To succeed, however, this mission will need to draw lessons from the other side of the continent, where African peacekeepers have had notable results pacifying Somalia. Their experience suggests how an effective partnership between African nations and external powers, such as the U.S. and European Union, can create the space for promising political solutions.
Mali is like Somalia in that, in both places, Muslim extremists took advantage of political turmoil to seize large areas of the country. In each case, African countries agreed to send soldiers to neutralize the threat — a way around Western reluctance to commit troops to far-off places, and a local solution more likely to be acceptable to African populations. Yet the forces largely floundered when left to their own resources.
Deployed in 2007, the African Union Mission in Somalia began to thrive four years later once it was provided logistical support by the UN, technical advice by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, management expertise by the EU, and funding from countries including the U.S. and U.K.
The Security Council decision will convert the Mali-based African mission, which apart from a contingent from Chad has played no serious role in the French-led fighting there, into an official UN peacekeeping force.
This will ensure that the Mali-based African troops will get the training, financing and equipment as well as the logistical and command-and-control support they have lacked. And it will increase their number from 6,300 to 11,200. The idea is for the blue helmets to finish pacifying northern Mali as the French, who have driven the extremists from the cities and towns, reduce their forces from 4,000 to a 1,000-strong backup contingent.
That may be the easy part. Before it can have genuine stability, Mali will need a legitimate government, national reconciliation and strong Malian security forces.
The country’s interim president, Dioncounda Traore, who took power a year ago from coup leader Captain Amadou Sanogo in a deal brokered by Burkina Faso, lacks a mandate to accommodate the demands of long-disenfranchised Malians in the rebellious north. Thus, new elections are essential.
However, ensuring credible voting will be a challenge — bigger than the one posed by the indirect presidential election in Somalia last September, which led to the establishment of a legitimate new government and the beginnings of a functioning state. The 175,000 Malian refugees outside the country and the 282,000 within it who have been displaced by fighting must somehow be enabled to vote. With surviving extremists hiding out in the north, voters and polling places will have to be safeguarded.
The election, like stability, is just a step. A new government needs to get quickly to the next order of business in Mali — negotiating with northerners over matters such as government services in their region, better integration into security forces and autonomy for local authorities.
Western powers could sweeten these talks with even small offers of aid, given the north’s sparse population (1.3 million). Programs that provide mobile schooling and health care for migratory communities would help, as would small-scale Niger River irrigation projects. The UN will sponsor a meeting in Brussels this week to encourage donors to commit to a range of stabilization and development projects.
The sooner that Malians are able to police and secure themselves, the better. The experience in Somalia has shown that while African troops may be received better than non-Africans, they are still seen as meddling foreigners. Resentments can lead to precisely the kind of extremism that troops were deployed to combat. There is a chance the peacekeepers’ gains in Somalia will be reversed if they are not consolidated soon by effective national security forces.
To mitigate that risk in Mali, the EU has begun a training program for the army. The failure of a previous U.S. effort, which ended up training coup leader Sanogo, only emphasizes the importance of this effort. Divisions within the force are rife. Discipline is poor. Reports of human-rights abuses are fairly common.
If Somalia offers an opportunity to create a model for turning around a failed state, Mali presents the chance to improve on it.
Xafiiska Wararka Midnimo, firstname.lastname@example.org