In West Africa and Paris, Chad’s President Idriss Deby Calls for Clarity on Military Intervention in Mali

Chadian President Idriss Deby has made several forceful calls recently for clarity on plans for a possible military intervention in Mali. Deby’s met Tuesday with Boni Yayi, President of Benin (and Chairman of the AU), and Malian Prime Minister Cheikh Modibo Diarra. Deby told reporters:

“It’s up to the Malians to tell us as clearly as possible what kind of support they expect from Africa, beyond what has been done by [the Economic Community of West African States, of which Chad is not a member], and what kind of contribution they expect of Chad.”

He and the AU called formally for the UN to authorize a military intervention in Mali (see a timeline of steps toward intervention in Mali here).

On Wednesday, Deby met with French President Francois Hollande in Paris. A military intervention in Mali was one of the central subjects they discussed. This was the first time the two men had met face to face, but not the first time they had discussed Mali: on July 5, the Presidents had a telephone conversation on the topic. Jeune Afrique (French) reported that at the time Deby gave his conditional support to the idea. But he recommended that the framework of the intervention be broadened beyond ECOWAS to include the African Union (AU) and the United Nations (UN), with Western powers’ logistical support. “Under these conditions, Chad could participate,” he reportedly said. Since that time, the AU has signed on, and some Western powers (including France) have indicated they would support an intervention logistically, but the UN Security Council has yet to approve the force.

On Wednesday, following his meeting with Hollande, Deby spoke (French) of “total confusion” on the issue of Mali coming from ECOWAS, the UN, and Mali itself, confusion concerning the military option as well as the option of negotiations. Nonetheless he reaffirmed Chad’s intention to work “alongside the Malians so that Mali may recover its territorial integrity.” Deby’s statements in Paris tracked closely with his remarks the preceding day.

Steps Toward External Military Intervention in Mali: A Timeline

Yesterday, United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki Moon formally “recommended that the Security Council approve an African Union peace enforcement mission be deployed to combat Islamist extremists in northern Mali, but did not offer financial support from the world body.” Some observers expect that the Security Council will, as Ban urges, provide a mandate for an intervention in Mali led by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).

Paul Melly is an Associate Fellow with the Africa Programme at Chatham House in London. He says that, because the recovery of territorial integrity is at stake, the UN is expected to hand down a fairly robust mandate, endorsing the ECOWAS intervention.

“The UN mandate will be more one of providing UN support and political authority for this intervention. So it’s not quite like a UN peacekeeping mission with a specific mandate laying down what forces can or cannot do, as you would have, for example, with the MONUSCO force in Congo,” he said.

I imagine we will be discussing and debating the merits and prospects of intervention in the months to come, but in this post I simply want to review the steps that the intervention’s architects have taken in recent months. ECOWAS, of course, has been deeply concerned by the crises in Mali since the conflict in the north began in January, and especially since the March 22 coup in Bamako. But non-African partners, through the spring and summer, expressed some doubts about ECOWAS’ intervention plans. The US and others have worried that the plans lack specificity, both in terms of means and ends. The current process is in large part an effort to address those concerns and secure international support.

Here are some steps taken so far:

  1. On October 12, the UNSC “called on Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to provide, at once, military and security planners to [ECOWAS], the African Union (AU) and other partners to help frame a response to a request by Mali’s transitional authorities for such a force, and to report back within 45 days.”
  2. In early November, international military experts met in Bamako to draft a plan to retake northern Mali. They submitted the plan to ECOWAS on November 6.
  3. On November 11, heads of state from ECOWAS approved the plan at a summit in Abuja, Nigeria.
  4. On November 13, the AU approved the plan.
  5. On November 15, France, Germany, Italy, Portugal Poland, and Spain signaled their willingness to provide training for Malian forces. (Statement here, .pdf.)

Events still to come:

  1. On December 7, international envoys will meet in Rome “to coordinate strategy on Mali…focus[ing] on coordinating positions against terrorism, humanitarian issues, encouraging dialogue, and reinforcing political structures so that elections could eventually be held.”
  2. I assume that the ECOWAS/AU plan was formally presented to the UNSC by the deadline of November 26, but I have not seen a date for when the UNSC is expected to make a decision on approving an intervention. From what I have read the decision is expected soon, though.

