Image Credit: Nino Jose Heredia/©Gulf News

Is the Sahel about to become the new Afghanistan? A band of territory immediately south of the waterless Sahara, it has become a lawless haven for smugglers, kidnappers, armed Islamist groups and hungry nomadic tribesmen. It is one of the poorest regions of the world.

An unforeseen consequence of Nato’s intervention in Libya has been further to destabilise the Sahel, creating new opportunities for criminals and terrorists. Tens of thousands of men from the Sahel, who had gone north to work in Libya or had been recruited as mercenaries by Muammar Al Gaddafi, headed for home when Libya sank into chaos. Many took with them weapons plundered from Gaddafi’s stores.

The impact on Mali — a hinge state between North Africa and West Africa — has attracted the anxious attention of neighbouring states and of western counterterrorist forces, such as America’s Trans-Sahara Counter Terrorism Partnership (TSCTP), part of the US Africa Command, which is thought to spend $100 million (Dh367 million) a year in boosting the anti-terrorist capability of the Sahel.

Large numbers of Tawareq were among the men returning from Libya. These nomadic Berbers, dispersed between southern Algeria, Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger, have long yearned for an independent homeland of their own. Mali has been particularly vulnerable. Over the past half century, the Tawareq have risen several times against the government in Bamako — and been put down or bought off. The first Tawareq rebellions in Mali occurred in the 1960s, when several of the countries of the region became independent. They were followed by several others, with settlements usually brokered by Algeria. Each time, the Tawareq were promised development projects, but these never materialised. Mali simply did not have the means.

Mali is not alone in suffering from hardship. Right across the Sahel, millions of families are undernourished. Anthony Lake, head of Unicef, has said that the drought-stricken region is today threatened by famine as never before. A World Bank consultant, Serge Michailof, has estimated that rural development in the Sahel would require an investment of €1.5 billion(Dh7.14 billion) a year for 10 years. Such is the background to the Tawareq rebellion which broke out in Mali’s vast northern region on January 17 this year. Bamako’s small, ill-equipped army was in no state to engage the rebels. Its senior officers, grown rich by corruption, had no appetite for a perilous campaign.

It was then that a group of junior officers made a violent entry on the scene. Outraged at the inaction of their government, they mutinied at the Kati military base, some 15 km from Bamako. Marching on the capital, their mutiny turned into a coup d’etat, which on the March 22 overthrew President Amadou Toumani Toure, widely known as ATT. (A loyal officer managed to smuggle him out of the presidential palace to safety abroad.)

Naming his junta the ‘National Committee for the Revival of Democracy and the Restoration of the State’, the leader of the revolution, Captain Amadou Haya Sanogo, 39, called on the people of the north to resist the Tawareq rebels. He was no semi-literate hot-head, but a former instructor at Mali’s military academy who had attended several military courses in the United States. He knew English and had been awarded a diploma as a military interpreter. Unfortunately, the coup in Bamako seems to have fired Tawareq ambitions. Little more than a week later, Tawareq rebels, calling themselves the MNLA (Movement National de Liberation de l’Azawad) — their forces stiffened by defectors from Gaddafi’s army — took control of the whole north of the country. As they advanced, the Mali army fled.

Constitutional rule

Sanogo’s coup and the Tawareq rebellion alarmed Mali’s neighbours. When President ATT fled the country, Ecowas, the 15-member Economic Community of West African States, chaired by President Alassane Ouattara of the Ivory Coast, pressured Captain Sanogo to agree to return Mali to constitutional rule. A deal on April 6 provided for the appointment of an interim president — the former speaker of Parliament, Dioncounda Traore — and of a prime minister — Shaikh Modibo Diarra – whose task was to form a national unity government and conduct elections. (Prime Minister Modibo Diarra is, in fact, a distinguished French-trained astrophysicist who spent 13 years working for Nasa, America’s space agency, and later headed Microsoft Africa.) The idea was to ease Capt Sanogo and his junta out of power.

But Sanogo was no push-over. Resisting attempts to unseat him, in mid-April he arrested 22 political and military opponents and transferred them to the army camp at Kati. He also made sure that three key ministries in the new government — defence, security and territorial administration — were in the hands of his men. He rejected an Ecowas plan to send 3,000 peacekeepers to Mali and opposed the extension of the transitional phase to 12 months saying that the new president and prime minister would have to leave office within 40 days.

Faced with this challenge, Ecowas could not decide what to do. Was it to go to war? Even if Sanogo were removed, who could recapture the North from the Tawareqs? It could not be done without French, American, or perhaps Algerian air cover, but none of these powers was eager to intervene. Reports that the rebels were resorting to pillage, rape and the recruitment of child-soldiers struck terror in Bamako. Some 300,000 people were said to have fled the fighting and were living rough along the borders of Algeria, Mauritania, Burkina Faso and Niger.

The real fear, however, was not so much of the Tawareqs as of armed Islamist groups operating in the same northern region. Of these the most alarming was AQIM (Al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb) which, under its three ‘emirs’, Mukhtar Bel Mukhtar, Abu Zaid and Yahya Abu Al Hammam, had recruited fighters from Algeria, Mauritania, Libya, Tunisia and Nigeria. Afrique Asie, a well-informed monthly, reported that AQIM’s hostage-taking had yielded $183 million in ransom money!

Another radical group was Ansar Al Deen, which, under its Tawareq chief Eyad Al Gali, was set on establishing an Islamic state in Mali and indeed an Islamist caliphate across the whole Sahel. It had already captured the northern Mali towns of Kidal, Timbuktu and Gao. A third more shadowy group was the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa, which had claimed responsibility for a suicide attack on March 3 against a police post in Tamenrasset in southern Algeria, and for the kidnapping of the Algerian Consul at Gao in Mali on April 5. Algeria is clearly worried at the emergence on its borders of an independent Tawareq republic, harbouring militant Islamists. Memories are still fresh of its bitter war of the 1990s against its own Islamists, which led to the death of some 200,000 people.

The Sahel is evidently in a deeply disturbed state. Millions are close to starvation. Weak regional states are desperately in need of aid. Violent groups conduct their violent business unchecked. But the world looks elsewhere.

Patrick Seale is a commentator and author of several books on Middle East affairs including Asad of Syria: The Struggle for the Middle East and Abu Nidal: A Gun for Hire.