French President Francois Hollande is using his first official trip to Africa to bolster his drive for military action against Islamist groups in northern Mali that are threatening to expand throughout the region.
The Mali crisis dominated Hollande’s talks today in Dakar with President Macky Sall of Senegal, a neighboring secular nation with a majority Muslim population. Tomorrow he’s attending a summit of French-speaking African nations in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
“What’s happening in the Sahel since some months, like in Mali with organized terrorism, isn’t just a threat for West Africa, or Mali, it’s a major question for the security of the African continent and for Europe,” Hollande told reporters at a press conference with Sall at the presidential palace.
France has been an outspoken supporter of the use of force against Islamist rebels controlling the arid north of its former colony and drafted a United Nations Security Council resolution supporting an international force to help oust Islamist militants in Mali.
The Security Council today passed a draft resolution paving the way for military intervention in Mali. The 15-member body voted unanimously to provide military and security planners to help Mali’s transitional government and its partners put together a force. It set a 45-day deadline for a detailed plan for the UN decision-making body to approve.
The Economic Community for West African States has called for UN backing for a regional military contingent. Ivory Coast and Senegal have pledged to contribute troops.
“For the intervention, it’s for Africans to decide,” Hollande said. “We, France, will support with logistical help and materials, according to the UNSC mandate, but it will be Africans who put in place the operation.”
Islamist groups, some linked to al-Qaeda, seized control of northern Mali and the historic city of Timbuktu after brushing aside Touareg insurgents who had declared secession after a March coup against President Amadou Toumani Toure in Bamako, the capital. The Islamists armed themselves with weapons taken from Libya following the overthrow of leader Muammar Qaddafi.
“There is a wide, general recognition that, despite all the risks and problems, force may be the only way to tackle the most hardline jihadist elements,” Paul Melly, associate fellow of the Africa program at London-based Chatham House, said in a phone interview. “France hopes that the threat of force will persuade large sections of the rebels to negotiate.”
The Islamist groups are using drug money and intimidation to force local residents to adhere to their strict interpretation of Islam, the UN assistant secretary-general for human rights, Ivan Simonovic, told reporters on Oct. 10 in New York. Mali has become a transit route for drug traffickers from Latin America to Europe, according to the UN.
“They have tremendous resources to buy loyalty because they are now having kickbacks from narco-traffickers in the region,” Simonovic said. The Islamist groups are paying families $600 for their children to enlist as fighters and $400 a month after that in a country where half the population lives on less than $1.25 a day, he said.
In a bid to impose Sharia law, fighters have carried out floggings, amputations and public executions, Corinne Dufka, senior Africa researcher at New York-based Human Rights Watch, said in a phone interview.
Northern Mali is controlled by at least three groups of Islamists, including Ansar ud-Din and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Mahgreb, which is holding six French hostages.
Neighboring Senegal, Niger, Burkina Faso and Ivory Coast want to oust Islamist groups before they take root and use Mali as a hub to push their influence across borders, former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Chester Crocker said in an phone interview.
In Nigeria, sub-Saharan Africa’s second-biggest economy, the Islamist Boko Haram group has carried out a wave of gun and bomb attacks in the north and the capital, Abuja, in the past three years in its campaign to establish Sharia law.
About a third of the 1.5 million people in northern Mali have fled their homes. The UN says there are 100,000 refugees in Mauritania, 100,000 in Burkina Faso, 30,000 in Algeria and about 40,000 in Niger. Another 230,000 are estimated to be internally displaced.
“The stakes are very high,” Dufka said. “The regional nature of the problem -- both in terms of the foreign element of the Islamists and the number of countries the crisis touches -- necessitates a carefully crafted plan which takes into account not only the security and rights of Malians, but also the governance issues which gave rise to the crisis.”
The crisis has had a negative impact on the economy of other West African countries. In June, the Central Bank of West African States lowered its key lending rates as the conflict in Mali cut an economic growth forecast for this year to 5.3 percent from 6.4 percent.
The $10.6 billion economy in Mali, Africa’s biggest cotton producer, is expected to contract between 3 and 4 percent this year as a result of the turmoil, according to the International Monetary Fund.
It’s taken months to formulate a response because leaders in Mali have been vying for positions of influence rather than focusing on a clear political and military strategy, according to the Brussels-based International Crisis Group.
While Mali’s interim administration last month formally requested help from Ecowas, it said it didn’t want combat troops in Bamako.
“Confusion reigns,” ICG said in a report Sept. 24 that urged the UN to take the lead in brokering a solution.
Ecowas will need combat aircraft to be effective, which would require U.S. and French support, according to a UN Security Council official speaking on condition of anonymity. So far, France is the only western nation that has pledged logistical and technical assistance.
“Ecowas has limited financial and technical resources, and the backing of the United Nations and western countries is indispensable,” Jean-Baptiste Bouzard, a political analyst with Bath, U.K.-based risk-advisory firm, Maplecroft, said in an e-mailed response to questions. “The U.S. army could use aerial bases in neighboring countries to launch drone attacks” on Islamist hideouts in Mali, he said.
Without immediately trying to reconquer the north, targeted military action may persuade the rebels to negotiate, according to the Security Council official.
During the Oct. 12-14 summit of French-speaking nations in Kinshasa, capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Hollande will stress the need for a shared commitment to human rights, democracy and economic development, according to French officials. He will also hold discussions on the crisis in Mali, they said.
“Cohesive and concerted action by the international community will be crucial to overcoming the crisis and limiting the regional contamination,” Roddy Barclay, an analyst at London-based Control Risks, said in a phone interview. “The solution will require both political dialogue and reform pledges, and military action to displace the hardliners from strongholds.”