Mali will be a milestone for Africa

Six weeks is a long time in African politics. In late November a UN report on the crisis in Mali acknowledged that the country "is at risk of becoming a permanent haven for terrorists", but expressed serious reservations about whether, and when, a regional force should intervene. The UN security council authorised a regional military intervention, but insisted that the earliest this force could be in place was September 2013. Fast forward six weeks and the multinational intervention in Mali is now happening. French air power and ground forces have already been deployed, and in Algeria we've seen the prospect of this conflict spreading across the region.

The fact is that foreign intervention had become necessary, and sooner rather than later. There are no angels in the current administration in the capital, Bamako; the interim president, Dioncounda Traoré, and his government face questions of legitimacy after coming to power last year through a regional agreement brokered with the country's military. Captain Amadou Sanago, the leader of last year's 22 March coup, remains powerful. But the weak civilian leadership and the military posit a better future for Mali than the Ansar Dine insurgents and their cohorts who have dominated northern and central Mali. Whatever we think of the often fantastical and self-serving claims of the "war on terror", it is increasingly clear that African jihadism is no myth, as groups such as al-Shabaab, Ansar Dine and AQIM (al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb) have demonstrated.

In Mali Ansar Dine has embarked on a path of vengeful extremism, desecrating sacred monuments and inflicting brutal punishments on those it labels transgressors against Islam. The insurgents drew closer to the capital after besieging army outposts in central Mali. With its outgunned and overstretched forces incapable of holding the line against an all-out assault, the Mali government called for immediate intervention. French military power has already stemmed the insurgent advance.

But the reality is that Mali will need an internal political process. After the March coup, and the resignation of Modibo Diarra as prime minister last month, the new government in Bamako has to move swiftly to reassure Malians and the region that it will follow a democratic roadmap. The counter-offensives will put the rebels on the back foot, but they are really the first shots in a new dynamic of an old war. There will be no instant peace, and there will still have to be negotiations with the insurgents, and their inclusion in the political process. The arrival of French and regional forces will merely defer questions about Mali's armed forces, which face irregular pay, corruption and equipment shortages. Perhaps most importantly, the crisis of underdevelopment and poverty in the north will have to be addressed.

This is only part of the story; the establishment of an African-led support mission for Mali is another milestone for regional peace and security. True, it has been driven by French and Mali government diplomacy at the UN security council. But after a military go-slow for almost a year, Mali's neighbours have now answered its plea for help and are fast-forwarding their response.

It will not be an easy or short intervention – the insurgents are well armed and know the terrain. But this is a major multinational initiative. The regional forces will face challenges of language, inter-operability and command and control. Nevertheless, the regional intervention in Mali, the Amisom operation in Somalia, and the forthcoming SADC deployment in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo show that Africa is able to take responsibility for its own security and diplomacy.

What is also clear is that traditional notions of national sovereignty as a baseline for security are becoming outmoded. The Mali government has voluntarily ceded its sovereignty to legitimise the multinational intervention. Africa's security is increasingly seen through the lens of collective regional and continental security.

And though France and, to a lesser extent, the UK still aim to buffer their global credentials by humanitarian, development and military interventions in the continent, it is for Africans to manage and contain European ambitions. Whatever their claims of a short-term deployment, the French will be in Mali for some time to come. Many Africans fear that the European intervention in Mali could prove as divisive within the continent as the Nato intervention was in Libya two years ago. I don't believe so, though there will inevitably be political clashes between France and Africa.

In fact, France's greatest arguments over Mali are actually with its own neighbours, who have committed only to non-lethal support and are wary of putting boots on the ground so soon after Libya, and with an ongoing and controversial war in Afghanistan. Europe isn't keen to be led by France. And neither is Africa.

Knox Chitiyo is head of the Africa programme at the Royal United Services Institute, London, and a former co-director of the Centre for Defence Studies at the University of Zimbabwe.

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