analysisBy Alex Vines
The African response to the Mali crisis is an acknowledgement that 'African solutions to African problems' is not always applicable and that some crises are truly global and need international support.
This is clearly the case in northern Mali where, since last April, Islamist fighters have dug in and carved out a separate jihadist state. An unexpected coup d'etat in March 2012 resulted in political chaos allowing time for armed radical groups in northern Mali to consolidate their position.
These groups have been bolstered with arms and supporters from NATO's 2011 Libya intervention. Radical groups formerly suppressed by Libya's Colonel Gaddafi, intermingled with his defeated supporters with destabilizing consequences for the whole region.
Today's offensive by Islamist fighters in Mali was not entirely unexpected. The regional body, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), has no capacity to conduct warfare in terrain like that of northern Mali, despite last year's UN Security Council-backed plan to deploy 3,000 troops later this year.
ECOWAS had hoped that it could maintain dialogue and seek accommodation with a number of the Islamist groups in the north and only planned for military action following training of the Malian army and scheduled elections. Meanwhile, and not surprisingly, some of the armed groups in northern Mali decided their own timetable and launched an offensive to capture more territory.
Last year there were many months of drift in getting an African plan to respond to the Mali crisis. This was understandable given how unexpected the events in Mali were and how ill-equipped Africa's Peace and Security Architecture is to respond to an internationalized threat of this type.
There is an opportunity here for the African Union (AU) to rebuild its relationships with North African states (soured by Libya's civil war in 2011) and with key international partners such as France, the EU, NATO and others. Unlike on Libya in 2011, the AU has supported international action on Mali.
Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, the new South African AU chairperson, questioned whether the UN itself is adequately equipped to deal with the complexities of the conflict in Mali and the Sahel. However, she and other African leaders have accepted the urgency of an effective military response to the crisis.
A solution to the crisis will need to be multi-tiered. Mali needs a credible elected government following last years' coup, and control over the north must be restored through international intervention.
The immediate need is for united African backing for French-led efforts to create an effective military buffer and stop Islamist fighters' attempts to move south. If the French-led operation is to stand any chance of long-term success, then neighbouring Algeria's active support for military action is essential.
ECOWAS needs to start deploying its forces, and the EU mission of 250 military trainers to aid Mali's military needs to be authorized urgently. Moreover, ECOWAS will have to provide peace support operations in an effort to build confidence for many years to come.
The Malian military is singularly ill-equipped to respond to the well-armed and motivated jihadist threat from northern Mali. The African timetable for military action in autumn 2013 retains validity. France is considering embarking on a full offensive and complete military action before the rains (due in six weeks). But this would be unwise and could backfire as Bamako is currently not able to re-establish credible government and security in the north, even with French military backing.
That France stayed out of the recent crisis in the Central African Republic and let the AU, the Economic Community of Central African States and South Africa, respond to the country's rebel uprising shows wise burden-sharing and risk appraisal. The Central African Republic crisis is at core a domestic crisis: Mali's crisis poses an existential threat to both Africa and the West.
Alex Vines is Research Director, Area Studies and International Law; and Head, Africa Programme of Chatham House.