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Mali: Warnings against Escalation

AfricaFocus Bulletin
Jul 31, 2012 (120731)
(Reposted from sources cited below)

Editor's Note

"The reason West Africans and others make the Afghan comparison [for Mali] is to sound the alarm over an emerging Islamist safe haven in the Sahara that could be used as a launching pad for international attacks. ... The Saharan debacle is serious stuff, no doubt, and it has implications well beyond the boundaries of the countries that share the desert. But here's one Mali-Afghanistan comparison that does work: It represents a golden opportunity for outsiders to turn a nasty mess into a complete disaster." - Gregory Mann

Despite the return of Interim President Dioncounda Traore to Mali over the weekend and his announcement of a policy of reconciliation and negotiation, the prospects for near-term stability in Mali are not good. In the North, extreme Islamists have ousted the principal Tuareg separatist group from control, only months after it declared independence for the region. While the extremists have alienated both local and international opinion by actions such as the destruction of local Islamic shrines, they currently hold the balance of military power in the North. In the capital Bamako, coup leaders who took power in March share de facto power with an interim civilian government formed under pressure from West African leaders. Analyst Gregory Mann compares the complexity of the situation to two intersecting games of three-dimensional chess.

With 232,806 refugees, most in Mauritania, Burkina Faso, and Niger, and 166,811 internally displaced (see UNCHR reports at link below), the humanitarian situation in Mali is acute, affected not only by conflict but also by drought and, most recently, by a plague of locusts. (See Mali Situation Updates from UNHCR, latest dated July 24, 2012, at More assistance is urgently needed, with only 42% of the estimated USD 214 million required for the humanitarian response having been raised ( But, however necessary it is, such assistance cannot address the multiple roots of crisis.

And, as bad as the current situation is, most observers agree that it could get worse if regional and global antiterrorist fears lead to ill-considered intervention. But the actors in the international community, both those in neighboring countries and those outside the continent, disagree at what should be done, even though they agree in condemning both the coup and the revolt in the North. Coordination among the various external players and sensitivity to the complex and changing internal situation in Mali are more the exception than the rule.

This AfricaFocus Bulletin contains two recent well-informed analyses which both provide background to recent events and caution against escalation. One is the executive summary of a report released on July 18 by the International Crisis Group (ICG), and the other the most recent article in a series of commentaries by Gregory Mann. A fuller analysis of events this year and their background, the most detailed I have seen to date, is only available in French, the full version of the ICG report, at

Additional lucid commentaries by Gregory Mann include:

Gregory Mann, "The Mess in Mali," Foreign Policy, April 5, 2012

Gregory Mann, "Mali: Democracy, The Coup And The AntiGlobalization Left - Right Questions, Wrong Answers?," African Arguments, April 18, 2012

Gregory Mann, "Mali's Rebels and their Fans - Suffering and Smiling," Africa is a Country blog, May 30, 2012

For previous AfricaFocus Bulletins and additional background links on Mali, visit

++++++++++++++++++++++end editor's note+++++++++++++++++

Mali: Avoiding Escalation

Africa Report No. 18918 Jul 2012

Dakar/Brussels, 18 July 2012

Executive Summary and Recommendations

The full report is available in French at / direct URL:

In a little more than two months, Mali's political regime has been demolished. An armed rebellion launched on 17 January 2012 expelled the army from the north while a coup deposed President Amadou Toumani Touré (ATT) on 22 March. These two episodes ushered Mali into an unprecedented crisis that also threatens regional political stability and security. An external armed intervention would nevertheless involve considerable risks. The international community must support dialogue between the armed and unarmed actors in the north and south to favour a political solution to the crisis. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) must readjust its mediation efforts to avoid aggravating the already deep fault lines in Malian society. Strengthening the credibility of the transitional institutions to restore the state and the security forces is an absolute priority. Finally, coordinated regional security measures must be taken to prevent originally foreign groups from turning northern Mali into a new front in the war on terror.

In Bamako, the capital, the transitional framework agreed by ECOWAS and the junta, composed of junior officers led by Captain Amadou Haya Sanogo, has failed to establish undisputed political arrangements. The junta has rallied grassroots support by capitalising on the anger of a significant minority of the population towards ATT's government, with which it associates the interim president, Dioncounda Traoré, former head of the National Assembly. Traoré was physically attacked, and could have been killed, by supporters of the coup leaders in the presidential palace on 21 May 2012. Flown to France for treatment, he had still not returned to Bamako in mid-July. The destruction of the military apparatus and the weakness of the transitional authorities, notably the government of Prime Minister Cheick Modibo Diarra, which is soon to be reshuffled, impede the Malian forces' ability to restore territorial integrity in the short term without the risk of serious collapse.

