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Mali’s interim president Diouncounda Traore has formally requested the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) to provide military assistance to stabilise the country, and especially to free the north. In a letter submitted to Ivorian President Alassane Ouattara, the current chair of ECOWAS, President Traore outlined four areas in which ECOWAS could assist the Malian government. These include the securitisation of institutions, the reinforcement of the state’s capacity to adequately fight terror groups, the reorganisation of the army, and the restoration of Mali’s territorial integrity. Although the formal request from Mali’s Government of National Unity is an important and desired development, one wonders what implications it might have for the quick return of peace and stability to Mali.
The request came just as Douentza, in central Mali, was captured by the Islamic group MUJAO, raising concerns over the expansionist drive of the groups occupying the north. In an interview with a local media organisation, one the MUJAO leaders, Oumar Ould Hamaha, threatened to take control of Bamako in 24 hours if ECOWAS forces were deployed.
Two main problems have delayed the ECOWAS deployment, while the country’s citizens become increasingly anxious about the possibility of having Mali’s territorial integrity restored.
Firstly, military authorities in Bamako rejected ECOWAS’s initial plan. The regional organisation insisted on a three-phased strategy articulated around the securitisation of the transitional institutions, training and equipment of the armed forces, and recapturing the occupied regions in the north. All of this hinges on a coherent political transition in Bamako. The first phase became contentious as authorities in Bamako resented ECOWAS’s insistence on securing state institutions in the capital city. While ECOWAS was concerned about a possible repeat of mob attacks on the interim president, military officers say it is the responsibility of the national armed forces to protect state institutions, even though there are doubts over the army’s capacity to do this effectively. The junta leader has availed himself of the protection offered in Kati, a military camp that has become the headquarters of the junta since the coup d’état that took place in March 2012. But broadly speaking, the contradictions and confusion that have at times characterised the regional body’s mediation strategy in the crisis did not help to either improve ECOWAS’s image among the Malian population or prevent local political and military actors from distorting the organisation’s motives. ECOWAS is even portrayed as the major obstacle to restoring territorial integrity in Mali by allegedly blocking the armament shipments destined for the country.
Secondly, a coherent transitional political architecture in Bamako is needed in any initiative aimed at freeing the north. On 27 July President Traore presented the structure of the transitional arrangement, but political intrigues managed to delay the setting up of the government of national unity. The announcement of the government on 20 August displayed a new political configuration that some observers believe has simply restored the hegemony of the previously discredited Prime Minister Cheick Modibo Diarra, junta leader Amadou Haya Sanogo (surprisingly quiet but highly active in influencing the transition process) and the Islamic Council, which is playing an increasingly political role and filling the void left by discredited political parties. This political configuration has further weakened the main political parties, which are blamed for the failed democratisation process in Mali. This, in turn, has prolonged the agony of those trapped in the northern region while it is difficult to anticipate what the reaction from the UN Security Council, the African Union and ECOWAS might be.
Indeed, many questions remain unanswered. It is not clear whether political and military actors have finally reached a consensus on the contentious issue of the securitisation of state institutions. This single item has polarised, on the one hand, political and military authorities in Mali and, on the other, Mali’s leaders and ECOWAS. It is not also clear whether the formal request for assistance from the interim president will ultimately remove some of the remaining obstacles hindering ECOWAS and regional partners from acting decisively.
While ECOWAS was expecting a formal request from the authorities in Bamako and insisted on a coherent political transition, a remaining challenge is getting the UN Security Council to grant a mandate for an eventual military intervention and to broaden the response mechanism to key extra-regional regional actors such as Algeria, Mauritania, Morocco and Chad.
It appears, however, that the idea of a military intervention is losing steam among some member states. The danger here is that the Islamist groups could benefit from this procrastination and the confusion in the mediation process. The aim of the groups might not necessarily be the spread of radical Islam, as boasted, but to gain and consolidate control over a safe haven for criminal activities. This poses a potential threat to international peace and security.
Mali was once regarded as a good example of an African democracy, but since March it has been plunged into chaos after soldiers toppled the president, creating a power vacuum that enabled Tuareg rebels and Islamic groups to seize nearly two-thirds of the country. Since then the Tuareg Islamist militants, whose influence in recent weeks has been gaining momentum, have hijacked the rebellion. The recent killing of one of the Algerian diplomats kidnapped by MUJAO is of great concern.
There is real concern that the situation in Mali could become even more complex as the Islamic forces move further south, especially if the uncertain political dynamics in Bamako and the junta interference persist. President Traore’s letter to ECOWAS might be timely but the regional body, the AU, the UN and the main development partners still have to decide to effectively deploy troops to Mali while avoiding further escalation of the conflict.
Despite all these uncertainties two main outcomes should remain at the top of the agenda: the north needs to be reclaimed and elections need to be held in order to move beyond the precarious transitional process. While all actors in the crisis agree on this, it is still not clear when exactly the elections will be held. And time is not a reliable ally in this venture.
Written by David Zounmenou, Senior Researcher, Conflict Prevention and Risk Analysis Division, ISS Pretoria