BAMAKO/GAO, 22 April 2013 (IRIN) - Residents in the northern Mali towns of Gao and Timbuktu are calling for the rapid return of officials to re-start basic services and help run their towns, which they say are in a state of “complete chaos”.
French, Chadian and Malian armies have ousted insurgent groups from most the main towns in the north, including Gao and Timbuktu, following a 10-month occupation. But despite an appeal from the federal government, only skeletal teams of administrators have returned to their posts.
In the absence of officials, town residents - including village elders, chiefs, women and youths - are working to operate basic services and clean up the damage as best they can.
At the beginning of April, Gao’s governor and prefects returned, as did the director of the academy that oversees the region’s schools. In Timbuktu, the governor and two prefects are in place. Officials responsible for health, energy, education, planning and other programmes have yet to return.
For Kidal town, which is still under the control of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), the government has named a governor and advisers, all of whom are still in Bamako, the capital, and the MNLA has nominated a governor of their own.
Almost all the regional services in Gao are in disarray, said Aliou Touré, a teacher from Gao town. “Health, agriculture, taxes, social development, police, civil protection, the treasury, the banks… all are in disarray… Officials must return to [put] their city back on track.”
The return of administrators would offer some reassurance of stability, and could deter any insurgents who remain at the outskirts of the town, he said.
Gao, Timbuktu and Kidal were all attacked in March and April by insurgents hidden in nearby villages.
The Minister of Internal Security, Gen Tiefing Konaté, promised last week that police would be re-deployed in Timbuktu before the end of April.
Oumar Sangaré, another teacher in Gao, is angry. “The administration has to return to sort things out. You can’t live like animals in a jungle, with no rules, no basic sanitation, no protection. Government and banking services must re-start immediately,” he said. "It's complete chaos here."
Government teachers must travel to Mopti, 500km away, to pick up their salaries, he said, due to the lack of banking services. “It’s ludicrous.”
While local and international aid groups are providing basic food, healthcare, water and sanitation and other essentials to many vulnerable people in northern regions, essential emergency programmes like large-scale fodder distributons and vaccination campaigns for livestock - critical as herders approach the lean season - require government oversight.
Self-organizing amid shortages
With so many civil servants displaced, the federal government has asked elders and village chiefs to set up management committees in Gao and Timbuktu to try to run things as best they can.
Touré, the teacher, said these committees were struggling: “They can’t continue their work because they don’t have the experience or the means.”
Women and youths formed a group in Gao to help clean up the town, said local journalist, Daouda Traoré.
People also organized themselves into a management committee in Kidal.
Water, electricity and fuel shortages still plague most of the north. Gao’s two major generators are currently not working, which means electricity is supplied from 6pm to 11:30pm only, according to an official with Mali’s energy company, EDM. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has been providing fuel for the power stations in Kidal, Gao and Timbuktu to make sure water is still available. It recently called for a further US$50 million to continue this service, and to distribute food to 420,000 people, supply farmers with seeds, and provide some animal fodder and vaccinations to pastoralists.
Fuel supply is more consistent in Timbuktu, thanks partly to a wealthy trader who has stepped in to provide fuel.
The government has mapped out a $198 million reconstruction and rehabilitation plan for northern Mali, said Bassidy Coulibaly, director general of the Ministry for Territorial Administration in Bamako, but it remains just 12 percent funded.
The government is under international pressure to organize elections by July, though diplomats privately admit the deadline is ambitious, saying the end of the year is more feasible.
"If the government is serious about organizing elections for July, the administration has to return as soon as possible. If not, who will organize the elections in the regions?” said Oumar Touré, a retired civil servant in Timbuktu. He also worried displaced residents would be unable to return to vote.
“It’s inconceivable that people [displaced residents] can return - the governor, the prefects are working in complete anarchy,” he told IRIN.
Many Gao residents understand the reluctance of officials to return.
Daouda Diarra, a journalist in Gao, told IRIN, “I think they [civil servants] are right to be scared. Gao isn’t completely secure, and there’s nothing set up here: Everything has been looted, destroyed or attacked. Will they work under the trees? Will they live in the trees? The government has to at least assure the basics before forcing its citizens and administrative staff to return, otherwise they’ll just be sending them to the slaughter,” he told IRIN by telephone.
Moulaye Sayah, now in Timbuktu, was a doctor in Kidal before the events of 2012. “Work is important, but life is sacred. You have to keep yourself safe first and foremost,” he said.
“I understand the complaints of the people in the north who demand the return of the administration, but how and where would we work?” he said, adding that many black-skinned Malians are too afraid to return to MNLA-controlled Kidal.
Abdoul Karim Koné, sub-prefect of Toguérécoumbé town in Mali’s central region of Mopti, disagrees. He re-joined his post two weeks ago: “There is no such thing as zero risk anywhere in the world. If our hour strikes, whether it’s in Kidal, Gao or Bamako, it’s the end. People must accept this, and take up their positions accordingly.”