After weeks of shuttle diplomacy, speculation and contradictory signals, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) now have the backing of the Malian government for a major troop deployment in northern Mali.
ECOWAS is still seeking support from the UN Security Council, whose members are divided on the issue of military intervention. Internal ECOWAS documents point to a draft plan, outlining provisional troop numbers, budget and time-frame.
In Bamako, supporters of an ECOWAS deployment are adamant that a strong outside force is crucial if Mali wants to “recapture” the north, ousting the terrorists movements which took over the area six months ago but have dominated an extensive criminal economy for years.
Speaking at a high-level meeting on the sidelines of the General Assembly last week, Secretary-General Ban ki-Moon highlighted the Sahel’s need for closer regional cooperation and a special UN emissary of its own, warning of “terrorist groups, transnational criminal organizations and insurgencies”, and noting: “Human trafficking is on the rise, along with drug-trafficking and arms smuggling.”
When the rebellion in northern Mali broke out in January, it was the Tuareg National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) that quickly out-manouevred a demoralized, ill-equipped army, capturing large swathes of territory.
The MNLA’s demands for an independent Arab state carried strong echoes of previous insurgencies but its combatants and fledgling administrations were rapidly supplanted by radical Islamic movements.
For Bamako, the main enemy no longer had a separatist agenda, but a rigid commitment to a Salafist Islam largely alien to Mali. At the same time, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), widely presented as the controller and financier of the Arab radicals in the north, has extensive trafficking and kidnapping networks there – reportedly secured with the discreet connivance of sections of the Algerian security forces.
While there has been endless speculation about the size, military strength, internal structures and support networks of the three main movements (Ansar Dine, the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa – MUJAO, and AQIM), hard information has often proved elusive.
Visitors to the north suggest AQIM’s leadership is very much present, but extremely mobile, individual warlords frequently shifting location, while MUJAO’s strength is allegedly growing, much of it fuelled by non-Malian North Africans.
In a 23 September report Human Rights Watch (HRW) warned that under the control of Arab terrorists “stonings, amputations and floggings have become the order of the day in an apparent attempt to force the local population to accept their world view.”
There is evidence of strong cohesion between the three movements on imposing Sharia, with courts now sitting regularly in Timbuktu and Gao, according to senior HRW Africa researcher Corinne Dufka, who also confirmed major recruitment drives of children and adults.
Diplomats, who see a conflict as likely if not yet inevitable, suggest an intervention begun in haste will be catastrophic, not least because serious questions remain about ECOWAS’s own capacity.
Key member states like Senegal appear lukewarm about intervention in Mali. Nigeria, facing its own Islamic fundamentalist threat in the shape of the radical Boko Haram movement, may face domestic pressure not to commit troops.
Few available ECOWAS troops have combat experience in a desert. Mauritania, which has criticized Mali in the past for being “soft” on “Islamic terrorism”, and has sent its own troops into Mali on counter-insurgency operations, is not an ECOWAS member and is suspected of backing the rebels.
Neither is Algeria, accused by many Malians of spawning the Jihadist movements and their accompanying kidnapping and trafficking networks, which have played such a destructive role in northern Mali.
Neither the Malian army nor ECOWAS will be able to tackle the influx of arms and soldiers from Libya to northern Mali through southern Algeria and northern Niger, warns the ICG without “clear involvement of the Algerian… authorities”.
ECOWAS has made it clear that it needs and expects strong backup from outside, particularly in airlifting troops to the combat zones, promoting speculation that France and the USA could play critical roles. Both, predictably, are downplaying their importance.
France has serious concerns about French hostages still held by Islamic radicals. The US formally suspended military engagement with Bamako after the National Committee for the Recovery of Democracy and the Restoration of the State (CNRDRE), headed by US-trained Captain Amadou Sanogo, took power on 22 March.
Military intervention is further complicated by the power vacuum in Bamako, where the government has no electoral mandate and where none of the three actors sharing power has sufficient legitimacy, say observers. Critics warn that the restoration of democracy has barely begun.
The government formed by President Dioncounda Traoré in August under outside pressure and headed by Prime Minister Cheikh Modibo Diarra, remains a weak, compromise administration, described by one diplomatic observer as, at best, “an imperfect construct, but one that could move forward”.
Other concerns include continued support for Cpt Sanogo, the military’s retention of key ministerial portfolios, including Defence, Home Security and Territorial Administration.
“This is not a normal democracy; this is Mali post-coup,” said a Bamako-based analyst.
Relations between ECOWAS and CNDRE have been volatile, with Sanogo and his political allies wanting to keep foreign troops outside Bamako and confining ECOWAS’s role to logistics and training. The current civilian administration is more accepting, with Traoré issuing an invitation for military intervention.
But there is no evidence yet of a more robust approach from the Malian military, with reports instead of dangerous schisms, particularly after the “Red Berets” – Mali’s elite force – were accused of leading a counter-coup attempt in late April.
Timbuktu parliamentary representative Sandy Haïdara is adamant Mali cannot go it alone. “We are from the north and we know our army cannot do this,” he said. “They will need help”.