The situation in the north-west part of Africa is still far from its end-game.
Three years ago Canadian diplomat and former Canadian Permanent Representative to the UN, Robert Fowler was taken hostage in Niger, and later held captive in Mali before his negotiated release. Since then, Ambassador Fowler and others familiar with the region, have warned that a huge swathe of North Africa from the Mediterranean coastlines of Algeria and Libya through Mali and Niger, was being destabilized by insurgents. With the exception of Libya, those countries were former French colonies, but the overthrow of Muammar Ghadafi in that country and the formation of a weak government, have played into the hands of those with their own agendas in north-west Africa . Undoubtedly French intelligence was also aware of what was going on in their backyard, but Western governments and media, with very few exceptions almost completely ignored the story.
Two events of the past few days have combined to shake western governments out of their complacency. While details are sketchy, on a remote part of the Algeria/Libya border, a group of insurgents attacked an Algerian gas processing plant staffed by both foreign and Algerian nationals and took a large number of foreigners hostage. Predictably the Algerian government responded with a heavy hand, and dozens of the hostages as well as many of their captors, appear to have died. In press interviews last week Ambassador Fowler indicated that the group which held him hostage in Mali, led by a one-eyed insurgent calling himself Mokhtar Belmokhtar, and the group who organized the attack on the Algerian gas plant, appear to be the same. Even more interestingly some analysts have suggested that although Belmokhtar may have originally called himself an Islamist – at least when it suited him – he was in fact making his fortune through ransom money and by smuggling cigarettes and other goods.
The second event to appear on the international radar last week (although it has been building for months – see my blog on international events to watch during 2013) was the launching of a French military assault designed to support the weak Malian government in its attempts to reclaim the northern part of its huge territory held by – according to the West – Islamic insurgents.
In an incisive interview with CBC Radio’s The Current (21/1), British journalist Robert Fisk pointed out that there is much talk in the West of the role of Islamism in Mali’s difficulties. While Al-Qaeda in the Maghreb is undoubtedly involved, and wants to see a caliphate in northern Mali, the conflict is also a continuation of a thirty year low-level conflict between northern Malians, mostly made up of Arabic-speaking Tuaregs and Berbers, and the southern black African Malians who make up the government of Mali. The implication of Fisk’s comment is that while this conflict certainly provides fertile ground for Islamic organizations such as Al Qaeda in the Maghreb, to claim their involvement, and to demonstrate the perceived worthlessness of the West, the fact is that most northern Malians – now facing a combined French, Malian and West African military task force – are not committed Islamic militants.
France, partly to protect its former colony, and partly perhaps to demonstrate the effectiveness of its forces, is however sending in 2500 of its troops. Canada and the US are providing transport aircraft. The West’s publicly stated goal is ‘to support Malian democracy’ (in fact, the army took over in a coup one year ago), however, the French government has belatedly acknowledged the challenge it faces in dealing with an insurgency in the huge desert area of northern Mali. The French Defense Minister noted that it is easy for insurgents to get rid of their weapons and join the general population at will, and when they want. French spokesmen are also saying now that Mali is an African problem, which should be solved by Africans.
The situation in the north-west part of Africa is still far from its end-game. The French could be embroiled for some time, and although there is no overt sign of involvement by other western forces, it is known that US reconnaissance aircraft are supporting the French. Can the drones be far behind?
All views expressed are my own, except where acknowledged.