international analysis and commentary

Why the world should watch Mali


Mali has undergone periods of rebellion, reconciliation and reconstruction four times since gaining independence from France in 1960. But this time – since 2012 – conflict is turning heads and spiraling out of control.

The global community, fearing a rise of jihadism, is struggling to curtail increasingly radical and widespread violence, as state efforts continue to fail.

Adijé Touré fled Konna, Mopti when she witnessed airstrikes, fleeing animals and general panic. Photo: Zoë Gorman


Mali was previously considered a modern “bright star in West Africa” for its democratically elected government and steady economic growth, averaging 5% annually from 2001 until 2011.[1] The state has been an important partner for the United States in the fight against terrorism and in safeguarding oil interests in the Gulf of Guinea, as well as for France in helping to secure strategic uranium interests in neighboring Niger. But the country has grappled with waves of rebellions from members of Tuareg and Arab groups in the country’s North, intercommunal conflicts among sedentary and nomadic populations and illicit cross-border trafficking.

Against a backdrop of ecological insecurity (drought, desert locust outbreaks), food shortages, extreme poverty, an unstable export economy, poor educational opportunities and rampant youth unemployment, the region remains fragile. State structures — weak, absent from large expanses of territory and rife with corruption — are often unable to cope with insecurity or to mediate disputes in a credible and satisfactory manner. As the Malian state remains unable to provide services to vast territories within its borders, non-state groups proliferate. This in turn decreases the ability of state service providers to safely access the regions and feeds into cycles of conflict. Short-term solutions can often undermine long-term stability by reinforcing an unstable status quo and flawed structures that impede the government from effectively mediating the crisis at its most fundamental levels.

As a result, Mali has experienced cycles of instability with underlying grievances left unresolved. Initial agreements in Mali tend to serve as preludes to further protracted fighting. The reasons behind this are complex, but three have featured in most rebellion cycles: the agreements are not fully inclusive and representative of the populations in question;  their implementation is slow and incomplete; and the state becomes a party to the conflict by committing human rights violations against civilians.

Brutal repression of the first post-colonial Tuareg uprising in 1963 – with state authorities massacring civilians – seeded resentment among Tuareg communities against the state and took the lives of the fathers of many leaders of subsequent Tuareg rebellion cycles.[2] A National Pact in 1992 did include provisions for sedentary populations and promised material benefits to nomadic Northern populations without the resources to fulfil these commitments, and Mali witnessed four more volatile years of fighting.

In many respects, the current conflict in Mali, which broke out in 2012, follows a similar pattern of state response to Tuareg discontentment — with multiple rounds of negotiations criticized for limited inclusivity and questionable actions from security forces. Previous rebellions nevertheless petered out as the Tuareg rebels did not have extended resources to sustain conflicts and were drawn to negotiated settlements. But this time, things are not just getting worse before they get better. The violence is spreading beyond traditional separatists in the North, with jihadist movements, self-defense militias, hunting brigades and bandits clashing in the North and Centre regions. The armed forces (FAMA) have recently committed atrocities such as shooting civilian market-goers and burning members of a pro-government self-defense militia.


Why is this rebellion cycle different?

Timing, arms flows, a jihadist resurgence, the retreat of the Malian state, prompting a proliferation of self-defense militias, the rise of intercommunal conflicts in central regions, and international military involvement — mostly from the French forces and the United Nations — have all factored into distinguishing the current crisis from previous rebellions. An international focus on countering violent extremism also plays into the broader conflict trends and must be contextualized.

Returning fighters after the fall of Muammar al-Qaddafi’s regime in Libya brought weapons and sparked a new rebellion under the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) with former insurgents, who had been reintegrated into the FAMA, defecting to join. Meanwhile, a political coup in Bamako ousted President Amadou Toumani Touré (ATT), creating a momentary power vacuum. Northern Islamist groups Ansar Dine, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) also took up arms, driving the MNLA from strategic cities in Timbuktu and Gao regions.

Jihadism is not new to the region, but the current scope and organizational level in Mali surpass previous periods. A decade before the 2012 crisis, AQIM’s predecessor, the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), worked to establish itself within local social and economic structures. Likewise, MUJAO was recruiting from Wahhabi villages with a growing reformist movement in Gao since the late 1960s. However, unlike MUJAO and Ansar Dine, which made a political claim over the northern part of the Malian territory, AQIM had previously managed to control the long-established smuggling networks in the Sahara-Sahel region and took advantage of the lucrative business of hostage holding. Western governments paid an estimated $90 million in ransom funds to AQIM between 2003 and 2011 to secure the release of hostages and indirectly funded the jihadist insurgency — with annual payments rising steadily to an estimated $66 million in 2013 alone.

