When fundamentalist rebel forces overran the central Malian city of Konna on January 11, they sent shockwaves not only through Mali itself but through the international community as well. With Konna fallen, the path to the last remaining government-controlled military base in the region, in the town of Sevaré, looked clear. Having the only airstrip able to handle large transport aircraft apart from the capital, Bamako, rebel control of the base would have been a nightmare not only for the paralyzed Malian government, but also for large parts of the population, many of whom fear the harsh religious-inspired fundamentalist rule that the armed rebels have enforced over the last few months in northern Mali.
When France launched a large-scale military intervention to counter the rebel approach, much of the Malian population welcomed them. This is a fairly new sensation for France, whose military engagement on the continent has more often brought accusations of neo-colonialism rather than praise. However, while the French involvement is currently overwhelmingly supported by Malians, there is little basis for applause.
There is no doubt that the fall of Konna represented a dramatic escalation in this crisis. A further advance into Sevaré by fundamentalist fighters would have subjected many more people to conservative religious law against their will and could well have taken the country down a road of war and conflict that could consume it for years. But the fact is that France — together with regional governments organized through the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and certain elements in the Malian society — single-mindedly sought out militarized “solutions” to the uprising in northern Mali almost since it began in January 2012. This approach ultimately created the “need” for France to involve itself violently. The French government obviously anticipated and has been preparing for intervention for some time, as is evident by the swift reaction to the rebel offensive.
The genesis of a crisis
The Malian conflict began in January 2012 when a Tuareg rebel group, the National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad (MNLA), started a lightning campaign against government forces in the north of the country. The ultimate goal of the campaign was an independent state in the northern half of Mali, which was justified in the eyes of the rebels by decades of neglect and broken promises by the national government.
After several humiliating defeats, discontented soldiers in the capital rioted and soon found themselves in power after President Amadou Toumani Touré fled the city. This precipitated a complete collapse of resistance against the rebels, who soon controlled all the territory they claimed and declared independence.
At this point, though, the rebellion was hijacked by various fundamentalist Islamist groups with links to drug-running operations and the taking of foreign hostages in the region. The most famous of these groups is al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), which has its roots in Algeria. Other parts of the fundamentalist coalition are distinctly Malian.
The Islamists soon completely marginalized the MNLA and shocked the international community and Malian society — which overwhelmingly supports a liberal interpretation of Islam — by destroying large parts of the cultural heritage of the cities they controlled and enforcing a strict version of Islamic law.
Mali needed a robust internal debate about the right way forward, as well as strong international support for a peaceful solution to the crisis. Instead, the military junta, led by Captain Sanogo and supported by some members of the political establishment, championed a military solution to the threat posed by the Islamists. An approach that was backed by large parts of the southern population. Most Malians blame the deteriorating situation on the political ambitions of the Tuareg and neglect to examine the original reasons for the uprising nor the underlying causes for the fragility of their state and its democratic institutions.
At the same time, France and many of Mali’s neighbors started advocating for a military response in the form of an African-led military intervention. The only effort to broker a diplomatic compromise between the multiple actors was led by Burkina Faso’s president, Blaise Compaoré. This process was deeply flawed from the beginning, and Compaoré’s involvement became a source for deep mistrust among large parts of the Malian society, especially since his mediation had proved ineffective before in several other peace processes in the region. Neither the United States, the European Union, the United Nations nor the African Union offered a viable diplomatic alternative.
With the Malian army and the international community verbally and materially gearing up for war, the Islamists saw it in their best interest to strike first and move on Konna and Sevaré, which in turn provoked French intervention.
Facts on the ground
As a consequence of this sequence of events, soon there will be at least 5,700 foreign troops in Mali, drastically increasing the potential for further escalations of violence locally and regionally. But, recognizing that, other possibilities for how to alter the course of this conflict should still be searched for.
The reputation of the Malian army has suffered from its inability to secure the country’s territory. The military junta now officially holds only an advisory role, but it still has a lot of political clout, and the presence of foreign armed forces could aid in further marginalizing its role in national politics. France and other intervening countries should deny the junta the chance to claim credit for military or political victories and make clear that they don’t see the Malian military as a natural partner. That role should be reserved for political parties and civil-society organizations.
Also, any further escalation of violence should be avoided. Even with all pledged troops in position, France and its partners will have difficulty reclaiming and holding more than the urban centers in the northern part of country. This will invite a sustained campaign of insurgency by the armed rebels with uncontrollable and far-reaching consequences for the humanitarian situation and for the prospects of a long-term settlement. The international presence should therefore act as a neutral force and convince all actors to reassess the viability of a solely militarized solution and make clear that negotiation is the only acceptable path to securing their objectives.
Ultimately, it is the civil society of Mali that bears the greatest responsibility for finding a sustainable way forward. So far its role has been ambiguous, with some groups constructively trying (and so far failing) to broker a compromise between the divided political establishment in the south, while others have actively demanded an escalation of violence.
Now is the time for Malian citizens and the intervening powers to reflect and constructively debate the underlying reasons for the collapse of democratic institutions that the country has experienced over the last year. To rebuild these institutions in an inclusive way remains the only way not only to resolve the current crisis, but also to keep something similar from happening in the future.
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