French troops intervened in Mali with the task to stop and assist Malian armed forces in fighting against Islamists. French President Hollande decided to act without waiting the multinational force planned for September 2013, and although received backing and support are the long-term consequences that create uneasiness.
Mutiny, Coup, Secession and Islamic radicalization: A Disaster Waiting to Happen
On 21st March, military seized power in Mali with a coup arising out of a mutiny led by a mid-ranking army officer, Capt Amadou Sanogo, one of the few officers who did not flee the Kati camp when the rank-and-file soldiers began rioting and then headed for the seat of government. Soon after the coup, a national curfew was imposed, whilst a number of ministers were arrested. President Amadou Toumani Toure, later fled with his family to neighbouring Senegal.
The Malian soldiers who carried out the coup said they did so because the elected government had been incompetent in dealing with the Tuareg rebellion. However, soon after the coup, during the power vacuum that ensued, the rebels took control of an area they call Azawad.
The economic inequality and political corruption that lead to the mutiny are common in Africa, but no one expected the rebels being so strong to achieve their victory in such a short time. Whilst the Malian political class collapsed following the coup and the military collapsed after struggling to contain the rebels advance, Mali has been virtually split in half: the south controlled by the government forces and the north by the rebels of Ansar Dine and MNLA.
Mali suffered not only an institutional collapse, but also a long standing inability in dealing with the Tuareg claims for a permanent solution. Along this political lack of wisdom, Islamist groups linked to ALQAIM started to fill the gaps in the crippling northern institutions and joined the long term struggle of MNLA fighters.
The marriage of convenience between MNLA and Ansar Dine, which emerged as the strongest Islamist group, however did not last long. Soon after the proclamation of independence of Azawad by MNLA, Ansar Dine starts its own war against MNLA for the proclamation of a jihadist state. Whilst both groups had access to weaponry from the Libyan civil war, Ansar Dine has also something very important in shifting alliances and recruit followers: money. Its links with ALQAIM allow Ansar Dine to recruit, buy arms, and building a strong organisation, whilst MNLA struggle to maintain its own structure alive. When Islamists conquered Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal, summary executions took place and a harsh from of Sharia imposed, with civilians leaving for the South and along the human tragedy there was also the destruction of a cultural patrimony and a once florid market.
Following the above crisis, and the danger of the spreading of this insurgency to other states, UNSC approved a multinational military force, scheduled for September 2013. This unrealistic date, the crumbling of security not only in Mali but also in other West African states, was the last in a series of events that lead to the mobilization of France’s war machine.
The Key Players in the Malian Crisis
Government and Armed Forces
After the coup, following ECOWAS and international condemnation, the military junta agreed a power transfer to an interim president, Diouncounda Traore, responsible to oversee a timetable for elections. Mr Traore and his prime minister, Cheick Modibo Diarra, have appointed 24 ministers in total, none of whom were part of the old government. However, it appear clear that both the military and the politicians were not strong enough to overcome the adversary, and internal fighting made them blind on the tragedy and threat arriving from the north.
Dioncounda Traore, 70, has long harboured presidential ambitions, but he had hoped to come to power through the ballot box by contesting elections originally scheduled for April. He was a founding member in 1990 of the political party Alliance for Democracy in Mali and between 1992-1997 he held various ministerial portfolios including defence and foreign affairs. In 2007, he was elected as speaker of the National Assembly. He was an ally of the deposed President Amadou Toumani Toure, who had become deeply unpopular. As a result, many Malians are wary of Mr Traore, who is not seen as charismatic, whilst the Malian political parties have united against the coup and indicated they could use their control of the national assembly to pass an amnesty for the putschists if civil rule is soon restored.
The Malian Military coup was nothing new in African politics and once more demonstrated the persistence of one of African diseases: the fragility of the democratic institutions. Governments, especially in West Africa appear weak, where widespread poverty and corruption make them an easy targets of dissatisfied officers and soldiers. Mali coup was an intervention to replace an inept government unable to guarantee security, battle corruption, ensures redistribution of resources.
Malian armed forces are facing insurgencies and rebellions, not only within army ranks, but also from sectors of society disillusioned with the governments’ policies and especially from political groups that wish to overthrow corrupted institutions dominated by religious or ethnic lines. However, they lack funds, equipment, and training against rebels that appears well armed. France intervention could restore their confidence and material advantage, but with a possible downside: a well trained and equipped armed force will it be any good in a country where political institutions are nonexistent?
