The Malian crisis has since January 2012 been on the African front-burner because of the shock waves it created around the issue of declining African capacities to address internal problems. It took the intervention of the French to reverse the loss of the territorial integrity of the country and the United Nations to take charge. ECOWAS has been a major player in seeking a resolution of the crisis in Mali but its story, its successes and challenges have not been adequately told and for this reason, the organisation is engaged in an after-action review to critically assess its role over the last two weeks in Ghana.
In general, the review shows that ECOWAS has succeeded in achieving its objectives. ECOWAS showed strong political will in providing leadership to solve the problem and in negotiating the Framework Agreement of 6 April 2012 which put an end to the coup d’état, and constituted the rallying point for the structured international efforts to help Mali resolve the security, political, and institutional crises it faced. In spite of strong opposition by leading members of the international community, ECOWAS remained resolute in seeking a military solution to the terrorist aggression in the country. The ECOWAS-facilitated Transitional Roadmap for Mali provided the strategic blueprint for the resolution of the political and institutional crises in Mali, drawing up the road map for elections and national dialogue.
The Malian crisis is important because it is a microcosm of the general problems facing so many of our countries today. West Africa is undergoing a profound sociological transformation along the following lines. The first is an intensification of poverty and its transfer from the rural hinterland to the cities as a majority of the population have moved from their villages to urban agglomerations. Secondly, there is a regional dimension to the incidence of poverty as it is much more intense in the north relative to the south in all the countries in West Africa. Thirdly, there is a double crisis facing education. The quality of education is declining rapidly and graduates are not properly trained for the work force. There is also a substantial part of the youth which is not captured by the educational system of skip out early thus creating an army of young people with no access to education. Fourthly, there is a huge youth bulge that has emerged and jobs are not being created for them creating idleness, hunger and anger. Finally, as these crises fester in a context without national cohesion or ideology, religion becomes the dominant arena, which provides meaning and direction to people and increasingly, the radical and intolerant fringe of the religious arena is capturing the minds and energy of the youth. That has been the problem in Mali and that is replicated in other countries in West Africa.
In Mali, there was only a tiny percentage of the population that had commitment for the Azawad Republic and yet they were able to take over more than half of the country. The secession was possible because there was “vide de pouvoir” or absence of governance under the then Toumani Toure regime. Indeed as is well known, while Niger Republic disarmed the Tuareg ex-combatants coming in from Libya, in Mali, President Toure welcomed them into the country with their arms in a context in which the Malian armed forces had withdrawn from the Northern territories since the Accord of 1996. When we visited Mali as a civil society delegation in February last year, the Parliamentary Select Committee on Security and Defence told us for example that they had gone to the Northern territories in November 2011 and discussed with the returnees, most of whom had never visited Mali but had parents or grandparents of Malian origin. They explained they were shocked at how well armed they were and drew the attention of the President on the imperative of action before the imminent rebellion but the President refused to do anything. A month after their report, Tuareg rebels started attacking and taking over the area. Initially, the Tuareg nationalist movement, MNLA took the lead but they were soon displaced by Islamic insurgents from Al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQMI), the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) and Ansar al Dine movements who imposed strict Sharia laws on a part of the country that had hitherto been secular. The population in the occupied territory suffered greatly from the application of cruel and unnatural forms of punishment including amputations and killing after summary trials and judgments. This outcome might be on the cards for many other countries in West Africa.
The key lesson about Mali is that the country lived a lie pretending it had a functional democracy while the whole system was a facade in which the “democratic state” had abdicated all political and social responsibility and the political class was focused on looting state resources. Indeed, it was clear that the coup état of 22nd March 2012 was timed to stop the presidential elections that were to hold a month later. It started as a mutiny by drunken middle ranking army officers at the Kati barracks in the outskirts of Bamako demanding for more arms and resources to fight the Tuareg rebellion in the north. They felt that neither President Amadou Toumani Toure nor the Defence Minister, Saddio Gassama was supporting them. Between January and March 2012, the Malian army had been defeated by Tuareg rebels and forced to withdraw from all major towns and cities in northern Mali. Captain Amadou Sanogo, the coup leader, tried to use the argument of the absence of governance to establish his rule. The whole world however immediately and unequivocally condemned the coup d’état and called for an immediate return of the country to the constitutional and democratically elected government.
In the ECOWAS review, one key issue of debate was the relatively weak capacity of immediate response to conflict. The ECOWAS early warning system worked well and it was known that the crisis was imminent. The challenge was at the level of intervention. ECOWAS does not have a fighting machine and it took almost one year to deploy in Mali. The ECOMOG interventions in Liberia and Sierra Leone were largely the work of Nigeria as leader and big boy in the region. Today, Nigeria has neither the appetite nor the available boots on the ground to deploy given its own internal problems. The result is that ECOWAS can take decisions to act but implementation becomes a problem.
The sentiment in Mali from the very beginning was to keep out ECOWAS as they initially believed they could solve the problem themselves. Of course they could not and they had to rely on the French. Nonetheless, the Malians believed that it was only the French who saved them from a total takeover of the country by the insurgents. One problem is that although ECOWAS and the African Union eventually deployed 4000 troops, Mali did all it could to block them. After the liberation, Mali decorated French and Chadian troops and has pointedly refused to decorate ECOWAS troops for their brave effort in the intervention up till today. This is a scandal and they should be told bluntly that they are misguided and disrespectful to their peers.
Meanwhile, the other dimension of the problem is the rivalry between ECOWAS and the African Union. The leadership of the African Union refused to practice the principle of subsidiarity and cede leadership to ECOWAS as the organisation closest to the crisis. The Algerian and Mauritanian players in the African Union who were very influential were able to guide the African Union to support their countries partisan interests in the crisis. Finally, with France and the concession it has from the United States, United Kingdom and Germany to exercise leadership on the Mali conflict, the hegemons were able to takeover the Mali dossier from ECOWAS. That is the challenge we need to confront.