Mali is not Afghanistan
Since the campaign by the French army to free northern Mali from the iron grip of the Islamic fundamentalists began few weeks ago, the Nigerian government has been labouring to justify joining the fray. The Malian government was rendered dysfunctional in March, last year, by a military coup, which toppled the government of President Amadou Toumani Toure. Amadou Sanogo, a captain and leader of the coup, had called for external help to enable the war-weary Malian army stop the advance of the rebels who had taken over a number of key towns in the North of Mali.
His pleas were ignored. Instead, the African Union, AU, suspended Mali. The AU later struck a deal with the coup leaders to allow President Toure to resign. Part of it was to restore civilian rule, which finally saw Dioncounda Traore, the Speaker of the Parliament, sworn in as the Interim President on April 11, 2012. The army thereafter retreated from the North of the country, thereby giving a free reign for a plethora of armed groups to fill the void. These are disparate armed groups all of which have different aims and motivations. Islamists, many of whom had been displaced from Libya after the fall and eventual death of Muammar Gaddafi in October 2011, soon joined them.
The Islamist insurgents, who are tested fighters, and well equipped with weapons and free cash, soon overwhelmed other militias and took over the whole of Northern Mali. This started the ‘balkanization’ and bastardization of Mali as various World Heritage Sites, which abound in the rebel-held areas, were systematically desecrated and destroyed. Tied to an Al-Qaeda group in the Maghreb, which in itself, is a franchise of the original Al-Qaeda, the quest of the Islamic fundamentalists was to foist their own brand of stringent Sharia laws on the whole of Mali. Of course, this portends danger for Mali, the entire West African sub-region and the world at large.
All the AU could do was to engage in mere rhetoric while the extremists dug deeper. By January, this year, the rebels started making preparations to launch a final offensive on the south of the country. This would have brought the entire country under the control of the extremists. This would have also emboldened Al-Qaeda in North Africa to secure a launch pad for destabilizing the weak governments in Africa, especially West Africa.
Now, poor Mali has come under the jackboots of foreign troops fighting to ‘liberate’ it from the clutches of Islamic fundamentalists. The French government, its former colonial master, took the lead by dispatching its troops, which stopped the rebels from advancing to the south of the country. Through ceaseless aerial bombardments, they have captured all the rebels’ strongholds. But the French troops will not be available to go all out on any ground assault to totally cleanse the place of the remnants of the rebels who may have taken sanctuary in the desert. Nigeria is at the head of the more than 3,000-strong African forces under the auspices of the Economic Community of West African States, ECOWAS, which have been arriving in Bamako in trickles to undertake the ground offensive.
Nigeria is bedevilled by deadly exploits of some extremists believed to have ties with the insurgents in Mali. Though the attacks are confined to the northern part of the country, its debilitating effects on the entire country and the West African sub-region is being felt rather than imagined. Therefore, the logic of Nigeria’s involvement in Mali is that it is quite easier and cheaper, in terms of human and material resources, to fight terrorism outside the shores of the country than within. In other words, it is far better to confront the growing ‘Al-Qaeda’ influence in Mali and smash it than wait for the insurgency to be exported into the country through the porous borders in the north.
But one problem remains. The African troops in the Mali campaign will require enormous assistance from external bodies in terms of training, weapons and other logistics of war. It will be recalled that during the war in Liberia, some of the African troops, which were brought into the theatre of war, were grossly under-equipped. They had neither boots nor weapons to fight because most of the West African leaders prefer to keep their army ill-equipped to stave off coups against their regimes.
The question is what becomes of the rebels who have abandoned their positions in the north and taken to their heels? They are probably locked up in the vast deserts and mountains of northern Mali where they could instigate guerilla warfare at their whim to destabilize Mali from time to time. They could have also taken refuge somewhere in the Sahel, where they could regroup and carry out attacks on any part of the West African sub-region. This is why everything must be done to forestall the rise of another Afghanistan in Africa.
The recent pledge of an initial $50 million to the estimated $1 billion fund for the war effort in Mali by AU members in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, underscores the seriousness of the Malian crisis. Therefore, the adventure in Mali is in Nigeria’s interest, the interest of the West African sub-region, Africa and the whole world to deal extremism a decisive blow in order to achieve sustainable peace and progress.
Dele Agekameh is a publisher and company executive