4 December 2013

West Africa: Mali, Sahel and the Paris Summit

Photo: Rwanda Govt
Rwandan Minister of Foreign Affairs and Cooperation, Louise Mushikiwabo, speaks with French President Francois Hollande at the Elysée Summit in Paris. The summit, which took place two days after UN approval of French intervention in Central African Republic, was dominated by peace and security matters, though economic partnership and climate change were also on the table.

On the eve of the Africa - France Summit on Peace and Security, to be held on 6 and 7 December in Paris, two important questions will impose themselves on the Agenda. First, what next in Mali Sahel and second, what linkages with the larger region both the Central African Republic where Paris is sending troupes and the other hot spots: Egypt, Libya and Tunisia? Ending a long and deep crisis.

Overall, there are good signs of hope for Mali. To many observers, President Ibrahim Boubakar Keita is dedicated to a genuine national reconciliation. It was also noted that, contrary to previous rebellions, this time, important Tuareg voices have defended Mali national unity and distanced themselves from drug trafficking.

Moreover, the newly established Commission, called Truth, Dialogue and Reconciliation means, as Truth is added, that painful issues will be on the Agenda. That is the necessary first step of reconciliation.

However, there are also signs of concerns. Time will not be in their favor if Malians continue to see the 2012 civil wars as a simple repeat of past crises and thus will end up like them and that, all in all, it will be business as usual. That approach is most dangerous to the future of Mali. Indeed, due to a variety of contradictory interests, public as well as private, the more a crisis lasts, the more it breeds itself becoming more complex and much more difficult to resolve.

Malians would be wise not to ignore that and should be encouraged not to start negotiations from scratch but rather to build on their past peace settlements: the Tamanrasset Agreements, January 1991; the National Pact, April 1992; the Agreements of Algiers, July 2006 and of Ouagadougou, 17 June 2013. There are indeed lessons to be drawn from those negotiations and, as most of their actors are still around, they should be invited to share their experience and institutional memories with the new authorities.

Also, the government shouldn't miss its main target that is maintaining and strengthening its territorial integrity and national unity. The support of the bilateral, regional and international partners, who helped to liberate the country, is still indispensable. Missing the target is to lose that focus and to ignore that, in the present juncture, the worse that could happen to their country would be international indifference.

Serval, the French intervention in Mali is different from those of the cold war era, generally undertaken to support, impose or dismiss a local leader. Therefore, the real question is does France have the financial/logistical capacities to simultaneously act on two military fronts: Mali and Central African Republic?

To maintain the focus

Increased violence in the weak Central African Republic or CAR, qualified as pre genocide, the continued armed confrontations in Libya, Tunisia and in Egypt while Sudan remains instable on its western borders, are worrisome developments. These developments should encourage all its partners to refocus on Mali and to fix it as a first priority. Today, military interventions are more costly than in the past but withdrawal is not as easier as getting in and, at the same time, a long status quo will breed doubts and discredit.

Sending French and the UN troupes to the Central African Republic may not be a simple routine exercise. Today military operations are costly to both the national and international financial contributors that are often the same.

In addition, the field in CAR may be tricky. Not only the many unemployed local youth find in violence a source of revenues and prestige, but also youth from neighboring countries are present in CAR looking for the opportunities to get some action as were the cases in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Cote d'Ivoire.

Interestingly enough, these youth are not deterred by western troupes as were their elders in the 1960's. On the contrary, the presence of western or non African soldiers may be an incentive to reconfirm their africanity and, when Moslems, their religious commitments. If it lasts or is large, the military intervention in CAR may well attract combatants from the whole region including Sudan, Uganda and of course the Sahel.

The additional risk is manipulation. Indeed, some countries generally manipulate their rebels groups pushing them to fight outside the national territory. There are credible reasons to believe that CAR is a likely future destination to many militants and rebels pushed out of their country by necessity or by its neighbors Security Apparatus.

At this week end Paris Summit, the Agenda is most concise. The choice for France and its African partners should be to avoid being caught between a rock and a hard place, Mali and the Central Africa Republic.

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