Is Nigeria about to invade Mali? Sorry, let me rephrase that: is a UN-backed regional intervention force about to restore order in Mali?
In fact, the two questions amount to the same thing, following a resolution passed by the UN security council last week that could well pave the way for military intervention in a country that's rapidly becoming one of the world's most troubling security hot-spots.
Here's the background: last March, there was a military coup in Mali. In the words of Bruce Whitehouse, writing in the London Review of Books: "Rank-and-file soldiers involved in a campaign against the resurgent Tuareg rebels didn’t trust their commanders and accused officials in [the capital] Bamako of withholding equipment and support. Mutineers captured the state television station and stormed the presidential palace. [President Amadou Toumani] Touré vanished into the night with a few bodyguards …"
And here's the background to those Tuareg rebels: they've been fighting for independence for the north of the country for many years. Some of them fought for Muammar Gaddafi in Libya; and after his overthrow last year, they returned home with plenty of arms. After the coup, they did try to secede, but were soon overpowered by Islamist/jihadist groups, reportedly linked to al-Qaeda, with whom they had been in a loose alliance.
So now, half the country or more, including the famed city of Timbuktu, is in the hands of the Islamists. And Western governments are desperately worried that al-Qaeda is well on the way to establishing a new toe-hold in a newly-failed state.
With some rare exceptions (take a bow, Lindsey Hilsum of Channel 4 News and Mike Thomson of our sister programme Today), much of this has gone unreported in the mainstream Western media. But the UN security council has begun to take notice, and the resolution passed a week ago, drafted by France, calls on Mali's neighbours to come up with "detailed and actionable recommendations" within 45 days for military intervention.
It also calls on foreign governments and international organisations to provide "co-ordinated assistance, expertise, training and capacity-building support" to such a force. All of which means, in all likelihood, Nigerian troops, backed by French special forces and perhaps some US intelligence-gathering as well.
Does any of this sound familiar? Think Somalia, where after endless delays, African Union forces are now beginning to make real gains against the al-Shabaab militia groups, which like their Malian equivalents, are said to be allied to al-Qaeda.
So will it work in Mali, if it ever happens? (It needs another security council resolution before a force can actually move in.) The Malian army itself is reportedly nothing like an effective fighting force, so there will have to be a lot of careful thinking about what should be done post-intervention. (Iraq, anyone?)
The respected conflict resolution think-tank the International Crisis Group has already sounded a warning:
"The use of force may well be necessary … to neutralise some of the armed groups involved in transnational crime activities combining terrorism, jihadism and drug trafficking. However, any military intervention should be preceded by political and diplomatic efforts aimed at isolating questions regarding intercommunal tensions within Malian society from those concerning collective security of the Sahel-Sahara region."
There are already some grim tales emerging from the areas under the control of the Islamists: the UN's assistant secretary-general for human rights Ivan Simonovic told reporters after a recent visit to Mali that he had heard testimony that forced marriage, forced prostitution, and rape were widespread, and that women were being sold as "wives" for less than $1,000.
Islamist militia groups have stoned to death an unmarried couple, he said, and amputated the hand of an alleged thief, as well as destroying ancient shrines in Timbuktu, claiming they violated Sharia law and promoted idolatry among Muslims. (Three more shrines, all listed as World Heritage Sites, were reported to have been destroyed yesterday.)
After all the mistakes that have been made during previous attempts at international military intervention, I wouldn't expect anything to happen quickly in Mali. But it may well be that sooner or later, a force will move in.
The New York-based artist Janet Goldner, who knows Mali well, wrote on her blog last week: "I have been a peace activist all my life but I see no alternative to a war in this case. The humanitarian crisis will only get worse until the criminals are gone."