Increasingly fearful residents of Timbuktu are enduring acute shortages amid a weeks-long blockade of the historic Malian city by Islamist jihadis.
An al-Qaeda affiliate has blocked roads and waterways into Timbuktu, a Unesco World Heritage Site and cradle of Islamic scholarship, since the middle of last month, when it declared war on Mali’s ruling military junta.
Timbuktu’s mayor told the Reuters news agency that the trucks that brought food and medicines to the city on the edge of the Sahara desert were no longer arriving, leading to shortages and huge price rises.
Petrol pumps in Timbuktu are running empty, forcing residents to buy at elevated black-market prices, according to news reports. Potato and onion prices are up to 10 times higher and rice, sugar and millet have all but disappeared.
“Civilians do not have access to essential products and basic social services,” said the EU’s aid agency, with theft and kidnappings “rendering the delivery of humanitarian assistance even more complex”.
The affiliate, called Jama’a Nusrat ul-Islam wa al-Muslimin, is targeting a region that has endured more than a decade of instability. Analysts said JNIM and others are exploiting a vacuum created by the withdrawal of the UN’s Minusma peacekeeping force that deployed to northern Mali in 2013. French troops ended a nine-year mission last year.
Ulf Laessing, Sahel programme director for the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, said the junta that seized power in a 2021 coup “overplayed” its hand in June when it told Minusma to leave.
“Minusma was widely criticised for not being effective but they were able to keep the peace because everyone saw them as neutral,” said Laessing, who is based in the capital Bamako. Now the Malian army was “overwhelmed” by Islamist attacks and the security situation was “already getting worse”, he added.
Junta leader Assimi Goïta had pinned his hopes on a security partnership with Russia’s Wagner Group, which was brought in to combat the jihadist threat. But Wagner’s ability to provide security has been cast into doubt by the death of its founder Yevgeny Prigozhin in a plane crash last month.
The mercenaries, themselves accused of atrocities in Mali, have struggled to contain the militants. Wagner’s 1,000 or so fighters in Mali is just a fifth of the number deployed by France at the height of its mission.
The UN, which has closed two bases in Timbuktu, has also come under attack, disrupting its choreographed withdrawal to the capital.
A spokesperson for the UN secretary-general said last week that three rockets had been launched at its Timbuktu compound, although there were no injuries. Sky Mali airline has also suspended flights into Timbuktu — and nearby Gao — after shells landed near to the airport, cutting another route into the city.
A Minusma official cautioned against “drawing a straight line between our impending withdrawal and the current situation,” noting signs earlier in the year that the security situation was deteriorating.
A Minusma report in March acknowledged the “continued impasse” in the peace process between Mali’s government and the Coordination of Azawad Movements (CAM), a coalition of Tuareg groups demanding greater autonomy. “There’s no one factor that solely explains why things have gone bad,” the official said.
Many observers attribute the origins of the decade-long violence in Mali and the wider Sahel region to the Nato intervention in 2011 that toppled Libyan leader Muammer Gaddafi. The flow of weapons and insurgents to the Sahel in the aftermath of the civil war was instrumental in exacerbating the crisis in Mali that has since spread elsewhere in the region.
Northern Mali’s precarious security situation has been exposed by a spate of recent attacks. The junta blamed JNIM for an attack on a riverboat near Gao that killed more than 60 people this month. The insurgents also claimed an assault on a military facility and a suicide attack on a camp next to Gao airport.
These incidents have coincided with renewed hostilities between Bamako and the Tuareg groups. The rebels put down their weapons in 2015 as part of a peace deal in exchange for a larger say in how their region was ruled.
But the CMA was angered by the junta’s decision to expel the UN troops. It was also one of the many groups that objected to sweeping constitutional amendments pushed through by the junta in June.
Fresh fighting erupted last week between the CMA and the army in a town north of Gao. The CMA claimed to have taken control of two military bases.
One Bamako resident expressed frustration that junta leader Goïta had not even tried to visit Timbuktu or the other embattled regions. “People are angry that the transitional government is not making their lives better as they’d hoped,” he said.