African leaders meeting in Mauritania last week pledged to redouble efforts aimed at curtailing and defeating extremist groups on the continent, especially in the Sahel region, like reported by voanews.com.
The pledge followed a rash of attacks by jihadi terrorist groups in two Sahel countries, including an attack that killed 10 Nigerien soldiers in the country’s southeast and an attack on the headquarters of the regional anti-jihadist G5 Sahel Force in Sevare and two other attacks in Mali.
But some experts are warning that there is not much the African Union can do to enhance the capabilities of the G5 force that was established last year.
“I can’t think of anything the AU (African Union) could do to help,” says Michael Shurkin, a senior political scientist with the Rand Corporation. “The militaries from which it is drawn are weak and lack many basic capabilities. Turning them into an effective coalition takes time.”
French anti-terror efforts in the Sahel
On Monday, an al-Qaida branch in Mali, Group to Support Islam and Muslims (Jama’atu Nusrat al-Islam Wa al-Muslimin), claimed responsibility for the recent attacks in Mali, saying it was a message to French president, Emmanuel Macron.
At the time, Macron was heading to Mauritania to discuss fighting terror in the region with leaders of the G5 Force countries on the sidelines of the AU summit held in Nouakchott.
“This exchange will be an opportunity for me to mark my commitment to renew the link between France and the African continent … on issues of security, counter-terrorism and education,” said Macron.
France has about 4,000 troops fighting jihadi groups in the Sahel under the banner of Operation Barkhane. The troops, along with their Malian counterparts, were the targets of Sunday’s suicide attack that killed four civilians and injured many soldiers, including French in Gao, northern Mali.
Alix Boucher, an assistant Research Fellow with the Africa Center for Strategic Studies in Washington, says there is more France could do to strengthen the security services of Mali and other G5 members.
But, Boucher says extremist groups in the Sahel could use an increased French military presence in the area for propaganda and recruitment, “by allowing them to claim that regional governments can’t be relied upon to provide security and that French troops are trampling on their sovereignty.”
What the African Union can do
The biggest challenge facing the G5 Sahel now is that of funding and equipment. Many analysts say direct funding of the Force by the Africa union would not be feasible.
“The African Union funding the mission would only transfer funding challenges to the AU,” says Boucher.
The chairman of the G5 Sahel Group of Countries, President Mahamadou Issoufou of Niger, said the group will pursue direct funding from the United Nations as a sure way of funding the force.
“We have agreed to continue advocacy to put the G5 Sahel Force under Chapter 7 of the U.N. Charter, which will address the issue of long-term funding for the Joint Force,” the Nigerien Press Agency quoted him as saying.
Analysts like Wendy Williams, adjunct research fellow at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies in Washington, believe that authorities in Sahel countries like Mali need to wake up to their responsibilities of providing services to all of their people, not just to some.
“Not only has the Malian government not provided consistent public services or security to the communities outside the southern part of the country, it has encouraged the creation of local militias to provide protection to communities instead of the military,” she said.
Williams said when the military appears, it tends to treat everyone, including the militia, as if they were part of the militants.
“This has only had the effect of driving some of militias toward the jihadist groups for training, weapons, and support,” she said.
President Issoufou of Niger agreed with the point that the military force is only a temporary solution in the fight against terrorism.
“We are fighting militarily to beat terrorism, which is a short-term solution, but in the long run the solution is economic and social development, because poverty breeds terrorism,” he told ANP.
For analysts like Shurkin of the Rand Corporation, a better hope for the G5 Sahel Force lies with the French.
“The G5 Sahel Force’s best hope for becoming something effective would be if it is de facto, if not de jure, an auxiliary to the French, however bad that looks,” he said.
President Mohammadu Buhari demonstrated his seriousness to wipe out insurgency in the North East when he ordered for the withdrawal of $496m from the country’s excess crude account (ECA) for the procurement of 12 Super-Tucano fighter Jets from the United States government, like reported by leadership.ng.
Although the president had written to the National Assembly indicating his decision to purchase the jets but given the urgency of National Security, he chose to tread the path of anticipatory approval. H, therefore, withdrew the money and paid for the jets which will be built and delivered by 2020.
