Mali – hijacked autonomy, outsized ambitions, French intervention

Whilst it may be fairly easy for the French forces to take the three major cities of north Mali, there are fears that the Islamic groups will move toward Niger or Burkina Faso, both fragile States.

By Rene Wadlow

Since March 2012, Mali has been effectively divided into two roughly equal halves. The northern half is under the control of two rival Tuareg groups with additional non-Turareg fighters coming from other Sahel countries and perhaps from beyond.  The larger Turareg faction is the Mouvement national de liberation de l’Azawand (MNLA). It is larger than its rivals but less well armed.  Its main aim is to create an independent State, Azawad, and the leaders of the MNLA have already declared the formal independence of the Tuareg cultural zone of northern Mali as the State of Azawad.

One Tuareg rival is the Ansar Dine “defenders of the faith” led by Iyad Ag Ghaly.  Ansar Dine is an Islamist group which says that it wants to apply Islamic law to all of Mali. In addition to Ansar Dine, there are at least two other Islamist groups, largely made of non-Malians: Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (known by its initials in French AQMI) and Mujao (Movement for Openness and Jihad in West Africa). The complicated tribal politics of northern Mali and of neighbouring Sahel areas of southern Algeria, Chad, Niger, and Mauritania has made unity of action difficult.

There has been a flood of weapons coming from Libya.  A portion of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s Libyan army and militias was made of Tuaregs who returned to northern Mali with weapons on Qaddafi’s fall from power.  The Tuareg groups quickly took control of the population centers of the north such as Timbuktu and Gao while the Malian army retreated.

The crisis in the north led to a military coup in the capital, Bamako, on 22 March. The military coup was led by Captain Amadou Sanogo.  In response to strong negative reactions by the international community and especially West African States, on 7 April, there was a return to a civilian transitional government. However, the government is weak, divided and poorly administered. The army still has influence, and there is repression against journalists and others critical of the army.  The country has been poorly-administered since independence in 1960, and economic development has been guided by political considerations. There was little economic development in the north, where only 10 percent of the population lives. This lack of development has led to periodic revolts by the Tuaregs followed by promises of greater autonomy for the north and decentralized development — promises never carried out.

While the division of Mali into two halves worried many African governments who envisage possible divisions of their own country, there were no real negotiations with the Tuareg and their Islamist allies.  There were numerous meetings among the leaders of the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas), of the African Union, of the European Union, and in the UN Security Council but always without representatives of the Tuareg.  The Tuareg, unable to show any improvements in the lives of the people increasingly lost ground and influence to the non-Tuareg Islamist groups. The vision of an independent and stable Azawand gave way to a vision of an Islamist Mali spearheaded by Ansar Dine.

Some 300,000 from the north became displaced persons and refugees to neighbouring countries.  The Islamist groups tried to impose their understanding of Islamic law, the Shariah, in all its most narrow and repressive forms. This policy led to the destruction of monuments in Gao and Timbuktu, such as above-ground mausoleums of Sufi religious leaders considered as saints in north Mali.  The mausoleums were thought to provide protection and health to those who prayed there.

On 12 October, the United Nations Security Council adopted a resolution sponsored by France declaring its readiness to respond to Malian government requests for an international force. The Security Council asked for a detailed plan of action to be submitted in 45 days but did not give its approval for a use of force.  Discussions continued between French authorities and African governments concerning the creation, training and methods of operation of such a multi-State force.  Serious estimates based on past experiences of African forces proposed an eight-month period before such a force could be operational.

It is impossible to know what evaluation the northern Islamist leaders made of these preparations.  They may have wanted to strike now before such a force could be created.  They may have over-estimated their own forces based on oversized ambitions and the disorganization of the government of Mali.  Whatever the reasoning, the Islamist forces, estimated at some 3,000 men, decided to strike south on 10 January and march (or, in reality, drive) on the capital, Bamako.  The Malian government cried for help.  The French government which has troops and war planes in neighbouring States – all former French colonies – responded with planes destroying armed trucks, thus stopping for the moment the advance of the Islamists.  French ground troops have been flown to Bamako as a fighting, not a training, force.

What will happen next is unknown.  There is discussion of a joint Malian-French force to take the cities of the north; no doubt the French military doing the bulk of the work.  The Malian army is largely made of people from the south of the country. They have never been interested in the north and probably see no reason to get killed to conquer an area of little economic value.

It may be fairly easy for the French forces to take the three major cities of the north, much of whose population has already fled. North Mali is roughly the size of France. Much of the rural areas have little or no population.  It has always been difficult, even during the colonial period, to create an infrastructure and an administration. There are fears that the Islamic groups will move toward Niger or Burkina Faso, both fragile States. One knows how an armed conflict starts but rarely how it ends.

René Wadlow is a member of the Fellowship of Reconciliation and of its Task Force on the Middle East, and president and U.N. representative (Geneva) of the Association of World Citizens. He is a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace, Development and Environment.

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