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Mali – When the fire spreads …

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Earlier this year, on March 22nd, unhappy of the government’s response to insecurity in the north, a group of Malian soldiers staged a coup d’état. Under the leadership of Captain Amadou Haya Sanogo, they overrun Bamako, the capital, and declared their intention to re-establish security and order in the country, and to prevent a Tuareg’s take over in the north. Three days later, the entire north – an area as large as France – was in the hand of a small group of insurgents. And then things got complicated. In Bamako, under the pressure of the Economic Community of West Africa States (ECOWAS), Sanogo had to give up his short presidency and allow Dioncounda Traoré, a former speaker of parliament who is widely disliked, to take his place. In the north, local Tuareg were sidelined by two al Qaeda linked groups. Ansar al-Dine, which controls Timbuktu – a moderate yet radical group which is now trying to co-operate with local leaders; and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), which controls the town of Gao and it is implicated in criminal activities like drug dealing and kidnapping to funds its activities.

M2ECOWAS did not do much more than talking, and asked the AU to intervene. The same can be said of the USA, which run several anti al Qaeda projects in the area, and Europe, which has many mining interests in the area. But things got moving once concerted attacks on Western diplomatic posts in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia put the spotlight on Muslim extremists in northern Africa. All of a sudden, world leaders realized that the happenings in Mali were taking a wrong turn. Al Qaeda of the Islamic Maghreb – a lose gathering of likeminded Islamic terror groups – was tightening its control on northern Mali, de facto creating a state like structure from where new attacks could be planned to neighbouring countries. In fact, while in Pakistan and Yemen extremists are insecure, in Mali, they have full control.
In mid October, the UN Security Council approveM3d resolution 2071 which gives 45 days to ECOWAS to draft a plan of military intervention in northern Mali. A week later, the deputy secretary of the UN, Jan Eliasson, and the President of the AU Commission, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, met interim President Dioncounda Traoré in Bamako. Traoré openly asked the international community support for a military intervention. Yet, none of ECOWAS’s members has the logistics and intelligence to retake a large territory; and Nigeria – the largest and most powerful nation in the region – is already committed to restore security in its own backyard.
Even though everyone is overcautious in analysing the situation, it is now clear that ECOWAS will send 3.300 soldiers. Niger, Burkina Faso and Togo have pledged troops.They will be trained by French and Italian iM4nstructors. While it is not yet clear who will be in charge of the operation, it is understood that American general Carter Ham, chief of the African Command, has already approved spying operations in the region. It is an open secret that USA drones have been flying over Timbuktu and Gao to gather information, an operation known as Creek Sand. More drones are being deployed in the region by France. The former colonial master has also given three reconnaissance airplanes to Burkina Faso. General Nabere Honore Traore, the Burkinabe chief of staff, claims the planes are to monitor the border with northern Mali, everyone else knows they will be used to check the situation on the ground in view of troop’s deployment.
A well-trained force would easily chase out Mali’s al Qaeda fighters, who are thought to number 2,000 to 4,000. However, the problem of what to do later remains. Even if the rebels were put to flight, Mali’s ill-equipped army might well prove unable to hold on to the liberated vastness on its own. Besides, the legitimate requests of the Tuareg remain unanswered. The Tuareg live in an area rich of natural resources. At independence, they wanted to be recognized as a country in its own right. The French colonizers preferred to keep their territory united with southern Mali, where the population is of different ethnic extraction. The Tuareg have been often promised new infrastructures, yet they have not seen signs of development. Even today, primary schools are insufficient, health centres are few and far apart, social services inexistent. Unless these issues will be tackled, peace in northern Mali will remain elusive.

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