The cross-links between jihadism and rebellion have granted a new legitimacy to former rebels able to build alliances with jihadist forces to mobilize under the banner of Islam and make political gains. Ansar Dine’s leader Iyad ag Ghali had served as a central figure in the Tuareg rebellions of the 1990s and 2000s and peace negotiations, but now opted for the creation of an Islamist state along sharia lines, rather than a secular Tuareg Azawad.

This mixture of jihadist groups and the Tuareg-dominated irredentist is an outstanding and constantly evolving feature of the current crisis. Although previously fragmented, the jihadist factions organized themselves in March 2017 with the creation of a coalition, Jama’at Nusrat ul-Islam wal-Muslimeen (JNIM) or Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims. JNIM regroups AQIM, Al-Mourabitoun (which absorbed most of the MUJAO), Ansar Dine and the emerging Katiba Macina, a group based in the Mopti region led by Amadou Kouffa. While carrying the global Al-Qaeda brand,[3] localized groups of JNIM have aligned themselves with the material and security needs of populations, often in the absence of the state, and appealed to social juniors for opportunities for mobility outside of traditional hierarchies. Popular perception of jihadist actors varies across communities and is closely linked to ethnicity and clan group, within a persistent process of power renegotiation.

With the rise of jihadist groups in the North and Centre, the conflict has leapt forward in importance on the global stage,[4] yet the current counterterrorism strategic framework remains ill adept to tackle the scope and complexity of the situation. The rise of JNIM runs in parallel to the formation of new, smaller groups with different funding sources, political leanings, capacity and reach, including the proliferation of self-defense militias, and the modus operandi of JNIM in interacting with local populations also varies significantly by region.

Push factors such as the need for protection, lack of economic empowerment and injustice are often significantly more pertinent than the draw of Islamist ideology or utopian ideals of building a Caliphate state common in paths to radicalization outside of the region.[5] The intermixing of extremist groups with politically or economically motivated actors further blurs an understanding of extremism. Many combatants are not radicalized, and other community members might support or inform these groups for various reasons without joining formally. Actors and events outside the JNIM umbrella might also be characterized as radical, such as the recent attacks against civilian Fulani populations in central Mali by donso hunting militias.[6] Targets of these groups vary from traditional authorities and local figures to security forces and schools, rendering the violence difficult to characterize.

Members of Operation Serval at its Bamako air base in 2013. Photo: Zoë Gorman


Jihadist violence is also not perceived as the most paramount security threat for most local populations, who emphasize unresolved intercommunal conflicts, unemployment, banditry and development issues, alongside a breakdown in trust in state institutions and security forces. [7] The absence or inability of the state to respond to growing insecurity has contributed to a proliferation of self-defence militias which may be party to one community or ethnic group, lack legitimacy and contribute to cycles of violence. Responses to insecurity are also sometimes counterproductive: a UN panel found counterterrorism operations conducted by the FAMA led to civilian deaths and increased intercommunal violence.

It is likely that the most effective counterterrorism strategies will focus on understanding local power struggles and the root causes of violence, reducing violence wherever it occurs (even state perpetrated), securing territory to reduce the appeal of armed militias and brokering inclusive political dialogue while promoting a present and fair judiciary, rather than simply removing key targets in JNIM’s leadership. In the longer term, stabilisation efforts should seek to facilitate an environment for development and infrastructure programmes, and shift a system that rewards armed actors through power and influence, to one that incentivizes peaceful cooperation through sustained trade partnerships, employment and educational opportunities.

The difficulty remains that these efforts will require prolonged and committed engagement from both the Malian state and international technical and financial partners (TFPs). This will entail appropriate military restraint to safeguard civilians as well as political grace in altering the status quo to allow for more inclusive power sharing among different social classes, age groups and genders.


Formulating a new social contract — Dare to be bold

The progression of peace processes in Mali demonstrate that what is on paper does not tell the entire story.

