The favourable international and African reaction to the intervention in Mali by its former colonial power, France, to prevent the country from being overrun by Islamic extremists is significant and might signal a new more accommodating attitude towards external support for weak governments fighting unconstitutional regime change.
Mali, to some degree, was fast becoming a replica of Afghanistan in 2001, a failed state that has become a haven for radicals and extremists intent on forcing their brand of Islam fundamentalism first on Mali, and then spreading it to the rest of North and West Africa.
March 2012 signalled the beginning of a turbulent and chaotic period for Mali. The events that followed were so dramatic that this relatively unknown and mostly desolate African country is dominating the headlines on Africa in the international news media.
It all began when battle-hardened and fiercely independent Tuareg fighters, inspired by the events of the Arab Spring and heavily armed with weapons from their Libyan encounter fighting alongside Gadaffi’s troops, returned to re-ignite their quest for self-determination and autonomy in northern Mali.
The Malian government’s weak response and ineffective handling of the situation led to a coup by a group of disgruntled middle-ranking officers in its army.
In the ensuing chaos Tuareg separatists experienced little resistance in gaining ascendancy with the help of some extremist Islamic groups. On 6 April 2012 Tuareg separatist rebels in the north declared the independence of the Azawad state from Mali but international recognition never came.
A fall-out between the Tuareg separatists and their militant Islamic allies followed, with the latter gaining the upper hand and control over most of northern Mali.
Once in control of the north, Islamic extremists wasted no time in enforcing strict codes of sharia law. It was however their wanton destruction of the ancient city and world heritage sites of Timbuktu that propelled Mali to the front pages of the world’s media outlets.
The rapidly growing concern was that Mali could soon be lost to Islamic extremists threatening the rest of the Sahel region. In response, on the instigation of France, the UN Security Council in December 2012 unanimously authorised the deployment of an African-led intervention force. The only problem was that deployment was not expected to begin before September 2013.
Recognising deliverance might come too late and the Mali government turned to France. The former colonial power obliged with remarkable speed, with 'Operation Serval'.
The universal support for the French intervention can be attributed to the fact that France responded to the request of a recognised government and had the blessing of the UN and the African Union (AU).
French president François Hollande also dispelled any concern about a possible hidden French agenda, proclaiming France had “neither economic nor political interests” in Mali. A debatable statement, but the fact remains that security concerns form the basis for the intervention.
Some observers speculate that the intervention is part of an attempt to clean up the damage resulting from the Nato-led 2011 intervention in Libya in which France played a leading role. The situation in northern Mali is, in part, a direct consequence of the Libyan adventure which was in reality intervention in a civil war.
There is a strong view, particularly in France, the UK and US, that the fall-out from the Arab Spring and the Libyan revolt generated a new threat for the West, firmly rooted in North Africa. A concentration of Islamic militants in the region aided by other radical groups and criminal networks can potentially inflict serious damage on Western interests in the region and beyond.
The French president’s claim that economic interest plays no role in the intervention, is untrue. France has profound economic interests in the region, if not in Mali itself.
Almost 80% of its domestic energy comes from nuclear power, the highest percentage in the world. For a third of its uranium France depends on two mines in Mali’s neighbour, Niger. A spill-over of trouble in Mali into Niger would threaten France’s national security and, as a precaution, France already dispatched troops to Niger to guard these mines.
Mali itself has few valuable resources other than gold, representing 70% of its exports but, according to reports, there are indications of large uranium and oil deposits under the Malian dessert. This could present a completely new scenario.
Any instability in the Sahel could also prompt increased migration and illicit trafficking, some of which is bound to spill over into Europe.
Following the rules
The French thus far have acted according to the script and received universal praise. Its Western allies and the US wisely stayed in the background, preferring to back the French and Malian troops with logistical, airlift and intelligence support.
The US is concerned about the growth of Islamic extremism in the Sahel, but France’s leading role in Mali suits the US. It allows the Obama Administration to create the illusion that America is capable of exercising restraint.
After Kidal became the last town in extremist hands to fall to French and Mali government forces, the French Defence Minister declared the Mali-intervention a success. Although the situation is not yet secure, "a moment of change" has been reached and “now (is a) time for the political process to advance”.
France is adamant that with the immediate danger averted, it is time for AFISMA (African-led International Support Mission to Mali), authorised under UN Security Council Resolution 2085, to assume its responsibility in stabilising the country until the Malian army is ready to take over.
AFISMA is reportedly ready and busy preparing a contingency plan to occupy and secure the areas liberated by the French and to take active measures to ensure militants still on the run are neutralised.
This might however be easier said than done.
A senior AFISMA officer admitted: “We anticipate a second phase of the war, which is going to be a sort of guerrilla hit and run tactic”.
Mopping-up operations and removing the extremists, dispersed into northern Mali’s vast desert and mountainous terrain, is the daunting task awaiting the 6 000-strong AFISMA force.
And deployment might be hampered by funding and logistical problems. At an international donors conference at the AU headquarters in Addis Ababa on 29 January only US$ 455.5 million was pledged while the estimated total costs might surpass US$1 billion. Even if the AFISMA troops can be quickly deployed, it is difficult to see how France could cease its heavy air support to assist advancing ground troops.
With AFISMA Mali will be entering a new delicate phase and what happens from here on could still have grave consequences far beyond Mali’s borders.
Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, head of the African Union Commission, also admitted that the danger is far from over noting that the situation in Mali requires a “fast and efficient” response because it “threatens Mali, the region, the continent and beyond”.
With the extremists on the run and the northern half of the country liberated Mali, at this point, finds itself in a position similar to that of Britain during World War II which prompted Churchill to say, “Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning."