In June, the African Union (AU) Peace & Security Council called upon the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) to endorse the deployment of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Standby Force to ensure the security of the transitional institutions; restructure and reorganize the Malian security and defense forces; and restore State authority over the northern part of the country and combat terrorist and criminal networks. In response, the Security Council passed Resolution 2056 (2012) this past Thursday, but stopped short of authorizing an ECOWAS force to intervene in Mali. Instead, the Security Council expressed its readiness to “further examine the request of ECOWAS once additional information has been provided regarding the objectives, means and modalities of the envisaged deployment and other possible measures.” In other words, the UN has not ruled out endorsing military intervention in Mali with a UN mandate, but if it is to do so at some point in the future, it needs some sense that ECOWAS has thought through this rather complicated affair.
And the Security Council has a point. Amid concerns that Mali’s north may become the “next Somalia” or the “Afghanistan of West Africa,” groups affiliated with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) (Ansar Dine and MUJWA – Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa) continue to hold territory – including major cities in the north. Meanwhile, the transition from military to constitutional rule in the south has largely failed, and there are few indications that the political vacuum that exists in Bamako will be resolved any time soon. These concurrent crises make a military intervention of any kind very complex.
Nigeria, Niger, and Senegal have pledged to provide most of the 3,300 troops that ECOWAS hopes to deploy. Their initial mission would be to bolster Mali’s armed forces and stabilize political institutions, and turn to retaking the north if ongoing negotiations with Tuareg rebels in Burkina Faso fail. However, they may not even get that far. Persistently opposed to foreign intervention, coup leader Captain Amadou Sanogo has requested that Mali’s army receive foreign support – but not foreign troops – to restore Mali’s territorial integrity. But the small problem with this is that, at least for the United States, it is technically illegal to allocate security force assistance when a military has seized power by unconstitutional means. Furthermore, giving into Sanogo’s wishes means the international community would be, in essence, sanctioning his unconstitutional seizure of power, while diminishing its leverage to get him out of the picture. It’s a game of chicken – with each side seeing how bad things up north can get before the other gives in.
While the UN mulled authorization of an ECOWAS intervention this week, about 2,000 protesters demonstrated in Bamako, calling for a military intervention in the north. According to Al-Jazeera, a leader of a northern citizens’ collective was quoted as saying “If the army doesn’t want to go to war, then give us the means to liberate our territory!” Mali’s National Assembly joined in, issuing a statement calling for the “restoration of territorial integrity,” and calling on the Malian people for “implacable resistance to the occupation and boosting solidarity by all possible means.”
At least in rhetoric, the Malian army is on board with restoring the country’s territorial integrity. Prime Minister Cheick Modibo Diarra conducted a review of the army in Ségou in early June, and military preparations were observed in Sévaré, which is just south of the de facto border of Azawad and what remains of Mali. Yet, just like before the coup, the armed forces will be unevenly matched in the fight for the north. In fact, one can argue that they are worse off than before – still lacking the training, equipment, and air support that contributed to their inability to defeat the Tuareg rebels before the coup. Except now, in addition to being cut off from security force assistance from foreign partners, it faces a plethora of armed groups – some of which possess arms not only from Libya, but also from the stockpiles abandoned by the Malian army as it fled south in late March/early April.
In closing, I would highly recommend reading two great sources on political/military intervention in Mali. The first is “Why Mali’s Path to Peace Must Start in the South” by Todd Moss. This is a brief post written about two weeks ago that lays out several helpful assumptions about Mali’s distinct but inter-related crises, and offers a sequenced approach to addressing these crises. It’s well-thought out and well-argued, and gets at some of the difficult issues that need to be resolved in order to improve the situation in Mali. The second is “Intervening in Mali: West African Nations Plan Offensive against Islamists and Tuareg Rebels” by Andrew McGregor. The most helpful parts of this article are where the author analyzes the likely current capabilities of Mali’s army, gives an overview of the various armed groups that are proliferating in northern Mali (aside from AQIM, MUJWA, and the MNLA), and offers a nascent concept of operations for how Mali would go about recapturing the north – and how foreign military support might fit into these plans.