The current process is already hindered by a lack of inclusivity rewarding armed coalitions, such as the Coordination of Azawad Movements (CMA) and pro-state Platform, a tendency for power holders to further engrain the status quo, and limited means of implementation. The jihadist element further impedes the political process. Because of the international custom of not negotiating with terrorists, the process demands the labelling of armed actors in a theatre where affiliates or former affiliates of formal, Islamist groups might not be radicalised, and violent, non-Islamist actors might still be considered radical. Those left out of the process have the propensity to become spoilers, and those included remain hesitant to halt violence until they see the state holding up its end of the bargain.[8]

Subsequent negotiations should critically consider ways to maximise the inclusivity of the process by bringing the greatest number of people willing to denounce violence to the table, and by including non-violent interest groups. This should serve to discourage a system that rewards violent actors while the voices of those who opt to remain outside of the conflict are ignored. To secure long lasting stability, power holders must be both gracious and bold — daring to defy entrenched structures and elites to explore new avenues for reconciliation and progress.

Malian history has shown the first peace agreement is not the one that works, but rather inaugurates a process for inclusive dialogue. The reconciliation process must extend beyond formal negotiations at the national level, especially as national political agreements may give rise to dissent at the local level if perceived as benefitting certain groups.

A SIPRI survey found establishing dialogue mechanisms between populations and security actors the most commonly selected role for civil society to add value to the process.[9] In 1994, when ethnic conflict between the Ganda Koy defense militia and other armed movements was at its most violent, regional dialogues, inter-community meetings and truth and reconciliation meetings achieved what political negotiations could not, strengthening the government’s position in relation to the army, granting the administration public legitimacy and ultimately helped to convince the population the peace was real.

Peace accords in Mali are not the end to a process, but a beginning, and will require committed effort to implement, with a form of state-building that emphasizes a diversification of power holders and ongoing development to address the root causes of violence.







[1] Karen Bass, “The Tuareg Revolt and the Mali Coup: Hearing before the Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, and Human Rights.” Committee on Foreign Affairs, House of Representatives. One Hundred Twelfth Congress, 29 June 2012. Web. 9 Dec. 2012.

[2] For more details on Tuareg rebellion cycles, see Alexander Thurston and Andrew Lebovich (2013). A handbook on Mali’s 2012-2013 crisis. Institute for the Study of Islamic Thought in Africa.

[3] JNIM has publicly declared France ‘the historical enemy of Muslims in this part of the Muslim world’ and its number one adversary.

[4] The French conducted an initial Operation Serval in 2012 to regain territorial control of the North and are continuing counterterrorism operations through Operation Barkhane. Meanwhile, the United Nation’s peacekeeping force MINUSMA records the highest casualty rates of any UN operation, and Mali’s neighbors have joined in the joint security force of the G5 Sahel with a focus on countering terrorism, illicit trafficking and migration.

[5] A United Nations Development Programme report looking closely at push and pull factors for extremist individuals in 18 African countries (including Mali and Niger) found 83% of participants who had joined an extremism organization voluntarily agreed with the statement ‘the government only looks after and protects the interest of a few,’ and 71% of all respondents who had joined an extremist group cited government action such as extrajudicial killing or detention of a family member or friend as the primary tipping point for recruitment.

[6] Attacking Fulani civilians, Donso hunting militias have been labelled ‘radical armed elements’ in MINUSMA communications. The activities of such groups have been difficult to classify as ‘extremist’, ‘ethnic cleansing’, ‘hate crime’, ‘insurgency’ or ‘intercommunal conflict’ and the terms used have important implications for policy.

[7] According to data collected across Mali in a joint project with the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) and the Malian civil society organization CONASCIPAL, trust in endogenous and exogenous security forces has deteriorated from March 2016 to November 2017, and respondents did not rate any actor as significantly improving their sense of security.

[8] Over the past six years, Mali has undergone a series of negotiations and agreements in an attempt to broker a political solution to the conflict. Features of this ongoing process include the 2013 Preliminary Agreement to the Presidential Election and Inclusive Peace Talks (Ouagadougou ceasefire), the 2015 Agreement on Peace and Reconciliation in Mali from the Algiers process (Bamako Agreement), the 2017 Conference of National Understanding and ‘charter for peace, unity and national reconciliation’ and an evolving disarmament, demobilization and reintegration (DDR) policy.

[9] Results to be detailed in my forthcoming SIPRI publication “Main dans la main’: Insecurity and gender power dynamics in Mali”.