Since 2012, Mali has been suffering from what at first seemed to be a sudden outbreak of armed conflict which eventually led to a military response by France. At that moment, the conflict was framed predominantly as a battle against the rise of extremist Islamism. More international community actors now recognize that other perspectives need be taken into account to fully understand the dynamics of this conflict. Yet do we have a good overview of relevant perspectives? The Broker aims to identify, integrate and analyse the different perspectives to advance insights into the constantly changing dynamics in Mali and the Sahel. We are able to do this with an updated analysis from experts in combination with on-the-ground knowledge. We like to call this a 'living analysis'.
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What is a living analysis?
There is a violent outbreak in the north of Mali. The media reports that it is another Tuareg rebellion, but are there perhaps other ways to look at this conflict? Our aim is to give an overview of existing knowledge and to take a multi-perspective view that enables us to contextualize what is happening on the ground. There are two key elements in our approach, one is the overview and synthesis of perspectives and the second is generating knowledge together with many experts, including local voices. The Broker's analysts are constantly investing in these sources. This is a beta version to test and improve our living analysis method.
Sahel Watch starts by analyzing the regional dynamics of the conflict in Mali. This will later be extended to the larger Sahel region, where similar issues are relevant. This living analysis is an innovative way of structuring knowledge. It is easily accessible and can be reproduced and extended to analyze different conflicts. It is a tool for clarifying the different perspectives on the complexities of conflict, where they agree and where they differ. It gives an overview of existing knowledge and integrates the views of experts. In the links you will find up-to-date expert opinions, videos, information from the ground and an overview of relevant academic and policy reports, literature and media coverage. At The Broker, we use this as input for expert meetings, to generate discussion and strengthen information-sharing partnerships.
If you are interested to contribute to the co-creation process towards a more qualitative analysis, please email karlijn@thebrokeronline for your input. The analysis will be updated in response to the changing dynamics of the conflict, and frequent briefings will be distributed on the updates. You can subscribe to the frequent updates here.
Dynamics of the armed conflict in Mali (a security perspective)
Mali was once considered a model democracy but in early 2012 it suddenly collapsed after a separatist rebellion by the Tuareg Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA). A civil war was unleashed, predominantly in the northern part of the country. Regionally-based extremist Islamist groups took advantage of the unrest in the north and a weakened Malian army overthrew the weakened, indecisive and corrupt Malian government. When the armed Islamic groups advanced on the capital of Bamako, a French military intervention returned a fragile control, allowing the establishment of an interim government and an international peacekeeping force.
The accumulated challenges are undermining the government, the economy, and the livelihoods of the Malian people. The government is still relying on these international intervention forces such as the UN’s Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) as they are currently providing stability in the north. Initially, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) organized the African-led International Support Mission to Mali (AFISMA) as supported by the African Union and the UN Security Council. However an unexpected advance by the rebels saw France intervening first with Operation Serval, after which AFISMA deployed much earlier than planned. AFISMA then faced increased criticism for displaying a lack of capabilities and resources after which a UN peacekeeping mission was organized. MINUSMA then quickly took charge and coordinated military operations while overshadowing the power of ECOWAS and AU.
France, the former colonial power, continued to uphold a strong military presence in the area and later ended its initial Operation Serval in Mali. Currently, the French presence is focused on fighting against extremist Islamists throughout the Sahel region, through its Operation Barkhane. All the while violence between armed groups in northern Mali continues while an Islamist extremist insurgency spreads throughout the country. Please click on the icon to the left of this text for the latest updates.
Map of incidents in Mali 2011-2015
This map shows the location and type of conflict-related incidents in Mali from 2011 – 2015. Click on an event to see detailed information on what happened and the source of the information. The information shown in this map is based on the International Crisis Group CrisisWatch Database, the Global Terrorism Database and the ACLED Dataset.
Development and human needs (a socioeconomic perspective)
The Sahel is one of the most difficult places on earth to survive. The northern part of Mali, with borders deep in the Sahara desert, has dealt with severe drought, food and water scarcity in recent years. Most Malians (over 90% of its 15 million people) thus live in the south of the country, mainly in the capital of Bamako. Even so, 43.6% of the population still lives in poverty where economic opportunities are limited and infant mortality and illiteracy rates are high. Furthermore, 48% of the population is younger than 15 years old and life expectancy is around 55.
