Momentum will grow steadily for Mali intervention

Pressure has increased for an international peace support intervention in Mali. On July 5 and July 7 respectively, the UN Security Council (UNSC) and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) called for 'roadmaps' toward the restoration of constitutional order and territorial integrity. The calls came amid a continuing power vacuum in Bamako and following the armed Islamist takeover during June of much of Mali's secessionist northern regions. Interim authorities in Bamako have three weeks to form a national unity government and produce a 'roadmap', and until April 2013 to complete a transition to an elected civilian government.


  • Resolution 2056 states UN concerns and expectations, but provides no mandate for any military operation or sanctions.
  • Malian military junta opposition to foreign intervention or genuine power-sharing is the primary obstacle to mandating a peace operation.
  • Tactical alliances with secular Malian Tuareg factions against unpopular Islamist groups may enable reunification with northern regions.

What Next

The UNSC expects the UN and ECOWAS to provide 'detailed options' for military intervention by July 31. Given the Bamako junta's resistance to involvement of external forces, this (and other) deadlines may well slip. However, northern civil war, popular opposition to Islamist radicals, humanitarian and food security concerns, and broad support for intervention from all neighbouring states and world powers coincide to present an opportune context for a possible peace support operation after Ramadan and the hot season.


Mali has witnessed steady security deterioration since May (see MALI: Tensions deepen as multiple futures take shape - May 28, 2012):

  • On May 21 a mob, angered at prolongation of interim President Dioncounda Traore's 40-day mandate, attacked him while soldiers stood aside. Traore is still in Paris, recovering from a fractured skull.

  • In early June, Islamist and Tuareg separatist factions clashed in Kidal over the imposition of sharia law, two months after the secular National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) declared independence of Mali's three Tuareg-dominated regions as 'Azawad'. Ansar al-Din, a mainly Tuareg Islamist faction, took control of the town.

  • On June 27, the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA), reportedly a more transnational group affiliated to al-Qaida, seized control of Gao from the MNLA, completing the Islamist takeover of 'Azawad' towns.

  • On June 30, Ansar al-Din militants began destroying Sufi Muslim shrines in Timbuktu, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, in what the International Criminal Court has called a war crime.

  • An estimated one-third of the 'Azawad' region's million-strong population has fled to neighbouring countries or southern Mali in the face of fighting, famine and persecution. These include many Tuareg opposed to secession and many from ethnic groups fearful of Islamist justice.

Unlike the MNLA, Ansar al-Din and MUJWA reject secession and advocate the Islamisation of Mali and West Africa respectively. They show no signs of threatening territory beyond 'Azawad'.

Security Council

Resolution 2056 of July 5 recognised the situation as a threat to international peace and security but resisted mandating an ECOWAS intervention:

  • It requests the UN to work with ECOWAS and the African Union (AU) to establish objectives, means and modalities for a 'stabilisation force' by July 31.
  • It calls for completion of restored constitutional order by April 2013, including subordination and reform of the armed forces, restoration of state authority in the north, and fair presidential elections.
  • It is particularly concerned with countering the threat from al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and affiliated Mali Islamist groups and encourages member states to support regional counter-terrorist endeavours.

The UNSC also called for an integrated UN strategy for the Sahel region to tackle security, governance, development, human rights and humanitarian issues.


The UNSC had already requested ECOWAS to provide detailed military plans for any intervention in mid-June. An ECOWAS military technical assessment team is in Bamako, although it is unclear whether the intention is to secure transitional political institutions and actors in Bamako or fight to regain the north.

The ECOWAS-Mali contact group convened in Ouagadougou on July 7. The non-attendance of Traore or Prime Minister Cheick Modibo Diarra appears to indicate the inability of the nominally civilian government to negotiate assistance to Mali on foreign terms. ECOWAS is losing patience with Bamako and has given it until July 31 to establish an inclusive government.

The AU has little to contribute, but helps formally link ECOWAS with Mali's North African neighbours and has made stabilising Mali a priority (see AFRICA: Leadership race will eclipse AU summit aims - July 10, 2012). Its Peace and Security Council (PSC) endorsed an ECOWAS force on June 12 and discussed Mali during the annual UNSC-PSC consultation on June 13. The PSC will discuss Mali in a July 14 meeting.

Mali resistance

The main obstacle to greater foreign intervention is political resistance in Bamako. Junior officers continue to exercise power and remain opposed to anything more than financial, logistic and armament support to Malian forces; they particularly oppose intervention on the southern political transition and army reform. The July 9 announcement of a new 1,200-strong force to protect political leaders was calculated to offset pressure for ECOWAS to fulfil that role.

Regional actors

No state supports the MNLA or Islamists in principle or opposes intervention against them. However, problems elsewhere may be absorbing attention:

  • Algeria. One state with the air power, intelligence and desert-specialised forces to interdict AQIM, Algeria has a strong but not necessarily urgent interest in doing so. It hosts a centre coordinating Algerian, Malian, Mauritanian and Nigerien security forces at Tamanrasset. It may have used its allies and agents to sow dissent among the Azawad separatists and Islamists and track wanted persons.
  • Mauritania. The target of various AQIM attacks since 2005, Mauritania has sought to unify Arab/Maur elements in Mali and made several raids against Islamist targets since 2010. Algerian and Mauritanian foreign ministers met on July 7 to discuss the crisis.
  • Niger. Unlike Mali, Niger depends on its northern regions for mineral wealth (uranium and oil). Its large Tuareg population periodically revolts. Initially cautious about local Tuareg reactions, it is now a key advocate of intervention, likely to be launched from Niger. A battalion of loyalist Malian Tuareg troops and possible MNLA defectors is reportedly cantoned in western Niger.
  • Nigeria. While it shares no border with Mali and has few Tuareg people, Nigeria believes that Boko Haram Islamist radicals are exploiting the Mali situation. Fearing contagion into Niger, Nigeria is now the leading proponent of intervention and would need to contribute the bulk of regional forces.

Burkina Faso also borders Azawad and is ECOWAS mediator on a southern political settlement. With Niger and Nigeria on the Mali contact group are Ivory Coast (ECOWAS and PSC chair), Benin (AU chair) and Togo (currently on the UNSC). Senegal had previously pledged troops.

World powers

France is the main UNSC advocate of intervention, reflecting colonial ties, Algerian influence, AQIM targeting of French citizens, and strategic interest in Nigerien uranium.

US intelligence has long tracked Saharan militancy, training and equipping local militaries and occasionally deploying patrol aircraft. Well-placed to provide funds, logistics, and intelligence, coming presidential elections might prevent it contributing overtly to operations at least before November. No other UNSC permanent member opposes intervention with clearer objectives. China has growing Nigerien mineral interests, while Russia is anti-separatist and anti-Islamist.


Oxford Analytica
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