The Economic Community of West African States is seeking a U.N. Security Council mandate as regional defense chiefs gather to finalize plans to send peacekeeping troops to Mali, where Islamist militants control the north.
The defense chiefs meetings Friday and Saturday are to be held in Ivory Coast’s commercial capital, Abidjan.
"We have always sought U.N. mandate for two basic reasons,” said ECOWAS communications director, Sonny Ugoh. “One, the fact that the environment that we have in the north of Mali requires that mandate. Two, we believe that through that mandate, we should be able to get the international support that will manifest in the area particularly of logistics to support the force, and in order to make it much more robust, and much more effective in dealing with the challenge we have in the north of Mali.”
Some Malians have expressed concern about initial reports of confusion over whether the government had invited ECOWAS to deploy its standby force.
But Ugoh said Ivory Coast President Alassane Ouattara, who heads the regional bloc, has received an official invitation letter from Mali’s interim President Dioncounda Traoré.
ECOWAS protocol stipulates that a standby force can be deployed after a formal request is made by a member state of the bloc.
Ugoh said the defense chiefs’ meeting forms part of ECOWAS’s effort to end the rebellion in northern Mali.
"The chief of defense staff of member states will finalize the roadmap for a deployment, so that we will be in a position to be ready to deploy as soon as we get the required UN mandate,” Ugoh said.
ECOWAS has said it is ready to deploy a force of about 3,000 troops to northern Mali, where Islamist rebels are trying to impose a harsh form of Sharia, or Islamic law.
The rebels seized control of the area in April after renegade soldiers overthrew the elected government in Bamako.
“The whole idea of this finalization of the roadmap is for the region to be in a position to be able to deploy as expeditiously as possible [and] as soon as this mandate from the U.N. Security Council is [obtained],” said Ugoh.
He admits that both Mali and ECOWAS lost valuable time in resolving the security crisis in the West African country. Islamist groups reportedly linked to al-Qaida now control about two-thirds of Mali's national territory.
The Islamists, along with Tuareg separatists, seized control of the north in April after the coup in Bamako. Since then, the militant groups Ansar Dine and MUJAO have pushed out the separatists and moved to enforce a strict version of Islamic law.
“This situation has lingered on for so long and we want to resolve it as quickly as possible. But, we have to make sure that all the prior processes are resolved,” said Ugoh. “And from our point of view, the last requirement is to have the U.N. mandate so that we can deploy under the U.N. umbrella.”
ECOWAS says the first phase of the deployment would provide security for officials and institutions of Mali's transitional government. It says the second phase calls for ECOWAS to train Mali's army and support its effort to recapture the north.