Why is the French Foreign Legion doing nothing? What is it for? French President Francois Hollande last month forthrightly said: “We cannot stand by and allow terrorists to take over an entire territory.” But France has, and so has the United Nations and the African Union. The people of a huge swathe of northern Mali thus suffer while Africans and Europeans – and even Americans – who could exercise a “responsibility to protect” innocent Malians do absolutely nothing. It is long past time for action.
Cutting off the hands of petty alleged thieves, stoning suspected adulterers to death in public, banning mobile telephone musical rings, forcing women to cover themselves or remain indoors, and flogging a teen-age girl sixty times for talking to men – these are among the many pernicious changes to daily life under the Ansar Dine, a heavy-handed al-Qaeda-related and inspired militant group that is terrorizing northern Mali. It has also destroyed several of the historically-significant tombs in the revered ancient city of Timbuktu.
Ansar Dine and its thuggish leader Iyad Ag Ghaly have imposed themselves on the settled and nomadic populations of two-thirds of northern Mali. Originally they were an upstart assemblage of a few hundred Tuareg who wanted a more heavy-handed Islam than that advocated by the Tuareg fighters of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) who appropriated Libyan arms and fled into Mali after Muammar al-Qaddafi’s downfall in early 2012. The latter sought to create an autonomous entity within Mali called Azawad, not a sharia-ruled strictly Muslim enclave. This Ansar Dine, co-opting many Tuareg from the MNLA grouping and bolstering its ranks with fundamentalist fighters from well beyond Mali, has done in as merciless a manner as possible.
The people on the ground resent Ansar Dine. There is no popular support anywhere in Mali or in the broad Sahelian region that includes the semi-desert lands of northern Mali, northern Niger, or eastern Mauritania for an uncompromising Islam. Nor does anyone, bar a few Tuareg and al-Qaeda sympathizers, want to bifurcate Mali.
The African Union, the Economic Commission of the West African States (ECOWAS), the United Nations, the European Union and southern Malians say that they want to end the Ansar Dine breakaway and to stanch any al-Qaeda beachhead. Yet for months they have been hesitating while soldiers and political forces in southern Mali worried that a military force from outside composed of ECOWAS soldiers would unleash unwelcome power changes in Bamako, the capital, as well as in the Sahelian region.
But the Ansar Dine fighters only number a few thousand. The French Foreign Legion was created for just such an intervention. Likewise, there are battle-hardened troops from the ECOWAS states who are capable of making light work of whatever fire-power Ansar Dine now holds. With French and, possibly, U. S. logistical support northern Mali could be liberated swiftly and freedom restored to the rightful government of Mali.
Admittedly, the Malian government is now so weak and fractured that it may deserve to be assisted by other African governments in restoring its rule northwards. Bamako long neglected its northern outposts and looked down upon the Tuareg. But, without external assistance and some well-placed international efforts, it is at least conceivable that northern Mali could be re-integrated into the Malian state and – gradually – good governance restored there.
At this point even sloppy Malian oversight would be welcomed by the northerners, oppressed as they are under upstart fundamentalist authoritarian rule.
If and when – Hollande recently promised action “in three weeks” – ECOWAS, France, and others liberate northern Mali then there will be perfect opportunity (lest the Islamists return) to strengthen the delivery of public services to the Tuareg and other nomadic populations in northern Mali. Better health services, better schooling opportunities, improved roads, and enhanced security are what the northerners have long lacked. To bar the Islamists from returning, outsiders will need to help Mali thus improve the lives of those who have recently lived under an unpleasant reign of terror. Doing so will be a supreme test of African as well as Malian political will.