Make sure crisis in Mali doesn't spread, Akuetteh says

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The United States needs to focus more on the risk that the coup and subsequent crisis in Mali will spread to other countries in the region, Nii Akuetteh, an independent policy researcher, told a Dec. 5 Senate panel.

Akuetteh, the former head of the human rights organization Africa Action, urged the U.S. government to add containment to the list of priorities outlined by Johnnie Carson, the State Department's assistant secretary for African Affairs.

Carson said at the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee on African affairs hearing that the United States is focusing on restoring democracy, finding a political solution to the rebellion, countering Islamist extremist groups who control parts of the north and humanitarian issues.

But there is "a real risk that this will not be contained inside Mali, so I think it's important to stress contagion," Akuetteh said. That's why other countries in West Africa are so concerned, he added.

After the March coup, much of northern Mali was lost to violent extremist groups, including al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. AQIM and others control key cities in northern Mali including Timbuktu, Carson said. With a safe haven in the region, AQIM can more easily recruit and train terrorists.

Rebellious groups have taken over about 55 percent of the north, Carson said. Although that part of the country is roughly the size of Texas, only 10 percent of Mali's population lives there. Half of that population has fled the area; hundreds of thousands those people are in refugee camps in nearby countries.

Akuetteh questioned why the Malian military fell into disarray so quickly after one faction of it took over the country in the March coup, and said the United States should review what went wrong since its military had trained Malian forces in recent years.

Akuetteh also said he disagreed with the sequence to resolve the crisis that the State Department seems to prefer: First hold elections, then negotiate, and maybe intervene with military forces. He said real elections are difficult without security.

"I fear that if you rush elections in Mali, you are giving people all kinds of excuses, who lose, to stir up trouble and make allegations" that the elections are not credible, he said.

Since most of the population lives in the country's south and many others could vote from refugee camps, it's still possible to hold elections, Carson said.

He suggested that elections not wait for a complete military victory in the north, as that may not occur in the foreseeable future.

For more:
- go to the hearing webpage (video and prepared testimonies available)

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