Originally Published 2013-01-24 00:00:00 Published on Jan 24, 2013
The Mali crisis has attained added significance in view of the fact that many other African countries like Nigeria and Somalia are also facing the problem of terrorism. The weakness of the armed forces in most African nations encourages such rebel forces. This re-emphasises the urgent need for an efficient African Rapid Deployment Force.
Crisis in Mali: The larger implications
Mali, a large West African country, has been in the news for many months, and for all the wrong reasons. A nation which was once an example of regional stability in a generally unstable neighbourhood has itself become a victim of instability. Following the Libyan civil war, an influx of battle hardened and heavily armed Tuaregs spilled into Mali. Muammar Qaddafi had absorbed most of the Tuaregs in his armed forces, but with the dictator now gone, they decided to revive their old fight for a separate country called Azawad. The resurgence in armed engagements with the Malian army created discontent between the military and Mali’s political establishment. Instead of a unified approach to the conflict tensions between the army and the government spiralled into a coup d’état on the 22nd of March, 2012 which ousted then President Amadou Toumani Touré. This unstable political climate reflected poorly on the Malian government who were thus unable to gather international support in suppressing the rebellion in its early stages, even as the coup was condemned by the African Union, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the United Nations.

The Tuareg forces, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MLNA), took advantage of this situation and were able to consolidate their presence in the northern part of Mali, eventually taking control of important towns such as Gao, Konna and the historic Timbuktu. The Tuareg are a nomadic people prevalent in the northern parts of Mali and Niger as well as the southern regions of Libya and Algeria. They have traditionally been opposed to centralised government, and have constantly clashed with both the military and the political establishment in Mali. Despite having signed a peace accord in 1996, there was a resumption of hostilities in 2007. The gravity of the current crisis reflects the incapacity of the sub-Saharan south of Mali, populated by fragmented ethnically black groups speaking several different languages to control the Tuareg, who are essentially Arab in their ethnicity. The conflict has been complicated further by armed ethnic groups who have often fought alongside the Malian military but bear no allegiance to them, and have no regard for international conventions and the rules of war. Yet another factor to be considered is the harsh food crisis being faced by Mali. The famine has brought rampant starvation in a primarily agrarian country whose arid north pales in comparison to its fertile south.

The second stage in the crisis came when Islamic militant units such as al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Ansar Dine, and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) hijacked the movement for their own objectives. These groups are not motivated by separatism but are fighting against the secular principles of the political establishment of Mali, which is over 90% Muslim. They seek the imposition of strict Sharia law throughout the nation. This ’hijacking’ is evident due to the presence of ethnically sub-Saharan African groups like the Bella, Bambara and Songhai, who have historically faced persecution by the Tuaregs. There are unconfirmed reports of the presence of Algerians, Yemenies and Pakistanis in the Jihadi units. They utilise Islamic fundamentalism as a method and have been involved in the destruction of Mali’s historical treasures. Ansar Dine has claimed responsibility for the destruction of Sufi shrines and heritage sites in Timbuktu on grounds of them being anti-Islamic, as well as attempting the wailing of women, the stoning of adulterers, and the mutilation of thieves in the war-torn cities in northern and central Mali. In addition, members of the group broke down the doors of the Sidi Yahya Mosque, claiming that reverence for the site was idolatrous. The Jihadists managed to overrun many towns quickly and reached Diabaly, just 400 kms from the Capital Bamako.

The fear of such radical Islamist groups spreading across West and North Africa has triggered interventional action. The decision comes as a protectionist measure taken by France, who in addition to the threat of Islamic fundamentalism is concerned for their significant expatriate population based in its former colony. The ECOWAS forces as well as AFISMA (Africa-led International Support Mission in Mali) are now trying to expedite their arrival to help the badly equipped Malian army. French air strikes on the Islamist forces have been effective in halting their progress, but in order to consolidate their gains, there will have to be French boots on the ground. This raises questions as to how long this can continue, especially if the rebel groups change their tactics and resort to hit and run attacks. The French President, Fracois Hollande has announced that the operation will continue till normalcy is restored.

A pertinent question that arises is that if there were no al-Qaeda or related Islamic militants involved in the conflict, would France have been so forthcoming. The crisis in the Central African Republic, for example, where rebels are trying to overthrow President Bozizé has yielded no support from the French government. France has, in this context, reiterated that its forces exist only to protect its nationals and interests. The French intervention in Mali has larger political and strategic implications. The hostage crisis in a gas field in the south of Algeria has been a direct consequence of the North African country’s decision to allow France to use its air space in carrying out the aerial strikes on the Islamists in Mali. The death toll has risen to 81, with hostages from Japan, Canada and the US amongst other countries falling victim to the Islamists. This has prompted other international actors such as Russia, Canada and the United States to offer logistical support to French and Malian troops.

France’s intervention has been welcomed by many in Africa and elsehwhere. This is to be expected given the explosive mix of fundamentalist Islam and the terror tactics of the rebel groups. It is a matter of concern that once stable nations like Mali are regressing into violent conflicts. The socio-economic conditions such as rising youth unemployment and the ongoing food crisis make it easier for Ansar Dine and other groups to channel this discontent and bring more people into their fold. As the interim Malian government waits for the AFISMA troops, they must reflect on a more long term solution to these problems. The fragmentation of the armed militants imply that a unilateral military approach can only shelve the issue temporarily. What is most important is to be able to contain the religious extremists and to engage the separatist Tuaregs. Offering them some concessions may make it more difficult for Islamist groups to channel their discord. It is learnt that at the Ouagadougou (Burkina Faso) talks last week, a temporary accord has been reached between the Tuaregs and the Interim Government of Mali. The Jihadists, however, did not participate in the talks.

Another fall-out of the crisis is the exodus of more than 100,000 refugees into neighbouring Burkina Faso, Niger and Mauritania. The economies of these countries are not robust enough to deal with such inflows which could lead to instabilities there.

With problems of terrorism faced by other African countries like Nigeria and Somalia, the current crisis in Mali has attained added significance. The weakness of the armed forces in most African nations encourages such rebel forces. This re-emphasises the urgent need for an efficient African Rapid Deployment Force. The international community has a responsibility in realising this if it wants to ensure that Africa does not become the new epicenter for Islamic terrorism.

(H.H.S.Viswanathan is a Distinguished Fellow and Kartikeya Khanna a Research Intern at Observer Research Foundation)

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