In the north, the Tuareg group that launched the rebellion, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (Mouvement national de libération de l'Azawad, MNLA) has been outflanked by an armed Islamist group, Ansar Dine (Ançar Eddine), led by Iyad Ag Ghali, a Tuareg chief initially sidelined during the discussions that led to the creation of the MNLA. By taking control of the north, Ansar Dine has established a modus vivendi, if not a pact, with a range of armed actors, including former regime-backed Arab and Tuareg militias and, in particular, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). The latter is responsible for kidnapping and killing many Westerners in Mali, Niger and Mauritania, attacks against the armies of the region and involved in criminal transborder trafficking. Northern Mali could easily become a safe haven for jihadi fighters of all origins.

Considered for twenty years a model of democratic progress in sub-Saharan Africa, Mali is now on the brink of sheer dissolution. The prospects of a negotiated solution to the crisis are receding with the consolidation of hardline Islamist power in the north and a continued political, institutional and security vacuum in Bamako. Although ECOWAS initially sent out positive signals, the credibility of its diplomatic action was seriously compromised by a lack of transparency in the attempts at mediation led by Burkina Faso, which was criticised bitterly in the Malian capital and beyond. Pressure is mounting in favour of an armed external intervention as specific security and political interests of foreign actors - neighbouring states and others - prevail over those of the Malian population in both the north and south.

It would be wise to ignore calls for war and continue with existing initiatives to promote a political settlement of the conflict without, however, neglecting security issues. ECOWAS countries willing to send troops do not appear to fully grasp the complex social situation in northern Mali, and underestimate the high risk of inter-tribal settling of scores that would result from external military intervention. Such an intervention would turn Mali into a new front of the war on terror at the expense of longstanding political demands in the north and rule out any chance of peaceful coexistence between the different communities. Finally, it would expose West Africa to reprisals in the form of terrorist actions it is not equipped to respond to. AQIM's logistical links with southern Libya and northern Nigeria (through Niger) make it perfectly feasible for it to carry out terrorist operations far from its Malian bases.

This series of events in Mali is the result of a weak political system despite democratic practices, disillusion from the lack of economic and social development in the north and south, government laxity in state management and the unprecedented external shock of the Libyan crisis. The relations between the centre of power in Bamako and its periphery under the ATT government rested on a loose network of personal, clientelistic, even mafia-style alliances with regional elites with reversible loyalties rather than on robust democratic institutions. This low-cost governance of the north was able to contain the actions of the opposition, including armed groups, given their limited military ambitions and capacities. It disintegrated when faced with a rebellion the Libyan crisis had swiftly transformed into a well-armed group and the opportunism of Islamist groups that have in recent years accumulated plenty of arms using profits from lucrative trans-Saharan trafficking of illicit merchandises and Western hostages.

The perpetuation of a battle for power in Bamako, during a transition period whose end is impossible to predict, and the confused overlapping of armed groups in the north mean the future is very uncertain. A solution to the crisis depends, first, on how to restore Mali's territorial integrity and, second, on whether the jihadi movements manage to consolidate their position of strength in the north. The decisions of Mali's neighbours (Algeria, Niger, Mauritania and Burkina Faso), regional organisations (ECOWAS, African Union) and Western and multilateral actors (France, U.S., UN, European Union) will also have some influence. It is urgent and necessary to restore the political, institutional and security foundations of the central state prior to working towards the north's reintegration into the republic. It is also essential to increase humanitarian aid to the civilian population in the Sahel-Sahara region, which was already threatened with a food crisis, and quickly resume foreign aid to prevent an economic collapse.


To ensure security and strengthen the legitimacy of transitional institutions and the state

To the Interim President and the Current Prime Minister:

1. Consolidate the legitimacy of the transitional authorities by urgently forming a genuine government of national unity after broad consultations with the main political parties and civil society organisations.

2. Ensure the effective establishment of the Special Force composed of gendarmes and police officers dedicated to the protection of transitional institutions representatives and request, if necessary, the deployment of a small external armed contingent to support the force.

3. Guarantee proceedings of the judicial investigation into the assault on 21 May 2012 against the interim president, and if progress stalls, request international assistance to help identify and punish those who were directly and indirectly responsible for this assault.

