23 November 2012

West Africa: The Ecowas Mission to Mali


Barring the extraordinary, the intervention in Mali looks sure, but Nigeria must put its house in order

It is now almost certain that the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) will be sending a military intervention force to Mali to help the government in its fight against the rebels in the North of the country who are said to have close link with al-Qaeda in the Maghreb. The rebels have become very deadly as seen in their recent routing of the northern parts of Mali coupled with the destruction of ancient land marks in Timbuktu, a United Nations-designated Centre of Cultural heritage. Unless the rebels are dislodged they could turn a large area of West and Central Africa into staging post for the al-Qaeda and Boko Haram.

The ECOWAS plan envisages the deployment of between 3000 and 4000 troops to help Mali's government retake the region. All things going well, the AU/ECOWAS plan will appear before the UN Security Council for approval before the end of the year. Indeed, the UN had earlier given ECOWAS member states a 48-day ultimatum to empanel the intervention force.

The authorities in Mali have been dealing with a wide range of security, political and humanitarian problems since this year following the March 22 overthrow of President Amadou Toumani Touré by a group of junior soldiers led by Captain Amadou Sanogo. Initially, the Tuareg rebels in the north went into alliance with the radical Islamic group called the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad. However the two groups soon fell out with each other especially as the Islamists began to impose a harsh version of Sharia law on the areas they control. As if that was not enough, it was reported recently that some groups of foreign fighters from Algeria, Libya and the Western Sahara had been arriving northern Mali to boost the rank of the Islamist rebels.

Thus with these developments came the need to reclaim northern Mali. Furthermore the domestic Malian political environment has become more favourable while street demonstrators previously opposed to any deployment of foreign troops have suddenly become overwhelmed and outnumbered by those who wanted their country to accept the offer of outside help. Yet desirable as the AU/ECOWAS intervention in Mali might seem, our worry is that the bulk of the operational requirements especially military personnel might have to come from Nigeria.

There is no doubt that ECOWAS has a strong sense of regional identity and a track record of political co-operation in times of crisis vis-a-vis the deployment of regional intervention forces in Liberia and Sierra Leone. But at the end of the day, it was Nigeria that bore the brunt of the ECOMOG intervention in the two countries. It is very evident that because of her perceived position as regional power house, all eyes will again be on Nigeria to provide the men, material and the financial muscle needed for the Mali intervention force.

Unfortunately, today's Nigeria is not well positioned to undertake similar ECOMOG operations as in the past. Nigeria is currently facing enormous internal security challenges that have stretched thin the number of men available for active service. In fact the country's armed forces cannot be said to be well equipped and psychologically prepared for the size of operations anticipated in Mali over a period of six months in the first place.

Although France and the United States are expected to provide intelligence and logistical support at a later phase of the operation, they are not likely to commit personnel. The French President Francois Hollande and his Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, are leading the diplomatic campaign to ensure easy UN approval of the ECOWAS intervention plan. But there is need for serious soul-searching on the part of the Nigerian authorities before jumping into the fray so that at the end the nation does not burn its fingers as was the case in Sierra Leone and Liberia.

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