups we are dealing with, but children armed with AK-47s. The New York Times reports that when ECOWAS met to issue its threat of sanctions on Thursday, a senior advisor to Ivorian President Alassane Ouattara said that Capt. Sanogo’s reaction to the regional body was "basically the equivalent of telling us (fuck) you.”
As Capt. Sanogo and his cohorts jostle with the ship of state as though it is their plaything, 14 and half million Malian civilians are going to suffer as the collateral damage of a few warlords’ lust for power and wealth. It is not out of hand to predict that tens of thousands of innocent men, women, and particularly children are going to die needless deaths in a completely man-made famine, all but proving Amartya Sen's thesis that famines don't occur in democracies. The cruelest element of this catastrophe is that it is not a matter of natural cause and happenstance, but the will of a few evil men.