opinionBy Dele Agekameh
Since the campaign by the French Army to free Northern Mali from the iron grip of the Islamic fundamentalists began a few weeks ago, the Nigerian government has been labouring profusely to justify the entry of its troops into the fray. The Malian government was rendered dysfunctional in March, last year, following a military coup, which toppled the government of President Amadou Toumani Toure. Amadou Sanogo, a captain and leader of the coup, had called for external help to enable the war-weary Malian Army to stop the temerity of the rebels who had taken over a number of key towns in the North of Mali.
His pleas were ignored. Instead, the African Union, AU, suspended Mali. The AU later struck a deal with the coup leaders to allow President Toure to resign. Part of it was to restore civilian rule, which finally saw Dioncounda Traore, the Speaker of the Parliament, sworn in as the Interim President on April 11, 2012. The army thereafter retreated from the North of the country, thereby giving a free reign for a plethora of armed groups to fill the void. These are disparate armed groups all of which have different aims and motivations. Islamists, many of whom had been displaced from Libya after the fall and eventual death of Muammar Gaddafi in October 2011, soon joined them.
The Islamist insurgents, who were obviously well equipped with tested fighters, weapons and free cash, soon overwhelmed other militias and took over the whole of Northern Mali. This started the 'balkanization' and bastardization of Mali as various World Heritage Sites, which abound in the rebel-held areas, were systematically desecrated and destroyed. Tied to an Al-Qaeda group in the Maghreb, which in itself, is a franchise of the original Al-Qaeda, the quest of the Islamic fundamentalists was to foist their own brand of stringent Sharia laws on the whole of Mali. Of course, this portends danger for Mali, the entire West African sub-region and the world at large.
All the AU could do was to engage in mere rhetoric while the extremists dug deeper. By January, this year, the rebels started making preparations to launch a final offensive on the south of the country. This would have brought the entire country under the control of the extremists. This would have also emboldened Al-Qaeda in North Africa to secure a launch pad for the total destruction of the weak governments in Africa, especially West Africa.
While he held sway as Libyan leader, the late Gaddafi never hid his expansionist agenda, which was to control the whole of Africa. He had sold the idea of one United Africa with one President to his other African brothers. When he saw that nobody was ready to buy this, he resorted to buying arms and ammunition, which he stockpiled in several locations in the vast desert of Libya.
With the whole of Libya now turned into one huge warehouse for weapons of mass destruction, Gaddafi planned and executed many sinister plots across the African continent and beyond. He was involved in the wars in Liberia, Cote D'Ivoire, Sierra Leone, Sudan, Somalia, Chad and other troubled spots in Africa. In other parts of the world, he actively sponsored acts of terrorism. One of it was the terrorist attack on the Pan-Am Airline Flight 103, which was brought down over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988, killing all the 270 people on board.
Gaddafi's ignominious death in 2011 opened a new bastion in terrorists' war in Africa as all the warehouses harbouring his weapons were left at the vagaries of armed groups, which plundered them. Some of them looted the armoury and got additional supplies from Gaddafi's men who were out to make quick money.
However, throughout his reign, Gaddafi could not properly penetrate the countries in the northern part of Africa as their economies and governments were stronger than those of the poor countries in West Africa. Charles Taylor, the disgraced former President of Liberia, was a beneficiary of Gaddafi's poisoned chalice. Another was Blaise Compaore, the pseudo-revolutionary who holds sway in Burkina Faso. Regrettably, both Burkina Faso and Cote D'Ivoire were the routes through which Gaddafi got his weapons across to rebels in Liberia and Sierra Leone during their civil war years. Cote D'Ivoire later paid a price for this by the bloodletting that confronted the country in the recent past.
Now, poor Mali has come under the jackboots of foreign troops fighting to liberate it from the clutches of Islamic fundamentalists. The French government, its former colonial master, took the lead by dispatching its troops, which stopped the rebels from advancing to the south of the country. Through ceaseless aerial bombardments, they have captured all the rebels' strongholds. But the French troops will not be available to go all out on any ground assault to totally cleanse the place of the remnants of the rebels who may have taken sanctuary in the desert. Nigeria is at the head of the more than 3,000-strong African forces under the auspices of the Economic Community of West African States, ECOWAS, which have been arriving in Bamako in trickles to undertake the ground offensive.
Currently, Nigeria is bedeviled by deadly exploits of some extremists believed to have a modicum of ties with the insurgents in Mali. Though the attacks are confined to the northern part of the country, its debilitating effects on the entire country and the West African sub-region is being felt rather than imagined.
Therefore, the logic of Nigeria's involvement in Mali is that it is quite easier and cheaper, in terms of human and material resources, to fight terrorism outside the shores of the country than within. In other words, it is far better to confront the growing 'Al-Qaeda' influence in Mali and smash it than wait for the insurgency to be exported into the country through the porous borders in the North.
Furthermore, Mauritania, Libya, Tunisia, Burkina Faso, Niger and Algeria are quite vulnerable to attacks by these rebels. Particularly, Niger and Algeria borders are extremely porous, and neither government has had the effrontery to halt the weapon flow into and through their countries to other parts of West Africa, especially Nigeria. Nigeria shares a vast border with Niger Republic. Besides, the recent terrorists' attack on a gas plant in Algeria has signaled what to expect in other parts of Africa if preemptive action is not taken to nip the growing insurgency in the continent in the bud.
But one problem remains. The African troops in the Mali campaign will require enormous assistance from external bodies in terms of training, weapons and other logistics of war. It will be recalled that during the war in Liberia, some of the African troops, which were brought into the theatre of war, were grossly under-equipped. They had neither boots nor weapons to fight because most of the West African leaders prefer to keep their army ill-equipped to stave off coups against their regimes.
Another major thing that is worth attention is: what becomes of the rebels who have abandoned their positions in Northern Mali and took to their heels? They are probably locked up in the vast deserts and mountains of Northern Mali where they could instigate guerilla warfare at their whim to destabilize Mali from time to time. They could have also taken refuge somewhere in the Sahel, where they could regroup and carry out their attacks on any part of the West African sub-region. This is why everything must be done to forestall the rise of another Afghanistan in Africa.
The recent pledge of an initial contribution of $50 million into the estimated $1 billion funds for the war efforts in Mali by AU members in Addis Ababa, underscores the seriousness attached to the Malian crisis by African governments. Therefore, the adventure in Mali is in Nigeria's interest, the interest of the West African sub-region, Africa and the whole world to deal extremism a decisive blow in order to achieve sustainable peace and progress.