Mali conflict not a short-term issue, UN aid official warns
The Mali conflict could ignite the wider Sahel region, which is already struggling to fight malnutrition, drug trafficking and other issues.
By Olivia Ward, Toronto Star, February 26, 2013 The conflict the West fears most in northern Africa could ignite the region unless action is taken to attack its roots, says a top United Nations aid official.
“The fighting in Mali isn’t a short-term issue,” said David Gressly, the UN’s regional humanitarian co-ordinator for the Sahel.
“There has to be a plan. There are deeper issues in the region, beyond the rebellion. There is malnutrition, drug trafficking, a lack of development, governance problems. Even if this crisis is temporarily resolved, the international community must look at the longer term.”
On Tuesday, France’s defence minister said it was too early to pull out French troops, who are still engaged in “very violent fighting” in the mountains of northern Mali. “We are now at the heart of the conflict,” Jean-Yves Le Drian told RTL radio.
France has spent $133 million to help Mali’s government drive out Islamists who occupied the north of the impoverished country.
Meanwhile, the U.S. denounced Iyad Ag Ghali, head of the militant group Ansar Dine, as a “global terrorist,” and added him to its international sanctions list. Ag Ghali, who is linked with Al Qaeda’s North Africa wing, led a takeover of northern Mali in January 2012, but has retreated to the mountainous area near the Algeria border.
Civilians have suffered most in the conflict in which more than 430,000 people have been displaced, and more than 170,000 have fled to equally poor neighbouring countries.
It’s the second of two rapid-fire crises, Gressly said, with the conflict coming on the heels of a major drought that left people all across the country food-deprived, including 500,000 in the north.
“The harvest was quite good last year, so things have improved — but the situation is very dynamic,” he said in a phone interview, adding that it was crucial to get food and aid to displaced people quickly before there is a resurgence of fighting in areas where the Islamists had been driven out.
“The biggest concern is asymmetrical (guerrilla) warfare, which could disrupt humanitarian assistance. Where access may exist today, it may be gone tomorrow.”
Criminal gangs and militias who make money from the drug trade have a stake in keeping the conflict on the boil. According to the UN and a Ghana-based commission investigating the impact of drug trafficking in West Africa, the situation in Mali is a “wake-up call” that lawlessness could escalate. The commission’s head, former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo, called northern Mali a “den of drug trafficking, extremism and criminality.”
After a coup last year weakened Mali’s central government, and weapons streamed across North Africa from post-Gadhafi Libya, the region has become dangerously vulnerable to criminality and terrorism, analysts warn.
“There are three major elements needed now: a resolution of the issue in the north that is politically inclusive; a broader political solution to the crisis in (the Malian capital) Bamako after the coup; and long-term development,” Gressly said.
“Even in areas of government control, high rates of malnutrition are hampering development, and we could see another crisis developing if there’s a serious food shortfall.”
The UN has called for $373 million to help Mali through its current crisis in 2013, but so far has received only $17 million. Canada has pledged an additional $13 million in aid for Mali, and extended its deployment of a C-17 cargo plane to support French troops until mid-March.
With files from Star wire services