Regarding Mali’s economy, southern Mali has developed a cotton and rice industry by using water from the Niger and Senegal rivers. The north is home to nomadic herders, many of which are agropastoralists who raise livestock in the dry season and grow crops in the rainy season. Mali is also Africa’s third largest gold producer, which accounts for 80% of its export earnings. Other natural Malian resources include uranium, phosphates, kaolinite, salt and limestone. In addition, the country is often characterized as a ‘donor darling’ because it was presented as a model of democracy in the region, leading to a significantly higher investment of aid money. Such aid eventually amounted to 27.6% of the state’s general budget between 1996 and 2005. However these policies are said to have contributed to a culture of corruption that hampered progress both in governance and economic development, which indirectly contributed to Mali’s crisis.
Environmental degradation and water shortages heavily undermine access to resources and economic activities and have caused desertification, deforestation, soil erosion and inadequate supplies of water. 1 Droughts are frequent yet from June to December the Niger River floods and creates the Niger Delta. This critical water flow is under threat from dam building and hydropower and also affects downstream countries of Niger, Benin and Nigeria. This ecological stress has only added to the conflict of interest regarding access to water resources and the challenging survival of various ethnic groups.
Mali: transit point for trans-Saharan trade (an (illicit) trade perspective)
Historically, people in the Sahel have coped with economic uncertainties by participating in informal and cross-border trade networks. 3 An important resource for such informal trade is Algerian subsidized foods. Today, Mali is an important departure and transit country for migration, both for migrants traveling to northern Africa or Europe and for trans-Saharan destinations. Almost 150,000 Malians have fled to neighbouring countries since January 2013. Communities that have traditionally been engaged in trans-border businesses, such as the nomadic Tuareg and Tebou have monopolized these Saharan trade routes.
However the benefits of informal cross-border trade and trafficking certainly favour the elite. Local business elites cooperate with armed groups by maintaining control over trafficking routes and over the years criminal networks have formed along the trans-Saharan routes in smuggling cigarettes, people, weapons, drugs and food. Europe’s new drug route as originated from Latin America and passing through West Africa has created an especially large impact on the local economy. For example, Cité du Cocaine, an exclusive neighbourhood and haven for smugglers’ villas in Gao, was well established before conflict broke out. Military responses to the illegal drug trade in Latin America have caused a ‘balloon-effect’ where suppressed trafficking routes are being rerouted through territories with little government presence.
A large part of the population in northern Mali depends on the regional informal economy for basic services and security. Yet the political elite have shaped the system in such a way that public funds and the accumulation of wealth became monopolized through informal channels of patronage. 4 Conditions in Mali were even more favourable to the drug trade than those in coastal West African states, like Nigeria with its presence of international ports.
Security sector weakness and failed reforms (a governance perspective)
This perfect storm of weak state control moulding itself into an established regional informal economy did not happen overnight. In fact, when gaining independence from France in 1960 the Malians inherited a highly centralized state as based on the French model which relied heavily on local elites and their connection to Bamako to rule the northern periphery. The colonial state exclusively educated black southerners for the ruling class who now had to assert their control over the north. They did so using a combination of tactics including favouritism, patronage, economic marginalization, military control and divide and rule strategies.
After becoming an independent nation, Mali suffered from several coups d'état until a multiparty democracy was established in 1992 with a newly elected president. During the past 30 year dictatorship, the autocratic and military-style rule in the north only exacerbated distrust between the north and the south. The policy of co-opting or buying northern elites, all the while ignoring social and economic issues in favour of repression, continued even after democracy was established. This policy continued throughout President Amadou Toumani Touré’s (2002 – 2012) term, who treated the Malian territory as a mosaic of fiefdoms where powerful actors could operate with impunity as long as their superiors received a piece of their earnings and activities. Needless to say, trust in state institutions is generally low among Malians.
Ganda izo: the Fulbe Self-defense group in northern Mali
In 2012, a rebellion in the North of Mali created a situation of complete insecturity. The Malian state fled the region and the people were left to their own devices. As a reaction ethnically organised groups of self-defense were created .
