Despite international peace efforts, the crisis in Mali continues to linger and transform. Spiralling violence is moving southward towards the capital Bamako, and has already spilled over to neighbouring countries. A weakened state is proving unable to meet the needs and demands of its people. Meanwhile, the United Nations peacekeeping effort – the Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) – is facing unprecedented challenges beyond its original mandate. A revised approach is needed.
Violence initially started in 2012 with a rebellion of ethnic Tuareg groups in Northern Mali breaking away from the state. For decades the semi-nomadic Tuareg people have felt discriminated against and oppressed by the French backed-central government dominated by black Africans. Policies of modernization have reduced the tribe’s access to agricultural land and are viewed as attacks against them. With three prior rebellions occurring since Mali’s independence in 1960, each repressed brutally by government force, a further one million Tuareg people across the West African Sahel region have been radicalized. Existing tensions were easily exploited when soldiers and heavy weaponry returned to the country following the fall of Muammar Gaddafi’s regime in Libya in 2011 to bolster a successful rebellion.
The Malian armed force’s inability to thwart the rebellion in turn sparked a political crisis and collapse of the Malian state when, in March 2012, President Amadou Toumani Touré was overthrown in a coup d’état by frustrated army officers. The international community was soon mobilized to support the failing state on multiple fronts. On the military front, the French regional counter-terrorism force Barkhane and MINUSMA were first deployed in July 2013 to carry out a number of security-related tasks to stabilize the region. In 2017, troops from the regional counter-terrorism task force – the FC-G5 Sahel – were also deployed to assist. Meanwhile on the political side, a process of international mediation was established. This resulted in the Bamako Agreement, signed on 15 May 2015, envisioning a reform of state institutions to effectively meet citizens’ needs and the integration of members of the different armed groups into various state institutions
However, there has since been little progress in implementing the agreement and the situation remains unstable. A major reason is that the signatories of the peace accord have differing expectations and priorities. The Malian government, with the support of MINUSMA, has prioritized security provisions aimed at restoring political institutions and territorial control in the north. In contrast, the other signatories prefer change in the form of decentralization, redistribution of national resources, socioeconomic and cultural development, and justice.
Despite a focus on security, the Malian state still remains weak and largely absent in the country’s north. Unable to provide justice to civilians, public dissatisfaction is high and the legitimacy of the state and the peace agreement is eroding, paving the way for violent contestations. Radicalization is occurring among citizens joining groups that are consolidating control in the vacuum of governance and in some regions providing their own services and public goods. Meanwhile, various armed groups that existed before the agreements have fractured. New groups, excluded from the initial peace process, have resorted to violence as they vie for political leverage and inclusion in the agreement. Transnational organized crime and illicit trafficking have also grown to provide a steady income for violent extremist groups. Much of the ongoing fighting in the north is over control of trafficking routes and is hampering the peace deal’s implementation.
Insecurity has also risen in the centre of the country, particularly in the Mopti and Ségou regions, among communities that were excluded from the peace agreement in the north. Regional extremists are capitalizing on intercommunal tensions and grievances that have long been neglected by the state to advance their own interests. Strengthened throughout West Africa they have in recent years been striving to further grow their capacities in Mali. The militias’ presence has particularly inflamed tensions between the semi-nomadic Fulani herders and settled Dogon farmers who have lived side by side for centuries. Whereas conflicts have always existed over grazing land and resources, the increased instability and flow of weapons, combined with a weak and ineffective state unable to provide defence or assert control, means tensions are continuously escalating to violence. Since 2016, intercommunal attacks and killings have risen each year, fuelled by cycles of retaliation.
With a rapidly deteriorating security situation in Mali, more needs to be done to protect civilians. However, the protection of civilians (POC) is still not a key strategic priority for MINUSMA. It was originally mandated to focus on the peace process and support counter-terrorism efforts in Northern Mali at a time when threats to local populations were limited. Consequently, despite the growing insecurity in Central Mali, POC has received less attention, considered outside the political process and therefore its mandate. MINUSMA has also had to increasingly worry about its own protection with its personnel coming under regular direct attack from terrorist groups. The peacekeeping mission has become the UN’s deadliest with 177 killed out of a force of 15,000. This has limited the mission’s ability to operate effectively with communities without putting them at greater risk.
A new approach is needed by the Malian state and international community in order to achieve long-term stability. As the security crisis is made up of numerous interacting local and micro-local conflicts, approaches will need to vary depending on the needs and expectations of local populations. Local communities and groups, both signatories and non-signatories to the Bamako Agreement, must be included in the formation of strategies to implement peace. Regional reconciliation forums could be facilitated in order to calm local tensions which fuel violence and develop local solutions to prevent the growth of radical groups and lower armed violence. Given its significant presence in the north and its influence at the local and national levels, these forums could be run by MINUSMA and more complex grievances be communicated to national decision makers through high level diplomacy.
The authorities – Mali’s Defence and Security Forces (FDS), MINUSMA, Barkhane and FC-G5 Sahel – must move beyond mainly military responses and security solutions in order to meet the population demands for humanitarian aid, local economic development, basic services, and overall better social cohesion. Rather than quick impact projects, structural solutions that promote good governance are needed. Efforts should be made for decentralization, increasing the inclusivity of state institutions, redistributing resources, and providing justice and basic services like health and education. By meeting the needs of local populations trust can be built in the government, extending its authority and eliminating the grounds for insurgency and radicalization.
Generally in the north of the country, the approach will have to largely address the political and economic marginalization of key groups. Decentralization and the redistribution of national resources should be prioritized in order to allow breakaway groups a greater role in governance and the development of the regions.
In the country’s centre and other areas where intercommunual violence is prominent, an approach that focuses on livelihood protection and the provision of justice and reconciliation services needs to be prioritized. The government must also play a key role in addressing local land disputes as one of the main drivers of intercommunual violence. Actions are needed to protect vulnerable communities and prevent the influence of non-state armed extremists. Failing to do so only allows these groups to grow stronger and further instability, not only in Mali but in countries across the Sahel region where major crises are looming.
Yet, given the strength of these extremist groups, engagement with them should not be ruled out as part of an inclusive approach to find peaceful solutions. Dialogue can go a long way in changing the behaviour of potential perpetrators of terrorist acts and the overall protection of civilians.
Where the national government is not able or not willing to protect civilians, MINUSMA must step up. In a significant move in the right direction, on 28 June the Security Council renewed MINUSMA’s mandate, extending it “to respond to the deteriorating security situation in the country’s central region as a second strategic priority.” This will enable MINUSMA to design a political strategy based on POC considerations and interventions to deter and stop violence, perusing this strategy even if it departs from partners’ approaches. Such an approach will further allow it to expand its outreach for the peace process through human rights work, mediation and community reconciliation, disarmament, and capacity-building for the state to address social grievances.