The A-29 Super Tucano is an aircraft that the U.S. Airforce paid to develop precisely for partner countries that needed air support for their counter terrorism operations. It has a contract with Sierra Nevada Corporation and Embraer with the aircraft produced at Embrae’s facility on grounds of Jacksonville International Airport in Jacksonville, Florida.
Defeating Boko Haram requires sophisticated aircrafts such as the super-Tucano with its capabilities of effectively decimating the insurgent Camps in remote areas as experienced in Colombia against Fuerzas Armadas Revolution arias de Colombia (FARC) insurgents, and ended the 52 years of guerrilla conflict estimated to have claimed 220,000 lives .
The nimble lethal airplane reportedly can carry a wide array of armaments including precision guided munitions and is equipped with advanced avionics communications and remote sensors, and is powered by a variant of the world’s most popular turboprop-engine, the Pratt & Whitney (UT&N) that incorporates FADEC (Full Authority Digital Engine Control) and EICAS (Engine Indication and Crew Alerting System).
It has a maximum speed of 590 kilometers per hour and a flight ceiling of 35000 feet. The Tucano can be used for training, surveillance, and can attack from the air at less than 304 metres above ground battle. It offers the capability to operate from unimproved runways. Embraer, the Brazilian makers of the aircraft says the plane could withstand +76/-3.5G loads and that the aircraft structure is corrosion-protected. The side-winged canopy has a windshield capable of withstanding a bird strike at 270kts. And the cockpit environment, it says, has been enlarged to comfortably accommodate male and female pilots and the instrumentation designed to glass cockpit standards.
The super-Tucano has a history of successful operations with a number of International Operators including Afghanistan, Ecuador, Indonesia, Philippine, Iraq etc. Ghana currently has five Tucanos and has finalized a deal to up them to nine. Libya, Senegal, Mali, Mauritania, Burkina Faso and Angola, are either operating the aircraft or negotiating purchases. However, while A-29 Super Tucano does have a proven performance and safety record , Aviation experts say its light attack mission can be inherently dangerous with the aircraft frequently prosecuting targets at medium to very low altitude.
In fact on July 11, 2012 one of Colombia’s 25 Super Tucano’s was lost near Jambalo town, when the aircraft was flying in one operation against FARC rebels. The rebels claimed they shot down the aircraft with 50 Cal (12.7mm) Machine gun, but the Colombian Air Force challenged the rebel group claims after inspection of the aircraft wreckage. Only recently in June this year, a U.S Navy pilot was killed in A29 Super – Tucano crash inside the country’s Red Rio Bombing Range inside the white sands missile Range. Another crew member on board was reported as injured after ejecting from the aircraft. The aircraft was part of the U.S. Aircraft Light Attack experiment program.
It is an evaluation program that is performing analysis and flight test on several small, mostly turboprop light multi-role aircraft to demonstrate their capabilities for potential integration into U.S. and allied air combat roles. The A-29 is the seventh U.S. Airforce crash since the beginning of the year. The most recent ones involved a WCBOH from the 156th Airlift Wing from Puerto Rico. Be that as it may, what is the guarantee that Nigeria would eventually have the 12 super-Tucanos delivered to her in 2020 especially now the United States and other western countries are continuing to engage African countries on issues of governance and respect for human rights as one of the pillars of their policies on the continent.
Senator Patrick J. Leahy, Democrat Senator from Vermont had his bill to ban the sale of U.S. arms to countries with poor human rights record passed into law. Since the Leahy law came into being, the United States government has used it to block the sale of the cobra helicopters by the Israelis to the Nigerian government in 2014.
The Obama Administration in 2013 signaled its displeasure of Egyptian military bloody crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood by withholding delivery of several big-ticket military items including Apache attack helicopters, Harpoon missiles, MI-AI tank parts and F-16 war planes as well as $260m for the general Egyptian budget. Canada’s Export control prohibit the sale of arms to countries with a persistent record of serious human rights violations against their own citizens.
