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In the light of the recent attack at Bamako’s Radisson Blu Hotel, Cameron Duodu looks at the context of Malian political instability, and how French involvement needs to be re-strategized if it is to have a positive impact.

At around 0700 local time in Bamako, Mali, on Friday, 20 November 2015, ten armed men, some driving in a black Toyota 4 x 4 SUV, entered Bamako's poshest hotel, the Radisson Blu.

They managed to enter the hotel with ease because their vehicle had diplomatic number plates, which would have been familiar to the hotel’s security staff (such as it was), because the Blu is the hotel of choice for all important visitors, especially diplomats, airline staff and NGO personnel.

The Radisson Blu Hotel is located west of Bamako city centre. It provides what is described as “upscale lodging”, and is close to many government offices and business sites. It has 190 rooms and suites.

In a Media Statement made at 12:00 GMT, on 20 November 2015, the Belgian HQ of the chain that owns the Radisson Blu carried this announcement on its website: “We are closely following the hostage-taking incident that is taking place at the Radisson Blu Hotel, Bamako. According to our latest information 124 guests and 13 employees are still in the building. Our highest concern is the safety of all our guests and employees in the hotel. We are in constant contact with the authorities there and will share further information when we have it.”

The statement made no mention of the 80 hostages who had been released, although by saying that 137 people were “still” in the hotel, it implied that some people who had been in the building were no longer there. The statement made no mention of the three people who, according to media reports, had been killed during the attack.

There were fears that more casualties might occur before the hotel was completely evacuated, for Malian security personnel had entered the hotel and were carrying out a two-pronged “engagement' with the attackers, partly through peaceful negotiation, and partly through a show of superior force. (Usually “rescuers” tend to kill more hostages than the hostage-takers.) Meanwhile, no organisation had claimed responsibility for the hostage-taking. The final death toll has now been put at 21.

In the context of the recent attack in Paris in which 129 people were killed, it might be assumed that the attack in Mali was a sort of “sympathetic” strike carried out in solidarity with the murderers who brought havoc to Paris. But this need not be the case, for the French have been helping Malian central governments to battle groups of “dissidents” in Mali for quite some time now.

Unrest in Mali became full-blown in March 2012, when Captain Amadou Sanogo led a coup d'etat to oust Mali's ex-military leader, General Amadou Tamane Toure (who had become an elected civilian President). Sanogo claimed that General Toure had been overthrown because he was not giving the Malian army the resources it needed to defeat groups of dissidents, who were trying to separate the north away from the rest of the country.

But it soon became clear that Sanogo wanted power for himself. However, instead of assisting the legitimate president in returning to power, the French gathered a disparate group of politicians together and got them to come to an arrangement with Sanogo. Meanwhile, the dissidents grew in strength, and for a time, did cut the north off from the south of Mali. The French then moved into Mali in full force, followed by UN troops.

Arrayed against the French were five Islamist groups: Ansar Dine; the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (Mujao); al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM); the Signed-in-Blood Battalion; and the Islamic Movement for Azawad (IMA).

Ansar Dine is a largely a home-grown movement, founded by a former Tuareg rebel leader called Iyad Ag Ghaly. Its stated aim is to impose Islamic law (Sharia) across Mali, and it is believed to have been responsible for the destruction of many Malian cultural relics. The invaluable Arabic manuscripts in Timbuktu were in danger of destruction by its fighters for a time, until the manuscripts were smuggled out of Timbuktu to Bamako, by the brave and clever curator of the Timbuktu Museum.

Another of the fighting groups, AQIM, is the north African wing of al-Qaeda. It operates close to the Algerian border, having been formed by the Algerian rebels who fought against the government in the bloody civil war of the early 1990s. AQIM too says its aim is to spread Islamic law (Sharia), and liberate Malians from the French colonial legacy. A third Islamist group, called Mujao, is an AQIM splinter group that was formed in mid-2011.

No doubt the best known of the insurgent groups is Ansar Dine. Many of its militants are Tuareg fighters who returned from Libya after fighting alongside the troops of the former Libyan leader, the late Col. Muammar Gaddafi. But Ansar Dine, like AQIM, has split, and one of its former allies calls itself the MNLA.The objective of this group is believed to be the spreading of jihad across West Africa, rather than confining itself to the Sahel and Maghreb regions.

The competition between these groups and the Malian government is a veritable cocktail for instability. The UN has so far deployed 12,000 troops in the north of the country, while the French have about 5,000 more in the area. The US and the UK have also sent special forces and training units to Mali. But the dissidents are not in awe of these forces, and have been carrying out hit and run attacks in spite of their knowledge that the foreign forces could pursue them. Clearly, a long-lasting and sophisticated approach is needed rather than the usual French-led “arrangements”, which reward opportunism but never seem to bring any long-lasting stability. (France has not proved able to manage to achieve lasting stability over the years that it has intervened in the affairs of its former West African colonies, as the situation in the Central African Republic, for instance, clearly demonstrates.)

Meanwhile, anyone who has ever stayed in a hotel abroad will be hoping that the siege at the Radisson Blu will end without too much further bloodshed, as those killed are usually people who have no connection whatsoever with the local political rivalries that give rise to such sieges.

* Cameron Duodu is a veteran Cameroonian writer and journalist.

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