For the West African country of Mali, 2012 has been a particularly inauspicious year. Most recently, Cheikh Modibo Diarra, Mali’s prime minister, was removed from power by the country’s military. Meanwhile, Tuareg rebels and Al Qaeda-linked jihadists are strengthening their grip over the northern parts of the country. In response, a UN-backed intervention of 3,300 soldiers has been planned by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), but is unlikely to arrive until September 2013. For now, Mali is in a precarious situation.
Mali, a country of over 14 million people, is ethnically divided. The population is made up of seven major ethnic groups, most of whom reside in the south. Exceptions are, amongst others, the nomadic Tuaregs and Maurs who live in the vast and inhospitable north. Fighting between the Tuareg and their southern compatriots has not been uncommon – many Tuareg feel that the state treats them as second-class citizens.
Despite this, the country takes pride in its good inter-ethnic relations, and has enjoyed roughly two decades of democracy. However, the military put Malian democracy on indefinite hold as it ousted its elected government in March 2012, citing the government’s inability to deal with the Tuareg separatist movement as justification. The military junta later, due to external pressure, instated an interim government lead by President Dioncounda Traoré. The president’s tenure hasn’t been a successful one so far. He was beaten up by an angry mob in May, and the military forced his prime minister, Cheikh Modibo Diarra, to resign in December 2012.
The infighting in Bamako, Mali’s capital, has weakened the government considerably. Contrary to the intentions of the coup-makers, the government has proved unable to deal with the influx of Tuareg rebels from neighboring Libya, many of whom were armed to the teeth after having fought as mercenaries in Khaddafi’s army. The rebels, who call themselves the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad(NMLP), quickly seized important cities and towns, such as historic Timbuktu, and declared independence in April 2012. However, it did not take long until the NMPL was sidelined by Ansar Dine, an Islamic fundamentalist organization with links to Al Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM).
Jihadists now control an area roughly the size of France. Consequently, a large part of the country has come under harsh sharia law. Strictly enforced by Ansar Dine and AQIM, the use of amputations and floggings as punishment has become more common. Due to the conflict, human rights groups such as Amnesty International have warned that Mali is “on the brink of a major humanitarian disaster”, and UNHCR estimates that there were at least 203,845 internally displaced persons in November 2012.
Mali’s instability is of growing concern to the region and the international community alike. Fear has been voiced regarding the risk of instability spreading to neighboring countries which, confronted with domestic issues of their own, are ill-equipped to deal with it. General Carter F. Ham, the top US military commander in Africa, warns that northern Mali may become a safe haven for terrorists. There are already signs that members of Boko Haram, a Nigerian extremist group, are attending training camps in Mali. Furthermore, if left alone long enough, the groups in northern Mali may develop the capability to plan attacks on other continents.
Negotiations have been taking place between Mali’s government, the Tuareg rebels and Ansar Dine. But crucially, AQIM and its offshoots have not been included, and negotiations will thus probably not produce a solution. ECOWAS has therefore planned an intervention of 3,300 soldiers, with the likely help of American and French specialists, drones, intelligence and logistics. Ban Ki-Moon, the UN’s secretary general, has recommended that the Security Council approve the plan. Despite its urgency, intervention is unlikely until September 2013, in part because there are currently no troops ready for action. And the recurring coups further complicate intervention as the international community lacks a legitimate government to cooperate with.
As previous experience has shown, interventions are seldom easy. One risk pointed out by the International Crisis Group is that intervention may lead to repression of the north and reduce the likelihood of peaceful coexistence in the future. An intervention may also worsen the situation for northern civilians. A recent UN report warns that over 400,000 more people could be made homeless in the event of an intervention. The report goes on to say that terrorist cells may inflict substantial damage in retaliation to an intervention in “southern Mali as well as in the ECOWAS troop-contributing countries”. Questions have also been raised regarding the capability of the Malian army and ECOWAS of tackling the jihadist forces, and ensuring future stability. For an intervention to have a chance of success, it is also important that Algeria, Libya and Niger, Mali’s neighbors, halt the flow of arms and combatants over their borders.
Mali has actors vying for power on all fronts. This has resulted in instability that not only threatens the local populace, but also the wider region. The country runs the risk of becoming another safe haven for extremism. And as negotiations have yet to bear fruit, a military intervention is becoming increasingly probable in order to stop further deterioration of the situation. However, interventions are messy affairs and there seems to be no easy solution to Mali’s predicament.