The crisis in Mali poses a stiff hurdle for Indian diplomacy

With a heterogeneous mix of Islamists, separatists and ethnic militias, Mali has become a tinderbox and can explode anytime. India must act cautiously but fast

Samir Bhattacharya September 15, 2022 16:06:28 IST
The crisis in Mali poses a stiff hurdle for Indian diplomacy

Unrest in Mali. AP

In August 2022, over nine years after its first intervention, the penultimate French troop left Mali. Although the withdrawal of French forces from Mali began in December 2021, there are worries that this complete withdrawal may exacerbate the country’s instability. The fear stems from the fact that the Islamist separatist movement of the north not only survived but has been slowly moving southward despite the presence of French and other foreign forces.

Mali shares its borders with seven countries: Mauritania, Algeria, Burkina Faso, Guinea, Niger, Ivory Coast and Senegal. In recent times, these radical Islamist groups have been successful in spreading across two neighbouring countries, Burkina Faso and Niger. In 2021, jihadist groups claimed responsibility for 15 deaths per attack it carried out in Niger. And this year, in January, there was a successful coup in Burkina Faso. The expansion has also affected the coastal countries in the Gulf of Guinea, which had hitherto been spared from violence. Now, there is already growing concern that the French military withdrawal may lead to an Afghanistanesque collapse of Mali and destabilise the whole of West Africa.

The current security crisis in Mali has its roots in the Tuareg region of 2011. The Tuareg region, which is located on the northern border of Mali, has historically served as a hub for the trade of gold and salt and humans who had been sent out by colonial powers as slaves. The failure of successive Mali governments to integrate the country’s northern half has culminated in an angry Tuareg insurgency to liberate Azawad or Northern Mali. And over time, the region has become a crossroads for the flow of illegal substances and weapons. The country’s northern region has become a haven for extremist groups, such as Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and some other Islamist terrorist groups.

In 2011, the security situation began to deteriorate due to the repatriation of hundreds of Malian militants from neighbouring Libya who had fought to defend Muammar Gaddafi, the late Libyan leader. Due to the indigo hue of their traditional attire and turbans, these Tuareg rebels are known as the “Blue People”. They arrived in Mali with heavy armament and arsenals left over from the Libyan conflict. Northern Mali, which they name Azawad, has been the birthplace of their pastoral society, and the main objective of their uprising is autonomy and independence from the central government. These returnees, who had received extensive military training in Libya and were well-equipped, quickly came together to establish the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), the most potent Tuareg-led rebel organisation in the area.

MNLA also drew strong support from the three main Islamist groups present in the region: Ansar al-Dine, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA or MUJAO in French). By April 2012, Tuareg rebels under the command of the MNLA were in control of most of Northern Mali and declared Azawad’s autonomy. Although the MNLA first had the backing of several Islamist factions, their relationship quickly turned sour due to ideological differences. Ansar al-Dine and AQIM were Islamist fundamentalist organisations that pushed for the implementation of strict Sharia law, in contrast to the MNLA, which was a secular organisation. Eventually, a clash broke out between secular separatist MNLA and the Islamists of Ansar al-Dine, in which Ansar al-Dine, with active support from Al Qaeda, managed to drive the MNLA from power.

Immediately after their conquest, Ansar al-Dine started enforcing harsh Islamic law in all the northern Mali cities they had taken. Seven of Timbuktu’s 16 mausolea, the sacred gateway of the Sidi Yahya Mosque from the fifteenth century, and a shrine to a saint from that era — all UNESCO World Heritage Sites—were demolished. They also destroyed bars, mandated burqas or hijabs for women, and carried out numerous other harsh actions.

As Islamist groups continued their march towards the centre of the country, the French army intervened for the first time in January 2013 at the request of the Malian government. To defeat the burgeoning Jihadism, France utilised ground soldiers and air assaults, dubbed “Operation Serval”. Following the success of Serval, France built a long-term force in 2014. Codenamed “Operation Barkhane”, the principal mandate of the mission was to combat Islamist militants across borders.

Meanwhile, in 2013, several countries of West Africa participated in the African-led International Support Mission in Mali (AFISMA). Later, United Nation Security Council established the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) and AFISMA merged into MINUSMA. Within the first four years of its existence, around 118 MINUSMA soldiers lost their lives in Mali. Today, 12,000 MINUSMA troops are still protecting the country from Islamist infiltration.

Mali is currently experiencing both an Islamist insurgency in the north of the country and a political crisis in the centre as a result of two consecutive coups. On 18 August, 2020, a group of senior army officers dissatisfied with the deteriorating political and security situation overthrew the current democratically elected government and established a new transitional one. The new government pledged an 18-month time frame for the fresh Presidential and Legislative elections and fixed the date as February 2022. But in May 2021, the country had its second coup within a year, removing the interim government.

Following the second coup, France decided to withdraw its troop from Mali. Additionally, there were also reports of a deal between Russian private military company Wagner Group and the Malian junta. The presence of the Wagner group, accused of having close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin, irked France and decided to withdraw its entire troops from Mali. French decision to pull out would most certainly impact the decisions of other countries providing security to Mali, such as Norway, Hungary, Portugal, Romania, and Lithuania. And this whole security situation in Mali has put India in a precarious position.

Mali and India have a long history of friendly relations. In fact, the relationship between India and Mali goes back to when India raised its voice against colonialism on different platforms. According to H.E. Anjani Kumar, who has been serving as Indian Ambassador to the Republic of Mali since January 2020, India is widely respected in Mali because of a number of things, including its extensive history, cultural diversity, upholding of traditional family values, stance on African issues, strong democratic institutions, robust education system, and willingness to share its knowledge with others ever since it gained independence.

Today, India has a considerable investment in Mali, among the highest in Francophone West Africa Over the years, India has extended its development partnership with Mali in different forms. Under Lines of Credit, India has already completed seven projects worth a total of $303.6 million. In addition, India has extended soft loans totalling $353.6 million for various developmental projects, including in the power sector. India is constructing 393 kilometres of high voltage (225 kV) double circuit transmission line to connect Mali’s capital Bamako to its southern region, Sikasso. Executed by Kalpataru Power Transmission Limited (KPTL), Tata Projects and Mohan Energy, this $100 million project is India’s most significant project in Mali so far. During ISA Founding Conference, India pledged an additional $100 million for three solar projects.

The seven countries that Mali borders are Mauritania, Algeria, Burkina Faso, Guinea, Niger, Ivory Coast and Senegal. Now, these Islamists have already taken their destabilising activities beyond Mali to neighbouring Niger and Burkina Faso. And now, these radical Islamist groups have successfully propagated across two neighbouring countries, Burkina Faso and Niger. In 2021, jihadist groups claimed responsibility for 15 deaths per attack it carried out in Niger. And this year, in January, there was a successful coup in Burkina Faso.

Due to its unique location, the country has enormous strategic importance for India. And if these Islamists somehow succeed in capturing the Gulf of Guinea, it will jeopardise the world’s and India’s source of oil and other mineral resources. Given India’s military limitations, India would want France to recalibrate its relationship with Mali and support the Malian army. However, any Franco-Indian partnership may put India into direct collision with Russia.

The crisis in Mali has challenged the Indian diplomatic ability to maintain the non-alignment between France and Russia towards improved security in Mali and the Gulf of Guinea. But first of all, India must bring these two security giants under one roof and initiate the conversation. Earlier, India’s effort to jointly develop an orbiter device for its own Venus Mission failed as France refused to work with Russia. Recently, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov spoke in favour of India as a mediator in resolving the Ukraine crisis. India has consistently favoured using diplomacy and negotiation to settle disagreements and conflicts.

Thus, to tackle the crisis in Mali, Indian diplomacy must put in place considerable effort that would make France and Russia cooperate for the security crisis on Mali. With a heterogeneous mix of Islamists, separatists and ethnic militias, Mali has become a tinderbox and can explode anytime. India must act cautiously but must act fast.

The author is Doctoral Scholar at JNU and Research Associate with the Vivekananda International Foundation. The views expressed are personal.

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