While a member of his Cabinet had sparked rumors of a possible involvement in the on-going crisis in Mali, Canada’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper has officially ruled out what he termed to be any ‘direct’ military mission in Mali. During a press conference held on Parliament Hill, Mr. Harper noted that although Canada, a Nato member, is “very concerned about the situation,” it will instead concentrate its efforts in the region by providing humanitarian aid coupled with the use of diplomatic channels in order to offer assistance to the country. The news comes amidst an official visit by Beninian President Thomas Boni Yayi to Ottawa, where the current Chairman of the African Union (AU) inserted new urgency into finding a solution to the Malian crisis, citing that the current threat exceeds the scope of a planned African force. Although during the press conference Mr. Yayi indicated that he had welcomed the prime minister’s diplomatic and humanitarian efforts, the Canadian Press highlighted the fact that the two leaders disagree on the type of resolution that should be implemented in Mali. This was further emphasized by Mr. Yayi who went on to call for international help in order to curb the terror activity occurring in Africa, including asking for assistance from Nato troops.
Mr. Harper’s announcement of Canada’s intentions in Mali however fall directly in line with remarks made by Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird who indicated on Monday that Canada is “not contemplating a military mission” in Mali. Rumors of an involvement were sparked after Defence Minister Peter MacKay indicated just last week that Canada would be willing to send military trainers to Mali. So far, he has not made any comments with respect to Mr. Harper’s official announcement.
While Canada appears to be paving a way for minimal intervention, Mr. Harper is not the sole Nato leader who has been reluctant to send “boots on the ground.” In many ways, the timing of an upcoming mission in Mali comes at a time when many countries, such as the United States and several other Nato member states, are in the process of winding down combat in Afghanistan and therefore may be reluctant in re-sending troops to fight a new form of “jihadist war.” In turn Nato took on a second foreign intervention with the 2011 crisis in Libya. As such, it is highly likely that the body, along with its members, will proceed with a cautious approach when it comes to making the final call on Mali.
However it must be noted that while Mr. Harper’s official statement rules out “boots on the ground,” it has left some room for Ottawa to offer some form of assistance, which could greatly benefit Mali. Sources have indicated that foreign governments have held informal discussions with Canadian officials in regards to supplying a small number of military trainers that would assist the mission. In turn, some Western diplomats still believe that Canada will eventually deploy a small number of troops. However so far, the Canadian government has not elaborated on what less ‘direct’ military assistance Mr. Harper may eventually consider. For now, the country’s options are to contribute the necessary equipment that is required for air reconnaissance and logistical purposes, such as night-vision devices. Additionally, Canada has had experience in bringing APC’s into Africa, such as in 2005 when it supplied more than 100 armored vehicles to African peacekeepers in Darfur. Canada has also enjoyed a long-standing relationship with Mali as it has regularly contributed troops to a French-run military training centre there. In turn, sending Canadian troops would aid in liaising with the Malian army as some members speak both French and English, which is seen as a high advantage in a francophone country like Mali. Lastly, Mali was the scene of the 2008 kidnapping of Canadian diplomats Robert Fowler and Louis Guay. They were held hostage in the Sahara Desert for 130 days. Their kidnapping occurred around the same time of the kidnapping of two Europeans who were taken hostage by Islamists from the same group. They however were never released and were later killed in captivity. Al-Qaeda’s North African branch later claimed responsibility for the kidnapping of the two Canadians. This incident has been seen by many as a key reason as to why Canadian foreign aid to Mali sharply increased from C$25 million to C$100 million annually.
Although the two leaders disagreed on several aspects pertaining to the Malian crisis, Mr. Harper and Mr. Yayi also discussed trade and investment between the two countries as well as how to promote economic growth throughout Africa. An area where they seemed to agree on as the pair had announced a new Foreign Investment Promotion and Protection Agreement (FIPA) which will offer protection to investors in both countries which they hope will eventually boost the economic activity between the two nations. The new investment deal, according to Mr. Harper, “will increase investors confidence and bodes well for growth in both of our countries,” Additionally, Canada will also provide funds through the Canadian International Development Agency to aid Being with its structural reforms. It will also assist with efforts to increase the mining development.
Nevertheless, while Canada’s relations with Benin have been strengthened, the crisis in Mali continues to grow while the mission remains to be at a standstill. Overnight Monday, Malian soldiers fired warning shots at Islamist fighters near the town of Mopti, which is located some 650km (403 miles) northeast of the capital city of Bamako. Mopti is the first major town in the southern region of the country that has been hit.
It is therefore increasingly becoming apparent that while the AU and African nations begin to desperately call for a resolution on the Malian crisis before the situation grows completely out of control, many Western states seem to be more hesitant in quickly reacting and more comfortable in their “proceed with caution” role. Perhaps it is a lesson learned from history or perhaps this time, the West is simply not willing to fully engage in fighting this war.
