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West African bloc prepares to send troops into Mali and Guinea-Bissau

Two separate military coups in Mali and Guinea-Bissau threaten the stability of the region. But will an intervention by ECOWAS actually resolve these conflicts or just complicate them?

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ECOWAS first tested itself in a military intervention in Liberia, during that country’s brutal civil war. Calling itself the ECOWAS Monitoring Group (ECOMOG), the West African contingent distinguished itself from the United Nations peacekeeping mission by fighting its way into the conflict against many different factions, and then holding its ground in Monrovia.

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But ECOMOG was plagued by divisions among member countries on which Liberian leader to support, as well as the ill behavior of some of its soldiers. After a few years in Liberia, ECOMOG was nicknamed “Every Car or Movable Object Gone,” because of the penchant of ECOMOG soldiers to loot.

Since that time, several member states of ECOWAS have received counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism training from French troops, as well as from the US military’s new Africa Command, an-Africa-focused military command that is based in Frankfurt, Germany. AFRICOM’s training missions to Mali have been halted since the coup began in March.

By insisting elections be held in Mali and Guinea-Bissau within the next 12 months, ECOWAS is sticking to a well-worn path of conflict-resolution favored by the UN and the African Union. The broad consensus of its members, and the careful mix of negotiation and threats, are a far cry from the group’s early days of division and bluster.

If ECOWAS does intervene in Mali, it won’t come a day too soon for Mali’s neighbor, Niger. Like Mali, Niger has struggled with separatist rebellions by its Tuareg citizens in the arid north, and it has also experienced large inflows of Tuareg returnees fleeing from last year’s civil war in Libya. Former Libyan strong man Muammar Qaddafi had funded and armed Tuareg separatist groups, and when his government fell to Libya late last year, many of those Tuareg rebels returned to northern Mali and northern Niger. Small wonder, then, that Niger’s leaders fret about instability in Mali overflowing into Niger.

"The populations in northern Mali and northern Niger are virtually the same in this zone. Of course there are risks," Mohammed Anacko, a former Nigerien Tuareg rebel leader, now head of the regional council in Agadez, told Reuters news agency. "Our concern is how this [situation in Mali] will be managed. The way in which it is managed will determine what spillover there is in Niger."

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