It is on this grounds that the Canadian government is under pressure to cancel sale of military helicopters to Saudi Arabia which is currently with the support of United Arab Emirate leading air strikes on Yemen. There are concerns that Canadian arms could be complicit in the on-going fight in Yemen where thousands have been killed. The U.N. recently described Saudi Arabia as the world’s worst humanitarian catastrophe right now.
Human rights advocates expressed disbelief that Canada was selling Bell 412 combat helicopters to the Philippines considering that country’s poor basic human rights record and its controversial leader, president Rodrigyo Duterte, who once boasted about throwing a man to his death from a helicopter. Sweden passed a new law in April this year to limit sales of arms to dictatorships and countries where human rights are severely under threat.
Saab, Sweden’s government arms manufacturer and the 12th biggest arms exporter in the world, agreed in 2017 after six years of discussion to introduce a democracy criterion for granting arms export licences. The truth is that the United States led western countries are taking the issues of unlawful arrests, extrajudicial killings, and disregard for basic human rights including clean-up of oil polluted environments into consideration in determining who buys arms from them, and from their allies.
And that includes which country gets spare parts for military equipment already supplied even against the wishes of their arms companies. It is on this ground that African countries must equally review their military cooperation with western countries. For instance the super Tucanos when delivered to Nigeria would be serviced in the United States and that would be very expensive. So would be the supply of spare parts which can be stopped at any time depending on the political behavior of the country’s leadership. President Buhari must have quickly paid for the Tucanos but that does not necessarily mean it is a done deal.
At least 15 people were killed in central Somalia when villagers clashed with Al-Shabab militants trying to recruit their children as fighters, like reported by voanews.com.
According to local sources, 10 militants and five villagers died in the fighting in Aad village, in the central Galmudug administration.
A villager who requested anonymity told VOA’s Somali Service that the militants met with local elders two days ago and sought help with the recruitment. “The fighting came after they demanded that we provide young children to fight alongside them,” he said.
He said the villagers organized themselves and decided to resist, but Al-Shabab moved into the village, and took control.
“They are using power, they want to take kids, they want livestock, the fighting is not over,” he said.
Galmudug regional deputy security minister Mahad Hassan Mohamed told VOA Somali the villagers are defending themselves.
“They [Al-Shabab] want to take away their children and take them to their madrassas. The people have rejected this,” Mohamed said.
The Shabab militants say they defended the village after an attack by regional forces and killed 15 regional troops.
VOA reported last September that Al-Shabab militants have been meeting with clan elders and Koran school teachers, ordering them to provide young recruits for Al-Shabab training camps and madrassas. The move has forced hundreds of children to flee Shabab-controlled areas in Bay and Bakool regions of southwest Somalia.
Earlier this year, New York-based Human Rights Watch published a report detailing Al-Shabab’s forced recruitment and efforts to take children away from their parents and religious schools. It said children as young as eight were affected.
Three Somali soldiers and two militants died in a separate attack Tuesday near the town of Sanguni in Lower Jubba region, a military officer tells VOA Somali. A U.S. soldier was killed in an Al-Shabab mortar attack there on June 9.
Mukhtar Abdi Mohamed, a unit commander with Somali forces, said Shabab militants “sneaked along the river” and surprised the Somali troops who were having lunch in a forward outpost. He said three government soldiers and two militants died in the fighting that ensued.
Local sources put the death toll on Somali soldiers at seven.
As Senegal awaits rulings in the cases of 29 people recently tried on terrorism-related charges, evidence that came out during the trials is making many people in the country uneasy, like reported by voanews.com.
“This trial opened the eyes of many Senegalese who have been living in denial, and who kept saying that this country never hosted terrorists,” said Abdou Khader Cisse, a journalist with a popular Senegalese news outlet, Dakaractu, who has been covering this issue for the past several years.
“‘They are among us’ — this is the most shared expression [about the terrorists] among our fellow citizens,” said Cisse.
The defendants are Senegalese jihadists accused of working with and fighting for terrorist groups in other African countries, as well as an influential Salafist imam accused of radicalizing and providing material support to terror organizations.
The 29 suspects — all but one of them men — were tried between April 9 and May 31 by a special criminal chamber in Dakar. Rulings are expected July 19.
