Under the best of circumstances, life for Malians has been hard for millennia. The country faces recurrent drought and the Sahara encroaches. The social and economic statistics are poor. That in part was why the country’s stable governance for two decades was so remarkable, and its subsequent collapse such a tragedy.
In the capital, Bamako, a political settlement between the military junta that overthrew the constitutional government and an interim civilian government supported by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) is still elusive. The interim president has just returned after two months of hospitalization and recuperation in France following a beating by a mob in his own palace. Amnesty International has released a report documenting atrocities committed by junta forces in response to a failed counter coup. The Malian government – a state party to the International criminal Court (ICC) – has asked that body to investigate, prosecute and try perpetrators of crimes in the North because it lacks the capacity to do so.
In the northern part of the country, the radical Islamist group Ansar Dine and other groups have destroyed West African Islamic monuments that are World Heritage Sites – because they were apparently not Islamic enough. And over the weekend, Ansar Dine stoned to death an unmarried couple in front of 300 witnesses, according to graphic and chilling reportage by the New York Times.
Meanwhile, ECOWAS is trying to put together an intervention force of 3,000. Yet, as the president of Chad told the French foreign minister, only France (or NATO or even the U.S.) has the necessary capacity to make such a force effective. According to the press, however, there is little West African enthusiasm for French participation in an ECOWAS force and, presumably, even less for NATO or the U.S. Even with outside assistance, it is difficult to see how even a well supplied international force could impose order on the trackless deserts in the North. It could, however, retake Timbuktu, Gao and a few other population centers. But guerrilla fighting could continue indefinitely.
Conventional wisdom among those outsiders who watch Mali is that a political settlement is needed first in Bamako before the Islamist tide can be rolled back in the North. However, while there may be little West African enthusiasm for a French role in an international military force, Ansar Dine atrocities may generate popular support in France for some form of intervention. Other than providing limited logistical support for an international force, I doubt there would be much political support in the U.S. for involvement in Mali, especially during election season. So, while ECOWAS may be able to broker a political settlement in Bamako, and the ICC acquires yet another African case, for the time being, it looks like there are no limits to the barbarism and atrocities in the North.