What a regional perspective can teach us about the 2012 Malian crisis

Peace & Security,Sahel Watch23 Dec 2015Madina Diallo

The security situation in the Sahel region has become highly volatile over the past years. Due to its geographical position, the Malian state is particularly prone to regional insecurity. As a result of the 2012 crisis in northern Mali, caused by both domestic and external dynamics, this security interdependence in the region could be observed in relation to ethnic tensions, porous borders, organized crime and terrorism within and beyond the Sahel region. Addressing the regional perspective on the 2012 crisis can contribute to a coherent and long-term solution to regional insecurity. One particular interest for this perspective is the examination of the link between Mali and the domestic agendas of its neighbouring states.

Although democracy has been restored since the March 2012 coup, the foundations of the state are yet to be consolidated. Mali’s weak state structure was inherited from a colonial state that ruled its distant north through a policy of divide and rule. After independence in 1960, a one party regime dominated the political system for more than 30 years. Since the establishment of multi-party democracy in 1992, the number of political parties in the country considerably rose, which increased the complexity of the political system while leaving the condition of the state mostly unchanged. Electoral fraud was commonplace in Mali’s recent history and new coalitions were created at every electoral campaign, complicating the political structure of the country and deepening the population’s mistrust of state authorities and institutions. These weak governmental structures, also present in many other Sahelian and Saharan states, have allowed a number of criminal groups to settle in the region. Already in the 1990s, the Algerian economic turmoil and the Libyan embargo favoured contraband activities. Cigarette smuggling has particularly contributed to the emergence of trafficking practices and networks throughout the Sahel and Sahara.

A heterogeneous and divided society

Mali’s internal divisions can be traced back to precolonial history and the Scramble for Africa, which favoured a multiethnic Mali. Several populations of nomadic tradition such as the Bérabich (Yemeni Arab descent), Moors (Maures), Kunta and Tuareg communities are concentrated in the north. The south harbours different black ethnic groups of sedentary farmers and artisans with the majority of Mandé origins. 1 In a continent where culture, identity and traditions are carefully preserved, complex tribal and social structures are strengthened with the absence of a strong and impartial state. The Bambara for instance, and to a lesser extent the Malinké, have traditionally dominated the political scene in Mali due to their geographical proximity to Bamako.

Ethnic rivalries are also apparent within the north where pastoralists have suffered both from the neglect of the state and the ravages of successive droughts. Prior to the colonization of Africa, Tuareg and Arabic tribes of the Sahara played an important role in connecting communities north and south of the desert for centuries. Unsatisfied aspirations have deeply impacted the history of the country and particularly of the Tuareg and Arab communities since independence in 1960 throughout the Sahel and Sahara. The ethnic fragmentation and poor political management of the northern regions have led to several cycles of armed rebellions and repression in the 1960s, 1990s and early 2000s. The injustice and violence perpetrated by the Malian armed forces during these uprisings constituted the Tuareg narratives and deepened the mistrust for the central political and security apparatus. 2

A regional perspective on the 2012 crisis in Mali

Mali’s structural domestic problems undeniably contributed to the 2012 political and security turmoil, but its regional interlinkages accelerated the chaos and complicated the resolution of the root causes in the longer term. The relevant political and security links between Mali and its neighbours who directly influenced the development of the conflict is crucial. Any national strategy will be dependent on regional stability.

Libya: a legacy of regional ambitions

For several years, Colonel Qaddafi facilitated political rapprochement between Tuareg rebels and the central authorities of Mali and Niger as well as managed the political calendar. By acting as a mediator and developing good relationships with rebel groups, the Colonel contained secessionist aspirations for a while. Since the end of the 1980s, the country’s political environment contributed to the development of smuggling activities in the region’s 3 territories (southern part of the country) that were inhabited by the Tuaregs who later became the main connection of smuggling operations. Colonel Qaddafi’s mode of ruling was heavily based on traditional political-cultural structures, and relied on Tuareg and Arab communities to enhance his influence prior and during the Arab Spring. The state hosted an important number of Malian and Nigerien Tuaregs and incorporated them into its armed forces, the Islamic Legion. After the end of the 2011 Libyan civil war, Tuareg rebels returned with extensive weaponry that allowed them to start a violent military campaign in northern Mali.

Algeria: an ambiguous regional player

With the second largest army in North Africa and the status of a regional player, Algeria has also been a privileged interlocutor in the Malian Tuareg dispute. This was not only motivated by the will to contain Qaddafi’s influence in the region but also by the fear of a contagion among Algerian Tuareg. The aftermath of Algerian civil war (1991-2002) had a detrimental impact on regional security as it favoured the emergence of terrorist groups like Mokhtar Belmokhtar’s Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (renamed Al-Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb in 2007) that soon had a transnational outreach. Bouteflika’s government distant position during the Malian crisis raised questions in Bamako and in the region. After condemning the 2012 coup d’état, the state remained silent during the months to follow. 4 The “wait and see” attitude of Alger was interpreted as a cautious stance linked to the April 2012 abduction of seven of its diplomats in the city of Gao by the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa, as well as internal competition resulting from the 2014 presidential elections. The Amenas hostage crisis forced the authorities to change their strategy and dragged the Algerian state into the Malian conflict. Algeria has been particularly active in the resolution of the crisis in conducting peace talks and drafting the June 2015 peace accords between the Malian government and the Coordination of Azawad Movements.

