Violence In Mali And The Sahel – An Unresolvable Crisis?

On February 15, armed gunmen raided the village of Ogossagou in Central Mali, killing 31, destroying property, and stealing livestock. This is just the latest violent episode in a region that has been plagued by instability and terror since 2012. The situation in Mali and its neighbours is complex, with violence emerging from numerous national and regional fault lines – religion, tribal affiliation, and competition for scarce resources.


The reverberations of the collapse of governance in Libya were felt strongly on the Southern fringe of the Sahara. The Libyan Civil War was the catalyst for a huge movement of people and weapons across the desert and into the ‘Sahel’ band that separates North and Central Africa. These weapons eventually found their way into the hands of Tuareg separatist rebels in Northern Mali, who swiftly drove government forces from the North before a combined response from the African Union and France halted their advance. Whilst Tuareg forces were ultimately pushed back, and a ceasefire (albeit a poorly enforced one) was implemented, the chaos caused by the corresponding collapse of governance in Mali led to the emergence of a much greater threat – Islamic terror. Islamist groups in the North embarked on a campaign of mass casualty terror attacks on civilian centers and military bases both in Mali and its neighbours, further destabilizing the region. Whilst both the Tuareg’s and the Islamist’s have been driven from the territories they conquered, they continue to wage informal guerrilla warfare against the government and its international French and UN backers. What is more, the power vacuum generated by this fighting has led to an uptick in inter-ethnic violence, of the kind witnessed in the February 15th attack.

The victims of this recent attack were largely from the Fulani ethnic group, and the killers, it is claimed, were Dogons. It is likely that this attack was intended as a reprisal for last year’s killing of 75 Dogons from the villages of Sobane Da, Gangafani, and Yoro.

Some Fulani have joined a militia group called Katiba Macina, which has come to be associated with Mali’s Jihadist groups, although this link has been questioned. The Dogon, and another group the Bambara, responded to this development by creating ‘self-defence groups,’ many of which have committed atrocities of their own.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) has pointed out that the regional patchwork of different ethnic groups in Central Mali has contributed to it becoming the ‘epicentre’ of ethnic violence. Corrine Dufka from HRW said of the violence that “[a]rmed groups are killing, maiming, and terrorising communities throughout central Mali with no apparent fear of being held to account … The human toll in shattered lives is mounting as the deadly cycles of violence and revenge continue”.

The consequences of conflict

The situation on the ground for Malian citizens is becoming more and more untenable. As with similar conflicts, Mali’s youth have been heavily affected. 1.9 million children in West and Central Africa are unable to attend school, and many have lost family members, have been forced to take up arms, or have been compelled into child marriages. The number of children killed in Mali in the first half of 2019 was twice the total for the whole of 2018. 5 million people in the Sahel require urgent food aid, and 1.5 million children are at risk from malnutrition.

The crisscrossing conflicts in Mali pose a threat to international as well as regional security – one that will only grow more severe as the violence worsens. One of the great problems of reprisal killing is the potential for rapid escalation. More killing results in further reprisals, which produces more death and destruction of property, and more cause for grievance. These, in turn, can become a powerful motivator, placing a potent recruitment tool into the hand of militia leaders.

There is a strong economic dimension to the present conflict. Prior to 2012, the Malian economy was heavily reliant on tourism; however, with the collapse of the tourism sector, the destruction caused by nearly a decade of conflict, and the absence of effective governance, the Malian economy is teetering. Economic collapse could lead to greater violence and death, and the promise of cash and payment in kind may induce many into banditry and terror.

What is more, the patterns of violence in the Sahel have been heavily influenced by climate change. Increasing desertification and the dwindling availability of vital resources will likely only exacerbate ethnic conflicts – so called ‘resource wars’ will be fought over food, water, and grazing land.

With the collapse of ISIS in the Middle East, there is a serious risk that fighters from the region could make their way to central Africa, bringing weapons and expertise with them. There has already been an uptick in Islamist violence, and this would only worsen if Islamic groups in the region collaborated more extensively.

Finally, there is a serious risk that international forces in the region may withdraw, leaving the region to spiral into chaos. Currently, there are approximately 14,000 UN troops and 4,500 French troops in the Sahel, at a yearly cost of approximately $1 billion. The U.S. and the U.K. also have an independent presence. Should attacks on troops increase in intensity, or should the locals turn against foreign forces as has seemingly been the case in Iraq, there may emerge a reluctance among the international community to expend further blood in Mali’s defense. So far, 123 peacekeepers have been killed and 358 have been severely wounded in Mali, making it the most dangerous conflict in the world for peacekeeping forces. The February 15th attack took place soon after the withdrawal of Malian troops from the area – a reminder of the potential for bloodshed should international forces withdraw.

In general, worsening violence would likely result in further misery for the people of Mali and the Sahel, a corresponding rise in migration (with manifold dangers for those undertaking the journey), regional destabilization, and the emboldening of the agents of Islamic terror globally.

What can be done?

It is clear that there is no quick fix to the dual problem of Islamist and ethnic violence in Mali. However, there is some hope that certain destabilizing factors can be mitigated, if the political will can be mobilized.

The International Crisis Group has argued that negotiations must take place with the leaders of militant groups where possible. Researcher Dougoukolo Ba-Konoré suggests that members of different ethnic groups could be induced to lay down arms provided that guarantees were in place to ensure that doing so would not expose them to danger. Many militants are not trained fighters, and are manipulated, at least in part, by misinformation, fear, and the offer of pay. Any efforts at negotiation or disarmament must put communities first, employing methods that are amenable to and inclusive of disparate groups, as was the case with the ‘Grass Courts’ of Rwanda. Peace efforts must be comprehensive as well as inclusive – tackling not only the ethnic violence in central Mali, but also the long-running Islamist and Tuareg conflicts in the north.

Strong efforts must be made to ensure both effective governance and economic recovery going forward. In order to deescalate conflicts, there must be economic opportunity, the possibility of employment, and hope for the future. What is more, the Malian government must be able to effectively respond to renewed unrest in a way that it was incapable of doing in 2012. In the first instance this will require a concerted effort to persuade world leaders of the importance of an effective and active presence in Mali – stressing the benefits that might be gleaned from peace building as well as peacekeeping. In the long run, there must be a commitment in place to support Malian development economically, politically, and in security terms, as a way of preventing future insurgency and conflict over scarce resources.

There ought to be a recognition among international actors of the regional and global dimensions of this conflict. Peace efforts in Mali may require, for example, renewed political will to resolve the conflict in Libya and the Middle East. It may also require a more concerted response to cross-border movements of weapons and fighters, with greater monitoring of routes through the Sahara being an important first step. Finally, the conflict in Mali is a clear case of the potential for climate change to cause enormous disruption in already volatile regions. To prevent future resource wars, a collaborative approach to resolving the climate crisis is required.


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