Mali’s ‘success story’ threatened by security vacuum, militant Islam

John J. Metzler

UNITED NATIONS — An arc of political and social instability exists on the soft underbelly of the Sahara Desert, as Islamic militants and ethnic separatists chip away at the fragile political geography of five states on the southern fringe of the Sahara desert.

The West African country of Mali, wracked by a military coup, an Islamic power grab and tribal fighting, has only regained a fragile stability in the wake of French military intervention earlier this year and the subsequent UN peacekeeping mission. Yet. Mali’s precarious situation, and that of the many regional states, could be slipping backwards.

Islamic insurgents in Mali.
Islamic insurgents in Mali.

Mali which was hitherto viewed as a stable if poor country, was thrown into the cockpit of conflict in 2012 as a military coup d’ etat, an Tuareg ethnic rebellion, and an Islamic fundamentalist onslaught turned the country into a focus for instability.

Islamic fundamentalists seized large parts of the twice Texas-sized territory and promptly initiated a Taliban style retribution regime against learning, culture and even many mosques. The ancient and fabled city of Timbuktu, on the crossroads of caravan trade for a millennium and a center of Islamic learning, bore the brunt of destruction with the trashing of monuments, scriptures, and books.

French military intervention, in its former colony, a rare political success for Francois Hollande’s Socialist government, turned the tide as crack units from the Foreign Legion and Parachute regiments routed the rebels and restored a semblance of stability. Later a multinational UN peacekeeping and stabilization force (MINUSMA) was deployed into the country.

Still the security situation in Mali’s unstable north where Al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb is increasingly active has prompted the UN to publicly admit that “worrying security incidents in Mali,” are an important “wake up call.”

The UN’s special Representative for Mali, Bert Koenders, a former Netherlands Minister for Development and Cooperation, briefed the Security Council that “in addition to the security threats from armed groups and terrorists which mainly affected the northern regions, the authorities had to contend with tensions within the armed forces.” He warned specifically that “Jihadists pose a threat” in the North and the Sahel region in general.

As is expected the regular Malian army is not exactly a reliable bulwark for the Bamako government, and thus there’s the usual dependency on foreign support. Equally Koenders conceded, “Our human rights teams continue to register cases of abuses and violations committed by all parties.”

Bert Koenders stressed before the Security Council, “ Despite the security challenges, the overall improvement of the situation in Mali has opened new prospects for Mali’s recovery and longer term perspectives.” Yet he added that underdevelopment and high levels of malnutrition pose a daunting challenge. As importantly he stressed, “International support to the humanitarian emergency in Mali has been timid, with the humanitarian appeal funded at 37 percent or $177 million out of $477 million.”

The problem gets worse. The MINUSMA mission lacks helicopters to facilitate movement and logistics support in the vast and arid land; troop contributions for the mission are lacking; and French units form the backbone of the security situation. The mission which is slated for 12,600 troops and police, suffers from about only 50 percent of needed resources. Responding to an Islamic insurgency at home, Nigerian units were withdrawn in August.

The undertow of poverty remains a challenge beyond the now improving political sphere. The World Food Program has upgraded its humanitarian food aid and now covers 680,000 people or which 160,000 are internally displaced from the recent conflict. Mali, a country of sixteen million, remains one of the 25 poorest places in the world.

French UN Ambassador Gerard Araud told correspondents that Mali presents a “remarkable success story,” just look at the country a year ago. This is certainly true but with a drawdown of French units, unless there is corresponding support from other African armies, could again lead to a security vacuum.

The Sub-Saharan region of which Mali remains a geographical linchpin, has been increasingly destabilized by the aftershocks of the Libyan revolt and the endemic ethnic instability. It comes as no surprise that fundamentalist forces and Al Qaida affiliates find fertile ground in the region bordering resource-rich Algeria. Drawing the line against terrorism in Mali is justified, but shall it resemble just another line in the sand?

John J. Metzler is a U.N. correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He writes weekly for He is the author of Transatlantic Divide ; USA/Euroland Rift (University Press, 2010).

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