This video lets two of the leaders of Ganda Izo militia talk about the insecurity which led them to organise themselves to defend their people.
Mali previously initiated a programme of decentralization that was already enshrined in its constitution at independence. The 1990-1996 Tuareg rebellion led to the government making serious work of this reform, first to placate the Tuareg’s in the north and then extending it throughout the entire country. This devolution process was accompanied by a process of security sector reform, however security and judicial services were never sufficiently established and corruption only remained rampant. At the end of the rebellion in 1996, Tuareg armed groups were either disbanded or integrated into armed forces. Yet a feeling of disadvantage continued to exist amongst certain groups in the north. A defection of a small number of Tuareg soldiers from the Malian armed forces and spill over violence from the Tuareg rebellion in Niger led to further violence in Mali from 2006 to 2009, with two peace deals later in 2008 and 2009.
A labyrinth of armed groups (a battlefield perspective)
The fall of Libya’s dictator Gaddhafi also caused spill over violence which in effect unleashed the 2012 rebellion. The Tuareg, who had formerly fled Mali and served in Libya’s army, later returned to northern Mali fully armed after leaving their posts when NATO established a no-fly over zone. The Tuareg though are hardly united. Despite rebellions of Tuareg groups, their divisions should not be overlooked nor should they be seen as representative of northern Malians. Grouped by language in the 2009 Malian census, the main ethnic groups in the three northern regions are Tamasheq, Songhay and Peul. Tamasheq is the language of the Tuaregs and only in the region of Kidal are they the majority of about 90%. Sometimes called Kel Tamasheq (the people who speak Tamasheq) Tuaregs are further divided between clans and caste. Darker skinned people called eklan in Tamasheq (bella in Songhay) often viewed as descendants of slaves are far less supportive of Tuareg independence. During the 2012 rebellion it was reported that some slave descendants were recaptured by their former masters.
On the battling coalitions
There are three main categories of armed groups present in northern Mali including: 1) separatist groups fighting for an independent Azawad, united under the Coordination of Azawad Movements (CMA); 2) pro-unity self-defence groups that claimed a seat at the peace talks as the more loosely affiliated Platform of Algiers (or the Platform); and 3) various Islamist extremist groups.
Image: Historical development of non-state armed groups in Mali 1990-2015. Click for a large version.
The CMA unites the National Azawad Liberation Movement (MNLA) with the High Council of the Azawad Unity (HCUA) and, a large part of the Arab Azawad Movement (MAA). In 2011, Ifoghas Tuareg leader Ibrahim ag Bahanga aimed to unite all the Tuareg clans under the MNLA. Initially succeeding, this later failed when another leader from the Ifoghas region, Iyad ag Ghali, created Ansar al-Dine in 2012. After the French invasion, ag Ghali’s deputy Alghabass ag Intalla formed the Islamic Movement of the Azawad (MIA), which later dissolved into the HCUA. The HCUA mainly represents the interests of the Kel Adagh clan to which both ag Ghali and ag Intalla belong. These Tuareg groups are mostly from the higher caste clans located in the Ifoghas mountain region. The MAA partly represents the interests of the Arab community in the region. Reportedly funded by Arab businessmen with ties to the trafficking business, it has split into a pro and anti-government camp with the Algerian peace talks.
The Platform’s more loosely tied pro-union coalition includes MAA members that see their future in the Malian state alongside the Coalition for the Azawad Peoples (CPA), the Imghad and Allies Tuareg Self-Defence Group (GATIA) and the Coalition of Movements and Patriotic Front of Resistance (CM-FPR). The CM-FPR coalition includes the following organizations: the Ganda Koy and Ganda Iso self-defence groups who represent the ‘black community’ of mainly Songhai and Peul speakers; the People’s Movement for protecting Azawad (MPSA) (also split off from the MAA) and; smaller self-defence militias. Tuaregs are represented by the CPA that split from the MNLA at the Algiers process and GATIA, which claims to represent the interests of lower caste clans.
The Islamist extremist groups include: Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM); the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), mainly composed of Tuareg militants; Ansar Al-Dine; the AQIM and MUJAO offshoot Al-Mourabitoune and; the Macina Liberation Front led by radical preacher Hamadoun Koufa from the northern Malian Peul community.
