Africa

French intervention in Mali: a foreign, risky solution

Liesl Louw-Vaudran

For African leaders who criticised French intervention in Cote d'Ivoire and Libya not too long ago, France's advance in Mali must seem a nightmare.

French troops based at the 101 airbase near Bamako listen to Mali's interim president Dioncounda Traoré as he welcomes them on January 16 2013. (AFP)

As French mirages left their bases in Ndjamena in Chad and special forces flew with attack helicopters from Ouagadougou to Mali last week, many once again lamented the trampling of 'African solutions for African problems'. 

A West African force, made up of around 3 400 troops from Senegal, Benin, Togo, Niger and Burkina Faso, led by a Nigerian force of 900 soldiers, is said to join the French effort by early next week but questions still remain about their readiness.

Chad yesterday confirmed it will send 2 000 troops – good news for the African Force since Chad's army has some experience in the same desert conditions as in the north of Mali.

Meanwhile Malians and West African regional leaders applauded the speedy intervention by France – according to them the only military force with sufficient intelligence and troops stationed in bases across the region to fight off the rebels.

Mali's interim president Dioncounda Traoré asked for assistance from France on Thursday January 10 following a joint assault on the town of Konna, 700km from Bamako by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (Aqmi), the Touareg-led Ansar Dine and The Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (Mujao).

These forces have been wrecking havoc in the north of Mali, imposing strict Sharia law on the local inhabitants of towns like Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal, who traditionally practise a moderate form of Islam.

Benin's president and current African Union (AU) chair Yayi Boni said he was "aux anges" (thrilled) about the French intervention, but there was no official reaction from the AU headquarters in Addis Ababa.The AU's Peace and Security Council, usually very quick to act in these cases, also couldn't be reached for comment.

This could be a sign that AU member states are once again divided on the issue of foreign military intervention – a topic that will certainly be on the agenda at the AU summit in Ethiopia at the end of next week.

The French intervention has since escalated to a full-fledged bombing of Islamists' bases across Mali and could eventually be increased from the current 750 troops to as many as 2 500, according to France's defence ministry.

The Islamist takeover of the north of Mali came after the coup d'état in the capital Bamako in March last year, which left the government in disarray.

Regional and international players
At the time, the leaders of the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) reacted strongly and even went so far as to block Mali's borders for a short time, preventing all trade in and out of the landlocked country if constitutional order wasn't restored. 

Ivorian president and current Ecowas chair Alassane Ouattara convened numerous meetings to get a regional force together to help Mali get rid of the Islamic groups occupying the north of the country and called for international help to do so. 

The United Nations (UN), however, ordered the West Africans back to the drawing board and asked for more details of the Ecowas intervention plan.

The European Union (EU) also started training Malian soldiers for the retake of the north, but this now seems like too little too late. 

Former Senegalese foreign minister Cheikh Tidjane Gadio told Radio France International in an interview that "it was a tragedy that we sat in meetings while the jihadists advanced".

In a resolution on December 20 last year (Resolution 2085) the UN authorised a regional African force for Mali, but it was estimated deployment would only start in September this year. This was good news for Aqmi and the Mujao, who, bolstered by their Libyan weapons acquired after the war against the late Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, took over Konna and probably targeted the airport at Sevaré from where an international force could launch its operation to reconquer the north.

But it was not only the absence of a good plan that prevented African forces from intervening earlier and thus sparing Africa the embarrassment of another foreign intervention on its soil in little over a year.

Hostility towards Ecowas
Clearly, the complex situation in Bamako, with coup leader Captain Amadou Sanogo still wielding considerable power, made it difficult for Ecowas to send troops earlier.

Sanogo was openly hostile to an Ecowas 'occupation' of Mali and local groups supporting the coup agreed with him.

In addition, Burkina Faso's President Blaise Compaore seemed very upbeat about negotiations with the rebel groups, especially Ansar Dine, led by Touareg leader Iyad Agh Ghali.

In contrast, Niger's president Mahamadou Issoufou was much more in favour of a military solution.

Finally the recalcitrant stance of Algeria also stalled a quick African intervention. The major powers, especially the United States, believed that without the support of Algeria an intervention wouldn't work because not only does Algeria border on northern Mali, but many of the Islamists rebels in Aqmi originate from Algeria. 

Following the French intervention, Algeria has since agreed to close its border and even allowed French war planes to cross its air space – something that would have been unthinkable a few months ago.

The Algerian press, generally hostile to the French intervention, criticised this. 

Victory could take months, years
Military analysts differ on how difficult it is going to be to dislodge Aqmi, Mujao and Ansar Dine. Some say it will take months or even years to drive out the over 3 000 fighters who are familiar with the desert terrain. 

Others, mainly French sources, believe there could be as little as 1 200 jihadists in northern Mali, with equipment they are not all trained to use. 

Whatever the case, experts agree ground troops will be necessary since the rebels have already started to hide amongst the local population, using them as human shields and probably dragging out the war for months or even years.

The question now is whether France, having already sent armoured vehicles from Cote d'Ivoire,  will lead this ground war or wait until the African forces are organised to take over the bulk of the task of 'establishing the territorial integrity of Mali'.

Dangers of French intervention
Having already lost a combatant on the first day of the intervention and having just pulled out its troops from Afghanistan, it will be difficult for French President Francois Hollande to justify putting French troops in the front line for a long period of time.

Though the intervention is applauded by the political class in Paris, it holds many risks. The Islamists in northern Mali are still holding eight French citizens hostage and have threatened to kill them if France intervenes. The family of the hostages are distraught, even though Hollande has explained that defeating the Islamist threat in Mali once and for all will be in their interest as well.

France has also reinstated its 'vigipirate' plan to increase vigilance in France against possible terror attacks at home, clearly fearing reprisals.

In addition, while France's action to 'save' Mali has been praised by its partners in the EU and by UN secretary general Ban Ki-Moon (the prospect of having a radical 'terrorist' state in the heart of the Sahel just holds too many risks for world peace) it once again risks being accused of neo-colonialism in Africa.

Hollande has gone back on his election promise that France will never again act as the gendarmery in Africa. One may indeed ask why it is keeping these military bases in Senegal, Burkina Faso, Chad and Djibouti, among others, if there is no intention to intervene militarily.

For now, if you ask the Malian taxi drivers who drove around Bamako waving French flags last week, this is a debate for those not facing the same threat as they are. 

The discussions about Mali in the corridors of the 20th Summit of Heads of State on January 27 and 28 clearly promises to be very interesting.

Liesl Louw-Vaudran is a freelance journalist and commentator on Francophone Africa. She is former editor of The African.org at the Institute for Security Studies.

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