Written by Hilary Barnes
President Francois Hollande of France, who announced on January 11 that France was going to war to stop an advance of jihadists who were threatening to take over the landlocked West African state of Mali, seems to have chosen his war well.
He mobilised sufficient force to achieve the initial aim. The intervention was made at the request of the Mali government and has been received with the enthusiastic support of the people, who felt their way of life was threatened by the jihadists.
The presence of French troops on the ground and the action of the French air force in destroying the jihadists’ bases in the northern desert provinces of Mali seems to have restored the morale of Mali’s army, who helped the French to secure the towns from which the jihadists fled without a fight, although the Mali soldiers marred their reputation by reprisals, including summary executions, against jihadist supporters.
On January 23rd, Francois Hollande was received like a conquering hero when he paid a one-day visit to the country, and there was no mistaking the warmth of the welcome he was given.
He repeated an earlier promise that the French would stay in Mali as long as it takes to restore the sovereignty of the Mali state. This is also the wish of the Mali government.
The state was violated in April last year when the jihadists and their associates from the Touareg nomadic tribe (about 4% of Mali’s population) declared the northern provinces of the country to be the independent state of Azawad.
President Hollande has emphasised that he expects that troops from Mali, and other West African countries coming to Mali’s support, will take the lead on the ground to defeat the jihadists in the north.
One more important point in the president’s favour : he has, so far, strong support in France for ‘Operation Jerva‘. That might be lost if the black African soldiers fail to behave themselves.
So far so good, but as the Paris left-leaning newspaper Le Monde remarked in an editorial in its February 4 issue, the president’s visit to Timbuktu and Bamako, the capital, may have been his equivalent of President George W. Bush’s “Mission accomplished” speech just six weeks after the Americans invaded Iraq in 2003.
As wars go, the war in Mali is a small war, with the fighting forces of the jihadists and their associates numbering perhaps 2,000 – 3,000, according to most estimates.
The French force now numbers 3,500, plus operational African forces of about 3,000. According to plan, the latter will be increased by another 5,000 from the West African states, taking the total from other West African states to about 7,000.
However, the military operations may well be the least of the problems facing Mali, for the other task that must be accomplished is the reconstruction of the Mali state and its political institutions. These were destroyed when army captain Amadou Sanogo staged a coup on March 22, 2012, in protest against the inadequacy of men and equipment with which the army faced the jihadists in the north.
The army appears to have been an empty shell, living on the proceeds of drug traffic rather than its pay, and neither willing nor able to engage in serious combat.
Le Monde worries that Mali will turn out to be as difficult to reconstruct as Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya or Syria, but the parallels are not exact, starting with the warmth with which the French outsiders have been received in Mali’s moment of peril.
According to Philippe Hugon, a French Africa expert here, since its independence in 1960 Mali has developed a much stronger sense of nationhood than many other post-colonial nations and a sense of loyalty to the nation has taken priority over tribal loyalties – and there have been no important tribal conflicts in Mali in recent years.
The exception is the conflict with Touareg and the Arab-Berber populations in the north, who have a different history, different languages and in the case of the Touareg have no intention of allowing their nomadic tradition to be subjugated by the Mali state.
Following the coup last March, an interim solution was found that in theory at least leaves the civilian government in charge, although Captain Sanogo remains troublesome. A presidential election is due to be held in April (whether it will actually take place remains an open question) and this is supposed to lead to the restoration of a legitimate and stable system of constitutional government.
But as Philippe Hugon and another expert on Africa, Olivier Roy, point out, it is one thing to organise democratic elections with universal suffrage allowing individuals to vote for different parties competing for power: it is another to make the step from holding elections to establishing stable and efficient democratic institutions.
Mali seemed to have taken a successful step towards doing so when a constitutional democracy replaced an autocracy in 1992, but as the coup last March demonstrated it was about as stable as a sandcastle on the banks of the River Niger that is washed away by the waves of the first motor launch to pass.
Still, 20 years with a constitutional democracy that seemed to be working quite well, despite endemic corruption and a moribund army, is perhaps a better basis on which to be starting to reconstruct the political institutions of the country than many other countries in Africa and elsewhere enjoy.
A key question will be whether a satisfactory agreement can be worked out that keeps the entire Mali state formed in 1961 together. There are strong tensions of ethnic nature between the three northern provinces of Timbuktu, Gao and Kital, with combined populations of around 1.6m out of Mali’s total of 16m.
These tensions were there for all to see in the reprisals against Arab shopkeepers in the towns liberated by the French operation, and as Olivier Roy remarked the jihadists would not have enjoyed the success they have had in the north without popular support.
So all in all President Hollande is likely to have Mali on his plate for a long time, and success in stabilising Mali and hence the entire regions is by no means assured.