This social complexity in northern Mali can help shed some light on the various armed groups. United under the flags of the Coordination of Movements of Azawad (CMA), fighting for independence, or the pro-unity Platform of Algiers (click the icon to the left for more information) these battling coalitions are not heterogeneous groups. Rather they are hybrid formations with different aims. Rapid changes within and between the battling groups occurred during the conflict including the pro-unity Imghad and Allies Tuareg Self-Defence Group (GATIA) which consisted of Imghad Tuaregs that later joined the Songhay Ganda Koy and Ganda Iso militias and a faction of the Arab Movement of Azawad (MAA) to counter the CMA. Peul speakers (also called Fulani) have rejected Tuareg elite rule however many others have also dismissed the government and continue to reside within the spheres of influence of armed groups like MUJAO.
Updates on the conflict
- On 13 March, two civilians and two Malian soldiers were killed near the border with Niger, close to the village of Fafa.
- On 18 March, a GATIA top commander was killed in his home by unknown assailants.
- On 23 March, ten people were killed in intercommunal violence related to cattle rustling in the village of Tougou in central Mali.
- On 25 March, three Malian soldiers were killed in an attack on a military post in the village of Almoustarat, northern Mali.
- On 29 March three Malian soldiers were killed in an attack on a gendarmerie post in Boulikessi, near the border with Burkina Faso. The attack was claimed by the newly-formed jihadist alliance Nusrat al-Islam wal Muslimeen (Group to Support Islam and Muslims).
- On 6 April, a French soldier was killed in a clash with militants near Hombari in southeastern Mali. The attack was claimed by the jihadist alliance Nusrat al-Islam wal Muslimeen.
Motives and ambitions of armed groups are thus difficult to determine exactly. Coalitions have emerged to strengthen groups’ positions at peace talks or to perhaps avoid the terrorist blacklist. Groups act violently to acquire territory and influence which eventually causes the less violent groups to split off. This fluidity is reflected in the various extremist Islamist groups operating across borders in the region as well. For example, Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) has had a series of leaders holding positions for a short time including Hassan Hattab, Nabil Sahraoui, Abderrazak "El Para" and currently Abdelmalek Droukdel, plus many other high-profile regional commanders such as Abdelhamid Abou Zaid, Mokhtar Belmokhtar and Abdelkrim, "the Tuareg". Brigades within these organizations are often loyal to these leaders, which lead to new splits and new group formations.
Sahelian islamist groups in and outside of Mali
By 2006, Nigeria’s Boko Haram members were training in the Sahel alongside AQIM fighters. Cooperation continued until at least 2013 when a large contingent of Boko Haram fighters attended an AQIM training centre in the Timbuktu region in Mali. Ansar al-Dine received funding, logistical and military support from AQIM and later hosted members of Boko Haram in territory it controlled in Timbuktu region. Timbuktu villagers reported that Boko Haram militants lived and trained there while occupying abandoned government buildings. An Al-Qaida offshoot, the Movement of Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), has also worked and trained alongside Boko Haram in Mali.
Boko Haram has now pledged allegiance to Islamic State (IS) and has renamed themselves Islamic State’s West African Province (ISWAP). Declaring allegiance to the group has brought notoriety and likely other benefits as well, but Al-Qaida and IS are increasingly at odds. In the relatively new group Al-Mourabitoun, a split emerged when one of its leaders Adnan Abu Walid al Sahrawi declared allegiance to IS, while its other leader Mokhtar Belmokhtar denied this IS allegiance and restated its loyalty to Ayman al Zawahiri and Al-Qaida. Additionally, Al-Mourabitoun has increasingly gained notoriety by its repeated attacks in Mali. Mokhtar Belmokhtar was targeted by a U.S. airstrike in Libya in June 2015 but survived according to an Al-Qaida statement.
It seems though that IS is spreading to other parts of the Sahel-Sahara area. In Algeria, the extremist Islamist splinter group Djound Al-Khilafa en Algerie (Soldiers of the Caliphate in Algeria) who was responsible for beheading a French tourist has pledged allegiance to Islamic State (IS). In the east of Libya, extremists who have returned from Iraq and Syria have seized the town of Derna and declared their support for IS. They also later captured Muammar al-Qadhafi’s hometown of Sirte. With the arrival of IS in Libya, the extremists trademark of filmed beheadings also came with them. These groups might be framing these statements to feed the already existing fear and negotiate for power. As in Iraq, Libya’s lack of stability and inclusive government creates fertile ground for extremism.
