France is insisting on ‘rapid’ military intervention in Mali. Its unmanned drones have reportedly been scouring the desert of the troubled West African nation—although it claims that the drones are seeking the whereabouts of six French hostages believed to be held by Al-Qaeda. The French are likely to get their wish, especially following the recent political fiasco engineered by the country’s strong man and coup leader Capt. Amadou Haya Sanogo. The Americans also covet intervention, but one that would serve their growing interests in the Sahel region. African countries are divided and have no clear alternative on how to restore Mali’s territorial integrity—and equally important political sovereignty—disjointed between Tuareg secessionists and Islamic militants in the north and factionalized army in the south.
The current crisis in Mali is the recent manifestation of a recurring episode of terrible suffering and constant struggles. It goes back much earlier than French officials in particular wish to recall. True, there is much bad blood between the various forces that are now fighting for control, but there is also much acrimony between Mali and France, the latter having conquered Mali (then called French Sudan) in 1898. After decades of a bitter struggle, Mali achieved its independence in 1960 under the auspices of a socialist government led by President Modibo Keita. One of his very early orders of business was breaking away with French influence and the Franc zone.
Former colonial powers rarely abandon their ambitions, even after their former colonies gain hard-earned freedom. They remain deeply entrenched by meddling in various ways that destabilize the former colonies. Then when opportune, they militarily intervene to uphold the status quo. In 1968, Keita was ousted from power, and few years later, in 1977, he died in a lonely cell. His death ushered in mass protests, compelling few cosmetic gestures towards a new constitution and half-hearted democracy.
Turmoil defined Mali for many years since then, even after the country achieved a level of political stability in 1992. At the time, it was believed that Mali was fast becoming a model for democracy, at least in the West Africa region. A few years later, thousands of refugees from the ever-neglected and under-represented Tuaregs began returning to their towns and villages mostly in the vast desert region in northern Mali. That return was introduced by a peace agreement signed between Tuaregs and the central government. Little on the ground has changed. Various bands of Islamic groups, some homegrown, others fleeing fighting in neighboring countries, especially Algeria, found haven in Mali’s north and west. At times, they fought amongst each other, at times they served some unclear agendas of outside parties, and at times they created temporary alliances amongst themselves.
While France attempted to keep Mali in its sphere of influence—thus its decision in 2002 to cancel over a third of Mali’s debt—the United States was also taking interest in Mali’s crucial position in the Sahel regions and the prospects created by the ungovernability of the northern regions.
Of course, the all-inclusive definition of Al-Qaeda served as the ever-convenient ruse to justify American involvement. Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) has been used by Washington to rationalize the establishment of the US Africa Command (AFRICOM). It was set up in 2008 to manage US military interests in the whole continent with the exception of Egypt. The US State Department claimed that AFRICOM “will play a supportive role as Africans build democratic institutions and establish good governance across the continent.”
The importance of the Al-Qaeda narrative to the American role in the Sahel was highlighted in the last presidential debate between President Barack Obama and his Republican opponent, Mitt Romney. To flex some political muscles, perhaps Romney warned of ‘Al-Qaeda type individuals” threatening to turn Mali into a new Afghanistan. Other western experts on the Sahel dispute the analogy, however claiming that Mali is descending into a Sudan-like model instead. Either way, the people of Mali are currently suffering the consequences of the burgeoning conflict, which reflects a convoluted mix of foreign agendas, extremist ideologies and real grievances of Malian tribes in the north and west.
The south of the country is not exactly an oasis of stability. The ongoing territorial struggle and political volatility are threatening the whole country, which has been battling a cruel famine and pitiless warlords. The most dominant faction in the Malian army is led by US-trained Army Capt. Amadou Sanogo, who on March 22 led a coup against President Amadou Toumani Toure. Sanogo’s reasoning—blaming Toure for failing to stamp out growing militant influence in the north—sounded more like a pretense than a genuine attempt at recovering the disintegrating country.
It remains unclear who Sanogo’s backers are, especially since France and the US are relatively tolerant of his political transgressions and violent conduct. Sanogo’s coup came shortly before elections, scheduled for last April. While the African Union (AU) reacted assertively to the coup by suspending Mali’s membership, western powers remained indecisive. Despite a half-hearted handing over of power from the coup leaders to a civilian government of President Dioncounda Traore, Sanogo remain firmly in charge. In May, the junta struck again, retaking power, as pro-Sanogo mobs almost beat president Traore to death inside his presidential compound.
Sanogo, empowered by the lack of decisiveness to his conduct, continued to play some political game or another. A short lived ‘national unity government’ under Prime Minister Cheick Modibo Diarra was more or less toppled when Diarra was arrested by Sanogo’s men. He was forced to concede power and install a little known government administrator as his predecessor. Sonogo’s political show continues, especially as the West African regional grouping (ECOWAS), along with the AU remains focused on what they perceive as a more urgent priority: ending the territorial disintegration in the north and west.
The conflict in the north is in a constant influx. Alliances change, thus the nature of the conflict is in perpetual alteration. Large consignments of weapons that were made available during NATO’s war in Libya early last year, made their way to various rebel and militant groups throughout the region. The Tuaregs had received support from the ousted Libyan government and were dispersed during and following the war. Many of them returned to Mali, battle-hardened and emboldened by the advanced weapons.
Fighting in the north began in stages, most notably in January 2012. Sanogo’s coup created the needed political vacuum for Tuaregs’ National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) to declare independence in the north a mere two weeks later. The declaration was the result of quick military victories by MNLA and its militant allies, which led to the capture of Gao and other major towns. These successive developments further bolstered Islamic and other militant groups to seize cities across the country and hold them hostage to their ideologies and other agendas. For example, Ansar al-Din had reportedly worked jointly with the MNLA, but declared a war “against independence” and “for Islam” in June, as soon as it secured its control over Timbuktu. Al-Tawhid wa al-Jihad, along with AQIM made their moves. The allies soon became bitter enemies.
Last September, rebels from various Islamic groupings in control of the north began advancing onto other strategic areas in the center and south-west parts of the country. Their territorial advances are now made against government-held towns and areas that are still controlled by Azawad Tuareg rebels.
There is now semi-consensus on the need for military intervention in Mali, although some differences persist over the nature and scope of that intervention. Sanogo himself has little interest in seeing other West African powers jockeying for influence in Bamako, which could threaten his thus far unchallenged rule. Moreover, it is unclear how affective military force can be, as the territorial fragmentation, many militant groupings and political discord throughout the country are almost impossible to navigate.
The stability of West Africa is surely at stake. The chances of a political solution are all but completely dissipated. The growing chaos will likely benefit interventionist states – France and the US in particular. A long-drawn new ‘war on terror,’ will justify further intervention in West Africa and more meddling in the affairs of ECOWAS countries.
A few years ago, a new ‘scramble for Africa’ was unleashed due to China’s growing influence in the continent. It was heightened by a more recent North African turmoil caused by the so-called Arab Spring. Opportunities are now abound for those ready to stake more claims over a long exploited region.
[Editor’s note: Since this article was written, the U.N. Security Council has authorized the “African-led International Support Mission to Mali” (AFISMA)]