In crisis-hit Northern Mali it almost certain the international military intervention is just around the corner – and for many of its citizens this cannot come soon enough.
It has been some ten months since a counter-productive military coup destabilised the country and allowed a loose alliance of nationalist Tuareg and Islamist rebels to take control of territory equivalent in size to France. Since then the military has handed over to a shaky civilian administration, whilst the rebels’ marriage of convenience has broken down, with the Islamist groups coming out on top.
The consequences for ordinary Northerners have been catastrophic, following the imposition of a brutally harsh interpretation of Sharia Law across the region. Those accused of robbery have had their limbs hacked off, couples found having sex outside of wedlock have been stoned to death and other ‘offenders’ are regularly flogged, all publicly before terrified crowds.
Yet things are set to get far worse: already the rebels are making lists of unmarried mothers, raising fears of mass-executions. And all the while they are regularly destroying beautiful ancient shrines, on the basis that they do not fit with their own warped version of Islam. As for the on-going food crisis, rebel activity is both hampering relief in Mali itself and exacerbating shortages in neighbouring states by driving huge flows of refugees over the borders.
These abuses have played a part in the increasingly urgent international response, which in recent weeks has seen a UN resolution laying the groundwork for intervention and the Economic Community of West African State (ECOWAS) begin to draw up a military strategy.
Beyond human rights, an even more pressing concern for many states is the continental or even global implications of a new base of power for radical Islamist groups, especially given that vast numbers of foreign Jihadists have flocked to the area bolstering al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the local incarnation of the international network. With al-Shabab on the back-foot in Somalia and moderate successes against Boko Haram in Nigeria, any consolidation of power by the rebels would present a major set-back to the struggle against violent Islamism in Africa, which is seen as a key battleground in the broader global picture. For this reason states across the world are keen to line-up behind the imminent ECOWAS intervention, with France in particular already promising practical logistical support.
However whilst it brings wider support for intervention, the international-jihadist context of the crisis also threatens to make this long and bloody affair. Furthermore, whilst the Tuareg nationalist militias have no love for the Islamists and may even play some role in deposing them, they will be disinclined to allow the Malian state to reassert its authority in the territory they regard as Azawad. On top of all this, friction remains between Mali’s weak government and assertive military, with the possibility of a future coup still lingering. ECOWAS troops may then ultimately find themselves caught between a jihad, a secessionist conflict and a national power struggle.
Right now- for the sake of those suffering under the rebels and for the wider region, ECOWAS intervention seems the only viable option…but it won’t be an easy one.