The Sahel’s Gathering Storm of Arab Expansionism and Drought

Islamist Arabs have taken control of northern Mali
Islamist Arabs have taken control of northern Mali

As the interim government in Mali under Dioncounda Traoré pledged to rout invading Arab forces in the north, there were signs that the new military campaign will finally get strong backing from neighbouring West African states.

But the plan coincides with a disastrous harvest and devastating food shortages in the Sahel that have already hit more than 700,000 people.

Conditions in the war zones in northern Mali are deteriorating fast and pressure is mounting on food stocks in Niger and Burkina Faso. Following the deal between Traoré and the outgoing putschists led by Captain Amadou Sanogo on 8 April, military planners in the Economic Commission for West African States have revived plans for a 3,000-strong intervention force to fight an array of rebel groups that have seized control of northern towns including Timbuktu and Gao.

Such a deployment will take several weeks, if not months, and could risk a dangerous escalation if it is not accompanied by a clear political strategy. States in the region differ on the priorities: Mauritania and Niger want heavy strikes against rebel positions and have set up a joint military command. As long as it can get the cooperation of Mali’s forces led by Capt. Sanogo, it seems Traoré’s new government would welcome this plan.

But Algeria who some suspects of secretly backing the rebels, is urging caution. Algeria’s minister of state for African affairs, Abdelkader Messahel, argued: “The solution can only be political. It cannot be the result of a military effort which could worsen an already complex and precarious situation.”

Part of that complexity is the proliferation of rebel factions. On 6 April, the Mouvement National pour la Libération de l’Azawad (MNLA) declared it had established the independent state of Azawad for Tuareg people in northern Mali. Niger’s foreign minister Mohamed Bazoum, along with his counterparts, dismissed the claim as “absurd and unacceptable”.

But the MNLA is increasingly at odds with a jihadist rebel group, Ansar Eddine, which is trying to impose sharia law across the country. Led by Iyad ag Ghali, who comes from a prominent Tuareg family, it has nurtured ties with Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, which has long been running terrorist and smuggling operations across the Sahel.

A smaller Islamist faction in Gao, the Mouvement Unité pour le Jihad en Afrique de l’Ouest, claims responsibility for local military and kidnapping operations. Yet another force in the north, and one pitted against all the others, is the Front de Libération Nationale de l’Azawad (FLNA), another Arab-based militia that opposes both sharia and an independent state in Azawad. Militarily weaker than the other groups, the FLNA could still be a formidable adversary for Bamako.