After months of discussions, African diplomats have agreed on a plan for military intervention in northern Mali, which was taken by insurgents this year.
Members of the Economic Community of West African States, or Ecowas, agreed that 3,300 African troops would be committed to the offensive, according to Ivory Coast President Alassane Outtara. He announced on Sunday that the troops would come mostly from Nigeria, Niger, and Burkina Faso, Reuters reported.
The plan is still subject to review by the United Nations Security Council. If it gains approval, it will be put into effect immediately. But an offensive is not likely to begin until next year, since it will be preceded by a preparatory phase of coordinated training.
Ecowas diplomats said that, until then, they are still open to resolution of the dispute via negotiations with the insurgent forces.
Rebels began making significant inroads in northern Mali last January. The Tuaregs, a nomadic ethnic group that hails from the Sahel region just south of the Sahara, invaded with the hopes of establishing an independent state there called Azawad.
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But the Tuaregs’ success was quickly usurped by Islamist groups, also from the Sahel, who eventually seized control over major towns including Gao, Kidal, and Timbuktu. These groups enforced a harsh version of Shariah, or Islamic law. The region has become a new base of operations for militant groups linked to al Qaeda.
Meanwhile, a group of Malian army members, disillusioned by the central government’s failure to resist the insurgency, seized control in a military coup this March. This ended Mali’s decades of peaceful civilian democracy, effecting instability in the capital city of Bamako that has only worsened the situation up north.
Now, a humanitarian crisis endangers native Malians in the seized territories. About 300,000 people have already fled, and the rest must abide by the insurgents’ harshly imposed version of Shariah.
Some insurgents -- notably the mostly deposed Tuaregs and members of Ansar Dine, a more moderate Islamic group -- have signaled a willingness to negotiate with Bamako to head off conflict. But other groups, such as the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa, or MUJAO, and militias linked to al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM, have reportedly been gearing up for a fight.
Residents of northern Mali have noted that training exercises have increased, rebel vehicles have been painted over with camouflage patterns, and trucks full of militants have begun rolling in from the Sahel.
African leaders have been working for months to come up with a plan for joint military action to oust the insurgents. But, to secure funding, they had to gain the approval of the U.N. Security Council, which has turned down plans that were not sufficiently specific.
An increase in international concerns over the situation on Mali makes it more likely that this latest Ecowas plan will be more successful at the U.N. The insurgency has become not only a Malian problem, but also a regional and even global one, as terrorist groups take advantage of the instability to bolster their own strength.
“One of the lessons years of conflict management in our region has taught us is to treat conflict in one country as a regional challenge requiring a common regional response," Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan said on Sunday, Voice of America reported.
Jonathan added, “This approach makes sense because the crises we have witnessed across West Africa in the past two decades have often generated consequences that have extended beyond these sources and countries of origin.”