AT just about every country fair and games arcade in North America, you can find a game called Whac-A-Mole. It consists of a panel with five holes and a scoreboard. When a player initiates a game, round objects painted to resemble moles pop up through the holes, and the player has to hit them with a mallet, scoring each time. As you hit one, another pops up elsewhere and you have to keep hitting them, testing your reflexes.
On the international scene, there is a deadly game resembling Whac-A-Mole, but these moles are terrorists, usually adherents of al-Qaeda or some similar jihadist outfit. When you defeat them in one place, they pop up somewhere else, making life miserable all round. Right now, the Whac-A-Mole scene is playing out across a stretch of desert which constitutes more than half of Mali, a huge country in west Africa. France, the former colonial ruler, has sent in hundreds of soldiers to fight off a bunch of jihadists who have infiltrated across Mali's northern border with Algeria.
Most of us know very little about Mali, location of the fabled desert oasis town of Timbuktu, for generations the embodiment of inaccessibility and isolation. Mali is sandwiched between Algeria, Mauritania, Senegal, Guinea, Côte d'Ivoire, Burkina Faso and Niger. It's a land-locked country whose southern half is fed by the Niger river, flowing in from Guinea. Its main exports are cotton and livestock.
Existing on the sidelines in recent centuries, Mali in 1300 was one of the world's most important empires. It was the centre of a flourishing culture celebrated for its prowess in astronomy, mathematics, art and literature. It was an important part of three west African empires which controlled trading routes across the Sahara — the Songhai Empire, the Ghana Empire and the Mali Empire, from which its name derives. It went into a steady decline until the late 19th century, when the European powers were grabbing territory left and right across Africa. France snapped up what is now Mali as part of French Sudan. Then, like land surveyors cutting a tract of land into building lots, the colonial power divided the territories into the countries we know today.
In 1959, French Sudan joined with Senegal and achieved independence the next year as the Mali Federation. But internal bickering ensued and Senegal seceded from the federation. What was left became the Republic of Mali, which operated for a long period under one-party rule. In 1991, a coup introduced a new constitution and the transformation of Mali into a democratic, multi-party state. It remained a stable entity until a year ago when trouble erupted in the north. Some junior army officers seized the presidential palace in the capital, Bamako, dissolved the Government and suspended the constitution.
A different kind of coup
This was not your usual coup by people seeking glory and power for themselves. These young officers were angry at the military brass for failing to stop the infiltration of Islamic jihadists into northern areas. These terrorists had moved in from Algeria to take advantage of the vast territory and its sparse population to destabilise the rest of west Africa. One of Mali's southern neighbours, Niger, is an important producer of uranium, and is therefore a prime target. France, which uses reactors to provide four-fifths of its electricity, relies on nuclear power more than any other country in the world, and Niger is its main source of this crucial material.
Northern Mali, consisting of desert and rugged mountains, is about the size of France, and has internal problems of its own. For years the inhabitants have chafed under rule from the south and have staged several rebellions since the 1990s. The main objectors are the Tuareg -- nomadic tribespeople who feel marginalised. The troubles last year fed on the reservoir of resentment and were, in a sense, an unintended consequence of Muammar Ghadafi's defeat in Libya.
Tuaregs who had formerly fought for his regime fled in the face of the popular uprising which toppled Ghadafi, bringing loads of modern arms. These were seasoned fighters who were able to overpower the Malian military. This is where al-Qaeda comes in. Its north African wing, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, known as AQIM, sided with other hard-line Islamist groups to elbow the Tuaregs aside and instituted their version of Talibanism. They have done things like banning music and smoking and have forced women to wear restrictive clothing.
Several offshoots have also kidnapped westerners in neighbouring countries and smuggled them to northern Mali. Between 2003 and last year, AQIM is reported to have raked in around ¤30 million in ransom money — that's around ¤2.5 million per hostage. This money feeds the al-Qaeda machine and helps in recruiting new warriors, including poorly paid army recruits.
Three years ago, a set of jihadists captured two Canadian diplomats and held them for 130 days. One of the diplomats, Robert Fowler, has written about his ordeal. He told Reuters news agency this week his captors told him their hope was to create an Islamic emirate across Africa: "They would tell me repeatedly that their objective was to extend the chaos of Somalia across the Sahel to the Atlantic coast. They believed that in the chaos their jihad would thrive."
The coup took place last March after the organised and increasingly bold jihadists attacked several positions in the north and began approaching the more populated south. As they approached the capital, Bamako, home to 1.6 million people, the Government sent an urgent request to France for help. Mali's army is disorganised and ill-equipped, and President François Hollande felt he had no choice but to help. There are some 3,000 French citizens in Mali, and France has about 100,000 immigrants from its former colony. France also has a modern, well-equipped and well-trained military, against which even AQIM is no match.
If there was any doubt about the correctness of France's action, the jihadists have proved it by seizing a gas plant in the remote desert in southern Algeria, demanding that France halt its operation in Mali. Algerian forces stormed the plant two days ago but the outcome was not favourable: 30 hostages and 11 militants lost their lives in the effort. Several of the hostages were foreigners and apparently, only two of the militants were Algerian.
The UN Security Council has unanimously supported France's action and a resolution adopted last month provides for an African-led mission, 3,000 strong, to be deployed if there's no negotiated outcome. Now France wants the regional west African grouping, Ecowas, to send in a force as soon as possible, with financial, logistical and intelligence support from the west.
Most western countries are weary after years of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan and are therefore happy to let France take the driver's seat for a change while they cheer from the sidelines and chip in some money and support. Most Malians just want the jihadists and their extreme demands definitively defeated.
But the situation has some underlying problems of its own and requires, in addition to a decisive military outcome, considerable diplomacy to smooth out the discrepancies between the Malian north and south, and to ease ruffled feathers and bruised egos.