By Hinsley Njila – Intro by Innocent Chia
It is not only the secrecy with which the French are fighting the “rebels and AlQaeda” in Mali that is raising eyebrows. The Committee to Protect Journalists is decrying a 21st century war that is being fought “without images and without facts”. Observers are also befuddled by the amount of pledge of €50 million ($67 million) to support a contingent of African-led troops by a visibly beleaguered European Union (EU). Not only is this amount paltry when compared to the cost per day for either wars in Afghanistan or Iraq that the American tax payers are footing, the amount underscores the type of commitment of the International Community and the results aimed at. Another frightening thought is that Nationalists who are not on the coattails of American and European powers will be branded by their opponents in government as AlQaeda cells… As one who has been to the theater of war and actually fought for something much bigger than his life, Hinsley Njila brings unique perspective to the unfolding drama in Mali.
In December 2012, rebels, (locally known as - Seleka) in Central African Republic (CAR), descended on François Bozizé’s failed government in Bangui. Mr. Bozizé, in addition to being corrupt and inept, the Seleka claim, has also breached key terms of 2007 & 2008 peace accords which called for him to setup a representative government. For a while the Seleka captured towns across the country without much attention. It was only as they advanced on the city of Damara – barely an hour outside of Bangui – that Mr. Bozizé took notice and called French President Francois Hollande for help. In response, the French, Americans and other western nations pulled embassy staff and other personnel from CAR while encouraging Mr. Bozizé and the Seleka to negotiate on their differences in Libreville.
In a recent speech, Mr Hollande is alleged to have said that the over 200 French troops currently stationed at Bangui airport are not intended to "protect a regime" against the advance of the rebels, but instead French nationals and interests. France will not "interfere in the internal affairs of a country, in this case, CAR," Hollande said, adding: "That time is over."
Asked about a possible intervention in favor of displaced people or refugees, the French president said that his country could not "intervene unless there is a U.N. mandate," and, he said, "This is not the case." "But in general, we are always for civilians to be protected and preserved, and we will do our duty again," he said.
The current situation in Mali is not unlike that in CAR, with of course one key difference – one of the alleged participants is AQIM, an Al Qaeda affiliate. France got drawn into this conflict on January 10th at the request of current president Dioncounda Traore (an ally of the previously unpopular president Amadou Toumani Toure) just as he feared the Islamists would descend on his isolated post in Bamako.
Islamists in Mali, like many rebel groups across West Africa and the Sahel frequently complain about corrupt central governments not doing enough for large segments of the population and shutting them out of their country’s natural wealth. The groups in Mali, particularly Islamists - Ansar Dine, Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (Mujao), Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Capt Amadou Sanogo and the Malian Army, and The National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (known by its French acronym of MNLA) are all fighting to oust the corrupt and unpopular government of Dioncounda Traore in Bamako.
Mali has consistently been ranked one of the most corrupt countries in the world; unemployment is incredibly high especially among young people, and the country’s GDP per capita growth has been below that of Sub-Saharan Africa for several years according to World Bank numbers.
Mr. Hollande’s objectives for sacrificing French and Malian lives in Northern Mali are as varied as the news sources he allegedly talks to. They range from repelling the Islamists to an all-out occupation of the North; and timelines have evolved from a few weeks to ‘as long as it takes.’
While the Al Qaeda link we’ve been told by the French seems plausible, a sufficient case for killing innocent civilians by getting involved in internal power struggles of sovereign countries in the name of peace has not been fully established to the public as of yet. We’ve entered a dangerous existence where corrupt governments can simply enlist their ill-informed; trigger happy western allies to murder scores of their own people in the so called effort to ‘prevent an Islamic state.’
Neocons and pre-emptive strikes on Islamists
In the post US invasion of Iraq debacle, it is reasonable to expect that western countries determined to attack Islamists would do so with compelling reason and a well thought-out strategy far better than the empty bravado ignorantly displayed by Bush and the Neocons. While Chirac was smart enough to oppose the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Hollande and Le Drain are increasingly sounding like Bush, Cheney & Rumsfeld every time they talk about the war.
It’s hard to understand how a military force of a few hundred French troops, along with a few divisions of poorly trained, largely unprofessional and fragmented contingent of army from various African countries with questionable counterinsurgency tactics will be effective against the well-organized Islamist in Northern Mali who occupy a territory the size of Belgium and France combined. Keep in mind, much of the Islamic fighters now headed to Mali have spent much of the last decade fighting against mostly American forces in Iraq & Libya and thus are well experienced in counterinsurgency.
Hollande in all his chest thumping speeches about the effectiveness of French military has conveniently failed to share with us his plans for dealing with increasing numbers of Malian refugees, already occurring human rights abuses by African soldiers, and plans to rebuild the lives of local Malians.
Additionally, there’s already some evidence that the coalition is not as strong as we’ve been led to belief by Mr. Hollande. While The Americans have shared bits of Intelligence with the French, Obama’s government would only provide additional help if the French paid the bills for any future operational collaborations. On the heels of a recent meeting with other African leaders Mr. Ouattara implored Germany to assume an increased role in the Malian conflict by adding German soldiers to the conflict, and assuming all costs to African governments.
Mr. Hollande for his part, still has a lot of questions to answer: who will lead this conflict, what really are the objectives, who will assume the costs to fight these Islamists, who manages the logistics of troop transport and replacements, how will the EU assist West Africans with a potential new problem of the influx of terrorists to the region as a result of this effort?
Does the French military have the capacity to deal with a potential ethnic or sectarian conflict?
Africa’s post-colonial problems
France does not have a history of successfully intervening in the internal conflicts of its former African colonies. Mali's problems are not unique to the Sahel, and are equally part of a wider regional crisis extending across West Africa. It involves a complex set of problems that include widespread corruption, severe poverty, unemployment, drought, political instability, kleptocracy, nepotism, and mismanagement. So long as these conditions are not dealt with, groups like the Islamists will always be looking for areas like Northern Mali, CAR or Cameroon to set up shop. Unless France has a plan to attack these former colonies, Mr. Hollande and his government need to work on a sustainable long-term strategy. This new strategy will hopefully align with citizens; emphasize intelligence gathering and counterinsurgency, while eschewing historically close partnerships with corrupt leadership experts in mismanagement.
The current conflict in Mali involves a complex web of players – mostly expressing frustration with the central Malian government. The military, led by Capt Amadou Sanogo carried out a coup to supposedly restore discipline, The Tuareg are fighting for greater share of Mali’s resources, and the Islamists by in-large are also expressing a number of frustrations with the government in Bamako. France cannot afford to ignore these concerns and interests, the consequences of which will create another decade of war in this part of the world whose people are so desperate for opportunity.