Burkina Faso: on the front lines of mediation

Burkina Faso played an influential role in the conflict due to the personality of its former head of state Blaise Compaoré who exported his influence across borders by playing a front-line role in several previous crises in the region. In order to ensure his relevance in West African affairs, the former President intensified formal and informal diplomatic contacts with different leaders in the region. Compaoré was nominated as the main regional partner and mediator of the Malian crisis. The Head of State met repeatedly with the leaders of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) and was later involved in the Ouagadougou Accords of June 2013. The indulgence towards the military junta and the unilateral character of the Burkinabe mediation created a controversy in the Malian public opinion and political circle.

Chad: the region’s newest military power

With a well equipped, experienced and resilient army that endured three decades of civil warfare and invasions from Libya, Chad is emerging as a regional military power. President Idriss Déby has become an important interlocutor thanks to his military capabilities. The army’s knowledge and experience of high intensity conflicts has undeniably been helpful in northern Mali and in the current fight against Boko Haram. The involvement of Chad in Mali in 2013, and more recently in Nigeria, has demonstrated the increasing relevance of this country in West African affairs.

Nigeria: a polarized country looking to contain spill over violence

Nigeria’s difficult battle against terrorism has regional consequences. As part of the globalization of criminal activities, Boko Haram has developed and established ties in neighbouring countries including Chad, Cameroon, Niger and Mali. Combatants of the group joined the ranks of other terrorist groups in northern Mali. The security environment in Mali was a real source of concern for the then President Goodluck Jonathan who was named successor to Blaise Compaoré in leading mediation efforts. The former Head of State feared that the collapse of the Malian state and the emergence of a terrorist state might serve to attack Nigeria and lead to the disintegration of an already polarized country. Abuja also provided a contingent of soldiers as part of the African-led military operation AFISMA that was later supplanted by the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA).

Niger: a similar situation but a different outcome

The Republic of Niger was the most threatened and affected country by the Malian crisis. Marginalization, identity threat and the deterioration of its socioeconomic conditions and successive droughts have led the Nigerien Tuaregs to rebel against the central authority in different occasions. However, the Nigerien government has been more active than its Malian counterpart and successful in decentralization and incorporating the community into political institutions. 5 The main security concern with the Malian crisis was the influx of separatist rebels and the gathering of the Islamists to the country using the Nigerien territory as a support base for guerrilla attacks against the French and African forces in Mali.

What does the future hold for Mali?

The peace deal signed this year by the Malian authorities and the Coordination of Azawad Movements will neither contain violence nor guarantee sustainable peace. Malian society has been deeply affected by the conflict. Reconciliation and social cohesion appear extremely difficult. The misperception of the ethnic composition of northern Mali (reinforced popularity of the Tuareg movement in western countries) has favoured cultural isolationism. The risk is creating a vicious circle where each group or community will have recourse to violence as a means to protect interests. The Macina Liberation Front is a militant Jihadist armed group whose objective is to restore the 19th century Fulani Macina Empire and an example of this urgent issue.

The challenge for the Malian government will be to ease tensions between communities and foster inclusive measures to preserve national unity. The 2012 Malian crisis came as a surprise for the international community who used to praise this country for it’s democracy and stability in the region. Yet Mali´s structural issues did not develop overnight. They were reinforced over time and aggravated through their connection to regional issues. To prevent a new cycle of slumbering issues and cyclical violence, it is fundamental for the Malian authorities and the international actors involved to adopt a regional approach.

Libyan stability should be at the forefront of such a strategy as this country remains the foremost obstacle in stabilizing the Sahel region at this moment. Terrorist groups benefit greatly from the political and security vacuum of the country, plus the vastness of the Libyan desert has become a safe haven for these groups to plan their attacks, retreats and hide weapons in total impunity. Addressing the interlinked issue of regional drug trafficking should be a priority as well. Such trafficking funds armed groups, fuels corruption at the highest levels, and affects a variety of countries throughout the region. Drug routes first transit through countries of the Guinean Gulf such as Guinea Bissau, Cape Verde or Liberia before crossing the Sahel. An extensive cooperation between the different subregions is essential in mitigating these harmful activities.

Furthermore, greater coordination between NGOs, international organizations and aid agencies would strengthen a much needed coherent and long-term strategy to tackle Mali’s socioeconomic challenges. As a donor darling, the Malian authorities developed a close partnership with aid agencies and received more money than its poorer neighbours (Niger and Burkina Faso for instance), while in fact the aid only fuelled bad governance and particularly corrupt practices. With little visibility and control over aid funds, donors indirectly fostered Amadou Toumani Toure’s (ATT) mismanagement of the north. Donors should thus ensure that their funds reach those local communities who need it most.

Lastly, religious extremism is becoming an alternative against political and economic frustration. Religious leaders, in particular the High Islamic Council, are able to mobilize masses unlike any other political party in the country. Without concrete measures to fight youth unemployment and distress, armed groups will continue the recruitment and indoctrination of aimless young people.

This article is based on a master’s research project into regional linkages of the 2012 Malian crisis.


  1. Almost half of Mali’s population consists of Mandé people (Bambara, Malinké and Soninké). The Bambara, the largest and dominant ethnic group mostly live in central and southern regions along the middle Niger Valley. The Malinké, who also speak a Mandé language, tend to live in the southwest and western part of the country.
  2. This discourse also resonated within the exile communities living in Libya and Algeria which contributed to the regionalization of the Tuareg issue as well as the 2012 insurrection in northern Mali.
  3. Libya’s ostracism in the 1980s and 1990s was translated by a variety of sanctions by the international community such as economic embargos encouraging the development of smuggling activities.
  4. Alger also rejected the idea of a Western military intervention in the Sahel at that time.
  5. Prime Minister Brigi Raffini is of Tuareg background.