War or Peace in the Sahara?


Robin Edward Poulton – TRANSCEND Media Service

Peace is on my mind. The UN and ECOWAS are being used by France and USA to attack northern Mali, and military disaster threatens. They are rightly concerned about Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and about the disintegration of Mali. While targeted military strikes can be useful in countering ‘terrorism’, it is very clear to me that making war in the Sahara is the wrong way to approach the problem:  we should use economic sanctions.

Even Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb needs gasoline to move and food to eat. They are sitting in the world’s most isolated spot: in the Sahara Desert!

If Algeria and Mauritania cut them off from the sea, and if Mali and Niger close their frontiers (with the help of NATO drones) then the rebels in North Mali will wither away. Already there are serious defections from MUJAO (a Mauritanian offshoot) and AQIM. Malians hate the AQIM salafist version of Islam, which is alien to Mali’s 800-year traditions of Sufi Islam. There are rumours of dissent between the AQIM Algerians and other rebel mercenaries who accuse the Arabs of racism.

If we cut off food, fuel they will wither. If we cut off the cocaine supply from Colombia and the Guinea coast, these groups will slowly run out of dollar bills and euros. As funds run out, the armed Tuareg and Arab groups will increasingly separate from one another, discord will flourish between the rebels, and disenchanted young men will go home because no criminal gang is paying them or feeding them any longer. Peace will then become possible.

That is the moment when Malian civil society will be able to negotiate a new National Pact (the name of the legal peace document of 1992 that we have all forgotten, but which brought an end to the 1990 Tuareg rebellion and which needs to take center stage for a successful peace process).

If we are contemplating targeted military action – as I have been advocating for three years –  it needs to be focused on the key points start along the Guinea coast, but not in northern Mali. The Number One Failed State in West Africa is Guinea Bissau, and from there the Colombian drug mafias have undermines West Africa’s political stability. Send in the British SAS, the Portuguese marines or a team of US Navy Seals to sort out Guinea Bissau.

Let’s take over the failed state of Guinea Bissau, jail all the drug-smuggling generals, put on trial the men who have assassinated presidents, ministers and senior military officers in this Narco-State, and run the country under a UN mandate. The UN did very well running Cambodia in 1993 under threat of the Khmer Rouge, which was a much more difficult proposition than tiny, impoverished Guinea Bissau – where the entire government budget is the equivalent to just 3 tonnes of cocaine sold at London street prices. Yes, that is not a misprint: just three tonnes (and the Colombians are shipping hundreds of tonnes of cocaine through West Africa to Europe every year).

AQIM and MUJAO are sections of a criminal drug trafficking, kidnapping and cigarette -smuggling criminal enterprise. AQIM is a serious organized crime ring posturing as Islamic Jihad, but Mokhtar Benmokhtar (nicknamed Marlboro for the cigarettes that made him rich) and the other Algerian criminals running AQIM are not serious politicians. If NATO or the EU had wanted to stop the Algerian drug smuggling in 2007 or 2009, they could have done it in a weekend by taking over the Bijagos Islands off Bissau. With the destruction of Libya, the issue has become more complex but the argument remains the same: we must cut off the source of drug financing. Once we have tackled the cocaine gangrene in Bissau, the political question of Northern Mali will become much simpler to resolve.

Cut out the smuggling and put punitive military sanctions into place: and within 6 months negotiating the re-integration of north Mali will become relatively easy, because the relative strength of the forces in the North will have changed radically.

And if Algeria and Mauritania do not agree to impose sanctions?   …. If Algeria and Mauritania are not playing our game, then any military action from ECOWAS or AU or EU would be totally futile, for these two countries hold the keys to the solution. That is one of many reasons why the ECOWAS military strategy is ill-advised: the key players are Algeria and Mauritania and neither is a member of ECOWAS.

So what should be our strategy? Practice tough DIPLOMACY (which is already being done), sort out Guinea Bissau and cut off the drug supply, put heavy pressure on Mali’s neighbors and impose total sanctions on the North of Mali ……..   this offers a much better chance of political and military success than sending ill-prepared troops from the West African south in armored cars to fight hardened Arab terrorists who were born and bred in the desert.

The current idea of sending ECOWAS troops into North Mali promises military defeat, political failure: and because the idea is so widely condemned by Malians, it risks the break-up of ECOWAS. This is a French plan, not an African plan, and unfortunately it is a bad French plan.

Meanwhile we should be preparing and economic revival plan for the North based on disarmament, employment creation, and building wealth, using the existing and effective civil society structures that have already brought peace to Mali in the past.

Economic recovery plans are being drawn up right now, but they require a fifteen-year political and financial commitment to UNDP from the Security Council – otherwise they will have no value, no impact, no lasting peace.

Northern Mali cannot be fixed with a three-year project from USAID, or another EU program offering annual sums of money to the Malian government that will never be spent.

What Mali needs now is international partners that are ready to study the lessons of the 1990s, and to devise radical actions based on decentralized Malian models that have already been successful.


Robin Edward Poulton PhD – Professor of French West African Studies (affiliate), School of World Studies, Virginia Commonwealth University. Senior Fellow, UNIDIR Geneva, United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research. Member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace, Development and Environment.

Co-Author of following books:

Collaboration internationale et construction de la paix et Afrique de l’Ouest: l’exemple du Mali

La Paix de Tombouctou: gestion démocratique, développement et la construction d’une paix africaine http://www.unidir.org/pdf/articles/pdf-art1806.pdf

A Peace of Timbuktu: democratic governance, development and African peacemaking, with a preface by Kofi Annan, launched by the Secretary-General 17 March 1998 in Geneva http://www.unidir.org/pdf/articles/pdf-art1799.pdf. This book can be read on the internet. Chapters 4, 5, 6 and 7 give the outline of a plan for the recuperation of Northern Mali in 2013. The National Pact is given in Annex.


This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 19 Nov 2012.

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