Untangling Mali

February 8, 2013

By Sally Ashley-Cound

The complex situation of the French-led intervention in Mali and the issues in the surrounding region was untangled somewhat on 6 February 2013 at the Frontline Club’s First Wednesday: A new front in the fight against terrorism?

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Paddy O’Connell of BBC Radio 4’s Broadcasting House was the chair and started things off by asking the panel to give their impressions of the region.

Ibrahima Diane, a journalist and editor at BBC Afrique, said that common thought is that the fight is between “Islamists against the southern Mali and it’s more complex than that”.

Wilfred Willey, president of the Malian Community Council in the UK, reinforced Diane‘s point that the complexities must be understood:

“Mali has known several rebellions since it took its independence in 1960. But none of them have had the impact and severity that this one has brought.”

Lindsey Hilsum, Channel 4 News’ International Editor, who had returned from Mali only two days before said that the Malian people are rejoicing now that François Hollande has intervened, but “liberator soon becomes occupier”. There is “hatred and vitriol” building for the Tuareg, a nomadic community spread out over Mali, Niger and Algeria, with people looking for who to blame for Mali’s situation.

The debate moved on to the complex number of forces in the region: the MNLA, Ansar Dine, Al Qaeda, Mujao and the Signed-in-Blood Battalion. While some of these forces have been around for years before the Arab Spring, there are some more opportunistic rebel groups who have, as Willey pointed out, “used the opportunity to have a go and take over the whole region”, such as the Signed-in-Blood Battalion who instigated the Algerian hostage situation.

On the question of whether Hollande was right to intervene in Mali, Willey had no doubt that it was the best thing to do at the time:

“There were those on the frontline who had lost all hope . . . and their intervention gave that hope back. . . . Mali has suffered up to 10 months under the Sharia law. . . . We just wanted someone to come and help us with these people. So yes, the French were right to intervene.”

But what should be done going forward in Mali?

Lord Ashdown, former leader of the Liberal Democrats and UN High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina, said:

“The Prime Minister has said this will last 10 years. . . . If you think of Afghanistan and Iraq as a model for the next 10 years then you’re going the wrong way and my worry is that a prevailing thought that is in Whitehall at present.

“Using the purely military option as we did in Afghanistan, as we did in Iraq, and as we’re in danger of doing in Mali, not only doesn’t work . . . but anyway we can’t do it. We don’t have the troops any longer, we don’t have the resources, we don’t have the defence budgets. And actually that may be rather a good thing. If this lasts 10 years, it’ll be because we do this in a different, cleverer, smarter way.

“We get ahead of the curve. . . . We begin to use all the networks of skill that we have in order to build up the structures in those countries so that they can do this job for themselves.”

“I want to be optimistic about the fate of Mali and the fate of this region,” Diane said about the next move for Mali and its elections later this year.

Ashdown disagreed, he thought that creating a rule of law would have a greater effect:

“In a post-conflict country . . . if you do not first of all create the rule of law as best you can . . . [elections] will embed the corrupt structures into the process of an elected government.”

Hilsum finished off with a final thought about the people she had met throughout her time in Mali:

“For me the most important thing is that there has to be a process which involves reconciliation, . . . the rule of law and the installing of human rights. Because if you don’t have that then the people I’ve met and . . . have been very excited and delighted at this intervention, those people will be let down and those people’s lives will never improve.”

Watch the full discussion below: