On January 11, 2013, President François Hollande ordered the French military to intervene against terrorist and criminal groups that threatened to overtake the Malian state. With this week marking the fourth anniversary of President Hollande’s decision to send troops to one of France’s former colonies, the moment is opportune to review the evolution of the crisis and to re-assess the current security situation in Africa’s former model democracy.
In 2012, during the latest of a series of insurgencies, members of the Kel Tamasheq (Tuareg) ethnic minority launched an armed uprising in their quest for an independent Azawad state. The National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad’s (MNLA) offensive of January 2012 inflicted heavy losses on the Malian military and reinforced existing resentments against the government under President Amadou Toumani Touré.
In the midst of the struggles between disenfranchised northern separatists and the central government in Bamako, dissatisfied members of the military ousted Touré’s government in March 2012. The coup leaders, however, failed to translate their discontent into an acceptable political agenda and following a series of sanctions by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) an interim government under Dioncounda Traoré was appointed. In the meantime, the fighting in the north continued and by then had displaced over 350,000 people.
In an environment of political crisis and secessionist aspirations, militant Islamist groups (AQMI, MUJAO, and Anṣār ad-Dīn)— emboldened by the recent fall of Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi and the easy access to weapons, money, and troops—emerged as new and powerful actors on Mali’s territory. Their illegal activities benefitted from and contributed to the general instability of the entire region.
Mali’s armed forces were no match for these well-equipped, well-trained, and well-financed fighters that by the end of 2012 had conquered and now ruled the country’s northern part in the name of a jihadist agenda. The situation culminated in the Anṣār ad-Dīn-led offensive towards the government-controlled south in early January 2013. In response to this bold move, Traoré—fearing the total collapse of what remained of the Malian state—issued a written request for French military assistance.
The Hollande administration responded swiftly and 24 hours later the largest military operation in France’s history since the end of the Algerian War began. The mission cloaked under a multilateral veil and accompanied by the discourse of contemporary liberal interventionism was reminiscent of a past where France decided over the fate of its African backyard (pré carré). French forces, with the support of Chadian and Malian troops, stopped the assault and recaptured Gao, Timbuktu, and Kidal. Operation Serval was hailed as a model of a short, precise, and successful contemporary military operation showcasing the clout of France’s military might.
Operation Serval officially ended on July 15, 2014 and was replaced by the successor Operation Barkhane. The latter was not anymore limited to Mali but also concerned Burkina Faso, Chad, Mauritania, and Niger. The 3,000 troops counter-terrorism force headquartered in the Chadian capital of N’djamena commenced on August 1, 2014 with the aim to lend support to the Group of Five of the Sahel and to prevent the re-emergence of safe-havens for terrorists and criminals in an area spanning from Mauritania in the West to Niger in the East (hence its name, signifying a crescent-shaped dune).
In June of the same year, the United Nations Integrated Stabilization Mission (MINUSMA) was officially deployed, marking the beginning of the previously announced process of post-conflict stabilization under international leadership.
According to the credo of liberal peace building MINUSMA facilitated the presidential elections from which Ibrahim Boubacar Keita emerged as the winner. The elections alone, however, did not suffice to gloss over the many rifts that pervaded Mali’s social fabric. Sporadic fighting resumed soon after the elections were held, following a visit of Prime Minister Moussa Mara to the northern city of Kidal.
Facing an increasing number of asymmetric attacks against its peacekeepers and facilities, MINUSMA—in December 2014—had to review its Rules of Engagement and Mission Concept and trained and equipped its troops against IEDs. By then, the UN operation had become a high-risk mission blurring the lines between peacekeeping and counter-terrorism.
New hopes sparked when the Malian government and an alliance of Tuareg-led rebels (Coordination of Movements of Azawad) signed a peace deal in Bamako in June 2015. Yet, the agreement too did not bring to a halt the continuous violence that afflicted the Malian state and its populations. On the contrary, in 2015 according to Human Rights Watch attacks conducted by “Islamist armed groups increased and spread into central and southern Mali”, increasingly affecting neighboring Burkina Faso and Niger. The Uppsala Conflict Data Program whilst documenting a slight decrease in the total number of deaths compared to the previous year, registered 241 conflict related deaths in 2015 (compared to 287 in 2014). The attacks that shook Bamako and Ouagadougou by the end of 2015 and the beginning of 2016 respectively were cruel reminders of jihadi groups’ ability to cause death and destruction.
