Northern Mali – Options, what options??!!

A panorama of Kidal in north

A panorama of Kidal in north eastern Mali. (c) Andy Morgan 2001

The MNLA and MIA have taken control of Kidal and welcomed in the French army. Chadian troops, who are less welcome thanks to bitter memories of the conflict between Touareg fighting for Ghadafi and the Chadian army in the Aouzou strip three decades ago, are also in Kidal. Following a reported meeting between the MNLA top brass and the Chadian government a few weeks ago, this move was probably carefully premeditated.  It’s also clear that the MNLA made some kind of deal with the French in the days, or even weeks, leading up to the arrival of French helicopters and transport planes on Kidal’s makeshift beaten-earth runway last Wednesday. What seems spontaneous in northern Mali often proves to have strategic and well-planned roots.

As far as the Touareg leadership in Kidal is concerned, the most important aspect of the French arrival in Kidal is that they didn’t bring the Malian army with them. This intelligent decision benefits all parties.  First it avoids the prospect of the Malian army running riot in the heart of ‘enemy territory’ and no doubt suffering considerable casualties at the hands of the MNLA / MIA coaltion, who are still heavily armed. Secondly, it gives the French time to pursue the remnants of the Islamist coalition who are apparently still hiding out in the remote Tegharghar mountains north of the town, although I suspect that most of the foreign jihadists have already vanished from the region altogether.  Thirdly, it gives France and the international coalition behind it the chance to say that the mission in northern, or rather its first phase, has been successfully completed.  It also gives the region some breathing space to contemplate the must harder challenges that lie ahead.

Meanwhile, the remaining jihadists in northern Mali have already switched from occupation to insurgency mode. Holding the cities is not longer part of their strategy.  They will now resort to a mix of classic guerrilla and terror tactics to pursue their holy war. Defeating them will be akin to exorcising ghosts or bad spirits. It will be as asymmetrical as warfare can possibly get.

The recent resurgence in the fortunes of the MNLA begs many questions.  Either the secular Touareg nationalist movement found the backing from somewhere to take Kidal before trying to negotiate some kind of collaboration with the French and thus avoid seeing their town, which has been the epicentre of Touareg rebellions in Mali since 1962, handed back to the Malian army and placed under a martial law far worse than the one imposed on it between 1964 and 1990.  Or Alghabass Ag Intalla, the heir to the chiefdom of the local Ifoghas ‘nobility’, and his new Islamic Movement of Azawad (MIA) let the MNLA back into the town because they see a partnership with the MNLA as the best way of saving their own skins and avoiding execution / arrest / the ICC and the terrible vengeance of the Malian army.  Last week’s demonstration in the town in favor of the MNLA and against a Malian army occupation, with all the summary brutality against Touareg and Arabs that the local population fear it will bring, is clear proof that the secular nationalist are on the rise again.

The MNLA / MIA will use their hold on Kidal to strengthen the case that they have been putting  to France and the international community for the past three months and more, namely that they should be accepted as natural partners in the continued struggle to rid northern Mali of violence Salafi extremism and foreign jihadists, a struggle which is likely to last months if not years.  Such a partnership between western powers and the MNLA is likely to be entirely unacceptable to the Malian government and most of the Malian people.  However, France might well use its accumulated kudos and leverage to impose such a solution on Mali, whilst forcing the MNLA to accept autonomy rather than independence. After all, in present circumstances, France can pretty much dictate terms in Bamako. Possibly even in Kidal for that matter.

What’s certain is the the Malian army is entirely incapable of pursuing the fight against a protracted Islamist guerrilla insurgency in the north on their own, or indeed, with the help of ECOWAS forces from countries such as Nigeria or Ivory Coast.  So unless France envisages extending their military intervention from the original to months or years, a most unappealing prospect no doubt, they’ll need to build coalitions with other local anti-Islamist groups who have at least some chance of success.  Who will those groups be?  The MNLA?  MIA?  The Chadian army?  Algeria?  Local ethnic militias lead by tainted strong me like Alhaji Ag Gamou or Abderrahmane Ould Meydou?  From France and Mali’s point of the view, the list of candidates is unappetizing to say the least.

Whatever the scenario, the Rubik’s cube like complexity of Mali’s problems, especially in the north, presents one of the greatest conflict resolution challenges in recent African history. Success relies on solving a short list of pressing problems, each of which look like a challenge fit for gods not men.

First, Captain Sanogo and his felow putchistas in Bamako must be thrown out (and in jail preferrably) and control of the country handed back to an interim government with some kind of legitimacy.  The army must then be put under the firm control of that government.

Then the north must be stabilized and secured.  As I’ve already said, this cannot be done by the Malian army and ECOWAS forces.  Other partners will need to be involved.

Then a long lasting relationship between the remote desert regions in the north and Bamako must be defined and negotiated.  Federalism?  Autonomy?  Devolution?  The status quo ante?   In order to define and negotiate this relationship, a legitimate and representative forum must be created in the north, in which all the people’s of the north have both a stake and trust.  Such an assembly cannot be dominated by one ethnicity, especially not the Touareg. Anybody who knows the history of northern Mali will know that this challenge in itself is truly gargantuan.

Once the future form of the Malian nation is agreed upon, elections must be help to bring the political process back onto legitimate foundations.  Meanwhile war criminals on all sides must be identified, arrested and tried.  A process of truth and reconciliation must be implemented.

Then the most destructive of the smuggling rackets, the ones that have helped to fund insurgency and destabilize the entire southern Sahara – arms, people, cigarettes, hashish, cocaine and stolen cars – will need to be dealt with.  This will involve weeding out all the corrupt politicians, officials and military / security personal in Mali, Algeria and other countries, who have benefited from this system for decades, and continue to do so.  In short, it will involve recalibrating the entire Saharan economy away from lucrative but illegal trades and back to more or less benign but legal ones – tourism, mineral wealth, and the important and exporting of legal goods.  This will take years and a huge amount of investment.

And meanwhile the social, political and economic fabric of northern Mali must be repaired and rebuilt.  Touareg, Arab, Songhoi, Fulani and others must learn to live together again.  Smashed and looted hospitals, banks, schools and shops must be put back together again.  Nomadic herds must be restocked. Society must be nurtured back to health and prosperity.  Once again this will take enormous  amounts of time and money.

So before François Hollande and the  Malian President Dioncounda Traore contemplate staging a Bush-on-the-deck-of-the-USS-Abraham-Lincoln-mission-accomplished “We beat ’em boys” moment, I’d like to see them give a hint of how they propose to tackle all these challenges.  Most intelligent observers agree that it’s far too early to hold Presidential elections next June.  The Malian people need to decide precisely what the future shape of their country might be before they immerse themselves in the divisive games of African democracy and vote for the people who will try to make that future work.  Mali’s utterly discredited political class, its more than 150 continually bickering political parties and its head-in-the-sand insistence that if only everything could go back to the way it was in December 2011, then all would be fine, prove that a lasting solution to the northern question is as far away as it has ever been.

All in all, I’m getting a horrible feeling that the often painful history of western intervention in the complex affairs of Africa, southern Asia and the Middle East is about to repeat itself.


Andy Morgan (c) 2013

First published by Aljazeera English Online – January 2013.



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