Understanding northern Mali: Local context is everything
When dealing with northern Mali, it is crucial policymakers examine and understand all the complex local factors.
Dakar, Senegal: The crisis in northern Mali has become a veritable Rorschach Test for experts in broad subjects like ‘counter-terrorism’, ‘geopolitics’ and ‘security’. That pundits and policymakers peer into the mess and see a “West African Afghanistan” or “Somalia in ‘the heart of Africa’” perhaps tells us more about the analysts than it does about the actual crisis.
To be clear, the situation in northern Mali is dire. Armed conflict and food shortages have driven over 400,000 people from their homes. A hastily planned coup d’état has left a government once considered a model of African democracy in shambles. Al-Qaeda-linked Islamist groups that control a vast desert expanse roughly the size of France are implementing a strict and destructive version of Sharia law.
For its part, the international community has identified the situation as a potential threat to international peace and security. Western and African governments alike are concerned that ungoverned swathes of the Sahara could become a jihadist haven. Although details of who, how and when are yet to be sorted, outside intervention appears to be a fait accompli in certain diplomatic circles.
One might wonder how a country like Mali went from geopolitical afterthought to new front in the global war on terror in just six months. The answer is as much about perception as it is facts on the ground.
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