Amid the continued deployment of French troops, a 15,000-strong UN-backed peacekeeping mission, and years of peace talks, Mali remains in the grip of a complex crisis. The country’s northern region has been in the clutches of jihadi forces for about half a decade. Though the use of force to neutralise violent groups and pressure them to the negotiation table is essential, there is also a need for a compact to comprehensively address the challenges and underlying conditions in Mali and the wider Sahel, as suggested in our recent briefing.
The landlocked country slipped into political conflict and ethnic strife in January 2012. Secular separatist insurgents under the auspices of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (NMLA), consisting mainly of the Tuareg people, started a violent campaign for the autonomy of the northern region where they are predominant. Two months later, the West African country was hit by a coup d’état in which Malian President Amadou Toumani Touré was ousted a month before the country’s presidential election.
NMLA rebels exploited the instability created by the coup to overrun the three largest northern cities of Kidal, Gao, and the ancient Timbuktu. The militants proclaimed the independence of the state of Azawad on 6 April 2012. As the NMLA looted and plundered in their new territory and drove the Malian army out of the region, Islamist groups including Ansar Dine and the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa hijacked the situation, effectively sidelined the rebels, began to enforce their strict version of sharia law, and started using the region as a safe haven.
This culminated in fighting between the NMLA and the Islamists. The former lost, and all the major cities in the hands of the NMLA were taken over by the latter. Even though French and African Union forces deployed in January 2013 succeeded in retaking the northern cities from the Islamists, they are far from defeating the jihadis, who continue to hold large swathes of territory and launch deadly attacks.
In June 2013, the NMLA signed a peace deal with the Malian government to fight the jihadis together and find a political solution. But the movement had pulled out of the agreement by September, alleging a lack of political will and good faith on the part of the government in Bamako. In February 2015, the parties entered into another truce in Algiers. However, Malians then endured what Human Rights Watch called a situation of “no war, no peace” throughout 2016, as the implementation of the accord was stalled and the parties were unable to disarm thousands of combatants.
In 2017, jihadi groups continued to attack civilians and peacekeepers. In January, a suicide car blast killed at least 47 people and wounded dozens at a military camp in Gao. Fifteen more perished in February near the country’s border with Niger. Terrorists slaughtered five at a tourist resort in June. As of October, some 140 peacekeepers of the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali have died in the country, making the mission the UN’s deadliest ongoing operation.
One of the key groups in Mali’s conflict is the Tuareg people. As in other Sahelian countries, the semi-nomadic Tuareg, who make up 10 percent of Mali’s population, feel discriminated against, oppressed, and marginalised by the French-backed central government, which is dominated by black Africans. They saw the government’s policy of modernisation as an attack against them, as the policy reduced the tribe’s access to agricultural land, and they have rebelled against successive Malian governments. Use of brute force and high-handedness by consecutive governments further radicalised the one million Tuareg people across the Sahel.
Matters are complicated by the activities of Islamist groups not only in Mali but throughout the Sahel. The merger of four of the five main jihadi groups in the country into Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimeen, or Support of Islam and Muslims, and their pledge of allegiance to al-Qaeda increase the likelihood of more bloodshed. To add insult to injury, Mali is surrounded by ethno-religious conflicts and fragile states in Burkina Faso, the Central African Republic, Chad, Niger, and Nigeria.
The weak central government in Bamako suffers not only from a lack of capacity and resources to tackle the situation and take control of the north but also from criticisms of its legitimacy and credibility. Added to this is the problem of internal fragmentation faced by the army. This, coupled with the military’s weaknesses in the areas of training, capacity, and equipment, makes it difficult for the state forces to secure their presence in the affected areas.
To achieve long-term stability, the international community needs to change its approach to the crisis in Mali, moving beyond security measures. The recommendations of our recent briefing on the Sahel are rooted in the realities on ground in Mali and across the region. French President Emmanuel Macron should initiate a process towards a multilateral agreement that would expansively address each aspect of the interconnected challenges faced by Mali. The pact should clearly delineate the duties and obligations of each party, including Bamako and the Tuareg.
Such an accord should address the social and political conditions of the Tuareg and the role of Islam in a new Mali. It should also deal with the country’s vulnerable demography, poverty, humanitarian needs, immigration, infrastructural decay, climate change–related disasters, and organised crimes such as human and drug trafficking.
To succeed in their efforts, the parties to an agreement must be good students of the failures of past attempts, including the 1992 National Pact, the 2013 ceasefire, and the current peace deal. The first two failed, while the third remains fragile due to challenges of implementation, mutual mistrust, and a feeling of exclusion in some segments of society. A new compact should be all-encompassing, and each party must show utmost good faith and deliver on its commitments. This would deplete religious extremists’ base and make it easier to tackle them.