A chronology of crisis in the Sahel

Awareness has not necessarily translated into more investment in good governance or poverty-reduction programmes. Instead, the US has supported training of local special forces units in counter-terrorism.

Steven A. Zyck Robert Muggah
19 June 2013

The international gaze has turned, unusually, to Mali. Once considered a rare success story in West Africa, the country is now smouldering. International pundits have breathlessly described the central role of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and associated Jihadis in stirring up trouble in the Sahel region. Western counter-terrorism experts, particularly ones based in France and the United States, sounded the alarm well before violence broke out just over a year ago. 

But the crisis in Mali is about more than terrorism. And the threats to peace and security extend well beyond Mali and even its immediate neighbours. 

Any serious effort to stabilize Mali must also account for goings-on elsewhere in the Sahel. After all, it was the collapse of Gaddafi´s regime in Libya that ignited a region-wide crisis. With the disintegration of the Libyan regime, heavily-armed Tuareg mercenaries returned to Mali in droves. Their arrival in Mali emboldened Tuareg secessionist sentiments and gave impetus to the little-known Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) to launch insurrection in the North. 

Owing to what they saw as a timid response from the Malian armed forces, military officers staged a coup in Bamako, the capital. Meanwhile, amid the chaos, AQIM partnered with the MNLA – though the groups soon parted ways – and quickly consolidated their hold over the north.

Unsurprisingly, trouble quickly spread across Mali’s borders. In response to a French military intervention launched in the first weeks of this year, an AQIM splinter faction led by Mokhtar Belmokhtar attacked a foreign-owned gas facility in Algeria, killing more than 30 hostages. And just last month, the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), which has also installed itself in northern Mali, purportedly led two raids into Niger that led to 24 fatalities. Some diplomats and practitioners on the ground fear that this is just the beginning. With so many chronically poor, food insecure, and poorly governed countries in the region, they warn against an escalation of copy-cat attacks in the coming months.  

There is a widely appreciated relationship between under-development and the risk of organized violence in international policy circles. The US Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs recently observed the ways in which “porous borders and limited government presence and capacities mean that insecurity in one part of the region can quickly become a security threat in another.” But awareness has not necessarily translated into more investment in good governance or poverty-reduction programmes. Instead, the US has supported training of local special forces units in counter-terrorism. 

Moreover, the Obama administration announced in February that it had established its latest drone base in Niamey, Niger’s capital. While this may provide some short-term relief, it is equivalent to treating a major arterial bleed with a band-aid.  

The inexorable spread of violence across the Sahel and into West Africa is aggravated by the unwillingness and inability of regional players to intervene. Only the French were prepared to directly engage armed groups as they neared the capital. 

The principal regional cooperation body, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), lacked a stand-by force and was in no position to intervene. Driven to action by France’s intervention, ECOWAS mustered up 1,400 troops in January this year after initially saying it would be unable to assemble a force until September 2013. Its force, the African-led International Support Mission to Mali (AFISMA), gradually grew in size but, one month after its deployment, requested that the United Nations assume responsibility for the mission (a request also made by Mali’s president).

Meanwhile, the United Nations has stepped up its role. It is now “re-hatting” AFISMA and combining it with contributions from other countries to establish the Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) next month. Some analysts featured in the most recent edition of Stability, a policy-oriented journal focused on the intersection of security and development, see this model as the “future way of war”. But the road ahead will be challenging. For one, European institutions are still ill-prepared to counter the multiple threats in the Sahel. Likewise, regional bodies such as ECOWAS also lack the capacity to undertake rapid and autonomous military action. 

There are also few good options in tackling regional threats: US drones are increasingly regarded more as a provocation than a solution.

 Mali and the broader Sahel are a reminder that even as international attention turns to one problem, another always emerges. Notwithstanding widespread support for French military intervention and action to disrupt AQIM and its affiliates, new intractable challenges have arisen. For example, non-Tuareg vigilante groups in northern Mali have started violently protesting against what they see as unchecked Tuareg nationalism and aggression. For their part, members of the MNLA have begun targeting Songhai, Bella and other black ethnic groups in the north. It reportedly carried out a wave of arrests against non-Tuaregs in Kidal accusing them of being associated with the Malian military. Even as the Islamist threat recedes, an ethnic one may re-emerge with greater intensity than before.

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