The Mali Crisis – A reminder that ECOWAS’ Early Warning System is grossly inadequate
By Stella A. Attakpah – Vienna, Austria
While we were beginning to think that coup d’Etats were a thing of the past in West Africa, it was shocking to come to terms with the recent unrest in Mali. An ECOWAS member State in this 21 century has been rocked by yet another coup d’Etat, when democracy seems to be sowing seed elsewhere. The level of insecurity, fragility and fragmentation of ECOWAS and its member States has once again manifested itself.
Before, during and after the crisis in Libya which brought down the former Libyan government should have sounded alarm at ECOWAS and in the member States for the simple reason that there should have been some record of West Africans living in Libya including former rebels who would be returning home and the consequences this would bring upon the region, particularly the countries that share border with Libya.
Particularly, since the past few months, media reports had it that Touaregs had seized major cities in Northern Mali, attacked and killed many government troops after some of their heavily armed and battle-tested fighters came back from the Libyan civil war last year to join the rebel movement that stayed behind. It is clear that Azawad (The Touareg National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) fighters) separatist group, who are seeking to carve out a desert homeland for themselves, began this rebellion in Mali since January 2012, following many others before this one. This situation apparently and strangely did not raise any alarms at the ECOWAS Commission in Abuja.
It is worth noting that before the coup, Malian forces had struggled to drive back Touareg rebels and officers had complained that the army needed more equipment to carry out its counter-insurgency activities. The then President of Mali as well as ECOWAS and its stand-by-force did nothing to help Mali to counter the advance of the rebels. In frustration, some army officer in Bamako stage a coup following the ambush and mass slaughter of their colleagues in the north of the country. Following this event, we finally hear of ECOWAS apparently positioning 2,000 troops along the Mali borders and threatening to intervene in Mali by closing land borders, freezing assets of the new junta and imposing a financial blockade if the army does not stand down within 3 days. But the issue here is there are two events occurring in Mali that need military intervention the Touareg advance and capture of some important Northern cities as well as the putsch in Bamako. Why was ECOWAS threatening the Malian army and allowing the Touareg rebellion to advance? Was this ECOWAS not contributing to the situation in Northern Mali – treating this as an internal problem – and only interested in saving and returning the deposed President whether or not he managed this crisis appropriately or creating an interim government that will need time to understand the issues before being in a position to take action? The question that needs answering is whether the ECOWAS Commission and its Member States are capable of managing security risks and finding durable solutions in the region. The Heads of State and Governments seem too engulfed with other issues that they fail miserably to ensure the safety of their own people.
The situation in Mali reminds us that this could happen anywhere in the region where governance issues have taken a backbench and corruption high on the agenda. The Regional body - ECOWAS – needs to reform in order garner respect and integrity from the people of the region. ECOWAS needs to be in a position to take pre-emptive action through actively researching and dealing with critical situations before things turn into a national or regional crisis.
Those responsible for monitoring crisis situations both in the country (Mali) and at the ECOWAS Commission headquarters should be admonished for their inability and incapacity to prevent things of this nature from happening. Decision makers at the ECOWAS Commission should also be made to account for issues of this nature.
The ECOWAS Division responsible for early warning, as it were, seemed to have attracted some funding to enable it to enhance its monitoring capabilities with regard to such situations in member States. However, the events that took place this past weekend in Mali only goes to inform us how ill prepared the Division is in collecting information and monitoring events both at the national and regional levels before escalation.
At the time ECOWAS issued threats of sanction, Capt. Sanogo, the putschist Commander and Chief, did not really seem to have understood the ECOWAS threat and instead of discussing how he could hand power back to a civilian government, his main concern had been calling on the regional Heads of State to help him sort out the rebellion in the north. Although he has a point that the deposed President Traore (ATT) did not look like he had a solution to the crisis in the north, and although Capt. Sanogo does have some real support among the population, his request likely fall on deaf ears. While this is not to say that it is right for soldiers to take the law into their own hands, push their way to power through the barrel of a gun, the question is simply to understand that as long as ECOWAS and its Heads of State and Government do not deal with governance issues in the region, situations of this nature are likely to raise its ugly head in the most fragile states. As long as the regional institution, ECOWAS, continues to react instead of prevent crisis in the region, situations of this type are far from ending in the region.
In the mean time, we need to bear in mind that any new regime in Bamako is going to have to deal with a zone where all sorts of interests – demands for independence by some Tuaregs, calls for the imposition of Sharia by others and a thriving drug-smuggling and trading in counterfeit goods – collide, and where the Malian state has very little presence with no help at all from the regional body ECOWAS. The bitter truth today, is that any government in Bamako that wants to regain control of the north is going to face a task that is going to take months, if not years to resolve.
In the meantime, a solution to this crisis is for both the ECOWAS Commission and the Malian government to quickly establish a counter insurgency plan together with the Mali national army Generals and other regional security and risk management experts, to aggressively counter the Touareg rebellion and other hostile organizations in areas where the groups and Mali's economic interests overlap. The primary aim being to reduce the "capacity" of the group by at least 50% over the next couple years and limit the rebellion’s ability to attack the state or its interests.
The primary objective for both the government and the ECOWAS Commission will be to establish a robust strategy that will continue to target the group's leadership, as well as expanding its focus to eliminate various separatist Touareg fronts that represent its most powerful economic and military forces. This action should be undertaken amid dialogue that will seek to embrace alternative ways of finding a lasting solution to the Touareg problem in the North of Mali and Niger.
For this to be successful, an in depth assessment of the situation should be carried out by regional security experts at the same time in order to provide credible information to the Malian Government as well as to the ECOWAS Commission, on who exactly they (Malian competent authorities and the ECOWAS Commission authorities) are fighting, how capable they (Touareg Separatist movements) are, and how much financial and arms power they (Touaregs) have.