Deep Read: Malian tinderbox – A dangerous puzzle

On March 22, a coup d'état by the Malian army overthrew President Amadou Toumani Touré.

According to the military junta, the coup was in response to a rebellion by the Tuareg Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) which is fighting for autonomy in Northern Mali.

An interim civilian government has since been established but it remains unclear as to who actually is governing Mali.

Ever since, the situation across the country has worsened and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and Ansar Dine (Defenders of the Faith) forces have strengthened their presence in the northern region.

Some intelligence reports indicate a growing link between AQIM and the Nigerian terrorist group, Boko Haram (meaning "Western education is sinful").

Additionally, the MNLA – which was initially in favour of a peaceful solution through dialogue with Mali – is increasingly becoming trapped between the pull of AQIM and Ansar Dine.

Ansar Dine and AQIM forces, in the meantime, have begun destroying centuries-old mausoleums, libraries and mosques classified by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) as world heritage sites, adding further to the plight of Mali.

As the crisis unfolds, a number of voices have begun questioning neighbouring Algeria's refusal to intervene, arguing that as the pivotal state in the Sahel region and with the best equipped army, Algeria could lend an all-important hand to the Malian forces.

As a result of Algeria's non-interference, some officials and analysts have gone so far as to question Algeria's willingness to fight terrorism in the Sahel.

However, Algeria's position has been made very clear. Owing to its own history and doctrine of non-intervention, it categorically refuses to become involved militarily in Mali, calling instead for a peaceful solution through dialogue.

Ever since independence in 1962, Algeria has consistently adhered to its non-intervention doctrine, avoiding any likelihood of military escalation in the absence of a direct threat to its own sovereignty.

History bears a large weight on Algeria's current strategic thinking: having been attacked, colonised and subjugated for a very long length of time itself, Algeria sees little merit in getting involved in the domestic affairs of any other country.

In order to gain a better understanding of this unrest, we ought to widen our analytical scope and adopt a holistic approach to the wider factors that are at play in this unfolding regional crisis.

Various regional jigsaw pieces are out of sync currently for Mali to be able to settle once and for all its internal problems.

Historically, the Sahel has been the theatre of multiple fault lines, be they demographic, military, economic or religious.

These have, in turn, exacerbated tensions and caused inter- and intra-group rivalries among a host of political and military actors. Many of the Sahel states were colonised by France and still remain highly influenced by their former colonial overlords. Many of these countries are also extremely rich in natural resources such as uranium and gold deposits.

Niger, for instance, is the second largest producer of uranium in the world, while Mali is believed to be the third largest gold producer in Africa. The French company, Areva, has a near monopoly in terms of uranium production in Niger.

Similarly, the French oil giant, Total, is planning to drill two wells in Mauritania, west of Mali.

Adding to the complexity of the Sahel crisis, there remain concerns about an obscure terrorist group that goes by the name of Unity Movement for Jihad in West Africa [or Mujao, by its French acronym].

Based in the Sahel, it has made headlines by exclusively targeting Algeria on four occasions in the past year: in its most audacious move, it abducted seven Algerian diplomats in April in the Malian city of Gao.

And only last week, Mujao attacked a gendarmerie barracks in Ouargla.

According to the French secret services, AQIM, Mujao and Ansar Dine have in recent months received financial support from Qatar. And according to Malian sources, members of the Qatari Red Crescent were recently seen in Northern Mali under the protection of Mujao.

Regional leaders in Africa further inflamed the Sahel crisis.

Colonel Muammar Gaddafi of Libya, who was a thorn in the side of French policy, threatened France's relations with its former African colonies.

By pouring petro-dollars into the Cen-Sad (Community of Sahel-Saharan States) regional grouping, Gaddafi sought to reduce French influence on African countries.

Following Gaddafi's overthrow, however, the Cen-Sad has now been deprived of much of its financing. Post-Gaddafi Libya, meanwhile, is now closer to the French camp, removing any impediments for France to reactivate its policy in the Sahel.

The changing regional political landscape has now provided Morocco with the opportunity to influence the Sahel states.

In early June 2012, a meeting of foreign ministers of the Cen-Sad group took place in Morocco enabling the latter to showcase its new-found interest in Sahel stability.

Morocco's elevated role provides France (whose alliance with Morocco is well known) with an even greater opportunity to influence the Sahel.

Expanding French interest may be part-financed by Qatar and potentially other Gulf States in a trade off over business and diplomatic rights.

In return for financial support, France, which has close relations with Qatar, can actively support Qatar's diplomatic ambitions on the global stage.

It may be useful to remember that Qatar owns a 5% stake in Total as well as a 12.8% stake in the French military and civilian aeronautical manufacturer, EADS.

Furthermore, by throwing its political weight around in the Sahel, Qatar's Sunni Muslim leadership provides a counterweight to the growing influence of Shia Iran in Africa.

In the past few years, Iran has pursued a policy of establishing closer economic ties with some West African states, such as Senegal, as well as, it has been argued, seeking to spread Shia Islam in Africa.

Iran's expansionary diplomacy is considered a threat by Sunni Gulf states which are contending with their own minority Shia populations [Bahrain being the exception which has a majority Shia population].

As external powers begin to meddle in the Sahel crisis, a strategic axis is being formed comprising Qatar, France, the US and Morocco.

In 2011, Morocco opened its Guelmim military base to US military forces which enabled the already formidable American military presence in sub-Saharan Africa to grow further still.

The French also have a substantial number of troops in the region, specifically in Senegal, Côte d'Ivoire, Chad, Gabon and Djibouti. With such military strength and strategic advantage, the US and French-backed alliance is expected to dominate the Sahel region in the coming years.

As early as 1910, the Christian missionary Charles de Foucauld understood the strategic significance of the Sahel and drew the attention of the French government to the region's importance.

His advice to the French military at the time was to pit the whites of the Sahel [the Tuaregs] who appeared to be more receptive to Western civilisation in his opinion, against the blacks [Africans in Mali] in order for France to control the Sahel.

The military option to intervene in Mali is growing.

However, the solution to the Malian crisis remains first and foremost in Mali itself. The country's military establishment and civilian political elite must overcome their differences and resolve to overcome secessionist demands in Northern Mali.

Abdelkader Abderrahmane is a senior researcher at the Conflict Prevention and Risk Analysis Division of the Institute for Security Studies in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

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