Africa’s Sahel Region: Beyond the Mali Coup

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Malian soldiers and security forces gather at the offices of the state radio and television broadcaster after announcing a coup d'etat, in the capital Bamako, 22 March 2012. (Photo: REUTERS - Malin Palm)

By: Mourad Traboulsi

Published Friday, March 23, 2012

The Sahel is fast becoming an international hotspot. A combination of Al-Qaeda bases, a Tuareg rebellion, and abundant resources have turned the region into a ticking time bomb.

Algiers – The military coup which overthrew the President of Mali, Amadou Toumani Toure, reflects the fragile and tense situation in the Sahel region of Africa, which is increasingly heading into lawlessness.

This is the third in a series of violent leadership changes in the last four years in the Sahel. The first was a coup that overthrew President Sidi Mohamed Ould al-Sheikh Abdullah in Mauritania in the summer of 2008, the second coup overthrew Mamadou Tandja in Niger in February 2010, and of course there was the Libyan uprising which overthrew Muammar Gaddafi’s regime after eight months of war.

Experts on the African Sahel region believe it is one of the most volatile regions in the world.

Observers are predicting that that the area will likely be drawn into a prolonged conflict, because of its geographical and social character, its ethnic and religious makeup, and its many vital resources that are so attractive to regional and international powers.

For many decades, the region has witnessed continuous violent conflicts between the regimes in Mali and Niger, on the one hand, and armed Tuareg groups, on the other.

The Tuareg are inhabitants of the great Sahara desert. They are made up mainly of Berbers and constitute a minority in both countries.

The Tuareg are spread over at least seven countries in the region. At the beginning of the 1960s, when France withdrew from Mali and Niger, it left behind ticking time bombs by marginalizing the Tuareg.

Left with no stake in the post-colonial system, the Tuareg have been vying for a role in the areas they live in for the last 50 years.

In addition, there was the rapid spread of Al-Qaeda in the area, after its activities in Afghanistan were curtailed.

Al-Qaeda found a natural refuge in the harsh terrain of the area, and set up training camps in northern Mali, launching tens of operations, mostly involving kidnapping foreigners for ransom.

Al-Qaeda’s activities were enough for several large European countries, most prominently France, Britain, Spain, and Italy to raise the banner of the “war on terror” in the region.

They demanded that Algeria, in particular, should carry out joint military operations with European forces to establish bases in places where the radical Islamist organization was active.

The Sahel countries rejected this offer and, in the summer of 2009, established the Joint Military Staff Committee of the Sahel Region, which included Algeria, Mauritania, Mali, and Niger.

It was made up of 75,000 soldiers with the guarantee of full aerial support by the Algerian air force.

The US gave its blessings to this move and offered aid to help launch it. This committee works in total coordination with Africom (the US Africa Command).

Washington gave Algeria the green light to do whatever it takes to limit Al-Qaeda activities in the region, including pursuing armed men into the territory of neighboring countries.

Toure also asked Algeria to intervene directly in the north of Mali to establish security.

But to achieve this, the defensive nature of the Algerian army had to be changed, because it was legally prohibited from fighting outside its own territories.

It is likely that Algeria will make that change because it is the strongest regional power on every level.

It therefore must carry the largest burden in military terms to establish security and stability, particularly in light of the huge influx of weapons from Libya to Al-Qaeda in the revolution’s aftermath.

Intelligence reports have confirmed that large amounts of weapons from Gaddafi’s arsenal have fallen into the hands of Islamists and arms dealers.

They, in turn, have smuggled them into the north of Mali, where the main bases for Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, Sahara branch, are located.

To add to this explosive situation, the Sahel region of Africa is overflowing with resources that excite many different parties.

It posses large reserves of oil and gas (in Algeria, Libya, and Nigeria, for example), in addition to significant quantities of uranium and gold, not to mention one of the largest potential solar energy sources in the world.

Therefore, experts believe that the area will inevitably fall prey to regional and international competition that will only fuel local conflicts.

Although those who carried out the coup in Mali have justified their actions as an effort to establish security and stability in the country, experts believe that what happened is very much tied to increased regional and international meddling in the area.

Because of this, experts find it difficult to believe that what is happening in Bamako was not cleared by both Algiers and Paris – or at least one of them – because they are the biggest players on the ground at the moment.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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