Boko Haram recruiting
The overwhelming majority of Senegal’s Muslim population belongs to one of four main Sufi sects that dominate the country.
“[They are] generally open-minded, tolerant,” said Jacob Zenn of the Jamestown Foundation. According to Zenn, Senegal has seen the appearance of a stricter and more orthodox form of Islam in the form of Wahhabism.
Most of the suspects are believed to have traveled to Nigeria and fought for Boko Haram, while others went to fight for jihadists in Libya and Mali.
“Those who went to Nigeria were part of a similar network as those in Libya, and those in Nigeria saw major events and battles, including Boko Haram at its peak, when Abubakar Shekau declared an ‘Islamic State’ near Gwoza in 2014,” Zenn said.
“I think Senegal faces more of a regional as opposed to a domestic-specific threat as a state,” said Ryan Cummings, the director of a security risk consultancy firm, Signal Risk, based in South Africa.
He says that in 2012, the grand imam of Bignona, a town in southern Senegal, said that Nigerians came to a local mosque and actively recruited for Senegalese nationals to join the Boko Haram insurgency in Nigeria. At the time, Senegalese authorities didn’t pay much attention to the claim. As it turned out, about a dozen Senegalese joined Boko Haram, led by Makhtar Diokhane.
Key suspects on trial
Diokhane was tried this year, not only for fighting for Boko Haram in Nigeria, but also for receiving 6 million Nigerian naira (about $30,000 at the time) from Shekau to set up a terror cell for the group in Senegal. He is also alleged to have recruited Senegalese for terror groups across Africa.
“He [Diokhane] was one of the ringleaders who moved between Senegal and Nigeria and arranged [for] the Senegalese foreign fighters to join Boko Haram,” said Zenn.
One of Diokhane’s wives, Coumba Niang, is being tried on charges of financing terrorism. She is accused of funneling money from her husband to prospective jihadists.
Meanwhile, Imam Alioune Ndao, a Salafist preacher from Kaolack, is facing a 30-year jail term for money laundering, providing material support to terrorist and possessing illegal arms.
Another suspect, Moustapha Diatta, came to the attention of Senegalese anti-terror authorities through his Facebook postings. Authorities were able to connect him to several accused jihadists and to Imam Ndao.
Inspiring or demoralizing
Many analysts warn that jihadists may target Senegal either because the ideology has been sown or because of its cooperation with international anti-terrorism operations.
“I think that Senegal, in its ongoing assistance to counterterrorism operations in Mali and the wider region, is certainly at a much higher risk of been potentially targeted,” Cummings told VOA.
Counterterror efforts in the country have been led by France and, to a lesser extent, the United States.
According to a spokeswoman for the U.S. military’s Africa Command, Samantha Reho, support for Senegal has been focused primarily on maritime security and peacekeeping activities.
“The U.S. has provided some advanced peacekeeping operations training that will be used as Senegal supports the MINUSMA mission in Mali,” Reho told VOA, referring to the acronym for the United Nations mission in Mali.
“The region has seen many formerly stable countries with high potential succumb to jihadism, such as Mali and even Burkina Faso. If it happened to Senegal, it would be completely demoralizing not just to Senegal but the entire continent,” Zenn said. “Yet, if Senegal tames the jihadist wave and succeeds politically and economically, it will be an inspiration and model for the region.”
The International Society for Civil Liberties and the Rule of Law, Intersociety, claimed that Islamic herdsmen and Boko Haram insurgents have in the first six months of 2018, killed 1,750 Christians and other non Muslims, like reported by dailypost.ng.
Intersociety in a statement by its Board Chairman, Comrade Emeka Umeagbalasi, Head Civil Liberties and Rule of Law, Obianuju Joy Igboeli and Head, International Justice and Human Rights Programme, Chinaza Ndidiamaka Bernard, said the herdsmen also killed 8,800 Nigerians, mostly Christians in three years, from June 2015 to June 2018.
He said, “Nigeria is drifting to faith genocide through killing, maiming, burning and destruction of churches and other sacred places of worship and forceful seizure and occupation of ancestral, worshipping, farming and dwelling lands of the indigenous Christians and other indigenous religionists in Northern Nigeria.
