By Onyeka Chidozie
The decision by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) to send a standby force into Mali adds a more muscular tone to the efforts of the regional group to address the crisis that has put Mali’s political and security situation on a worryingly downward spiral since the March 22 coup by some military elements.
Unfortunately, moves by ECOWAS to get the United Nations Security Council to endorse the ECOWAS plan is yet to yield the desired result. If all goes as planned, it is very likely that Mali will become the next West African country to witness external internationally sanctioned military intervention.
The chaos in Mali had erupted after middle-ranking officers from the national army, under the leadership of Captain Amadou Sanogo, staged a coup in Bamako. Their grouse was that the President had failed to end the Tuareg-led rebellion in the north.
ECOWAS, which has a long-standing rule of not recognizing governments that are not democratically elected, reacted by immediately condemning the coup and going on to impose sanctions on the coup leaders, including freezing of their foreign assets and travel bans. The sanctions were, however, lifted in April after Captain Sanogo formally stood down, following agreement on an interim government. The agreement paved the way for the appointment of Dioncounda Traore as an interim President to whom the coup leaders nominally handed over power.
Contrary to the expectations of the coup leaders, however, rather than ending the Tuareg rebellion, their coup triggered an advance by the northern rebels. In fact, on 25 May, the rebels declared the nation’s north an independent country, which they called Azawad. They announced that it would to be ruled according to Sharia law.
Two rebel groups, Ansar Dine and the Tuareg MNLA, announced in a so-called “protocol agreement” that they had “created the transitional council of the Islamic state of Azawad.”
Thus, the ECOWAS’ decision to set up the standby force can be seen as a direct response to the existential threat posed to Mali by the activities of the separatist elements in the north. That decision came out of the ECOWAS Heads of State and Government summit held on 27 March which directed that an ECOWAS Standby Force be put in readiness for deployment in Mali to assist in resolving the crisis.
At the same time, recognizing that the force had the best chance of succeeding if it enjoyed the blessing of the international community, ECOWAS decided to seek the endorsement of the initiative by the United Nations Security Council. Not only would such endorsement give it full legitimacy under international law, it would also help ensure its robustness.
In making the case for endorsement before the Council in New York on 15 June, Kadre Desire Ouedraogo, President of the ECOWAS Commission, warned that the “viability of the Malian State is on the line.” According to him, regional, continental and international stability and security were threatened by the political situation following the coup and the separatist rebellion in northern Mali.
“The security and humanitarian implications of the crisis in Mali appeal to our common responsibility and our commitment to maintain international peace and security,” he said. “The situation demands a rapid and effective coordinated international action to meet the challenges, including actions to create the necessary conditions to allow the transitional institutions to fully carry out their responsibilities while scrupulously respecting fundamental freedoms and to assist Mali in restoring its authority and regaining its unity and territorial integrity”.
The initiative would involve helping to secure transitional institutions and the liberation of cities under siege, as well as fighting against established terrorist and criminal networks, he said.
Given that “the demoralized, disintegrated and poorly equipped Malian army is not in a position to face these challenges alone,” and that there is the need to have a stable and legitimate government in Bamako that can carry out government business, the deployment of a force to Mali, under Chapter 7 of the United Nations Charter is essential, he told the members of the Council.
“It is critical not only to improve our collective security, but also to help secure the transition and the restoration of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the country, as well as to create the necessary conditions for humanitarian assistance and protection of human rights,” said Mr. Ouedraogo.
He announced that ECOWAS Member States had already pledged to provide some 3,000 men for the force and that those forces would be strengthened through mobilization of additional troops at the continental level.
A seemingly reluctant the Security Council, in a statement by its President, Li Baodong of China, however, encouraged a political settlement of the crisis even as it reiterated its full support for the mediation efforts by ECOWAS and its mediator, President Blaise Compaoré. It also announced its support for efforts by the Special Representative of the United Nations Secretary-General for West Africa and by the African Union.
The Council encouraged close cooperation among the ECOWAS Commission, the African Union Commission, the United Nations Secretariat and countries in the region in order to prepare detailed options for the initiative. It then expressed readiness to further examine the request for endorsement once additional information was provided regarding the objectives, means and modalities of the envisaged deployment and other possible measures.
One major concern with ECOWAS’ engagement in Mali has been the seeming mixed signals coming from the actions taken by the Community so far. Although the organization has always maintained a stance of non-recognition of those who seize power by force, and it did, in fact, come out strongly in condemnation of the Mali coup leaders, it subsequently did an about turn and engaged in negotiations with the same group. In that sense, the ECOWAS leadership was sending a mixed message on where it stood on the question of unconstitutional change of democratically elected governments.
By negotiating with the coup leaders, even if only to put in place an interim government, ECOWAS appears to have given the message that it is not so bad for a military group to take over power when it is aggrieved as long as it is willing to subsequently transfer such power to a transitional arrangement.
As a matter of principle, ECOWAS should have stuck to its rule and insisted that the duly elected President of Mali be restored to office. Such an approach would have carried more credibility and would have enjoyed more regional and international support.