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Sahel Watch: a living analysis of the conflict in Mali

Karlijn Muiderman is now Anticipatory climate governance researcher at Copernicus Institute of Sustainable Development at the Utrecht University.

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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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.

Read more: African responses to the eruption of conflict

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), which was supported by the African Union and the UN Security Council. However, the French intervened and when AFISMA deployed earlier than planned it was criticized for lack of capabilities and resources. MINUSMA quickly took charge and coordinated military operations, overshadowing ECOWAS and the African Union.

Read more: a distant and ungoverned northern territory.

France, the former colonial power, remained militarily present from 2013 onwards under Operation Serval, fighting against Islamist extremists throughout the Sahel region. Operation Serval was taken over by Operation Barkhane, which focused on creating local capacity to safeguard security. France and other European countries present want to reduce their troops in the region, in the hope that future stability will be provided by the G5 Sahel joint force (FC-G5S). The G5 is a collaboration between Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger and Chad and is supported by the UN. It aims to combat terrorism and drug trafficking, restore state authority, and facilitate humanitarian operations and development programmes. All the while, violence between armed groups in northern Mali continues, while an Islamist extremist insurgency spreads throughout the country.

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.

Read more: the Malian economic climate.

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.

Read more: trade-offs between governance and economic development.

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.

Read more: droughts in the Sahel, diminished space for nomadic groups, and regional migration

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.

Read more: illicit trade in the Sahel-Sahara

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.

Read more: trafficking along the Saharan trade routes

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.

Read more: insecurity worsens

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.

Video 'Ganda izo: the Fulbe Self-defense group in northern Mali'.

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.

Read more: French support for the MNLA

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.

Read more: on the battling coalitions

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.

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.

Read more: Sahelian islamist groups in and outside of Mali

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.

Read more: the Algiers Accord

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.

Read more: reflections on the peace process

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.

Read more: the political climate in Mali

Ruling interests in the region (a geopolitical perspective)

Two years after the peace agreement was signed, continued commitment to the peace process and its successful implementation are Mali’s main challenges, but the region remains restless. Burkina Faso, Niger and Senegal face threats from violent Malian groups, violence in Libya and South Sudan continues, Niger, Chad, Nigeria, Cameroon and the Central African Republic struggle with Boko Haram, and Algeria and Tunisia are attempting to keep Libyan violence at bay. Such ongoing instability creates risks and opportunities for regional relations as countries try to protect their interests.

Video: at the General Assembly, Mali calls for a global UN approach to Sahel’s regional challenges

The involvement of neighbouring countries in the Malian conflict is strongly motivated by the fear of spill-over effects in the already unstable region. The Joint Sahel Force – FC-G5S or G5 – was created in June 2017 and started operating at the beginning of November. It consists of troops from Mali, Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad. The UN Security Council welcomed, but did not financially support, the G5, and, although the Security Council later declared that it would provide logistical and operational support to the force, uncertainty regarding its financing continues. The cost of the force was estimated at EUR 423 million in the first year, but France estimates that the force needs only EUR 260 million a year. Currently, it is financially supported by each G5 member, the EU and several individual member states, the US, and, surprisingly, Saudi Arabia (which contributed EUR 100 million) and the United Arab Emirates (which contributed EUR 30 million). However, these contributions do not cover the estimated cost of the force. The force not only faces financial obstacles, but the goal to have seven battalions fully trained and operational by March 2018 is very ambitious.

Read more: Algeria's diplomatic role

From an international perspective, Western powers refer to what they call the ‘arc of instability’, of which the Sahelian and Maghreb regions constitute a large part. European states hope to route the current exodus of migrants traveling through these regions towards Europe via its ancient desert trading routes. Western power security motives go beyond migration, and may be related to unexploited natural resources and political power struggles. 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.

Read more: Geopolitical currents in the region

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.

Read more: going beyond the state in the analysis of conflicts

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.

Read more: youth unemployment, crime and terrorism

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.

Read more: how to work regionally?

Ongoing process

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.


On 7 February, the G5 leaders appealed for more funds for anti-jihadist force after a summit in the Niger capital of Niame.

On 1 Februari, a report published by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and MINUSMA expressed concerns over human rights violations, it reports more than 600 human rights violations between January 2016 and June 2017.

On 30 January, Soumaïla Cissé, the leader of the opposition in Mali, called for respect of the electoral procedures in response to president IBK threatening to cancel funds for opposing parties.

On 29 January, Security Minister Salif Traore said the government’s priority is to stabilize central Mali before the elections in April.

On 24 January, the UN Security Council threatened to use sanctions against parties that obstruct or delay the implementation of the peace agreement.

On 22 January, the UN peacekeeping chief Jean-Pierre Lacroix urged the Malian government to “create conditions that would lead to elections” and a day later he told the Security Council that time had come to reassess MINUSMA’s assumptions and layout.

On 16 January, president Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta threatened to cut the budget for opposition leader Soumaïla Cissé because he criticized the government.

On 12 January, the Malian government accepted a new law that grants more legal protection to Human Rights defenders, it was welcomed by different human rights defending organizations that indicate that measures should be taken to ensure effective implementation.

On 10 January, around a 100 people demonstrated against French military operations in Bamako and the police used tear gas to disperse the crowds.

On 10 January, a regional bank official and the head of an African tech initiative announced their presidential bids for the elections in July. Two other candidates had announced their bids earlier: former Malian army general Moussa Sinko Coulibaly and the mayor of Sikasso, Kalifa Sanogo. IBK has not yet confirmed, but is widely expected to join the race.

On 16 January, Ahmed Boutache, president of the follow-up committee for the peace agreement, said implementation of the peace agreement was complicated by the the question of rebel disarmament.

On 31 December, president Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta appointed the thirty-six new ministers of the government after their predecessors had resigned with the Prime Minister Abdoulaye Idrissa Maïga that now runs as presidential candidate.


1. Zwarts, L, Beukering, P. van, Kone, B. & Wymenga, E. (2005) The Niger, a lifeline: Effective water management in the Upper Niger Basin, RIZA, IVM, Wetlands International & A&W. 
2. Dijk, H. van & De Bruijn (1995), Pastoralists, Chiefs and Bureaucrats: A Grazing Scheme in Dryland Central Mali. In: Local Resource Management in Africa, New York: Wiley. 
3. Retaillé, D. & Walther, O. (2011), Spaces of uncertainty: A model of mobile space in the Sahel Singapore Journal of Tropical Geography, 32, 85–101.
4. 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.

Author: Karlijn Muiderman

About the author

Karlijn Muiderman is now Anticipatory climate governance researcher at Copernicus Institute of Sustainable Development at the Utrecht University.

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