The Republic of Mali, a French colony until its independence in 1960, is a landlocked country in West Africa. Lauded as a model for democratisation in the 1990s after former interim (1991) President Amadou Toumani Touré launched a coup against Moussa Traoré and his dictatorial regime, today, Mali is governed by President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta and his democratic Rally for Mali party. However, the state has largely failed to contain the conflicts induced by armed militias, ethnic rebels, terrorist groups and intercommunal tensions – and today the nation is once again marked by instability and the flourishing of criminal activity. This instability has caused Mali’s human rights situation to rapidly deteriorate, with Human Rights Watch reporting in 2019 that 85,000 civilians fled their homes as a result of violence, hundreds were killed by ethnic self-defense groups, and Islamic terrorist groups and Malian security forces subjected numerous suspects to degrading and inhumane treatment with several dying in custody or being forcibly disappeared over the course of the year (Human Rights Watch, 2019) .
Northern Mali is inhabited by the ethnic Tuaregs, a nomadic group who historically populated lands ranging across Mali, Algeria, Libya, Burkina Faso, and Niger. In the last two decades, Tuareg rebels have sought greater autonomy for Northern Mali, renaming it the Azawad region in an attempt to establish a unified identity that transcends the artificial borders left behind by European colonialism. The National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad or the MNLA, is an ethnic rebel group formed by the Malian Tuaregs in 2011 who returned from Libya after Gaddafi’s overthrow. Their January 2012 rebellion, a protest against discrimination and marginalisation by the state towards their people, marked the fourth time the Tuaregs have rebelled since independence. In August 2015, their movement extended to driving out the Malian army from Azawad in response to attacks on Tuareg rebels by pro-government militias.
A key turning point in the destabilisation of the region was the Jihadist takeover of Northern Mali in 2012, following which an extreme system of Sharia law was imposed. France’s Operal Serval was largely successful in driving out many of the Islamic extremist groups in the region by February 2013, but this success was only temporary. Whilst weakened by France’s counterstrike, the jihadists were not defeated and attacks in the North have risen again since 2017. In late 2019, three Jihadist attacks were perpetrated in Central Mali. Two were against camps of the Malian Defense and Security Forces resulting in the deaths of forty Malian soldiers (MINUSMA, 2019). Another attack was carried out against two Patrols of MINUSMA (the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali) which killed one peacekeeper and injured several others. Local conflicts have also increased in Central Mali due to its high population density, and competition for land and resources. March 2019 saw a massacre of villagers by a local militia born from these tensions and the timing of these local issues in Central Mali with the rise in Islamic extremism around the country has made the political and military strategy even more challenging (Kühne, 2014).
A lingering post-colonial legacy has been a catalyst for poor governance and socio-economic conditions and has significantly contributed to the cultivation of Mali and the Sahel region as fertile grounds for terrorist activities. One key terrorist group in the region is Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM), the ‘Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims’. It is an assembly group and Al-Qaeda affiliate formed in March 2017 in Mali and neighboring West African countries from a local merger of Ansar Dine, the Macina Liberation Front, Al-Mourabitoun, and AQIM’s Sahara branch. With the Salafi-jihadist movement as its ideological parent, its goal is for the area to be ruled under Sharia law. Targeting Westerners and regional security forces, JNIM seeks to ‘incite the West African Muslim community to ‘remove oppression’ and expel non-Muslim ‘occupiers’ (CSIS). Their tactics have included attacking symbols of the French and UN presence in West Africa, such as the French embassy in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso in March 2018 as well as French military bases and the UN mission in Timbuktu, Mali in April 2018. They often release public statements identifying their actions as warnings to France and their allies to leave Muslim lands (CIA, 2019; CSIS, 2018).
Socioeconomic insecurity too has inevitably exacerbated these movements. Extremist groups have purposely targeted their recruitment in rural areas with food shortages and high unemployment, capitalising on this vulnerability by ‘offering employment and livelihood opportunities to impoverished communities’ (ISS, 2019) especially the rapidly growing youth population who have lost faith in the state. Another destabilising factor in Mali has been the emergence of ‘Latin American drug cartels in West Africa starting in the late 1990s (Kühne 2014, p. 114). Their trafficking of drugs, humans, weapons, and cigarettes in the Sahel has flourished in part because of the cartel’s recruiting of nomadic groups, familiar with the local terrain and trade routes, to circulate the illegal products. These nomads are drawn in by the wealth this illegal trade brings, having suffered ‘repeated droughts and economic negligence by Bamako’ (Kühne 2014, p. 115) which have stifled their income. This fusion of trafficking and extremism has allowed an organized crime-terrorism network to flourish unchecked, with the result that 10-15% of European cocaine is now estimated to be trafficked through West Africa.
In an effort to aid Mali’s political transition and stabilisation, the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilisation Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) was enacted through the Security Council Resolution 2100 in April 2013. Its peacekeeping force has the following objectives: to support Malian authorities in stabilising key population centers, to re-establish state authority as well as Mali’s security and justice sectors, and to dismantle militias and other extremist groups. There has been a repeated emphasis that ‘security and stability in Mali are inextricably linked to that of the Sahel and West Africa, as well as to that of Libya and North Africa’ (UN Resolution 2480, 2019; also echoed in Resolutions 2364, 2374). More recently, a G5 Sahel Joint force was also formed between Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger, and Chad to establish regional coordination in West Africa for development and security. The G5 Sahel is backed by the Sahel Alliance launched in July 2017 by France, Germany and the EU and today it is also funded by Italy, Spain, the UK, Luxembourg, Denmark, and the Netherlands, as well as the World Bank, African Development Bank, and UNDP. The G5 Force is intended to complement the UN’s MINUSMA and France’s Operation Barkhane (MINUSMA, 2019; Alliance Sahel; UN Peacekeeping, 2019).
Another recent development has been the France-G5 Sahel summit in January 2020 which led to an agreement for improved coordination of troops and intelligence-sharing ‘under a single command’ structure (Al Jazeera, 2020). France also announced, in early February, their plan to augment their military presence in Mali with 600 more troops. However, the continuation of the French presence will likely only provoke hostility and worsen the existing tensions in the region. Moreover, while there has been a global investment in the combatting of Islamic terrorism in Mali, the long-standing socio-economic instability driving it in the first place has been given little attention by the international community. In the words of Thabao Mbeki, former president of South Africa, ‘while rich countries see terrorism as the major threat to humanity, poverty and underdevelopment are actually the greatest threat for most people’ (Shinn, 2016, p. 18).
Perhaps the most critical issue moving forward is the constant fluctuation of the tactics of the extremist and rebel groups in Mali whose guerrilla and asymmetrical warfare continues to surprise and disrupt peacekeeping operations. Despite efforts to cooperate between the various regional and international actors to combat terrorist groups and provide welfare, there continues to be tension between their strategies and aims. Moreover, the chaos of state and cross-border insecurity has resulted in short-sightedness regarding those socioeconomic issues which exacerbate the region’s instability. As with many other interventions and conflict resolution efforts, we see a repetition of a skewed focus on seeking to stabilise the broader and conventional security dimension at the expense of the welfare-related human security issues that fuel extremism. Thus, many agree that today Mali’s condition is even worse than it was pre-1991.
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