To the Malian Defence and Security Forces:

4. Guarantee the security and free exercise of their duties to the prime minister, members of the government and the National Assembly and other state officials.

5. Put an end to arbitrary arrests of civilian and military individuals and the settling of scores within the army.

6. Restructure and restore discipline in the armed forces, under the authority of the government and the official hierarchy of the different corps.

To Members of the Former Junta and to Leaders of the Civil Society Organisations that support them:

7. Stop the manipulation of public opinion by divisive discourses that expose transitional institutions representatives and politicians in general to violence.

To Mali's Bilateral and Multilateral Partners:

8. Contribute to the reorganisation of the Malian armed forces and provide necessary support to the effective establishment of a force to protect the transitional institutions.

9. Help maintain the Malian economy through a rapid resumption of foreign aid as soon as a national unity government is formed; and answer the urgent humanitarian needs of the civilian populations severely affected by the crisis, whether internally displaced persons or Malian refugees in neighbouring countries.

To encourage a political settlement of the conflict in the north and neutralise the terrorist threat

To the Malian Government:

10. Refrain from launching a military offensive to regain control of the north before creating the conditions for negotiation with non-terrorist armed actors and community representatives, including those the violence forced out of the country.

11. Seek the effective support of neighbouring countries, particularly Algeria, for a strategy to regain sovereignty over the north and neutralise the terrorist armed groups that threaten regional security.

To the Leaders of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad and Ansar Dine:

12. Formulate publicly clear agendas and commit to:

  1. respecting human rights and the principles of democratic and pluralist governance, especially with regard to religion, in the areas under their control;
  2. guaranteeing security and equal access of the population to basic public services and facilitating the access of humanitarian organisations to the population;
  3. helping to establish the facts regarding the atrocities at Aguelhoc as well as all other atrocities perpetrated during the military conquest of the north;
  4. combatting the criminal trafficking activities that thrive in the territory they control;
  5. joining immediately the fight against AQIM and its armed offshoots; and
  6. exploring with the Malian government how to reach a rapprochement to avoid a lasting partition of the country and an internecine war.

To the Governments of Algeria, Mali, Niger and Mauritania:

13. Revive regional cooperation in the fight against terrorism and transborder crime and open up participation to Nigeria and the Arab Maghreb Union, notably Libya, Morocco and Tunisia.

To the Algerian Government:

14. End the ambiguity about how serious a threat it believes armed groups in northern Mali are for regional security and show clear support for the restoration, even gradual, of Mali's sovereignty over its entire territory.

To the Economic Community of West African States, the African Union and the UN:

15. Continue to provide humanitarian support to the civilian populations who are the direct victims of the crisis in the three northern regions as well as to displaced people and refugees.

16. Adopt a joint strategy, together with the Malian authorities, that combines the establishment of a formal framework for negotiations with the armed groups in the north, restoration of the Malian armed forces and the mobilisation of as many resources as possible, including military, to neutralise AQIM and other criminal groups in northern Mali.

To the UN Security Council:

17. Support attempts to reach a comprehensive solution to the crisis within the framework of Resolution 2056 of 5 July 2012 by:

  1. providing the Secretary-General's special representative in West Africa with the necessary means to use his good offices to support ECOWAS mediation;
  2. adopting targeted sanctions against all those who are identified as hampering normal operation of the transitional institutions in Bamako and attempts at resolving the crisis in the north, and against all those responsible for serious human rights and international humanitarian law violations in the north and south;
  3. establishing an independent group of experts to investigate the origin of the financial and material resources of the armed groups in northern Mali, as well as their arms supply lines, and collate information allowing the identification of Malian and foreign persons who should face targeted sanctions; and
  4. requesting the creation of an independent UN commission of inquiry into the human rights and international humanitarian law violations committed throughout Malian territory since the beginning of the armed rebellion in January 2012, which should report to the Security Council as quickly as possible.

To Mali's Bilateral and Multilateral Partners, particularly the European Union, France and the U.S.:

18. Provide political and financial support to Malian political and social initiatives that seek to resolve the crisis by uniting all communities, in the north and the south, through promotion of respect for the republic's fundamental principles and society's traditional religious tolerance.

19. Support efforts to reconstitute the defence and security forces, with a view to strengthening their cohesion, discipline and effectiveness so they can ensure security in the south, constitute a credible threat of last resort to protect the populations trapped in the north and be capable of participating, if necessary, in regional actions against terrorist groups.

20. Provide intelligence support to the armed forces of Mali, Niger, Mauritania, Algeria, Libya and Nigeria to help them locate terrorist groups and their arms caches.

