The Chadian government’s announcement of the deaths of two top commanders of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, Abou Zeid and Mokhtar Belmokhtar, made headlines in the last week — although the French and Malian governments have so far given no explicit confirmation of these deaths, and the Algerian press is skeptical. The heaviest fighting has occurred in the Adrar des Ifoghas mountains north of Kidal. Earlier today, a fourth French soldier was killed in action, this time in a skirmish near the village of Tin Keraten, 100 km outside of the city of Gao.
Another story has all but escaped the notice of the international media: Mali’s armed forces have been almost shut out of military operations in the northern-most combat zone. Since late January Malian troops, alongside counterparts from France, Niger and Chad, have occupied Gao, Timbuktu and other towns along the Niger River; Malian soldiers were patrolling jointly with French counterparts near Tin Keraten, according to the Associated Press. But further north, in the region of Kidal (birthplace of many rebellions over the years), the fight against Islamist rebels is being waged by troops from France and Chad, who have now been present there for more than a month. The Chadians have taken heavy casualties, with at least 27 dead thus far. Occupying Kidal alongside these forces are fighters of the Mouvement National pour la Liberation de l’Azawad (MNLA), the Tuareg separatist rebels who a year ago were allied with the Islamists. But the Malian army is not there, at least not in force. (A handful of Malian troops are reportedly in the area: last week Malian Army Col. El Hadj Ag Gamou told the French newspaper L’Humanité that 19 of his men, all Tuareg, are there acting as guides for the French and Chadians.)
“It’s the lack of means that explains the absence of the Malian armed forces in Kidal. If they give us the means, we’ll go beyond Kidal,” the deputy director of Mali’s armed forces public information bureau told a press conference in Bamako. Public reactions among Malians have been skeptical of this claim; army spokesmen have little credibility with the Malian people these days.
The truth is that France and the MNLA don’t want Malian troops in Kidal. Given the army’s track record over the last several weeks — torture and summary execution of prisoners, plus recriminations against alleged “collaborators” — Tuareg residents there have every reason to fear a massacre. The army, no doubt under pressure from France, recently arrested some of its own soldiers suspected of carrying out abuses against Arab civilians. The Malian armed forces may lack the means to send their troops to Kidal, but more importantly, they lack discipline and a credible command structure to keep their men in line.
Still, the Malian army’s absence from Kidal rankles some Malians, who see it as an affront to national sovereignty. Bamako newspapers routinely cast the MNLA as an unreformed terrorist organization. “The MNLA’s presence today in Kidal not only contradicts the principal of Mali’s territorial integrity, but also calls into question the reconquest of northern Mali,” wrote an editorialist in today’s Le Flambeau. “And from this endorsement flows, on the one hand, the MNLA’s legitimacy in Kidal, and on the other the Malian state’s disinterest toward this part of its territory.” Other papers have accused the MNLA of continued collaboration with Islamist groups.
Army Colonel Ag Gamou, for his part, dismissed the MNLA as bent on “political banditry,” and having no more legitimacy than any of the Islamist groups now targeted by French and Chadian troops. “The MNLA is nothing but an aircraft carrier for all the jihadists,” he told L’Humanité. Such warnings against the MNLA’s “rehabilitation” will complicate prospects for serious national political dialogue.
Another complicating factor is renewed dissension within the Malian army’s ranks. In an open letter published in today’s Le Républicain, a junior officer complained about what he sees as unfair benefits given to Captain Amadou Sanogo, the ex-CNRDRE junta leader who last month was sworn in to head a military reform committee. The letter reads,
Dear Mr. President:
We have learned, as we are dying in the grand desert, that Captain Sanogo, for having mounted a coup d’etat, and put the country in its present situation, will receive a salary of four million [CFA francs, approx. US$8000 per month]. And the others in his group, which is to say, his clan, who refuse to come fight, also receive the same treatment. We do not understand this and demand of you, we other soldiers of the Malian army, a clear explanation. We want to know if mounting a coup d’etat to be compensated and recognized as a good soldier [sic]? We will never accept this. If this decision is not annulled within two weeks, we will cease, that is to say me and my men, to fight and we are ready to accept all the consequences.
Capt. TOURE, Gao, March 1, 2013
Touré’s use of the term “clan” to describe the group of soldiers loyal to Sanogo is reminiscent of the way critics described ousted president ATT, whose corrupt entourage was one of the Malian public’s primary complaints against him (see, for example, the 2007 book ATT-cratie: La promotion d’un homme et de son clan). Such language clearly troubles the powers that be in Bamako, including the junta whose members retain control of the security services: only hours after this letter was published, according to a statement on the paper’s website, Malian state security agents arrested the publication director of Le Républicain, one of Bamako’s most respected newspapers.
This episode illustrates the many challenges Mali now faces. The question of who’s really in charge in Bamako, and what influence the junta’s members have in the political process, must be settled definitively. The military must be reorganized and kept on a tight leash. And Malian political leaders, while avoiding the appearance of caving in to illegitimate groups, must engage in open discussions with representatives of disaffected northern populations, including the Tuareg, whose grievances are both legitimate and long-standing. Accomplishing these tasks will make killing a few hardened Islamist leaders in the desert look easy.
Correction: An earlier version of this post stated that it was Adam Thiam, editor in chief of Le Républicain, who was arrested earlier today. Information subsequently posted on Maliweb indicates that it was Boukary Daou, not Thiam, who was taken into custody.
Postscript, 10 March: Malian soldiers posted in Diabaly have reportedly left their positions and headed south toward Segou, firing into the air to protest not having received combat pay, according to a report by the AFP.
Recommended viewing: Reuters photographer Joe Penney’s set of portraits of young women in Gao wearing headdresses that had been banned under Islamist rule.