The situation in Mali has destabilised rapidly since the removal of former president Amadou Toumani Touré by a military junta in March 2012. Tuareg rebels from the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) took advantage of the subsequent power vacuum to launch an offensive in the north with a view to establishing an autonomous state in the area of Azawad. This position was not new; Tuaregs have sporadically demanded autonomous rule in the area based on the historical and continued political and economic marginalisation of this region. The offensive took a bad turn, however, when the MNLA lost ground to a coalition of Islamist groups, including Ansar al-Dine, Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), that have since taken over control of northern Mali, aiming to Islamise the country, or at least the northern cities under their control. While Ansar al-Dine is an ethnically mixed group with a local agenda, the latter two have some links to al-Qaeda, have attracted foreign fighters and claim to adhere to a broader international agenda.
The Malian government has been unable to contain the offensive and the escalation of the conflict prompted the international community to consider intervening, while attempting simultaneously to find a diplomatic solution to the conflict. That is why the UN Security Council passed Resolution 2085 on 20 December 2012, sanctioning the deployment of 3 300 troops under the supervision of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) by September 2013, allowing some time to attempt finding a peaceful resolution to the crisis. But events came to a head on 10 January 2013, after Islamist rebels initiated a second offensive to capture the city of Konna, gateway to the south of Mali and only hours away from the capital Bamako. After a renewed call for international assistance by the Malian interim prime minister Dioncounda Traoré, France began a campaign of aerial bombardment to halt the rebel advance.
It is perplexing that, given the riskiness of the operation and the quagmire that the French might get themselves into, the French did not invest more into finding a political solution, especially seeing as there may have been a chance that the rebels would engage in negotiations. In November 2012, Ansar al-Dine, the leading Islamist rebel group, renounced violence, claimed readiness to distance itself from AQIM and called for dialogue with the Malian government. But the negotiations, which were mediated by Burkina Faso’s President Blaise Compaore, did not bear fruit. It seems the Malian government, which enjoys the support of the international community, saw no need to engage Ansar Dine. Whatever good faith Ansar Dine may have had in dialogue was lost by Hollande’s failure to pressure the Malian government to compromise, as well as his claim to support a diplomatic resolution while at the same time making a move towards military intervention, thus undermining any chance of a peaceful solution. Realising that a military confrontation was inevitable, the Islamists initiated a second offensive to provoke an immediate French military response, rather than waiting for a well planned international operation in September. This forced Hollande’s hand at a time when he was not necessarily completely ready for the intervention.
This brisk course of action by Hollande was likely driven by domestic concerns as well as foreign policy opportunities and fears. With a reputation for indecisiveness, Hollande may have seen this as an opportunity to portray himself as a man of action, a strong statesman. Mali also presented an opportunity for him to distract French media from his proposed same-sex marriage legislation, which recently galvanised large numbers of French people against him.
France also claims that an Islamist takeover of Mali could threaten France’s strategic interests in the Sahel region and damage economic relations between both countries. The much speculated existence of gas and oil in northern Mali and the existence of 5 200 tons of uranium may also have provided an incentive for Hollande, especially since France generates eighty per cent of its electricity through nuclear power. Mali may thus be a strategic lynchpin and gateway to a region – which includes the countries of Mauritania, the Ivory Coast, Guinea and Burkina Faso – that is swimming in untapped resources, gold, manganese and copper among other minerals. Moreover, this was a relatively safe move for France since ECOWAS and the UN Security Council were already considering military intervention, meaning France was likely to gain international support, unlike in previous military interventions in Africa. Finally, France also claimed to be motivated by a fear that Mali would turn into ‘another Afghanistan’, a base for Islamists in the region. France seems to have been guided by the belief that compromise was neither possible nor desirable with Islamists.
While the French aerial campaign may destroy rebel stockpiles and loosen the rebel grip on the bigger cities of northern Mali, complete annihilation of the rebels appears to be virtually impossible, even with the 2 000 emergency troops from Nigeria, Niger, Burkina Faso, Togo, Senegal, Guinea, Ghana and Chad. While the central towns of Diabaly, Konna and Douentza appear to have been taken by French troops, and the other major cities of Timbuktu and Goa are likely to fall soon, the vast Azawad desert will remain a safe haven for the rebels, from which a guerilla war can be launched. The rebels are well-armed, with weapons from post-Qaddafi Libya coming in with Tuareg Libyan soldiers and weapons captured from the Malian army. Moreover, they are able to blend in with the local population and are accustomed to the difficult desert terrain. A military intervention is unlikely to bring this notoriously unpoliced region under control any time soon. The refugee situation, with hundreds of thousands of people already having fled Mali, is likely to worsen. While 2 500 French ground troops have already been deployed, ECOWAS troops are likely to bear the brunt of war casualties.
The rebels are not a homogeneous entity. They comprise groups that are pursuing separate agendas. While some atrocities have been committed by certain rebel groups in the north, Ansar al-Dine has displayed a readiness to engage in the political process. Furthermore, the Malian government is not innocent in this matter. Even before the coup in 2012, the government was corrupt and had been accused of human rights violations; it was hardly the beacon of democracy which it is now often made out to have been. The problems of the Malian conflict run deep and there is no easy fix for this marginalised and often uncontrollable region. A French aerial bombardment and ground invasion will add to rather than solve the problem.