Islamist militants have seized power in the ancient city of Timbuktu in northern Mali.
Indeed, Mali, for many years a poor but democratic and relatively stable country, is engulfed in a brutal conflict. Two thirds of the country is now occupied by armed groups.
"This is one of the consequences we were fearing from the war in Libya," Leila Zerrougui, United Nations Under-Secretary-General and Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict, tells Metro. "It strengthened armed groups because they got access to arms."
Yacouba Kone, Mali director for humanitarian group Christian Aid, is seeing a constant increase in refugees from the north to the capital, Bamako.
"People are afraid of the rebels," he says. "The rebels don’t allow people to smoke, to listen to the radio or to go to the nightclub. It’s a nightmare!" Over half a million Malians have already fled their homes.
This conflict is not just a Malian affair.
"The danger is that northern Mali could become a safe haven for terrorist groups, like Afghanistan used to be," explains Prof. Terje Østebø, an expert on Islam in Africa at the University of Florida.
Adds Zerrougui, "The whole Sahel [the stretch of countries just south of the Sahara] could be affected. These are countries that were recently in conflict. Now they have peace, but they’ve only recently demobilized. These former soldiers could easily be tempted to return to combat. And there’s no doubt that children are recruited by these groups."
Teenagers, in fact, form a pillar of al Qaeda’s march into Africa. With childhood survival rates and education improving, young Africans are poised for a better life – only to face unemployment. According to a report by the Africa Progress Panel, by 2020 Africa’s youth population will have risen to 246 million, from 133 million in 2000.
"The job situation is very hard here," reports Kone. "The rebels offer some jobs, but not that many. Many young Malians migrate to other countries, like Europe and Libya. Many were in Gaddafi’s army, and now they’re back here as rebels."
Notes Zerrougui, speaking of the Sahel, "Especially since these are poor communities, the children are targets for recruitment by the Islamists."
The West, alarmed by the prospect of a supersized Afghanistan in Africa, has now announced it will intervene.
"Malians can’t wait for them to come," says Kone, referring to the foreign soldiers. "Our soldiers can’t face these well-armed rebels alone."
Q&A with Paul Melly, Africa analyst, Chatham House
Q: Are the jihadists in Mali a serious threat or much ado about nothing?
A: They’re a very serious threat to the stability of West Africa. We should be very worried. These armed groups have taken over the North of Mali very easily, they have a jihadist agenda and they’re financed through drug trafficking and hostage taking. They can pay their fighters around 200 times more than the government pays its soldiers.
Q: In other words, government forces don’t stand a chance against such an enemy?
A: The desert in the far north of Mali has always been very difficult to control, and had smuggling and drug trafficking. It has also been dependent on foreign tourism, which has now dried up. As for the rebels, special forces rather than whole armies should be sent in to deal with them. It won’t be easy, but the alternative is doing nothing. The Malian-led rebel groups are more willing to negotiate than the jihadists. They know that if they’re seen as working with al Qaeda they’ll be the enemy of the whole world.
Mali. Islamists, separatists, kidnappers... the rebels’ motley crew
In March this year, Mali’s president Amadou Touré was overthrown by the army. The rebels now fighting the surprisingly weak army belong to several different groups: al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (mostly known for its kidnappings of Westerners) and Northern separatists.
Local observers even report that notorious Nigerian Islamist group Boko Haram is involved. “The conflict is linked with international terrorist groups like al Qaeda but also with arms and drugs trafficking,” notes Leila Zerrougui, UN Under-Secretary-General and Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict.
"This region is very poor. Now you have international groups that have access to money and arms. In the beginning maybe some people like them, because they take the children and pay the parents so the parents are happy. But that’s just a trap."
Western soldiers on their way
Britain, France and Germany are now preparing to send troops to Mali. 200-400 soldiers will train their Malian counterparts; the West hopes this will help the Malian Army, assisted by 3,300 ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States) soldiers, defeat the rebels without further Western help.
There’s hope for success, says Professor Terje Østebø.
"The Islamist rebels aren’t huge armies; they can easily be eradicated. The dilemma in this region is the lack of democracy and the governments’ abuse of power. That’s why it’s hard to predict which countries will fall apart like Mali. Mali was the model for this region. The coup took everyone by surprise."