Unsustainable Peace in Mali

Photo by Magharebia/Flickr |

By Whit Miller |

During the spring of 2012, Mali witnessed brief, but fierce, fighting between al-Qa’ida-affiliated Islamists, Tuareg nomads, and Malian government troops, which were eventually assisted by French forces in January 2013.[1] In Mali, as in everything regarding African politics and security, the situation is extremely complex. June 2013 saw a ceasefire signed by two of the parties involved: the Malian government and the Tuareg rebels that populate the northern regions of the country.[2] French, Malian, and U.N. officials now hope to prepare the path to presidential elections in areas throughout the country, including the former rebel-held northern city of Kidal.[3] However, the question remains: how long will peace and quiet last? Considering the various dynamics at play in the country—and indeed within the surrounding region—peace is likely to be short-lived.

The Tuaregs have been present in the region far longer than the modern Malian state against which they fought, and their grievances have highlighted once again the arbitrary colonial borders visible on maps of North Africa and the Sahel.[4] This ethnic group populates territory stretching from northern Mali into western Niger, southern Algeria, and western Libya.[5] Although the Azawad state lies partially within the sovereign borders of Mali, the region has little to offer the Tuaregs aside from a state of their own, mountains, and “moonscape.”[6] The territory could, however, present a challenge to the region similar to the one that exists between Turkey, Iraq, and Iran with regards to the Kurds and their desire for a sovereign state.

In that case, the Kurdish ethnic minority in Iraq has long enjoyed autonomy from the government in Baghdad, and has on occasion called for secession of the Kurd-dominated north to form a sovereign Kurdish state.[7] Iraq would not welcome the loss of the oil-rich northern territory, and both neighboring Turkey and Iran have Kurdish populations with separatist aspirations of which the respective governments are wary.[8] One could see where the secession of an Azawad state in northern Mali would concern the Algerian, Libyan, and Nigerian governments about their own sovereign territory.

The presence of radical Islamists in the region could also present future problems for the government in Bamako. The Islamist group Ansar al-Dine (“Guardians of the Faith”) constituted the main body of the rebel movement in the spring 2012 push towards Bamako from the north. An affiliate of al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), it has been working closely with the terrorist group in very small ways, but was classified, following its participation in the anti-government offensive, as a distinct terrorist organization by both the U.S. Department of State and the U.N. Security Council.[9] Like the Taliban in Afghanistan, Ansar al-Dine militants were able, once French troops entered the conflict and began a counter-offensive, to simply fall back into increasingly rough terrain or vanish into the civilian population.[10]

The Islamists have shown their ability to shift from an almost Maoist “phase two” period of guerrilla attacks back to a “phase one” period of consolidation and reconstitution. The French military ostensibly had eliminated or expelled many militants from the north of the country not more than a year ago; however, radical Islamist militants have returned to the northern region. Reports of attacks on the MINUSMA peacekeeping mission have increased, with at least two U.N. peacekeepers from Chad confirmed killed.[11] This was then followed by the deaths of two French journalists working in the northern town of Kidal in early November.

Despite the removal of radical Islamists from the north of the country during the French-led military intervention, one group involved in the uprising remains active, and might be increasing its presence: the largely secular Tuareg rebels. In mid-November 2013, Tuareg rebels acting under the banner of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) returned to the northern Malian town of Kidal.[12] Although the Tuaregs do not appear to have launched any recent independent attacks, they did engage in strikes in conjunction with Islamists during the last spate of violence.

While the Tuaregs and Ansar al-Dine both present active undermining forces within Mali, the country will struggle with increased natural resource exploitation and associated socioeconomic dynamics that afflict many resource-rich African states. The Malian government is expected to benefit from significant investment in its mining sector by foreign firms. The country, Africa’s third-largest gold producer, is set to double gold production during the next five years, from 50 tons per year to 100 tons per year.[13] Though mining operations are in the south of the country – well away from last year’s fighting – they still present potential catalysts for unrest.[14]

In one scenario, following the example of autocratic leaders in other resource-rich African states, the government—either a single individual or a cabinet—could hoard the income generated by the gold exports. This lack of wealth distribution, paired with perceptions of foreign firms taking away resources and profits, could anger the population. In response, a leader or leaders could then rise to protest the injustice, and civil war could break out. While it is difficult to predict how populations will react to wealth generated by resource extraction—and the subsequent distribution of that wealth—past experiences show a concentration of wealth towards the top of government despite extreme country-wide poverty.[15] In the case of the Democratic Republic of Congo, rebels sought to take diamond fields and other mineral resources from the government not only to ease their “people’s” poverty, but also to further finance their operations against the government.[16] The caveat, of course, is that gold refining is more complex than diamond mining, and harder to sell in rough form.

