Mali: Veering Toward A Nigerian Vietnam


The plan to deploy 700 young Nigerians to this adventure has to factor history into the calculus. The plan has to worry about deleterious intermestic cum transnational sociological affinities that must inform the perspectives of critical actors in the evolving Malian cauldron. Nigeria going to Mali has to worry about a homogenised Magrebian political sentiment that undergirds the not unexpected institutional hypocrisy that characterises games that nations play.

This sentiment would impact the postures of powerful potential spoilers lying in wait for a historic confrontation with black African engagement in Mali. Nigeria ultimately has to worry about the complexity of the many interacting factors, both regional and extra continental, which would drive the dynamic of a hostile engagement in a certainly unpredictable environment. This military intervention, this war, if it happens, promises to be a long as well as a hard bleed. It is unprecedented in the history of our military interventions that have mostly been on peace keeping assignment under the aegis of the United Nations and ECOWAS in often not so unfamiliar terrains. The exorbitant cost of the proposed intervention in Mali would not be only in material terms, but also, more importantly, in human carnage. Nigeria must therefore worry about the operational capacity of the coalition it is leading to Mali. International objective assessment of this capacity is not flattering.

The end goal of this ECOWAS military intervention is to revert Mali to the status quo ante. By implication, it is to restore the territorial integrity of West Africa as it has been since the end of the 19th Century. It is to squash the irredentism of Arab-aligned Touaregs, Moors and Berbers founded on unspoken claims about the rightful ownership of the Sahara. More immediately, it is to stop the southward advance of a radical and virulent strain of Islam from North Africa to the west coast of Africa. A similar drive is on going on the East coast of Africa.

These troubling elements notwithstanding, the desired end state in Mali is in the larger interest of powerful elite state forces that have the most to gain in the reinstallation of that status quo. The war in the north of Mali is integral to the global war against terrorism. This terrorism is expressed in kidnapping and trafficking-human, drugs and arms- the north of Mali.

The impending war in Mali is however a direct outcome of another war that preceded it. That war was the West’s war to install malleable democratic regimes in Africa. The earlier war changed the balance of power in the region. This change exacerbated simmering potentials for danger that had been contained in the toppled dispensation. Since then, virtually all those kidnapped in the region have been Europeans, including many French. The geo-strategic import of the control of the Sahara has influenced France’s focus in the region long before now. The potential for uranium find is a dominant motive, along with the sustenance of France’s national ego as the undisputed controller of the evolution of black Africa. In the bigger scheme of these things, Nigeria’s current and transient internal security worries, as gargantuan as it is locally perceived, are not the most central imperatives of the emerged problematique of Mali. It is thus important to put things in their proper context and in a longitudinal perspective. Short term considerations on serious and important national challenges have led us nowhere in the past. For example, our civil war induced a myopic mindset in the ruling regime that drove Nigeria to concede Bakassi as a quid pro quo to Cameroon. Today, the fact of having conceded Bakassi defies the logic of more sober times. The fate of Bakassi would continue to haunt the country. The logic of a panic response in establishment circles that is dominating policy making on the challenge in Mali manifest our institutional incapacity to adopt longer term perspectives in handling very delicate and nuanced policy conundrums. Longitudinal imperatives should begin to be inculcated in our policy calculus.

The strategic configuration of the Sahel and the Sahara region as an unquestioning part of West Africa, especially its implied political delineation from North Africa and the Magreb, had been preserved by France since it conquered Timbuktu from Morocco at the end of the 19th Century. The geophysical stretch starts from the Sahel to the very heart of the Sahara up to the southern borders of Algeria. To the east, it reaches the coast of Mauritania–the land of Moors who are very keen to flaunt their separate quasi-Arab identity from black Africa. Morocco had lost the possession of the heart of the Sahara that it took away from the Songhai empire in 1591 to France. France, as we know, had not held and controlled this territory for the love of Malians. It had done so in its own national interests. In fact, the Sahel and Sahara constituted the rump of French Sudan of the 1920s and was part of the French Union in 1946. It was transformed into Republic of Mali only after Senegal left the Mali federation on 20 August 1960. Since then, elsewhere in its precarré, France had defended its territorial acquisitions in West Africa tenaciously. It fought Gaddafi for over two decades for the control of northern Tchad and its famed uranium deposits for the same reasons. In effect, the preservation of the territorial expanse of West Africa up to the borders of Algeria and Libya had remained the prerogative of France. Only lately in the 1990s, did it grudgingly accept the de facto fact that Libya had become a major player in the northern reaches of its West African playground. France reluctantly recognised that the responsibility for the stability of the region included a reformed Gaddafi who championed the creation of the Community of Sahelian States, CENSAD. Gaddafi’s interests put in check the designs of Algeria over this geo-political space. This delicate balance of forces was unraveled by the death of Gadaffi, incidentally through the instrumentality of France. At the same time, France sought to correct its glaring policy failures in West Africa at the end of the 21st century. The western-instigated leadership of Nigeria in a military intervention on the restoration of the territorial integrity of Mali is thus ahistorical.

French President Francois Hollande on 13 November confirmed to the French parliament that on no account would French forces be deployed to fight in Mali. France would provide logistics support to the coalition to do the actual fighting. France is thus outsourcing the confrontation in Mali to an international consortium of stakeholders. The European partners would do the training of the Malian military. This would include trainers from Britain, France and Germany, with possible participation of Spain and Poland. The anticipated real bloodletting in the Sahel in Mali has been consigned to Nigeria and a few Francophone cohorts under the banner of ECOWAS. ECOWAS or no ECOWAS, this curious division of labour reflects sadly on Nigeria. It immediately recalls events in Sierra Leone, where Nigeria’s losses in human terms are yet to be formally codified. We don’t know how many Nigerians were killed. At least, it is not yet publicly known. Yet, the British trainers of the Sierra Leonean military – the IMATT – have taken the full credit for restoring peace in Sierra Leone.