Crisis in Mali
French President François Hollande has announced that his country is ready to stop Islamist militants if they continue to proceed with their offensive. However Mr. Holllande noted that France would move forward only on the condition that they receive authorization from the United Nations. Mr. Hollande’s statement is in response to pleas made by current Malian President Dioncounda Traore, who has requested immediate help to counter the renewed rebel offensive that has begun to move further south into territories that were previously under the government’s control. Earlier this week, Ansar Dine, one of the Islamist militant groups controlling the north, indicated that it had entered the key central town of Konna and that it had intended to advance further south. Konna is a strategic point in Mali as it is located 375 miles northeast of Mali’s capital city of Bamako. The advance has been seen as a major setback to government forces and it has prompted Mali to request urgent help from France. Furthermore, residents in the town of Mopti have indicated that they have seen French troops aiding Malian forces in preparing for a counter-offensive against militants that are stationed in Konna.
Following this week’s rapid developments, an emergency meeting was held on Thursday by the UN Security Council, which called for a “rapid deployment” of an African-led international force. The Council also expressed “grave concern” pertaining to the recent capture of Konna by “terrorists and extremist groups.” UN diplomats in New York have also confirmed that President Traore has already appealed for help to Paris as well as to UN Chief Ban Ki-moon.
In the wake of Mr. Hollande’s speech, France has advised that all “non-essential” French citizens should leave Mali immediately. This guidance is in line with other countries including the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada and Australia who have all expanded their regional advisories to include Timbuktu, Gao, Kidal and Mopti as well as the northern parts of Segou, Koulikoro and Kayes. MS RISK currently advises against all travel to any part of Mali as there is an unpredictable security situation throughout the country which is coupled with a heightened threat from terrorism. Any companies who have fixed interests in the country should take measured precautions such as the thinning out of non-essential staff, restricting travel throughout the country, seeking advice from security forces, ensuring that journey management systems are in place as well a review crisis management contingencies.
The European Union’s (EU) Foreign Policy Chief Catherine Ashton has also called for “enhanced and accelerated international engagement,” and that the EU would “accelerate preparations for the deployment of a military mission to Mali to provide training and advise to the Malian forces.” While it is not currently clear when a military intervention will be deployed, diplomatic sources have stated that Mr. Hollande is set to hold talks with Mr. Traore in Paris next week. Although Mr. Hollande has not specified the type of intervention that France would take on, one possibility may be the use of air strikes if the rebels continue their advance and end up taking control of the strategic central town of Mopti. Media reports in Paris are indicating that a detachment of French troops is already on the ground at the airport in Mopti, which is located about 43 miles south of the frontline. Although it is not clear as to what their role is, it is highly likely that they are their in order to assess the situation ahead of a possible intervention. What is clear is that any aid given to Mali by France will take place within the framework of a UN Security Council resolution. In turn, any plans by France to intervene will no doubtedly take into calculation two questions: the fact that there are seven French hostages currently being held in the Sahel region and what would occur if France were to intervene. Secondly, what guarantees are there that an air strike would halt the advance and what back up would be initiated if the strikes were not successful.
Armed rebels have taken control of a number of towns throughout the northern and central regions of the Central African Republic (CAR). As such, due to the instability that has developed in the CAR over the past several weeks, MS RISK advises against all travel to the provinces that have directly been affected by the conflict.
The security situation in the CAR has drastically deteriorated during December 2012 and the current situation in the country is continuing to rapidly change and evolve. Armed groups have been active in the west, east and north of the country and many areas outside of the capital city are lawless. Foreigners, including aid workers, have been killed and many have been the target of kidnappings and violent crimes on a number of occasions. The security situation is particularly dangerous in the orders areas and in the north-western and eastern regions of the country. The United Nations peacekeeping mission (MINURCAT), which was previously deployed in the north-easter region of the CAR, has withdrawn its military component.
MS RISK also advises against all travel to the capital city of Bangui due to the tense and unstable security situations. Fighting between government forces and armed opposition groups have previously occurred in the capital. The security situation in Bangui remains to be unpredictable and it may rapidly deteriorate. Armed rebels who have captured 2towns in other parts of the country may in the near future seek to advance on Bangui. Reports have indicated that the rebels have taken the town of Sibut, and that they may now be just 75km north of Bangui. The CAR military has set up several checkpoints throughout the capital city and a curfew is currently in place between 19:00 and 05:00.
MS RISK also advises against all travel to the following provinces: Kemo, Ombella-M’Poko, Vakaga, Bamingui- Bangoran, Ouham, Ouaka, Ouham Péndé, Nana-Gribizi, Haute-Kotto, Mbomou and Haut Mbomou. We also adivse all but essential travel to Basse-Kotto, Lobaye, Mambéré-Kadéï, Nana-Mambéré, and Sangha-Mbaéré provinces due to continuing instability and reports of banditry.
