In western media there has over the last days been an uproar against Ansar Dine who are seen destroying world heritage sites in Timbuktu. Destroying buildings give more attention than killing people in Northern Mali and it is far from the first time that radical Muslims use this trick to speak to the world. Yet still it is an unfortunate outcome of an uneven world when buildings are worth much more than human beings. In late June about 20 scholars from West Africa, Europe and North America gathered at the Kofi Annan Peacekeeping Training Centre (KAIPTC) in Accra to discuss the increasing political unrest in the Sahel. The conference was a joint venture between The KAIPTC and the Nordic Africa Institute (NAI).
Having conducted research on Liberia and Sierra Leone I am well aware that Kaddafi’s political appendages reached all the way down to the small coastal states of the Upper Guinea Coast and naturally politics in Sahel was much closer connected to the intricacies of Kaddafi politics. The tragic unfolding of events in Mali is the first major incident in the post-Kaddafi political landscape of Sahel. Certainly current developments is not solely the outcome of post-Kaddafi politics, but new recruits and military personnel from within a North Malian diaspora in Libya, typically from within the army in combination with a new power vacuum in the Sahel due to the fall of Kaddafi have radically shifted the political game. Our Accra workshop unraveled a tremendous amount of complexities ranging far beyond, and partly in contradictory directions than what we read not just in Western media, but also in Malian media (as was the focus of one presentation). Instead of going into detail (a forthcoming special issue in a journal and two policy briefs will do that) I give some of my personal reflections on the papers presented at the conference.
The unfolding of events in Mali certainly had the center stage of the conference as the country has recently gone from world margins to center. We had a combination of researchers who have worked in Mali for a very long time and some who had been present during the recent war. Although it was clear that they had a similar historic reading of events, still there were considerable differences in their understanding of the events that are currently happening. This is not that strange as we talk about history in the making and new events literary unfolded in Mali as we talked. For instance Ansar Dine gave MNLA a real blow by overtaking Kidal during the first day of the conference. Analysis would thus have to change as the conference proceeded. I would have loved to give you a solid report about the political capacities of Ansar Dine, MNLA, AQIM and other parties in the conflict but it is quite clear from the conference that views differ and it is hard really to know. What should be pointed out is that Ansar Dine and MNLA may have differing political agendas but people within the movement have close ties and are at time from the same families. It was speculated about the recent success of Ansar Dine that MNLA have lost local sympathies due to lack of control of their forces who have been involved in looting and the use of force against civilians. In part soldiers within MNLA have jumped over to their “relatives” in Ansar Dine. If MNLA is becoming a security threat the more strictly law-abiding (read Salafist) Ansar Dine could be seen as a protector in the eyes of many civilians, who may still not see the more hardline version of Islam as their preference.
It is quite clear that both political capacity of Ansar Dine and MNLA is shifting rapidly and it would be very interesting to see who the strong men behind the scene are. It would also be interesting to see if these strong men see state cooptation as part of their game plan as has been the case in earlier Tuareg uprisings. One thing is certain though: the longer time it takes before real negotiations take place the harder it will be to withdraw from the political agenda of an independent Azawad. In this instance it is very unfortunate that the part to negotiate with is a very weak and disorganized interim government, backed by an equally fragmented army faction. All this suggests that it will be a prolonged process that opens for the deployment of a peace enforcing force from ECOWAS. The Mali specialists all warned for the serious effects this may have. Another topic that was discussed was the importance of the drugs trade going through Mali. Certainly there is substantial money here. Some linked this trade to people within the government and particularly the military, but it was not very clear who within Azawad control the trade (some said this was “Arab” business). However the most interesting issue is to unravel drug links between Bamako and people with links to the rebel movements.
On July 5 the UN Security Council delayed the endorsement of ECOWAS sending 3000 troops to Mali despite hard lobbying from ECOWAS. At the conference we had a knowledgeable and brilliant delegate from ECOWAS. In his presentation and in comments throughout the conference he made clear how ECOWAS very much think in procedures and how the formal framework of nations is seen as a baseline for action. He pointed out that ECOWAS may send a force even if the Malian government is not requesting for it if there is a security risk for neighboring countries. And naturally this is the case. Despite this ECOWAS has waited for a UN go-ahead and this is linked to the allocation of resources for the mission. It is interesting to note how certain ECOWAS is about what is going on in the Sahel, whilst researchers are not. According to the ECOWAS delegate their very detailed information to a great extent comes from the rapporteurs that form part of the ECOWAS Early Warning System (EWS). A morbid form of proof that these rapporteurs are placed in important and sensitive locations is the fact that two of them have been killed in recent times.
ECOWAS, in tandem with some West African states, is one of the strong voices arguing for the Al-Qaeda threat in the Sahel currently tying together AQIM, Ansar Dine and Boko Haram – outlining a radical zone in the region shaped like a banana from Mauritania to northern Nigeria. Accounts from the EWS rapporteurs are crucial data to them. I would see it as a crucial issue to find out how these rapporteurs are working in the field; what methods do they use, what are their professional backgrounds and how can they stay non-biased towards their material? How do they deal with governments who gain political and economic power by exaggerating terrorist threats? One presenter talked about terrorism as a “blank check” for many governments in the region; the more they report on militant Islamists the more money they get from US and the Europeans. But a Mauritania expert talked about AQIM as a ghost. Everybody in the country feared AQIM, but they were not certain of what it was. He described the scene of a security officer from the government that pointed out in the desert in front of him saying “AQIM is supposed to be out there somewhere, but we have never seen them”. This is not to say that there is no AQIM, but how many are they, how well organized, what kind of links do they have? This is still uncertain and maybe the rumors of them are a more serious threat for stability in the region than the very existence of them? And here ECOWAS and West African states must tread carefully and not use terrorism as a “blank check”.
Related to the question of the importance of radical Islam was a new (at least it was the first time I noted it) tendency by several West African scholars (Nigerians and Ghanaians) to interpret the problems in Sahel as a north/south clash where a Muslim north is threatening a Christian south. Not only was this portrayed as historical north/south clash of religious character, but several times it was mentioned as clashes of civilizations referring to Samuel Huntington’s work – however without taking into account the severe critique it has rendered in the literature. In the light of intensified activities of Boko Haram in northern Nigeria, it is a too simplistic yet dangerously elastic framework to use, especially tempting for Christian politicians. Linked up with discourses and resources around the US war on terror, European fear of the “Sahel wind” and ideas of the radical banana (discussed above) it is a rather explosive and dangerous cocktail.
The remedy according to most participants of the conference is to prevent ECOWAS and others from pushing people in sensitive situations in the Sahel into further radicalization (without neglecting the fears of others such as Christian Nigerians in the north of the country or Muslim of different denominations in Mali). The best way of still involving in conflict resolution must start by understanding the larger conflict as series of local conflicts where each one must be understood and dealt with both in its local sociological and historical context. It is crucial to scrutinize larger conflicts in this light and deal with local strong men and conditions also to solve conflicts on the national arena, such as the one we currently see in northern Mali, but also the instability in Mauritania.