What’s happening on Africa’s western front?
A world replete with crises is focusing its attention on a new place, Mali. The strategically located West African country is attracting attention for a lot of reasons: The central government is disintegrating and the rising tide of militancy with links to Al-Qaeda.
This combination sent shock waves around the world and has generated an agreement of sorts on the need for military intervention and the offer of a helping hand to a flailing government.
A request from the Malian government to the United Nations to intervene is supported by regional organizations, the US, France and UK, and more important Mali’s neighbors, notably Algeria who shares a 2,000-km border and was initially opposed to foreign intervention.
The question is whether the Mali experience will mirror that of Afghanistan or Somalia. In fact there were two Afghanistan experiences. The first dates back to the 1970s and 1980s, when the country was used as a playground for the ongoing Cold War at the time. The Americans found in the Soviet occupation an opportunity to hit back at what Moscow did to them during the Vietnam debacle. When the Soviets were forced to pull back, Washington simply washed its hands of Afghanistan leaving behind a vacuum that was quickly and easily filled by Taleban and its Al-Qaeda ally. It is from this alliance, the only superpower in the beginning of the 21st century received its biggest hit.
The second Afghanistan followed with a quick military strike and victory against the Taleban. Washington found itself in the quagmire where it usually fails: Nation building. The end result of a 10-year-long stint in Afghanistan and it’s human and financial cost, is that things seem to be back to square one where the Taleban are gaining ground and the future is as uncertain as ever.
Take Somalia, where the disintegration of the state resulted into a vacuum eventually filled by pirates who threaten maritime activity and more alarmingly, an introduction of an Al-Qaeda style Al-Shabab, that poses a threat to Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda, despite being under the protection of the African Union umbrella with some Western, mainly American backing.
Though these efforts have achieved some success, it remains to be seen how long it will last.
In the case of Mali it is a combination of deep-rooted problems relating to the building of a state and the growing weaknesses of the government to enforce it.
It started with a weak Malian Army. Demoralized and under equipped, it was easily defeated by Tuareg fighters last March. That government defeat was encouraging to Islamist extremists who side with the Tuareg and who have long harbored independent tendencies.
Islamist groups like Ansar Dine and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) have joined forces with Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) to take control of northern Mali and exercise their form of government. Their alliance with the Tuareg collapsed, raising questions about their political expediency in forging alliance, at least temporarily until they establish a strong foothold.
Although both Algeria and Nigeria are regional powers that have battled with insurgencies under an Islamic banner, they are not keen to confront the quickly deteriorating situation in northern Mali. It is left to the Economic Community of West Africa States (ECWAS) to spearhead military intervention and provide troops who can depend on international and regional backing from the United Nations or the African Union.
And that is where the real challenge begins. Unless the Malian people produce a leadership that is committed, willing and able to face up to the extremists at a grassroots level first, any outside help will simply replicate the Afghanistan experience.