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Monday, September 12, 2016

Should Canada join the UN Peacekeeping Mission in Mali?

By: Louis A. Delvoie, Kingston-Whig Standard

In my last column, I applauded the Trudeau government's decision to once again contribute significantly to United Nations peace operations after a hiatus of 10 years. I also argued very strongly against the idea of sending a Canadian contingent to the UN force in the Congo on the grounds that the history, dimensions and complexities of the conflict in that country made it a "mission impossible." Today, on a somewhat more positive note, I would like to suggest that there might be some merit in the Canadian government looking to yet another UN force in Africa, the force in Mali. That force is performing a more useful and manageable task than its counterpart in the Congo.

The fundamentals of the two countries explain in part why this is so. In area Mali is one half the size of the Congo. Its population is one quarter the size of that of the Congo. Its people are not as abjectly poor, since the country's Gross Domestic Product per person stands at $1640.00 whereas that of the Congo is only $810.00. Most important perhaps is the fact that Mali is not so fractured along ethnic and tribal lines as is the Congo. Put simply, it is a more coherent nation state than the Congo and its security issues are much more amenable to solutions.

Historical Background

Mali began to emerge as a recognizable entity in the 13th century. It was an essentially Muslim country, which over time became a fairly sizeable empire. Its principal city Timbuktu was home to numerous schools and mosques which attracted scholars from many Muslim countries in North Africa and the Middle East. And those scholars took an interest not only in religion and theology, but also in mathematics and astronomy. Nearly a million manuscripts from the period survived well into the 20th century. Timbuktu was also a major trading centre for the caravans criss-crossing the Sahara, and developed a complex trading economy based on gold, textiles and salt.

The Malian empire lasted little more than a hundred years before it was subsumed by the Songhai empire and later conquered by forces emanating from Morocco. In the late 19th century Mali was invaded and occupied by French forces under the command of General Gallieni. Mali thus emerged into the modern world as a colony of France, which controlled it until 1960 when it became an independent state once again.

Mali's political history since independence has been, to say the least, tumultuous. Its first president Modibo Keita was democratically elected but quickly turned the country into a one party state. In 1968 Keita was ousted in a military coup led by General Moussa Traoré who ruled the country as a military dictator for nearly 23 years. In early 1991 Traoré was confronted by mass protests led by university students and trade unionists. When thousands of his soldiers refused to fire on the non-violent protestors and eventually joined the pro-democracy movement, Traoré was overthrown. What followed was a classic reaction to years of military dictatorship. A new democratic constitution was drafted, was approved in a national referendum and resulted in the holding of multi-party elections in 1992. For the next twenty years Mali came to be viewed as one of the most politically and socially stable countries in Africa.

Current Realities

Early in 2012 Mali was hit with a triple whammy which had the effect of totally destabilizing the country.

The first event was the outbreak of a rebellion among the Touaregs of northern Mali. The Touaregs are an essentially nomadic ethnic group which represents approximately ten per cent of the population of Mali. They routinely criss-cross the Saharan frontiers of several countries and many of the fighters who joined the rebellion had obtained weapons and military experience in the service of the Libyan dictator Moamar Qaddafi. The rebellion was led by the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA). The MNLA was successful in defeating the Malian armed forces and eventually proclaimed the creation of a newly independent state of Azawad in northern Mali.

The second development was the entry into the fray of Islamist extremist forces, including Ansar Dine and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. Those forces initially helped the Touaregs to defeat the Malian army, but then turned on the Touaregs and seized northern Mali for themselves. The Islamists gained control of large swaths of territory and several cities, including Timbuktu. In the areas they overran the Islamists imposed a very harsh version of Sharia law to the dismay of the local population which adhered to a very moderate and tolerant form of Islam. In Timbuktu they set about ransacking and demolishing schools, libraries, museums and mausoleums which they deemed un-Islamic. In very short order they largely destroyed what UNESCO had designated a World Heritage Site.

The Touareg rebellion and the Islamist incursions produced a third dismal event. Claiming that the elected president had been ineffective in dealing with these crises, elements within the Malian army overthrew him and seized power in a military coup in March of 2012. The coup was widely condemned abroad and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) imposed economic sanctions on Mali. The new government was, however, no more successful than its predecessor in stopping the advances of the Islamist militants who began to make inroads into the south of the country taking full advantage of the political confusion prevailing in the capital, Bamako.

Unable to cope with the Islamist threat, the Malian government eventually appealed to France for military assistance. The French government obliged for two main reasons. First they feared that an Islamist victory might lead to the destabilization of much of north west Africa, including a number of former French colonies where France continued to have important interests. Secondly they were afraid that Mali might become a safe haven for Islamist extremists of all stripes, who could use it as a base of operations for terrorist attacks against targets in Western Europe.

The intervention of some 2000 French troops in January 2013 turned the tide in Mali. Not only were the Islamists stopped in their tracks, but most of the urban centres which they had captured in the north were re-taken, including Timbuktu. The Islamists nevertheless continued to hold some territory in northern Mali and to mount attacks on both civilian and military targets. In July of 2013 the United Nations Security Council deployed a force of some 12,000 troops and police officers to help stabilize the country and oversee a return to civilian rule. The force has been at least partially successful in fulfilling its mandate in that a ceasefire agreement was concluded with the Touareg rebels and general elections were held. The country is once again governed by a democratically elected president. The Islamists, however, continue to maintain a threatening presence in the north of the country despite the efforts of French and UN forces.

Canadian Role

The UN force in Mali could benefit greatly from the addition of a well trained and well equipped Canadian contingent. One of the handicaps from which the force now suffers is a lack of mobility. Canadian helicopters and light armoured vehicles would help to overcome this. And there are good reasons why the Canadian government should consider deploying forces to the Mali mission.

Apart from some investments in the mining sector, Canada's interests in Mali are negligible. There are no compelling political, economic or social reasons for Canada to take an interest in Mali. There are, however, significant security and diplomatic reasons for doing so. Canada, like most Western countries, is preoccupied with the threat posed by Islamist extremism. It is for this reason that it is participating in the US led coalition to combat the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. A contribution to the UN force in Mali would simply be another contribution to that struggle, and fully consistent with existing Canadian security policy.

A Canadian contingent deployed to Mali would also pay handsome diplomatic dividends. It would provide concrete evidence of Canada's commitment to re-engage with the United Nations and would help to enhance Canada's image within that organization, an image that suffered real damage during the Harper years. It would be warmly welcomed by the French government and thus help to solidify Canada's relations with an important ally. Finally, it would be applauded by the United State administration which is becoming ever more troubled by the spread of Islamist extremism in northern Africa, as evidenced by its current military activities in Libya.

If and when the Canadian government considers deploying a contingent to Mali, it should make it clear to the Canadian public that this is not a classical peacekeeping operation of a bygone era. Long gone are days when UN forces were deployed as neutral arbiters between the forces of two parties which were committed to a ceasefire and which had formally accepted a UN presence. The UN force in Mali is charged with ridding the country of Islamist extremists and protecting the state and the civilian population from them. It is not a peacekeeping but a peace enforcement operation. As such it will involve combat and could well involve casualties. Nevertheless it is something well worth doing.
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Louis A. Delvoie, a Fellow at the Centre for International and Defence Policy at Queen's University and, in 1980, Canada's Ambassador to Algeria ( to the north of Mali ). Louis Delvoie's article is a concise summary of the evolution of political, military, and social conditions that exist in Mali today.