Negotiations for peace, stability and development (a political perspective)
In June 2013, the Malian government and the Tuareg separatist groups signed the Ouagadougou accord in the capital of the neighbouring country Burkina Faso. This was a preliminary accord that paved the way for new elections aimed to start ‘an inclusive dialogue to find a definitive solution to the crisis’ (Chapter 1, Article 2 of the accord) after a new government was elected. After this initial development however, the process was stalled as the newly elected government did not think it needed to make concessions to the rebels.
Updates on the peace process
- A peace forum, ‘Conference on National Understanding’, was held between 27 March and 2 April, bringing together political groups, armed groups, NGOs and local activists, among others, to reflect on the Algiers peace accord. Initially, the political opposition groups and some armed groups called on the government to postpone the meeting amid concerns that it would not include all relevant parties. Initially boycotting the meeting, CMA rebels and political opposition groups decided to join the meeting after it was agreed to extend the meeting into a process lasting beyond the original end date of 2 April and that it would not result in a definitive charter for peace and reconciliation in this first meeting. Among the committees formed in the meeting to further this work are a committee that focuses on the crisis in central Mali and a committee to address the issue of renaming northern Mali ‘Azawad’. At its conclusion, the conference’s participants called on the Malian government to hold talks with Islamist groups, including the Macina Liberation Front and Ansar Dine. President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta said that such negotiations will be discussed at a future meeting. On April 7, Malian minister Abdramane Sylla, filling in for Foreign Minister Abdoulaye Diop, called such negotiations absurd. France also rejected these negotiations on the same day, arguing that you cannot negotiate with terrorists.
- On 8 April, Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita announced that Prime Minister Modibo Keita, his brother, had offered his resignation and would be replaced by Defence Minister Abdoulaye Idrissa Maiga.
Consequently, the government was driven out of the Kidal region between November 2013 and May 2014, after which it committed to peace talks once again. After eight months of hard talks, this so-called Algiers process resulted in a ceasefire agreement with a final draft of a peace plan on 1 March 2015, resulting in the Algiers Accord. The preliminary agreement was then signed by the government and the loyalist coalition but the CMA decided not to sign. They committed two months later on 20 June after securing extra assurances on the representation of northern residents and the creation of a northern security force where armed groups will be integrated. The general challenge of balancing regional autonomy in northern Mali with a southern government intent on exercising its sovereignty still remains. In addition, critics of the accord say the agreement primarily reflects the wishes of the rebel groups and it remains unclear how it will have an impact of livelihoods at the grassroots level.
Trust between rebel leaders and the Malian state is still at a very low level though. President Keita was elected on a ‘strong man’ platform, one that advocated a military solution for the crisis. The aggressive GATIA self-defence group is also widely believed to be supported by the Malian government to circumvent the peace accords. Furthermore, even though the President promised to tackle corruption and poor governance in his election speech, less than a year later the World Bank, IMF, and EU temporarily froze millions of dollars in aid payments to Mali out of concerns over mismanagement of public funds. A problematic trend considering the state’s previous misuse of aid money where aid for the north was used to co-opt its elites into a clientelist system, which has now only contributed to today’s conflict and mistrust.
Ruling interests in the region (a geopolitical perspective)
Successful implementation and continued commitment to the peace process is now Mali’s main challenge, but the region remains restless. Burkina Faso has faced an uprising, violence in Libya and South Sudan still continues, Niger, Chad, Nigeria, Cameroon and the Central African Republic struggle with Boko Haram, and Algeria, Egypt and Tunisia are attempting to keep Libyan violence at bay. Such ongoing instability only creates risks and opportunities for regional relations as countries try to protect their interests. France accused Qatar of supporting extremist Islamist groups while leaked top secret reports reportedly have a Sudanese senior official stating, ‘We will not sacrifice our relations with the Islamists and Iran for a relation with the Saudis and the Gulf states.’