What do you think will happen? Will the UNSC approve the force? Will external actors insist that Mali hold elections before attempting to reconquer the north? Will this ultimately be settling at the negotiating table – with Ansar al Din, perhaps? Many questions – we’ll see soon how ECOWAS, AU, and the UN attempt to resolve them.

Political Shifts in Northern Mali [Updated]

This post is more a roundup of overlapping events than an attempt to produce a coherent narrative about the political situation in northern Mali, but the events do share one broad trait: they all instantiate political change, underscoring how fluid the situation remains.

The rebellion in northern Mali was launched in January by the Tuareg-led group the National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad (MNLA, where “Azawad” refers to the three northern regions of Mali). The MNLA’s stated goal has long been independence for that territory. Starting in April and especially since June, the MNLA has lost political and military ground to Ansar al Din (Arabic: Defenders of the Faith), a group that seeks to implement shari’a law across all of Mali. Ansar al Din’s coalition of Islamists includes fighters from Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and an AQIM offshoot called the Movement for Unity/Tawhid and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA).

One recent political shift has been in the MNLA’s stated goals. On Sunday, the MNLA announced that they were (my term) downgrading their quest: instead of seeking full secession, a spokesman said, they now seek “cultural, political, and economic independence.” Their spokesman referenced Quebec as a model. The MNLA further declared its resolve to fight Ansar al Din. The implications of this change in rhetoric regarding secession may be quite serious. Big questions arise: Would the MNLA help the Malian army or outside forces reclaim the north from the Islamist coalition in exchange for guarantees of future autonomy? Does this change of rhetoric signal the MNLA’s desperation (and decreasing political and military relevance)?

Another apparent political shift could benefit Ansar al Din. In June, a trio of northern Malian militias announced the formation of a coalition to “liberate” northern Mali from the rebels. Now it appears that some fighters from one of those militias, the ethnically Songhai group Ganda Koy, have broken ranks to join Ansar al Din. The reasons for this (alleged) shift are unclear to me.

On other political fronts, Ansar al Din is not faring as well. Throughout the spring and summer, there have been reports of protests in northern cities, but it was not always clear whether the protests were targeting the MNLA or Ansar al Din. Now that Ansar al Din is more firmly in control of key northern cities, it seems clearer that recent protests are against the Islamists. I have long argued that Ansar al Din has gained some popular support from its attempts to establish law and order and to provide aid, and I stand by that, but the protests are a sign that significant elements of the local population want the Islamists gone. Ansar al Din’s harsh response to protests last weekend, moreover, could generate further backlash.

Finally, there are outside attempts to split the Islamist coalition. The African Union stated yesterday that Ansar al Din, in Reuters’ words, “can be part of a negotiated political solution to reunite the divided West African country if it breaks with al Qaeda and its allies.” This offer seems unlikely to tempt Ansar al Din so long as they have the upper hand in the north, but it is possible that continued efforts at putting wedges into the Islamist coalition could induce cracks later on if Ansar al Din finds itself on the defensive. It is also possible that the AU’s talk will fall on completely deaf ears.

[UPDATE]: Peter Tinti (in the comments) provides us with a link (French) to an interview with MNLA spokesman Moussa Ag Assarid, in which he denies that the Movement has renounced its goal of independence. He claims the earlier news was misinformation spread by the Movement’s “detractors.” According to him, the MNLA is “ready to have talks with the Malian authorities” under international supervision, but they “have never renounced [their] demand for the independence of the Azawad.”

The spokesman quoted in the piece above on MNLA’s renunciation of secession demands was a different figure, Ibrahim Ag Assaleh, identified by Reuters as “a senior member of the MNLA.” The contradictory rhetoric either indicates that one of the two men (likely Ag Assaleh) does not genuinely speak for the MNLA, or that the movement is divided over how to proceed.

Somalia: Media Narratives of Progress and Peril

The media narrative of progress in Somalia has really taken hold. Some parts of it are absurd (a dry cleaner?), and some parts can cut both ways, but much of the narrative deserves to be taken seriously. The Transitional Federal Government (TFG) and its allies – the African Union, Kenya, and Ethiopia – have retaken several key towns from the rebel movement al Shabab. Al Shabab fighters are reportedly defecting to the TFG in significant numbers. In terms of formal politics, the true tests will come later this summer when Somalia adopts a new constitution and holds presidential elections. But having a roadmap toward those goals represents some progress in and of itself.

