Africa

Mali: locusts 1, politicians 0

By Simon Allison 13 June 2012

With a little French encouragement, West Africa is asking the UN to intervene militarily in Mali. Between Mali’s northern rebellion, the military junta, the humanitarian crisis and al-Qaeda, there is certainly enough to keep a foreign army busy – at least until the locusts descend. By SIMON ALLISON

In Paris, after a meeting on Monday with his new French counterpart, President Mahamadou Issoufou of Niger confirmed the inevitable: “Ecowas (the Economic Community of West African States) has decided to refer to the Security Council with the objective of sending an armed force to Mali,” he told the assembled press, giving regional legitimacy to a mooted Malian intervention.

The West African regional body – never shy of a little intervention of their own – is still preparing their official request for assistance, which has already received French backing. In a meeting in May with Benin’s leader Thomas Yayi Boni, President Francois Hollande indicated France would react “positively” to just such a request.

Mali’s certainly got its fair share of problems that need sorting out. In the north of the country, two rebel groups have seized control and created a de facto autonomous region known as Azawad, in response to what they claim is decades of neglect and misrule from the government in the south. Despite initial cooperation, the two rebel groups – one a group of secular nationalists boosted by fighters and arms returning from Libya, the other an Islamist militia with alleged ties to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb – have fallen out, introducing the horrific prospect of a civil war within a civil war.

Things are no clearer in the south, where Mali’s democratically elected government was unceremoniously dumped out of office in a surprisingly popular military coup. The coup capitalised on public dissatisfaction with the ruling elite, perceived as corrupt and inefficient, as well as a promise to re-invigorate the fight against the northern rebels. This promise has not been kept as the coup-leaders have been kept busy maintaining their control. A deal brokered by Ecowas saw a transitional government put in place, with a vague plan of leading Mali back to a democratic dispensation of some description. In a fairly accurate gauge of the popularity of the transitional government, however, its president, Dioncounda Traore, was attacked in his office by a mob of protestors who had stormed the presidential palace. Traore remains in Paris, where he is receiving treatment for wounds sustained, while the coup-leaders continue to pull the strings in Bamako.

But neither of these massive structural problems explain why France has supported the calls for military intervention. And if the United Nations Security Council does contemplate legitimising it, once suspects they would be on the same page. President Hollande outlined the real concern: “There is a threat of terrorist groups setting up in northern Mali. There is outside intervention that is destabilising Mali and setting up groups whose vocation goes well beyond Mali, in Africa and perhaps beyond.”

Hollande is, of course, talking about al-Qaeda – specifically, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (Aqim). Don’t be confused into thinking that the two are the same thing, although many policy makers fall into this trap. Aqim is an Islamic fundamentalist group with roots in the aftermath of the Algerian civil, although its influence has spread across the Sahel region of North and West Africa. It didn’t start out as anything to do with al-Qaeda, but later changed its name as a cooperation deal with it and al-Qaeda proper. Since then, it has specialised in kidnapping foreigners and occasional suicide attacks – and spooking western analysts who see Aqim as the vanguard of al-Qaeda’s efforts to expand their operations from their traditional strongholds of Afhganistan and Pakistan.

So don’t be surprised to see foreign forces – probably led by the French, but with enthusiastic support from Mauritania, Niger and Nigeria – launch some kind of intervention effort in northern Mali in the near future. It won’t be an easy intervention. The Malian government has been trying for years to wipe out the northern rebels, with no luck; in such remote terrain, local knowledge is more valuable than firepower. And how any intervention force will manage relations with the chaotic Malian government will complicate things even further.

But the biggest threat to the region and its people comes not from rebels, the government or intervening foreigners. Instead, Mali is about to experience that most Biblical of problems: a plague of locusts. North Africa regularly experiences locust swarms which devastate crops, and has developed measures to combat the scourge. Usually the swarms are attacked in Algeria and Libya before they can reach Mali, but not this year; in the aftermath of the Libyan revolution, pest control has taken a back seat, and Algeria is finding its border areas to insecure to operate in. This means that the locusts have been left unchecked, and they have already made their way into northern Mali where they can eat up to their own weight in fresh food every day. Mali, already facing its worst food crisis in 50 years, simply can’t afford to share their crops with insects. Unfortunately, the country’s own pest control teams, usually pretty good at managing the situation, can’t access the areas they need to thanks to the ongoing instability, leaving the region’s crops at the locusts’ mercy.

This genuine, severe and ultimately preventable disaster will doubtless be the last thing on the minds of either the rebels fighting for control of northern Mali or the countries weighing up an anti-terrorist intervention in the area. And that means the only winners in this sorry situation are the locusts. DM

Read more:

  • Locusts menace already hunger-stricken Mali and Niger in the Los Angeles Times
  • Hollande says risk of terrorist groups setting up in Mali on RFI
  • West Africa to seek UN mandate for intervention in Mali on Reuters Africa

Photo: A woman lies on the floor of her home, a tent provided by the United Nations’ refugee agency, UNHCR, in Mbera refugee camp, Mauritania, May 23, 2012. Mbera, a refugee camp set up for people fleeing violence in northern Mali, is home to more than 64,000 people, according to the United Nations’ refugee agency UNHCR. While most live in UNHCR-donated tents, hundreds of families living outside the official camp grounds reside in informal structures built by whatever materials they can find, including sticks, blankets, towels and empty cement bags. Picture taken May 23, 2012. (REUTERS/Joe Penney)

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