The Islamist Galaxy
Ansar Dine (Arabic: أنصار الدين, also transliterated Ançar Dine, Ançar Deen or Ansar ad-Din; meaning “Defenders of Faith“) is an Islamist group led by Iyad Ag Ghaly. Ag Ghaly, one of the most prominent figures of a Tuareg rebellion in the 1990s, is accused of having links with Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and other Islamist groups, a splinter group which is led by his cousin Hamada Ag Hama. Ansar Dine wants the imposition of Sharia (Islamic law) across Mali. The group’s first action was in March 2012.
Ansar Dine has its main base among the Ifora tribe from the southern part of the Tuaregs’ homeland. Ag Ghaly was also previously associated with the 1990 Tuareg rebellion. Witnesses have said Ansar Dine fighters wear long beards and fly black flags with the Shahada (Islamic creed) inscribed in white. According to different reports, unlike the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), Ansar Dine does not seek independence but rather to keep Mali intact and convert it into a rigid theocracy. France describes the group’s tactics as “Al-Qaeda-style.” On 22nd March, following the military coup, Ansar Dine and MNLA proceeded to take the towns of Kidal, Gao, and Timbuktu and started introducing sharia law.
The Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa
The Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, or at-tawḥīd wal-jihād fī gharbi ‘afrīqqīyā (Arabic: التوحيد والجهاد في غرب أفريقيا, French: Mouvement pour le Tawhîd et du Jihad en Afrique de l’Ouest), is an active organisation that broke off from the Al-Qaeda Organization in the Islamic Maghreb. It announced its first armed action on video on 12th December 2011 with the intended goal of spreading jihad across a larger section of West Africa, though operations have been limited to southern Algeria and northern Mali.
Some analysts believe that the split of the Black African-led MOJWA is a consequence of the Algerian predominance on AQIM’s leadership. The group released a video speaking of their ideological affinity with figures including al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden and Taliban leader Mullah Omar, but making more emphasis on West African historical figures, claiming to be the “ideological descendants” of Cheikhou Amadou, Usman Dan Fodio and El Hadj Umar Tall. Al-Qaeda-affiliated groups in Algeria, Mali, Niger and Mauritania had been present for at least a decade prior to the group’s founding and escalated further following the 2011 Libyan civil war and the influx of weapons in the desert area. Mauritanian Hamada Ould Mohamed Kheirou is believed to be the chief of the group. Mauritanian authorities issued an international arrest warrant. Other key members are Algerian Ahmed Al-Talmasi and Malian Sultan Ould Badi, who is defined by Malian authorities as a “drug traficker”. During the 2012 Tuareg rebellion in late March, MOJWA stated that it had taken part in the capture of Gao, along with Ansar Dine.
The Al-Qaeda Organization in the Islamic Maghreb
The Al-Qaeda Organization in the Islamic Maghreb, (Arabic: تنظيم القاعدة في بلاد المغرب الاسلامي Tanẓīm al-Qā‘idah fī Bilād al-Maghrib al-Islāmī) previously known as the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (Arabic: الجماعة السلفية للدعوة والقتال al-Jamā‘ah as-Salafiyyah lid-Da‘wah wal-Qiṭāl; French: Groupe Salafiste pour la Prédication et le Combat, GSPC; also known as the Group for Call and Combat) is an Islamist militia which aims to overthrow the Algerian government and institute an Islamic state. To that end, it is currently engaged in an insurgent campaign. The group has declared its intention to attack Algerian, Spanish, French, and American targets. It has been designated as a Foreign Terrorist Organization by the U.S. Department of State, and similarly classed as a terrorist organization by the European Union.
The GSPC was founded by Hassan Hattab, a former Armed Islamic Group (GIA) regional commander who broke with the GIA in 1998 in protest over the slaughter of civilians. Estimates of the number of GSPC members vary widely, from a few hundred to as many as 4,000. Algerian officials and authorities from neighbouring countries have speculated that the GSPC may be active outside Algeria. These activities may relate to the GSPC’s alleged long-standing involvement with smuggling, protection rackets, and money laundering across the borders of Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Libya and Chad, possibly to underpin the group’s finances. However, recent developments seem to indicate that a splinter group may have sought refuge in the Tuareg regions of northern Mali and Niger following crackdowns by Algerian government forces in the north and south of the country since 2003.