Yet that narrative of progress coexists with another narrative, one that says Somalia is at a crossroads. I find this second narrative more accurate. This narrative asks, “If the TFG and its allies have wrested control of some areas away from al Shabab, what will the government’s rule look like?” On the answer to that question hangs the government’s legitimacy.

Gabriel Gatehouse of the BBC points to three problems: corruption, law and order, and internal TFG politics.

Despite the military advances, the battle for “hearts and minds” is not yet won.

At Mogadishu seaport, we watch two dozen men unloading bundles and boxes from cargo ships and piling them onto their trucks.

All the drivers said they thought life was better under al-Shabab – less corrupt and more secure, so long as you stayed out of politics.

“In al-Shabab areas, we don’t see guns everywhere,” said Mahmood Abdullahi.

“If the government disarmed the militias and got rid of the checkpoints that steal money from us, then we would support the government.”

Yet it is politics that could make or break Somalia’s current momentum towards stability.

Gatehouse goes on to describe the political roadmap Somalia is to follow this summer, which he calls “hugely complicated.”

“The process,” he concludes, “is fraught with potential pitfalls, not least a number of former warlords who have financial and political interests in maintaining instability.”

Ahmed Egal, writing at African Arguments, has an even more negative take on the roadmap. Egal believes this moment could be different from other times when Somalia tried to establish a new government: he notes “sustained military success,” “widespread fatigue” with al Shabab among ordinary people, and a revitalization of civil society. But he does not believe the roadmap offers a way out:

This positive public mood and hope for the future needs to be harnessed in the service of a genuine Somali-driven process of nation-building and state reconstruction.  Yet, this is precisely what the so-called Roadmap ignores and precludes in favour of establishing yet another bogus ‘parliament’ composed of members that have either bought their seats or which have already been bought and paid for. This ‘parliament’ will, in turn, ratify a constitution that has not been put to the people it purports to govern and ‘elect’ a ‘President’ that has succeeded in buying the largest number votes with cash payments, appeals to tribal solidarity and promises of patronage and disbursements of aid monies in the future.

He foresees a “farce” where “erstwhile warlords, Siyad Barre* henchmen, self-appointed civil society leaders, newly minted clan elders and Diaspora carpet-baggers will take their usual places in the drama,” with the presidency, and seats in parliament, going to “the highest bidders.”

If the new government proves to be illegitimate in the eyes of the people, unable to provide law and order, and riven with internal divisions, that does not necessarily mean al Shabab will come roaring back. But neither would it mean genuine stability for Somalia. As Gatehouse and Egal both point out, there are various powerful parties with an interest in prolonged instability, and parties who prefer instability to having someone else consolidate power.

Which narrative – progress or peril – do you find more convincing?

*Siad Barre was president of Somalia from 1969-1991.

The UNSC and the AU Move to Settle the Sudans’ Conflict

After months of basically fruitless negotiations between Sudan and South Sudan following the latter’s independence from the former last July, the countries have recently been flirting with a return to war. South Sudan’s seizure of the Heglig oil field from Sudan (now under Sudanese control once more, production at Heglig has apparently resumed) and Sudan’s bombing campaigns inside South Sudanese territory have caused worldwide concern. This week, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) and the African Union (AU), working in tandem, moved to settle the conflict, the UN by means of threats and the AU with a plan for peace.

Bloomberg on the UNSC:

The United Nations Security Council warned Sudan and South Sudan to halt fighting and settle their differences on splitting revenue from South Sudan’s oil reserves within three months or face possible sanctions.

The 15-member council unanimously passed a resolution today calling for withdrawal of all forces from disputed territories, an end to air raids by the north and a negotiated solution to the issue of payments by South Sudan for shipping oil to Port Sudan in the north.

The resolution reinforces a peace plan outlined by the African Union and comes two weeks after troops from the South withdrew from the disputed oil-producing Heglig region. Support for the resolution came from China, a major buyer of Sudan’s oil, and Russia, which both generally oppose sanctions.

That the UNSC’s resolution applies to South Sudan as well as to Sudan symbolizes for me how much international sympathy South Sudan has lost during the present conflict, although when South Sudan occupied Heglig, the international community’s reaction was complex.

