DAKAR (AFP) – Senegal President Macky Sall urged the countries of Africa’s desert north on Friday to remain vigilant against the threat of Islamism which he said remained despite the French military intervention in Mali.
In an exclusive interview with AFP, the head of state hailed the “great synergy” which had arisen between France and the nations of the north African Sahel region battling armed insurgents in Mali since January.
He said the threat had been “seriously contained” but he warned: “We must remain vigilant and that vigilance is imperative in Senegal and all the countries in the region.”
France sent troops in January to Mali to quash Al-Qaeda-linked groups that had taken control of the country’s vast desert north and were advancing toward the capital Bamako.
They are fighting alongside the Malian army and other African soldiers and have largely succeeded in driving Islamist insurgents from the north.
Sall did not specify where a new threat might arise but pockets of Islamist resistance remain in northern Mali, particularly in the Gao region.
Al-Qaeda in North Africa has urged Muslims worldwide to attack French interests in retaliation for the intervention, a threat President Francois Hollande said is being taken seriously.
Meanwhile the Sahel offers a vast sanctuary spanning 7,500 kilometres (4,700 miles) from Senegal in the west to Somalia in the east, for armed extremists including the Nigerian Islamist sect Boko Haram, fundamentalist Shebab militants in Somalia and various Al-Qaeda splinter groups.
Sall recalled that in September last year “people felt that there was no threat, that we should wait until the end of 2013 before considering the establishment of an international force” to intervene in northern Mali.
“It really needed the strong conviction of ECOWAS (the Economic Community of West African States), the AU (African Union) and finally, but most importantly, we must pay tribute to Francois Hollande who believed and who fought alongside us…,” he said.
Sall said Senegal had been unable immediately to join the action when French and African troops deployed in January, “military logistics being what it is”.
But he announced that the number of Senegalese soldiers in the African-led Support Mission to Mali (AFISMA) had risen from 704 to a full quota of around 815 deployed in the largest northern city, Gao.
They will be integrated in July into the UN peacekeeping force of more than 12,000 troops, known as MINUSMA, he said.
“Impunity is over”
Mali is led by a transitional administration set up after a military coup in March last year that toppled the regime of President Amadou Toumani Toure and precipitated the downfall of the country’s north to the insurgents.
The extremists imposed a brutal version of Islamic sharia law in Mali’s northern cities, leading to a mass exodus of some 400,000 refugees, both abroad and to other parts of the country.
Sall said the country needed to hold presidential elections by July in order to establish the legitimacy of the Malian government and a “return to constitutional normality”.
Observers have voiced doubts over the possibility of elections within such a tight timescale, mainly because of continued instability in the north, and the logistical difficulty of getting refugees into polling booths.
But Sall said the conditions for elections “could be met”, even in Kidal, the northern town held by the ethnic Tuareg National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), which says it will not allow the Malian army or government into the region.
“We are very far from the situation when Pakistan and Afghanistan held elections,” he said, indicating that Mali was better equipped to go to the polls than those countries had been.
“You have to put into perspective the instability and difficulties, which are quite limited.”
Sall launched a number of audits into the finances of political foes after his resounding victory last year in a poll marred by violence over his rival Abdoulaye Wade’s efforts to seek a third term in office.
Several leaders of the 2000-2012 Wade regime have been repeatedly questioned over allegations of “illegal enrichment” while his son Karim is in jail awaiting trial for corruption over the amassing of a fortune of more than $1 billion.
The former ruling Senegalese Democratic Party accuses Sall of conducting a “witch hunt” against its hierarchy but the president told AFP the crackdown “has nothing to do with politics”.
“It has nothing to do with targeting anyone — we’re not here for that. I am confident that our justice system in this case, as in others, will uphold the law,” he said.
“The matter is in the hands of a fully independent, autonomous panel of judges who will evaluate freely if there is any truth in what the prosecutors have alleged,” he added.
Sall, who proclaimed that he was “the best elected president in Africa”, told AFP his government was “cleaning up public life and as it’s new, it bothers people. Everybody knows now that impunity is finished in this country.”