The National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad-MNLA
The National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad or the Azawad National Liberation Movement (Tamasheq: Tankra n Tumast ḍ Aslalu n Azawd, Arabic: الحركة الوطنية لتحرير أزواد, French: Mouvement National pour la Libération de l’Azawad; MNLA), formerly National Movement of Azawad (French: Mouvement national de l’Azawad; MNA) is a political and military organisation based in Azawad/Northern Mali. The movement is made up of Tuareg, and some of them are believed to have previously fought in the Libyan army, during the 2011 Libyan civil war, although other MNLA fighters were also on the side of the National Transitional Council. The movement was founded in October 2011 and had stated that it includes other Saharan groups. The Malian government has accused the movement of having links to Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. However, the MNLA deny the claims. Since 1916 there have been at least five Tuareg rebellions. After the failure of the previous rebellion, Tuareg fighters left for Libya where they were integrated into the Libyan Army. At the end of 2011, following the defeat of Libyan Arab Jamahiriya several Tuareg from the Libyan Army and the rebel National Transitional Council returned to the Azawad regions of northern Mali. Many fighters returned from Libya for either financial reasons, such as losing their savings, or due to the alleged racism of NTC fighters and militias. The group is considered to be secular and have presented themselves as a movement for the liberation of all the peoples of Azawad: Songhai, Arab, Fula and Tuareg. There were also rumours that the group has been supported by battle-hardened Tuaregs from Niger. On the subject of its composition, the MNLA has declared:
“The MNLA would like to make it clear that within the MNLA military command there are: old rebels from the uprisings of the 1990s (MFUA – Movements of the united Fronts of Azawad); of 2006 (MTNM – The Tuareg Movement of Northern Mali, which was led by the late Ibrahim Ag Bahanga); fighters who have returned from Libya; volunteers from the various ethnicities of northern Mali (Tuareg, Songhai, Peul and Moor) and both soldiers and officers who have deserted from the Malian army”.
The French intervention has taken many by surprise but it was only a matter of time before international powers would have realized that Mali and West Africa could not be left at the mercy of terrorist groups. A military intervention, which was planned for September 2013 by UNSC resolution, had to be anticipated due to the risk posed by Ansar Dine towards the Southern part of Mali, and therefore the possibility of the country becoming a new heaven for terrorists.
However, this unavoidable intervention is there to solve the avoidable: the collapse of Malian political institutions, the intervention of armed forces in politics, incapacity to listen and solve the Tuareg claims, incapacity in guarantee security, and the effects of the Libyan civil war. Those responsible for this list of shortcomings are not only in Bamako can be easily argued. The paradox in all this is that the African Union, ECOWAS and NATO are all responsible for the latest developments: South Sudan independence, war in Libya, and support to rebels from NATO have increased instability in the region. Many observers and especially diplomatic officials are trying to downplay the Libyan connection, but whatever the reason one fact is clear: the recent explosion of violence in West Africa, with armed groups able to conduct military operations and with an increase fire power is not only coincidence. Examples of this are not only the Tuareg rebellion but also the escalated actions of Boko Haram in Nigeria.
The collapse of the Malian state and the rapid evolution of a war of liberation into an Islamic insurgence has materialised the risk against many expert were warning. The Malian crisis is not Tuareg centred anymore, is part of a wider scenario where new groups are benefitting from weak governments and abundance of weapons to achieve their goal: the transformation of West Africa in a new jihadist area.
The moment when MNLA succumbed under the more powerful fighters of the Islamic galaxy, France and the other countries found themselves with a real prospect of losing control. This is not the US chasing “Persian witches” in Latin America or the nuclear bomb propaganda; this is the reality of fighting a real enemy on multiple fronts.
The ridiculous attempt of the UN to intervene, but only in September, has shown the complete distance of touch of the organisation from the reality on the ground and pushed France to act. France has maintained strong interest, political, economic and strategical links in West Africa, especially in the francophone states. France maintained a special relation and a military apparatus, that although criticised in the past as a wasteful army, is today seen as the saviour wall against losing this war. However, France cannot do this alone for military and strategic reasons, political and historical facts.
Whilst we have seen a rapid enlargement of its troops, the French tare also calling other states to intervene, some of which had turbulent diplomatic relation with Paris in the past, such Nigeria that is considered the bulk of the ECOWAS forces.
Role of African Armies
African armies are called to intervene for two reasons: release the western powers from acting directly in Africa and empower a transition to a Malian government. However both calculations could be at risk. African armies have proven sometimes as more troublesome than effective, and their equipment as well as training is sometime cause of further casualties and tensions. The UNSC approved a task force than is now trying to assemble in anticipated time, mainly with the support of ECOWAS troops. It can be argued how these armies will be able to achieve not only a military victory but also ensure security when often they are even unable to guarantee that in their own countries.
