France’s unfinished business in Mali

Terrorism, extremism, and independence were, and remain, marginal nuisances nibbling on the Malian political and security scenes.

The tragic kidnapping and death of two French journalists in the northern Malian city of Kidal has exposed shortcomings in France’s security and political policies in Mali. French and African troops' inability to secure the vast swamp of land in northern Mali will continue to hamper international efforts to combat terrorism and banditry in the Sahel and Sahara region. Unless Touareg legitimate demands for more local autonomy are met, and an economic plan to uplift the impoverished region is fulfilled, the Azawad (Touareg ancestral land) will remain a lawless country. The senseless killings of Ghislaine Dupont, a senior correspondent for Radio France International (RFI), and Claude Verlon, a sound technician point to the limitations of France’s militarized solution to the crisis in Mali.

While the perpetrators of this heinous crime remain unknown, the Touareg feel responsible for the deaths. The two RFI journalists were abducted after finishing an interview with a Tuareg rebel leader. This attack aims to test French resolve in Mali, and to discredit the struggle of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) which makes  Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and its partners Ansar Dine and the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) seem the ‘natural’ culprits.

The 2012 French-led military operation in Mali, dubbed Serval, was only successful in ousting Islamic extremists from northern Mali. One root cause behind the political and security upheavals in Mali was and remains the Touareg quest for self-rule. A few months after the end of hostilities, Kidal, the MNLA stronghold, remains divided along ethnic lines with no working police force. In a sign of France’s reluctance to push the central government and the MNLA to sit down and work out security arrangements for patrolling hot spots in the north, Touareg rebels and UN Peacekeepers lack a memorandum of understanding detailing the role of each force.

The fact of the matter is that the Malian Army is incapable of pacifying the north without French military help.  France, albeit happy to keep forces in the region, must find a reasonable political solution to this crisis. AQMI and its allies view the slow moving diplomatic efforts to implement the Ouagadougou accords signed by the Touareg rebels and Bamako as a sign of political vulnerability. It is only a matter of time before terror groups take advantage of the central government's inability to extend and safeguard sovereignty over its northern territory.

At the heart of the issue is the Touareg rebellion. Ansar Dine and MUJAO seized northern Mali only after the MNLA defeated the Malian Army and declared an independent Azawad. Thus, the solution to the crisis in the Sahel lies with the Touareg people. Without a political solution that would ensure the rights of all minorities in Mali as well as serious efforts by the Malian army to integrate Arabs and Touareg in its ranks, stability in the region will remain elusive. If French forces succeeded in chasing the myriad of Islamist groups into the desert of the Sahel, French diplomacy has failed to bring Bamako and MNAL to the negotiation table, leaving northerners’ pleas for local rules unanswered.

The MNLA attempt to secede from Mali was a call for help. Touareg rebels recognize the difficulty of gaining a total independence, and yet they advocate for it in the hope of highlighting the corruption and nepotism that have been dogging the Malian government. In fact, both past Presidents Toure and Kanare never had control over the Touareg and Arab nomads in the north, and enjoyed little support among the “southerners" who complained for years about corruption and mismanagement. Both administrations and the Malian armed forces were beset by favoritism and mishandling of foreign aid.

An examination of events leading to the 2012 collapse of the Malian state reveals a list of tumultuous international and domestic incidents that formed the “perfect storm.” The demise of Libya’s dictator Gaddafi hastened the return and the formation of well-armed Touareg rebels. Malian disdain for President Amadou Toumani Toure and the discontent within the army led to a coup d’état and the North’s succession. These same problems remain unaddressed despite France’s assurance to the contrary. Terrorism, extremism, and independence were, and remain, marginal nuisances nibbling on the Malian political and security scenes.

AQIM has exploited the regional powers conflicting interests to boost its presence in the Sahel and the Algerian Sahara. The self-centred agendas of nations like Morocco, Algeria, Mauritania, Niger and France have all played a role in the subsequent quagmire in northern Mali and helped extremism to flourish. AQIM’s Algerian leadership is “well versed” in the ethnic and national sensitivities of major players in the region and a master of manipulating them to advance extremist causes.

As a result of France's political decision not to “arm-twist ” Bamako into talks with the MNLA, a large swathe of Mali is currently ungovernable making a return of Touareg extremist groups like groups Ansar Dine and MUJAO very likely. 

Reports of Mali’s military” extrajudicial killings of soldiers who took part in a recent mutiny and Amnesty International’s accounts describing “civilian deaths, torture, and disappearances including while in detention", since the launch of the French army’s intervention in the country, have driven some Touaregs to redouble their demands for independence.

Footage of Arab-Malian refugees living in appalling conditions on the Mauritanian borders and the proliferation of Arab militia bent on independence add to the explosive mix in the north. AQIM and its allies have been heavily recruiting among this group of displaced Malians as reports of revenge killing targeting Arabs continue to emerge.

Paris that invested blood and treasure in Mali must “sway” the Malian authorities to sit and talk with the MNLA leadership. France should encourage Bamako to draw a plan for Azawad local rule. Since neither the Malian army nor the MNLA can secure the north on their own, a united military force is the only viable solution to stop extremists from coming back to the region while maintaining the unity of Mali.

About the author

Hassan Masiky is a freelance journalist and former advisor to Amnesty International USA.