By Hugo Odiogor, Foreign Affairs Editor
Less than one month into its military offensive against the Al-Qaeda backed Islamist group in Mali, France has been sounding it loud that it would hands off the chase of the rebel group in the Sahel.
It wants African troops to take over from where it stopped in its perceived benevolent effort to chase away the atavistic hordes that are using Islam to commit crimes against humanity.
President François Hollande insists that the reason for its planned early withdrawal is to avoid being seen as a crusading power in its former colony. This was the same reason that Paris used after its four-day military campaign in Mauritania in July, last year, where Islamists from the ranks of Al-Qaeda in Maghreb (AQIM) were messing things up there.
The Islamist group in the Maghreb is made of returnee – fighters in Afghanistan in the 1990s where they fought against the Soviet invasion. There were also some home grown fighters that sprang up in Algeria during the insurgency and militancy that arose after Muslim Brotherhood was denied power by the military backed government in the country in the 1990s .
France took the initiative to launch air strikes in northern Mali on January 10, 2013, after the United Nations, UN, bowed to Western pressure to use force in Mali to disperse the Islamists that have swindled the separatist Tuaregs fighting the Malian government for self rule since the 1990s.
Why France is fighting
Before the January 10, 2013 offensive, France has been at war with the Islamist group in northern Mali. In fact, on July 27, 2012, France formally declared war on AQ IM after the Islamists killed a 78-year-old Frenchman that was captured in Mali. The Islamists had found a safe haven in the Sahel-Sahara desert where they had a lunched their bid to carve out a territory and expand their international jihad agenda.
They used the desert as a region to traffic in hard drugs to make money for their insurgency. They also made kidnapping of Western citizens a pre-occupation because it gave them steady revenue from ransom. The government of Algeria, which had chased them to the mountainous region in the south, had been able to keep a close eye on them.
The government of Mali had, over the years, been troubled by drought, famine and desert activities, that it could not bother so much with the activities of the Islamists who took up the impoverished northern part of the West African state.
The ding-dong battle with the Islamists became a real threat after the military coup in Mali in March 2012, which drew criticism from member-countries of African Union, European Union and the United States. The confusion emboldened the Islamists which had its numbers enlarged by the return of fighters who went to Libya to defend the late Col. Muamar Gaddafi’s regime.
The south ward push of the militants and the ultimate declaration of the State of Azawad alarmed the West, especially the US, which believed that France had been sloppy in its post-cold war policy in Africa, where AQIM had been allowed to gain such a stronghold in the region as to serve as a safe ground for an international jihadist group. But, over the years. France and Algeria had been at the receiving end of the AQIM operations in North Africa and in the Sahel Sahara, where acts of kidnapping and terrorism had thrived.
To flush out the Islamists from the key towns of Diably, Gao, Mpoti, Kidal Timbuctu, France had mobilised about 2,000 troops to Mali. Of this number, about 1,800 troops are expected from its legion in Chad. This contingent entered into Kidal after the French troops liberated the last major town from the Islamist rebels in northern Mali.
The capture of Kidal is strategic because of the airport there. The France deployment has been supported by addition 3,300 African troops drawn from different West African countries namely Nigeria, Niger, Bukina Faso, Senegal and Chad. The multinational troops are supporting the embattled Malian soldiers that were beaten flat by the well armed and well equipped Islamists.
The French game
Diplomatic watchers are worried by the ploy of France which is to hand over the war it started to African countries that are less prepared to take up such a responsibility. Apart from their weak financial positions, the African countries have not sorted out which country should lead the operation once France takes a back seat. They are also saddled with financial and logistic constraints to take over the responsibility of clearing the Islamists from Mali.
First, the United Nations that endorsed the use of force to clear the Islamists has not provided the much needed funds for the operation. While the US, UK, Canada and other member states of EU have restricted their involvement only to provision of logistic support, intelligence and humanitarian assistance, Nigeria has announced that it will provide about N70 billion to the Mali war even when African countries have not decided on their financial commitement. Nigeria is working from a panicky position that have been forced on it by the Boko Haram insurgency which many observers argue has been receiving substantial support from AQIM.
France is worried that its action in Mali will force French Muslims of African descent to attack its nationals and interest. Ms Anne Cruidicelli, a consultant with National Security Specialist on Terrorism said France is being singled out at the moment by extremist groups that accuse Paris of wanting to occupy a Muslim territory.
The former colonial power is also weary of the huge financial commitment the Mali war could force on it when the war enters the phase of guerrilla warfare, especially at a time that its domestic economy and that of entire Europe is in shambles.
It is important to state that the French military action was not borne out of a desire to assist the people of Mali deal with the AQIM but rather a selfish desire to stop the attacks on its citizens and economic interests in Algeria. It is also true that the US, UK and other Western nations see the action of France as helping to destabilise Al-Qaeda from building a base in Sahel- Sahara after it had been booted out of Afghanistan.
Having scattered the Islamists for the time being, France wants to beat a quick retreat and allow the Africans to fight their battle. What is unfolding in Mali is another classical case of western hypocrisy. First, the US, and its EU allies have limited their role in Mali to that of training troops from African countries, offering logistic support in terms of providing transport; intelligence and humanitarian assistance to some of the local population that have been affected by the war.
None of the member- countries of EU or US is sending troops even for non-combat operations, peace-keeping to secure the territories gained from the Islamists. Even the UN has not provided financial assistance to the African countries that are sending troops to Mali, yet the interests of US, UK, France and other EU member countries are not in opposition to those of the African countries going to Mali.
All of them are committed to halting the spread of Islamists and their criminal activities in Sahel-Sahara. France, on its part, wants to avoid the American experience in Iraq and Afghanistan where the second wave of the war in the two countries degenerated into a guerrilla warfare.
France dreads fighting such a battle in the desert with Islamist groups, hence it wants to pull its troops back from the frontline while the African troops who are not so experienced in desert warfare will take over. In the event of such a change of guard, many observers believe that Nigeria, as the most dominant power in the sub region, will be asked to bite the French fries, without any adequate financial compensation.
Nigeria is certain to take up the role because it will provide those in power in Abuja the excuse to squander public resources, but more importantly, engaging the Islamists in Mali could be an extension of the war against Boko Haram in northern Nigeria. But the danger is that allowing France to bail out of Mali will further expose Nigeria to the wrath of Islamist groups that may see Nigeria as being used by Western nations to attack Muslim territories in Mali.
The third phase of the war in Mali will be that of re-integration, reconciliation of the warring groups and holding a democratic election. The US is using the fact that Mali is under a military regime to deny playing a strong role in the imbroglio, yet the French-led military action is to serve the Western interest to tame Al-Qaeda in any part of the world, but not necessarily helping Africans to resolve issues of poor governance, massive poverty and under development, which are the hall marks of the conflict in the Sahel.