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?

Harouna Traore/AP
Military loyal to junta chief Capt. Amadou Sanogo return from the parachutists military camp, after taking control in fighting against anti-junta forces, in Bamako, Mali, Tuesday.

As military junta leaders in Mali struggle to retain control, West Africa’s group for trade, the Economic Community for West African States, is preparing to send in troops to protect citizens and oversee a transition of power back to civilian rule.

At a leadership summit held in Dakar, Senegal on Thursday, ECOWAS announced it was also preparing to send troops to the West African country of Guinea-Bissau, where another military coup toppled the civilian government of President Raimundo Pereira and his prime minister, Carlos Domingos Gomes, Jr.

While the coup in Mali has drawn the most attention – with Tuareg separatist rebels taking advantage of the disarray to effectively take control of northern Mali – the two separate coups together threaten the security of the entire region, says Ivory Coast President Alassane Ouattara, the current chair of ECOWAS.

 “We would like for all the new Malian leaders to work together for a reunified Mali,’’ said Mr. Ouattara, who himself came to power through foreign intervention. Ouattara won Ivory Coast’s Nov. 2010 elections, but the incumbent President Laurent Gbagbo refused to step down, and launched a four-month civil war that killed thousands. French peacekeepers stationed in Ivory Coast provided air support while troops loyal to Ouattara swept through the country and arrested Gbagbo in his palace.

Ouattara said that ECOWAS would soon begin negotiations with northern Mali’s rebels.

If ECOWAS does end up intervening, it will be a test of the West African organizations' political will to solve regional problems before they spread across borders. Like the larger continent-wide body, the African Union, ECOWAS has evolved from a mainly trade talk-shop into a venue for conflict-resolution, and its member nations, led primarily by Nigeria, have increasingly shown a willingness to use military force if necessary.

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.

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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