The current debate in Europe over the intricacies of France’s military intervention in Mali overshadows a necessary discussion of the next steps. On a recent visit to Mali, the French president reiterated the short-term nature of French presence in the country. Most European governments are reluctant to involve themselves in what is perceived to be an African problem, and European publics remain skeptical about attempts at nation-building abroad. However, looking at Mali through the limited lens of the current military action would do the region — and European interests — a great disservice. Indeed, the French-led military intervention should be discussed as one aspect of a longer-term strategy for the stability of West Africa and the Sahel.
The situation in Mali is not new but is instead the outcome of a longstanding conflict over Malian territorial integrity. Only 10 percent of the Malian population lives in the northern prefectures of Timbuktu, Kidal, and Gao, which make up roughly two-thirds of the country’s territory. Like in other Sahel countries, Mali’s government in the southern city of Bamako has only a tenuous hold over the sparsely populated and fragile periphery. Seventy percent of the Sahel region’s 3 million square kilometers is mostly ungoverned. With the presence of the state limited, and at times unwanted, ethnic Tuareg and Islamist organizations provide security, levy taxes, solve local disputes, provide education, and address other basic needs.
The rebellion that started in Mali in January 2012 — resulting, a year later, in France’s intervention — was the fifth triggered by Tuareg groups in Mali in addition to three in neighboring Niger. Their original demands for independence or political autonomy remain. With the Tuareg population spread over five countries, Mali’s neighbors, in particular Niger, are looking to their populations for signs of contagion.
The Islamist terrorist groups, which took over the rebellion started by the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), also transcend Mali’s borders. They are present in neighboring Senegal and Niger, and recent expressions of solidarity from groups like Boko Haram in northern Nigeria are cause for concern. Contacts are facilitated by the porous borders of the Sahara and Sahel and the free movement of people within the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). Greater emphasis should consequently be placed on viewing Mali in the context of a wider counter-terrorism strategy. Even if successful, the current military intervention cannot offset the foothold achieved by separatist and Islamist groups in communities across the Sahel. And, as the past decade has shown, the French military presence may only result in the terrorist groups adapting their organization and strategies rather than disappearing altogether.
The state collapse, caused by a military coup in March 2012, should also have been anticipated. While the rapid fall of the government of Mali — previously a model of African democracy — seemed to surprise observers in Europe and the United States, Mali’s neighbors had seen it coming. Experts from across the region had been sounding the alarm for some time, pointing to a serious deficit of good governance and a lack of responsiveness on the part of the government. As a senior African official said during a conference here, toward the end of their reign presidents become both blind and deaf. Although the military may yet have a role to play, other actors will have to step in to restore political stability in the country and return the army to its barracks. The failure of regional and international institutions to preempt and mitigate the conflict and their inability to mobilize resources are further reasons for European policymakers to think about the role they will likely have to play in the years ahead.
While debates in Europe focus on the French-led military campaign, such an intervention alone cannot provide a lasting solution. The upcoming EU Summit should serve as an opportunity for a broader engagement of European partners. Indeed, overlooking the context behind the current conflict will only lead to its repeat. With access to natural resources from West Africa and the Sahel in the balance, Europe should be invested in solving the crisis and limiting the effects on Mali’s neighbors. Furthermore, as seen in the case of turmoil in North Africa, there is a risk of unchecked immigration flows to Europe. The conflict has been mostly contained for now, but the crisis is as regional as it is national and has long-term security implications for Europe.