The conflict in Mali is not a recent one and its resolution will not be forthcoming. This vast, arid, African country is a classic example of how ethnic, geopolitical, economic and global influences intersect within a conflict that is both complex and protracted.
The armed conflict in Mali, which started in the 1990’s, is similar to many that have plagued post colonial Africa; a large ethnic group, the Tuareg nomads in this case, demanding independence from the central government. The largest Tuareg rebel group in Mali, called The National Movement for Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), is a secular group which seeks independence for a homeland called Azawad. It represents the majority of the Berber speaking Tuareg of Mali who have expressed demands for land and cultural rights since the country’s independence in 1960.
In 2007, despite central government attempts at military and negotiated solutions, the MNLA escalated its military operations against the government and allied itself later with two other Islamist militant groups, the Tuareg- dominated Ansar Dine and the Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). The three groups joined forces and launched an offensive in Northern Mali in January 2012 which managed to capture the key cities of Timbukto, Kidal and Gao. They gained control the North of the country.
The Malian army, which was defeated repeatedly by the combined force of the rebels, decided to take matters into their own hands and removed President Amadou Toumani Toure from office in a Coup d’état in March 2012. The state of chaos following the military junta rule was exacerbated by the influx of arms from the Libyan civil war into the hands of the Malian rebels who gained military experience fighting as mercenaries in Libya. The international and regional opposition to the Malian military Coup left the Malian army crumbling in the path of the advancing rebels.
The Malian war today
In May 2012, the secular MNLA rebels declared an Islamic state in Northern Mali but soon found themselves in disagreement with the Islamist militants, including the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (Mujao), an AQIM splinter group whose declared aim is to spread jihad to all of West Africa. As a result, the Islamist groups fought the MNLA, secured sole control of Northern Mali, pushed further south and captured the strategic city of Koona, 600 km from the capital Bamako, on 10 January 2013. Faced with this scenario, Malian interim President Traore, called on France to intervene and French Operation Serval (African Wild Cat) was launched on 11 January 2013.
French President Hollande’s decision to send troops to Mali is certainly the most prominent foreign intervention in this West African country. Since 2004, the United States has been training and supporting the Malian army against Islamic insurgents and the Tuareg resented this at the time because it has upset the delicate balance in the Sahara desert. They say that the U.S. intervention threatened Tuareg livelihood because the Islamist would stop Tuareg convoys carrying Western tourists to check whether they have Americans on board. Algeria has also sent military experts and arms to Mali in the last decade and set up a joint command with Niger, Mauritania and Mali to tackle the threat of terrorism in 2010.
Last October, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) also called for foreign military intervention in Mali and supported a French resolution in the U.N. Security Council approving an African-led force of about 3000 troops to assist the Malian army in combating the Islamist militants.
However, the current French intervention in Mali is significant because it has brought the attention of other countries to the conflict. The U.S. has started sending logistic and intelligence assistance while Canada, Britain, Denmark, Germany, Spain and Italy have promised military transport planes. However, it is clear that despite the large number of countries involved in this conflict, France will be the sole main force with troops on the ground so far alongside the Malian army and the small ECOWAS force.
The foreign intervention in Mali is still at its beginning but there is no promising end in sight and the immediate future looks grim for this conflict-ridden country. France has particular economic interests in Mali: the country’s Uranium deposits are the third largest in the world; and this mineral is essential to the future of French nuclear power. Mali also exports gold and the Tuareg regions have oil reserves. However, French military intervention will not have an easy task in Mali. The rebel controlled North is a vast region with an area equivalent to that of France and Belgium combined. It has been a home for insurgents for decades who understand the terrain and know where to hide.
The conflict is most certainly to attract al-Qaeda supporters from every part of the globe as witnessed in Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Libya and most recently, Syria. The geopolitical conditions in Mali, which is bordered by seven African countries, enables easy access for al-Qaeda fighters. Furthermore the French, and their Western allies, have little sympathy amongst the locals. As the humanitarian situation continues to deteriorate, food shortages, war crimes and the continuing conflict will worsen the refugee crisis. The future in Mali has no indication of a quick and easy solution to the conflict.
(Youssef Khazem is a British Lebanese independent media consultant and trainer. He has worked at over a dozen newspapers and media organisations in the UK, the Arab world and Africa, and has 30 years of experience as an internationally renowned journalist in the field, especially as an Africa expert who covered wars, conflicts and famine for 16 years.)