The frontline gets wider - by: Dr. Hakeem Baba Ahmed
“The man who burns down his grains store must know where ash is expensive” Hausa Proverb
On the day the Senate gave approval for Nigerian soldiers and airmen to join others from France, a few West African countries and Malian troops to fight a rebellion in Mali, the crisis in that country escalated. French planes strafed rebel positions. Europeans kidnapped by allies of the Malian rebels were killed along with their kidnappers in an attack by Algerian troops. President Jonathan flew out to attend a Summit on the crisis, and the Nigerian Chief of Army Staff, Lt. General Azubuike Ihejirika revealed that some of the insurgents in Nigeria under the generic cover of the Jamaatu Ahlil Sunnah Lidda’awati Wal Jihad (a.k.a. Boko Haram) have received training in Mali. The death of European civilian hostages in the process of being rescued by Algerian troops will raise public awareness in Europe over a new frontline which is likely to suck in not just France, but Europe in possibly a long-drawn conflict with massive potentials for collateral damage.
Mali will be an active theater of war in the next few weeks, months, or years. The rebels may be routed by the superior weaponry and intelligence of the African International Support Mission to Mali (AFISMA) in a matter of weeks, or the forces of Africa and Europe could be tied down in a prolonged conflict with an enemy that has roots and support in many neighbouring countries. If the intelligence suggests that the military defeat of a group of two to three thousand men under arms will be the end of this problem, it had better be very good intelligence indeed. If it suggests the possibility of the defeat and dispersal of an armed group, a radical improvement in the capacity of the Malian army in the north, a sustained and ultimately successful campaign of AL-Qaida in the Maghreb (AQIM), and a marked improvement in the capacities of the basic institutions of the Malian state to prevent collapse, it should also foresee a prolonged engagement by all the parties currently in Mali.
It is important that this strategic intervention is informed by quality intelligence and strong strong political will to succeed, for a number of reasons. First, Mali represents the visible evidence of a problem which had built up over the last few years, feeding partly on local and age-long grievances, and partly on the massive restiveness among the Muslim population in Asia Middle East and Africa that had much to do with the US, NATO countries and Israel. It is vital that the linkages between pockets of activities in muslim activities are understood, because they represent a challenge to any strategy which seeks piecemeal solutions. Second, the terrain and the context of this engagement will be decisive in the manner it plays out. France may believe that it has mastered the Sahara owing to long-term preparations and commitments, but it is very doubtful if it can sustain a prolonged war against natives who are likely to fight as guerillas once the opening skirmishes are over. African troops fighting in a desert environment may be able to achieve short-term objectives, but political will of leaders and availability resourses may be difficult to sustain in a war that goes beyond a few months.
Thirdly, every one of Mali’s six neighbours is vulnerable to collateral damage. A quick and decisive military victory may give the impression of a solution, but in Algeria, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, Libya and one or two other African countries, it will take more than the defeat of the Malian rebels to obliterate the incipient or active resistance, or the intricate linkages which bind much of the activities of insurgencies or rebellions, or their roots. A good appreciation of what makes the Sahel region and northern reaches of West Africa fertile breeding grounds for instability and organized violence needs to be built. The Sahara is an intimidating asset and liability even to the communities which have lived for centuries in it, but it cannot, on that account alone, explain why it is currently the focus of such intense activities that threaten the sovereignty or even survival of many countries in or around it, and by its own estimation, the strategic interests of the US and its European allies. A defense strategy that limits the vulnerability of nations and interest to the unique challenges of the vast Sahara must evolve out of this adventure, or if will merely fuel more instability.
There is yet another potential danger which needs to be addressed by this initiative. Containing rebel activities in Mali could trigger more hostile activities against governments and western interests in the region. The fragility of states such as Niger, Burkina Faso, Mauritania, Chad and even the Nigerian state (which is being severely challenged by a home-grown insurgency) will be a major factor in evolving a broad strategy. The worst outcome of a containment strategy which merely limits itself to rolling back the rebels in Mali will be the intensification of violence in countries and areas where it has already taken root. Nigeria, Algeria and Libya are particularly vulnerable, and all countries bordering them or which provide routes or shelters will remain targets of insurgencies and rebellions. Mali itself is particularly vulnerable, and the relatively-easy collapse of the democratically- elected government, as well as the present role of the military need to be addressed.
There will be legitimate expectations that the combined forces of Europe and West Africa will defeat the northern rebel army in Mail. It will also be reasonable to expect that some far-reaching steps will be taken to address Tuareg grievances and integrate than into the political process in Mail in the longer term. By the same token, it should be expected that AQIM and its related interests will fight back. If the assertions that Ansar Al-Din and some elements of AQIM are already active in Nigeria, Mali, Chad, Niger, Algeria and Libya are valid, there will have to be initiatives by all these countries to deal with their threats as they manifest locally. While they will need to collaborate to improve defense of borders and movements of small arms and sophisticated weapons in the vast Sahara, strong political will has to be deployed behind finding the roots of threats, and solutions to them.
For Nigeria, the irony would not have been lost that it is sending over 1000 troops to Mali at a time when its own forces are being pinned down in streets and highways by an illusive insurgency. Nigeria is offering the lives and limbs of its soldiers to be part of a grand strategy to bring peace and stability to Mali, at a time when a large chunk of its own territory has become an active frontline. The military admitted that soldiers on their way to Kaduna to join others flying to Mali were attacked in Kogi State, with fatalities. The revered Emir of Kano was attacked in broad daylight, again with fatalities. These events may or may not have any links with Nigeria’s role in Mali, but it will be important not to assume that there are no connections.
Nigeria’s contribution to rolling back a rebellion in Mali will be explained in terms of its strategic national interests. This will make sense in the light of information that many members of the insurgency have received training in Mali. These trained people will in turn attack the Nigerian state and population. A relatively symbolic contribution to a West African and European initiative to limit the incursion of militant Islam in the Sahel and Maghreb may escalate the Nigerian problem. This is all the more reason why the Jonathan administration should be more active in the search for options in the manner it relates to this insurgency. Just about everyone who has looked at this problem critically says that it has deep roots in bad governance, poverty and unresolved grievances. The modus operandi of the security agencies is also creating far more enemies than friends.
France and a few European countries, with US intelligence, have committed themselves to a campaign to roll back a rebellion, which may achieve short-term goals, but is uncertain in terms of the possibility of finding long-term solutions. Virtually all the West African nations contributing troops are doing so out of the obligation to put out a fire in a fellow ECOWAS member’s country, but they are acutely aware that it could flare up in their own backyard. If the campaign is short, sharp and effective, they would congratulate themselves. If, however, it is prolonged by the nature of the enemy, or the appearance that Europe and the US want to occupy Mali for an extended period and possibly tap into its fabled wealth in mineral resources, then political support will be difficult to sustain behind this campaign. Nigeria needs to assess its role in this campaign very carefully, and take steps to limit its damage at home. We do not want to be on the losing side in Mali, and fail to win the battle in Nigeria.