Scanning the headlines, it would seem that war was all the rage this past week in West Africa.
It began last Saturday in Paris, where the leaders of five West African countries—Nigeria, Niger, Cameroon, Chad, and even tiny Benin—confidently agreed to wage “total war” on Boko Haram, the ruthless Islamist extremists behind the kidnapping of more than 200 schoolgirls last month in northeast Nigeria. Cameroonian President Paul Biya, whose country has seen an uptick in kidnappings in recent months, announced that he had come to France “to declare war on Boko Haram.” French President Francois Hollande, who presided over the meeting, firmly situated violent extremism in Nigeria as a regional threat, arguing that “Boko Haram is an organization that is linked to terrorism in Africa and whose will is to destabilize the north of Nigeria, certainly, and all the neighboring countries of Nigeria and beyond that region.” (This echoes Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan’s about-face, now depicting what he once considered a contained threat as “no longer a local terrorist group.”) The response, the six leaders agreed, was for Nigeria and its neighbors to work together to establish a joint counterterrorism strategy, coordinated patrols, and a channel for sharing intelligence.
Hyperbole and chest-thumping aside, regional military cooperation is a welcome development. Excepting African Union and UN peacekeeping missions, cross-border coordination in Africa is quite rare (Mali-Mauritania and counter-LRA efforts are recent exceptions). Like the hunt for Joseph Kony in Central Africa, U.S. and European intelligence is likely to supplement the regional response to Boko Haram (though the Americans have stopped short of sending U.S. Special Forces to Nigeria, a key component of counter-LRA efforts). Whether this investment will make a difference is yet to be seen, but it is on the whole a significant step forward.
Meanwhile, as countries agreed to work together to wage war against Boko Haram in Nigeria, divisions in Mali threatened (again) to tear the country apart. After fighting broke out on Saturday between government forces and Tuareg rebels in the northern city of Kidal, Malian Prime Minister Moussa Mara told a Reuters reporter: “In light of this declaration of war, the Republic of Mali is henceforth at war.” Saturday’s clashes constitute the most severe breach of an agreement reached last June between the government in Bamako and Tuareg separatists belonging to the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, or MNLA.By Friday, African Union chairman and Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz had brokered a ceasefire between the warring parties—albeit a temporary accord that is unlikely to last without a comprehensive negotiated settlement. But the most concerning development is how the crisis was handled in the interim. According to Reuters:
The Malian army launched an assault on Kidal on Wednesday after clashes broke out last weekend during a visit to the northern town by new Prime Minister Moussa Mara. The action threatened to sink the struggling peace negotiations between the government and the rebels.
Mahamadou Camara, Mali’s communication minister, said on Friday that President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita did not give the order for the army’s failed attempt to retake Kidal. The government has launched an inquiry into the matter.
“We had accepted a ceasefire,” Camara told Reuters. “Our forces decided on their own to go. They did not wait for the political order that should come down from the president to the prime minister and then the minister.”
The impulsive attempt to secure Kidal handed Malian forces a humiliating defeat, which killed at least 20 soldiers. But the embarrassing episode is also indicative of a larger problem: more than a year since French forces recaptured northern Mali from an Islamist insurgency in the Sahara, Mali’s military remains unable to maintain command and control.
And Mali is unlikely to get external help. Although the French mission (Operation Serval) continues in Mali, its mandate is circumscribed. According to a French army spokesman: “We are not there to intervene with regard to tensions between Malians. We are 1,600 (soldiers) in Mali now and their role is to fight armed terrorist groups.” And with MINUSMA limited to peacekeeping, the Malian government is largely on its own to maintain a fragile peace with the MNLA.