Mali, Nigeria, and the Bigger Picture

By IndepthAfrica
In Analysis
Feb 6th, 2013
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By Gregory R. Copley

The Mali War will be neither simple nor quick, ‘though the players all wish it so.

Timboctou, almost a year in the hands of militants, had fallen to French and Malian forces by January 29, 2013. It appeared to the world’s media that the domination of Northern Mali by self-styled jihadist fighters – most of them intruders from a range of foreign countries – was rapidly coming to an end. By January 30, 2013, the last al-Qaida-linked rebel town, Kidal, had been cleared of jihadists. Gao, in the south-east, had been taken by French and Malian forces before that, and then garrisoned by ECOWAS troops. Diabalay, in central Mali, had been re-taken by January 18, 2013.

And with these accomplishments, the safe-haven which Northern Mali had offered to the Boko Haram pseudo-Islamist fighters of Nigeria – and to fighters pushed out of Afghanistan and Somalia by international action – appeared to have evaporated.

On January 28, 2013, indeed, a man – a self-styled Sheikh, Muhammad Abdulazeez ibn Idris – claiming to be Boko Haram’s second-in-command, in charge of the northern and southern parts of Nigeria’s Borno state, appeared at a press conference in Maiduguri to announce an immediate, unconditional, and unilateral ceasefire in its war against a largely unspecified enemy in Nigeria.

Was this, then, the French initiative in Mali achieving some of its desired results?

Could victory soon be declared so that the financially- and politically-pressed forces of France, the African member states of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the United Kingdom, Canada, the US, Belgium, Denmark, Germany, Italy, and Poland take home their troops? Even before that, however, France was pushing at the end of January 2013 for the United Nations to take a greater role in organizing and paying for an international force in Mali.

Inevitably, the realities and the path toward an acceptable outcome were far more complex and nuanced than the ad hoc, and largely reactive, thinking and reporting would indicate. This has been policy formulation one slice at a time. Not just in Paris, but with all the participants. Victory is rarely bought quickly or cheaply. Nigerian troops were sent to help quell the civil war in Liberia 20 years ago; they remain there still. The reluctance of all foreign governments to enter the Mali conflict reflected the knowledge that exit from it would be far more difficult than the entry. It appeared to be the only lesson seared into political minds following the wars of Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. France would not have intervened in 2013 had it not been apparent that the Malian capital, Bamako, was about to fall to the militant forces, and that if Bamako fell, so, too, probably, would all of Mali. And after Mali, the problems would begin in other regional states as the militants consolidated and moved forward in Burkina Faso, Chad, and then Côte d’Ivoire and Senegal, threatening, in particular, French national – commercial – interests. And for Nigeria, the chance would have been lost to show Boko Haram as being an imposter force, claiming a legitimate Muslim heritage with legitimate social grievances; it would have become merely another battalion in the foot-soldiers of the internationally-recognized army of “Islamist” combatants, spearheaded by the iconic – but hardly cohesive – al-Qaida of the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).

So, did the French maneuver work?

In part. Thus far. It bought time. Indeed, it was clear by the end of January 2013 that the militants fighting in Northern Mali had little intention of holding towns in the face of conventional force. Their goal was always to withdraw in the face of superior military power, and to return to the towns later, when the foreign and Government forces had left.

But events rolling out in January 2013 also showed the complex rôle which Algeria plays in the region, and it is yet to be seen what will result if the French-led Coalition pushes the militants north across the Algerian border, whence the AQIM mélange had its origins in the GIA – the Groupe Islamique Armé – and other Algerian salafist groups which provided homes for those who had served as jihadis in the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. And any egress of troublesome young men from Mali into southern Algeria would inevitably be in areas in which Tuareg nomadic peoples are seeking a separate state (for which reason the Tuareg and Islamist causes seemed to meld for a time against perceived common enemies).

This also happens to be an area in which Algeria has its “nuclear secrets”, which it wishes to keep from foreign eyes.

ECOWAS forces moving as part of the African-led International Support Mission to Mali (AFISMA) to support the French and Malian initiative in January 2013 moved relatively slowly, largely because of lack of logistical capability to get them into the zone. Initial Nigerian troops were embarked on January 20, 2012, for Bamako, using two of the Nigerian Air Force’s operational Lockheed C-130H Hercules transports, which, by good fortune, remained operational despite the lack of promised support and spares for them from the US. [Two other NAF C-130Hs were currently in Singapore being brought up to D-check status. Despite failing to support the NAF C-130H with spares and maintenance over the past two decades, Lockheed Martin has been pushing ahead with plans to try to sell C-130J model aircraft to the NAF.]

