Last weekend Islamist militants launched their second attack on Timbuktu in a fortnight, shortly after French President Francois Hollande insisted the elections must take place as scheduled and unveiled the plan to slash troop numbers.
Launched in January, the French-led offensive quickly succeeded in pushing a mix of Islamists out of their northern strongholds and remote mountain bases, hitting the local leadership of the al Qaeda-linked groups. But new clashes have followed a handful of suicide attacks and raids on towns won back from the rebels, underscoring the task of securing the country as France prepares to hand over to the Malian army and a 7,000-strong regional African force.
The nightmare scenario is that of a repeat of the Afghan war, where Taliban insurgents have prevented a full pull-out of NATO-led troops after a 13-year conflict that has cost tens of thousands of lives. Presidential and legislative elections due in July are vital steps to stabilising the gold and cotton producer after a military coup a year ago left a power vacuum which the rebels exploited to make gains.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius is in Mali today to make sure the main political players know what France's priorities are and that they are doing all they can to keep the political timetable on track. Hollande has made it clear France's history of propping up African leaders indefinitely is over. He was quick to intervene against the militants who he argues could emerge as a global jihadist threat, but stresses the longer-term military, political and economic solutions must come from Malians and Africans first.
But the clock is already against him. The U.N. Security Council will vote this month to turn the current French and African mission into a U.N. peacekeeping force by July. If security does not quickly improve, French diplomats acknowledge it could be hard to justify an early winding down of troops. "The fear is that the jihadists that have spread out will return when we leave," said one French diplomatic source. "The real political risk for us is if something serious then happens on the ground."
Caretaker Malian President Dioncounda Traore's announcement in late-January of presidential elections on July 7 and the parliamentary vote by July 31 answered a demand of Western governments which backed France's intervention.
Despite the attack in Timbuktu, Paris remains sure a good portion of the military work has been accomplished and that the withdrawal plans can be kept. It has promised to keep a rapid intervention force to fight militants if needed. "From a security perspective things are better, but now we have to reinforce this improvement by extending that politically and through economic development," Fabius said.
Officials believe the technical side of holding elections by July is possible as long as political parties agree to certain concessions, such as accepting that it may be too complicated for all refugees or displaced Malians to vote. French officials also say that any later than July would delay elections until the end of the year due to heavy rains. But a sporadic insurgency coupled with a slow process in negotiating with disenfranchised Tuareg separatists in the north, who have vowed to remain armed until they have certain guarantees, may also scupper Hollande's plans.
African and Malian officials privately fear France's early exit and few believe elections are possible in July. Those locals who lived under rebel rule, which included amputations as a form of punishment, are bracing for the worst.
Mali's army, which is now being re-trained by European Union advisers, remains in tatters after the coup and a string of morale-sapping defeats last year. African troops have mostly stayed in the south and many lack logistics, funding and training, although a U.N. mandate could ease that burden.
Adding to general concerns, coup leader Captain Amadou Sanogo remains influential in Bamako.
There is a lot of goodwill from Hollande, but the reality on the ground will mean that elections will be pushed back until after the rainy season.
By Guylain Gustave Moke
Photo-Credit: Wikipédia: French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius