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The Mali intervention: Evolving security governance in Africa

David Mickler - 11th March 2013
The Mali intervention: Evolving security governance in Africa

In this Column David Mickler suggests that the Mali intervention heralds welcome developments as the ‘War on Terror’ turns towards Africa.

The multi-level response to the year-long insurgency in northern Mali indicates further evolution in the governance of security in Africa. Even though the potential for a protracted guerilla war in the wider Sahel region remains, collaboration and coordination between national, sub-regional, continental and global actors saw the successful expulsion of militant Islamists from the major population centres of northern Mali by the end of January 2013. As the ‘war on terror’ appears to be shifting to Africa, what can we learn from this response to crisis in Mali?

First, key external actors notably defended democratic governance in Mali and considered its restoration to be an important element of stability and security in the country. This reflects a broader normative trend in Africa of delegitimising and sanctioning unconstitutional changes of government, as set out in the African Union (AU) Constitutive Act and African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance and enforced on a number of occasions by the AU Peace and Security Council.

After a military coup toppled the twice-democratically-elected Malian government of Amadou Toumani Touré in March 2012, in the midst of the northern insurgency, regional and global security actors made the return to democratic rule a political priority in their response. The UN Security Council condemned the coup and the AU suspended Mali’s membership. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the fifteen member sub-regional bloc of which Mali is also a member, sanctioned coup leaders and facilitated negotiations to end their tenure peacefully. A Transitional administration was subsequently formed in Mali with the promise of new elections in July 2013, accompanied by reform of the Malian security sector. Genuine accommodation of the political grievances of the disaffected Tuareg—a central cause of the initial unrest—will be critical in the reformed national polity if future campaigns for northern secession are to be prevented.

This swift and decisive action in support of a return to constitutional rule also meant that external actors had a more legitimate partner in Bamako with whom they could work to defeat the Islamist insurgency, which had hijacked the Tuareg rebellion. As such, there was an alignment of interests in promoting a democratic Mali, which made the later military intervention—invited by the Transitional administration—less controversial. This response enhanced both democracy and national security. Yet it shouldn’t be assumed that this will necessarily be pursued elsewhere in the region; short-term counter-terrorism priorities of course have a history of being privileged over the defence of democratic rule.

Second, despite the ongoing development of the African Peace and Security Architecture over the past decade, the response to the Mali crisis—particularly the invitation to French military intervention—illustrates how continuing material capacity constraints mean that Africa still requires external support to mount major peace-enforcement operations on the continent.

This continues to raise important questions about the realisation of ‘African solutions to African problems’, particularly if Mali represents the first of what may become a series of major military operations across the Sahel/Sahara to counter militant Islamist groups such as Al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). The US, concerned about a lack of indigenous capacity to counter AQIM and its offshoots, is already building a new drone base in Niger to support its Africa Command.

This problem of regional capacity might be arrested when the African Standby Force becomes fully operational. Its final evolution has again been delayed, until 2015. Currently, with ongoing peacekeeping commitments in Somalia, Darfur and elsewhere, available African forces with the requisite training, equipment, logistics, and preparedness for substantial missions remain limited, while African-led peace operations continue to rely on external financing, particularly through the EU’s African Peace Facility.

The AU did pledge, for the first time, to contribute $50 million from its budget to support the African-led International Support Mission in Mali (AFISMA), which was deployed early to support French and Malian government forces. This is an important development. Yet indications that AFISMA might as soon as possible be transferred to a UN peacekeeping operation—funded from the UN budget—further highlights the inability of the region to sustain longer-term operations without external support.

Third, and in the face of these regional capacity challenges, the response to Mali demonstrates the value of collaboration and coordination in security governance between national, sub-regional, continental and global stakeholders. This broader collaboration continues to evolve through institutional developments, such as ongoing negotiations on an AU-UN partnership on peace and security, and in response to changing needs on the ground.

In Mali, this collaboration has already conferred significant legitimacy on the military operation—including on an otherwise highly controversial role played by former colonial power France—and has led to an effective outcome in terms of the immediate counter-insurgency objectives. It remains to be seen if the multi-level response, building on this initial legitimacy and effectiveness, will be sustainable over the long run.

While the African Union conceded that its own response to Mali had been too slow, the AU retains a central position in African security governance and its role in Mali and beyond will be crucial to sustaining successful outcomes. As the principal continental organisation, the AU is increasingly able to mediate between the security interests of regional and external actors in Africa, coordinate their responses to crises, and (de)legitimise interventions. While the Mali intervention was taking place, the AU held its 20th biannual summit in Ethiopia with a theme of ‘Pan-Africanism and African Renaissance’, celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the Organisation of African Unity in 1963. As a more proactive body than its predecessor, the AU has been designed to manage both security between and inside African states, and international relations between Africa and interested external actors.

While the UN Security Council remains the final arbiter on matters of international peace and security, and indeed eventually provided the required formal mandate to authorise French intervention in Mali, it must negotiate with the AU for any actions on the African continent to be considered legitimate. The AU can then draw on the resources and support of the UN and its members.

Under the subsidiarity provisions of the African Peace and Security Architecture, the AU in turn coordinated with ECOWAS to produce a united front and collaborative response to Mali. ECOWAS, as the proximal organisation, brought local legitimacy, knowledge and coordination, and its members are providing troops for AFISMA. At the request of the Malian Transitional authorities, the International Criminal Court also opened an investigation into war crimes in the country.

Contrast this more collaborative approach with the rather more controversial international actions against Libya and Sudan in recent years, where tension between the positions of African and international actors have undermined more effective and sustainable responses.

Of course, any major military intervention (or lack of one) is controversial and Mali is not immune from criticism. The response arguably occurred too late and preventive measures were not taken, resulting in the suffering of the civilian population and the destruction of historical sites and artifacts. The military intervention was also conducted without a clear exit strategy or comprehensive plan for post-conflict reconstruction, and may have simply pushed the insurgents across the borders into Algeria and Niger. The unreformed Malian army has also been accused of conducting reprisal attacks in the reclaimed northern areas.

Yet the pursuit of a multi-level, collaborative response and the support by security actors for a return to constitutional rule in Mali are welcome developments as the ‘war on terror’ is brought to Africa. Further institutionalising and normalising both this collaborative approach and the defence of democracy should be key objectives for evolving security governance in Africa.


David Mickler is a Lecturer in International Relations in the School of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Melbourne, where he is also Deputy Director of the Master of International Relations program. He is the co-editor of ‘New Engagement’: Contemporary Australian Foreign Policy Towards Africa (Melbourne University Press, forthcoming 2013).