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The NAF also sent two of its AMD Alpha Jet trainers, in strike mode, plus two helicopters, to the war effort, under the unprecedented command (for such a small air element) of a two-star (Air Vice Marshal). But there were severe concerns about the use of the Alpha Jets and helos, given that neither had any protection against the sophisticated MANPAD (man-portable air defense) missiles known to be in the possession of some of the Islamists. The NAF had successfully used its trainer version of the Alpha Jet in operations against Liberian and Sierra Leonean rebels, with some effect, but those opponents were not equipped with MANPAD systems, so the Nigerian air power had a considerable dissuasive effect on ground force operations by adversaries. The same was not expected to be true in Mali, even though French air operations (with integrated countermeasures against air defense weapons) had, by the end of January 2013, lost only one helicopter to hostile action in the Mali campaign.

Meanwhile, Nigeria began in January 2013 to seriously escalate border protection operations using a number of State agencies to deter the flow of Boko Haram combatants and weapons from crossing south from Mali into Niger, and thence into northern Nigeria. But in reality, the Nigerian Government’s attempts to address the internal security situation have been inadequate and, in many instances, counter-productive. Pres. Goodluck Jonathan’s latest message – which is being promoted around each of Nigeria’s states – is that his Government has been one of delivering on promises, and that the internal security situation was a problem he inherited and existed totally separately from his Government.

The reality is quite the reverse, however.

Firstly, while Boko Haram arose as a terrorist group before the Jonathan Government, it was absolutely contained – through early detection and countermeasures by the previous Administration – and was on its way to extinction. The Jonathan Administration virtually poured gasoline on the embers through a program designed to discredit the Muslim-majority North of Nigeria which he saw as trying to oppose his (South-South) Presidency. To do this, the President essentially pushed Boko Haram into the arms of  the international salafist jihad movement and AQIM. Then, as Boko Haram blossomed because of an influx of arms and vigor from its new relationship, Jonathan was insistent on not turning to the people who had earlier discovered and had almost destroyed Boko Haram. Instead, he turned – to the anger of much of his national security administration, which felt that he had insulted them – to the US, to have the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) take a lead in counter-terrorism in Nigeria. It was an area in which the FBI had no real knowledge or local networks.

Secondly, the Nigerian Government is hampered by the reality that some 40 percent of Government funds – mostly derived from energy sales – goes to pay the salaries and emoluments of the National Assembly. In other words, the politicians take some 40 percent of the budget. Another 40 percent goes to running the Government bureaucracy. At best, 20 percent of the funds go to social and infrastructural programs. Most Abuja insiders doubt that the amount of budget funding spent on the country is as much as 10 percent.

The result is that Nigeria’s economy and quality of life grows (and it is indeed perceptible growth) despite, and not because of, the Government. Nigeria hosts an extremely entrepreneurial society. It also hosts some state governments which are aggressively and intelligently approaching issues, such as the provision of safe and well-managed water resources, which can provide the underpinning of future growth and wealth.

At the national political level, however, corruption is considered now to be far worse even that in 1983, when it became so profound that it inspired the coup by Maj.-Gen. Muhammadu Buhari. The military, however, has been neutered in ways which are both good and bad for the country. Firstly, from the “good” standpoint, the military leadership has accepted that coups, even against corrupt politicians, are not the best way to correct the course of governance, and damage national prestige. Secondly, from the negative standpoint, the Nigerian armed forces – and the Army in particular – has been so transformed at the insistence of the then-US Bill Clinton Administration that it cannot cost-effectively perform its traditional regional peacekeeping, conflict resolution missions. It has become inefficient in that it follows doctrine and approaches which were laid down for the US Army, which is much larger, has different missions, and which can afford – because of the size of the US force and US wealth – the kind of overmanning which Nigeria cannot afford.

While many Nigerian officers are truly world class (which they have demonstrated by topping many US and other military institutions of higher education), they have now inherited a rudderless force. Several senior officers have indicated that they felt that the force sent into Mali was not mission-ready, nor even mission- capable. This is not the Army which slogged through the brutal and grinding campaigns in Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Somalia.

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This is significant, because Nigeria is the only regional power capable of providing leadership – African solutions – to the pressing regional problems, and particularly the Mali campaign, and what that means even to the Maghreb situation. And it is not merely because of the use of Mali as a safe-haven for Boko Haram; it is because Nigeria is the vital hub of what will be the trans-Saharan energy pipeline network which ultimately is designed to provide an energy solution for Europe which (like the Eastern Mediterranean gas fields) will enable the European Union to minimize dependence on Russian-controlled energy.

In all of this, then, it is also not surprising that some of the key thinkers in Nigeria are concerned about the Syrian civil war, and its impact on Nigeria’s own energy markets (and, for example, the future trans-Saharan pipeline issue). “Of all the unnecessary wars we have seen in recent decades,” one Nigerian official said privately, “the Syrian war is the most unnecessary. It has been initiated and funded, and fueled, by Qatar out of anger at [Syrian Pres.] Bashar al-Assad’s refusal to allow a Qatari gas pipeline to be built across Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and through Syria to Turkey. Qatar thinks that a different Syrian leader would allow this pipeline.”

