Analysis: Ecowas is focusing on the wrong front in Mali

By Simon Allison 17 August 2012

Forget Al Qaeda, for now. Forget the militants destroying Timbuktu and rebels imposing their Taliban-style Sharia law across northern Mali. None of these problems will go away until Mali has a credible government, with the political legitimacy to address them. This is where Ecowas should be concentrating its attention and influence, not on half-hearted military interventions in a hostile desert. By SIMON ALLISON.

In the latest development in Mali, the army has opened the door to a possible military intervention—but only just a crack, and reluctantly at that. “There is no question of soldiers from Ecowas bloc in Bamako but (they could send) some to the North. We could have 600-800 Ecowas troops in support of ours,” said Colonel Ibrahima Dahirou Dembele, army chief of staff.

Ecowas wanted more. The West African regional bloc has taken the lead in trying to figure out a solution to Mali’s problems—both the government crisis in the south, precipitated by a military coup that toppled the elected president earlier this year, and the rebellion in the north, which has seen a chaotic coalition of nationalist and Islamist forces take control of huge swathes of the Sahel.

Ecowas envisaged a 3,000-strong regional force based in Bamako, which would be able to guarantee the stability of the interim government. It would be appointed by the coup leaders after intense diplomatic pressure and launch a serious assault on the north, to save the country from those Al Qaeda-aligned, Timbuktu-destroying rebels that everyone’s so worried about, including the African Union and France, both of which have called for military solution of some kind.

This, however, is not on the agenda, as Colonel Dembele so unambiguously told reporters. Instead, Ecowas troops will be allowed to play a supporting role as Mali’s finest soldiers take on the northern desert warriors.

That might not go so well. The top brass in Bamako—who before they seized control were just middle-ranking brass, let’s not forget—don’t exactly have a stellar reputation on the combat front.

Let’s review their short and ignominious track record so far. The justification for the coup was that the government of President Amadou Toumani Toure was too soft on the northern rebels. He favoured mediation over military action and critics were upset at a perceived lack of support to Mali’s army, which was sustaining embarrassing losses against the rebels.

So the army, or elements of it, took charge of the country. Instead of losing control of the north slowly, they lost it rapidly. A humiliating three days saw the army unceremoniously booted out of the north completely, with soldiers running back to the south with their tails between their legs. Whatever may have been wrong with Toure’s approach, it was better full-scale retreat.

Things got even worse. When they eventually did appoint an interim civilian government, their soldiers couldn’t (or wouldn’t?) protect Interim President Dioncounda Traore from a violent attack by an angry mob which somehow forced its way into the presidential palace. Traore spent weeks in a Paris hospital as a result.

While Ecowas bickers with the army in the south, and while the army bickers with the interim government, the rebels in the north are proving to be just as fractious. Comparatively little reliable information escapes the north, as journalists and observers are not welcomed. However, from what we do know, a hazy picture emerges of four militant groups competing for power in different areas, each with subtly different goals.

There’s the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), nationalists first and Islamists by convenience, which is pushing for an independent state in northern Mali. The MNLA sparked the northern rebellion, taking advantage of an influx of money, arms and Tuareg soldiers fleeing Gaddafi’s lost cause in Libya.

There’s Ansar al-Din, a more overtly Islamist group that wants to impose a fundamental interpretation of Islam on whoever they can.

There’s the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA), about which even less is known; they’re thought to be an al-Qaeda off-shoot, and they are strongest in the city of Gao, which has not welcomed them with open arms. Recently, popular protests recently prevented MUJWA from lopping off the hand of a thief in a main square (the local radio presenter who reported this was subsequently badly beaten).

Then there’s al-Qaeda itself, represented in Mali by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM); think of them more as an Al Qaeda franchise, using the same branding but not necessarily taking orders from the boss in Afghanistan.

AQIM is, of course, the main concern for the international community, and the reason there is such a big push to do something about the chaos in northern Mali. This might not be the most rational approach, but any mention of al-Qaeda tends to have a distorting effect on sensible policy decisions.

A better plan for Mali, both the north and the south, would be to concentrate first on the south, resolving the political issues that are preventing any meaningful governing in Mali and certainly inhibiting efforts to deal with the north. This case was made persuasively by Todd Moss, a senior fellow at the Centre for Global Development, who argued that neither Mali’s army nor a full-strength Ecowas has the means to retake the north militarily. The solution has to be political, and there are possibilities: experienced negotiators could drive a wedge between the Islamist and the nationalist factions of the northern rebels, reaching some kind of deal that guarantees autonomy for the north but doesn’t grant full independence. Only a Malian government with a degree of legitimacy and stability can make these kinds of deals, however.

Ecowas, on point for the international community in Mali, should bear this in mind as it weighs up its options. The Malian army has offered it a half-hearted invitation to support their planned offensive to retake the north. This would be a bad move, both because the offensive is most likely doomed from the beginning and because it would undermine any Ecowas pretence of neutrality, potentially affecting later negotiations. Instead, Ecowas should concentrate its efforts in Bamako and the south. Its strong influence there was apparent in the appointment of the interim government. If it can use this influence to shore up this government and give Mali credible leadership, then the odds of a political solution in the north and the gradual restoration of some semblance of normality in Mali become significantly higher. DM

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Photo: Supporters of Mali’s junta participate in a demonstration against regional bloc ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States) at the international airport of Bamako March 29, 2012. Jets carrying West African presidents for a meeting with Mali’s new military leaders were forced to turn back mid-flight on Thursday after hundreds of supporters of last week’s coup invaded Bamako’s main runway. An official from regional bloc ECOWAS said the meeting, aimed at pressuring coup leaders to swiftly restore constitutional rule after they ousted President Amadou Toumani Toure, could be rescheduled for Friday if security allowed. REUTERS/Luc Gnago


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