International intervention in Africa has been a shaky road, and it seems that Somalia taught the West a valuable lesson. For some years international security scholarship has highlighted the dangers of failed states, and allowing states to fail through inaction. The recent intervention in Mali is not primarily to prevent state failure, but to prevent the spread of Islamist militant actions throughout the region. Somalia was the first example in the Post- Cold War world where militant Islam posed a serious threat to the East Africa through Al-Shebab, a group with close ties to Al-Qaeda. This led to prolonged fighting which exacerbated humanitarian crises in the region and made recruitment far easier for Al-Qaeda, giving them a strong foothold in Africa.
The situation in Mali is multi-faceted to say the least, but with French, British and American intervention it would seem the Islamist threat in the North of the country is being taken very seriously. Last year the militant Islamist forces succeeded in overthrowing Tuareg Rebel rule in the North and established a harsh regime of Islamic law. The NMLA (The National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad) recently split from the militant forces in the north to assist the French mission after falling out with the more extreme militants.
It seems that Mali has become central to a wider battle, with undercurrents throughout West Africa. Another Islamist Militant group, the Nigerian Boko Haram, has abducted seven French Tourists in response to French intervention in Mali. It would seem that, like Somalia, if the initial conditions are sensitive it quickly becomes a regional headache. The United States has also been assisting security forces with drone strikes and placing 100 troops in neighbouring Niger. The United Kingdom deployed 300 military personnel to support French forces in Mali and assisted in transporting equipment. This brings the international dimension of this situation to the fore, as the regional bodies for peacekeeping have been absent. This prompted Uganda’s President, Yoweri Musevini, commented that “it was a big shame that Africans cannot defend their own territory”, but thanked the French for supporting the Malian state.
The fighting in northern Mali has become more vicious, and with no clear results the international intervention cannot be deemed successful to date. In addition to what looks like it may develop into a long struggle, the French want to withdraw by next month. Herein may lie the problem with intervening in such a conflict, a clean withdrawal is often unobtainable, and the French government may have to decide whether they desire results or a quick exit. It is certain that the rhetoric started in the early 2000’s regarding intervention to stop terrorism has played a part in the decision to act in Mali. Although the dimension for routing terrorist training camps proves popular in the public eye, it is not as simple in Mali. There is an organised force attempting to annex and overthrow an entire region of the country, not a scattered force of bearded hate figures. This means a withdrawal of support by the West could lead to another situation like Somalia in the 90’s, perhaps endangering regional stability in West Africa this time around.
BY: Sam Wood