By David Zounmenou
The deteriorating security situation in northern Mali has prompted regional leaders to ask for approval from the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) for urgent military intervention. But how realistic is military intervention in a complex situation where political stability still prevails in the capital Bamako? Is there a chance for a negotiated end to this crisis?
The UNSC on Monday 18 June finally declared its readiness to consider backing such a West African military intervention in Mali, where militant rebel groups, mainly the Tuareg-led National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), and the Islamist Ansare Dine and Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), have taken control of the northern regions. The UNSC made this decision after repeatedly expressing its reservations about the intervention plan of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).
ECOWAS’ request for UNSC approval of a military option came after the visit to Paris of the current African Union (AU) chair Thomas Yayi Boni and Niger’s President Mahamadou Issifou. Both leaders sought to draw attention to the deteriorating situation in Mali.
Military intervention as a conflict resolution mechanism is always controversial and could complicate the situation further. Alone, it might not provide a definite response to the challenges facing Mali. In addition, the terrain in northern Mali might be something to consider, as most West African soldiers are not familiar with what is now termed ‘desert combat’. Any military engagement without proper information gathering, planning, effective logistical support and a clear exit strategy might transform the region into a permanent war zone like Somalia.
Meanwhile, it is essential to stress that within ECOWAS’ normative framework, a military option is always seen as an option of last resort. It might also be possible that ECOWAS leaders do not share the same views on the issue and that could be detrimental to the authority of the regional body.
The UNSC’s resistance to authorising a military operation could be explained by three key factors. Firstly, it needs to be understood in the context of UNSC Resolutions 1973 (on Libya) and 1975 (on Côte d’Ivoire) and the subsequent controversies they brought about. As such, both permanent and non-permanent members might want to consider carefully a new military venture before endorsing it.
Secondly, the UNSC has indicated that there is a need for more clarity on the mandate, resources and capacity of the force to be deployed in Mali. Both permanent and non-permanent members of the UNSC have clear concerns about the strength of the force.
Thirdly, the UNSC members insist on the sequencing of the options available to resolve the crisis, including political and diplomatic efforts.
Yet the mediation process is highly complex. Indeed, the negotiations would need two sets of parameters to be successful. The first is related to the coherence of the political transition in Bamako. The second is what is to be negotiated given the fact that the groups present in northern Mali do not all have the same claims. Recent clashes between elements of Ansar Dine and MNLA combatants highlight this complexity.
There is, however, a good chance that negotiations could prove helpful in resolving some of the political issues. It is also likely that, weakened by its failed attempts at forging an alliance with Ansar Dine, the MNLA might finally accept the idea of a negotiated settlement. Indications from various separate meetings between ECOWAS mediator President Blaise Compaore, the MNLA and Ansar Dine do point to the possibility of talks. The aim of the dual mediation processes engaged in by Compaore is to define with both groups some modalities for the negotiation process.
From ECOWAS’ perspective, Mali’s territorial integrity and the secular nature of the state are non-negotiable. While the MNLA might be convinced to accept the idea of ‘One Mali’ with the possibility of ‘increased autonomy’ in the northern regions, it is highly unlikely that one can expect the same outcome with members of AQIM or Ansar Dine. The key challenge here stems from the competing agendas of the various groups controlling the north. Ansar Dine does not share the MNLA’s quest for independence, while the MNLA resents the Islamist stance of Ansar Dine. Another point of disagreement is the link between Ansar Dine and AQIM.
The preconditions requested by the mediators before negotiations are for Ansar Dine to drop its claim to impose sharia law on Mali and break away from AQIM. However, the symbiotic relationship between Ansar Dine and AQIM makes these pre-requisites difficult to satisfy. And even if the ECOWAS mediator succeeds in his efforts to bring the MNLA ‘back to the Republic’, it will be challenging to hold talks with AQIM, the strength behind Ansar Dine.
Therefore, ECOWAS’ decision to deploy troops should be seen as a complement to the political and diplomatic efforts. It should also be seen as a means to facilitate the protection of state institutions that have become vulnerable since the military coup of 22 March 2012. The earlier mob attack on interim president Dioncounda Traore, who is still in Paris for medical treatment, could serve as a reminder of state fragility and lack of respect for state authority in Mali.
Importantly, an ECOWAS/AU/UN mission could help deliver humanitarian assistance to those trapped in the conflict zones and who are subjected to inhumane treatment on the part of the rebel groups, mainly those professing Islamic fundamentalism.
As the UNSC considers whether or not a military operation is necessary, some regional actors also have to be involved in the overall strategy to restore peace in Mali. The role of Algeria and Mauritania would be essential and regional leaders need to motivate both countries to be part of the regional response mechanism.