On Friday afternoon, French special forces troops arrived in the city. Their mission is to help the Malian army in its efforts to drive back the Islamists, however considering the gravity of the crisis in French fomer colony, French special forces troops, will likely take an important military role to end the crisis.
France and other EU countries have conducted military training programs in Mali for years, though these were suspended after the military coup last March. France restarted parts of its program after the UN Security Council passed a resolution in late December authorizing the deployment of an African-led International Support Mission in Mali (AFISMA) to aid Malian forces in countering the rebels and recapturing lost territory. The Malian military says that French special forces launched a training program for elite government forces in the central city of Segou.
For now, the frontline between their area, governed by sharia law, and the rest of Mali lies a great distance from the capital city. But Thursday's events have clearly shown the country's military has little with which it can counter the rebel fighters.
Since April, the rebels have held an area in the desert-covered north that is as large as France and Spain combined. But now radical Islamists are pushing into the greener south and expanding the area under their control. Northern Mali has become the largest al Qaeda stronghold since the fall of Afghanistan in 2011, transforming the Sahel from a rear logistical base to the locus of jihadist activity in North and West Africa.
As the Islamist rebels have established their control of the north, fighters from other countries have poured into the area to join the conflict. The al-Qaeda-linked Islamist groups Ansar Dine and Movement for Tawhid and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) have likewise allowed the transnational terrorist organization a base of operation in Mali's north from which to launch attacks against Western targets.
The rebel offensive would seem to dispel all hopes of reaching a negotiated solution to the crisis. At the beginning of week, when heavy fighting first broke out in central Mali, peace talks scheduled to begin on Thursday in nearby Burkina Faso were postponed until January 21. Now that the rebels have been emboldened by their newly conquered territory, it might be even more difficult to get them to make concessions.
The fact that Mali's crisis has taken root so rapidly, could have significant implications far beyond its borders.The Mali's crisis threatens to create an arc of instability extending west into Mauritania and east through Niger, Chad and Sudan, even to Somalia.
If resolving the immediate security crisis in Mali is the primary concern, repairing the central government in Bamako and preventing the spillover of terrorist and Islamists into the politically and economically vulnerable neighboring countries should be the obvious secondary concern. This cannot be achieved simply by quashing the rebels alone, but creating the social and economic opportunities that can attract the fighters and those sympathetic to their cause to give up their weapons.
If Mali was the first to succumb to these forces, more countries could follow. The long-term stability requires a developmental aid effort in which the UN, West and US could take, such an effort has lacked the requisite political will and interest--until now.
By Guylain Gustave Moke
Political Analyst/African Affairs Expert