After last month’s “transition” to civilian rule, the military junta’s statements undermining the spirit of said transition, the subsequent arrests of key political, military, and business leaders, and this week’s attempted counter-coup in Mali, it occurred to me that perhaps ECOWAS isn’t capable of providing a solution to Mali’s political crisis. Sure, ECOWAS was able to put a civilian face on what essentially remains a military regime, but it is increasingly clear that Interim President Dioncounda Traoré and Interim Prime Minister Cheikh Modibo Diarra are the heads of the interim government, but the National Committee for the Restoration of Democracy and State (CNRDRE) is the neck.
But if ECOWAS is unable to solve the political crisis in Bamako (which is a necessary precondition for solving the crisis of territorial integrity in the north), what’s the next step? My international security bias came out when I tried to think through which international organizations might be capable of coercing the CNRDRE to return to the barracks. What about the African Union? No, they’re too busy with Somalia and the Sudans. What about the United Nations? No, they’re too busy with Syria et al. Then it occurred to me that because of my background, I might be thinking about it all wrong. What if the solution to Mali’s political crisis lies inside Mali – particularly within civil society? (This may be a no-brainer to most people, but again, my focus is security: death, destruction, world domination, etc).
Not knowing much about the chances of a domestic backlash to the CNRDRE leading to the military’s marginalization and the true transition to civilian rule, I posted the following question as a comment on Bruce Whitehouse’s post “Fears, foreigners, and falsehoods”:
One thing that’s starting to occur to me is that ECOWAS appears to have no teeth in its dealings with the CNRDRE. Does that mean that… it may ultimately fall to civil society to get them to return to the barracks? I can’t get a good sense of the balance of support for/opposition to the CNRDRE, but do you think there’s a threshold the junta will cross that would get the population to apply pressure on them?
I’ve copied Bruce’s response below because I think he highlights some important points:
For now I’d say the junta still has significant popular support at least in Bamako, strong enough for it to withstand pressure from both Malian civil society and ECOWAS. Many ordinary Bamakois have zero faith not only in their political class but in their political institutions too, which in their view have never served the people’s needs. Hence the idea of throwing out the whole state apparatus and starting over from scratch is something they find appealing. Especially after the events of this week, and given that nobody here supports an ECOWAS intervention, it won’t be easy to sideline Captain Sanogo in the weeks and months to come.
I do think, however, that there are two interrelated sources of pressure on the junta now from the population. One, Malians are starting to get the impression that junta leaders are uninterested in addressing pressing national problems, and are only concerned with shoring up their own power. Two, Malians are growing impatient with the junta’s lack of action in addressing Mali’s de facto partition. The army’s primary responsibility is to protect the nation’s territorial integrity, yet since early April it has been exclusively focused on protecting the junta and arresting its enemies. If these trends continue, the CNRDRE will find itself in trouble.
Therefore, if the CNRDRE continues to prioritize staying in control and Mali remains de facto partitioned, domestic resistance to the junta could emerge. However, the downside of this pathway is that we don’t know how long it will take for the junta to wear out its welcome in Bamako, or whether civil society would actually be more effective at pressuring the junta to stand down than ECOWAS has been to date. Regardless of these political issues getting resolved, the longer the government and military ignore the situation in the north, the more difficult it will be to reassemble what was once the Malian state.
Yesterday, the International Maritime Bureau’s Piracy Reporting Centre released its quarterly report on Piracy and Armed Robbery Against Ships, which highlighted the rise in pirate attacks in West Africa – mainly in Nigeria. While there were 10 reported pirate attacks in Nigeria for all of 2011, in the first three months of 2012, there have already been 10 attacks. Attacks perpetrated by Nigerian pirates have also been occurring elsewhere in the region, such as the one additional attack in neighboring Benin. Furthermore, incidents are occurring further away from land (in excess of 70 nm), which suggests that Nigerian pirates are using fishing vessels as motherships to increase their range of operations. This is a contrast to attacks perpetrated in the early days of Niger Delta piracy, which were actually cases of armed robbery at sea – cases where vessels were attacked in port or in Nigeria’s territorial waters.
