20 January 2013

West Africa: How One Malian Soldier Tossed Entire West Africa Into Chaos


When Captain Amadou Sanogo led a coup that removed former Malian president Amadou Toumani Toure from power in March last year, he probably did not anticipate the magnitude of the problem his move would create.

Despite some half-hearted attempts to defuse the unfolding crisis by forcing Sonogo to step a side and handover power to a civilian interim president, the whole of West Africa largely remained aloof.

Meanwhile, the rebellion in the north of that country that the coup plotters accused deposed Toure of failure to defeat and used it to justify their coup, escalated. The Islamist rebels, exploiting the disarray in the government army caused by the military takeover, gained momentum and seize control of the northern parts of the country. They even attempted to declare an independent state of Azawad.

Recently, the militants with links to al Qaeda launched a military push southwards to Bamako, the capital in a bid to take over the whole country. There advance was only stopped by the fire power of French war plans.

Last week in neighboring Algeria, militants sympathetic to the Malian rebels seized an oil facility and took hostage hundred of workers, some of them foreigners, demanding that France stops bombing the rebels.

By the time of writing this piece, about 30 foreigners (Americans, Britons, and Japanese etc) had been killed in a botched attempt to free them by the Algerian military. And what has now been termed as the world's biggest hostage crisis in recent history had entered day five.

This is how the single act of one power-hungry junior soldier in Mali has set a blaze the whole of West Africa by facilitating the emergence of perhaps the strongest and deadliest wing of the militant Islamist group in the world.

Today, West Africa is said to be home to the deadliest al-Qaeda cells in the world having benefited from the political power vacuum in Mali and loose arms in Libya that went into free circulation following the overthrow and death of Col Gadaffi.

Sonogo and his followers completely misjudged the dynamics at home and most especially the mood among power-brokers in the 15-member Ecowas, notably Nigeria, Burkina Faso, Algeria and Ivory Coast.

In the wake of suffocating diplomatic, trade, travel and financial sanctions imposed by Ecowas and lightning seizure of territory by the northern rebels, the Malian military junta found it self unable to consolidate power and had no option but to negotiate a safe exit from the increasingly messy political situation.

This however did extricate Mali from the problem of separatist rebels up north. As Ecowas dillydallied on the possibility of confronting al Qaeda in Mali, the rebels continued to grow in strength--courtesy of new supplies of arms and fighters from Libya.

Today, all international commentators watching the fluid situation in West Africa agree that uprooting al Qaeda from the Malian desert is going to be a very costly venture in terms of human life and money. Neighboring countries are now in a scramble to put together a force that will hopefully restore sanity in Mali but this is only after the militants had taken the fight right inside those countries--like is the case of the hostages in Algeria.

Had the French not intervened, it would be a different situation in Mali today with the whole country perhaps under the hands of a known terrorist organization. Sonogo, who only a few months ago took power claiming to offer effective leadership against the rebels is melting away into oblivion. Such is the fallacy and self importance some African men in uniform hold.

Having thrown the country in a mess, Sonogo and his followers certainly have no clue on how to get out of the difficult situation. This should therefore serve as a learning template for the military in Africa.

The lesson is that the era of military coups is over--and there are militant groups always waiting for any chaotic situation.

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