Mali: Transition Falters, ECOWAS Contemplates Military Intervention

Following the March 22 military coup in Mali, regional pressure on the military government prompted the launch of an ostensibly civilian interim government in April. That government, headed by former head of the National Assembly Dioncounda Traore, was supposed to organize new elections and pave the way for a permanent civilian government. But the transition has been dogged by problems, especially the war against rebels in northern Mali and the persistent political influence of military coup leader Captain Amadou Sanogo.

Now the transition’s 40-day term is set to expire (either on May 20 or May 22, depending on what legal interpretation prevails – see Whitehouse’s linked piece below), and confusion has grown: Sanogo wants to hold a convention to choose a new interim leader, but Traore wants to remain in power for twelve months. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), a major source of external pressure on Mali, prefers the latter option. Mali-based journalist Martin Vogl says this is “not [a] good sign.” Dr. Bruce Whitehouse, meanwhile, sees a pervasive distrust of politicians at work in Mali; in some quarters an anti-politician feeling seems to boost support for the junta and its “extra-institutional approaches” to politics.

Where does the confusion in Mali leave ECOWAS? The regional bloc says it is ready to take various steps: reimposing sanctions and even ordering a military intervention. ECOWAS’ threats should be taken seriously; the organization has acted more decisively during Mali’s crisis than many, including me, had expected. ECOWAS is already moving to send peacekeepers to Guinea-Bissau, site of another recent coup.

Is an intervention in Mali feasible? I have heard it would not be without external support. ECOWAS countries, including regional giant Nigeria, might not have the financial or military resources to mount such an operation. External support, however, may be forthcoming:

Kadre Desire Ouedraogo, the president of the ECOWAS Commission, says ECOWAS is just waiting for authorization from the United Nations to order the intervention.

“A strategic plan has been drawn up, and if the ECOWAS force has to be deployed, we need a go-ahead from the UN Security Council,” Mr. Ouedraogo said.

The US is ready to support an ECOWAS intervention with logistics and military planners, says US Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Johnnie Carson.

“The US fully supports Ecowas’s mediation efforts to help Mali return to democratic rule,” Mr. Carson said in a conference call with reporters. “We have been willing to provide logisticians and planners” to an ECOWAS operation, if the Malian military does not cede power, Carson added. “But the mission and role must be defined before we make any kind of commitment.”

I do not expect we will see large numbers of American or French troops on the ground in Mali. But the possibility of a Western-backed (“backing,” in this case, seems to mean financial and logistical support) ECOWAS intervention in Mali is certainly on the table.

13 thoughts on “Mali: Transition Falters, ECOWAS Contemplates Military Intervention

  1. Considering the political weakness of the coup’s position (they utterly failed to stop the Tuareg advance, lost critical international support immediately and have little political experience) I’m very surprised by how they’ve held on so long. The political parties in Mali must be much more distrusted than I had thought possible, especially in a semi-democratic state.

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  3. I am curious as to if the intervention would last long enough to just secure small portions of the country (urban areas) from the Tuaregs, and more rural aspects would be left to their own devices, or do you think ECOWAS would settle in for a longer campaign (Disclaimer – I am not a Mali watcher, but certainly getting more curious) – any thoughts?
    (also – your CSM link didn’t work, it just took me to the CSM landing page, not a specific article about the US/Mali)

    • Hi Ingrid, thanks for commenting. So far I’ve heard very few details about how the intervention would work. I am not sure they have a serious plan yet.

      Thanks for flagging that CSM link, I’ll look into it.

      • I cannot see ECOWAS willingly fighting a long war against the Tuareg forces in Mali. It would be one thing to remove a coup-installed government (and even that would be dangerous) but to willingly send a multinational to fight what would be a long campaign against several heavily armed groups who have strong nationalist claims? ECOWAS might be bold enough to take back a few of the cities but I don’t think they would have the patience or money to maintain a presence in the north of Mali for long.
        Besides that the U.S. probably doesn’t want to get involved in another African war that might push the Tuareg factions to radical Islam.

      • Gyre,

        ECOWAS has done exactly what you think is impossible before. In fact, she has done it twice: in Liberia and in Sierra Leone. In both countries ECOMOG chased out the coup plotters and continue with the war of attrition for more than a decade.

        Note that the above occur at a time Nigeria (the country accounts for almost 90 per cent of the manpower and funding of both campaigns, costing the country about $12 billion dollars) was considered a pariah state receiving little or no support from the international community.

      • I was surprised by the durability of the ECOMOG missions, but the gains were less impressive (especially in Liberia) and neither went on for over a decade. Still, considering the region and nature of the missions even lasting more than a single year is more than I had thought they would do.
        However the nature of the problems in Mali make me think that member states will want a limited goal and preferably one that doesn’t commit them to trying to retake all of Mali.

      • Gyre,

        Liberia went on for over a decade. Same with Sierra Leone. As I write, there are still Ecomog troops in those regions. Please appreciate how this areas were in the 1990s. It was really a jungle an at that time the West did not care what happened to Africa. Africa was abandoned in favour of the newly liberated ex-communist states of eastern Europe.

        These two countries security arms were destroyed. Ecomog (led by Nigeria) build them back, trained their security forces (Police and Military) and stayed their for a while to maintain the peace. There is a an extremely huge improvement in the conditions of these two countries in the 1990s.

        But, I think I will have to take my initial remarks back. I don’t think public opinion in Nigeria will allow for prolong engagement again. The words on the street is that Nigeria did not GAIN ANYTHING for the loss of lives and money spent (estimated at $12 billion) in entrenching democracy in Liberia and Sierra Leone. Instead, Westerners who were just watching the events rushed in, clandestinely, to sign very lucrative mining and oil deals even while negotiations and peace-keeping mission was still going on to keep the peace.

      • Nigeria hasn’t had a problem intervening in Anglophone countries. With Francophone nations, it is a different story.

        Anyway, Nigeria doesn’t have the will, manpower or resources to commit to an open-ended military engagement.

      • Chavuka,

        Even in the 1990s, Nigeria did not also have the resources to embark on such an open ended peace-keeping mission, yet we spend billions of Dollars to establish democracies in other countries while we were still under a military dictatorship.

        Either our leaders are wiser now (for example, refusing to send troops to Somalia. I don’t think 1980s and 1990’s Nigerian leaders would have hesitated to do so) or the sudden rise in the influence of public opinion will be responsible for embarking on an open-ended peace-keeping mission. Not surely resources, ‘we are knowing for cutting of the nose to spite the face’.

        I also do not think that it will be difficult for Nigerians to operate in Francophone countries. It just that we have not had the opportunity of doing so.

  4. @Gyre – that was exactly how I saw the situation. I couldn’t see any situation where a sustained campaign would benefit any external parties and would, in fact, probably just further anger people and push them away. I questioned whether they would even go to the north at all. Thanks for the insight!

  5. Pingback: An Armed Intervention in Northern Mali? | Sahel Blog

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