Mali’s secessionist North, which split from the rest of the country in March, continues to be a key concern for many West African leaders involved in identifying a solution to the crisis. They met yesterday (30 October) with an African Union (AU) backed group of experts in the national capital, Bamako. The aim of the meeting was to coordinate plans for an international intervention in Mali ahead of a joint submission to the UN at the end of November.
Aside from regional efforts through the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the international community has been slow to consider possibilities for intervention in Mali, with all eyes fixed on the Syrian crisis. In the wake of repeated calls for action, however, reaching an apex with the remarks of French President François Hollande at the UN General Assembly in September, the UN Security Council has finally begun to turn its attention to the situation in the West African nation.
On 12 October, the UN Security Council passed resolution 2071. Presented by France and co-sponsored by Morocco, Togo, South Africa, India, Germany and the United Kingdom, it called upon Malian rebel armed groups to cut off all ties to terrorist organizations or face international sanctions. It also urged ECOWAS and the AU, with the assistance of the UN and bilateral partners, to plan the deployment of an international force with a mission to assist the Malian armed forces in recovering the occupied regions in the north, as well as combating international terrorism. The resolution pressed ECOWAS to expedite preparations for a 3,000-troop military force, setting a 23 November deadline.
Reaching a consensus on these issues was the goal of yesterday’s meeting. Mali’s Defense Minister, Yamoussa Camara, explained that “this conference [was] a meeting for harmonization, which must lead to concrete proposals for the adoption of a strategic plan to liberate the north of [the] country.”
Since a March coup, the Malian government has lost authority over the northern part of its territory, initially claimed by Tuareg rebels allied with an Islamist armed group. Mutinous soldiers toppled the government of then-President Amadou Toumani Touré, whom they blamed for mishandling a January offensive against the Tuaregs. The coup created a power vacuum that enabled Tuareg and Islamist militants to seize control of an area the size of France.
The alliance between the Tuareg movement MNLA (Mouvement National Pour la Libération de l’Azawad/National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad) and its Islamist counterpart came to a end in June. Since then, the territory in question has been controlled entirely by an Al Qaeda friendly coalition composed of Ansar Dine, the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
According to Alain Antil, a West Africa researcher at the French Institute for International Relations, it has not been an arduous task for the insurgents to maintain their ascendancy over a weakened Malian army. Antil also shed light on continuing divides at the international level prior to yesterday’s meeting. Whilst France, the US and the European Union – likely to be funding any military operations – seem to be in favor of a quick intervention to prevent terrorist threats from spreading, the AU, Algeria, Niger and Mauritania have expressed views in favor of negotiation. There was agreement, however, amongst commentators and analysts that reinforcing the Malian army, with the backing of ECOWAS, was a minimum benchmark for yesterday’s meeting.
A significant concern in neighboring countries is the potential for cross-border spillovers of instability and insurgent groups. In this context, intervention is seen as further endangering prospects for peace. This is especially the case in Algeria, which would assume a prominent role in any international intervention. A week ago, on 24 October, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, Chairwoman of the AU Commission, considered a dual plan. Speaking to ministers at the opening of the AU Peace and Security Council meeting, she explained that the body was “working … to finalize the joint planning for the early deployment of an African-led international military force to help Mali recover the occupied territories in the North.” She also emphasized that “the door of dialogue [would be] open to those Malian rebel groups wiling to negotiate.”
In the meantime, the humanitarian situation is worsening. Despite limited access for media and other actors, the few reports that have emerged indicate pressing conditions on the ground. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that over 300,000 people have fled the region – in comparison, there were 5,000 Malian refugees and internally displaced persons in January. Speaking in Geneva on 29 October, Valentin Tapsoba, UNHCR's Coordinator for the Mali Situation, explained that despite a lack of media coverage, the challenge was not any less dramatic than that of Syria. One of the key issues faced by refugees was water scarcity.
In addition to the swelling flow of refugees, human rights groups have reported an increase in serious violations of basic human rights throughout the country, and especially in the secessionist North. Human Rights Watch (HRW) condemned three major categories of abuse in its latest report (September): the use of child soldiers, populations treated in an inhumane manner, and the destruction of religious shrines. Corinne Dufka, a senior Africa researcher at HRW, commented on research undertaken by the NGO in the region: “in imposing their brand of Sharia law, [the insurgents] have also meted out a tragically cruel parody of justice and recruited and armed children as young as 12.”
No information has emerged at the time of writing as to what was agreed at yesterday’s meeting. Some minds appeared to already be made up prior to the encounter, however, with Camara warning that “war is inevitable against the terrorists in northern Mali, even if all wars end around the negotiating table." The questions are now how and when.
(Photo © DR)
(Photo on Frontpage © Reuters)