Analysts warn that a military bid in Mali will fail but regional leaders fear the instability will spread. Liesl Louw-Vaudran reports from Dakar.
The owner of a makeshift seaside restaurant along Dakar’s Pointe des Almadies, one of the westernmost shores on the African continent, gestures to one of the merchants eagerly waiting for clients to buy their local artefacts. “Go and call the Tuareg boy,” he orders one of them.
“You can get some really nice Tuareg jewellery now,” he tells us. “It’s much cheaper than before. The traders are fleeing Timbuktu.”
It is good advice, for the Tuaregs, the legendary blue men of the Sahara, produce some of the most exquisite silver goods available in these parts. However, the romantic image of the Tuaregs no longer corresponds to the reality on the ground.
Today, vast chunks of the Sahara desert are home to a mix of drug traffickers, al-Qaeda-linked terrorists and Tuareg nationalists. There are no more small planes transporting American tourists to see the historic Timbuktu.
In fact, since the violent occupation of the north of Mali, following a coup d’état in Bamako on March 22, more and more analysts are warning about the “Somalilisation” of the entire stretch of Sahara – from Mauritania, northern Mali, Niger and Chad to the southern parts of Morocco, Algeria and Libya.
On April 6, the Movement pour la Liberation de l’Azawad (Movement for the Liberation of Azawad) declared independence from the rest of Mali. They and the Islamist Ansar Dine, which has strong links with the terrorist group al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, now occupy the main towns of Timbuktu, Kidal and Gao.
This occupation was precipitated by the fall of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, which saw hundreds of pro-Gaddafi Tuaregs returning home, bringing arms and heavy weapons.
The crisis in Mali has sent shockwaves throughout West Africa and is a huge headache for its immediate neighbours.
Niger President Mahamadou Issoufou told French President François Hollande during a visit to Paris this week that the situation was a security threat “not only to the West Africa region but to the world”.
Niger, already facing famine owing to drought and endemic food shortages, is bearing the brunt of more than 40 000 refugees, out of a total of 320000 people displaced in Mali, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
Issoufou and other West African leaders, such as Benin’s President Boni Yayi, current African Union chairperson, want the UN to discuss the issue urgently and get involved.
Although the threat of terrorism in northern Mali has been mounting since the end of last year, no one predicted the coup in Bamako, less than a month before presidential elections were to be held.
Refusing to give up power
“We were all amazed at how fast this happened,” said a Malian journalist working in Dakar. “It was like everything just fell apart.”
Attempts by the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) to replace the military rulers with a civilian government in Bamako was initially thought to be successful, but the junta and its leader Amadou Sanago still refuse to give up power.
“Without a stable government in Bamako, it’s going to be very difficult for the region to intervene and try to solve the problem in the north,” said Pierre Boyllie, director of the Paris-based Centre for the Study of African Affairs. “And, besides, the majority of people in Bamako don’t really want Ecowas to take charge of the situation. The coup initially had a lot of support.”
The pro-coup group counts among its ranks prominent members of civil society who saw it as an opportunity to hit back at a political class they believe has gone rotten.
Boyllie said he did not believe a regional military offensive would work. “I don’t see Nigerian soldiers and others being successful against the various groups in the north, in a very difficult terrain.”
But that is what Ecowas leaders want to do. Some say a West African force of 3000 “peacekeepers” could be in place in a matter of weeks. But, for now, there is no peace to keep.
Institute for Security Studies military specialist Festus Aboagye agreed that it would be extremely difficult to launch an operation against the fighters. “The West African military is not combat-ready, they haven’t been trained, they don’t even have the vehicles for this type of terrain.”
Intelligence on the ground
“To take back the main towns might be relatively easy, but the rebels will resort to guerilla tactics, cutting off supply lines and melting into the terrain they know so well.”
He said logistical support, especially air capability from countries such as France, would be crucial in any offensive. “They will definitely need intelligence on the ground, particularly from French special forces.”
Aboagye said, if the aim of Ecowas is to “liberate” the north of Mali, it could not do it without the help of the Malian army. “Ecowas can’t be seen to be an occupying force.”
One of the key players in this crisis is Algeria, home base of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, whose main leader, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, is Algerian. But, because of its long-standing gripe with France, Algeria has said it would not join a military offensive in northern Mali.
Alain Antil, director for Africa at the French Institute for International Relations, said that Algeria wanted to keep France out for geopolitical and strategic reasons. “Algeria feels surrounded by so-called pro-French countries like Morocco, the Sahel countries and now Libya after the fall of Gaddafi.
“Algeria also wants to be the key country when it comes to security issues in the region and wants to be involved in every step of the way.
“Any effort in the north of Mali will fail without very close co-operation with Algeria,” he said.
Most of the analysts said negotiating with the rebels in the north, especially with the anti-sharia Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, would probably be the best solution to the crisis. But offering the Tuaregs semi-autonomy in exchange for peace could open a Pandora’s box. Some say this could entice other groups in the Sahel, especially those in Niger, to do the same.