Another possibility is a situation similar to what occurred at the Lonmin platinum mine in South Africa: unaddressed union grievances regarding conditions and pay could lead to miner riots and a heavy-handed police response. Underlying the tensions were political affiliations that merely added to the volatile mixture.[17]

Recently elected president Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, also known as IBK, has sought to address some of these destabilizing issues. His platform includes, among other issues, a pledge to pursue and remove from the political system those elites who fared very well under his predecessor, Amadou Toumani Toure.[18] On the other hand, Keita’s firm approach to governance as the country’s prime minister led to his rejection of a 2006 peace deal with the MNLA Tuareg separatist group.[19] Presently it is too early to tell just how successful IBK will be in stabilizing and reconstructing his country. Some members of the public are already critical of the new president’s positions and alliances, noting in particular the naming of two rebel leaders to his party’s election lists.[20] Although a move merely made to curry favor among the elites living in the north, it has not sat well with urban populations that fought against the Tuareg and Islamist occupations of the main northern cities.[21]

While one always hopes, particularly in the case of Africa, for a brighter future and better outcomes than those listed above, the history of African security has shown a tendency towards the outbreak of conflict over the realization of peace. Despite successful elections, Mali is host to enough destabilizing factors that it will not require a major catalyst to reignite violence between its disparate groups. Sometime, potentially in the near future—depending on how quickly rebel factions rearm and reorganize, or how Keita’s attempts at reform proceed—Mali will likely face renewed conflict and unrest. Though much of the previous fighting has been centered in the northern region of the country—where Tuaregs are most dominant, and where Islamists can most easily “melt” back into the landscape—time will tell if it can remain isolated away from Bamako. n


Mr. Miller is a recent graduate of the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service. His research focuses on emerging regional security issues in Sub-Saharan Africa.

[1] “Mali crisis: French troops begin withdrawal,” BBC News, 9 April 2013, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-22079290.

[2] “Mali reaches deal with Tuareg rebels,” France24, 19 June 2013, http://www.france24.com/en/20130618-mali-deal-tuareg-rebels-mnla-bamako-qaeda.

[3] “Mali and Tuareg rebels sign peace deal,” BBC News, 18 June 2013, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-22961519.

[4] John Campbell, “Welcome to Azawad, Africa’s Newest Country,” The Atlantic, 27 April 2012, http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2012/04/welcome-to-azawad-africas-newest-country/256438/.

[5] Frank Jacobs, “All Hail Azawad,” The New York Times, 10 April 2012, http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/04/10/all-hail-azawad/?_r=0.

[6] Yochi Dreazen, “Mali: War on Terror’s Next Battleground,” Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, 14 March 2013, http://pulitzercenter.org/projects/mali-timbuktu-africa-war-terror-battleground-al-qaeda-islamic-maghreb-AQIM.

[7] Salah Nasrawi, “Kurdish moves to secession from Iraq,” Al-Ahram, 22 – 28 March 2012, http://weekly.ahram.org.eg/2012/1090/re7.htm.

[8] “The battle for northern Iraq,” The Economist, 20 March 2003, http://www.economist.com/node/1650002.

[9] “U.S. labels Mali rebel group a terror organization,” USA Today, 21 March 2013,  http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2013/03/21/terror-group-mali/2005799/

[10] Ibid.

[11] David Lewis and Laurent Prieur, “Insight: Revival of Islamists in Mali tests French, U.N. nerve,” Reuters, 14 November 2013, http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/11/14/us-mali-islamists-insight-idUSBRE9AD0QC20131114.

[12] Baba Ahmed, “Dozens of Mali Rebels Seen Arriving in Kidal,” ABC News, 15 November 2013, http://abcnews.go.com/International/wireStory/mali-rebels-hand-administration-buildings-20900917.

[13] “Mali bets new mines will help double gold output by 2018,” Reuters, 6 June 2013, http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/06/06/mali-gold-idUSL5N0EI30J20130606.

[14] Franz Wild, “Mali’s Mines Minister Says Gold Production Unaffected,” Bloomberg, 5 February 2013, http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2013-02-05/mali-s-mines-minister-says-gold-production-unaffected.html.

[15] Jesse Driscoll, “Social Conflict and Political Violence in Africa,” Stanford Program on International and Cross-Cultural Education, http://spice.stanford.edu/docs/social_conflict_and_political_violence_in_africa/.

[16] Paul D. Williams, War and Conflict in Africa (Malden: Polity Press, 2011), 76.

[17] Paul Burkhardt, “Lonmin Employee Shot Dead on June 8, South African Police Say,” Bloomberg, 10 June 2013, http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2013-06-10/lonmin-employee-shot-dead-on-june-8-south-african-police-say.html.

[18] Lewis and Prieur, “Insight,” Reuters.

[19] “Profile: Ibrahim Boubacar Keita,” Al-Jazeera, 10 August 2013, http://www.aljazeera.com/news/africa/2013/08/2013810103244706181.html.

[20] Lewis and Prieur, “Insight,” Reuters.

[21] Ibid.

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