“The situations have worsened with loss of lives in six months of 2018 of no fewer than 1,750 Christians and other non Muslims to terror herdsmen. “No fewer than 8,800 Christians have also been targeted and killed in Nigeria in the past three years of June 2015 to June 2018.
“The Christians killed in Nigeria since then by security forces were 1,014 out of 2,265 killed; including 1,130 members of Shiite Muslim sect; herdsmen killed 275 while Boko Haram insurgents killed over 2,450, out of no fewer than 4,000 killed. Zamfara bandist killed 80 out of no fewer than 160 killed in Kaduna State along Birnin Gwari Federal Road and its surroundings in six months of this year targeted at travellers and other road users.
“From our general evaluation too, no fewer than 2,360 innocent Nigerians were killed. 1,750 by herdsmen, 250 by Boko Haram and 360 by Zamfara bandits in the first six months of 2018 (Jan-June 2018). No fewer than 13,221 defenseless Nigerians also got killed by the trio as well as the security agencies in the past three years.”
According to the group, “the number of churches and other sacred places of worship destroyed or burnt in the past three years were not less than 1,000 and they did not include the over 13,000 burnt or destroyed by Boko Haram insurgents between 2009 and 2014 as contained in the 2015 special report of the Open Doors International Report, USA.”
It said, “from our general evaluation of the killings by herdsmen, Benue State recorded the highest number of rural Christian and other non Muslim deaths in first six months of 2018 with no fewer than 600, followed by Plateau State with 400; Taraba 250; Nasarawa 200; Southern Kaduna 100; Adamawa 100 and Kogi State 100; totaling no fewer than 1,750 Christian and other members of non Muslim population.
“The total death toll in Plateau State following the 23rd and 24th June 2018 coordinated attacks and killings in eleven villages may most likely have hit 300, from its present 250, out of which 218 bodies have been recovered and buried in mass graves. The activists on the ground said dozens of people are still missing after the head count was carried out. Those still missing are presumed to have died. This is more so when they are not among the injured and survivors.
“The 218 recovered and buried dead bodies, according to Middle Belt activists and authorities of the Christian Association of Nigeria, CAN, included 80 recovered from Nhyer, 40 from Akwati, 34 from Ruku and 5 from Kuzen, all under Gashish District.”
Ten soldiers were killed and four were missing Sunday after an attack blamed on the jihadist group Boko Haram on a military position in southeast Niger, near the border with Nigeria, the defence ministry said according to news24.com.
“We have a provisional toll of 10 dead, four missing and three wounded,” defence ministry spokesperson Abdoul-Aziz Toure told AFP, nearly a month after the last attacks attributed to the group killed six, shattering several months of calm in the troubled region.
The attack by “Boko Haram” had targeted Niger’s “army positions in Bla Brin, a village not far from the Lake Chad area, 40km from the town of N’Guigmi”, he added.
The last attacks attributed to Boko Haram took place in early June.
In late April, Niamey announced a military operation against Boko Haram in the region of Lake Chad, which links Niger, Chad, Nigeria and Cameroon.
The group, which is seeking an Islamic state based on Sharia law, has caused the deaths of at least 20,000 people since it took up arms in 2009 in Nigeria.
Some 2.4 million people have been displaced in northern Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad and Niger, according to the UN refugee agency UNHCR.
A suicide car bomb aimed at a patrol of French soldiers has killed four civilians on Sunday in Gao in northern Mali, said officials according to news24.com.
The suspected extremist attack is the third in three days in Mali, which is preparing for presidential elections on July 29.
“French soldiers in armored vehicles were patrolling … when a gray-colored 4X4 car drove by them before exploding,” said Atayoub Maiga, a Gao resident who witnessed the explosion.
“I saw French helicopters coming to the scene of the attack and evacuating wounded,” he said.
This is the third attack targeting military forces in Mali in the past three days. Two soldiers and one civilian were killed on Friday in the car bomb attack on the G5 Sahel force command post in the central town of Sevare. The al-Qaeda affiliate in Mali has claimed responsibility for that attack. On Saturday at least four Malian soldiers were killed when their vehicle hit a land mine in the Koro area in central Mali.
