Nicholas A. Heras speaks to Dr. Christos Kyrou, an expert on peace and conflict resolution, on what to expect next in Mali.
Nicholas A. Heras: After the recent peace agreement that was signed between the Malian government and the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), what are the most difficult remaining impediments to stability and socioeconomic development in Mali?
Christos Kyrou: The peace agreement bought the parties some time to explore more permanent solutions to their differences after these elections. But this concerns only the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) and the High Council for the Azawad (HCA), both Tuareg separatist groups. The agreement does not include any of the militant Islamic groups such as the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MOJWA), Ansar al-Sharia of Mali, nor Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) — all of which remain a serious threat to security in the region. But even without those groups, the underlying causes for unrest in the north in Mali remain the same as before the war started, exacerbated now by the addition of a new intense wave of tribal and ethnic tension and half a million refugees and internally displaced people looking for their way back home.
The original causes of the conflict, including poverty, corruption, and the last few years’ persistent drought in northern Mali, are the greatest long-term challenges that the country faces. Also, a lack of elementary infrastructure, job opportunities, water, and basic microeconomic components such as available credit, suggest that unless the international community responds swiftly and provides aid that will target these areas of concern, it will only be a matter of time when the next rebellion takes place. In the larger picture, the lack of a legitimate, internationally-recognized government in Bamako at this very moment has made such intervention impossible. The international community had pledged more than $3.4 billion for reconstruction in Mali, but it will take the equivalent of a Western Africa Marshall Plan to stabilize the region in the long term.
Heras: Is it likely that international actors, such as the regional organizations, including the African Union (AU) and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), and France and the European Union, will be required to maintain a long-term presence in Mali?
Kyrou: Absolutely. For both the security and the socioeconomic dimensions of the situation in Mali, a long-term engagement by the international community is paramount. The country has been devastated by the two-year war. In some areas, sanitation and basic infrastructure have been razed to the ground. In the northeastern city of Gao, there have been outbreaks of cholera, and the situation in refugee camps in Niger, Algeria and Mauritania, with more than half a million refugees, is critical. Malian refugees have no place to return to at this point. Without a sustained and well-planned international intervention, the Malian state will collapse even further.
Considering the new post-war ethnic tension, and the degree to which it coincides with larger issues, including the pledge of certain Tuareg groups for an independent northern Azawad region, it will not be a simple task for the Malian military and security forces to handle alone outbreaks of tribal violence such as those which were experienced in the northeastern city of Kidal last week. But I am also optimistic in that national institutions and methods, such as the necessity of democracy, or the executive office of the president, are still recognized by all factions. Also, President Touré’s visit to Kidal to meet with the leaders of the MNLA and HCA in-person sent a strong message to those in Bamako, who are trying to exaggerate the need for a stronger hand against the Tuareg in the north. In fact, such a hardline policy would only make the situation in the country worse.
Heras: Is it accurate to describe Mali as a “Pandora’s Box,” opening up greater instability in the greater West African region?
Kyrou: I would see this more as a moment of reckoning for both Mali and the international community. Had the French intervention failed, then yes, most likely the result would have been disastrous. Even today, it takes a lot of tight-rope walking for the parties in the conflict to capitalize on that successful French intervention. If the negotiations with the MNLA and HCA failed, there would have been another war in the country. Even the current elections, if declared fraudulent, or unsuccessful, might bring the country back into chaos. Mali is not yet out of the woods, but the “Pandora’s Box” is not wide open yet either.
It is true that certain processes of instability in the region were accelerated due to the events in Mali. For example, the alliance between AQIM, MOJWA, and the Nigerian Boko Haram became evident at the time when Ansar Dine and the other militant Islamist groups occupied northern Mali. But it would be an exaggeration to state that a continental African al-Qaeda has been established. While it is true that MOJWA has extended its operations beyond Mali, into Niger, there has been very little activity from the group since the French intervention in Mali.
I am concerned, however, that they are regrouping so as to attack during the elections, but I hope that security will prevail, and those attacks, should they occur, will prove ineffective. Jihadist groups, just as the Takfirists in Egypt, reject elections and democracy as an abomination that are against Islamic rule. If all goes well with these elections, and if the process of reconciliation and dialogue works to alleviate ethnic strife and heals the psychological wounds of the war, Mali and its allies might come out stronger from this experience rather than weaker.