The expanding range of piracy in the Gulf of Guinea emphasizes the ever-increasing need for not only increased maritime security capabilities of regional countries, but also greater regional coordination and information-sharing to address this transnational problem. However, in the Gulf of Guinea, there are many challenges associated with regional cooperation to counter maritime threats, including insufficient maritime assets (i.e., air, sea, surveillance, and communications) to pursue suspected pirates or respond to information that suspicious activity is afoot in their waters; disparities in maritime assets and capabilities due to a lack of continuous funding from land-focused governments; lack of appropriate relationships or communications mechanisms to share information on real-time cross-border illicit activity; and finally, the operational seam between the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS), whose member states are most affected by maritime insecurity in the Gulf of Guinea.
I always appreciate opportunities to learn about these issues up close, and as luck would have it, I was able to do so when I observed a multinational counter-piracy exercise from an operations center in Douala, Cameroon last March. After the exercise’s pre-sail, I was offered the chance to ride the pilot boat from the port of Douala out to the point where the Wouri River meets the Atlantic Ocean in order to meet the NNS Kyanwa that had sailed down from Nigeria. The next morning, I awoke to reports that heavily armed pirates had sailed down from the Niger Delta, all the way up the Wouri River (past the Cameroon Navy base), moored their speedboats, walked into the Bonaberi neighborhood, and proceeded to rob two banks for a few hours before hopping back in their boats, speeding down the river, and heading back towards the Niger Delta.
Having traveled part of that path the day prior (although at a much slower speed than pirates in speedboats), I gained an appreciation for how long it took to travel between the port of Douala and the point where the Wouri meets the Atlantic. And although there had been three similar bank robberies in Limbe, Cameroon in September 2008, I was also pretty amused at the sheer irony of having several warships either in the port of Douala or anchored in the Atlantic for a multinational counter-piracy exercise…when a cross-border pirate attack occurred. Fortunately (or unfortunately for the pirates), Cameroon’s Bataillon d’Intervention Rapide (BIR) caught up with the pirates just before they entered Nigeria and either killed or apprehended many of them after a firefight.
In spite of the outcome of this attack, this story calls attention to the fact that individual countries cannot address this transnational challenge alone. In order to facilitate regional cooperation on maritime security, U.S. Africa Command and the Africa Center for Strategic Studies coordinated a Maritime Safety and Security Conference last month that brought together over 250 members of over 20 countries that are members of ECOWAS and ECCAS. This conference was a continuation of earlier efforts to increase regional cooperation, and allowed ECOWAS and ECCAS to respond to United Nations Security Council Resolution 2018 (2011) and United Nations Security Council Resolution 2039 (2012), which encouraged regional organizations to develop cooperation mechanisms to combat piracy in the Gulf of Guinea. The conference ended with the signing of a communiqué to recommend that ECCAS, ECOWAS and their member states continue to develop a Memorandum of Understanding and Operational Agreement and submit it to their respective Regional Economic Community Secretariats for eventual adoption by their member states.
Clearly, regional states are recognizing the importance of a regional maritime security framework that would focus on coordinating each country’s maritime security operations and facilitate information-sharing on ongoing pirate attacks. And although these countries will have to overcome the aforementioned challenges to regional cooperation, we will continue to see examples of increased cooperation due to the increasing scope and scale of piracy in the Gulf of Guinea.
For additional information on maritime strategy at the level of the African Union (AU), check out this part of their webpage. Also, for a discussion of some of the efforts that have taken place within the AU and subregional organizations to address maritime threats, consult Toward an African Maritime Economy: Empowering the African Union to Revolutionize the African Maritime Sector.