Read the text of the UNSC resolution here.

VOA on the AU:

The African Union says Sudan has accepted an AU roadmap for halting violence and resolving issues with neighboring South Sudan.
[…]
The roadmap gives the two countries 90 days to settle their issues or face binding international arbitration. The AU said South Sudan accepted the plan earlier this week.

Now we will see how threats and plans from the outside affect the reality on the ground. That the UNSC and the AU are working together improves the odds of peace, it seems to me, as does the fact that the AU has been able to get buy-in, at least in speech, from both sides.

Somalia: Military Reform Cannot Succeed Without Political Progress

AP has a nice article out on efforts to train the Somali military, which is technically commanded by the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) but is mostly funded by the US, Italy, and others. The article notes that “Somalia’s armed forces — 10,000 soldiers, 5,000 police and assorted allied militias — have seen some improvements over the past year.” These improvements include new facilities and uniforms, payment methods designed to eliminate embezzlement, and closer contact between Somali soldiers and African Union (AU) peacekeepers. But the Somali military is still a deeply flawed institution:

In recent weeks Somali forces have shot civilians, each other, and looted food aid meant for famine-hit families. Yet these are the forces many aid agencies must rely on to protect vast amounts of food pouring into Somalia. They are also supposed to help the 9,000-strong African Union force secure the country’s capital after Islamist rebels withdrew from bases there this month.

 

But many now fear that with the Islamists gone, Somalia’s armed forces — still organized largely along clan lines — may simply fight each other and try to extort money from the civilians they are meant to protect.

[…]

Most Somali soldiers are loyal to individuals, not to the weak U.N.-backed Somali government, and most brigades are still organized along clan lines. Analysts say unless the government — widely perceived as divided and corrupt — must improve its performance and command loyalty.

That final line contains a typo, but it’s worth elaborating on the implied meaning, which is that military progress and political progress are inextricably linked. There are two points to make.

The first is that the TFG is a political mess. International Crisis Group wrote in February that the TFG “has squandered the goodwill and support it received and achieved little of significance in the two years it has been in office. It is inept, increasingly corrupt and hobbled by President Sharif’s weak leadership.” And that was before the ugly deal that Sharif and Speaker of Parliament Sharif Hassan Sheik Aden concluded in June, when they (with questionable legal basis) extended the TFG’s mandate and postponed presidential elections by a year (to August 2012). The deal also forced out Prime Minister Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, whose initial, public refusal to step down underscored how nasty the government’s infighting had become. If the TFG cannot resolve these crises and establish a legal footing that is credible at home and internationally, will it be able to run an effective military, even with massive outside help?

The second point is that the military’s brutality – which has, despite improvements, continued up to the present – undermines governance in TFG-controlled areas. Much of the commentary on Somalia’s civil war focuses on the brutality of the Shabab rebel movement, against which the TFG is fighting. There is no question that al Shabab frequently commits abuses against civilians. But as Human Rights Watch (HRW) has been pointing out since 2008, the TFG’s soldiers are no saints. This month, HRW’s report on the famine in Somalia assigned blame to all the major actors, saying their indiscriminate use of force was leaving civilians with no one to protect them:

All parties to Somalia’s armed conflict have committed serious violations of the laws of war that are contributing to the country’s humanitarian catastrophe…All sides have used artillery in the capital, Mogadishu, in an unlawful manner that has caused civilian casualties. Al-Shabaab has fired mortars indiscriminately from densely populated areas, and the TFG and AMISOM forces have often responded in kind with indiscriminate counterattacks. As a result, civilians have not known where to turn for protection. While al-Shabaab’s reported withdrawal from Mogadishu may bring some respite to civilians in the capital from the incessant fighting, future abuses are likely unless the warring parties take assertive measures to end them.

A government that does not offer basic protection, it seems to me, will have a hard time commanding more than superficial loyalty in Somalia.

What the TFG has then is a cycle where its political dysfunction exacerbates its military’s abuses, and the military abuses compound challenges of governance. And the political dysfunction, of course, owes much to the structure of the TFG as a government funded from the outside, staffed heavily by the diaspora, and imposed through a foreign (Ethiopian) military occupation. Those underlying problems are not going away. AP’s article ends with a quote by an AU trainer who gives a variation of the “when they stand up, we’ll stand down” line heard so often in Iraq and Afghanistan. Nothing is impossible – the TFG could rule over a prosperous and thriving Somalia five years from now – but given the government’s current problems, it seems unlikely that the Somali military will fully “stand up” any time soon.

