Perhaps the most enthralling scene in Edward Zwick’s 2006 thriller, “Blood Diamond” is Leonardo di Caprio’s memorable monologue: “Sometimes I wonder… will God ever forgive us for what we’ve done to each other? Then I look around and I realize… God left this place a long time ago.” Talking about the hopelessness that surrounds the African continent, burdened by conflict and poverty-laden Leo’s character Danny Archer implies that God may have abandoned the continent a long time ago.
It would not be absurd to have such an observation. In most third world countries, scenes of extreme poverty and inhuman violence are uncommon. For the many lives lived in such conditions, hope becomes a scarce commodity along with food, shelter and water. The nightmare does not even end there, the threat of the warring groups imminent advance is persistent reality.
In April of 2012, the city of Gao fell to an extremist Islamic militant group, the Ansar Dine. A harsh version of the Muslim Shariah law was imposed, regardless if one was a follower of the religion or not. Nine months later, the people of Gao took to the streets to celebrate; what they saw was a contrast to the horror of watching the Ansar Dine seize their city months earlier, on that day they cheered as French forces marched into town liberating them.
At one point, hope seemed lost for the people of the city of Gao and the rest of Northern Mali, but it just took a plea from their president to the government of France, their former colonizers to restore that for them. French President Francois Hollande pledged to stop the advance of the Ansar Dine in Mali, mainly to prevent the creation of another terrorist haven in Africa. The superior training of the French ground troops and their advanced hardware were unmatched by the Islamists and drove them towards the desert in the North-West of the country. Most of the major cities overran by the rebels have been liberated and the war seems to be won, but just like a lizard that regrows its tail when severed, it is in the build of terrorists to regenerate when weakened. Only time will tell if the cheers of “Vive France” are indeed worth saying.
It started as a rebellion in Mali’s north among ethnic Tuaregs, then it became a full-pledged threat from an Al-Qaeda linked terrorist faction. The attack of well-trained and well-funded terrorists made worse by the inferior state of Mali’s military meant that the country was in trouble. Failure to dissipate the impending danger would mean that Mali is bound to be the next Somalia, the next lawless country which will be a haven for terrorists around the world.
This was poised to become a reality; in April of 2012, the city of Gao in northeastern Mali fell to the Ansar Dine terrorist group, a few days after the historic city of Timbuktu followed suit. Then another key city, Kidal, fell to the terrorists as well. Three major cities overran within a month and Mali had a problem, to add to their fears, the rebels were eyeing the capital in the South, Bamako to add to their inventory of cities. When the central city of Douentza fell to the terrorists in September, Mali’s president Diancounda Traore made a desperate plea for foreign intervention – and there was no more potent ally to call on than their former colonizers, France.
The advance of the terrorists was a nightmare for the African community, memories of the fall of Mogadishu years before began to flash before their eyes. The sub-saharan states already had enough problems to deal with: famine, poverty, drought; the advent of a new terrorist state was certainly one which they did not want to add. When Somalia fell to the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) in 2006, it paved the way for a terrorist attack point and a refuge for lawless elements in Northern Africa. This compelled the community to act and a few months later, Ethiopian forces liberated Mogadishu driving the Islamists away.
In similar fashion the French, bringing with them superior training and unparalleled military hardware stopped the advance of the Ansar Dine. On the 11th of January, French forces launched Operation Serval which was a swift operation to drive the Ansar Dine away from the cities, having them retreat to the deserts in the Northeast.
The people of Mali were jubilant, they could finally sing, dance, listen to music, drink beer, smoke – it felt like they were released from a kidnapping, because it did seem like it. The Shariah law imposed on the Islamist-held cities forbade them to listen to music, mandated women to wear hijab and as CNN reported, some visually-impaired people were forbidden to use their lenses as the terrorists didn’t want them to “see the world”.
The nightmare of those nine months has come to a halt, but is it actually an end? Following the recapture of Kidali, the last rebel city, the French government announced the withdrawal of troops by March, when ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States) troops take over. The French also declared they have killed militants by the “hundreds”, crippling their units and neutralizing a number of their commanders. While the French campaign was undoubtedly a success, it is still unsure if it would be the last time Mali would be requiring their assistance. The terrorists were made to retreat, but not made to surrender. The bulk of their forces returned to the deserts, where they first assembled their forces and plotted their movement, and where they built up their strength. It would not be incoherent to speculate that these terrorists were rebuilding themselves in these deserts.
The terrorists had their eyes set on claiming a new country to impose their rule on. The geographic location of Mali based south of oil-rich Algeria and in close proximity of Ghana and Nigeria, made more by the weak rule of the government and the feeble state of their armed forces made it an attractive and easy target for the al-Qaeda linked group. Usually, wealth in minerals and natural resources is a blessing to a country, but going back to “Blood Diamond” the Africans see it as a curse. The abundance of these resources in the continent has attracted violence and courted conflict throughout its’ history. In ancient times European powers were swift to claim colonies for their own, aiming to exploit the vast wealth of the land. Going into modern times, civil war is rife between factions aiming to cash in on these precious resources to a growing global economy desperate for them to fuel its growth. Perhaps it is the luck of the first world that causes the misfortunes of the third world but it is pointless to put the blame on this truth for the misery of the African people, and it is nonsensical to point fingers on the First World as well. But what the West can do is to ensure that these weak states are able to defend themselves and what is theirs.
The Ansar Dine were bulldozing their way towards the capital, overpowering the military of Mali before the French intervened. Europe and the rest of the First World need to ensure that this does not happen again. The world came close to seeing another wayward state emerge. The global community has their attention on the Middle East and their war on terror they do not realize that the terrorists are winning at another front, each time one of these feeble states fall to terrorist rule the community faces another threat. The French may have saved Mali for now but as long as Africa has its’ wealth the threat of oppressive factions still persists, and it desperately needs to defend itself from them.