By Melaura Homan-Smith, AFJN Program Coordinator
This article was first published in our Oct-Dec 2012 “Around Africa” newsletter
On Wednesday, December 5th AFJN attended a hearing entitled: “Addressing Developments in Mali: Restoring Democracy and Reclaiming the North” held by the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations Subcommittee on African Affairs, and chaired by Chris Coons, a senator from Delaware. The US and the international community have been far from decisive in taking action to stop what Nii Akuetteh, an independent witness at the hearing, calls a “deadly cocktail” which is destroying Mali’s young democracy.
Witnesses gave their testimony to a standing-room-only audience; the statements came from the State Department, Department of Defense, Human Rights Watch, National Democratic Institute, and the VP of a development organization brought in via webcast directly from Bamako.
Earlier this year, on March 22nd, US-trained Captain Amadou Sanogo carried out a military coup against Mali’s democratically elected president, Amadou Toumani Toure and proclaimed himself the leader of the National Committee for Recovering Democracy and Restoring the State (CNRDRE) in Mali. With this, the Tuaregs (nomadic peoples residing in northern Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, Libya, and Algeria) re-opened their bid to secede from Mali.
The international community (excepting the US) refused to recognize this military incursion and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) negotiated a deal instating the former speaker of the National Assembly, Diouncounda Traore, as President of an interim government, effectively re-moving the coup leader, Captain Sanogo, from power.
Yet, according to Christopher Fomunyoh of the National Democratic Institute, military friends of Captain Sanogo have been appointed in several key ministries of the transitional government and Sanogo himself “seems to pull the levers of power from be-hind the scenes.” This new divided political structure did nothing to ameliorate the crisis in the north.
Northern Mali is a desert area roughly the size of France, a large, sparsely populated region with porous borders. This mixture made northern Mali an ideal climate for terrorist organizations like AQIM (Al Qaeda in the Islamic Magreb) and MUJAO (Movement for Oneness with Jihad) to take hold of the Tuareg’s upheaval in order to enforce Sharia law. The witness from Human Rights Watch expressed a dire human emergency inside this military-political conflict. Amputation, execution, rape, use of child soldiers, torture, and suppression of free speech and religion were enumerated in detail at the hearing. Women are being “married” to generals and then raped for having their faces uncovered; men are beaten in the streets for having musical ringtones on their phones. Upwards of 400,000 people have been displaced, and more than 4.5 million people require food aid in an already food-insecure time in the Sahel.
On the eve of the UN deciding whether to approve a multi-lateral ECOWAS military intervention, Mali stands with at least four separate and intertwined arenas to address, according to Mr. Akuetteh’s statement: “(1) the Bamako-centered broken democratic rule; (2) the deeply rooted, recalcitrant secessionist aspiration and wars of the Tuaregs; (3) Mali’s loss of integrity over most of its territory and the control of that area by violent religious extremists, significant numbers of whom are foreigners; (4) and the humanitarian crisis centered in the north, epitomized by mass displacement of the population…”
The further upheaval of the transitional government (worsened by the arrest and forced resignation of Prime Minister Cheick Modibo Diarra by the coup-makers in early December) should not be used as a reason to delay intervention. Insecurity should not be a license for more diplomatic hand-wringing.
The US State Department and President Obama have strongly decried Captain Sanogo’s continued destabilization of the Malian government. According to the Washington Post “U.S. officials once had high hopes for his career” due to his US-based military education and training. The US also has engaged in professionalizing and training the Malian forces to resist terrorism and to strengthen that region of the Sahel through the US Africa Command’s (AFRICOM) Trans-Sahara Counter-Terrorism Program (TSCTP), and Operation Flintlock. The US should examine the efficacy of TSCTP training and consider other non-military options to fight terrorism in Africa.
It is worth mentioning that some of the fighters in the Mali crisis are foreign mercenaries who fought against the National Transitional Council (NTC) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), on the side of Libya’s longtime dictator, President Muammar al-Gaddafi before he was killed in October 2011. Unaccounted-for small arms also flowed from the Libyan conflict into Mali.
Though the US and the international community do and should play a role in the events in Mali, the conflict’s origins and solutions are regional and African. We should not wait for elections to take action–any elections held as of this writing would not be fair, and could give further grievances to the northern population on the basis of political exclusion–hundreds of thousands of citizens are refugees or barely secure in IDP camps. The US and the UN should throw full diplomatic support behind an ECOWAS and African Union (AU)-led solution to restore security in Mali. The time for delicate political moves and attempts at sanctions are over; the terroristic reign and governance vacuum need to be addressed with strong policy and action.