In June 2016, the UN Security Council expressed “concern about the volatile security situation, especially the recent expansion of terrorist and other criminal activities into central and southern Mali as well as the intensification of intercommunal violence in the Centre of Mali”. Not only did the violence not cease, new groups such as Al Mourabitoune had emerged as actors and potential spoilers of the peace accord. In response to this situation and an increasing number of asymmetric attacks, the Security Council unanimously adopted UN Resolution 2295. The resolution extended MINUSMA’s mandate until 30 June 2017, increased the missions’s troop levels by almost 2,000 to 15,209 uniformed personnel, and authorized a “more proactive and robust posture”.
With 109 fatalities (up to 31/10/2016) over a period of four years, MINUSMA ranks sixth in terms of fatalities by year in the history of UN peacekeeping operations (average number of deaths per year of deployment). For the period between 2014 and 2016 MINUSMA has accounted for the highest number of fatalities of all ongoing UN mission, making MINUSMA one of the most dangerous UN peacekeeping operations of all times.
The French intervention and the African-led multilateral stabilization force have saved Mali from a total collapse. At the same time, the country is far from having regained a state of stability. In particular, the northern part of the country continues to be affected by asymmetric threats with shootings, kidnappings, and other attacks happening on a regular basis.
The local elections last November showcased the significant gap between the capital Bamako and its hinterland and the rest of the country. They also showed the high degree of insecurity that characterizes the political and daily life in Mali. While elections were held in an orderly fashion in and around Bamako, “ballot boxes were burned by armed men in Timbuktu and the PRVM-FASAKO party said its candidate for a commune near the central town of Mopti had been kidnapped.” Similar conditions prevail along the inner Niger delta, where “the state does not control anything”, according to one local politician now living in exile in Bamako.
The impact of this permanent state of insecurity on civilians cannot be overemphasized. A national assessment carried out by the World Food Program (WFP) in September 2016 revealed the bleak humanitarian dimension of the conflict. Next to the staggering numbers of 36,690 internally displaced people and 135,954 refugees in neighboring countries, the report shows that almost a quarter of Mali’s population is to be considered as food insecure. Furthermore, the WFP found high degrees of food insecurity in Gao, Timbuktu, or Mopti where between 40 and 70 percent of the population are considered food insecure, suggesting a correlation between the on-going political violence and the degree of human suffering.
The security situation in Mali remains volatile due to a conjunction of several factors. First, the country’s “security and stability in Mali are inextricably linked to that of the Sahel and West Africa regions, as well as the situation in Libya and in the North Africa region”. Its geographic location makes Mali the lynchpin not only to French forces to which Bamako “has served as a logistics hub for French forces who are aiding a regional fight against Islamist insurgents” but also to all other extra-legal groups operating in the wider Sahel region and using the routes connecting sub-Saharan Africa with North Africa.
Second, the slow implementation of the peace and reconciliation agreement further hampered all efforts to restore security in the north of the country. Fractions and alliances are highly unstable and the lines between terrorist groups, separatists, and organized political parties blur.
Yet another potential spoiler worth considering is the cyclical and long-lasting nature of the conflict between northern populations and the central government. Dating back to the colonial era, first uprisings occurred immediately after Mali had gained its independence. Since then periods of stability and upheaval have altercated and by now are deeply engrained in the collective memory of the different groups of Mali’s diverse society.
In its outlook for 2017, the Foreign Policy Magazine predicts that Mali will remain on the list of volatile flashpoints. While substantial progress has been made between 2013 and today, the situation in Mali remains fragile.
Recent news about the permanent insecurity in the north and the ever present threat of jihadist attacks are not only worrisome but also hinder any sort of social and political appeasement, necessary to achieve an inclusive and lasting peace. Such a process takes time and requires strong political commitment and resources. Mali today still deserves the international community’s full attention for the sake of the local populations and in the name of regional stability.