Mali in the international setting
The crisis that erupted in Mali in January 2012 and that continues to shake the region exists on multiple levels. It is at heart a national conflict, first for an independent state, now for a loosely-defined ‘autonomy’ for the country’s north. In fact, in some ways the 2012 rebellion, the fourth largely Tuareg uprising since Mali gained its independence from France in 1960, was an even more national affair than past rebellions. While some territorial claims from the 1990s included reference to largely Tuareg areas in northern Niger as well as northern Mali, the ‘Azawad’ state claimed by activists in the National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad (MNLA in French) encompasses only territory within Mali’s postcolonial boundaries. Yet the conflict must also be seen from an international perspective. Mali’s neighbours, as well as European countries, have played a tangled and sometimes obscure role in the conflict, with various governments sheltering and sometimes directly aiding militants and political leaders, competing for primacy in negotiations over a settlement to the conflict, and providing media platforms for activists and fighters to make their case to an international audience. This international dimension is complex, fluid and often unclear, but it remains essential to understanding the state of play in the contemporary Sahara-Sahel region.
The accord negotiated in Algiers in late July 2014 set a roadmap for future negotiations and provides a good example of the international dimension of the conflict. Algeria has weaved in and out of the negotiation picture in Mali, as its government (and some current officials) played key roles in negotiating past accords during Tuareg rebellions in the 1990s and 2006. Signatories to the roadmap agreement included a number of states and institutions who have also played mediation roles in the conflict, including Burkina Faso, Mauritania, Niger and the African Union. Of notable absence was Morocco, which has sought to play an important role in Mali’s religious, economic and security future, a policy driven by longstanding Moroccan goals of expanding its influence in Sub-Saharan Africa while also trying to diplomatically challenge Algeria, another important element of Moroccan foreign policy.
While no conflict is purely internal, it is impossible to separate Mali’s crisis from the international context and the interconnectedness of economics, politics, security and criminality in the Sahara-Sahel. From the beginning of the conflict, various fingers pointed at alleged French involvement in supporting the MNLA, a collaboration that, according to some French journalists, also involved Mauritania, a close partner in French counterterrorism efforts. While France’s potential involvement in encouraging the rebellion remains an open question, the governments (and secret services) under Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande saw the MNLA as potential allies against AQIM and in seeking the release of French hostages held at the time in the Sahara. This is in addition to the sympathy in some quarters in France for the cause of Tuareg independence that has lasted since the colonial era. Suspicions of French intentions grew after the liberation of Mali, when French forces interceded to help keep Malian forces away from the MNLA and its allies in Kidal for months, a time when elements of the MNLA aided French forces seeking to root out jihadists in northern Mali.
Other governments were accused alternately of aiding and impeding these efforts, with varying degrees of evidence. At various times during and after the occupation of northern Mali, MNLA delegations and representatives were based in Nouakchott and Ouagadougou, while Ansar al-Dine leaders could be found at various times in Ouagadougou and Algiers, and Niger hosted the loyalist Tuareg military commander El Hajj Gamou and his men until after the French intervention. These states have a security and political stake in the conflicts on their borders, and as political winds have shifted various actors have lobbed allegations, often through anonymously-sourced press accounts, that different states provided money, fuel and even weapons to belligerents in the conflict. but they also host populations with kin across the lines in the sand that divide the region’s states, and the cosmopolitan exchange of people and goods that has marked the region for centuries continues to bind these states (and political and militant movements within them) together. This interconnectedness means that political, security, social and economic issues in Mali also impact on stability in neighbouring countries, giving all sides a keen interest in influencing and managing conflict there.
On another level, it was the regional context that helped give rise to some of the very instability wracking Mali. Smuggling – of foodstuffs, petrol, people, and more recently of drugs – has a long history in the region, as documented by the social anthropologist Judith Scheele. Inter-regional trade has long been the lifeblood of northern Mali’s populations, and subsidies and loose border controls after independence provided local populations with a money-making opportunity as well as a means of survival, one whose incentives and potential payouts grew dramatically in the early 2000s with the advent of cocaine smuggling through the region on the way to North Africa and Europe. While evidence directly connecting jihadist groups to the drug trade in particular is tenuous, several prominent leaders of these groups, in particular the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO in French) are reportedly linked either directly or through family members to the drug trade, while some AQIM leaders such as Abdelkrim al-Targui (Hamada Ag Hama) purportedly engaged in activities such as smuggling and kidnapping alongside Islamist militancy, with the latter in particular providing a huge source of funding for militant groups. And regardless of the extent to which funding from criminal activities other than kidnapping aided jihadist groups and pro-independence movements, their presence in the region and corruption in Bamako helped degrade governance and create an environment of permissiveness and ‘remote control’ governance that pushed state structures to a point of collapse.
However, dealing with these issues demands more than simply more security. While jihadist groups and other armed movements benefitted from cross-border trade and smuggling, the region’s shared populations and free movement of people are an inescapable fact of life. Shutting off these flows of people and goods would not only be nearly impossible, due to the massive spaces and difficult terrain in these areas, but it would also choke off entire groups of people and make life in vast areas practically even more difficult. Any political, security and economic arrangement to deal with Mali’s crisis must be acceptable and amenable to local actors, yet international support and a regional arrangement are also necessary and inescapable. Bringing those parts together, however, will make for a continued challenge to Mali and its neighbours.