France in Mali: the end of the fairytale

Whew, Mali. French air raids against Islamist positions in Mali began Thursday night, and the dust hasn’t settled yet. The news is changing fast, but three things emerge from the haze. First, fierce fighting in the North and the East, with French forces in the lead, will open up a whole new set of dangers. With Islamist forces on the attack, foreign intervention was necessary, and many Malians at home and abroad welcomed it enthusiastically. Still, this remains a dangerous moment all around. Second, while the latest crisis may not break the political deadlock in Bamako, it has already changed the dynamic. And third, despite the sorry state of mediation efforts to date—both within West Africa and beyond—savvy diplomacy is needed now more than ever.

First, the fighting. The French have come in hard and fast, with fighter jets flying sorties from southern France over Algerian airspace, helicopters coming in from bases in Burkina Faso, and special forces and Legionnaires from Côte d’Ivoire, Chad, Burkina, and France. There are indeed French boots on the ground, fighting alongside what remains of the Malian army and troops from neighboring countries. So far it is the air assault that has garnered headlines, chasing the allied Islamist fighters from the positions they had taken last week, as well as from most of their Sahelian strongholds (as I write, no reports of fighting in or around Timbuktu). Konna, Douentza, Gao, Léré, Kidal: ça chauffe.

Three things on that.

The intervention was necessary. The drama of the Islamist offensive should not be underestimated—a successful assault on Sevaré would have meant the loss of the only airstrip in Mali capable of handling heavy cargo planes, apart from that in Bamako. The fall of Sevaré would in turn have made any future military operation a nightmare for West African or other friendly forces, and it would have chased tens of thousands of civilians from their homes. These would only have been the most immediate effects. After Sevaré, nothing would have stopped an Islamist advance on Segu and Bamako, although it is unclear to me that the Islamists would have any strategic interest in investing Mali’s sprawling and densely populated capital. Still, many Bamakois feared an attack, and had one occurred the human costs would have been astronomical. Malians remember well that only a few months ago, insurgent forces ejected the army from northern Mali as if they were throwing a drunk from a bar. Timbuktu, Gao, and Kidal fell in a weekend. The army collapsed, and it has only been weakened by internal fighting since. Any other story is a fairytale.

The enemy is formidable. French officials expressed some surprise at the level of sophistication of the Islamist forces—well-armed, well-trained and experienced. In an early wave of the French intervention, one helicopter took heavy fire from small arms, and a pilot was killed; another French soldier remains missing. Malian casualties were heavy, and likely remain under-reported. Sources from Mopti refer to dozens of deaths among the Malian ranks, and there will be other casualties to come. In short, last week’s Islamist offensive put paid to the argument that the Malian army itself was capable of defending the country from further attack and of liberating the territory over which it had lost control.

This is not a neo-colonial offensive. The argument that it is may be comfortable and familiar, but it is bogus and ill-informed. France intervened following a direct request for help from Mali’s interim president, Dioncounda Traore. Most Malians celebrated the arrival of French troops, as Bruce Whitehouse and Fabien Offner have demonstrated. Every Malian I’ve talked to agrees with that sentiment. The high stakes and the strength of the enemy help to explain why the French intervention was so popular in a country that is proud of its independence and why the French tricolor is being waved in Bamako. That would have been unimaginable even 6 months ago—and probably even last week. More important than how quickly it went up will be how quickly it comes down; this popularity could be ephemeral. One tweeter figures French president François Hollande is more popular than Barack Obama right now. I’d wait for Hollande’s face to go up on a few barbershops before making that call, but the comparison gives a sense of the relief many felt when French forces came to the rescue of the Malian army.

Not everyone is in favor of the intervention. Let’s count some of the more vocal opponents: Oumar Mariko, Mali’s perpetual gadfly; French ex-prime minister Dominique de Villepin, who argues that it would be better to wait for the lions to lie down with the lambs; Paris-based Camerounian novelist Calixthe Beyala, plagiarist who argues that those Malians who would prefer not to live under a crude faux-Islamic vigilantism suffer from a plantation mentality; and some truly reprehensible protesters at the French embassy in London, who refuse to believe that most Malians are Muslims and don’t need religious instruction from Salafists. It’s hard to imagine a leakier ship of fools.

Second, fighting in the north has already changed the political dynamics on the ground in Bamako. The pro-junta movement MP-22 and Mariko, one of its most prominent leaders, opposed the French intervention just as they’ve violently opposed the possibility of ECOWAS help (this is the same crowd that nearly lynched the interim president last spring). Their position not only contrasts sharply with public sentiment, it also puts the movement at odds with Mali’s largest political coalition of the moment, the FDR, which had joined MP-22 in calling for a national conference in the days before the Islamist offensive. Since then the FDR has declared that now is not the time. What to make of this? First, as for MP-22, the dogs bark, but the caravan passes. Second, and more importantly, although the question of the national conference might be bracketed for the moment, it will come back soon.

Three important changes have already occurred in Bamako:

First—and strikingly—even Captain Amadou Haya Sanogo, who led the coup in March and who still holds a great deal of political power, has welcomed the arrival of French troops. This is important: he had been forced to abandon the argument that his troops could go it alone. His fierce opposition to the idea that ECOWAS troops—still less French ones—would come to Mali’s aid had only been gradually whittled down over the last several months, but it withered completely in the face of the recent Islamist offensive. Now, he has had to reverse course. When he made a lightning trip to Mopti-Sevaré over the weekend, it was hard to avoid the impression that he was struggling to remain relevant to both Kati (the garrison) and Kuluba (the presidential palace).

