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January 20, 2013 7:23 pm
Mali’s tragedy is the result of a misalignment in the stars. Unusual geopolitical circumstances triggered a shock; a further coincidence prevented a timely response. The repercussions are now being felt in Algeria and beyond.
Until the Libyan revolution culminating in October 2011, Mali was not a fragile state. In June that year, the International Monetary Fund listed 48 such states. Mali was not one of them. By the standards of low-income countries, it was secure. Admittedly, it was neither inclusive nor effective: the Tuareg minority was beyond the pale; patronage and corruption were common. This kind of combination leaves many democracies more prone to political violence than the dictatorships they replaced.
The fall of Libya’s Muammer Gaddafi inflicted an avoidable military threat on the region. Many of the weapons stockpiled in his country were seized by gangs bent on mischief. A parallel served as a warning: the conflicts triggered by arms looted during Albania’s 1997 meltdown. However, there was no international appetite for the ground operation necessary to secure the stockpile. The urgent task, therefore, was to protect neighbouring regimes. In Mali, this meant turning an army starved of equipment and led by the less able children of the elite into a fighting force.
The need to provide equipment was recognised, but the coincidence of the US and French electoral cycles made it too sensitive to do much about it. Instead, the government received money for arms. But, as no attention was paid to the risk of corruption, it was looted. This left the army ill matched against the experienced, motivated, superbly equipped gangs – including Malian mercenaries returning from Libya with their weapons – that descended on it. The unsurprising result was the slaughter of its soldiers, provoking a mutiny from the ranks that escalated into seizure of power.
I can only assume that governments then sat down and pondered how to make a nightmare resulting from negligence worse by action. By cutting off finance to the new regime, it ensured both further military debacle and the meltdown of the political process. Meanwhile, global and regional actors were supposedly co-ordinating an African force to retake northern Mali but the deadlock surrounding 2012 African Union leadership elections may have impaired co-operation. The enemy pre-empted this leisurely process by seizing the rest of the country: how else were they likely to respond?
Victory for the Islamists was within reach and would have turned Mali into a second Somalia. Realising this, Paris pressed the panic button and sent in troops. Beggaring belief, the US has still not authorised military support, so the French are on their own. This makes their intervention fraught – as Libya showed, Europe lacks the military depth to mount the sophisticated intelligence and logistics required.
Yet France had little choice. Had Mali become a second Somalia, the political and economic costs would have been horrendous. Even in narrowly economic terms, Somali piracy costs the global economy about $2bn a year – 30 times the total ransoms paid. For Mali, as the raid in Algeria shows, the Sahara is the Indian Ocean, and the oil and gas facilities are the tankers – the costs could be higher. The west has blundered so badly that it is in no position to condemn Algeria for taking tough action against kidnappers. The western approach in Somalia of surreptitiously paying ransoms turns rats into tigers.
What now? Mali needs life support. The Islamic gangs are well equipped, with a dribble of terrorist support, but they have no government to keep them supplied. The regional powers, Algeria and Nigeria, face the same threat and so have an interest in success. Further, the gangs are divided. The Tuareg are no longer allied to the Islamists, who are riven by rivalries. If the US and AU act now, the situation may be salvageable. Meanwhile, the resumption of financial flows could gradually restore more inclusive governance: African military regimes have gone out of fashion.
The lesson from Mali is the need to nip fragile situations in the bud. But it also carries a deeper message – the task of building effective states in Africa has far to go.
The writer is a professor at Oxford’s Blavatnik School of Government and author of ‘Wars, Guns and Votes: Democracy in Dangerous Places’
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