THE disturbing events in Mali in recent weeks was inevitably going to draw the world’s attention to the rise of radical Islamists in a corner of Africa. While observers are talking of another Afghanistan in western Africa, a US defence department assistant secretary seemed to up the ante on Thursday when he said America would not allow Al Qaeda to have “a sanctuary” in the ungoverned northern territory in Mali. Whether the northern area is governed or ungoverned is a matter of opinion. But one thing is certain: the Bamako government’s writ doesn’t run there, for it is Ansar Dine militants that have been calling the shots, destroying shrines and whipping those they consider guilty of un-Islamic behaviour. These atrocities have led to a humanitarian disaster as hundreds of thousands have fled their homes. ‘Al Qaeda in Maghreb’ has been active for quite some time, and recently a group linked to AQIM abducted three Italian and Spanish nationals and released them after a ransom was paid. Their numbers have swelled because ‘out of job’ soldiers from Libya and some Berbers from Algeria have joined their ranks.
Going by Afghanistan’s trauma, a US-led military intervention in Mali would only worsen the situation, increase civilian casualties, rouse passions and lure more jihadists from the region into the northern territory. Unfortunately, the Bamako government doesn’t inspire confidence in its ability to deal with the rebels. The government is persecuting dissidents and journalists, and protecting military men responsible for last March’s coup. The only way to deal with the separatist militants is to have a regional approach, or involve the Organisation of Islamic Conference. Bamako has indicated it could agree to a west African military intervention. This would be a better approach. The “whole range of things” the Pentagon official spoke of — drones among them? — would be a sure recipe for prolonging the conflict.