The recent series of attacks are creating doubts about how Mali will be able to secure safe elections at the end of July.
In 2012, northern Mali was occupied by jihadist groups linked to al-Qaeda before being expelled a year later by French forces. Although the extremists no longer control major cities, they are in the countryside and frequently carry out attacks.
The brazen attacks highlight the extremist threat in West Africa that made headlines in October with the killing of four US service members in an ambush in neighbouring Niger.
The assaults come shortly before French President Emmanuel Macron and African leaders meet at an African Union summit on Monday in Mauritania, with the regional extremist threat on the agenda.
A number of extremist groups linked to al-Qaeda and the Islamic State group are active in Mali, often targeting local security forces and the world’s deadliest active UN peacekeeping mission. They also have staged high-profile attacks in the capitals of Mali and Burkina Faso, including simultaneous assaults on the French Embassy and army headquarters in Burkina Faso’s capital in March.
The 5 000-strong G5 Sahel force launched last year brings together troops from Mali, Burkina Faso, Chad, Niger and Mauritania. It has received millions of dollars in backing from the United States, the European Union, Saudi Arabia and others.
The new force joins multiple counterterror efforts in the Sahel region including France’s largest overseas military deployment, Operation Barkhane, which has 3,000 French troops in the region which are based in N’Djamena, the capital of Chad.
The Somali National Army (SNA) Radio has reported the death of the supreme leader of the Al-Shabaab jihadists Ahmed Dirie Abu Ubeyda, according to theeastafrican.co.ke.
The broadcaster run by the military, reported that Abu Ubeyda died in Jilib District in Middle Shabelle, about 410km south of Mogadishu.
The report could not be independently confirmed, but the local media outlets have been reporting about the ill-health of Abu Ubeyda and the infighting within the jihadist group over his succession..
A southern Somalia military officer, Mr Ismael Sheikh Isaq, reportedly told the SNA Radio that the army received credible information that the Al-Shabaab leader died of kidney failure.
He gave no date for of the death.
Abu Ubeyda assumed the leadership of the Al-Shabaab in December 2014, three months after his predecessor Ahmed Abdi Godane alias Sheikh Mukhtar Abu Zubayr, was killed in a US drone attack.
The jihadist group has neither confirmed nor denied the alleged death of its supreme leader.
Enemies of Islam
The US is known to have placed $6 million bounty on the head of the Al-Shabaab leader.
The Al-Qaeda-linked Al-Shabaab emerged as the armed wing of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), which later splintered into several factions after its defeat in 2006 by the Somali Transitional Federal Government (TFG) and the Ethiopian military.
The group describes itself as waging jihad against “enemies of Islam”, and is fighting against the Federal Government and the African Union Mission to Somalia (Amisom).
Canadian troops started to take up their positions in the world’s most dangerous peacekeeping mission on Sunday, as a dozen Forces members flew into an isolated United Nations’ base to begin work on Canada’s year-long commitment to help bring peace and stability to this strife-riven African nation.
The sun beat down on the tarmac as defence chief Gen. Jonathan Vance led the small contingent out of the Hercules transport plane that had carried them into the country and were met by a German convoy covered in the red dust that seems to be everywhere.
Vance and the 12-member advance team, whose task will be to lay the groundwork for the eventual arrival of the eight helicopters and 250 military members who comprise Canada’s mission in Mali, were scheduled to arrive the day before.
But a horrific dust storm, pictures of which showed a scene straight out of a movie, had forced Vance and the others to remain in Mali’s capital, Bamako, the previous night. It’s testament to one of the unpredictabilities of this mission — the weather.
Asked his first impression upon landing, a master warrant officer from Quebec who previously served in Afghanistan and Bosnia and who will act here as the camp sergeant major, replied: “It’s very hot. It’s very, very hot.”
But Nick, who like most others could only identified by his first name due to security reasons, was also clearly excited about the prospect of getting on with the mission after months of training — and nearly 10 years after he last deployed into Afghanistan.
