Mali: France, AFRICOM and the War on Terror

By Osuolale Alalade

The concept of operations submitted by ECOWAS on its planned military intervention in Mali received only a guarded approbation of Secretary General Ban Ki Moon. This underlines the dilemma of Nigeria as it leads a sub-regional military initiative to restore constitutional order in Mali. The warnings of the more perceptive leaders in Africa, led by Thabo Mbeki, that the regime change sought in Libya through a military ouster of Libyan leader Muamar Gadaffi had a potential of unintended consequences. The immediate implications of the ouster of Gadaffi, which gained the public support of Nigeria, were to unravel the balance of forces in the Sahelo-Saharan region and a heavy militarization of the sub region that upset the force alignment in West Africa. The irredentist Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), the Ansar Dine (Defenders of the Faith), the Al Qaeda in the Islamic Magreb (AQIM) and the Movement of Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) together possess more firepower than more than 80% of the states in West Africa.

The challenge of terrorism in Africa, and precisely West Africa, conveniently projected by the George W. Bush administration had come to pass.  In June 2007, President George W. Bush announced the formation of the Africa command (AFRICOM). At that point in time, the new structure elicited serious reservations in Africa as there were no immediate challenges to warrant such a regional deployment.  President Bush curiously justified the unusual deployment of America forces in backwater West Africa on the grounds of health, development, education, democracy and growth.  Counterterrorism, meaning the fight against terrorism, was one of the major goals of the command. Africa, accordingly, feared that the controversial command would invite the attention of the vendors of terrorism to West Africa and consequently of bringing the US war on terror to African countries. Algeria was resolute in its opposition to the deployment of AFRICOM.Morocco, Liberia and Botswana indicated their interest in housing US bases. Nigeria was ambivalent in its opposition. Ultimately, it was a divisive issue on the continent. The No of the majority of African states was good music to the ears of France that remains suspicious of any serious attempts by the United States to project its power into what France perceives as its exclusively zone of influence. The insistence of France to limit US interventions in Africa as much as it can is convenient for the US administration at this time.  This provides a good excuse for the Obama administration that is determined to reduce American active combat around the world to stay out of the fray in Mali. This is despite the clear danger of the expansion of terrorism and extension of the base of AQIM to the desolate Sahara. The AFRICOM that had loudly trumpeted its determination to confront terrorism in Africa has therefore been loudly silent on Mali. In fact, General Ham, the Commander of AFRICOM, recently stated that international military intervention in Mali was bound to fail.

With a willing ECOWAS in tow, France has outsourced its engagement in northern Mali to a consortium of western stakeholders through a peculiar alignment of responsibilities. The western allies would take care of training Malian forces, while Nigeria and its company of French proxy states would do the heavy lifting of direct fighting of the insurgents and irredentist forces in northern Mali. Nigeria has enough on its plate internally and the wisdom of its assigned role in the intervention in Mali may be debatable. Some suggest though that its engaement is driven by internal imperative. However, it may be noted that the logistical and technological requirements of operations in a desert theater that spans over 1,100,000 km2 is well beyond the capacity of the ECOWAS forces to be mobilized. Also, the opposition of Algeria to the ECOWAS military intervention plan raises serious questions. Algeria opposes the ECOWAS plans on grounds of seeking to avoid war south of its border. Mauretania is ambiguous. Also, the deep divisions wrought by Nigeria’s stance in Cote d’Ivoire would continue to reverberate in its relations with emerged elite actors in Africa; South Africa, Rwanda, Uganda, Angola, who all opposed Nigeria’s alignment with France and the US against the African Union views on Cote d’Ivoire and on Libya last year.

Against this backdrop, a firm support of the Secretary General to the ECOWAS plan would have been a morale booster in the planned military controversial intervention in northern Mali. The success of France in cobbling a possible alliance with the Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) and other local militias to help the ECOWAS intervention would be of great help. That is not guaranteed. For now, all is in abeyance over northern Mali.

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About africapeacesupport

Former Representative of the United Nations SecretaryGeneral in Guinea-Bissau and Head of UNOGBIS.
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