I leave you with an Al Jazeera report on civilian suffering in Mogadishu:

Somalia’s Famine: Arguments for Giving Aid

Yesterday, the United Nations declared a famine in the Bakool and Lower Shabelle regions of southern Somalia. While outside observers are in some ways “getting used to famine,” the technical designation of famine carries a dire meaning that goes beyond the typical meaning of “famine.” The UN notes (see first link) that

It is the first time since 1991-92 that the UN has declared famine in a part of Somalia.

Famine is declared when acute malnutrition rates among children exceed 30 per cent, more than two people per every 10,000 die per day, and people are not able to access food and other basic necessities, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

Mr. Bowden warned that malnutrition rates in Somalia are currently the highest in the world, with peaks of 50 per cent in certain areas of the country’s south.

In the two regions of southern Bakool and Lower Shabelle, acute malnutrition rates are above 30 per cent, with deaths among children under the age of five exceeding six per 10,000 per day in some areas. In the last few months, tens of thousands of Somalis have died as a result of causes related to malnutrition, the majority of them children.

Consecutive droughts have affected the country in the last few years while the ongoing conflict has made it extremely difficult for agencies to operate and access communities in the south. Nearly half of the Somali population – 3.7 million people – are now estimated to be in crisis, with an estimated 2.8 million of them in the south.

The answer to the crisis would seem to be aid from the outside, but control of southern Somalia by al Shabab, an Islamic militia designated as a terrorist group by the US State Department, poses a legal and political wrinkle. As Daveed Gartenstein-Ross and Tara Vassefi explain, “two competing desires — to help the Somali people, and to prevent money from reaching militant groups — sets up a real dilemma for American policymakers.”

Washington’s working solution to this dilemma is a conditional delivery of aid.

The deputy administrator of the US Agency for International Development, Donald Steinberg, said the aid must not benefit al-Shabab.

“What we need is assurances from the World Food Programme and from other agencies, the United Nations or other agencies, both public and in the non-governmental sector, who are willing to go into Somalia who will tell us affirmatively that they are not being taxed by al-Shabab, they are not being subjected to bribes from al-Shabab, that they can operate unfettered,” Mr Steinberg told the BBC.

I believe that giving aid to southern Somalia is the right decision for two reasons.

  1. I think it is the morally laudable option. I have been struck, in some of the discussion around the issue, by the lack of compassion some commentators seem to show for ordinary people in southern Somalia. To these commentators, all that seems to matter is denying funds to terrorists, regardless of the human costs. I do not think giving relief will be completely simple and straightforward, but I think it is a worthy thing to do, even given the risks.
  2. I think giving aid is the wise move politically. If the US increases its efforts to help alleviate suffering in Somalia, it will take pressure off of countries like Ethiopia and Kenya, which are already seeing massive surges in refugee flows from Somalia. That will help reduce chaos in the region. Additionally, working in a limited fashion with al Shabab to deliver aid could both improve the image of the US in Somalia and could create future channels for dialogue with al Shabab. In an age when talk of negotiations with the Taliban has become common, is it out of the question to think that at some point the US-backed Transitional Federal Government (TFG) might negotiate with al Shabab?

The response from hardliners, of course, will be that I am naive. I would challenge the hardliners to answer the same charge: was it not naive to expect that Ethiopia’s occupation of Somalia from 2006-2009 would bring an end to political Islam there? Was it not naive to think that backing the TFG would result in anything more than a protracted stalemate, or at best a slow – and possibly meaningless – advance against al Shabab within Mogadishu? Is it not naive to think that 10,000 African Union peacekeepers and a few American drones can undo the effects of years of brutalization and war in southern Somalia? Al Shabab may be in retreat in Mogadishu, but its tenacity – and potential for longevity – makes it likely to retain its importance within the politics of southern Somalia over the medium term. Aid flows can always be stopped. But for now, it seems worthwhile to feed the starving and to see what political opportunities may come of it. I believe Washington has made the right decision here.