Even Sierra Leonean officials can be contemptuous of Nigeria! Nigeria’s readiness to go this route again reveals a continuing dearth of sophistication in our understandings of and in dealing with very complex issues and forces in the international system. We seem perpetually armed with very provincial mindsets and instruments deriving from our outdated worldviews in dealing with complicated matters of contemporary times. This accounts for our massive failure in Cote d’Ivoire, despite our continuing unrepentant official pretensions and posturing. We saw the report card issued by the African Union in its recent elections. Also, we set back the labours of our illustrious visionaries of an integrative ECOWAS project across colonial lines by another two decades by our policy fiasco in Abidjan.

Against this background, a military intervention in Mali is sure to be an ugly fight, to borrow the term of Peter Fabricius in Pretoria News. Successful operations in that vast desert terrain of over 100,000,000 sq km2 demands high state technological surveillance and intelligence. From a cursory view of a lay man, the technological base of our society is low. Although the conventional wisdom is always that the military is always one step ahead of society in its technological knowhow, it is doubtful that this applies to Nigeria. The consolidation of Al-Qaeda in the Magreb, AQIM, has emerged as the main challenge in northern Mali. Ansar dine appears to have a purely political agenda.


This is to gain some form of autonomy from the central government in Bamako. It is accordingly negotiating with France and ECOWAS. Al-Qaeda has proven its mettle in Yemen, Algeria, Pakistan, Afghanistan and in the Sahel. The vast terrain with the potential support of populations along the borders of South Algeria and Mauritania, and also anticipated double dealing by their governments, would mean that effective rear bases would be available to the AQIM. They may also have access to critical intelligence.

Their situation would be conducive to a classical desert guerrilla war. This was affirmed by French Defence Minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, who intoned that given the difficult operational terrain, France’s logistic support would include air strikes. A key observation about the capability of the military coalition put together to do the real fighting is that francophone armies in sub-Sahara Africa are neither designed nor configured to fight. This includes the Senegalese Army with a dubious record of a 1998 outing in Guinea Bissau and its inability to contain the forces of the Movement of Democratic Forces of the Casamance, MFDC, for over three decades. Perhaps, an exception could be the Tchadians, who if coaxed by France to join would bring on board extensive experience of desert warfare! Togo and Benin – Lord have mercy!

Also, this operation would require significant amount of cash. How much of the required cash that the cash-strapped Europeans, who are struggling with their respective internal budgets and cannot agree even on the budget of the European Union, would commit to their African proxies in the war is uncertain. In the prevailing economic climate, European societies would not for too long tolerate cash outflows to an African fighting coalition in a distant military adventure. This is especially so where the commitment and engagement of their own forces are limited and no body bags are returning home. So, Nigeria would be expected to foot most of the bill to deploy its forces. It would probably also have to bail out some of its fellow adventurers in the desert war.

War in Mali would call for serious diplomatic efforts to neutralise state spoilers. It is necessary to highlight that Touaregs, Berbers and Moors are psychologically aligned to their Arab cousins. They see blacks as inferior and have never accepted the very idea of a black-dominated government, even a black majority for that matter, to rule over them. They enjoy the sympathy of their Egyptian, Moroccan, Mauritanian, Algerian and post-Gadaffi Libyan cousins. These states can recall that black Southern Sudan only recently gained independence from its oppressive Arab Khartoum Islamic regime. Khartoum was actively supported by the Arab world, including even Egypt under moderate Hosni Mubarak. Under Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood holding sway in Cairo, it is near impossible to get support for this adventure against the Moors, Berbers and Touaregs who constitute a 10 per cent minority in Mali. It is thus no surprise that the common sentiment in the Magreb is against military intervention. This sentiment would count for something if the plan is actuated in a military intervention by black states. Also, after alienating the progressive pan-Africanist states in the Ivorian affair, Nigeria is isolated among the elite states of black Africa. Nigeria cannot count on the unalloyed support of states that matter in black Africa even on a mission of this nature. It is payback time for its strategic blunders in Cote d’Ivoire.

In sum, ECOWAS lacks all the necessary elements for a credible military intervention in Mali. As with everything Nigerian, all we have is an abundant, even if misplaced, political will founded on the vanity of our national pretensions. These are exploited by those who understand the national psyche. As with the realities of our domestic affairs, we do indeed have tremendous potential. The sad fact that we all acknowledge as Nigerians is that we are a long way from actualising this potential.

The key consensus in intelligence circles across the global spectrum who have no stakes in this matter are that ECOWAS states lack the wherewithal for the long and ugly war of attrition that would ensue should they start a fight in the Sahel and Sahara. Secondly, the cash required for a credible sustained military intervention is not readily available. Finally, serious doubts have been expressed about our operational capability to carry through, if the international politics of the intervention goes awry. In the circumstance, let’s do what we did in Cote d’Ivoire. Make impossible demands and never step out to fight. Wait endlessly for the outcome of ongoing dialogue with some of the irredentist elements in northern Mali. It is reassuring that those leading the dialogue recognise success would require some time.

We may be saved by time. Or, perhaps, we need a Nigerian Vietnam to jolt us back to the very frailty of our own existential conditions.

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