Going beyond the complexity of Mali’s conflict

Peace & Security,Sahel Watch12 Apr 2017Antonin Tisseron, Amandine Gnanguênon

In most African crises, there are multiple conflict components (political, social, economic), which are usually analysed separately to increase understanding and find appropriate solutions. However, in the Malian conflict it is necessary to analyse these factors together. Mali’s multi-layered conflicts cannot be understood from a single analytical perspective and a simple categorization of each of its various components is not enough. The conflict(s) in Mali must be studied in all their complexity. At its core, the Malian conflict is the result of the political reshaping of Malian society, which, by definition, means that its different components can only be addressed by looking at how they are interwoven and interact. Failing to use this as the basis for a solution will result in failure to deliver on the Malian people’s expectations.

Despite the Serval military operation (2013–2014), the rapid re-conquest of northern Mali (then administered by a coalition of international jihadists and local fighters), and the persistent presence of French soldiers as part of Operation Barkhane, as well as peacekeepers from the United Nations (MINUSMA), Mali has sunk into a state of war with many layers. Transnational jihadism, drug trafficking, religious redefinition, various rebellions against the State, conflicts within and between communities, economic predation by warlords, and rivalry among foreign powers are all entangled.

So, while the Malian imbroglio cannot be understood using a single analytical key, a complete categorization of its various components is also inadequate. Multiple armed and non-armed conflicts are interconnected and create a regional web of insecurity that cannot be confined within Mali’s national borders – it is not one conflict, but a dynamic system of conflicts. Indeed, the power struggles between armed actors are shifting, reflecting the multiple loyalties of these groups and in response to the changing environment in which they operate, based on, for instance, the rewards they gain from smuggling. Hence, this Malian system of conflicts can be defined (but not exclusively) by three main features: overlapping and multi-scale conflicts, constant evolution in time and space, and networking among various actors.

Overlapping and multi-scale conflicts shaped by actors’ mobility

Firstly, the Malian conflict is characterized by the overlapping of different conflicts (political, social, economic, religious, and so forth), with different locations and histories. While the 2012 rebellion was a direct consequence of the international military intervention in Libya the year before, it can also be seen to relate to an earlier time. This rebellion was influenced by many events, including the French administration of the region during colonialism, the nation building of an independent Mali in 1960, the memory of the 1962–1964 rebellion, the failure of the 1992 Pacte National, internal social redefinitions within the Tuareg world, and even the formation of local militias by the former president of Mali, Amadou Toumani Touré (2002–2012) to fight rebels and control drug trafficking.

Secondly, the conflicts go beyond Mali’s frontiers, and not only because of the attacks claimed by Al-Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in Ouagadougou (Burkina Faso) and Grand-Bassam (Ivory Coast), perpetrated in January and March 2016, respectively. Whether they are regarded as terrorists or acknowledged as lawful interlocutors, Mali’s armed groups move from one country to another. The porous nature of State frontiers in the Sahel allows them to rest, recruit, build alliances, pick up weapons and money, or escape pursuit using distinct networks and opportunities, each with their own practical details. In such a context, defining the extent of the Malian system of conflicts can only be done arbitrarily, given the superimposing of several layers (local, national, regional, international), which are constantly being redefined by the mobility of the actors involved.

A third feature worth mentioning is the networking between various actors in the conflict. Alliances and coalitions are fluid; they are redefined on the basis of the formal and informal relationships built by individuals, their sociability and their identity, as well as the competition with other actors for control over political (power), economic (material) or symbolic resources (the ability to define and impose what is legitimate, e.g. in relation to the historical narrative, culture, and future possibilities). Thus, fighters sometimes sell their services to another group for the duration of an operation, or they may move from one armed group to another according to opportunities and depending on the evolution of the strategies of other actors. In this regard, between 2011 and 2014, some Arab smugglers in the Gao region moved from a pro-government militia to the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (Mouvement pour l’unicité et le jihad en Afrique de l’Ouest, MUJAO) then to the Arab Movement of Azawad (Mouvement arabe de l’Azawad, MAA), which was part of the pro-government Platform of armed groups, using them as a tool to safeguard their activities and oppose competitors.

Taking into account these dimensions, the concept of a (dynamic and interlinked) system of conflicts is, thus, a relevant model for explaining the multi-layered Malian crisis.

A multi-layered analysis of the Malian conflict

The tangle of time frames, places and strategies of the conflict actors is, of course, nothing new, although it has increased with globalization, which jihadist groups have taken advantage of with great efficiency (for propaganda and to strike at territories far away from their bases). This interlocking and overlapping produces two observations and two consequences. Born from old tensions, armed conflicts and the wars they create are first and foremost times in which societies and their politics are redefined, with consequences for relations between groups and between individuals, making it nearly impossible to go back to a status quo ante. Second, to analyse conflicts as systems also requires methodological de-compartmentalization, suggesting a need for an analytical framework that seeks to transcend the traditional perspectives of each discipline. In other words an interdisciplinary approach is needed to take into account geography, history, anthropology, sociology and political science approaches.

Observed through these perspectives, and considering the multiplicity of locations, historical characteristics, and multitude of other elements, the Malian conflicts, by their very nature, question the analytical framework guiding current policies. The short-term outlook of the EU, UN and bilateral partners’ policies and foreign military interventions does not work well in conflicts that have regional and international ramifications and whose roots are planted in the long-term history of societies. Moreover, the choice to place the Malian authorities (which are part of the problem) or the rulers from northern Mali (which have alleged ties to criminal activities) as central partners in the conflict resolution has limited the impact of the solutions proposed using the current analytical framework. At the end of the day, this means that the international community is failing to address the challenges of the country and to deliver effective solutions for its population.