The Mali crisis: a continental menace

The crisis in Mali is no longer a simple Malian affair. How Africa deals with it will speak volumes on the continent’s readiness to solve its troubles by itself.

Fred A. Eno, Special to Addis Standard

Dr. Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma could be pardoned for over indulgence in the oft-criticized but favorite past-time of the AU Commission: travel. Yet the Malian crises, and the many others she will have to tackle in the next four years, cannot be resolved from behind her desk in the Office of the Chairperson of the Commission in Addis Ababa. The tasks ahead require the best of her experience, tenacity and perseverance, as they bring to play all the challenges, and criticisms that the AUC encounters in determining its role in questions of peace and security, development, governance, democracy, human rights, social equity, humanitarian issues and inclusivity on the continent.
No doubt the Malian crisis is Dr. Dlamini-Zuma’s  first serious challenge and so far she seemed determined to get it right, at least to the extent that the African Union is not seen as incoherent or indecisive  in its responses. In just a few days after she took her new office she traveled to Mali in what is largely seen as a sign that she is adhering to one of the Commission’s guiding principles, that of “subsidiarity” and “complimentarity” with other organs, Member States and Regional Economic Communities (RECs) in an exemplary manner without compromising the authority of her office or the Commission, even as the crisis unfolds. Final results aside, it seems like a good start.

Tuareg rebels battling for secession

Such coordination, at least for the time being, has contributed significantly to the timely submission, to the UN Security Council, details of the Harmonized Concept of Operations for the deployment of an African-led international support force in Mali, as stipulated in paragraph 7 of UN Resolution 2071 adopted on October 12th 2012. “Instead of us wondering what will happen when we submit our report to the AU, this time we were under pressure from the Commission not only to submit the draft Concept of Operations on time, but also with specificity and clarity from the highest echelon of the Commission to get it right,” said a senior military officer involved in the operational planning who chose to remain anonymous. The Peace and Security Council of the African Union adopted the Harmonized Concept of Operations for military action in Mali on October 24th in Addis Ababa, and by October 25th the African Union Commission submitted the same document for consideration before the UN Security Council in New York.
Such focused leadership from the AUC elevates the levels of engagement in its interactions not only with the RECs but also its key multilateral and bilateral partners, mainly the United Nations, the European Union, France and the United States, specifically on the Mali question.  In Dr. Dlamini-Zuma’s own words, “the Malian Crisis is a crisis that goes beyond the region…if it is not managed well; and even to the rest of the continent. So it is a very important issue that we must get our teeth into…”.

It all began…
On March 22nd 2012, a mutiny by disgruntled soldiers turned into a full blown coup d’etat, toppling the democratically elected government of President Amadou Toumani Toure, ATT.  The deposed president had planned elections for April 2012 in which he wasn’t a candidate, having come to the end of his second term as required by law. Mali fell into the hands of a junta led by a captain in the army, Amadou Haya Sanogo.  He remains the strongman of what is left of Mali today, even if from behind the scenes. Sanogo was forced by The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) to give up administrative and political authority to the elected speaker of the national assembly, Dioncounda Traore. This was ECOWAS’s initial steps to restoring Mali to some form of constitutionality after the coup d’etat. The Malian constitution demands that in the absence of the president, the speaker of the National Assembly be sworn in as interim president. But actions on the ground show that Mali now has a less than ceremonial president and a Prime Minister more engaged in consolidating  his own political capital than governing a fragile and fragmented state, while real power still comes from the barrels of the military, led by Captain Sanogo.

Armed and out of control

The obvious truncation of the April 2012 elections as a result of the coup was only the beginning, as Mali was on a free fall, revealing the artificiality of its security, governance, political and electoral structures. The rot in the Malian political and military landscape was apparent, but now much deeper than it seemed. Within days of the coup in Bamako, Touareg rebels in the north, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azaward (MNLA), emboldened by the disparate Malian army in retreat, the collapse of any form of central authority in the capital and awash with cash, arms and fighters from Libya, the Polisario, Algeria, Mauritania and Niger began their totally unchallenged march onto the key cities in the north. A sign of further complications MNLA rebels soon got unexpected company from other Islamist movements such as Ansar Ur Deen, which has its stronghold in Kidal, Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) with Algerian rebels as main actors, and the Movement for oneness and Jihad in West Africa (famously known by its French abbreviation MUJAO) and which is based in the northern city of Gao. Most were determined to secede with a chunk of the vast Malian desert; they also had set their eyes on Timbuktu, the historic city. Stage two of the Malian crisis was now under way.

