Interview with Ambassador Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah on the Sahel-Sahara Region

In this interview, Ambassador Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah of Mauritania discusses the crises in Mali and the Sahel region, sharing his insights on the threat of terrorism in the Sahel and on the idea of ECOWAS military assistance.

On Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s upcoming integrated strategy presentation scheduled for mid-September, Ambassador Ould-Abdallah says, “I think the idea to have an integrated approach is excellent. You cannot work if everyone is going his or her own way. I have, however, a problem, because while we are at the UN preparing ourselves for an integrated approach, the situation keeps deteriorating on the ground.”  

Ambassador Ould-Abdallah, a long-time diplomat, also emphasizes the need for the UN to prioritize their issues. The three main priorities, he argues, are to have a functioning government in Mali; to liberate three cities in the north dominated by radicals; and to gather broad international support for Mali.

The interview was conducted by Ambassador John Hirsch, Senior Adviser at the International Peace Institute.

Listen to interview (or download mp3):

Interview Transcript:

John Hirsch: Good afternoon. Today we are speaking to Ambassador Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah, a senior Mauritanian diplomat and long-time United Nations official. Ambassador Ould-Abdallah is currently the president of the Center for Strategy and Security in the Sahel-Sahara region.

Mr. Ambassador, since March of this year, Mali as you know, is going through a stability crisis caused by both a military coup, which toppled former President Amadou Toumani Touré, and an ethnic Tuareg rebellion from the north, now turned to radical Islamism.

In your opinion, was the crisis in Mali predictable, and what could have been done on national, regional, continental levels to avert the current situation?

Ambassador Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah: Well, thank you very much. Concerning the first part: was the crisis in Mali predictable? I  think no, because Mali was like other countries in the region. It happens that I was with the president in late February, the 23rd of February, 2012, and I knew that he was at the end of his regime. The situation was difficult, but it was not expected that he would be toppled this way, so easily, and by noncommissioned officers.

What could have been done? Because of the international culture, it is very difficult to tell the president what to do and–whether it’s the African Union, or European Union, the US, UN–it is rare that we interfere. You have to know a leader very well to give him an opinion or advice. But what he could have done in February, late February when I met him with a mutual friend–it was probably to form a government of national unity, because the election was very close, and because he never had a party of his own. It could have been–and I said “could have been”–helpful if he had brought together all political leaders to say, “Look, we have this problem in the north. It is deeper than that, let us–like at war, like we have seen it in Europe, we have seen it elsewhere–form a government of national unity to put our strengths together and to minimize critics and dissent, for the happiness of our population.”

JH: Now that the crisis, particularly in the north, is underway, we face a different question. In your view, Ambassador, are countries in the Sahel region adequately equipped to overcome the terrorist threat posed by al-Qaeda and the Islamic Maghreb and its affiliates, including Ansar Dine, the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA), and Boko Haram in Northern Nigeria? What individual efforts are needed at the individual country level and also at the regional level to deal with, and, if possible, to eradicate the emerging terrorist threat in West Africa?

AOA: Well this is a complex question, in fact. No country on the military level will accept to recognize that it is adequately equipped. The problem we have is the internal stability. Before fighting any threat, it is good to have a strong, domestic front. My opinion is that a president and his own followers should open up the cabinet and state institutions to the opposition or to personalities who are neutral, to enlarge their political base and to legitimize further the regime.

Though there is a lot of progress compared to the 70s and the 90s, we still have in most African countries this one-party mentality, you know, the winner takes all. But politically, socially, they [the government] can do something. And what they need is intelligence levels and military training. They can do something, they can improve.

But for problems of equipment alone, it is not enough, because the war is asymmetric, and the rebels or the radicals–whatever we call them–know the regime. They are determined, and they have something at stake. They are looking for money by convoying traffic in drug, in cigarette, in migrant workers, and so on.

Now, what additional efforts are needed? Again, the additional effort is more–not only government of national unity–but more transparency. I think that in this era of mass communication–where most young people and less-younger people have mobile phones, have Internet, Twitter–it is very difficult for the leadership to behave like in the 70s: “I am the president, I do whatever I want.” They have to inform more their people. They have to make their army more professional, and to be based also as far as possible on merit and professionalism. In many cases, the army, the security forces are recruited and promoted on ethnical, regional, or religious bases, and they are there to protect the regime, not the country, not the economy. So all these basic elements, if addressed adequately could help.

JH: President Dioncounda Traoré as you know has formerly requested ECOWAS military assistance to recover the occupied territories in the north and fight against terrorism. What is your assessment of the proposed intervention, and above your own assessment, what would be the elements needed for a successful ECOWAS intervention in Mali?

AOA: From my experience in international affairs, it is very difficult to have a successful military intervention if based on a loose coalition. There are very few exceptions of success and at a level of a very professional army. At the point I understand the president, he would like the country to recover, as quickly as possible, northern Mali.

