Immediately the insurgents carved out Northern Mali for themselves, ECOWAS reacted immediately threatening to deploy forces on the ground to combat and chase them out. The ECOWAS chairman, Alassane Ouattara, the president of Cote d’Ivoire was clear in his message to the insurgents and the world that West Africa cannot accept the partition of a member state. The real question however was what could West Africa do about it? The coup leader, Captain Sanogo was forced to step down by ECOWAS but he clearly continued to control events. When Mali’s interim president, Dioncounda Traore tried to exercise power, a so-called “civil society” group got facilitated entry to his office and gave him the beating of his life. He ran to France for treatment and refused to come back for months. ECOWAS had hoped the United Nations would fund the intervention but they refused.
After endless discussions with the UN Security Council about the authorisation of the ECOWAS/African Union demand to send 3,300 troops to chase out the insurgents, the UN Secretary-General finally ruled the mission would have to be funded by “voluntary or bilateral contributions”. On October 9th 2012, he appointed Mr. Romano Prodi as his Special Envoy for the Sahel disregarding competent candidates such as Mohammed Ibn Chambers, the former ECOWAS President. Mr Prodi immediately announced that it would take him one year – October 2012 to September 2013 to plan the intervention. Unlike in the past when Nigeria established its leadership in the Liberian and Sierra Leonean crisis by sending in troops first and doing diplomacy and bringing in the United Nations later, our country was silent this time. No other country in West Africa appeared capable of acting. The insurgents got a clear message; no one was ready to act for a full year as the earliest date for intervention was announced to be September 2013. They therefore decided to push their luck. On Thursday 10th January this year, they captured the town of Konna, a gateway towards the capital, Bamako to the south. It was the signal that told the world clearly that the ambition of the insurgents was not just to keep Northern Mali but to reconquer the whole region and extend the repressive governance they have introduced beyond the North.
ECOWAS at that point convinced the acting Malian President to call in the French to save the country. After formal request by Mali with support and prompting from ECOWAS, the French intervention started on Friday 11th January with air strikes and later ground troops which halted the advances by the insurgents and led to the recapture of all major towns and cities held by the insurgents. That is however the beginning not the end of the struggle as the insurgents withdrew with clear intentions of returning for a long drawn out guerrilla struggle.
Throughout our stay in Mali, the sentiments we had repeatedly was that the French saved them from a total takeover of the country by the insurgents. All over Bamako, citizens are still proudly displaying French flags. France, hitherto notorious for engaging its military in neo-colonial adventures in Africa is for once considered as being on the right side of a conflict. I noted however that serious interrogations are beginning especially over the takeover of Kidal where the French refused to carry the Malian army along and appear to the making a deal with the Tuareg MNLA on running the city. There is strong opposition to this and pressure is mounting on France to allow the Malian Armed Forces entry into Kidal.
One of the most engaging meetings we had in Bamako was with Imam Mahamoud Dicko, President of the Islamic Council of Mali. The organisation had played a key role in trying to act as intermediaries between the Islamic insurgents and the Malian State. They define themselves as the strongest force in Malian civil society because they represent 98% of Malians who are Muslims and in any case 100% of Malians believe in God and therefore are supportive of the type of society the Islamic Council is trying to create. They were extremely harsh on the former regime. Toumani Toure they argued was elected as a leader to run a regime of plural democracy but transformed himself into a corrupt and authoritarian leader. Mali, they argued is torn between two extremisms – the Islamic extremism that fuelled the insurgency in the North and the Secular extremism of the State that does not respect the values of the society. How can a society with 100% of believers as citizens pretend it is a secular state he asked? How can Algerian democracy cancel an election because Muslims won? How can democracy function in Egypt when the Muslim majority that won the elections is being destabilised he asked us.
The Imam informed us that he had tried to intervene to peacefully resolve the problem with the radical Islamic groups but the former President disrupted his attempts. He argued that Islam does not accept the type of violence the Islamists were engaged in and in a sense the Islamic insurgents were destabilising the type of democratic engagement to improve social values he had been leading in Mali. He drew our attention to the series of legally sanctioned demonstrations he had organised previously which forced the former Malian President to withdraw the anti-Islamic family code that was introduced previously. The West is decadent and the future he told is in the hands of tolerant Muslims who can change the world without guns and lead human society to the values that reconcile human beings and God. His final words were that the so-called Islamic terrorists that took over Northern Mali might well be playing out a Zionist script.
One of the most important issues facing Mali today is the fear of massive violations of human rights directed against the Tuareg and Arab communities that have been associated with the establishment of the Azawad Republic. There are strong nationalist feelings against their perceived repeated acts of treason against the state. In addition, the groups that exercised power during the insurrection, including affiliates of Al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQMI), the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) and Ansar al Dine are widely interpreted to have shown racial bias in terms of stoning people to death and cutting of limbs after summary trials. There is a widespread sentiment of the need to revenge in the country. The Malian army is also extremely angry not only because they were humiliated but also because about 200 Malian soldiers were reported to have had their throats slit at the beginning of the insurrection in January 2012. When we had our meeting with the human rights community, they pointed out that in Kidal which has a majority Tuareg population, no cutting of limbs occurred. This might be the reason why France kept the Malian army out of Kidal for fear that they might engage in reprisal killings. The human rights organisations we met stressed the importance of close monitoring of security forces to ensure that gross violations of human rights do not occur. They were however dismissive of the claims of gross violations of human rights already occurring as reported by Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and the International Federation of Human Rights. There appeared to be a lot of tension and distrust between the international and local human rights organisations over these unverified claims.