Africanistan? Not Exactly: The dangers of international intervention in Mali.

By Gregory Mann | July 24, 2012

Foreign Policy / direct URL:

Gregory Mann is a professor of history at Columbia University, specializing in the history of francophone Africa, and of Mali in particular.

While the Islamist rebels and their terrorist allies who currently control much of northern Mali have been making themselves internationally famous -- most recently by flogging other Muslims for straying from their version of the sharia law and destroying tombs in ancient Timbuktu -- diplomatic rumbling about outside intervention in the crippled West African nation has been getting louder by the day.

France's new Minister of Foreign Affairs, Laurent Fabius, recently predicted that "there will probably be the use of force" to bring northern Mali back under control while African Union (AU) leaders are increasingly suggesting that intervention might be inevitable. ECOWAS -- the West African community made up of most of Mali's neighbors -- has already drawn up a rough plan for military intervention, which the United States supports, at least in principle. By all appearances, they are waiting for a green light from the Malian government in Bamako and from the United Nations, which both are reluctant to give and which won't likely come during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. It is always hard to know what exactly is going on in a region of the world that generates more rumors and conspiracy theories than the Texas school book depository, but now more than ever false analogies and shallow analyses seem to be driving the debate.

Everyone is agreed on one thing: The mess in Mali is stagnating. At the beginning of the year, Tuareg rebels in the Sahara took up arms against the central government, which refused to put up much of a fight. In March, angry soldiers chased President Amadou Toumani Touré from power, but the coup leaders soon faced a wall of opposition from Mali's politicians, neighbors, and foreign partners. They quickly ceded power to civilians, at least officially, but after a near-fatal attack on interim President Dioncounda Traore in March, the new government has been unable to impose its authority.

Meanwhile in the north, a loose alliance of Tuareg separatists and Islamist fighters chased what remained of the Malian army from two-thirds of the national territory, but soon fell out and turned on each other. All this fighting has produced hundreds of thousands of refugees and has left well-armed Islamists in control of the major cities of the northern and eastern regions of this vast, arid country. Now the country faces a plague of locusts, which will add a biblical undertone to a crushing humanitarian crisis.

The meme of the month in diplomatic circles is that Mali is well on its way to becoming the next Afghanistan. Lately, the president of neighboring Niger, Mahamadou Issoufou, his Beninois counterpart Boni Yayi (who also chairs the AU), and other West African and foreign diplomats have echoed each other in playing the "Africanistan" card. But how well does that analogy actually hold up?

Drugs, guns, pseudo-Islamic vigilantism: It's true that all those ingredients are present in northern Mali, and that they make for a toxic mix. It's also true that there are direct links between northern Mali and Southwest Asia, albeit thin ones: Tuareg Islamist leader Iyad ag-Ghali, leader of the Ansar Dine group controlling Timbuktu, contracted his Salafism in the late 1990s, when Pakistani "missionaries" were regular visitors in northern Mali. It made him an exception then, even if his particular brand of Islamism has become more common in the years since. Still, Islam as practiced in northern and southern Mali alike mostly remains a deep-rooted, accommodating and tolerant tradition. And Tuaregs -- a minority in both north and south -- generally maintain more equitable gender relations than other groups in the region.

Ag-Ghali, on the other hand, has attempted to impose a crude vigilante version of sharia that -- judging by courageous street protests in Gao and Kidal, and by the hundreds of thousands of people who have fled it -- has little popular support in northern Mali. Some outside observers have compared Ansar Dine's attacks on the Timbuktu shrines to the Taliban's 2001 destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan. But those were Buddhas without Buddhists, and the loudest protests came from the international community, not Afghans themselves. The mosques, mausoleums, and rare Arabic manuscripts of Timbuktu, on the other hand, represent a tradition that the city's residents are proud of and which many recognize as an important resource, drawing state support, international assistance, and -- in better days -- a vibrant tourism industry.

If anything makes Mali like Afghanistan, it's the drug trade, which Ag-Ghali and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) control. Over the last several years, Mali, like Guinea Bissau and Guinea, has become a major node in the smuggling networks that bring Latin American cocaine to Europe. But the similarities here too are pretty superficial. The drugs are not produced in Mali; they only transit through it. As French political scientist JeanFran çois Bayart has argued, that makes Mali a lot more like Mexico than Afghanistan. The drug trade does not have a positive impact on the life of the average person in northern Mali, who has no access to its benefits. To the contrary, it brings gangsters, ad hoc airstrips, and the burnt-out fuselages of abandoned Boeings. The growth of drug smuggling -- and hostage-taking, another big business -also makes it harder for many northerners to earn a living: no tourism, no development projects, and presumably no possibility of smuggling cigarettes, cars, and people as easily as one could do before the rebellion. But above all, unlike Afghanistan, Mali has no poppy farmers, and thus the drug lords have no popular support.

