Thursday, April 10, 2014

Mali Revisited

The resignation of the entire Malian government last Saturday came as a surprise to observers who anticipated a reshuffle – not a full-blown purge. Although the newly appointed Prime Minister, ex-presidential hopeful and minister of town planning Moussa Mara, is likely already on his way to pulling together a new government, this does not look like an encouraging development in a country who’s territorial integrity was menaced by a separatist-jihadist alliance just a few months ago. Oumar Tatam Ly, the now ex-PM, attributed his decision to the new Malian government’s “dysfunction” and incompetence, stating that it was impossible for the civilian government to achieve its election promises.

Oumar Tatam Ly submitted his government's resignation on Saturday

While trying to get a handle on incompetence and dysfunction is, in and of itself, a good thing, establishing an entirely new government will be a challenge that requires a bit of time. No timeline has been laid out regarding when Mara will announce his new government – and this could be crucial. While President Ibrahim Boubakar Keita (IBK) has a solid mandate (he won well over 70% of the vote in the August 2013 election), the government collapse (or rather, was overthrown) in a 2012 coup resulted in Tuareg separatists and their Islamist allies, including Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), overrunning much of the northern half of the country.  These forces represented such a threat that Mali called on its former colonial master, France, to intervene. While the resignation of the government over the weekend is not equivalent to a military coup, there is enough uncertainty and instability in Mali to merit concern.

The problem here is that in late March, the leader of a new, armed group in Mali’s north – the Coalition for the People of Azawad (CPA) – suggested that the central government could face an uprising if it continues to delay talks on the future of the region. The UN Security Council has also warned of the need to conclude negotiations in order to avoid radicalizing rebels and losing what small security gains had been made with the assistance of the French. Time is thus not something Bamako really has in abundance.

The central government needn’t panic, however: several components of this situation differ enormously from the post-coup environment. For one thing, the alliance between northern Tuareg rebels – primarily the MNLA (Mouvement national pour la liberation de l’Azawad) – and various Islamists groups such as AQIM, Ansar Dine, and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) appears unlikely to be reignited in the near term. This relationship, which in no small part facilitated the central government’s abrupt loss of Gao, Kidal, and Timbuktu – as well as the proclamation of an independent State of Azawad in the north in April 2012 – collapsed when the Islamist groups turned on the Tuareg rebels, driving them from the conquered cities. That betrayal led the MNLA to support France’s Operation Serval, aimed at rooting out the Islamists. It also suggests that any future cooperation will be undertaken reluctantly, or only after a fair amount of time has passed and sufficient trust has been established.

This map illustrates the situation in Mali in January 2013

In addition, France currently has some 1,600 troops deployed in Mali who continue to carry out Operation Serval’s mission of neutralizing the jihadist threat in the north.  In fact, France announced in late March that they had killed some 40 AQIM members, including Oumar Ould Hamaha or “Red Beard” – a jihadist with a $3 million bounty on his head. France and Germany have also announced that part of the Franco-German brigade will deploy to Mali to engage in military training with a European mission already in place. That mission has already trained some 3,000 Malian forces. The combination of foreign troops, improved indigenous military capacity, as well as the presence of an (admittedly under-staffed and relatively ill-equipped) UN peacekeeping mission (MINUSMA), all indicate that another territorial crisis or a run on the capital is unlikely. Bamako is in a much better position than it was two years ago.

That being said, there is some cause for concern. According to news reports, more than a year after Operation Serval was launched jihadists are regaining a foothold in some areas in the North. AQIM in particular has chased families from their homes, in addition to conducting an assassination campaign against those who supported the French-Malian operation (MNLA members and leaders have been a favorite target). And while there is a significant international training presence, France is reducing the number of soldiers engaged in actual combat roles from a peak of 5,000 down to about 1,000 through the spring. Whether the newly trained Malian forces and under-manned MINUSMA peacekeepers are capable of maintaining stability in the absence of thousands of French troops remains to be seen.

IBK faces several challenges in the coming months as he pursues reconiliation

Moving forward will depend on Bamako’s ability to pursue national reconciliation with the Tuareg separatists. The good news is that the CPA (unlike its MNLA parent) does not seek full-out independence for the north: that makes it a more acceptable negotiating partner for the government. The problem is that it’s unclear to what extent this particular group has the support of Tuareg elites – the group may be more palatable, but it may also have next to no influence over events in the north. Whatever the path forward, however, resolving the tension between the north and Bamako will be vital to obviating the incentive for a separatist-jihadist alliance and thereby to preventing another crisis in the long term. And to do this, Mali will need a government pretty soon.

If you’re unfamiliar with the Mali 2012-2013 crisis, check out some of the BBC’s coverage here.

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