As a history buff, I have always been fascinated with the mystics of the ancient African city of Timbuktu. The city is renowned for its historical significance as the crossroads of civilizations. It is among the few places on the continent that still conjures up nostalgic images of Africa’s intellectual history and achievements. The great African empires of Songhai, Macina, and Mali all had roots in the city. In fact, most of modern West Africa can draw on Timbuktu’s long history of education, religion, and diversity.
So one would think Timbuktu is a city that all of Africa should be proud of. But not the al-Qaeda linked militants of Ansar Dine.
Since taking control of the city following the military coup, and subsequent breakaway of northern Mali (Azawad), the militants have gone on the rampage, destroying mausoleums, monuments, and shrines that date back hundreds of years. They claim that the sites are not only un-Islamic, but that they encourage idolatory. They have vowed to continue their campaign to rid the city of all its “ungodly treasures.” Though the focus of the militants for now had been on shrines and musoleums, fears are growing that they might expand their crackdown to libraries that contain rare manuscripts that chronicle the region’s rich history and religious tolerance.
With Mali in disaray, the rest of the world watches in disgust and helplessness. UNESCO has called on the militants to stop the destruction of world heritage sites in what it called “repugnant acts,” and placed most of the city’s revered monuments and shrines on its most endangered list. The United Nations and the regional grouping ECOWAS continue to balk at military intervention after repeated attempts to resolve the political crisis. All the while, the senseless sacking continues.
Since the coup d’état that ousted the democratically elected government of President Amadou Toumani Toure, Mali has been plunged into turmoil, and the country split in two.Tuareg militiamen have declared independence in the north, while Ansar Dine has capitalized on the turmoil to not only desecrate northern Mali’s historical sites, but also to declare a strict interpretation of Sharia law in the territories it controls. Until the coup d’état, Mali was considered a bastion of African democracy, and was hailed as one of the few countries that “got it right.” That adage is now history.
Nevertheless, what continues to amaze me is the lack of outcry at Timbuktu’s desecration. I am not sure why the whole continent is not in uproar; after all, the city and its treasures are part of our collective African history and heritage, not just Mali’s. We in Africa are quick to dismiss western imperialism and the post-colonial plots to dilute Africa’s intellectual greatness, but muted in the desecration of a city that perhaps carries as much important historical significance than any other on the continent. What a shame. — Mohamed Jallow
Mohamed Jallow is a former Colin Powell fellow (Class of 2008/2009). Read more about him and other contributing writers.