Secessionist Conflict in Northern Mali
Mali's national crisis, which is the focus of Niebel's talks in Bamako, has existed since the beginning of the year. In January, the decades-old smoldering conflict in the north of the country between the Tuareg majority population and the Malian government, escalated. After the Libyan civil war, many Tuareg mercenaries, who had served in the Libyan army, returned home to Mali, armed with military equipment from Libyan arsenals as well as ample know-how in combat - and launched a new offensive. In an alliance, the secular "National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad" (MNLA), and the militant Islamist "Ansar al Din" ("Defenders of the Faith") were quickly able to take control of all of Northern Mali, including its largest city, Timbuktu. In the meantime, the Ansar al Din has successfully forced out the MNLA and taken almost complete control of Northern Mali. Ansar al Din seeks to establish, with heavy repression against the local population, a clerical regime based on the Sharia, causing more than 300,000 refugees.
Putsch in the Capital
It was in this context that, in late March, a putsch was carried out in Bamako, with a sector of the country's military overthrowing the incumbent civilian government under President Amadou Toumani Touré, accused of being inactive in re-establishing government control over the north of the country. In April, the civilian government was reinstated under the interim presidency of Dioncounda Traoré and Prime Minister Cheick Modibo Diarra, through strong pressure from the West African alliance, ECOWAS. However, this is little more than a civilian facade, behind which the military junta, led by Capt. Amadou Sanogo, directs the line of march. ECOWAS has now issued an ultimatum to the central government in Bamako: present a strategy for resolving the Malian crisis by August 10 or the alliance will intervene militarily.
If Necessary, Militarily
In the West, also, calls are growing louder insisting on a military solution to the Malian political crisis. Even though, economically, the country is not particularly significant for Europe and the USA, apprehension is spreading over the prospect of militant Islamist forces, which could become entrenched in Northern Mali, from where they could conquer other West African countries. For example, France, as the former colonial power in West Africa, which still holds enormous political and economic influence, is considering a military intervention. Laurent Fabius, the French Foreign Minister made it known in July that military action against the North Malian Islamists, could take place "from one minute to the next." But he was more hesitant in his statement concerning possible French participation. "The intervention is a matter for the countries of the region. We could, if we wish, furnish support."
The Hub, Burkina Faso
With his West Africa tour, the minister of development has also drawn attention to himself in Berlin. On Wednesday, the national crisis in Mali was the topic of Minister Niebel's talks in Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso. Under President Blaise Compaoré, Burkina Faso has developed into a principal hub for geostrategic influence in West Africa. Compaoré, with his authoritarian regime, has, on various occasions, effectively drawn attention to himself as a "mediator" in West African political and social conflicts - for example in Togo's social upheavals and the civil war in Guinea. Last year, he played a principal role in the French military putsch that brought President Alassane Ouattara to power in the Côte d'Ivoire. (german-foreign-policy.com reported.) Compaoré, who came to power 25 years ago in a bloody French supported coup, is criticized, even by his partisans, for his implications in other bloody West African conflicts. He is said, for example, to have supplied weapons to the warlord Charles Taylor during the Liberian civil war.
By intensifying its relations with Burkina Faso, Berlin is hoping to enhance its economic and political clout in West Africa - at France's expense, whose predominance had been, until now, uncontested. At the end of 2011, Germany, therefore, assured Burkina Faso 82 million Euros in development aid over the three subsequent years. At an event organized last June in Berlin by the German African Business Association and the Institute for Cultural Diplomacy (ICD), President Compaoré praised his country as an "anchor for peace and stability in West Africa." Through closer cooperation with Ouagadougou, the German government is seeking to gain influence, particularly on the current conflict in Mali. Burkina Faso's prominence is again growing as "mediator" - on behalf of EXOWAS - in the Malian national crisis. At the beginning of the week, Burkina Faso's Foreign Minister Djibril Bassolé met for talks with the leader of Ansar al Din and President Compaoré is said to have played a decisive role in the installation of Mali's current interim government.
Regional Alliances as Levers of Influence
Berlin is pushing for a rapid resolution of the secessionist conflict in northern Mali, whether by political or military means. Niebel underlined this demand during his visits in Ouagadougou and Bamako. He demanded that the Malian interim government presents a plan with "clearly defined intermediate objective(s)" to regain control over the North and declared that Bamako has to abide by the ECOWAS ultimatum. Strengthening ECOWAS, as the regional supervisory authority beyond this specific conflict, could help Germany's efforts to enhance its clout in West Africa at France's expense. While France has been pursuing a rather unilateral course to enforce its interests in the former colonies - most recently by forcefully installing Ouattara in the Côte d'Ivoire - Germany, since some time, has been focusing on the close cooperation with regional alliances. In Mali, for example, Berlin is supporting the "Bamako Peacekeeping School" financially and with personnel. On behalf of ECOWAS and the African Union (AU), this school will train African armies for joint operations. An ECOWAS intervention in northern Mali would be a prime example. The training center in Bamako is, in turn, closely connected to the "Kofi Annan International Peacekeeping Center" in Ghana, which is training so-called peacekeeping forces from various African countries. In addition, the CDU affiliated Konrad Adenauer Foundation regularly provides training sessions for high ranking West African military officials. Just recently, Hamburg's German Institute of Global and Area Studies (GIGA) acknowledged that, among the regional alliances, ECOWAS is "best equipped to react militarily to regional crises  - also due to German support. This offers Berlin possibilities for intervening in the French-speaking West African countries, which have been basically out of reach of German influence.