YAOUNDÉ, Cameroon – As the security situation in Mali continues to deteriorate, the Catholic Church has welcomed the creation of a 5,000-strong force to stabilize the troubled region.
Mali lies within the Sahel, the semi-arid region dividing the Sahara from the rest of sub-Saharan Africa, which also includes other trouble spots Niger, Burkina Faso, Chad, and Mauritania.
Soldiers from Mali and these other four countries will join forces in the G5 Sahel Counter-terrorism Force, which is supported by the United States, European Union, Saudi Arabia, and United Arab Emirates.
“We had hoped that with the signing of the peace agreement of Algiers in June 2015, the conditions for the pacification and stabilization of the country would have been created. In fact, for a few months after the signing of the agreement, we experienced a moment of relative peace. But for about a year we have witnessed a return to insecurity, especially in the center of Mali and even in the capital Bamako, where there have been attacks,” Father Edmond Dembélé, General Secretary of the Episcopal Conference of Mali, told the Fides news agency.
Mali is 90 percent Muslim, and Christians make up just 2 percent of the population. It is estimated there are 200,000 Catholics in the country, and around 100,000 people belonging to other Christian communities.
In January 2012, members of Mali’s Tuareg ethnic group, who had been fighting to defend the regime of Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi returned home after the fall of his regime. When they returned, they still had heavy weapons from the Libyan conflict.
With this armory, they became the fighting arm of the Azawad National Liberation Movement (known by the French acronym MNLA), and quickly overran most of the north of Mali, taking over the three largest cities of Kidal, Gao, and Timbuktu.
They then declared the north an independent state named Azawad, an act that received no international recognition, and was opposed by several Islamist groups active in the region, Ansar Dine, Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa, and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.
These groups chased the MNLA out of the major cities, and proclaimed that their strict version of Sharia – the Islamic law system – was in effect. This meant things such as alcohol, cigarettes, and western music were banned.
Christians were particularly targeted in these areas, and many of them fled the country to Niger and Burkina Faso.
In 2013, French troops were sent into Mali to oust the Islamists, and supported by both the Malian army and the MNLA.
In 2015, a peace deal was signed, allowing for the integration of rebel fighters into the regular army, but it soon collapsed.
Into this vacuum a myriad of armed forces continue to operate: The army, the MNLA and other Tuareg groups, and Islamists.
“There are so many armed groups now, all trying to prove themselves,” Dembélé said.
“There have been several terrorist attacks in the center of the country in recent months that are becoming increasingly regular,” he said.
The priest said the terrorist groups are linked to illegal trafficking in weapons, drugs, cigarettes and human beings – lucrative trades that attract jihadists who “have an interest in sowing chaos to prevent the state from controlling the area to enforce the law.”
The creation of the G5 Sahel Counter-terrorism Force gives the cleric hope for the future.
“The creation of the G5 force is therefore a sign of hope not only for Mali but for the entire sub-Saharan region,” Dembélé said.
He said Mali had in fact become “the epicenter of regional insecurity because most terrorist groups are based in Mali and operate from our country to strike in Burkina Faso and Niger. The decision to focus the action of the new regional stabilization force on Mali is therefore understood.”
The official mandate of the force is to combat terrorism, drug trafficking, and contribute to the restoration of state authority as well as facilitate the return of displaced persons, while at the same time contributing to the implementation of development priorities, according to the South Africa-based Institute for Security Studies.
Still, the sheer number of displaced people, particularly Christians, means that when the war is finally over, returnees will come back to face the hard reality of destroyed homes, property and livelihoods.
“There will be a lot of rebuilding to be done,” Dembélé said.