Despite the fact that this country has been a stable, democracy-ensuring democracy since a peaceful, democratic transition (albeit fraught and fraught with security) from a military junta at the end of 1991, Sahelians are still predicting another year of turmoil on the national stage and are calling for the imposition of a state of emergency.
Why now? Partly it is due to two reasons. The first is that the pressure from the West (especially the United States and European Union) for Mali to step up its defense against jihadist threats in the north has been frustrated by the shambolic security forces created by the coup. The West has until now refrained from foreign military engagement, but a new trend that is emerging is international pressure to initiate some kind of armed intervention. Meanwhile, international diplomacy on Mali’s peace talks with the Tuareg rebels is failing to produce results. The two inextricably linked conflicts continue to escalate.
The second is the unity government, the very one that the West has called for, but which it has found powerless in the face of the threats posed by all of the above. In addition to the jihadist threat, the government faces fierce resistance from the extremists controlling the northern half of the country, with the radical Méserate group and Ansar Dine (which stands for Support for the Islamic Movement in the West Africa) controlling the north. This is also a historically Muslim part of the country, to which these radicals view as legitimate grounds for insurgency.
The Islamist militants are both a distinct group and an amalgam: in their hands is a large group of militants they have linked to a wider jihadist movement across North Africa and the Middle East, the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. This group (ISIS) is a group whose goal is the establishment of a new Islamic state across the wider region and west Africa, in which men have no right to speak French, whose women are covered up from head to toe and who have no rights.
As I mention in my book, in its drive to create this state, the ISIS’s totalitarian aims are quite similar to the aims of the Islamist groups that have been driven into Sahelian territories by the Arab Spring over the past several years. This all makes the situation in Mali all the more delicate.
Mali is also one of the most politically unstable countries in West Africa, and its democratic credentials are no more than that of other countries in the region. And since the war there that ended in 2010 and removed then-dictator Amadou Toumani Toure, nothing has worked. Despite the government’s best efforts, the insurgency has continued and Mali has grown more insecure. The country itself needs military assistance from foreign nations to deal with jihadist threats. And international powers have good reason to support Mali’s democratic goals: after all, it may offer Western Europe a pretext for intervention.
In the absence of this assistance, the situation in Mali has rapidly become unsustainable. At this point there is no easy out for Mali, but peace talks for the south — the time when peace might have seemed plausible — have been stalled by continued war between government and rebels in the north, and Mali’s stability is threatened by a growing number of terrorist groups.
The problem is that these jihadists, in the hands of the Islamists, are not just a national security threat to Mali and other West African nations, but they represent an important set of human rights concerns for citizens all over the region. If the women in the north are no longer safe because of their veils, the women in the west are no longer safe because they have no rights at all. Human rights are an important counterargument to western moves to begin a military intervention that might have a near-term effect, but will do little to truly eradicate an existing humanitarian disaster.
Things have gotten worse for Mali, and the West has continued to wait. A state of emergency could help, but until the immediate situation in Mali is stabilized, a responsible policy would be patience.