Crisis in Mali

By Emmanuel Seitelbach
MA Candidate Royal Roads University

The Western African country of Mali has been under growing violence since the spring 2012. A rebellion against the government erupted in the North of the country, initiated by Tuareg separatists from the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA).

Since the 1960s, the Tuaregs have been yearning for the establishment of an autonomous region in the northern part of the country known as Azawad. The Tuaregs’ precarious way of life has been undermined by drought and desertification. Many have escaped from economic hardship, oppression and discriminations by moving to Libya.

President Amadou Touami Toure was overthrown in a military coup in March 2012. The inability of the government to resolve the conflicts with Tuaregs was a key contributing factor to the coup, exacerbated by the return of Tuareg fighters from Libya where they had been hired as mercenaries by Qaddafi.

The Tuaregs have now formed an unlikely alliance with Islamist groups that includes Ansar al-Dine as well as the predominantly Algerian Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), presumed by many to be behind the attack on the American embassy in Benghazi. While MNLA is striving for a secular independent state, Ansar al-Dine, now the dominant player in the rebel-held zone, is aiming for the unification of Mali under Islamic law. Also in this alliance is the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MOJWA), an AQIM splinter group.

Massive amounts of weapons from Libya have been fuelling the rebellion in Mali. Financing comes from ransoms paid for kidnappings and illicit drug trafficking. MOJWA and AQIM have been training child soldiers for guerilla warfare. Lawlessness has brought foreign Islamists to the rebel-held zone, including Pakistani, Somali, Mauritanian, Libyans, Sudanese, Nigerian and Yemenite Islamists. One faction of particular concern is the Boko Haram separatist group behind a violent rebellion in northern Nigeria.

Rebels control 60% of the country. The MNLA, after defeating the Malian army, lost control of the area to the Islamist extremists. Brutality, killings and rampage of destruction have been reported in an area where journalists and humanitarian workers are no longer welcome. Islamic law has been imposed at gunpoint. All music, television and smoking have been banned. Monuments and shrines deemed idolatrous have been destroyed.

The number of refugees fleeing the fighting is reaching 400,000 persons, including internally displaced populations and those fleeing to neighbouring Mauritania, Niger, and Burkina Faso. The town of Menaka is receiving thousands of refugees and is without much needed water, food, electricity or medicine.  Famine and disease are starting to take their toll.

The United States and France have been voicing their concerns, making a call for an African led intervention with their military planning and support.

The French government is pushing for an immediate offensive led by the Malian army and supported by a Nigerian-led coalition of 3,300 troops from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).

The US position is that an immediate intervention is likely to fail as the 3,300 ECOWAS troops do not have the manpower and skills to carry out a counter-insurgency operation. With the Obama administration having “invested tens of millions of dollars over the last decade,” the sudden collapse “suggests that Washington had significantly misread the environment in Mali.” The Obama administration has had to readjust its approach, maintaining that after the elections planned in 2013 a new Mali administration would be in a better position to request U.N-sanctioned ECOWAS force.

An intervention presents the risk of exacerbating the humanitarian crisis, causing civilian casualties and more refugees fleeing the war zone. If nothing is done, the crisis is likely to spread regionally, maintains Robert Fowler. The case of Somalia has shown how Islamist groups thrive in power vacuum: the growing presence of AQIM could produce an Islamist stronghold that would strive to spread Islamic rule across the Sahel and turn the region into a base to attack Western targets in West Africa. Islamist groups take advantage of porous borders to expand their cooperation. Completely eliminating AQIM is not possible, but the position espoused by Fowler that an immediate intervention can seriously disrupt Islamists’ capacity to strike and would not need to be a major military operation at this point in time holds a great deal of weight. Making use of partners in the region, Algeria has the capacity to lead this operation.

Mali was a promising stable democracy in which westerners have invested millions in development aid. Canada has provided financial aid (which has been suspended after the coup) and trained the Malian forces. This is the moment when Mali needs Western support and protection. The Malian army must be prepared to assume control of the north, once stabilized.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the CDA Institute.

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