Attacks jolt Mali and France out of complacency

A French soldier peers behind a wall in front of a French armoured vehicle during gun battles with Islamist insurgents in the northern city of Gao, Mali February 10,2013. Image copyright Reuters
Image caption French forces battled Islamist militants in Gao on Sunday

It was all going too fast and too well in Mali, wasn't it?

France's devastatingly effective charge across the north of the country. The spectacular collapse of all resistance. The convenient splintering within the rebel movements. The peaceful fall of Kidal. And in the capital, Bamako, all the right noises finally emerging from a notoriously sluggish transitional government about the need for elections, human rights etc.

Then came the clashes between rival groups of Malian soldiers in Bamako - a chilling reminder of the chaos still seething within the armed forces - and at the weekend, the first signs of a serious counter-attack by the jihadists in the key northern town of Gao.

Both incidents have served as a timely corrective for anyone who was beginning to entertain the idea that fixing Mali might be, well, almost as straightforward and smooth as President Francois Hollande's recent victory lap around the main square in Timbuktu.

And yet. For all the enormous challenges still facing Mali - and its neighbours for that matter - it is perhaps worth clinging on to some of the optimism that seems to have flooded through the country over the past month.

Reason to be hopeful

Over the years Mali - routinely, and lazily hailed abroad as a beacon of democracy in West Africa - had shown signs of becoming numb to its own deep internal problems. The cocaine trade, al-Qaeda, the neglect of the north, half-hearted attempts to integrate Tuareg rebels into the military, and a breathtaking amount of corruption - all these issues had been glossed over or tucked behind the more promising headlines about yet another peaceful election, or the discovery of even more mineral wealth buried beneath the Saharan sands.

Today, Mali has, at the very least, been forced to confront the truth. It has been jolted - there can surely be few other countries to have experienced quite such a devastatingly abrupt collapse - in the most extraordinary fashion. Whether that triggers real change, or more backroom deals by the same corrupt elites, remains to be seen. But there is, I think, some reason to hope that the conflict may serve as a catalyst for reform.

Commentators have tended to compare and contrast Mali's crisis with that of another vast, landlocked nation - Afghanistan. But there are other examples, closer to hand, of more successful outside interventions.

I remember, vividly, standing on the beach outside Freetown in Sierra Leone over a decade ago, as British soldiers piled out of their helicopters onto the sand. The entire city seemed to have come out to watch and cheer them. The British operation there was brief, and by most benchmarks, stunningly successful in ending a horrific civil war.

Which road will Mali follow? Afghanistan or Sierra Leone?

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