By Hugo Odiogor, Foreign Affairs Editor, with Agency reports
Watchers of the unfolding drama in Mali, where reports emerged at the weekend that the leader of Boko Haram Islamic Sect was shot and injured in a combat with members of joint task force, may be having a second thought about their misgivings of Nigeria’s decision to participate in the West African military intervention in the drought and poverty stricken Sahel country.
But prospects of the emergence of an Afghanistan-style regime in Northern Mali, when the Tuareg insurgents declared the republic of Azzawad last year, meant that Nigeria and indeed the entire West African sub region was under threat from Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, AQIM, but more importantly, a vital supply link for the Boko Haram insurgents in Norther parts of Nigeria.
These are the unfolding scenario in the theater of war that Mali has become, where French troops moved into air and ground offensive against the rebellious Tuareg tribesmen and their Al Qaeda allies last week.
The contingent of airforce and infantry men from Nigeria arrived Mali on Wednesday as part of the 2,000 strong ECOWAS military team that the UN endorsed to put down the republic of Azzawad and return normalcy to Mali.
French President Francois Hollande said last that his country began air campaign and deployment of ground troops that began to prevent al-Qaeda from turning Mali into a sanctuary for plotting and staging and exporting terror into distant Western capitals.
On Tuesday, President Hollande, said the goal of the operation was “to ensure that when we leave, when we end our intervention, Mali is safe, has legitimate authorities, an electoral process and there are no more terrorists threatening its territory.”
The turmoil in Mali began in March 2012, when the army mutinied and junior officers seized control of the government. The soldiers were demanding that the government should be tough on the Tuareg rebels but the coup was globally denounced. Mali was thrown into turmoil thereafter. This allowed separatist ethnic Tuareg rebels and Islamist hardliners to overrun the ungoverned northern desert and declared the republic of Azzawd.
The Tuareg imposed strict Islamic law and destroyed Muslim religious sites they deemed idolatrous in the fabled city of Timbuktu. Ansar Dine, one of three Islamist rebel groups that control northern Mali, is known to enjoy the support of Algeria. There have been fears of a Mali becoming a terrorist haven in West Africa just as Al-Shabab has used Somali as its operational base in East Africa.
The Theater oF War
Although the United Nations endorsed the use of force to dislodge the Jihadists from Mali, there was a slight delay in providing funds to mobilise West African troops to Mali. This gave the rebels the impetus to advance from their held territories in the north, Diabaly, about 30 miles into government-controlled territory. The French air campaign, was aimed at uprooting the Islamist militant groups, most prominent among them being AQIM, from their strongholds in northern Mali.
Over the weekend, fighter jets from France attacked targets deep in territories controlled by Islamist groups, notably the large city of Gao. The French also targeted sites along the border with Mauritania, as well as Kidal, a remote trading post near Algeria.
The Islamist rebellion grew stronger with the end of the conflict in Libya in 2011, as militants and looted weapons from Libya made their way into Mali. The heavily armed insurgents have been putting pressure on the Malian army, which has lost control of the country’s northern regions.
West African countries, led by Nigeria, Senegal, Niger, Burkina Faso Benin and Ivory Coast, have pledged to dispatch about 2,000 soldiers to Mali. The strength of the West African troops is expected to reach 3300. They are to join French forces in the air and ground offensive against Islamist militants in the desert north.
France has raised its force to 1400 soldiers and sent additional combat helicopters to back special forces fighting alongside Malian soldiers. The Obama administration has endorsed the French airstrikes in Mali which it described as a critical part of a larger Western campaign against al Qaeda and its offshoots. Giving reasons for the US role in Mali, Defense Secretary, Leon Panetta, said, “We’re concerned that anytime al Qaeda establishes a base of operations, while they may not have any immediate plans to attack the United States and Europe, ultimately that remains their objective,” referring to the expansion in Mali by AQIM. “It is for that reason we have to take steps now to ensure AQIM does not get that kind of traction. U.S. and allies have stepped up pressure against al Qaeda fighters, such as in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, the organization has sought out havens elsewhere”.
Panetta said U.S. was helping France with transport, communication and intelligence-gathering capabilities, while the U.K., Belgium and Denmark and Germany were providing transport assistance. American officials said US has begun sharing intelligence and providing logistical support to French warplanes in Mali. The U.S. plans to send surveillance drones for possible action in Mali. But the US has ruled out any combat engagement.
Germany has sent two military transport planes to Bamako to assist in transporting regional troops from the Economic Community Of West African States (ECOWAS). The aircrafts were to pick up medical supplies in France. On Thursday, the European Union said it would accelerate the deployment of its own mission to train Malian soldiers, but ruled out any potential combat engagement.
The Algerian Hostage crisis
Algeria, which has traditionally opposed to intervention, allowed French combat aircraft to fly through its airspace to reach targets in Mali. But the situation took a dangerous turn when dozens of foreigners were taken hostage by an Algerian militant group. Reports said 12 captured foreigners were killed in an Algerian military operation. In another development, a French national was taken hostage in Somalia, while another French national was killed in a failed rescue mission all in Somalia. It should also be pointed out that the tracing of Boko Haram leader to Mali demonstrates how diffused the terrorist network in Africa operates. Ansar Dine, the Islamist group in Mali, has denied any link to the hostage situation in neighbouring Algeria. Malian Foreign Minister Tieman Coulibaly said the hostage-taking revealed the “true face” of jihadist fighters in the region. According to him, “Their project is purely criminal. There is nothing political about it. It’s a criminal enterprise that they want to establish
in a part of the world and subject us all to”. Nigeria’s former Foreign Affairs Minister, Professor Ibrahim Gambari, and the Director General of Nigerian Institute of International Affairs, NIIA, Prof. Bola Akinterinwa, are of view that US and other Western countries should not be putting money down for Africans to go and die in their battle while they mobilise to go and fight for Europeans and Americans.