The Institute for Security Studies is a regional human security policy think tank with an exclusive focus on Africa. As a leading African human security research institution, the institute is guided by a broad approach to security reflective of the changing nature and origin of threats to human development.
As Malians and West Africans, as well as the international community at large, anxiously await the outcome of the meeting of the United Nations Security Council on Thursday, 4 October, to review the Malian crisis and the ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States) proposal for the deployment of a stabilisation force, expectations are high that the meeting will help end a deadlock that has failed to stop terrorism and the collapse of an African state. The Security Council meeting comes in the wake of a special meeting of world leaders, held on Wednesday, 26 September 2012, at the margins of the 67th annual session of the UN General Assembly, on the same issue.
The 26 September meeting of world leaders came at an opportune moment for the General Assembly to guide the Thursday meeting of the Council, by taking a decision on the contentious military aspect of the international intervention in the Malian crisis. The divergent views expressed at the meeting only revealed the deep divisions in the international community on an issue that under normal circumstances would have united the world body to act timeously. The fault lines were along the usual North-South divide. While there was an almost unanimous African voice in favour of the proposed stabilisation force by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), there was no such consensus among Northern partners. Even among the major powers, particularly the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, two views were prevalent. On the one hand, France favoured a UN-authorised deployment but with less or indirect French support, and on the other hand, the United States (US) opposed any UN deployment that is not preceded by the conclusion of the post-coup transitional process, through the election of a legitimate and democratic government.
What began on 17 January 2012 as a rebellion for the self-determination of Tuaregs in northern Mali, led by the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), has been hijacked by Islamic militants and terrorists linked to global networks who are bent on enforcing their version of Islam through a ruthless campaign of terror. The speed at which northern Mali fell to the rebellion was emblematic of the weak Malian government, which was already simmering with political uncertainty, discontent and confusion as the government of President Amadou Toumani Touré (or ATT) prepared to organise democratic elections in March 2012. To make matters worse, a group of disgruntled and impatient military cadres overthrew ATT on 22 March 2012 in an ill-timed coup that was met with unequivocal international condemnation.
Following the coup, events took a rapid turn for the worse in northern Mali. First, the MNLA, which had joined forces with Islamic fundamentalist and terrorist organisations such as Ansar-Dine, Movement for the Unity of Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), and Al Qaeda in in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) to defeat Mali government forces in the north, declared northern Mali the ‘Independent State of Azawad’ on 6 April 2012. But the MNLA’s control of the region was short lived as by June it was evicted from the alliance, leaving northern Mali in the full control of Ansar-Dine, MUJAO and AQIM. The latter immediately began to install shar’ia and other fundamentalist Islamic tenets in cities in northern Mali administered through martial law. Since the transfer of power to the terrorists, there has been an upsurge in terrorist activities, acts of vandalism and the destruction of cultural and religious edifices including sacred and centuries-old tombs, mausoleums and shrines of Islamic saints, declared UNESCO world heritage sites. Indeed, torture, amputation, rape, and other degrading and inhuman treatment of people are now widespread in northern Mali. It is estimated that several hundreds of people have been killed since the start of the crisis and that about 260 000 more have fled to neighbouring countries.
Despite calls from Malian authorities for international support, the international community has watched the unfolding drama in northern Mali from the sidelines. One is forced to ask how serious the situation will get and for how long the international community will wait.
While there is unanimity about the seriousness of the crisis, the challenge before the international community, however, is one of inaction. Regional and international condemnation of the 22 March coup and the deployment of an ECOWAS-led mediation team, backed by drastic sanctions against the military junta, had increased pressure on them to hand over power to the President of the National Assembly on 6 April 2012. The lack of a similar response to the rebellion in the north has created international complacency. ECOWAS has proposed the deployment of an ECOWAS-led stabilisation force in Mali, whose main objective will be to ensure transitional security, restructure and organise Mali’s security and defence forces, and restore the territorial integrity of the country. The principle of intervention has been accepted but the UN has failed to approve two requests submitted by ECOWAS in June and August this year for the deployment of the stabilisation force. Instead, confusion, geopolitical calculus and a lack of political will continue to divide UN members over modalities and the key question of who will foot the nearly US$260 million budget for the deployment of the 3 230-strong force for a period of six months, as is currently being proposed by ECOWAS.
The UN Security Council is aware of the seriousness of the Malian crisis and the need for urgent action. In July 2012, the Security Council adopted Resolution 2056 under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, thus weighing the issue on the same scale as a serious threat to international peace and security. Indeed, in that resolution the Security Council expressed deep concern at the increased terrorist threat to northern Mali and the region due to the presence of AQIM. It supported ECOWAS but stopped short of approving its request for the stabilisation force. This failure to give the resolution teeth undermined its Chapter VII powers. Instead, the Security Council called upon all groups in northern Mali to renounce those affiliations incompatible with peace, security, the rule of law and the territorial integrity of Mali. It is unlikely that they will comply, and the Security Council knows that the recalcitrant leaders of Ansar-Dine, MUJAO and AQIM are unlikely to heed such a lame duck call.
It is evident that Mali on its own cannot eliminate the Islamist challenge and regain control of northern Mali. There are therefore a number of scenarios that may arise from the continued stalemate and inaction by the UN: first, it could result in the consolidation of the terrorists’ control over northern Mali, which could end up resembling Afghanistan pre-2001 or Somalia. This will provide a hub for transnational criminal networks supporting the trans-Atlantic drug trade, organised crime and money laundering, human trafficking, arms smuggling and other cross-border criminalities. It will no doubt also serve as an El Dorado for terrorists from across the world, providing training, recruitment, planning and execution of terrorist activities that could target any country. Second, it could give terrorists the opportunity to ransack the cities before abandoning them. Third, the stalemate could give the terrorists ample time to prepare for and put up a long-term resistance to any subsequent international force. In all these scenarios, casualties and the humanitarian impact will be heavy.
The current meeting of the Security Council is therefore crucial to overcome the divisions in the UN and send a clear and firm signal with respect to the way forward in resolving the Malian crisis. In light of the urgency of the matter, the most pragmatic option is for the Council to approve a robust and well equipped ECOWAS-led international force that can thwart the growing threat of terrorism in northern Mali and help re-instate Mali’s territorial integrity.
Although the deployment of the stabilisation force is key to addressing prevailing conditions in Mali, it is hardly the panacea to the undercutting issue of the age-old question of the Tuaregs’ identity crisis in Mali. It is therefore crucial to make provisions for criminal justice, particularly to promote and support the International Criminal Court (ICC) process that was launched in July this year when Malian authorities referred the situation in the north to the ICC to carry out investigations and prosecute those guilty of egregious crimes and crimes against humanity. Any intervention plan should therefore be comprehensive to tackle the root causes of instability in northern Mali. The deployment of the stabilisation force should draw lessons from similar operations in different part of the continent, including the African Union (AU) Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) deployed against al-Shabaab as well as the force to neutralise the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), taking into full account the size of northern Mali and the role of neighbouring states.
Written by Martin Ewi, Senior Researcher, Transnational Threats and International Crime, ISS Pretoria