In an apparent attempt to replicate their successes of last year, Islamist rebels in northern Mali launched fresh attacks on government positions in early January. These attacks resulted in another Malian army's defeat and the fall of the city of Konna, situated 650km from Bamako.
Other cities were targeted, but the downfall of Bamako would be the biggest blow to the country and the region. Like Charles Taylor's onslaught on Monrovia in the early 1990s, the latest victory of the Islamist groups has sent a shock wave through the country and once again brought to the fore the imminent threat of violence and jihadism spreading across Mali and beyond. Their victory has also prompted a France-led military intervention.
What prompted the renewed attacks by the jihadists, and what can be said about the French-led military intervention? While it is impossible to provide all the answers at the moment, a few indicators could shed some light on the situation.
The Islamist attacks come against the backdrop of a perceived lack of progress in the negotiation process. Ansar Dine, one of the militant groups, renounced its previous undertaking to end hostilities and break away from terrorist organisations. It claimed that the government of Mali was not prepared to heed its demands, namely the enforcement of Shari'a in the region under its control, and greater autonomy.
In addition to the persistent political incoherence in Bamako, two important factors should be considered in the recent flare-up of violence in Mali.
Firstly, the rebels wanted to take advantage of the procrastination of the international community as far as military deployment is concerned. Though the United Nations (UN) passed Resolution 2085 authorising the deployment of an African-led International Support Mission in Mali (AFISMA), it was held up by technicalities. Training has to be provided to the Malian army, which is supposed to be at the forefront of the engagement, logistical considerations must be worked out and financial responsibilities have to be clarified.
While ECOWAS has earmarked 3 300 troops for deployment, there was speculation that the operation could see the light of the day only by September 2013. Are the UN and its partners trying to buy time while hoping that the negotiations will make war irrelevant? This seemed to be the thinking in many quarters. It goes without saying that all of these delays have given the impression that external partners are reluctant to engage in yet another military operation with an uncertain outcome.
Secondly, the Islamist groups intended to put pressure on the government to force it to negotiate on their terms. Another aim was to raise their bargaining power and relevance within the emerging dynamics of the situation on the ground by increasing their hold on the territories under their control. For some time now, the process has stalled in spite of many public declarations by all parties involved.
Contentious issues remain the secularity of the state and the degree of autonomy to be granted to the northern region. While the authorities in Bamako accept the principle of negotiation, the desire to address the humiliation of past defeats did not subside; nor did the need to preserve the territorial integrity of the country. Bamako considers all four groups (AQIM, Ansar Dine, MUJAO and MNLA) to be enemies, responsible for the effective partition of the country.
Undoubtedly, France's military reaction to the Islamist progression southward was timely. It is evident that, in spite of the efforts made and materiel acquired recently, the Malian army has not yet recovered its full operational capacity. In calling on France for help, interim President Dioncounda Traore clearly appreciated the imminent threat to his country and the region.
Dioncounda's call coincided with a similar one from the current Chair of the African Union (AU), Benin's President Boni Yayi, to have NATO troops deployed, though it is not clear whether he was aware of the implications given the recent history of NATO's involvement in Libya.
The wounds are still fresh as observers continue to highlight NATO's responsibility in the deterioration of the security situation in the region. In the same vein, the African Standby Force only exists in name, even though the AU has taken bold steps (AMISOM in Somalia) to respond to security challenges in recent years.
The ensuing dynamics of this intervention are myriad. Mali finds itself at war by default. Togo, Benin, Senegal, Niger and Nigeria have committed combatting troops while Ghana offers 150 military technical advisers. The United States (US), United Kingdom and other European Union (EU) countries have pledged support to FranceÂ's intervention. Mali can also rely on the regional solidarity of Algeria, Libya, Tunisia and Mauritania.
Yet a number of vital issues still need to be addressed, including the timeframe, coordination among various units, logistics and financing. Meanwhile, the military actions put the negotiation process on hold and will speed up the deployment process. This is likely to be the outcome of a number of meetings taking place this week in New York, Brussels, Addis Ababa and Abidjan. Nigerian President Jonathan Goodluck has already ordered the immediate deployment of 900 troops, while ECOWAS appointed Shehu Ousman Abdelkader as the commander of the regional force. Chad has also committed 2 000 troops to Mali.
The French air force continues to hunt down the armed groups, destroying their bases and training camps. Many months without any government authority in the northern region facilitated arms trafficking that beefed up the already sophisticated military arsenal of the rebel groups.
It is also possible that the capacity of the groups has been exaggerated. But a quick and clean victory should not be expected and unconditional loyalty by Mali's allies might dwindle along the way. Fear of retaliation by the jihadists could also force some countries to keep a low profile.
Serious humanitarian backlashes are to be expected and likely to worsen the situation for the civilians trapped in the crossfire. Importantly, the main challenge will be to keep control of those areas eventually liberated from the control of the Islamist groups. The National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), defeated and expelled from the region, is already warning against such a move.
This is certainly one of the less controversial French military involvements in Africa, mainly after the fin de non-recevoir to Central African Republic President François Bozizé, based on the fact that France has acted in line with international expectations and in reaction to an explicit call from Mali's interim president. Nonetheless, a long-term key question is, what should be done with Africa's national armies?
Since the end of the Cold War, few of them can withstand challenges from non-state armed groups. Initiatives such as the African Crisis Response Initiatives (ACRI), RECAMP and many others sponsored by the US and France to improve the domestic capacity of African states have not yielded convincing results. Is it not time to rethink both national and regional defence strategies? And what about giving serious attention to sincere and effective security sector reform?
France has once again been propelled by circumstances into a sensitive field that ignites passionate debates on its relations with the continent. Given domestic challenges, the risks for President Francois Hollande are as great as the possible benefits derived from denying Jihadists a sanctuary that could become a threat to all. Anyone could become a target and years of efforts in consolidating regional and global peace could be put to waste, with devastating consequences for humanity.
David Zounmenou is Senior Researcher, Conflict Prevention and Risk Analysis Division, ISS Pretoria Office.