by Garth Cilliers

Conflict in Mali

Any lasting solution requires a multidimensional approach

Johnnie Carson, US Assistant Secretary of State for Africa
Johnnie Carson.jpg

Mali has proved yet again that the West is comfortable with using military force if it believes its interests or security are under threat or may at some future stage come under threat, particularly in Africa. Mali is no exception, although an improvement on the Libyan ‘adventure’. 

The criticism that followed the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s liberal interpretation of United Nations Security Council (UNSC) Resolution 1973 on Libya – in which France played a pivotal role – caused France and its Western allies to adopt a more cautious approach before the intervention in Mali.

Before French troops entered Mali, France made sure of UNSC approval and informed the international community that it was responding to a request by the Mali government.  


The French intervention did benefit the people of Mali and freed the occupied north from the draconian rule of Islam radicals, but the ultimate reason, as always, was self-interest.

This includes safeguarding the uranium mines in neighbouring Niger, which provide fuel for the French nuclear plants that generate 80% of the country’s energy.

Closely related is safeguarding the natural gas reserves of the Sahel and North Africa for Western Europe. This gas stands to become vital to the economic well-being of many European Union countries as North Sea production enters terminal decline in the next decade. Sufficient, uninterrupted supply of natural gas from North Africa also lessens the reliance on imports from Russia and weakens Moscow’s grip on Europe’s energy needs.    


The French intervention was further motivated by a belief that al-Qaeda's regional franchise, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and other militant groups, should be stopped at all costs from using Mali as a base for training, recruiting and launching destabilising attacks on the region’s energy infrastructure and even targets in Europe itself.

The reprisal attack by extremists on the Ain Amenas gas installation in Algeria and the subsequent disaster when Algerian troops tried to free the hostages, is a stark reminder of the need to guard against the unpredictability of terror attacks.

The French-led Western intervention in Mali will most likely be portrayed by Islam radicals as yet another example of an infidel assault on Islam which requires retaliation.

Mali is the eighth country in four years which Western powers have bombed and in which Muslims have been killed; the others being Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Libya, Somalia and the Philippines.

Analysts warn that spectacular reprisals against Western targets and interests may be in the making, with the recent kidnapping of foreigners in northern Nigeria and Cameroon probably just the start.  

Regional instability

The threat of Islam militancy to regional stability and beyond cannot be overstated. Mali’s neighbours face a direct threat from militants infiltrating the porous desert borders aimed at exploiting local grievances.

In Niger, for example, this threat for Mali has been identified as a domestic security problem for Niger, with armed forces placed on high alert and the United States being allowed to deploy drones there to help police the region from the air.

For the same reason, Algeria has stepped up patrols along its border with Mali in an attempt to prevent extremists from crossing into Algeria.

Mali, nearly twice the size of France, has seven neighbours with long, poorly guarded borders providing militants and smugglers supply and escape routes.

Some of Mali’s neighbours, from Algeria in the north to Ivory Coast in the south, have experienced violence, extremism and instability and are ill-equipped to deal with the fallout from Mali. 

The UN Special Representative for West Africa cautioned that the Mali situation has heightened the overall terrorism threat in the sub-region, creating conditions under which lawlessness and transnational crime could prosper.

The international community must remain mindful of the limitations faced by Mali’s neighbours, and the need to enhance support in the areas of border control and counterterrorism, among others.

Johnnie Carson, US assistant Secretary of State for Africa, warned that French military forces would probably be needed to carry out operations against militants in Mali even after a UN peacekeeping force has been deployed to secure the country.

Carson hinted that a bilateral agreement between the Malian and French governments would make it possible for the French to operate under a separate chain of command. 

Recognising that stability in Mali would benefit the Sahel region and foreign (Western) interests, EU foreign ministers formally approved the launch of a 500-strong EU military mission to train the Malian army, and announced the holding of a major international conference on the country's future.

Humanitarian crisis

Conflict and war are usually followed by a humanitarian crisis. Mali is no exception.

Hundreds of thousands of Malians are already either in refugee camps outside the country or internally displaced. Most are dangerously prone to malnutrition and disease. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that more than 150 000 people have fled to neighbouring Mauritania, Niger and Burkina Faso, and 230 000 more have been internally displaced. Doctors Without Borders has found chronic rates of malnutrition among children; malaria and diarrhoea are killing infants.

Indications are that extremists are preparing for a long guerrilla war and the humanitarian crisis is far from over. Using the promise of food and a small wage, extremists are recruiting homeless children as militant fighters.

Without a quick end to fighting and substantial humanitarian aid, a generation of young Malians will remain at grave risk and imperil the country's future.

Mali again proved that the byproducts of most conflicts are usually human rights abuses, torture and rape – with civilians at the receiving end.

Food insecurity inevitably adds a further burden on UN relief efforts in the Sahel region, with an estimated 10 million potentially at risk of starvation this year. An estimated US$ 1.6-billion is required to assist those in need in the region.

Any lasting solution in Mali requires a multidimensional approach, which needs to look beyond simplistic interventionist agendas, as one analyst correctly stated. The first obstacle has been removed, but many more await.


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