The problem is that the majority of the Malians, especially the military, but also some so-called patriots, don’t like to see foreign troops in Bamako, in the capital. They are all ready, if they [foreign troops] can help take back the north. Which means they would like their cake, and they would like to eat it too, which cannot work.

On the fundamental equation of military intervention, the situation to me is not adequate for a military intervention in the north. We need to try all political measures possible, to try a settlement, first a stronger cohesive institution in Bamako, not only the government or Parliament, but also the political elite, the civil society organizations, including religious groups. When you have that strong base, when you have that government of national unity, then it is possible to think of going north.

But I see it as a very difficult undertaking. The priority should be the military in Mali being reunited, their morale strengthened, and reconciliation between the green and the red beret, which is very important, because the loyalty is sometimes to the former bosses, not to the country. Equipment–if you are determined–equipment is not the most difficult thing to obtain.

JH: As we were reminded at the [IPI] roundtable this morning, the crisis is more than in Mali. So at the request of the Security Council, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is due to present in mid-September an integrated strategy for the Sahel region for security, governance, development, human rights, and humanitarian issues. In your view, Ambassador, what are the main elements which such an integrated strategy should include to effectively and sustainably address the multifaceted crisis in the Sahel?

AOA: Well I think the idea to have an integrated approach is excellent. You cannot work if everyone is going his or her own way. So I think integrated approach is good. I have, however, a problem, because while we are at the UN preparing ourselves for an integrated approach, the situation keeps deteriorating on the ground. The traffickers are stocking more products because they know the situation will not last forever. They are dispatching more products and hiding them.

Second, the radical Islamists are training more people and having dormant cells throughout the region, not only Mali. And at the same time, they control three international airports, in Gao, Timbuktu, and Tessalit. So this is the problem I have.

On the troops, it is very complicated. There was a lot of enthusiasts in ECOWAS. Then, people are realizing it is very difficult to mobilize troops, to transport them, and to cover their costs. Only Nigeria has the capacity to deploy, as they did in Liberia, to deploy a military force on the ground. I’m not however sure they have the logistical capacity to do it today.

So another point which makes for military intervention difficult– though it might be necessary at one point–but it is made difficult because we started since March by saying we are sending troops, which means, if you don’t send them, you lose a sort of credibility, and this is where ECOWAS is now. “Are they sending troops or not? Are they afraid? Do they have the capacity?” So psychologically, it was not a good start. But in life it is never late to do good things, and I think they can.

JH: If I can just add here, beside the military strategy, what other elements could there be in an integrated strategy led by the UN when we are aware there is the humanitarian crisis, the food crisis, the climate crisis, and so on. So do you have any suggestions for the United Nations on the broader parameters of these crises?

AOA: Yes, I think the UN…. because of the nature of the [international] system, we act often too late, because this situation was raised in 2005, in a meeting I remember in Timbuktu, where we drew attention to trafficking and risk of terrorism. It is very difficult for the UN when people are focused on Syria and other hotspots to think of the Sahel.

Because they are doing it, and I think they should do it in an international manner. They have to seek support–not only to finance it, or logistical or technical–but views, opinions of those countries who can help, like the European Union, like the US, like any other countries, where a group of countries interested can do it. But to consider the crisis in the Sahel as only an African issue, or only a Sahelian or West African issue might not be productive. I think these are Maghrebian, African, and international issues, and they need support and backing from all people of good will from those regions.

JH: So my last question has to do with lessons learned, not only from what’s going on now in Mali and the Sahel, but also your experience in Burundi and in Somalia. What lessons do you think the countries in the region, the African Union, and the international community should try to draw from those crises that would lead to a more effective interaction by the international community and future crises?

AOA: Well, the UN has a good capacity to make exercises on lessons learned. The problem is really to learn them effectively–not to study, but to learn them. Again, in this case, I think the UN should be more proactive and should decide at the level of people who knows the issue, who have the capacity to help, meaning they have intelligence, they have resources. But if it is only a new exercise where you put everything in a paper without priority, because the priority for me now is to have a functioning, a more functioning government in Mali.

The second priority is to address the situation in the north, where you have so much money through traffic and trafficking it seems ignored. But if it is just a series of recommendations by every entity who would like the name to appear, I don’t think it is enough. We have to go beyond that and say the priority is to liberate the three cities dominated by these radicals, and we have to help the government of Mali as it is, because we need to work with a government. The UN needs to work with a government. If we don’t support this government, it might disintegrate, and what will happen is what we have in Somalia or in Afghanistan, run in to form a new government, criticizing them instead of helping, and so on.

I think–final point–this situation calls for all major regional countries who have the capacity to help and who are ready to help to support ECOWAS and to support Mali. And I know it is difficult. Every conflict is also an opportunity for some individuals, for some countries, and so on, and this is why people talk of warlords.

JH: This has been a very useful discussion, and particularly your last point about prioritization, I think, is worthy of the attention of the United Nations and the other international actors. So, Ambassador, thank you very much.