Indeed, Qatar’s desire to build a pipeline across friendly Sunni Muslim states is in contrast to Iran’s wish to see a similar pipeline to supply Europe, but traversing largely Shi’a Muslim regions (including ‘Alawite- controlled Syria). Whatever the outcome, these wars – and the reality that the Qatari- and Turkish-supported salafists fighting in Syria are directly linked to the combatants operating in Mali and providing weapons and support to the Boko Haram Nigerians – have consequences for the West African energy states, such as Nigeria. And Nigerian officials are angered by Qatar’s now obvious involvement – particularly as a committed US ally ostensibly working in harmony with the Barack Obama White House – in directly financing several of the salafist groups in Mali, Libya, and Algeria.

The “Solution” in Mali 

The Coalition wars in Iraq and Afghanistan demonstrated that kinetic warfare against ideologically-driven irregular forces can only be partly effective, especially where the irregulars find safe-haven in the communities of the geography being challenged. So any attempt to undertake a blanket kinetic military operation against jihadist targets in Northern Mali could not only feed into the creation of an irretrievably lost zone, it could also feed international momentum providing a recruit base of fighters who would find their way to the war to fight the government and international community forces.

Clearly, then, feeding a war which creates a continual stream of adversaries is not a recipe for the early withdrawal of international troops.

On the other hand, the Government of Mali is not internationally recognized as legitimate (it is a coup administration), and the predecessor elected Government cannot be reinstated, given that it, too, violated its mandate in attempting to stay in office beyond its term. So the present de facto Government cannot legitimately negotiate structural changes necessary in the country to satisfy Northern Mali’s native population, which is heavily Tuareg in nature. This has long been recognized as a pivotal point in resolution of Mali’s problems (and the cause of many of them). But Algeria has actively discouraged a “Tuareg solution” because it would probably give momentum to similar territorial claims by Algerian-based Tuaregs [see, in particular, reporting on the Ain Amenas incident of January 2013, on page seven of this edition.]

Former Italian Premier Romano Prodi, who was appointed as UN Special Representative for the Sahel, on October 9, 2012, had, even before the French intervention of January 2013, been in discussion with Tuareg leaders about measures which would satisfy them, and divorce them completely from the foreign salafists and their movements.

This, regardless of Algeria’s wishes, is key to any long-term stability in Mali. Indeed, a resolution in Mali may actually trigger a calming of the Algerian Tuareg, rather than an agitation of them. But a Malian solution would only be possible with a legitimate, elected Malian Government, and elections in the entirety of the state are unlikely to be satisfactory until calm is restored. And calm cannot be restored absent a resolution of Tuareg discontent.

The solution would require that Mali accept a federalization of the Republic, with an autonomous, or partly autonomous, Tuareg state of Azawad in the North. Ideally (for Mali) less “autonomous” than the Kurdish state which has now taken hold in northern Iraq. It would need to be a state with its own legislature, but – as with all federations (a confederation would be too loose) – with participation in a strong central, or Federal, Government. This could be the long-awaited Tuareg homeland, and one in which the Tuareg would, of their own volition, reject the presence of external fighters and ideologues. But it would require Bamako and the South to dominate some of the economic fortunes of the overall state, and Azawad would need considerable foreign aid to replace the salafist monies coming in from AQIM, Qatar, and the like, along with programs to create local infrastructure and an economic base.

Morocco has succeed in winning the loyalty of its Sahara territory (and despite attempts by Algeria to pull it into secession from Morocco), after its return following decades of occupation by Spain, because it maintains the notion of autonomy for Sahara and its people (on top of the countrywide subdivision through regionalization), and because of the sharp differences in population and economy between the “two parts”. The idea of autonomy retains the prominence and pre-eminence where they belong, while enabling the “empty spaces” to run their own distinct lives.

But talk of recognition of trans-national minorities causes unease in Africa (and particularly in Algeria, as well as, indeed, around the world), but it remains a fundamental tenet of stable societies that their component peoples feel in control of their own identities and destinies.

It would be possible, during the brief window when the militant foreigners have been driven from the cities and towns and the time the multi-national forces depart (and the militants attempt to retake the urban areas), for a referendum to be put in place which would mandate the next elected Government of Mali to create a Federal Republic with the bi-cameral, bi-communal facets (which has also been accepted as a viable solution for now-divided Cyprus). That would be the point at which the Tuareg would feel protected and empowered to support the ejection of foreign fighters.

The promised new Malian elections for the national Presidency, and parliament, could then take place. And the captains and kings could then depart.

By. Gregory R. Copley, Editor, GIS/Defense & Foreign Affairs

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