Photo Credit: Mission de l’ONU au Mali – UN Mission in Mali
Mali has been a thorn in the side of international peacekeeping and security proponents for the better part of a decade.
Since a 2012 coup overthrew the democratically-elected government, the country has been plagued by conflict and civil strife, which the international community has largely failed to control.[i] Crumbling under the weight of a collapsing state, Malian armed forces have struggled to counter threats posed by violent extremist groups, including the Islamic State and branches of al-Qaeda.[ii] The U.N. peacekeeping mission is faltering as conflict areas continue to grow, and it has yet to achieve meaningful and lasting security. And, despite the establishment of a promising 2015 peace agreement, peace has remained elusive.[iii]
On August 18, all of these pressures came to a head at a military base outside Bamako when three months of frustrations over the Malian government’s inability to resolve conflict — or even respect basic democratic norms — boiled over.[iv] By midnight, Malian president Ibrahim Boubacar Keita had resigned.[v]
The latest coup this summer is just one more source of instability in a conflict zone already seen as one of the most dangerous in the world. With no end in sight to the turmoil on the ground, and a fresh leadership void to contend with, the coup raises an essential question for the international community: has Mali gotten too messy? Can we continue to justify sacrifices in blood and treasure for a conflict that does not seem to be getting better?
How did we get here?
Since conflict erupted on the ground in 2012, Mali has been a high priority for the international community. Within months of the 2012 coup, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the E.U., and the U.N. all pledged support to the Malian transitional authorities and established the African-led International Support Mission in Mali (AFISMA) through the African Union.[vi] France, which has strong historical ties to the region, unilaterally deployed troops to address the security situation and successfully lobbied the U.N. for a peacekeeping mission.[vii] Almost exactly a year after the coup began, the U.N. authorized what would grow to become the largest peacekeeping mission in its history, the U.N. Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA).
The swift response from the international community makes perfect sense: situated in the center of the Sahel region in West Africa, a volatile and unsteady Malian state poses a significant threat to peace and security throughout the region.
Instability on the ground has opened up a power vacuum that has been exploited by Islamic militant groups and dangerous smuggling networks.[viii] Lacking domestic protection, tens of thousands of Malians have fled to neighboring countries to escape conflict: as of March 2020, nearly 140,000 Malians had sought refuge in neighboring Burkina Faso, Niger, and Mauritania.[ix]
Why is peace so elusive for Mali?
Despite concentrated and strong efforts from the international community, Mali’s conflict has not markedly improved in the last eight years. In fact, in some ways, the situation has gotten worse.
In recent years, violence has spread throughout the country. With so much international attention focused on the north, radical groups like the Macina Liberation Front have thrived in the center of Mali since 2015, repeatedly launching deadly attacks and monopolizing natural resources.[x] There are more extremist groups in Mali today than ever before, and they have targeted civilians with efficiency, devastating local communities and wiping out the government’s capacity for response.[xi] Indeed, the vast majority of Malians say that they do not trust their government to protect them.[xii]
The rise in conflict has drained international efforts at security, too. The U.N. peacekeeping mission in Mali has long been regarded as one of the costliest peacekeeping operations globally: MINUSMA currently makes up more than 18% of the total UN peacekeeping budget[xiii] and has resulted in more than 225 casualties[xiv] — more than any other mission in U.N. history.
MINUSMA is further hindered by inadequate supplies and poorly trained troops. In 2016, MINUSMA reported that nearly 80 percent of the mission’s military capability was being directed toward the protection of its own peacekeepers and facilities.[xv]
Through all of these mounting security threats, the Malian state has remained largely absent. A 2015 peace agreement seemed promising when it gained support from reluctant armed groups, but has failed to gain traction as the state struggled to maintain a visible presence throughout the country. As security conditions have declined, so too has the capacity of the government, which in some regions functions on as little as 30 percent capacity.[xvi] In hotspots for conflict, just 34 percent of state officials and 33 percent of judicial officials are present.[xvii] Without local administrative offices at full capacity, the government struggles to provide even basic administrative functions.
The absence of a strong state presence has eroded public trust in the government and fostered support for armed militant groups, at the expense of support for a diplomatic solution. A 2018 survey of more than 2,000 Malians found that more than 85% of interviewees were not even aware of the peace agreement that was signed three years earlier.[xviii] Some civilians interviewed by Human Rights Watch in 2017 even said that their perception of the Malian state was so poor that they viewed Islamic militants as a “benevolent alternative to a state they associate with a predatory and abusive government.”[xix]
What does the coup mean for the future of Mali?
In the face of such harsh conditions and deep mistrust from the public, it is not surprising that public frustration reached a boiling point this summer.
Though much remains uncertain about Mali’s political future, the coup tells us two things: first, the people of Mali are ready to engage with a political system that can promote peace, and second, that Mali will need to secure international political buy-in if it hopes to solidify a new political regime.
The coup this summer was driven by the public. Following years of accusations of corruption and incompetence, the government overthrow in August grew out of months of public protests alleging that the government tampered with the results of April’s legislative elections.[xx]
And public engagement has not waned. In the aftermath of the coup, most Malians expressed their support for it, voicing their distrust of the country’s politicians. There is still much to be done to secure a stable government in Mali — and plenty of opportunities for things to go wrong — but public participation in the peace process could be the key to unlocking a more lasting solution in Mali.