Neighbouring countries involvement in the Malian conflict are strongly motivated by the fear of spill over effects in the already unstable region. Mauritania for instance claimed that contributing troops for MINUSMA would protect the country against spill over effects from Mali. Meanwhile, Morocco and Algeria have been competing for the role of mediator in the region. Traditionally both countries have had significant influence over the region and much of the regional countries do rely on both formal and informal trade exchanges with Morocco and Algeria. Still Algeria was reluctant to involve itself, especially since the former Malian president Touré accused Algeria of not being able to maintain control over its intelligence services after reportedly having connections to violent groups in the region. After pressure from the United States and France, with an invitation from Mali, Algeria agreed to mediate the peace talks alongside Niger, Burkina Faso and Chad.
From an international perspective, western powers relate to what they call the ‘arc of instability’ of which the Sahelian and Maghreb regions constitute a large part. European states hope to root the current exodus of migrants traveling through these regions towards Europe via its ancient desert trading routes. Western power security motives go beyond migration however. In 2012, a new uranium mineralized zone was identified in the north of Mali. It has been suggested that France’s early military intervention was largely related to unexploited natural resources as most of its current uranium comes from neighbouring Niger. Likewise, the Dutch government stated that natural resources in the region need to remain available to European industry and trade. Furthermore, the Netherlands and Sweden also hope to secure a seat in the UN Security Council with their support for MINUSMA. 5 Beyond the western powers, China’s decision to deploy troops to both Mali and South Sudan can be seen as a sign of its increasing reliance on African natural resources.
Fighting extremism, building states? (a human security perspective)
Creating conditions to allow Malians to look after their own situation should be the primary strategy. Without creating such conditions, repressive anti-terrorism strategies can lead to further radicalization, especially among young people that are increasingly faced with rapid population growth and a lack of economic opportunities, particularly in the north. The challenge is to come up with solutions that go beyond the short-term political commitment and head towards sustainable change. This means providing Malians with a stable income, food, equal access to services like education and healthcare and a transparent, accountable system of political representation.
Any international interference however requires a long-term development strategy and a political strategy. The Malian conflict should be approached from a regional perspective that critically analyses its local and regional political economy. The current volatility of Libya for instance offers Islamist extremist groups new opportunities to root themselves in local communities. Fluid patterns where extremist Islamist groups and criminal networks that can easily relocate along transboundary networks in the Sahel while creating new hotbeds of conflict along the way will eventually undermine local military interventions. This ‘waterbed effect’ can only be countered by regional action that is rooted in a ‘political’ approach where local populations are engaged and their needs and concerns are considered. Decentralization to the local level, not only district level but also the community level where the population feels most represented and should be part of the approach.
Success in restoring long-term stability and security for the people of Mali and the Sahel as a whole depends on the competing interests that underline the efforts to resolve the conflict. The Malian government’s historically strong regional orientation, expressed through its membership of ECOWAS, the African Union, and the African Development Bank, should provide a firm basis for working toward such a solution. Building on and strengthening such fundamental principles should be leading in the reorientation of regional cooperation and stability, and should form a solid basis for the outward orientation and economic and political cooperation with international partners.
A living analysis means that Sahel Watch will be constantly updated to be able to 'watch' the ongoing dynamics and their impact in the region. The perspectives we have identified so far are not fully exhaustive and we will constantly look for different ones and blind spots in current analyses.
We hope to contribute to more comprehensive policies and practices. This long read is therefore relevant for anybody who is engaged in improving the human security situation in Mali, and not just governments, international organizations and academics, but also local people and communities.
This analysis was co-written by many authors, please click on the icon to the left to see who contributed.
Photo credit main picture: Atelier sur la paix / Marco Dormino via Flickr
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Retaillé, D. & Walther, O. (2011), Spaces of uncertainty: A model of mobile space in the Sahel Singapore Journal of Tropical Geography, 32, 85–101.
Bergamaschi, I. (2008), Mali: patterns and limits of donor-driven ownership. In Whitfield, L. (ed.), The politics of aid. African strategies for dealing with donors, Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 221.
Outeren, E. van (2014), Een Afrikaanse missie in een Afrikaans tempo, NRC Handelsblad, 18-10-2014.