Hollande marches into Mali

Europe stands by as France launches operation to free the West African nation from jihadist grip The hostage crisis in Algeria may convince more allies to join up

French troops begin their deployment in central Mali.
French troops begin their deployment in central Mali.ISSOUF SANOGO (AFP)

From independence in 1960 up until the early part of last year, Mali, one of the poorest countries in the world, was a model of African democracy. Landlocked, and tucked between Senegal and Mauritania, it was best known for its music: kora players such as Toumani and Mamadou Diabaté, or guitarists Ali Farka Touré and Salif Keita had made the country popular with tourists, who would take in a music festival before or after a visit to Timbuktu, whose three great mosques are a World Heritage site.

Muslims, who make up 90 percent of the population, have long accepted the secular Constitution largely authored by Alpha Oumar Konaré, president between 1992 and 2002. Konaré was succeeded by Amadou Touré, who was reelected in ballots praised by the international community as free and fair in 2007.

The overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi in late 2011 changed everything. The separatist Tuareg militia based in the north of Mali led by Ansar Dine, who had been marginalized for decades, had fought as mercenaries for Gaddafi, and now returned from Libya to their homelands, armed to the teeth with a wide range of weapons from machine guns to anti-aircraft batteries, all bought at bargain-basement prices as Libya fell apart. After allying themselves with the jihadists of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) - which controls a huge area of desert from the Atlantic to Chad - and with the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUYAO), the Tuaregs launched an insurrection in January 2012. Within a few weeks they had conquered three of Mali's northern regions, imposing their own brand of harsh Sharia law, flogging, amputating and stoning offenders, as well as destroying ancient historical sites. Hundreds of thousands of Malians fled south or to neighboring countries.

Unhappy at their president's weak response, many soldiers from Mali's US-trained army went over to the enemy, and then overthrew Touré. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) intervened, and managed to place Dioncounda Traoré as head of a provisional government of national unity. He fled to Paris after he was attacked by a mob, and it took two months for him to get over the shock and recover from his injuries and return to the capital, Bamako.

Mali's model democracy could not control its own land. It had succumbed

Traoré asked for help from the international community in September, saying that the rebels were continuing to gain ground in the north of the country. Mali's model democracy was no longer able to control its own land. It had succumbed to terror.

While all this was going on, France was immersed in a presidential election, which Socialist François Hollande won. Hollande's Africa policy is little short of a revolutionary decision to finally clean out the corrupt regimes kept in power for decades after they became independent from France, in return for their leaders providing the former colonial power with raw materials. In return, France would finance them and protect them. The days of suitcases full of cash being delivered from the Élysée Palace were over. Africa's nations have reached middle age and must now look after themselves. There would be no more intervention by French troops based in Chad, Burkina Faso, Niger, Côte d'Ivoire, or other former colonies.

In line with the new doctrine, and after withdrawing its troops from Afghanistan early, Hollande's foreign affairs and defense advisors put together a plan to deal with events in Mali. The project was then debated, voted, and rejected at the UN. Eventually it was approved in December despite the initial opposition of Susan Rice, the US ambassador to the UN who described it as "un plan de merde." France's "crappy plan" involved helping the Malian government halt the advance of the "terrorist revolt" using only African troops recruited from ECOWAS member states under the command of a Nigerian general who would be advised by a small group of French officers. These troops would join the demoralized and very unpopular Malian armed forces to reconquer the north, and would be trained by some 450 EU military personnel, leaving the US out of the equation.

The EU, the UN, and the African Union, along with China and Russia, backed the plan, and the Security Council approved it as Resolution 2,085, authorizing the deployment of troops. Then, on January 10, the Islamist rebels took the town of Konna. Located in the center of the country, and with a major airport, this was seen as too dangerous and strategic to have been chosen by chance. The rebels' advance on Bamako had begun.

Hollande: "You will not blackmail us. We won't let you destroy fragile democracies"

After discussing this new turn of events with the army chiefs of staff and the domestic and foreign intelligence services, Hollande called the country's Defense Council to the Élysée Palace on January 11, and ordered a strike against the rebels using Mirage jets stationed in Chad. As Christophe Barbier wrote in L'Express, Hollande had decided "to be commander in chief, in the process becoming a head of state."

