Sahel and the Mali crisis

Les dossiers du CERI
Date : 
07/2013

Early July 2013, Mali is facing a number of challenges. The first and most substantial one is that it needs to reconcile with itself through an electoral process that should take place all over the country on July 28th. The second challenge is that Bamako will have to co-exist with a huge international operation which magnitude illustrates more the international concerns towards the political dynamics in the Sahara-Sahel region than a proper assessment of Mali’s needs at this point in time.

While militarily the situation looks under control in northern Mali, the Malian administration is not yet back in most locations. Malian authorities blame this stalemate more on the lack of means than a proper security threat. Yet, many lay people wonder what the Malian state wants to achieve beyond enforcing the status quo ante and whether the UN peace keepers will dutifully enforce their mandate or as it happens often in other African countries try to protect themselves first.

A new period has started with the terror attacks in Niger. With hindsight, French military do not believe that they have fully dismantled the armed groups in northern Mali. More than 600 fighters were either killed or kept under arrest and more than 300 MT of military hardware and ammunitions have been confiscated. This impressive result cannot hide the main point: those armed groups escaped most of the fighting and made themselves ready for an asymmetrical war against an international military intervention. The Ramadan month (and the launch of the official electoral campaign) may be a moment for them to regroup and start operating against UN and INGO staff in Bamako and northern Mali.

Over the last twelve months, all Islamic radical groups recruited heavily inside Mali (especially among Peulh and Songhay) but also were rallied by many militants coming from Libya, Tunisia and other countries. A recurrent question is whether those militants just run away when the French army intervened and went back to their home countries without any wish to fight again or whether they are willing to launch new attacks here and there (e.g. in the Southern Tunisian Jebel Shambi or in the Libyan Fezzan) to make the international community deploy more troops and therefore be more easily targeted by terror attacks. The situation in Libya is deeply concerning its neighbours and most of the international players in the region. Nigeria handling of Boko Haram is also not producing the stabilizing effect that is required. The coordination between radical armed groups largely rhetorical for months may end up in joint projects sooner than later.

This creeping regionalisation of insecurity raises challenges but also points out to the differences between countries and their responses. While Mauritania seems to have escaped the heat of thre crisis and feel more confident in the future, Niger President, Mahamadou Issoufou who has been an articulated advocate of an early intervention in Mali, has to cope with those radical Islamist elements. Although he built a consensus among Niger political and military elites, he nonetheless is confronted by a social crisis and the likely fragmentation of his supporting alliance. The same dynamics are not witnessed in Chad where the head of State, Idriss Déby Itno, arrests journalists, potential or alleged opponents and mentions that ”they” are coming to him, without making any hard evidence available on their actual identity and taking the risk to be seen as arresting people without any valid reasons, as so often in the past but this time with the blessing or the indifference of the international community.

The following texts written by excellent experts of the region try to challenge common sense, put clichés at bay and shed light on those controversial issues and provide a deeper understanding of their historical context.