Addressing organized crime to ensure a peaceful transition in Mali

Peace & Security,Sahel Watch13 Oct 2016Chiara Galletti

The impacts of organized crime on conflict dynamics and security in fragile countries are frequently neglected, with disruptive effects on stability. While there is growing consensus that the threats posed by organized crime should be taken seriously, Malian actors and their international partners have not yet paid adequate attention to this issue. Thus, the delicate process of consolidating peace in Mali risks being derailed unless urgent action is taken.

This expert opinion is part of our Sahel Watch living analysis

The conflict in Mali has its roots in history, but can also be seen as a product of current economic, ecological, political, security and geopolitical developments in the region.
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From a peace-building perspective, crime exerts a worrying influence on the dynamics of conflict and violence, by affecting the government’s provision of security, preventing socio-economic development, and undermining the rule of law. It rarely operates in isolation, as to flourish it requires political and physical protection, established networks to reinvest profits, and the availability of manpower with social and economic grievances that need fulfilment.This scenario is consistent with the current political economy of Mali.1 Unfair power distribution, the poor management of public funds (including development aid2), and lack of transparency, accountability and participation have deeply penetrated Malian society over the years creating fertile ground for the growth of illicit trade and criminal activities.3

Evolution of trafficking practices

Despite being a widespread phenomenon, the notion of organized crime in Mali is difficult to pin down. Firstly, because group affiliation is often opportunistic and members are generally free to leave without sanction and, secondly, because Malian law does not have a specific offence for participating in an organized criminal group. Furthermore, the smuggling of licit goods (e.g. fuel, subsidized foodstuff and cigarettes) is an integral part of the economic and livelihood structure of local populations and represents a unique source of revenue in a region characterized by geographical isolation, endemic conflict, and entrenched poverty, overlaid by a devastating environmental crisis.4

Due to their profitability, the trade in narcotics and weapons has progressively taken over the original smuggling routes, with serious impacts on access to basic goods for the local population. Mali is now recognized as a critical transit point for cocaine originating from Latin America bound for Europe and the Middle East.5 The profits from this trafficking have provided unique social and economic opportunities to otherwise marginalized groups, such as youth and hierarchically subordinate clans. They have also been instrumental in building the traffickers’ legitimacy and ensuring political by-in and the provision of physical protection by the so-called ‘protection racket’.

How to strike a balance between conflicting needs

Local observers who took part in interviews and focus groups between November 2015 and May 2016 claim that no armed actor is free of involvement in trafficking and, furthermore, that there are established links between the various movements in Mali and criminal networks. Despite this, the destabilizing potential of organized crime was overlooked during the negotiation of the ‘Agreement for Peace and Reconciliation in Mali emanating from the Algiers Process’ (hereafter ‘the Peace Agreement’), based on the assumption that it may exert a stabilizing effect in the short term and that Mali cannot deal with too many enemies at once given the existing threats from violent extremists groups and separatist movements in the north (see here for a more detailed analysis).

In a context where a balance between conflicting needs is hard to strike, what can Malian authorities and the diplomatic, development and humanitarian communities do to ensure that the impact of organized crime on the political settlement and delivery of recovery programmes is appropriately addressed? Based on the analysis and interviews undertaken by International Alert in the past months, the following recommendations could help national and international stakeholders to address the challenges of the implementation of the Mali Peace Agreement:

  • Increase knowledge and understanding of organized crime as a destabilizing influence on peace among international and multilateral actors accompanying the peace process (ONU-MINUSMA, ECOWAS, AU, EU) and include it in strategic and political discussions.
  • Ensure that organized crime is factored in as a risk to successful delivery when designing, implementing and monitoring humanitarian and development programmes.
  • Carry out conflict and peace analyses, including political economy analysis, to understand the local and regional dynamics underpinning trafficking and crime and apply conflict-sensitivity to programme delivery.
  • Strengthen community interventions and participation in law enforcement, border control and justice delivery to increase the response to organized crime activities and networks.
  • Establish strategies to reduce the attractiveness of criminal economic opportunities and provide measures to facilitate the return of economic operators to legality.

This article is based on the International Alert policy brief ‘Organised crime in Mali: Why it matters for a peaceful transition from conflict‘.


  1. Most of the information in this opinion piece comes from interviews and focus group conducted by International Alert with local stakeholders in Timbuktu, Kayes, Gao and Bamako between November 2015 and May 2016.
  2. Bergamaschi, I (2014) ‘The fall of a donor darling: The role of aid in Mali’s crisis.’ The Journal of Modern African Studies, 52(3); MacLachlan, K (2015) Security assistance, corruption and fragile environments: Exploring the case of Mali 2001–2012. London: Transparency International UK
  3. Cissé, I ; Dicko, A ; Fahlbusch, JH, (2015) Enquete d’opinion: “Que pensent les Maliens?” [Poll: What do the Malians think?], Mali-Mètre. Bamako: Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung.
  4. Danish Demining Group (DDG) Evaluation des risques sécuritaires aux frontières (Région du Liptako-Gourma: Mali, Burkina et Niger) [Assessment of safety risks at borders (Liptako-Gourma region: Mali, Burkina and Niger)]. Copenhagen: DDG.
  5. Raineri, L; Strazzari, F (2015) ‘State, secession, and jihad: The micro-political economy of conflict in northern Mali.’ African Security, 8(4).