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Guest Post: Opportunistic Scavengers in the Sahel

(Today's guest post is by Matthew Timothy Bradley, a graduate student. Matthew does not claim to be an expert on the Sahel, military matters, or diplomacy, but he did once spend an afternoon in the custody of the Burkinabé military and he reads a lot. Follow Matthew on Twitter, Facebook or GooglePlus.

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Quick note: The views of guest writers are not necessarily the view of Michael C or Eric C. For our take, please check out the comments below.)

Any native of the Sahel is by definition a tough creature, but the honey badger is the toughest of them all. In addition to raiding bee hives, the honey badger's hobbies include eating cobras and attacking Cape buffaloes. But as tough as he might be, the honey badger still can't manage to stop the jackal from feeding on his kills when the jackal puts his mind to it.

On November 16th in Ouagadougou the President of Burkina Faso, Blaise Compaore, hosted tripartite talks with leadership from the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad and Ansar Dine, the two insurgent groups responsible for the ejection of government military and security forces from northern Mali early this spring.

Ansar Dine is the jackal to the MNLA's honey badger. Iyad Ag Ghaly founded the Ansar Dine after being denied a seat at the MNLA leadership table, and this spring Ansar Dine waited for the MNLA to do the hard work of evicting the inhabitants of Malian army garrisons before following on their heels to raise their black flag and impose sharia.

But Ansar Dine has nothing on Compaore, former friend and confidant of the most inspiring world leader you have never heard of, Thomas Sankara. The reason you have never heard of him is because his life and legacy were curtailed by an assassination organized by Compaore. When I visited Burkina Faso in the summer of 2010, I was told by a number of Burkinabé that Sankara and Compaore had been family friends and that Compaore's education had been subsidized by the Sankaras. I have yet to find documentation confirming that this was in fact the case, but I believe it fair to say that the circulation of the tale speaks a great truth regarding Compaore's reputation and integrity (such as they are).

A military confrontation in northern Mali seems imminent regardless of the outcome of the talks in Ouagadougou. But a military solution to the problem seems far less likely. To be sure, the in-the-works ECOWAS force should be able to wrest control of the Niger River basin from the MNLA, Ansar Dine, and the MUJAO. Running the three to ground in the arid region north of there is another matter, though admittedly one of lesser importance in the big picture. Larger concerns to my mind include the very real possibility of retaliatory attacks by Ansar Dine and the MUJAO in Bamako and other ECOWAS-member capitals (à la al-Shabab's attacks in Nairobi in retaliation for Kenya's role in AMISOM) and the adoption of a Global War on Terror paradigm in the region in the wake of the return of government control in northern Mali.

The people of Burkina Faso have a tough row to hoe as is. Their country is the kind of place many Americans would never live, but as someone who has visited both Burkina Faso and Ohio I would much rather live in Ouagadougou than in Columbus, but I digress. Despite the fact that the majority of Burkinabé are better global citizens than squeaky-clean Middle Americans—their consumer choices amount to fonio vs. rice rather than new flat screen versus vacation abroad, so their carbon footprint is helping offset ours, and their political duties don't include paying the taxes which underwrite a nuclear arsenal which has helped keep the world under constant threat of annihilation for going on seven decades now—they have received very little in the way of acknowledgment from the U.S. or any other nation over the course of their country's half century existence, not to mention material support. So seeing War on Terror money being spent there in a manner which might end up turning Burkinabé into the targets of reprisal attacks by Islamists is a tough pill to swallow.

There is no good reason to believe that the security situation in northern Mali is going to improve in the absence of military leverage. But hard power doesn't have to mean dumb power. At this point it is still possible for the Malian government to accept that the MNLA may have legitimate political grievances and to cease rhetoric which paints the secular MNLA as a jihadi movement and for foreign governments to be at pains that foreign internal defense not turn into the creation of a future military dictatorship.

The jackals are waiting in the wings regardless.

seven comments

Love this post. Great job, great info, great writing.

Thanks! There’s a lot more publicly available stuff out there in French but I don’t know the sources well enough to have a sense of their reliability. Here is a pretty decent one-stop source passed along by a friend: http://reliefweb.int/sites/reliefweb.int..

France has gained the reputation of being able to use diplomacy and their Troupes de marine effectively (I didn’t say ethically!) in Africa without overextending themselves or getting bogged down. I don’t know that this situation quite matches anything they have been in on there up to this point, though.

Mateo, did you read the Vanity Fair article on the French foreign legion?

And on another note, we should avoid sending US troops places that most Americans have never heard of. Otherwise mistakes get made or the US somehow gets drawn in disastrously.

Thanks for putting me onto the Vanity Fair piece. “[T]he Foreign Legion had no sense of humor.” He should see the Bundeswehr.

Mr. Bradley, one question and two observations.

In the northern area of Mali, how many watering points are there and how far apart are they.

I think it is safe to assume that the majority of Burkinabe are what you consider better world citizens than the people of Columbus, Ohio by circumstance and not by choice. I am quite certain they would be delighted to be able to consider which big screen TV they should buy and see their carbon footprint get to be grizzly bear size.

Also, that nuclear arsenal can be alternatively viewed as having kept a really big, WWII type war from having broken out since 1945. Right now, the threat of nukes being slung is more theoretical than real, and has been for a long time.

— In the northern area of Mali, how many watering points are there and how far apart are they. —

I couldn’t tell you, though I suspect members of the MNLA could (but would not!) give you an answer in detail. I guess one could extrapolate the amount of water available and get locations within X number of acres for sources with enough geospatial intelligence and a decent idea of the numbers of humans moving across the area and the speed at which they do so.

The West Africa bureau chief for the New York Times was interviewed on NPR’s Fresh Air yesterday. The interview was so-so, I think. The distinction between “al-Qaeda” and “al-Qaeda affiliate” was not consistently made. There was also a lot of emphasis placed on the role of weapons taken during Operation Odyssey Dawn; several sources I have read emphasis that the pieces were in place prior to OOD. One good point in the interview was the discussion of Algeria’s role in all of this.