Within the space of a few hours, the man whom voters had dubbed "flan man" had turned into the man of steel, to the surprise of many. Not only had he done a volte face on his new policy of non-intervention "to assure the existence of the state of Mali," he had also decided to give the order to send in the commandos to rescue a hostage being held in Somalia. The hostage in question was a spy operating under the nom de guerre of Denis Allex who had been held by the jihadist Al Shabab militia for the last three-and-a-half years. The mission to release Allex staged by the special forces, involving five helicopters and 50 soldiers, failed. Two soldiers were killed and six more injured. Allex was killed by his captors. Paris said that 17 terrorists had been killed. On the same day, the first French soldier was killed in Mali, a helicopter pilot.

Undaunted, Hollande decided to send a message on behalf of the French nation to the "Islamic gangsters," as well as the international community and an electorate increasingly concerned that their president was unable to handle a crisis: "You will not blackmail us with kidnapping. We will not let you destroy fragile African democracies. France is still France." Barbier added that the French army "is ready to adapt itself to new dangers and threats."

Ten years ago, Jacques Chirac preferred to keep France out of the war in Iraq. In December Hollande hired a new team of communication consultants in a bid to improve his popularity rating, which had fallen to 35 percent in the first months of his mandate. In January he appeared on state television to tell the nation that he was about to embark on an international intervention. His decision was supported by all political parties, creating a rare moment of national unity that would barely last a week. But his European partners: Germany, the UK and Spain, diplomatically avoided joining the mission to save Africa.

Europe's crisis isn't financial; it's political as shared aims have been undermined"

The Financial Times and the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung interpreted Hollande's decision to send in French troops to save Mali as a bid to boost his popularity, accusing him of making up policy on the hoof, and returning to the bad old days of colonialist intervention to protect French interests there.

Hollande says that France has no intention of "staying" in Mali, describing the military operation to save French citizens as "an exception." This new Hollande, who appears less sincere than his usual self, has also rejected accusations that the mission is aimed at protecting the interests of companies such as nuclear energy producer Areva, which mines raw material in the area, including uranium from neighboring Niger and which is essential for France's network of nuclear power stations.

Hollande cites three main objectives in Mali: "Firstly to halt terrorist aggression, which is seeking to take control of the country, including Bamako; then to protect the capital, where several thousand French citizens live; and finally, to allow Mali to recover its territory."

René Otayek, a lecturer in political science at Bordeaux University, accepts Hollande's argument about saving French citizens. "It's not absurd to say that France is acting on behalf of them, although it is also true to say that most of them work for French companies located in Mali. It is logical that France would want to protect them. Areva's mines in Niger are the biggest supplier of France's uranium needs, but there are also oil wells and many other companies working in Mauritania, Burkina Faso and other countries in the region. The Sahel is strategically vital to France, and there is no question that France will fight to prevent the terrorists from threatening uranium mines and other interests."

Europe and the US will understand that the West has a lot at stake in the Sahel"

Which largely explains why France's European partners are reluctant to join Hollande in what they see as an adventure aimed primarily at defending French interests in the Sahel. France's best-known intellectual, Daniel Cohn-Bendit, a member of the European Parliament, was biting in his assessment of what France sees as betrayal by the EU in an open letter to Catherine Ashton, the nearest thing the EU has to a foreign minister: "Madame Ashton, you have said that we are all concerned. Everybody is telling us the same thing. But there are only French soldiers there. What we are being told is 'We will send some nurses, and you can be killed'."

Le Monde reported on January 18 that French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius was irritated by his EU opposite numbers asking him "just what France was doing in Mali." Susan Rice has made it clear that the Obama administration puts the onus of responsibility on Paris for the outcome of its intervention in Mali. In other words, Hollande is on his own, and will be leading a coalition overwhelmingly composed of French troops, supported by African soldiers. This 5,500-strong contingent, of whom 2,200 are supposed to be on the ground by January 26, along with the 2,000 soldiers that Chad will send will be the only back up the 4,000 French troops can expect when they confront a well-trained and disciplined enemy made up of around 3,000 jihadists and Tuaregs.