The Central African Republic (CAR) has suffered decades of political upheaval and military crises that have had serious consequences on all of the sectors within the country. The most recent rebel offensive to hit the country began in December 2012 and has continued into the new year, with no end in sight. The crisis began when the Séléka coalition of rebel fighters accused the President of reneging on a peace deal and demanded that he step down. This resulted in the rebels launching an offensive in the northern strategic city of Ndele which caused many residents to flee. Since then, the rebels have seized a number of towns, regional capitals and mining areas in the northern region of the country and have threatened to march towards the capital.
Although the rebels had halted their advance and agreed to take part in talks, which lead to fresh hopes of a peace agreement being reached, the political and security situations remained to be unclear. In turn, the fate of President Francois Bozizé continues to hang in the balance as the rebels have indicated that they may continue to insist that he be removed from power. Although the president has pledged that he will not run for a third time in the next presidential elections, which are scheduled to take place in 2016, there are increasing signs that rebel demands for him to step down may affect negotiations.
The United Nations Security Council has raised its concerns at the advance made by rebels in the Central African Republic, which as of this past week, has brought them extremely close to the nation’s capital city of Bangui. The UN Security Council has also renewed its call for a negotiated solution to the crisis. International diplomats are set to been in Gabon to participate in talks at are aimed at resolving the current crisis in the CAR. The discussions in the Gabonese capital of Libreville come one day after the United Nations called on the CAR government and rebels to end the violence and to instead return to a more peaceful dialogue.
Instability is nothing new in the CAR, which has faced political unrest since it gained independence from France in 1960. The country has witnessed a number of attempted coups and it has suffered scores of civilian casualties as a result of internal and international rebel incursions. Insurgencies in Chad, Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo as well as the Congo have all affected the country.
Prime Minister Cheick Modibo Diarra was removed from power by military forces loyal to Captain Amadou Sanogoon on the night of 10 December 2012, a short time before he was due to leave for a scheduled trip to France.
He has since appeared on State television and resigned his position.
With western diplomatic missions all warning against unnecessary travel to Mali, those companies with fixed interests in the country need to take measured precautions if they have not done so already. This is especially an issue for organisations with any interest in the so-called Azawad region – that portion of the country which is under insurgent control. Preparations should include the following:
- Thinning out non-essential staff and dependents
- Restricting expat and local national internal travel
- Seeking advice from the security forces
- Ensuring journey management systems are in place and work
- Reviewing crisis management contingencies and carrying out exercises of these plans
- Registration of expatriates with relevant diplomatic missions and seeking advice on what support will be forthcoming (if any) if conditions deteriorate
- Liaison with insurers to know any exclusions or limits to existing cover
While the situation in Bamako plays out in relation to central government control, the most extreme risks will continue to be in the Azawad region east of Mopti. There is expected to be military clashes there between the various insurgent groupings against the ECOWAS-bolstered Mali army force in line with the UN Security Council authorization to use force. Despite the obvious threats in the Azawad, organisations in Mali should be braced for nuisance attacks and isolated terrorist attacks in the capital of Bamako. When al-Shabaab was weakened in Somalia, these types of attacks were experienced in Uganda and Kenya. Although the two conflicts are not connected, it is logical to predict that similar tactics may evolve and be witnessed in Mali and inside contributing nations. This threat was recently evidenced by the kidnapping of a French citizen in Diema, in the west of the country.
Reports have confirmed that the Danish MV Torm Kristina, which was sailing to Muscat Oman in order to perform a logistical port visit, was approached by two suspected pirate skiffs. The crew members on board were able to assemble themselves in the citadel and a mayday message was sent out. The message had been passed to the Commander of the NATO Counter-piracy Task Force, Rear Admiral Antonio Natal in which he then tasked the HDMS Iver Huitfeldt to proceed to the MV. At the time, the HDMS Iver Huitfeldt was in Muscat for a port visit, some 90 miles away from the MV. By the time the NATO warship had arrived at the scene, three hours later, the pirates had left the area. It is believed that they had seen the warship from afar and had realized that they had no realistic possibility of taking the MV and its crew members hostage. Reports have also indicated that Omani and Pakistani warships, as well as a UK helicopter had arrived on the scene earlier, which may have been a contributing factor in the pirates abandoning the vessel. A boarding team from the Iver Huitfeldt boarded the MV in order to ensure that no pirates were on board. Once the vessel had been deemed safe, the crew members were freed from the citadel. The head of the Iver Huitfeldt confirmed that there were signs that the vessel had come under attack by pirates as some of the barbed wire on the rail had been cut. Furthermore, the crew on board the Torm Kristina had seen signs that pirates were on board. Vice Admiral Christian Canova, Deputy Commander at Allied Maritime Command stated that “despite the winter monsoon which generates bad sea states, this incident demonstrates the pirates are still active and able to operate far away from Somalia but we are watching them and when Best Management Practices such as citadels are in effect on merchant vessels, we are able to react quickly and deter pirate actions. Once again, NATO warships have proved their ability to react quickly and to use their speed and capabilities to deter and disrupt piracy and to free innocent merchant sailors. This incident shows that we cannot be complacent.”