from Africa in Transition

Racism Obstructs Extremism in Mali

December 20, 2012

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In Nigeria, it is often said that the Arab racism inoculates the Sahel against al-Qaeda. Now, there is a credible report of black African defections from al-Qaeda linked groups in northern Mali. Hicham Bilal, who claims to have been the only black battalion leader within the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), defected in November and returned to his native Niger. In a press interview he accused jihadist groups in Mali of racism. The leadership is “white,” while blacks are "cannon fodder," he said. He also complained that MUJAO included drug traffickers. MUJAO controls the city of Gao. According to another journalist, race may also play a role in Ansar Dine-controlled Timbuktu. Its leadership is “white,” from Algeria and Mauritania.

Racial tensions within the northern Malian radical jihadist groups could become a source of weakness, perhaps providing diplomatic opportunities once there is a credible government in Bamako. If, however, the UN Security Council votes on December 20, 2012, to approve the deployment of a force in northern Mali put together by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the jihadist groups may pull together. The UN Security Council resolution, sponsored by France, is widely supported in West Africa, and the New York Times expects the vote in favor to be unanimous.

The resolution includes provision for Western training and equipment for the Malian army. However, it may be a long time before intervention actually takes place. It is foreseen that the ECOWAS force would number some 3,300, but it is not clear where that number of troops will come from. In the past, Nigeria was the powerhouse of West Africa and would supply a large percentage of the troops for multinational forces. The Nigerian military, however, is currently stretched thin with the Boko Haram insurgency in northern Nigeria.