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By Mark Wentling
Country Director of Plan Burkina Faso
The Malian crisis is a global threat. Hilary Clinton was spot on in her address to the High Level Meeting on the Sahel yesterday.
However, while the Malian government, ECOWAS and the UN Security Council debate about a strategy and military assets, the deeper the Islamic extremists dig in and the harder it will be to resolve.
Already hundreds of thousands of people have been uprooted and Mali has been rendered, in a few short months, into a very fragile country with dim future prospects.
While the world dithers, Islamic extremists in northern Mali become stronger. Groups like Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and Nigeria's Boko Haram were already flocking to Mali in mid-2011 along with Libyan small arms, explosives, rocket-propelled grenades and small-calibre anti-aircraft cannons after the Arab Spring.
The growing power of a radical Islamic state works to destabilise neighbouring countries, all with high Muslim populations. These countries have been weakened by the obligation to harbour well over nearly 300,000 Malian refugees. Things will undoubtedly get worse before they get better. It has already been eight months since the extremists took over northern Mali and there is no end in sight to their cruel control.
A military solution is contemplated to conquer the Islamic extremists in northern Mali. Such an armed approach will increase the humanitarian crisis and result in much bloodshed. It could also result in the destruction of the major cities in northern Mali, including the World Heritage city of Timbuktu. Even if this military campaign succeeds, where will the Islamists flee to? It is likely they will enter neighbouring countries and cause further upheaval. With its history of Tuareg rebellions, Niger may be the most vulnerable.
It is also possible many will return to Libya to add to the chaos there as they fight for what they lost with the end of the Gaddafi regime.
Fleeing extremists will leave carnage in their wake. The many from West Africa who have joined the extremists will return home to become a source of trouble. And, if the extremists leave northern Mali, the Tuareg dissidents will continue their decades-long struggle for autonomy. Historic ethnic and racial cleavages will be more difficult to manage.
Nonetheless, the world cannot stand by while northern Mali becomes a haven for radical Islamic terrorist groups bent on the strict application of Sharia Law. Already northern Mali has become magnet for Islamic extremists from around the globe and its radical groups have solidified its links with Al Qaeda and other likeminded international terrorists groups. If this situation is allowed to stand, northern Mali will become a hub for sponsoring terrorism, regionally and globally. At the same time, it is likely to become more involved with kidnapping foreign hostages for ransom and increased trafficking of drugs, arms, and people.
In my mind, the Sahel Crisis represents a more intractable crisis than the Syrian crisis. Warfare in Syria will end one day but the Malian crisis is likely to persist for years but we, in the humanitarian sector require decisive and conclusive action so development programmes can be brought back on track. How long can the world afford to care and feed the hundreds of thousands of displaced Malians? Every day that number grows and, together with their tens of thousands of animals, is adding unbearable pressures to host governments already hard pressed to assist and govern their own impoverished people.
The future does not look good for the Sahel, especially as so little is being done to resolve this unprecedented and deeply serious crisis. We in the humanitarian community hope that Ban Ki-Moon’s four-point strategy will bear fruit sooner rather than later.
About the author
Mark Wentling has more than 40 years experience in international development work in Africa. With a background in political science, history and anthropology, Mark started his development career with the US Peace Corp working in Togo, Gabon and Niger. After the Peace Corp he was a US Foreign Service Officer with USAID in Niamey, Conakry, Lome, Mogadishu, Dar es Salaam and Washington, DC, and its Senior Advisor for the Great Lakes and Country Program Manager for Niger and Burkina Faso. He also worked for US NGOs in Africa.