It is vital to step in now and stop the deadly march of these extremist militias in Mali

If Mopti fell, it would plunge 120,000 into the arms of the Islamists, with their segregation of sexes, banning of music and brutal interpretations of sharia

Share

For centuries, Mopti has been one of the most important cities in the Sahel, the trading post where the Saharan desert meets one of Africa’s great rivers. Salt-laden camel trains of nomads from the north unload their wares on to wooden pirogues, then replenish supplies at markets on the Niger shoreline.

Now this bustling city is on the frontline of a struggle between the past and the future, between extremist militias who want to impose their distorted and destructive vision of Islam on a people that want no part in their brutal nightmare.

The French sent their forces into action to protect Mopti, Mali’s second city and the most important northern point still in state hands. For days, there had been conflicting reports of fresh fighting between Islamists driving south and the Malian army. Konna, the town at the centre of events, lies just one hour north.

If Mopti fell, it would plunge 120,000 more people into the arms of the Islamists, with their segregation of sexes, banning of music and brutal interpretations of sharia – all so alien to most Malians. It could also have led to the collapse of the nation, still coming to terms with the traumatic and unexpected events of last year after a coup ended two decades of progress. The world has been slow to grasp the significance of Mali. Although al-Qa’ida has long wanted an African outpost, this is not a simple story of bin Laden’s legacy. Nor is it, as some claim, an inevitable by-product of Gaddafi’s downfall in Libya, which led to the return of well-armed Tuareg troops.

Instead it is a complex stew of local, regional, personal and tribal grudges, some dating back decades, then inflamed by profits from drug-running, gangsterism and the kidnapping of tourists. Economic deprivation and pressures of social change drove moderates to back the Islamists. Trying to understand the shifting alliances amid what one commentator calls “the sandstorm of war” is now near-impossible.

The French had little option but to act – even though only last month, asked about intervention in the strife-torn Central African Republic, President François Hollande replied: “Those days are over”. The militias were on the move – and there could be no waiting for the planned UN-backed autumn riposte, supposedly led by the corrupt and incompetent Malian army.

So why does it matter? First, because Mali is an important regional player whose people  want no truck with the extremist thugs who have inflicted hardship and tragedy on the nation’s huge Saharan region.

Second, because it is a country with close links to Europe – especially France, which has a large Malian community; this gives rise to obvious and justified concerns about increased risks of terrorism in the West. And third, because this has already become a proxy war. Islamists and militias from neigbouring countries such as Benin and Nigeria have poured in, alongside fanatics from as far afield as Pakistan. There are strong suspicions countries such as Algeria, Qatar and Saudi Arabia are surreptitiously involved; Malians say that in occupied towns generous regular stipends are given to men siding with the Islamists.

This unwanted conflict could rip apart the Sahel region, endanger global security and lead to even greater poverty for millions of innocent people. Even as French aircraft begin bombing Gao, it will be a huge challenge to recapture the desert region from battle-hardened troops. Regardless, it is vital to stop the deadly cancer of Islamist extremism spreading further south.

Is Britain right to assist the French in Mali? Have your say in our poll

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Telesales & Customer Service Executive - Call Centre Jobs

£7 - £9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Are you outgoing? Do you want to work in...

Ashdown Group: Finance Manager - Covent Garden, central London - £45k - £55k

£45000 - £55000 per annum + 30 days holiday: Ashdown Group: Finance Manager - ...

Ashdown Group: Systems Administrator - Lancashire - £30,000

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: 3rd Line Support Engineer / Network ...

Recruitment Genius: Graduate Web Developer

£26000 - £33000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Web Developer is required to ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

i Editor's Letter: A royal serving the nation

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
David Cameron met with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko prior to the start of the European Council Summit in Brussels last month  

David Cameron talks big but is waving a small stick at the Russian bear

Kim Sengupta
Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

Poldark star Heida Reed

'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn