Global Security at Stake in Mali’s Islamist War, President Says

(Bloomberg) -- Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita said his country’s six-year fight against Islamist militants should be a global concern as the West African nation faces the fallout from the offensives against insurgents in Iraq and Libya.

“What’s happening in Mali doesn’t only concern us here, but the global community,” Keita, 73, said in an interview in the capital, Bamako. “With the advances in the fight against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, there’s a flow back toward northern Africa, crossing into Libya, reaching Mali and the Sahel. We’re not only defending our territory, we’re fighting for you too. The Mediterranean isn’t far.”

Global Security at Stake in Mali’s Islamist War, President Says

On the front line of a regional war against militants affiliated with al-Qaeda and Islamic State, landlocked Mali has failed to quash an insurgency that began in its desert north and has since spread to the center and spilled across its borders. A former speaker of parliament, Keita was re-elected for second five-year term last month in a vote that was overshadowed by the worsening security situation.

Mali’s stability was shaken when a loose alliance of ethnic Tuareg separatists and Islamist insurgents, bolstered by a sudden influx of weapons from Libya, seized the north in the wake of a 2012 coup that gutted an already demoralized army.

France Intervenes

A French military intervention in 2013 pushed back the insurgents, allowing a 15,500-strong United Nations peacekeeping operation to deploy. Months later, buoyed by a wave of optimism, Keita won his first term by a landslide on pledges to restore state authority.

Five years on, jihadist attacks have spread to Mali’s heavily populated center, and hundreds of UN and Malian troops have died in militant attacks. The insecurity has spilled over into Burkina Faso and Ivory Coast, which have been roiled by high-profile assaults on hotels and restaurants. Nigeria is battling fighters of the Boko Haram movement in a war that has spread to Niger, Chad and Cameroon.

“The threat is not the same as before,” Keita said. “The conflict has transformed, from large-scale attacks to an asymmetric war on the ground with fighters that are scattered among the population. They live among them, get married and settle in communities.”

Peace Deal

A 2015 peace deal with some armed groups has failed to yield results, with the UN saying last month that several of those who signed the accord are deliberately trying to stall its implementation. Organized crime, including drug smuggling, is on the rise.

While Keita oversaw economic growth of 5.3 percent last year, partly due to increased spending on agriculture in Africa’s biggest cotton grower, he said security remains his top priority.

“When the government can’t fulfill its obligations to defend its territory, protect the citizens and their needs, the state is weak,” Keita said. “I’m the first to admit that today we’re far from fulfilling all our state obligations.”

Global Security at Stake in Mali’s Islamist War, President Says

While Mali is sub-Saharan Africa’s third-biggest gold producer, it still remains heavily dependent on remittances. It also receives significant financial support from European countries seeking to halt the flow of African migrants heading toward the Mediterranean, including almost $1 billion in European Union funds spread over five years until 2020.

Since the conflict erupted, the administration has also benefited from massive international military support. Mali serves as a base for French troops hunting down militant leaders in the region and this year began hosting a 4,000-strong West African force known as the G5 Sahel that’s to reinforce border patrols in the semi-arid zone south of the Sahara desert.

UN Mandate

Keita said the G5 Sahel was needed because UN peacekeepers don’t have a strong enough mandate and are undermined by near-daily attacks that could threaten the long-term presence of the mission.

The current UN mandate under which peacekeepers operate “is not adapted to the security situation,” he said. “Their vehicles and convoys are attacked frequently. If we continue like this there’s a possibility that the different countries withdraw their troops. I understand them: if it was Malians dying, I would do the same.”

Global Security at Stake in Mali’s Islamist War, President Says

Some of the military support has allowed Mali to rebuild its army, which was left in shambles as corrupt state officials siphoned off military funds under Keita’s ousted predecessor Amadou Toumani Toure.

Military spending now accounts for 23 percent of the budget, showing the “huge effort” the government has made during his first term, Keita said.

“Five years ago, the army didn’t have one single aircraft, not one helicopter, not one cargo plane or fighter jet in a territory of over 1.2 million acres,” he said. “Today we have helicopters and cargo planes, operated by Malian pilots, and we’re able to fly between Kidal, Gao and Bamako. This should give you an idea of the investments we have put in.” 

A combination of conflict and drought has triggered a humanitarian crisis that’s left one in five Malians food insecure, according to the UN. Severe malnutrition is widespread among young children, and as many as 500 schools had to close this year. Still, Keita said Mali has sufficient grain stocks to avert a full-blown food crisis.

“There are villages where people struggle to access their fields; these are real issues,” he said. “I’m not denying there’s a problem, but we’re trying to solve these issues through dialogue and by force where it’s necessary.”

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.