Nigeria, Chad, Niger, Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast will be able to send reinforcements but how effective they will be in a desert warfare? How some soldiers will react when they will face fighters of their same ethnic/belief roots? The western powers will be obliged to stay in Africa and support these fragile armies, at the same offering the cheek for a punch from Islamic propaganda on colonialism and western crusade.
Risks and Solutions
The Military intervention alone will not resolve either the Tuareg problem or the Islamic insurgence. France has already proven that aerial raid and small, although well-armed troops, will not be enough in contrasting a non-conventional army. The war which will be fought in the hot and arid desert of northern Mali will pose huge technical and logistical problems to conventional armies, especially when fighting against smaller groups which adopts terroristic tactic rather than guerrilla warfare.
A military intervention made up of ex colonial powers “teaching inexpert African armies” about war will be perceived badly in Africa and outside. The Tuareg issue will assume therefore a key feature and importance in achieving a long term victory. MNLA fighters know the territory and desert secrets and may be the key to unlock the Islamic block, but this help will not come without a concession. Mali stability for the future, and even for the neighbours, must start by addressing the roots of the Malian crisis: Tuareg discrimination. Sometimes called the Blue People, because of the indigo used in some traditional robes and turbans dye their skins dark blue, are historically nomadic Berber people who live in the Sahara and Sahel regions of Libya, Algeria, Niger, Burkina Faso and Mali, which they call Azawad.
The Tuareg in Mali say they face discrimination because they are light-skinned and have been neglected by the government in Bamako. They prefer to call themselves the Kel Tamasheq or speakers of Tamasheq, their language which has its own alphabet. Tuaregs have been often relegated to second class citizens and, rightly, they denounce governmental refusal in improving their living conditions. Many governments in Africa simply do not have the power, or the willingness, to resolve ethnic and religious disputes, concentrating instead in corruption and divisions as to ensure longevity in power of the rulers. Tuaregs, as per many other ethnic groups, are suffering the consequences of the colonial borders drawn by the colonial powers between 19th and 20th century. Those borders cut and divided a map following diplomatic interests and economic patterns, but not taking into account the populations living there. The result has been that same ethnic groups have been split on different countries, in some cases constituting the majority on the other a minority struggling to achieve the same right of the dominant ethnic group. Based on the above, Tuareg claims are not new and similar cases are to be found throughout Africa.
However, along tribal and ethnic division, a new and more dangerous threat is spreading in the Sahel region: Islamic insurgence linked to Mahdism and Jihadism.
Islamic religion is widespread in West Africa, and share grounds with Christian and Animist beliefs, but recent issues have altered an already fragile equilibrium shifting the balance towards radical Islamic insurgence. One of the main reasons for this alteration has been the ill-pondered policy of supporting rebels in Libya.
The huge amount of weapons available created a support to groups willing to start a similar war of liberation against their own governments. The origins of this arsenal can be traced as follows: Gaddafi’s Army equipment, NATO supply to rebels and black market. During the Libyan civil war, and especially after, a huge amount of heavy weaponry, as well bacteriological a chemical arsenal known to be in possess by Gaddafi went missing or unaccounted for. France troops faced a well-equipped fighters with modern weapons and not only guns and pick-ups.
The problem with Mali is that the Islamic infiltration and insurgence is spilling across borders and will not be solved unless neighbouring countries will be able to contrast themselves internal groups. The latest news from Algeria are the demonstration on how easily the war can spill over and how governments are often unable to guard their border and ensure security.
Taking into account the above, the struggle for Mali is far greater than a simply intervention to eliminate terrorists; is the struggle for the survival of West African states. The war and external intervention will be unfruitful if they will not be followed by addressing corruption of political class in Africa, reviving economy, solving ethnic and tribal claims, empowering armies on technical side whilst improving their records in dealing with civil liberties.
A military intervention without political agenda will lead, most likely, in the short term to a victory but incapacity in building strong institutions in the long, thus leaving the door open elsewhere for a new war/rebellion to start again. Western intervention without a comprehension of African malaise will lead to neo-colonialism, whilst African intervention without understanding western uneasiness towards terrorism will lead the fragile institutions exposed to new revolutions.
Mali can be either a victorious page for the international diplomacy or follow the horrific path of similar campaigns in Somalia.