The Republic of Mali is a landlocked West African country bounded by Algeria on the north; Niger Republic on the east; Burkina Faso and Cote D’Ivoire to the south; and Senegal and Mauritania in the west. The territory occupied by Mali was part of three historical empires – Ghana, Mali and Songhai – and it was a colony of France. The population of Mali is 50 percent Mande; 17 percent Fula; 12 percent Voltaic; 10 percent Tuareg; and 6 percent Songhai. Like Nigeria, Mali became independent in 1960.
In January 2012, a Tuareg rebellion started in the north by a group known as the Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA). Many of the Tuareg rebels had secured guns and fighting experience from the service of Gadhafi in Libya. On March 22, 2012, junior Malian soldiers led by Amadou Sanogo, purportedly disgruntled at then President Amadou Toure’s handling of the Tuareg rebellion, overthrew the government and took power. Ironically, it was the confusion (and incompetence) brought about by their coup that facilitated Tuareg victory! By April 6, the MNLA proclaimed the independence of AZAWAD in alliance with Islamist Jihadists of Ansaradine and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb unleashing a period of fundamentalist repression in Northern Mali.
The marriage between MNLA and the Islamists would, however, turn out to be short-lived! The Islamists turned on the Tuaregs, over-running and sidelining them. Islamist strategy appeared to have prevailed and they now set about their objective of establishing an Islamist state allied to Al Qaeda in the deserts of Northern Mali. The naïve Tuaregs have since dropped their demand for secession, but no one trusts them anymore!
The Islamists began to “purify” Northern Mali – destroying historic Islamic shrines and the ancient libraries of Timbuktu, imposing harsh punishments for smoking, on women and others. Alarmed, the international community at the levels of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), African Union and the UN Security Council eventually began to notice the step-by-step creation of another “Afghanistan”, this time in Mali with not-too-distant proximity to Europe. It was clear that left unchallenged, the emerging terrorist state would threaten the rest of West Africa, and imminently Europe as well. The UN Security Council duly passed Resolution No 2071 (2012) mandating the establishment of an International Military Force based on ECOWAS requests and resolutions transmitted through an ECOWAS letter of September 2012 to the Security Council requesting a Security Council Resolution authoring deployment of a stabilisation force in Mali under Chapter VII of the UN Charter.
The international community then dragged its feet for several reasons – funding, logistics, inertia, subtle pro-Islamist propaganda that encouraged dialogue while allowing the Malian Islamists to consolidate…and, as it later turned out, make a push southwards towards Konna and, ultimately, if unchallenged, Bamako, the capital! That was the last straw, at least for France. On January 11, 2013, France launched a ferocious intervention “Operation Serval” with vigorous airstrikes to prevent the Islamists from taking over Bamako, and to drive them out of Northern Mali.
Nigeria is a direct stakeholder in events in Mali. We already have our own Islamist rebellion concentrated in the North-Eastern parts of the country, but reaching across many parts of the entire North. Two terrorist groups are now known to be active – Boko Haram, with roots in Borno and Yobe, but with a portfolio of attacks in Abuja, Kano, Kaduna, Adamawa, Kogi, Bauchi, Taraba, Sokoto and elsewhere across Northern Nigeria. A new, more internationalist and potentially more dangerous group, “Ansarul” (notice the similarity with Mali’s Ansaradine!) has emerged. Ansarul has already claimed responsibility for an audacious attack on Nigerian troops deploying to Mali. In an article titled “Today Mali, Tomorrow Nigeria”, Africa expert Richard Dowden warns, “The Sahara now looks like a springboard for the advance of militant Islam…the North of the country, the Sahara desert, has been home to Salafist rebels pushed out from Algeria in the late 1990s and targeted by militant Islamist movements inspired and funded by Saudi Wahhabi Islamic fundamentalists preaching Jihad against the West” (http://africanarguments.org). He also quotes African Confidential thus, “The Islamists are targeting Mauritania next, with its rich fishing grounds and mineral wealth, and then Niger, which has uranium and oil…but the biggest prize would be the destabilization of Nigeria to the South East.”
Obviously, President Jonathan is privy to security information along the same lines. In his letter to the Senate requesting ratification of his deployment of Nigerian troops in support of the French-led intervention, Jonathan wrote, “If the crisis in Mali is not quickly contained, it may spill over to Nigeria and other West African countries with great security and political consequences.” In fact, the Nigerian Army chief, Azubike Ihejirika, a lieutenant general, affirmed on January 17, 2013: “We have evidence that some of the terrorists operating in Nigeria today were trained in Mali. As of yesterday, we were aware of the influx of some terrorists trained in Mali into the country.”
In effect, Nigeria’s intervention in Mali is based on sensible self-interest. It is better to stop the terrorists in Mali, rather than wait until they are institutionalised and eventually confront us at home. It also projects Nigeria positively in the international community and sends the right message to our domestic terrorists – you will not prevail!