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The Malian crisis and its embarrassment for a ‘sovereign’ Africa

If the 2011 NATO expedition in Libya was thought to be insulting to Africa, then the ongoing French-led military intervention in the north of Mali can best be characterised as an embarrassment to African leaders and their people who are often critical and suspicious of Western intervention. When NATO carried out its military campaign in Libya almost two years ago, ostensibly to contain the late Muammar Gaddafi’s assault on protesting civilians, the general refrain from a significant part of the African political and intellectual leadership was that the offensive amounted to a violation of the continent’s sovereignty. This was the case, even though all three African representatives in the UN Security Council (Gabon, Nigeria and South Africa) voted in favour of the resolution authorising the use of ‘all necessary measures’ to protect civilians in Libya, and which formed the basis for NATO’s intervention.

For the most part, criticisms against NATO’s military operation in Libya were anchored in the notion of African solutions to African problems, which has recently gained currency in peace and security discourses in Africa, and argues for African initiatives to be prioritised in dealing with crises on the continent. Thus, following the Libyan debacle, as well as the international response to the post-election crisis in Cote d’ivoire in the same year, there seemed to have emerged a consensus that external efforts to address conflicts in Africa [read: Western intervention] should henceforth assume a supporting role. In other words, African countries and institutions should always be allowed to take the lead in responding to conflicts on the continent, albeit with financial, logistical, diplomatic and technical support from the broader international community.

Resolution 2033 adopted by the UNSC on 12 January 2012 embodies this consensus. At the time of passing the resolution, Western permanent members of the UNSC expressed reservations over the capacity of African institutions to effectively and efficiently deal with conflicts and tacitly reaffirmed their unwillingness to cede the mandate of the Council to regional organisations like the AU. Even so, by committing the Council to take ‘effective steps’ to enhance its relationship with African regional and sub-regional organizations, Resolution 2033, in a sense, affirmed the centrality of African institutions and initiatives in peace processes on the continent. It seemed, for a moment, that having secured the understanding of the ‘international community’, at least on paper, Africa was poised to realise its dream of responding to its conflicts with home-grown initiatives.

The Malian crisis, with its complexities and unexpected turn of events, has, however, highlighted the extent to which the continent is unprepared to take charge of its own affairs, insofar as the maintenance of peace and security is concerned. There is no gainsaying that both the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the African Union (AU), but mostly the former, have sufficiently prioritised the effective resolution of the Malian crisis. More importantly, the two-pronged approach to resolving the conflict, conceived by ECOWAS and ratified by the AU and UN, is worthy of commendation, given the dynamics of the conflict.

Nevertheless, the fact that a scheduled African-led mission approved by the UN turned out be a default French-led intervention is an indictment on a continent that has been overtly critical and suspicious of Western intervention. By allowing the situation in Mali to degenerate to a point where external military intervention became justifiable, African leaders have put themselves in an awkward position, and in the process contributed to weakening the continent’s argument for greater space in addressing its conflicts. It cannot be lost to any observer of the Malian crisis that had France not responded militarily and timely to the southward advance of the Islamist rebels, the efforts of ECOWAS and the AU to contain the crisis would have been seriously frustrated. First, the renewed rebel offensive threatened the very existence of the Malian state. The performance of the Malian army so far in the conflict suggests that it would not have successfully defended Bamako from a likely attempt by the rebels to capture the capital city. Second, had they not been intercepted by the French, the rebels were poised to bring under their control key strategic installations, including military barracks and airport, which would have hampered the deployment of the planned African-led international support mission. In this context, the delayed deployment of the African support mission approved by the UN in December 2012, including the effect this had on the strategic thinking of the hard-line Islamists in northern Mali, stands out as the weakest link in the efforts to expediently resolve the Malian crisis. Thus, unlike the NATO campaign in Libya in 2011, the debate in the wake of the French military intervention in Mali should focus less on the legitimacy of the intervention and more on the circumstances that made it inevitable, if not desirable. It is no secret that neither ECOWAS nor the AU had the financial, logistical or operational capacity to successfully take on the radical Islamists, a reality that explains the procrastination in deploying the UN-approved force. The uncomfortable truth that Africans must now contend with is that without the necessary capacity to appropriately respond to conflict, the aspiration for Africa to take the lead in its own affairs would remain a pipe dream at best and, at worst, be detrimental to the very peace and security of the continent. As some observers have correctly argued, the UN, which bears primary responsilbity for maintaining international peace and security, should do more to boost Africa’s readiness to respond expediently to conflicts on the continent. However, it is only out of irresponsibility that a continent wishing to be taken seriously and hoping to redefine its relations with the outside world would continually rely on the efficiency of the UN or the benevolence of Western powers. Surely, Africa, as a region, has the resources to develop an efficient security apparatus, including the capacity to respond rapidly to transnational threats like that posed by Islamist extremists in northern Mali. The question is: are our leaders ever going to summon the political will to focus less on defending obsolete borders and illegitimate/weak regimes and prioritise regional security, which is more relevant in addressing transnational threats?

Fritz Nganje is a researcher at the IGD. He writes in his personal capacity.

This article first appeared on SABC news online on 31 January 2013

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