Second, virtually unremarked upon with all eyes in the East, several hundred French soldiers are deployed in Bamako to protect French citizens—of whom there are reportedly some 6,000 in Mali, of whom expatriates are a minority (press: please note). In the current emergency, while the French troops are there ostensibly to protect their citizens and other civilians from terrorist attack, they implicitly secure the civilian government against its own military and against mobs like those ginned up by MP-22 and other radical associations. Meanwhile, soldiers from ECOWAS nations are arriving by the hundreds, although it is not yet clear what role they will play or where they will be stationed.

Third, their presence puts President Traore in a stronger position. In months past, both the junta and the anti-globalization Left have been allergic to the idea of any foreign troops in Bamako itself, and they have used violence and intimidation to secure their argument. Now Traore has proven strong enough both to ask for military aid and to receive it. Neither he nor his new prime minister, Django Cissoko, remains prisoner to the threats of the military or the radical opposition.

Still, especially given all that’s happened over the weekend, it is important to recall to that the political situation in Bamako remains unstable. Dioncounda Traore’s “interim” presidency is long past its constitutional sell-by date, and the rest of Mali’s political class—including its once-young angry Left—have hardly failed to notice that. Last week, before the offensive, abroad coalition formed to demand a “national consultation” (often bruited, sometimes scheduled, never held), Traore’s resignation (to be replaced by whom?), and the launching of a military campaign to retake the north (which, coincidentally, they got, even if it was not the Malian-led initiative they wanted). On Wednesday demonstrators burned tires, blocked traffic, and shut down two of the three bridges across the Niger. Some men in masks reportedly fired guns in the air and carjacked trucks and 4X4s. In response, Traore closed all schools in Bamako and in the garrison town of Kati. If he was attempting to keep the students from joining the fray, he failed. In addition to opening Traore up to a certain amount of Twitter ridicule (Twittercule?), Traore’s edict brought the students’ union out on the streets on Thursday. They broke into high schools, chasing out students who were sitting exams (bad luck: apparently the questions were easy). At the moment, schools are open again, but the president has declared a state of emergency. In short, Bamako remains uneasy, and the “sacred union” of the last few days can only be temporary.

Third, what all this suggests is that the Mali crisis—which long ago became the Sahel crisis—needs diplomatic intervention every bit as urgently as it needed military intervention.

To date, West African meditation efforts have been manipulated by Burkinabe president Blaise Compaoré, whom ECOWAS has dubbed its mediator in the conflict. Few Malians take Compaoré as a legitimate interlocutor, and no one believes that he has the country’s interests at heart. After profiting from hostage-taking by negotiating ransoms with AQMI, Compaoré was until recently harboring dozens of MNLA fighters while attempting to manipulate ex-prime minister Cheikh Modibo Diarra by remote control. The military threw Diarra out of office in December, and a steady campaign to tarnish his image irreparably has accelerated since then, as he stands accused of diverting funds intended to aid the refugees to finance his political party. As for Compaoré’s guests from the MNLA, it’s said that he asked them to leave Burkina after they refused to keep a low profile. Several dozen have since turned up in Mauritania. In response to the latest round of skirmishing, which compelled the postponement of further negotiations in Ouagadougou, Compaoré’s lead diplomat Djibril Bassolé called on both sides to stop firing and hold their positions, as if this was a legitimate request to make of a national army defending its own territory and civilians, and as if he himself had anything better to offer than the prospect of further degrading the situation.

As for the UN, although after much discussion the Security Council has authorized the use of force by ECOWAS to re-establish Mali’s territorial integrity, the organization’s secretary-general seems to be running, as ever, on empty. Ban Ki-moon named Romano Prodi his emissary for the Sahelian crisis, leaving some to wonder if he had not got his dossiers shuffled. Prodi, a former prime minister of Italy, knows nothing of the Sahel and speaks none of its languages, only stumbling along in French. He is scarcely qualified for the job: in 2008, he led a UN-African Union panel on peacekeeping. More to the point, perhaps, he once helped to negotiate for the release of hostages held by the Taliban in Afghanistan. Yet the narrow lens of the hostage conundrum is precisely the wrong way to examine the Sahelian crisis (see: Nicolas Sarkozy), and this is not a peacekeeping scenario. At an event in Paris back in June, Manthia Diawara made the very good point that if Mali’s friends and neighbors take the country’s crisis seriously, they ought to be delegating some serious mediators to it. Compaoré and Bassolé, on behalf of ECOWAS, and Prodi, on the part of the UN, don’t make the grade. Could Presidents Yaya Boni of Benin or Macky Sall of Senegal, for instance, step in where Compaoré has failed? Africa is not short on diplomats, elders, and people of experience. President Traore—and Secretary-General Moon—should be writing to them as well.


The situation is changing very quickly, and much of what is written here may soon be outdated.

For lack of a better term, I use “Islamist” to refer to the alliance of AQMI, Ansar Dine, MUJAO, and other foreign movements. Other terms are inadequate (“terrorist”) or inaccurate. I reserve the terms rebels or insurgents for the host of anti-government forces, which includes the MNLA, a movement now at odds with its former allies Ansar Dine.

More on the medium-/long-term stakes of foreign intervention in another post.

Crossposted from Africa is a Country.


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