In Mali, Slow Progress Amidst Crisis

Reuters reports:

“Burkina Faso Foreign Minister Djibril Bassole, the [ECOWAS] mediator, met the leaders of Ansar Dine, which has links to al Qaeda, in Kidal on Tuesday. He also stopped in Gao but did not meet leaders of MUJWA, the Islamist group occupying the town, residents said.”

The Burkinabe negotiator met with the head of Ansar Dine, Iyad Ag Ghali, who seems to have emerged as a prominent voice among the various rebel factions in recent weeks. The decision of the ECOWAS negotiator to meet with Ag Ghali but not the leader of MUJWA, another islamist rebel group with claims in the area, is significant in that it not only lends legitimacy to Ansar Dine’s claims, but also signals ECOWAS’ attempt to negotiate pragmatically. Following the closed-door talks, Ag Ghali reportedly told the press that he “firmly supports this mediation effort.” Upon his return from the one-day trip to northern Mali, the Burkinabe envoy said in a press conference he believed his initial meeting was successful in terms of opening dialogue towards a negotiated solution, though he noted that one of the major conditions for finding a way to settle the conflict will need to include Ansar Dine’s abandonment of terrorist tactics and cutting ties with terrorist movements like Al Qaeda.

Meanwhile, the humanitarian situation is worsening in the region. There are over a quarter million Malians displaced in the region, which Plan International warns could become a protracted crisis, with destabilizing effects for local host populations and neighboring countries.

In the occupied north of Mali, where Shariah law rules since the spring, conditions are difficult. Recently, a journalist was attacked in a radio studio Gao by Islamic militants while he was covering a popular protest against the decision to cut off a thief’s hand. In the capital Bamako, where politicians are still struggling to create a government of national unity, the effects of the crisis are also being felt deeply: loss of economic activity and tourism revenues, rise in food prices, lack of humanitarian aid are some of the trends that are severely weakening the country.

While the crisis in Mali is not a high-intensity conflict, the potential long term effects threaten not only Mali’s territorial and political integrity, but could also strengthen the presence and control of terrorist and Islamic militant groups in the Sahel. As ECOWAS attempts to open a dialogue with rebel groups in the north, the regional bloc is also seeking to send 3,000 troops to help stabilize the country. The details of this operation, however, remain vague.