Government forces on the road to Konna in northern Mali this week (Photo: Eric Gaillard/Reuters)
This month's French military intervention, first through aerial attacks then through ground forces alongside Malian Government troops, brought the north African country into international headlines. Yesterday, the French-Malian force continued their advance against insurgents in the north, taking the city of Gao.
However, the conflict and problems in Mali predate these developments not just by months --- going back to the April 2012 military coup and the reaction by insurgent groups as they claimed much of the country's north --- but by decades.
Activist Nasser Weddady explained why on his Dekhnstan blog this week:
Mali’s problems did not start with the fall of Libya’s Qadhafi. They started even before it gained independence from France. A diverse set of ethnic groups were forced to coexist without much thought of the immense potential for conflict caused by that arrangement.
France’s 25th hour short-legged attempt at Shock-and-Awe is potentially a doomed effort because it is a decade late. Relying on inept militaries, and hoping to win a guerilla warfare without a credible strategy is a defeat waiting to happen. A decade into wars of pacification, Western nations should resist the urge to fight in yet another war without fully thinking through the consequences --- potentially disastrous.
None of this is an argument to look the other way on the spread of Jihadism, it is a call to think, then act decisively. Too much is at stake.
Unlike some writings popping up with depressing regularity in English-language media, the current Mali crisis pre-dates Qadhafi’s demise, and even the appearance of Jihadis in the territory in 2003. In fact, Mali’s internal problems started even before it gained its independence from France. Azawadis sought desperately to have their own state when it became apparent that France was intent on abandoning the French Sudan. They latched on the mirage of the Common Organization of Saharan Regions (OCRS) created by the French law of 10 January 1957.
The OCRS covered areas in today’s Algeria, Mali, Niger, and Chad. Had it been retained, it would have been an Amazigh-majority state with considerable Arab, Songhai and Toubou pluralities. The project however had another purpose altogether: divide and conquer. it was a French ruse aimed at Algeria’s rebellion for independence led by the FLN. The idea was to keep the northern part of the territory as French, and offer the rest the option of independence.
Once Mali became independent, it took only two years for the first Azawad rebellion to break out in 1962. Triggered by their opposition to the then-dictator Modibu Keita’s socialist policies, the Azawadis took to arms starting a tradition of defeating Bamako militarily that lasts till today.
That episode’s trauma still lives today in their minds; Keita’s army resorted to a two-year collective punishment campaign against the Azawadi population to offset their military defeats.
Entire areas were emptied of their populations. Long forced marches claimed the lives of hundreds, not to mention those shot because of their kinship with rebels, or the suspicion of being rebels themselves. By the time the revolt was crushed, the region had lost most of its charismatic leaders to war, or repression.
Azawadis troubles were only compounded by a combination of Bamako’s brand of dirt-poor socialism and the 1968 droughts that decimated their cattle – just as it did Mauritania and Niger. Overnight, they became a destitute famished population. Dying by the thousands in their land of hunger, they began to migrate to the neighboring countries. The sight of clear-skinned beggar children wandering the streets a in big cities as far as Cotonou became common. It was at that time they found a sanctuary in Libya which began a utilitarian relationship ultimately ending with Qadhafi’s fall in 2011.
Used as canon fodder in Qadhafi’s foreign adventures in Chad, and brief clashes with Sudan and Tunisia, the Azawadi diaspora found work, housing and an income they desperately needed. Their remittances to their families and clans back in Mali offset the abject poverty resulting from Mali’s failed governance and the climatic changes that wiped out their traditional sources of wealth.
In the meantime, Moussa Traoré’s dictatorial reign over all Malians continued the trend of stagnation and impoverishment in all of Mali, not just Azawad. By the time he was deposed, the seeds of revolt planted by his predecessor were ready to harvest. An armed insurrection broke out from 1990-1995. Another one followed in the next decade, this time under a democratically elected government from 2007-2009. New-old Azawadi tribal and wanna-be chiefs have begun to learn another important lesson: if you fight Bamako, sooner or later, you will be recognized. Primus enter pares.
In both instances, agreements were signed between Bamako and Azawadis promising to improve the livelihood in the north, the end of discriminatory policies and integrating some northerners in the state army. Both agreements, brokered with the help of foreign powers, broke down because of the faulty assumption behind them. These were arrangements where Azawadi chieftains were asked to accept remaining Malians in exchange for services Bamako offered as incentives for allegiance.
For too long, a lot of conspiracy theorists and crackpots have been spreading myths about Mali’s travails. According to them, Algeria’s military intel service DRS has been masterminding simpleton Jihadis. Even more predictably, said crackpots see America’s hand under every rock, and caressing the back of every lizard running the Sahara desert. sniffing for oil, uranium. and other resources said to be under the arid desert.
A new false concept gaining currency these days is the notion that Mali’s collapse is the bastard child of the Nato intervention in Libya. Sorry, but that does not even begin to explain the total collapse of Malian governance by the time Azawadis took to arms in early 2012. A considerable segment of the local population was not aloof to living in a free independent Azawad. They did not begin to grumble until they realized that they were in essence trading one occupation for another.
