Western Africa is a region of the world that is no stranger to violence and political instability – the Sierra Leone civil war of the mid-1990s, and the civil war in Cote d’Ivoire that was finally brought to an end by UN peacekeeping forces in 2011 are just a few examples. In the past few days, the international community’s attention has shifted to the nation of Mali, with a rich history dating back to the Mali and Songhai Empires of the medieval era. It is also a democratic state, albeit one that has been rocked by severe instability in the past year.
In January 2012, Mali suffered a coup d’état, as the military was dissatisfied with the government’s handling of a rebellion in the northern part of the country, an area known as the Azawad in the Sahara desert, home to the Tuareg people. The rebellion, led by the National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad (MNLA), allied itself with the Islamic extremist group Ansar Dine in the conflict. However, once the Malian military had been ousted from the Azawad, Ansar Dine took matters into its own hands and imposed strict Sharia law. The MNLA clashed with Ansar Dine, sparking a new conflict in the region. The situation has now deteriorated to the point that the MNLA has temporarily renounced its ambitions for independence, and has joined forces with the Malian government.
Unfortunately, Ansar Dine has the support of hardline Islamic extremists from across North Africa, including al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, a splinter group of the al-Qaeda terrorist network. Militias from across North Africa have joined the fight in Mali, and are well-armed – many of these militia groups fought for Colonel Gaddafi in Libya, and with his fall have seized significant amounts of arms for their own purposes. The rule of the extremists in northern Mali has been brutal – reports of forced amputations, public floggings, rapes, and the recruitment of child soldiers continue to come in. Music, which for centuries has been a key component of Malian culture, has been banned. Despite the efforts of the Malian government, based in the southern city of Bamako, and the MNLA, the militias have continued a successful campaign in the north, with major centres like Timbuktu and Gao under their control.
After many calls by the Mali government for assistance from the international community, France – the former colonial ruler of Mali – began air strikes against the Islamist forces, and is in the process of deploying thousands of ground troops. Canada, the United States, and the United Kingdom, have also pledged logistical assistance to the French. Canada has committed one C-17 aircraft to aid in the deployment of heavy equipment into the country.
Despite the French air strikes, the Islamist militias appear to be continuing towards the southern capital of Bamako – indicating the potential for a long, drawn out conflict. The worsening crisis in Mali has become a matter of great concern in many capitals around the world, as the fall of Mali into the hands of the extremists could potentially create a stronghold for al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups. The extremists have already declared that France will face retribution for its actions, saying that they have “opened the gates of hell”.
The intervention has been welcomed by the broader Malian population, and by the West African community at large. However, the strength of the radicals remains a grave threat, and one that may not be easily defeated by air strikes alone. The crisis could quickly escalate, and Canada’s commitment could quickly grow in the near future. It’s a matter worth keeping your eyes on.
Graeme Archibald is a fourth-year Political Science student at the University of Alberta.
CC photograph courtesy of Magharebia on Flickr
CC map courtesy of Wikipedia