Bamako — Mali is offering cash incentives to prompt public servants to return to the northern Gao, Kidal and Timbuktu regions they fled during the Islamist rebel take-over and conflict that followed the March 2012 coup.
Around 300 government workers are eligible for the US$500 offer, which began on 19 July and will run for three months. The workers will be paid once they report to duty and are registered. France, which sent troops in January to drive out the Islamist militants, has offered US$1 million to support the scheme.
“The war is over and the terrorists [Islamist militants] have been chased out. Our workers should now resume duty. That is why we decided to give 100,000 [CFA] francs [$200] to every public servant for transport and 150,000 francs [$300] for resettlement,” Abdel Karim Konaté, Mali’s finance minister, told IRIN.
Mali’s northern half was seized by separatist Tuareg rebels following the coup, and then by radical Islamist fighters, following the overthrow of the government in Bamako; thousands were forced to flee to other regions and neighbouring countries. A French intervention force deployed in January of this year dislodged the Islamists from much of northern region.
It is hoped the presidential elections – held on 29 July, with the runoff on 11 August – will restore stability after months of turmoil.
Banking, health, education, police and other public services were thrown in disarray by the chaos in northern Mali, as many officials and workers fled.
Almost all the public buildings were ransacked by the rebels or damaged by French bombardments in Gao and Timbuktu, a defence ministry report said, noting that “the governors and prefects are living in atrocious conditions in those buildings.”
“The government’s decision [to incentivize civil servants’ return] is comforting, and we have organized a convoy of 23 people to return to Gao,” said Mamadou Soumountera. Soumountera works at a training school in Gao, but fled to his village in the central Kayes Region during the instability.
“It is a good initiative, but I find the amount little. I was unable to bring my whole family with the 100,000 francs. I came back alone to prepare for their arrival,” said Ousmane Touré, a government veterinarian who recently returned to Gao. He is waiting to be paid the resettlement grant.
“This incentive will encourage many colleagues to return to work, but beyond the symbolism of the initiative, we need to work because we have been technically jobless for the past 18 months,” Touré said.
Finance Minister Konaté said that the cash incentive was a sign of government’s willingness to help restore normalcy to the affected regions. Some 120 government workers have resumed duty in Gao since the initiative was launched, he said.
Still, the presence in Kidal Region of the Tuareg National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), which seeks the autonomy of the northern homeland they call “Azawad”, continues to cause tensions.
“Kidal is a special case due to access problems and certain security constrains. Unlike Timbuktu and Gao, where the government and the army deployed soon after they were liberated [from the Islamists], the governor and some prefects returned to the region only on the eve of the elections,” said Konaté.
Reviving the economy
Health, education, agriculture, housing, security service have been re-established in Gao and Timbuktu. Banks, tax and customs departments are expected to resume soon.
Naminatou Coulibaly, who works at a Timbuktu school and stayed during the Islamist occupation, said that in addition to the cash incentive, the government should consider paying a special allowance for staff in the northern region.
“The living conditions here are very tough. The cash incentive for resettlement can only cater for rent and a few items. Everything has to be re-established from the ground up because the terrorists left nothing in their wake,” Coulibaly said.
The government plans to disburse US$400,000 to the local authorities in Gao and Timbuktu to allow them rent houses for governors and equip offices and homes, said Konaté.
Moussa Alassane Diallo, the head of a banks and financial institutions association, said they had agreed to resume banking services in Gao and Timbuktu on 20 August. He explained that the chaos had caused $200 million in losses for the sector.
Banking systems in Gao and Timbuktu collapsed in mid-2012, choking trade and transactions with the rest of the country.
“I have to go to Mopti [in central Mali] more than 500km away to withdraw my salary at the bank. After paying for the transport and other expenditures, I have nearly nothing,” said Nouhoum Cissé, an agricultural engineer in Gao.
“With the steady return of public servants and the regional authorities, I’m sure the economy and normal life will resume in the north, because at the moment things are very slow,” said Baladji Touré, a trader in Gao.
[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations.]