The colonial legacy

Like most African countries, Mali's borders reflect imposed colonial boundaries, often lumping together different ethnic groups. The Tuareg people, Muslims in the Malian north, are neither Arabs nor black Africans. Like other Berber peoples, the Tuareg have sporadically claimed autonomy and separate status in Mali and in the neighboring states of Algeria, Morocco, Western Sahara, Mauritania, Niger and Libya. Under various labels, they have been struggling against the Malian central government - dominated by black African southerners - since 1963. In 1958, even before the 1960 decolonization, the Tuareg thought they and the French had negotiated their own country in the desert. Subsequent uprisings were suppressed by the Malian government in 1990, 2000, 2006 and 2009. Decentralization agreements and a special status negotiated for the north never achieved implementation. The army failed to integrate Tuareg officers into its ranks and has been accused of harassing Tuareg civilians.

The March 20, 2012 coup can be seen as reflecting the failure of the Malian government to adequately support the military in its struggle against the Tuareg rebels, the "National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad" (MNLA in its French acronym). It is not clear why the military coup leaders chose the month before an election to seize power. President Amadou Toumani Touré (popularly known as "A.T.T.") had served two terms and was not going to stand again. Political paralysis in the capital, Bamako, and the withdrawal of the military from the north, permitted MNLA to take over three important towns, including Timbuktu. In fact the MNLA's declaration of the new country of "Azawad" may have been legal under international law since at the time, no national constitution was in effect.

  • Mali ranks 175th in the UN's Human Development Index of 181 countries.
  • It ranks 160 in terms of per capita GDP.
  • Life expectancy is 51.4 years.
  • Of the country's 15.5 million inhabitants, 90 percent are Muslim.
  • More than 65 percent of Mali is desert or semi-desert.

The African MISMA mission will be led by English-speaking, and not always well-organized Nigeria, which will be contributing 900 soldiers along with a general to lead the force. Togo will contribute 540 troops, Niger 500, Senegal 450, Burkina Faso and Benin 300 each, Ghana 180, and Guinea 145 members of its armed forces. Alain Vidalies, Hollande's minister for parliamentary relations, is the only member of the government to criticize in public what he called "Europe's minimal mobilization," but without naming names, saying: "France did not want to act alone: circumstances have dictated this response." The academic and pundit Gilles Kepel wrote last week in Le Monde: "Unless the EU no longer has any meaning, France's isolation cannot last."

The problem is that Germany and the UK's attitude suggests that they have failed to grasp that Europe is still unaware that this latest episode in the war between the democracies and radical Islam is the most European of any that have been waged until now in its name. Bearing in mind that the Canary Islands are just 1,800 kilometers from the theater of operations, while Algeria is a stone's throw from Europe, the French public is, to say the least, disappointed at the failure of its EU partners to join the fray. Socialist deputy Malek Boutih captured the mood of many people last week by saying: "Europe's crisis isn't financial; it's political. The Germans are undermining European shared aims."

But Otayek says that this is no time to make a drama out of a crisis. "It is both true and untrue that France is alone in the Sahel. Germany only sends troops abroad under exceptional circumstances, although it is true that were it to do so now, it would send a powerful message. Spain and the UK have also provided logistic support, as has the US. For the moment, the war in Mali is perhaps the best-supported French intervention in history, and certainly in terms of public opinion at home. But this could change if there are heavy losses, and if the conflict drags on, as has happened in Afghanistan."

Few commentators doubt that the war in Mali will be a long one. "Ending the war in the Sahel will take several years and huge human, logistical, and material resources, which will be beyond the ability of a single country to provide," Otayek says. "The hostage crisis [at the BP gas plant in Algeria] will have convinced some, or at least the UK, Norway and the Netherlands, that they will now have to help France to a much greater degree than they have wanted to until now."

"The context of this war is completely different from those of the past," Otayek continues. "For the first time, France has the support of the entire region, and it is also the first time that a pan-African coalition has been formed to fight on the ground, although the EU and the African Union have been working on this idea for some time. But I believe that Europe and the US will understand that the West has a lot at stake in the Sahel; much more than just a war, and that the region's instability cannot be dealt with by force alone. To rid the region of traffickers of all kinds will require policies, energy and money. We will also have to make a serious effort to integrate the Tuareg minorities. Otherwise, there will never be peace."

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