By the time Qadhafi’s regime in Libya fell, northern Mali had been home to Jihadi elements that left Algeria a decade earlier after being thoroughly defeated in the civil war. By 2002, remnants of Algeria’s GIA found sanctuary behind the borders away from their nemesis the Algeria’s army. They were also attracted by the allure of making easy money by partnering in the flourishing Saharan smuggling commerce. Drugs, tobacco, weapons and stolen cars provided a lucrative alternative to war.
Jihadis made new and strange bedfellows in that period. Mali, Algeria, Mauritania and Senegal army officers started to skim off the new source of wealth. Getting a cut from the smuggling revenues in exchange for looking the other way was the the policy for almost a decade. Jihadis venture capitalism extended to an even more lucrative business: kidnapping western hostages all over the Sahara yielded over 90 Million Euros over a decade. Unlike the conspiracy theorists and snake oil merchants claim, things are a tad more complex in reality, and at times, even more unflattering to our world’s big powers.
Time and again, European nations chose to negotiate, and pay ransom money. Germany, Italy, Spain, France cut deals with hostage takers not thinking much of it. After all, Europe’s politicians thought the savages were deep in the Sahara and did not pose much of a threat beyond their forsaken deserts. Or at best, let the Malians deal with them. Complacency was Europe’s strategy.
Slowly but surely, the region became a Jihadi Eldorado. The modus operandi was very simple: why get killed trying to create an Islamist emirate in “apostate-ruled” neighboring countries when you can build your own sanctuary AND have the West pay for it? Even better, now that you are flush with cash, blend into the local communities. Those whom you cannot buy, you marry. To Azawadis the offering was: "Bamako cannot build you a water well? Here’s a cash wad of Euros, go build it yourself."
Once the nexus was set up, there was no going back. The joint Franco-Mauritanian operations of 2010 and 2011 were just grandiose hostage release operations. By then, the United States had been pursuing its own classical approach of throwing money at problems it cannot deal with. Development programs were set up in Mali to reward the democratic progress. Military assistance in the form of training for the Malian military was ongoing. The US even tried very hard to get the neighboring countries to start a meaningful cooperation.
Algerians were miffed by the suggestion that they should be told what to do about their own security. Morocco was scheming and trying to make itself relevant in a problem it has nothing to do with just to score points over Algeria. Burkina Faso and Mauritania were fighting their own covert wars by proxy. Mali’s government was doing nothing meaningful about the Jihadis in Azawad. Instead it was locked in a war of words with Mauritania’s General Aziz who seemed intent on humiliating then President Amadou Toumni Touré for daring to oppose his coup of 2008.
When it was not busy blogging from Germany on its Maghrebia news website, America’s Africa Command (Africom) in charge of the Sahel region, was in earnest trying to make sense of this maze of interests, pushing for a regional command to deal with the lawless mess that Azawad was slowly becoming.. All things considered, these efforts’ ultimate outcome is not encouraging because yet again their premise is profoundly flawed: no country around Mali, or in West Africa has the muscle, nor the will to engage in an open war which in essence is a nation-building exercise.
All of these schemes and plans became moot by the time Ansar Dine’s columns pushed south from its Azawadi sanctuary. The skeleton of an untested idea became a doctrinal principle in France’s Operation Serval: we will stop the Jihadis, but the Africans will have to go north and defeat the enemy– said France. This plan of an ECOWAS force that will spearhead the fight with the backing of the African Union, and the necessary paperwork from the UN Security Council is a recipe for disaster. Rotten and corrupt militaries, commanded by equally corrupt leaders cannot be a credible partner once the shooting starts. This line of thinking owes a lot more to post-colonial discourses than it does to the practical matter of drying out the northern Malian jihadi swamp.
The other principle complicating matters is Africa’s biggest taboo. Today, no one is willing to recognize that Mali, like most of Africa, is an artificial construct. Just like the Middle East’s levant, countries were created without much thought of whether they made sense for those destined to live in them. Ethnic groups with competing cultures were condemned to live in them. Maybe they will end up making sense in the future, but just as in Mali, that will cost a lot of blood and treasure.
Although the logical next step in Azawad’s history is independence, in practical policy terms, it is impossible to advocate for an Azawadi state now. Autonomy would be a good step in that direction, even if it’s unlikely to gain much traction in African Union meetings.
This is the compromise that any serious attempt to defeat Jihadism must include. after all, as the French learned a century earlier, the only tried and tested strategy to control that area is divide and conquer. Giving Azawadis incentives to repudiate Jihadism is the only way to go. More importantly, a purpose and a reward for their past sufferings denying Jihadis the opportunity to pose as the people’s defenders.
In plain terms, let the natives of the region do the job outsiders cannot do. Let them earn the right to decide their destiny in exchange of defeating all foreign and domestic terrorists who have infected their lives, destroyed their shrines and cut their limbs. Back those whose interest is to cut Al-Qaeda’s tentacles. Keep a credible threat of firepower in place. Keep Mali’s military under close watch, and neuter it if necessary – they have already caused more than their fair share of harm by overthrowing an elected government.
Put an offer to negotiate on the table and build smart alliances. Let diplomats talk, and keep warriors close. Feed refugees, and keep their hope of going back home soon alive. Only such a policy is likely to save lives, and defeat nihilist jihadism.
Today, hope for a better future is the only way to win a peace with honor for all the peoples of the Sahel instead of endless wars allowing criminal thugs to shape the region’s future. Capitulating to fear and age-old hatreds is not an option.