“When the ramp of the Herc goes down on the tarmac, that’s a very, very good feeling,” he said. “It’s hot, you can feel it here in the desert. But that feeling is great.”
The arrival of the advance team marked the culmination of years of promises by the Trudeau Liberals, which initially pledged in the 2015 election to take a leadership role in UN peacekeeping missions if elected to power.
But with memories of the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda still fresh in many minds, the peacekeeping commitment has been politically divisive while some have questioned whether there is even a peace to keep in Mali.
In an interview with The Canadian Press, Vance said both the UN and Canada have learned a great deal since the previous peacekeeping debacles of the 1990s, both in terms of reviews and lived experience in Afghanistan.
“There was a time in the ’90s when we went on operations and we adopted their rules of engagement. We do not that with this mission. We’ve learned,” Vance said.
“We understand a lot more than we did in the ’90s about the nature of theatre support to ensure command and control, communications, intelligence, logistics and engineering are put in place to the extent necessary to support a mission.”
Yet he was also candid in his assessment that, yes, the situation in Mali could get worse. But that is why the UN is in the country and why Canada is supporting the UN — to keep that from happening, which many say would unleash a Pandora’s box in the region.
The reality is that the Canadian mission was not expected to start until next year, when the government and military were expecting Canada to replace a contingent of Jordanian helicopters in Gao.
But when Jordan was unable, for reasons that are still unclear, to send their aircraft to replace the existing German helicopter contingent, which has been providing medical evacuations and transport, the UN turned to Canada in March.
Two large Chinook transport helicopters and four smaller Griffon escorts, along with one spare of each in case of break downs, are due to arrive next month and replace the Germans, who have been flying here for more than a year.
The Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali — or Minusma, as the UN mission is known — has been criticized both for not doing enough to bring peace and stability to the country, and because of its dangers.
More than 100 peacekeepers have died since Minusma was established in 2013, but the reality is that cost has been borne by developing countries such as Chad, rather than more advanced Western forces like Germany and Canada.
Indeed, the Canadians will spend the next 12 months in what is known as Camp Castor, a German-run base that is actually separate from the so-called “super camp” that houses most of peacekeepers in what is known as Sector East.
The camp is a collection of buildings, most of them low-slung and reinforced to protect against mortar attacks, bounded by concrete barriers and dusty roads along which the occasional armoured vehicle passes bearing the famous “UN” on its side.
The Canadians will fly primarily medical evacuation missions — at least one Chinook and two Griffons must on standby at the expansive nearby helipad at all times — but Vance said they could also be called upon to do other tasks.
Those could include providing medical assistance to a joint counter-terrorism force established by Mali and four of its neighbours to fight Islamist jihadists and others, Vance said, as well as the actual defending of Malian civilians.
But it could also mean protecting convoys and giving fire support to fellow peacekeepers who find themselves in trouble, though Vance said those would only launched in extremis — if absolutely no other option was available.
That could put Canadian helicopters and troops in harm’s way, but one senior UN official told The Canadian Press that the Germans “never fired a shot in anger,” and that there is no significant threat to helicopters from the ground.
The bigger threat is the weather and desert, which have been blamed for the crash of one German and one Dutch helicopter over the years, and which was in clear evidence — at least the heat — on Sunday when the troops arrived.
There is also the ever-present danger of poisonous scorpions, snakes and spiders around the camp, particularly at night, as well as malaria-carrying mosquitos.
The one of the main questions is whether Canada — and the UN — can make a difference in Mali, where poverty is everywhere and various factions are locked in bloody struggles for land, smuggling routes and ideology.
For Vance, the focus is on making sure the Canadian contribution accomplishes its mission by providing the UN — and by extension the Malian state — with the support that it needs until the situation begins to improve.
“I’m confident that we’re contemplating and doing the right things as an international community,” he said.
“I’m confident that our helicopter contribution to Mali will be first class and offer the mission exactly what it needs. And I suspect that all of that combined will help Mali resist any downward trends associated with those actors that would try and attack the state.”
Despite the challenges facing the Canadians, the UN and Mali as a whole, Capt. Megan of Kingston, Ont., is unwavering in her assessment of the situation: “I think the Canadians are part of an important thing here.”