The recent political crisis in the previously stable and democratic country of Mali has not received the same level of media attention as the current conflicts between Sudan and South Sudan. Mali’s crises, however, carry the risks of becoming a significant disruption in the otherwise rapidly growing Western African region. The military coup in Mali’s capital, Bamako, followed by an attempted secession in the country’s northern region carried out by Tuareg tribesmen with Ansar Eddine, a sect that intends to establish a Malian Islamist state, have destabilized the nation’s political structure, causing concerns both in the region and in the wider world.
The co-president of the Joint Parliamentary Assembly of the African, Caribbean, and Pacific Group of States and the European Union (ACP-EU), Louis Michel, recently stated that Mali’s implosion could have devastating effects on its neighbors, stressing that a “domino effect” could ensue. French president Francois Hollande advocated U.N. intervention, if requested by local authorities, proposing the notion “that there is a threat of terrorist groups setting up in northern Mali. “
Yet it remains an open question as to whether local or global authorities have the ability to effectively respond to any issues that might result. Asked in an interview whether the regional economic and security co-operation ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States) had the capacity to handle the responsibility of the crisis on their own, and whether the U.N. would be asked by local authorities to intervene, John Campbell, a senior fellow for African Policy Studies with the Council on Foreign Relations, recently summarized the problem in an interview, “The question of capacity is a very real issue. Where is that capacity going to come from? Is it going to come from a highly overstretched U.N.? If so, who is going to contribute peacekeepers?”
While Hollande seems to have indicated France’s support, it also appears that, based on the state of the world economy, local institutions and West African people will have to shoulder the responsibility of dealing with the Malian crisis.
Local authorities have already begun to take on this challenge. After the military coup occurred in March, ECOWAS immediately enacted economic sanctions that led to the restoration of the Malian constitution, the installation of National Assembly leader Dioncounda Traoré as interim president, and the removal of coup leader Captain Amadou Sanogo from power.
Despite early successes, the problems facing local authorities have only continued to compound. When asked about the challenges regional authorities will have to overcome in the future, Ogaba Oche, the director of research and studies at the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs, stated that
ECOWAS is likely to face a number of challenges in managing the situation in Mali. These include the lack of cooperation from the Malian politicians, the military, and the Tuaregs in the north that have declared an independent state for themselves. Other challenges are likely to be in the areas of funding for the proposed ECOWAS force to deal with the rebellion.
Consideration of allowing an independent state, as the situation stands, has been ruled out by ECOWAS, who, as implied by director Oche, will have much difficulty suppressing the rebellion on their own. This presents an opportunity for limited UN support to fill the hole in financial and logistical capacity.
However, caution must be undertaken with any well-meaning outside interference in the situation. In fact, some authorities have tied the Malian conflict to prior foreign intervention in the region. Stephen Zunes writes in the Huffington Post that when the Libyan conflict occurred, for example,
disparate armed groups—including Tuareg tribesmen—ended up liberating major stores of armaments. These vast caches of weapons were passed on to Tuaregs in Mali who, now having the means to effectively challenge the Malian government militarily, resumed their long-dormant rebellion.
In addition, according to Zunes, coup leader Amadou Sanogo was trained in the United States as “just one small part of a decade of U.S. training of armies in the Sahel.”
Mr. Campbell affirmed many of Zunes’s ideas, with caveats: “How many of the Tuareg rebels actually served in Libya in one capacity or another? I don’t really know, and I wonder if anybody knows… arms I think is clearer. It seems to me that you can show that there were more sophisticated arms in northern Mali after the collapse of the Qaddafi regime than there were before.”
Suffice to say, sincerely well-intentioned armed intervention, and even logistical support, can have unintended consequences that causes more instability for regional powers in the long run.
Concerns about the extent of foreign intervention may be less relevant now than in the past: as Mr. Campbell points out, most developed nations lack the capacity to intervene to any great extent, even if that course of action was recommendable. A balance will have to be struck between providing the tools to allow ECOWAS to quickly resolve the situation with as little damage done to the economic health and stability of the region as possible, while also ensuring that local authorities retain the leadership position in managing all aspects of the crisis. The joint African Union-U.N. operation to stabilize Somalia can be taken as a relatively successful model, in which troops primarily from local nations (Uganda, Burundi, and Kenya) lead efforts alongside limited U.N. support. Indeed, this is the model referenced by Thomas Boni Yayi, the African Union chief and president of Benin, when he called for such a plan to be implemented in Mali.
While ECOWAS has managed political conflict in Algeria, Sierra Leone, and other nations in the past, this will be a defining moment for the organization. Hopefully, when coupled with recent economic development in the region, ECOWAS’s actions will prove to be a major step toward greater West African self-sufficiency in international affairs.