Lessons from Timbuktu: What Mali’s Manuscripts Teach About Peace

By Michael D. Covitt

The brutal Tuareg insurgency in Mali’s northern region sparked a military coup in this West African democracy, and now more than 200,000 Malians have been ousted from their homes, countless wounded have been left to suffer, and even more are dead. 

The Malian Government dispatched troops to fight the Tuareg insurgency, but they justifiably felt they were inadequately armed for the vicious battles they were facing. The military’s complaints remained unheeded by President Amadou Toumani Touré—choreographer of the Malian democracy and one of Africa’s senior statesmen. The president’s failure to adequately arm his soldiers led to the military coup, which has now spawned many additional problems. 

But there remains a glimmer of hope. 

This hope stems from the endurance of Mali’s centuries-old doctrines, found in their Ancient manuscripts—a blueprint for peace, tolerance, cultural diversity, and conflict resolution that was written over the 12th through 16th Centuries in the Golden Age of Timbuktu. Then one of the world’s wealthiest nations, Mali controlled two-thirds of the world’s gold supply. Today, that blueprint, featured in the Documentary film 333,” brings to the world a message that could not be more important. 

Mali’s roughly one million ancient manuscripts cover nearly every branch of learning—including medicine, architecture, astronomy, astrology, music, religion, women’s rights, children’s rights and animal rights, just to name a few. Former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan wrote, “My hope is not only that Mali will continue to work to build a lasting peace and an environment for sustainable development, but also that this country will serve as a beacon for other States to follow.”

Until recently, Mali was considered one of the safest nations on earth. For years, Mali has been regarded as one of the most stable democracies in Africa. And for nearly 1,000 years, Mali has pursued its tradition of settling all differences through dialogue, tolerance, and forgiveness—tenets gleaned from these ancient manuscripts. An 18th century manuscript from Timbuktu states that, “Tragedy is due to divergence and because of lack of tolerance. Glory to he who creates greatness from difference and makes peace and reconciliation.” 

During its Golden Age, Mali controlled a vast share of the global gold supply and controlled much of the world trade in salt and slaves. Students and scholars from Persia, Egypt, Spain, Portugal, and Turkey attended prestigious universities in Timbuktu and stayed on to pen their own manuscripts.

But now, Malian soldiers, led by 39-year-old Captain Amadou Sanogo, have overthrown the democratically elected President. The President is in hiding, and the military has ransacked the Presidential Palace, firing their weapons in previously peaceful streets.

Meanwhile, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has suspended Mali's membership and put a 2,000 strong peacekeeping force on standby. And a planned peace delegation of five African Presidents was turned back last Thursday by dozens of pro-coup supporters, gathered on the airport runway in Mali’s capital, Bamako, prompting their plane to turn back. The inability to land their plane convinced the Presidents that Captain Sanogo was not actually in control of the nation, as he had assured the world he was.

In a failed attempt to reverse the coup, representatives of ECOWAS threatened to freeze Mali’s bank accounts in the Central Bank of West African States and close its borders if Mali’s government was not restored to its rightful hands by last Monday, April 2nd. 

According to Kadre Desire Ouedraogo, President of ECOWAS, “the alliance instructed the Central Bank not to transfer any funds to the Malian government’s commercial bank accounts.” The United States, the European Union, and France have cut off all but essential aid. In addition, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has called for “calm in Mali” and reaffirmed the UN's support for constitutional order there.

Roughly twice the size of Texas, Mali was already struggling against a growing mountain of problems—the al-Qaida infiltration, drug trafficking in the north, and an indigenous Tuareg uprising fueled in part by returning soldiers formerly armed by the late Col. Muammar Qaddafi. Now, a massive civil war is threatening the entire region. If the Tuareg uprising is successful in Mali, it is entirely possible that it will be replicated in the surrounding nations with Tuareg populations, mirroring the Arab Spring.

State media have cautioned Malian soldiers to stop the pillaging that commenced after the coup, as soldiers made off with goods ranging from cash, to cars, to bananas peddled by street vendors. Gas stations closed temporarily after soldiers filled their tanks without payment. Pro-democracy protesters in Bamako, Mali’s capital are calling for the army to return power to elected officials, while other Malian citizens have expressed their support for the coup.

While the military rebels were busy negotiating with ECOWAS, the suspension of Mali’s constitution, and the April 29th presidential election, the Tuareg insurgents—helped by al-Qaida, and Ansar Dine (an Islamic group that supports Sharia law)—defeated the Malian military in the northern provincial capital of Kidal on Friday, April 6th.  The next day, they overthrew the heavily armed Malian military in the northern city of Gao, and on Sunday, declared their control over Timbuktu, Mali’s most famous city. 

Two notable results from these decisive Tuareg victories occurred on April 1st, prior to the next day’s deadline from ECOWAS to the military insurgency.  

First, Captain Sanogo declared that he “would restore the Malian constitution and restore power to an elected civilian government,” as demanded by ECOWAS. However, Sanogo fell short of identifying a time frame; so on Monday, April 2nd, ECOWAS took action to close Mali’s borders and freeze Mali’s bank accounts. These measures are certain to stifle industry, trigger military desertions, and throw the entire nation into peril. Surely, more of Mali’s population will perish. So now, Sanogo has applied for outside help, recognizing that the junta is no longer viable.

Second, the Tuareg rebels appear to have essentially accomplished what they set out to do, short of achieving independent statehood, by declaring that they will now commence their “mission of defending and securing the territory of Azawad, for the happiness of its people.” However, the invasion was founded on false pretenses, according to Tuareg residents, who maintain that these miscreants have no right to their land.

But there is a positive note. A group of Sufi Tuareg Scholars in Mali, known as “Ambassadors of Peace,” are quietly asserting that now is the time to turn to the peaceful resolution of conflict through dialogue, tolerance and forgiveness. Much as their ancestors have done for centuries, these Ambassadors of Peace are daily teaching the messages found in those endangered tomes.

Each day before the sun rises, the Ambassadors, (either in tents or in open air, depending upon the weather) sit in a “Circle of Knowledge,” teaching the wisdom of the manuscripts to their disciples. And in turn, their words are spread to others.

When conflict arises, leaders of the warring factions sit around a large tree, referred to as a Palaver tree. Palaver means “talk.” Therefore, it is a “talk tree.” Yet more accurately, it should be called a “listening tree.” 

Usually, the oldest scholar sitting with the others around the tree first establishes “that there must be peace; there must be dialogue; there must be understanding; and, there must be forgiveness.” The conversation then goes round and round until a consensus is reached. But no one from the group leaves the Palaver tree before that settlement. 

Mali’s “roadmap to peace,” colorfully portrayed in the movie “333,” offers an inspiring opportunity for all politicians and leaders, around the world.



Mr. Covitt is Founding Chairman of Malian Manuscript Foundation; Chairman & CEO of Sabatier Film Group, and Producer and Executive Producer of the film “333.” A link to the film’s website and the Sabatier Film Group can be found here. The password is onehumanity.

(Photo Courtesy of Robert Goldwater Library)


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