Politikos XVI. The Mess in Mali (West Africa): Spillover from the Arab Spring and a Beach Head for Al Qaeda
August 2, 2011
This essay departs from commentary on domestic American politics in order to call attention to a new frontier in American foreign policy: jihadism and counter-terrorism in Africa.
The recent coup in Mali reveals the fragility of African electoral “democracies” – constitutions and elections have been something of a trend in recent years after decades of instability and military rule – but it also exposes a domino effect of the North African “Arab spring” in the countries of “the Sahel,” just south, and west to east, straddling the Sahara desert.
We need to see the Mali coup in the context of mounting challenges by forces of separatism as well as radical jihadism, with jihadism now dominant. All the African countries with large Muslim populations (nearly all of them except South Africa and its neighbors) face problems similar to Mali, in varying degree. The US Africa Command is already involved in military and nation building assistance in many African countries, notably Somalia, Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda. Across the continent, from Nigeria to Kenya, Islamist fundamentalism and radical jihadism expand their reach. In the past half-year in Mali the ancient tombs and mosques of Timbuktu have been desecrated (shades of the destruction of the Buddhist monuments in Afghanistan), a man and woman have been stoned to death for alleged adultery in a village taken over by shari’a extremists, and drug and arms traffickers dominate an economy in tatters.
The precipitous disintegration of Mali reflects the pattern of internal contradictions typical of most African countries: imposed colonial boundaries, encasing multiple ethno-political entities, subject to global external forces. In the West African Sahara, the Tuareg (sometimes called Berber) people, who are Muslims in the Malian north, are not Arabs, nor are they black Africans. A desert people, they have sporadically claimed autonomy and separate status in Mali and in the neighboring states of Algeria, Morocco, Western Sahara, Mauretania, Niger and Libya. Under various labels, they have been struggling against the Malian central government—dominated by black African southerners-- since 1963. (In 1958, even before the 1960 decolonization, the Tuareg thought they had negotiated their own country in the desert.) Multiple subsequent uprisings were suppressed by the Malian government into 2009. Decentralization agreements and a special status negotiated for the north never achieved implementation. The army failed to integrate Tuareg officers into its ranks and was involved in harassing Tuareg civilians.
The last Tuareg leader fled to Libya, where he and his followers helped the Qaddafi government until it crumbled. Hundreds of Tuareg then returned to Mali, this time replete with a variety weapons, including heavy artillery. In consequence of the disintegration of Libya, leaders of the regional al-Qaeda organisation in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) also moved into the region. Another group, which split from AQIM over grievances of black African members, the “Movement for the Unity and Jihad in West Africa” (MUJAO), resorted to kidnapping, e.g., Algerian diplomats in the town of Gao) in northwest Mali. Boko Haram, a jihadist group in Northern Nigeria—responsible for several bombings and killings in the past year in several northern Nigerian cities – has also been sighted in Gao.
The March 2012, coup reflects the failure of the Mali government to adequately support the military in its struggle against the Tuareg rebels, the "National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad" (MNLA in its French acronym). Political paralysis in the capital, Bamako, and the withdrawal of the military from the north, permitted MNLA to take over three important towns, including the storied Timbuktu. In April 2012, Ansar Dine, another Islamist group and rival of MUJAO, supported by AQIM, declared Shari’a the official law in three towns. At the same time, the MNLA announced a new country, “Azawad” in Mali’s three northern administrative counties. (Ironically, it is possible that under international law MNLA has that “right,” since at the time, no national Mali constitution was in effect.) Nevertheless, at this moment, August 2012, the radical Islamists, although divided, have managed to hijack the separatist movement, sidelining the MNLA; and they have created a safe haven for hundreds of jihadi fanatics.
The Economic Community Of West African States (ECOWAS), which acts as a regional political and military pressure group and peace-keeping agency, imposed sanctions on Mali. By April ECOWAS managed to dislodge the coup leaders and get the constitution reinstated. But the new head of state. a former speaker of Mali's National Assembly, got himself beat up by citizens and soldiers and had to be hospitalized. ECOWAS has ordered the study of the possibility of intervention by 3,000 troops from the region, with possible French logistical support. It is not clear whether this means actual military intervention. The ECOWAS countries disagree about the extent of military support. Algeria’s Minister for African Affairs, in a recent regional meeting, opined, “The solution can only be a political one… It cannot be the result of a military effort.”
Mali's neighbors, like most African states, are wary of demands for autonomy and are equally worried about the threat of radical jihadism. Any recognition of “Azawad” would grant some legitimacy to other continuing claims of autonomy in the region, --- Casamance rebels in Senegal, Polisario in Western Sahara – extremists in Northern Nigeria and in the Niger River Delta. The issue of regional separatism bleeds into the mounting presence of radical Islamist groups in the north of Mali, willing to commit acts of terrorism. Elements of a regional African “franchise,” al-Qaeda organisation in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), have been operating in the area for several years.
The Tuareg leader, Iyad Ag Ghali, a former leader in earlier rebellions, announced that his group, Ansar Dine ("Defenders of faith"), aspires to establish Shari’a in northern Mali.
Time is not on the side of restoration of the integrity of Mali and liquidation of jihadist Islamism in the region. New al Qaeda-type franchises could emerge in the Sahel region. The new Mali government, with (or perhaps through) ECOWAS, the US, and its European allies, all need to co-operate to address the threat of AQIM and Ansar Dine. In addition today Mali faces a humanitarian crisis: cutbacks in trade and foreign assistance at the moment of incipient drought. Added to its internal political crisis in the southern part of the country and the forcible spread of Shari’a, terrorism and sheer lawlessness in the north, the Saharan-northern Mali area represents a new frontier for American and international counter-terrorism.
(This essay is edited and updated from “E-Note” I wrote in March 2012 for the Foreign Policy Research Institute of Philadelphia, which is posted on its website: www.fpri.org.