Heras: Are there any unique “lessons” that can be taken from the case of Mali’s rapid decline into instability, war, and ultimately the foreign intervention in the country?
Kyrou: Yes, Mali makes an excellent case study for a complex conflict that – thus far – has been dealt with effectively. To begin with, it demonstrates how dangerous corruption and ineffective state institutions can be — not only for the effected country itself, but for its region and even globally. Even though, on paper, Mali has been a stable and functional democracy, under the radar, the country was disintegrating, and was drifting towards yet another Tuareg rebellion. The situation was not helped by the government in the southern region of the country blaming the north for absorbing resources, and by the north blaming the south for pushing it further into marginalization and neglect. This discourse is continuing even today, and Bamako has to combat corruption and enact some transparency over resource distribution if the country is to remain united. Mali was a textbook case of what is called “structural violence.” The current government of national unity has already started minor reform to combat corruption and to distribute foreign aid equally to the north and south. These are positive steps, however, it will take much more work to accomplish a deeper transformation.
Mali has traditionally been an important route for smugglers of narcotics, illegal arms, and even human trafficking. Much of the drugs that are produced in Latin America, and Colombia in particular, reach Europe via Mali. The drug trade that utilizes Mali is split into three directions: one toward Spain; one toward Italy; and the third toward the Middle East and Russia. This is a result mainly of the hostile nature of the environment of the Sahel and Sahara region, especially in the north, which the French troops have appropriately nicknamed, “Mars.” Mali possesses a vast territory that is almost impossible to patrol and secure. Another lesson is that Mali and the international community might need to readjust their practices and technology in regard to surveillance and border control to disrupt and terminate those routes of illegal trade, which are also used as platforms for insurgencies and jihadist militants to organize, and, as in the case of Mali, to invade.
Many lessons can be derived from the French intervention itself. The French determined their objective – to defeat the militant Islamists — very early in their intervention, and they did not divert from this objective at all. They handled the war between the Tuareg rebels and the government by physically separating the two, and by denying them the opportunity and space for engagement. Many in Bamako were outraged by this policy, but it not only worked in reducing operations for the French to a minimum, it gave pause to the Malian parties to explore other alternatives to conflict. In a way, it led to the agreement in Burkina Faso, which more-or-less resolved the conflict over Kidal for the Malian government bloodlessly. It was a triumph for the French in dealing with a complex insurgency situation — the alternative of which would most likely have resembled the Iraqi Civil War of 2004, or even worse, the Rwandan genocide.
Another lesson from Mali is that, when determined, the international community, regionally and globally, can readily overturn a junta government and peacefully drive a country back to democracy. The strongest case for elections in Mali is the long tradition of democracy in Mali. Generally, Malian citizens reacted with dismay against the military coup that deposed the democratically elected government, and the manner in which General Sanogo and his officers treated the democratically elected president and, then later, the prime minister. Most folks in the West are used to the military playing a major role in governing African nations, but Mali, as in many other African countries, does not fit that stereotype. I wonder how many Americans would endure, and for how long, a military regime occupying the White House. This is why immediate elections in Mali are vital.
The fact that the French intervened literally saved Mali from falling apart, and exposed the weakness of many other African nations to defend themselves from similar situations as Mali. Niger, Burkina Faso, and then beyond, to the countries of the African Atlantic coast, are fair game to an organized and complex military campaign waged by jihadist groups intended to ignite and exacerbate tribal and ethnic differences in order to destabilize them enough to meet the jihadists’ goals. This reality check provoked a series of reforms and new institutions regarding regional security, with the UN, AU, and ECOWAS considering a permanent reaction force — a specialized army of sorts — to handle situations such as this, and also to react against commercial insurgencies such as those active today in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). This course of action, in regard to African regional security, might become catalyst for a more secure and economically and socially developed Africa, and also toward a more substantial economic and political integration of the continent.
Another lesson to be taken from Mali is that no nation exists in a vacuum. When Libya disintegrated into civil war, it was inevitable that the thousands of Tuareg soldiers of the Qaddafi regime would find their way back home, and being heavily armed, they were determined to seize their independence. Mali was unprepared for such a predicament, and paid the price for it. Mali’s security is very important for the security of its neighbors. Recent attacks in Niger by MOJWA fighters operating from Mali show that the domino effect in West Africa is a real possibility when it comes to the rise of jihadists in the region.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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