Of course, the reason West Africans and others make the Afghan comparison is to sound the alarm over an emerging Islamist safe haven in the Sahara that could be used as a launching pad for international attacks. Neighboring countries have already suffered from terrorist attacks -- and AQIM has made clear that France is its primary target. The Saharan debacle is serious stuff, no doubt, and it has implications well beyond the boundaries of the countries that share the desert. But here's one Mali-Afghanistan comparison that does work: It represents a golden opportunity for outsiders to turn a nasty mess into a complete disaster.

We might do better to think about what Mali actually is than to think about what it might be like. We might also want to think about the interventions that have already occurred in the region, and what they wrought, before championing new ones. External forces went a long way toward creating the current mess in the Sahara. By pushing well-armed Tuareg fighters -- including high-ranking officers in Muammar alQaddafi' s army -- out of Libya, NATO's 2011 bombing campaign accelerated a brewing rebellion in the north, one that began in January before being hijacked by Islamists over the last few months.

Although Tuareg separatism has deep local roots, outside meddling also helped catalyze this year's rebellion. American insistence over the last several years that the Malian military re-establish a presence in the Sahara fit the logic of U.S. counterterrorism programs, but it went against the spirit of the 2006 Algiers accords between Bamako and an earlier generation of Tuareg rebels. Those accords had mandated a diminished presence of state security forces in the desert, and the violation of them became one of the MNLA's signature grievances. Other outside interventions may have been more direct. Many in Mali and elsewhere believe that in the midst of a tough re-election campaign, French President Nicolas Sarkozy at least tacitly supported the MNLA in the hope that they could win the release of French hostages held by AQIM in the desert. Evidence for this is mostly circumstantial, and if that was the plan, it didn't work out so well. Still, it might help explain why, after Sarkozy's defeat, MNLA spokesmen went out of their way to thank him for his support and understanding.

Soon after Sarkozy left office, the MNLA was broke. Its fighters began to drift towards Ag-Ghali, and soon the secular nationalists were shaking hands with the Islamist Ansar Dine and talking about imposing sharia in the north. That accord had the lifespan of an ice cream cone in August -- the MNLA's diplomatic wing realized what a disaster it would be for the group's image, and people in Kidal wouldn't stand for it -- but it was telling nonetheless. The takeaway? The MNLA is hardly a horse you can bet on.

In spite of this history of unstable allegiances, some analysts persist in thinking that a proxy war in the desert -- in which outside powers like the U.S. would support the separatist MNLA against the Islamist Ansar Dine -- is a good idea. This is so foolish it makes the head spin. Tuareg separatists -- like the Islamists, or like the neighboring states of Algeria, Mauritania, and Niger -- will always be fighting their own war, not that of the Americans or anyone else.

The proxy war is like a bank shot in a game of pool played with snowballs. It won't work in the Sahara or anywhere else, and surely even the most gung-ho American interventionists do not want to be holding the bag when Tuareg fighters switch sides again to shake hand with the Islamists or otherwise refuse to play Washington's game. And now that France, under François Hollande, is no longer playing the role of the pyromaniac fireman in Mali, there is no reason for the United States to audition for it.

So what is to be done? Ultimately, Malians themselves will have to take the lead in resolving a crisis that has endangered their neighbors. Outside actors can only help all sides seek an honorable way to make the Malian north safe again, partly by working to get Bamako to accept the assistance of its neighbors. At the moment, foreign military intervention, whether it comes from ECOWAS or elsewhere, will be viewed as an invasion in both the south and the north. That has to change, which means that politics has to come first. A political solution will be harder to achieve than a military one, but you get what you pay for. The first step towards it will be finding legitimate and sensible interlocutors (sitting Prime Minister Cheikh Modibo Diarra is a possibility) while sidelining the hotheaded, the foolish, and the cynical whether they are in Mali, Niger ... or Washington.

AfricaFocus Bulletin is an independent electronic publication providing reposted commentary and analysis on African issues, with a particular focus on U.S. and international policies. AfricaFocus Bulletin is edited by William Minter.

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