No matter what form the government of Mali takes in the future, however, it is certain to need international support if it hopes to secure lasting peace. So far, that has not happened.
The coup drew swift and harsh reactions from the international community. The United States, along with several other key partners, froze all military aid to Mali, and other countries threatened sanctions if civilians were not restored to power.[xxi] And even with a new interim President, who is technically a civilian, appointed, the international community has been reticent to show support.[xxii] Without international buy-in, Mali’s attempt at a new government seems dead on arrival.
Is there hope for the future?
In the short-term, the coup will almost certainly have destabilizing effects on Mali’s security situation. Without a firm central state, Mali lacks the ability to make firm commitments to international partners or participate in larger counterinsurgency efforts throughout the Sahel.[xxiii] The ire drawn from the international community is also a key signal for how the new Malian state (if and when it is installed) will be able to work with international partners moving forward.
However, there may be hope left.
A new government in Mali could provide desperately-needed change and renewed hope for peace. Since 2012, democratic norms and public trust in the Malian government have eroded severely, which could pose a debilitating threat to any future attempts at peace.[xxiv] However, that reality also potentially crippled the now-overthrown Malian government from ever having a shot at lasting change.
We’ve also seen indications that the Malian coup leaders are invested in securing support from the international community. Coup leaders swiftly installed a transitional government and established a charter for establishing a new state, complete with sign-off from several key signatories of the 2015 peace agreement.[xxv] The newly-appointed president has stressed the importance of political and administrative reforms, good governance, strong education, and free elections.[xxvi]
Whether any of those goals are realized remains to be seen. But, at least for now, it seems that the future of Mali’s political system is in the hands of those who might just have the best shot at ensuring its success: the Malian people.[xxvii]
[i] Fornof, Emily and Emily Cole. “Five Things to Know about Mali’s Coup,” United States Institute of Peace, August 27, 2020. https://www.usip.org/publications/2020/08/five-things-know-about-malis-coup
[iii] U.N. “Ban hails Mali peace agreement as important step towards stability”, UN News, May 15, 2015. https://news.un.org/en/story/2015/05/498902#.VYXO2flVhBd
[iv] Stepansky, Joseph. “What does the coup mean for Mali’s spiraling security crisis?” Al Jazeera, August 31, 2020. https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/8/31/what-does-the-coup-mean-for-malis-spiralling-security-crisis
[vii] Cooke, Jennifer G, J. Caleb Johnson, and Thomas M Sanderson. “Militancy and the Arc of Instability.” Center for Strategic and International Studies, September 27, 2016. https://www.csis.org/analysis/militancy-and-arc-instability.
[viii] Tim Lister, “Six Reasons Events in Mali Matter,” CNN, January 17, 2013. https://www.cnn.com/2013/01/16/world/africa/mali-six-reasons/index.html
[ix] “Malian Refugees in Burkina Faso, Mauritania, and Niger,” Operational Portal: Refugee Situations, UNHCR, March 31, 2020. https://data2.unhcr.org/en/situations/malisituation
[x] “Central Mali: An Uprising in the Making?” International Crisis Group, July 6, 2016. https://www.crisisgroup.org/africa/west-africa/mali/central-mali-uprising-making
[xii] “Fending for Ourselves: The Civilian Impact of Mali’s Three-Year Conflict,” Center for Civilians in Conflict, 2015. https://civiliansinconflict.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/08/Civilian_Impact_of_Mali_3-Year_Conflict_small.pdf
[xv] Bénédicte Aboul-Nasr, “MINUSMA, Malian Government Struggle with Growing Public Support for Armed Groups,” Center for Civilians in Conflict, June 28, 2017. https://civiliansinconflict.org/blog/minusma-malian-government-struggle-growing-public-support-armed-groups/
[xviii] Dulcie Leimbach, “A Survey on Mali for Malians: What They Want for Their Country,” Pass Blue, June 24, 2019. https://www.passblue.com/2019/06/24/a-survey-on-mali-for- malians-what-they-want-for-their-country/
[xix] Aboul-Nasr, “MINUSMA, Malian Government Struggle with Growing Support for Armed Groups.”
[xx] Maclean, Ruth. “Mali Appoints New President After Military Coup,” New York Times, September 21, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/21/world/africa/mali-president-coup.html
[xxii] Bah N’Daou is technically a civilian today, but he is a retired military officer and a former defense minister with close ties to the military. Maclean, “Mali Appoints New President After Military Coup.”
[xxiii] Marks, Simon. “Why the Mali coup matters to Europe and the world,” Politico, August 19, 2020. https://www.politico.eu/article/mali-coup-explained/
[xxiv] Fornof and Cole. “Five Things to Know about Mali’s Coup.”
[xxv] Security Council, “Weeks after Coup d’État in Mali, Strong Regional Leadership, New Transition Plan Show Promise for Country’s Future, Special Representative Tells Security Council,” United Nations. https://www.un.org/press/en/2020/sc14320.doc.htm