No longer a Malian menace
Understandably ECOWAS, the regional power bloc, was swift to act, condemning the coup when it occurred and disparaging any attempts at secession in the north, while convening meetings of the regional leaders to discuss the crisis. In an extra-ordinary summit of the regional heads of state held in Abidjan, the capital of Cote D’Ivoire, on March 27th, a three-pronged approach to resolving the crisis was agreed. First was the return of Mali to constitutional order. Second was the implementation of a mediation process under the auspices of the President of Burkina Faso, Blaise Compaore. Third and last was “the activation of the ECOWAS Standby Brigade to ‘deal with any eventuality’”.  Certainly the eventualities envisaged by ECOWAS leaders fell short of what was transpiring in northern Mali even as they were meeting in Abidjan. Thanks to the deceptive charade of good governance flaunted by the ousted leadership of ATT, which bequeathed a corrupt, nepotic and selfish political class that had lost most, if not all, legitimacy in the eyes of the people, Mali’s decomposition was an open invitation to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the most organized of all the terrorist and extremist groups operating in the Azawad and across the Sahel to congregate and consolidate their hold on northern Mali.  AQIM and the different marauding drug and gun running gangs in the Sahel were opportunistic invaders who rode on the pre-existing Touareg insurgency to establish a foothold in Northern Mali. The real intentions of AQIM, Ansar Ur Deen and MUJAO, (the latter two factions resented Algerian dominance and control of AQIM, establishing their own fronts from Mauritania and Niger respectively) are vaguely couched in Islamic puritanism and Sharia. This is now clear beyond doubt, particularly to the Touaregs, who incidentally are a minority in northern Mali, and all the other ethnic and tribal groups that occupy this vast territory, including the Bella, the Songhai, the Arabs and the Fulani.  All these groups have suffered the same deprivations and injustice from successive Malian governments as their compatriots in the South since independence from France over 50 years ago.  However, secession was never talked of as an attractive option until the recent crises. Issues of inclusivity, good governance, democracy and even development were the bedrock of their grievances. Malians in their vast majority, north and south, share these grievances too.
The hugely decimated influence of Al Qaeda worldwide from Afghanistan through the Arabian Peninsula to Yemen severely hampered the flow of cash and personnel to franchises like AQIM. Therefore creating new, local and alternative sources of money and materiel was and remains crucial for their survival. Taking western hostages for ransom and re-assembling extremist but rogue cells that have been operating across the Sahel from Western Sahara and Mauritania, Eastern Chad to Darfur in Western Sudan with no permanent base after the fall of Muammar Ghaddafi, would put the lucrative trafficking routes to and from Europe for drugs, illegal migrants and arms under AQIM’s control. Gaddafi, who patronized the activities of these renegade groups from southern Libya, was neither a friend of AQIM, nor was he the other Maghreb states of North Africa for that matter, let alone the Arab states. He had hoped to, and indeed used these collections of armed groups from the Sahel for his own purposes and at different times in Sudan, Chad, Mauritania, Niger and Mali, while supplying them with cash and arms from bases in southern Libya. They were also supposed to protect him from external aggression if need be. But when the need arose, most of them walked away with his guns and money, returning to Mali, Niger, Chad, Mauritania and the Western Sahara.
Interestingly, of all the countries receiving these renegades, only Mali allowed them back into her territory without disarming and demobilizing them, while others affiliated with Polisario and the Western Sahara quickly joined the ranks of AQIM, Ansr Ur Deen and MUJAO.
Of the many reasons adduced for the Malian government’s refusal or inability to disarm the returning fighters from Libya, few deny the fact that the Algiers Accord of 2006 between the Malian Government and Touareg insurgents virtually handed over the administrative and security affairs of the north to militias and incompetent tribal warlords who owed their allegiance not to the authorities in Bamako, but to characters operating from Tripoli, Nouakchot (Mauritania) and Algiers. This new playground for Jihadists would soon attract more financial and material support from Saudi Arabia and Qatar who wanted everything to do with undermining Gaddaffi’s expanding influence in the Sahel. Northern Mali and the Azawad were now set for Jihadist balkanization.  But while all the other actors were awash with money and guns, Malian soldiers sent to the front lines to defend their national territory were left to dry in the desert sun. Ill-equipped, poorly fed and going for months without salaries while the generals around the president in Bamako were growing fat in their waistlines and bank accounts from corruption, including money from the drug cartels, the soldiers were desperate. With supply lines cut off and moral at its lowest, Malian soldiers in the north became easy targets for the rebels. A Malian soldier is quoted by the respected Institute for Strategic Studies (ISS) in a joint report with ECOWAS on the Malian situation as saying in the widely spoken Bambara language “Ni i sara Malikola, i sara fou.”  ‘If you die for Mali, you die for nothing’.  According to the ISS, the comment “depicts the state of morale among soldiers and the scope of their resentment towards the government before the 22nd March coup.”

Where to from here?
Mali’s failure and the subsequent crisis are symptomatic of the challenges the continent faces, and its solution could define the way Africa positions itself at a time of significant shifts in the socio-economic landscape of the world. Dr. Dlamini-Zuma was not accorded the luxury of advancing her efforts in Mali and the Sahel, when Africa’s festering sore, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), comes bleeding again in front of her. Yet the tone, pace and clarity  demonstrated by the Chairperson in handling the Mali crisis is re-assuring of her capacity to handle multiple crises on the continent by eliciting the confidence of member states and RECs in mobilizing requisite resources within the continent first. Nigeria is already showing leadership with 600 troops and millions of dollars committed to the Mali operations, and South Africa is pledging significant financial contributions too. However, giving the mantra of African solutions to African problems a real chance, which itself was often nothing but  jargon, is Dr. Dlamini-Zuma’s biggest challenge ahead, which will manifest itself in the form of her working relationship with the RECs, multilateral stakeholders and above all the various Departments of the Commission to get Mali right. Her role in securing the political will of African countries affected by the tricky play from the heart of Mali is indispensable, just as should be a clear and self-directed role by the Peace and Security Department, which has done remarkably well in Somalia.  Dr. Dlamini-Zuma should make no mistake in getting the big elephant that is the Commission she inherited to work in tandem to restore Mali, while tending to the internal malaise that is cancerous. Here, much is yet to be seen.

Show More

Related Articles

Back to top button