France, and perhaps NATO too, are facing their greatest obstacle in the War on Terror since the resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2006.
The trouble now comes from Mali, a Muslim-majority state in West Africa that gained its independence from France in 1960. The latest unrest began in March 2012, following a bloodless coup staged by army mutineers fighting a Tuareg rebellion in the country’s vast desert north. The same Tuareg rebels, bolstered by kinsmen returning from mercenary duty in Libya, formed the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) and quickly filled the power vacuum and occupied all of the north’s major cities.
Only months after northern Mali’s Tuareg victors declared [an overreaching] independent state called Azawad, they were locked in a new war against a Tuareg-dominated Islamic faction known as Ansar Dine. By May 2012, the MNLA had lost all of its major cities to Ansar Dine and its more hardline allies, Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MOJWA).
By the start of 2013, even the Tuareg-oriented Ansar Dine was relegated to a minor support role by the new players in northern Mali; AQIM and MOJWA. And now, with the first month of the year closing and a French-led coalition engaging Islamic fighters, the future of the current mission in Mali can be scrutinized in a serious light.
Separated at birth
Mali has a lot in common with Somalia. Both nations received independence in 1960. They are both overwhelmingly Muslim societies. The two countries also have nearly identical population densities and similar ratios of desert and forest distribution. And albeit redundant, they are both war and poverty-stricken.
But while the two far-flung states share many traits, their similarities end inside each of their respective borders.
What brought about an early end to Somalia’s jihadi episode and what will ensure a more fruitful one for Mali’s ambitious Islamists is found all around them.
Mali is surrounded by a sea of Muslim nations with similar and sometimes even identical demographic and physical composition. The states that encircle Mali share with it such a close kinship that national boundaries become merely an exercise in semantics. To Mali’s north is Algeria, a similarly large and arid nation of 37 million inhabitants whose population is 99% Muslim. To its east is Niger, a nation of 16 million where Muslims account for 95% of the population. Mali’s west is covered mostly by Mauritania, a parched nation of 3 million Muslims with virtually no non-Muslims.
Also on Mali’s western border are Senegal and Guinea, two small nations with a combined population of 23 million, of which all but two million are Muslims. Mali’s remaining neighbors, both situated on its southern border, are Burkina Faso and Ivory Coast. Burkina Faso has a population of 16 million, of which 60% are Muslim. Ivory Coast has a population of 21 million, of which 40% are Muslim, including its current president Alassane Ouattara.
That’s just Mali’s immediate neighborhood. A few hours drive along the Algeria-Mauritania border takes you to Morocco, home to 32 million, with Muslims accounting for 99% of that figure. An equally-distant trek across Niger takes you to Nigeria, the site of Africa’s largest Muslim population, 85 million in total.
Within short driving distance of Mali is a pool of roughly 211 million Muslims straddling virtual borders. It’s an asset that provides aspiring jihadis with everything from escape routes to smuggling networks and limitless recruitment opportunities.
Two wolves and a lamb
Somalia, on the opposite end of that rubric, is the black sheep of its respective part of the world. It is bordered on two sides by hostile Christian-majority states, and with only bite-sized Djibouti for a coreligionist neighbor.
Somalia’s western neighbor is its long-time antagonist Ethiopia, whose population of 91 million consists of roughly 58 million Christians and 31 million Muslims, with a few million practicing traditional religions or no religion. The Horn of Africa’s Christian strongmen in Ethiopia have limited the growth of political and militant Islam for centuries, and they demonstrated those skills against Somali Islamic factions in 1992, 1994, 1996, 2006, and most recently in 2011.
The remaining Muslim population in Ethiopia is marked by an institution of ethnic and tribal loyalty that is far more rigid than anything you will find among communities in the Sahel. It is an institution so sacred that even the threat of an imposing Christian neighbor has not allowed them to bypass their ethnocentrism. It is practically impossible for a downtrodden jihadi in Somalia to offer an alternative to ethnic chauvinism to his fellow coreligionists in Ethiopia.
To Somalia’s south is Kenya, home to 43 million inhabitants, of which 83% are Christian and only 11% are Muslim. The meager Muslim population is mostly split between nomadic Somalis and coastal Swahili-speaking communities, each making up close to one-half of Kenya’s nearly 5 million Muslims. Unlike Ethiopia, where familiarity has bred contempt among its closely-related Muslim ethnic groups, the discord between the Somali and Swahili Muslims of Kenya stems from a lack of contact.
Somalia’s status as the only major Muslim state in its region is made even more damning by its repeated nationalist wars against both Kenya and Ethiopia, which prompted the two nations to sign a treaty of cooperation against Somalia in 1964. For Somali Islamists, both today and in generations past, there is simply nowhere to expand in their periphery. Conversely, a like-minded ideologue will find in Mali and the Sahel region every desirable trait and opportunity which has eluded his Somali counterpart.
Mohamed Yusuf, DN Contributor/Staff