By Comfort Ero, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Comfort Ero is Africa Program Director at the International Crisis Group. The views expressed are the author’s own.
Over the last 20 years, Mali has mostly been a model of stability in a fragile region. Now it’s falling apart. Rebels control the north of the country and are depriving local people of their freedom. They’ve destroyed religious monuments, and many fear the region could become a new haven for terrorists, some of whom have abducted Western hostages in recent years. Mali’s neighbors and some in the international community, including France, are leaning toward the use of force as the right solution. But an immediate military intervention would be shortsighted, almost certainly drive the wedge even deeper between the northern and southern communities and further destabilize West Africa and the Sahel.
Events have moved quickly in Mali. In just a few months, rebels bolstered by the crisis in Libya have pushed out the army and stand as a powerful force in the north. The president was deposed in a military coup. His successor was beaten and flown to France for medical treatment. The reasons for the collapse have been weak political and security institutions, despite electoral democracy, and historical grievances in the north, coupled with powerful external factors like regional insecurity generated by the conflict in Libya.
Militant groups, including al Qaeda factions, have been quick to exploit the opportunity to seize vast territories. As Islamists threaten to destroy World Heritage Sites in the fabled city of Timbuktu, the temptation to respond with force is strong. Yet the government, the army, Mali’s neighbors and the international community must try political dialogue first, to establish firm foundations on which to rebuild the state.
Mali’s society, with myriad militia forces and tribes in the north and weak government in Bamako, would be undermined by a simple show of strength. Until his removal in March, President Amadou Toumani Touré relied on a network of personal ties and clientelistic alliances to control outlying regions, rather than strong, democratic institutions. It was a low-cost solution that kept armed groups with limited ambitions at bay. But events in Libya turned the Tuareg rebels into a well-equipped force. They’ve since been squeezed out by an alliance of Islamists – led by Ansar Dine, with al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) – who’ve bought weapons with money earned from years of trafficking and hostage-taking.
After Touré was ousted, the regional group ECOWAS and the military junta agreed that an interim government should be put in place in Bamako. But the coup leaders have remained powerful, and the shaky administration has struggled to overcome the deep fault lines in Mali, leaving a virtual political, institutional and security vacuum. This is why a genuine unity government must be formed, based on broad consultations with the main political parties and civil society groups.
Once the integrity of the central state is restored, its political, institutional and security foundations buttressed, then work can begin to reintegrate the north into the republic. Meanwhile, food aid is badly needed, and the security forces must be reformed so that they guarantee the safety of Mali’s institutions and leaders, and end arbitrary arrests.
Pressure is mounting for an armed intervention from the outside, but these calls should be resisted. Often such calls respond to the political and security interests of neighboring states and others outside, and do little to further the interests of the people living in Mali be they from the north or the south. Security issues can’t be ignored, but countries ready to send troops appear to underestimate how quickly and forcefully tribal groups would move to settle scores should a foreign force intervene. Armed force might turn Mali into a new front in the “war on terror,” but it would ignore long-standing, legitimate political demands and rule out any chance of a peaceful co-existence between the communities there. Not only that, it could expose an unprepared region to reprisals in the form of terrorist attacks.
Mali’s political malaise has long and deep roots, and the influence of neighbors like Mauritania and particularly Algeria also complicates the picture. The factors behind the crisis are interlocking and present at the local, national and even international level. The
complexity of events and the forces at play must be understood and taken into account before any military action is taken to resolve Mali’s problems. Nothing could be worse – a indeed more dangerous – than to apply the exclusive logic of force, to attempt an anti-terrorist crackdown without considering the political nuances, needs and demands of all actors, groups and peoples.
Parties willing to negotiate should be supported and given help to make their voices heard, while hardliners must be neutralized. These are the challenges that must be confronted first if Mali is to emerge from this crisis without generalized conflict. The fight against clearly identified terrorist groups can be waged once the foundations of a state have been put in place.