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TEST Sahel Watch: the conflict in Mali

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


There are a multiple of perspectives to explain what is happening in Mali that each look at the conflict in a different way and thereby determining approaches separately. This living analysis integrates these perspectives in a co-created manner with experts from research, policy and practice backgrounds, working locally and globally. To complete the analysis while integrating the changing dynamics of the conflict, this analysis is frequently updated.

This longread is a living analysis. It explores and integrates all key factors that contribute to the conflict in Mali. The longread is updated on a weekly basis with monthly brief sent out about the updated status. Subscribe to the monthly digest here.

MNLA revolt, a civil war and a coup d’état

In early 2012 Mali, once considered a model democracy, collapsed suddenly after rebellion of the predominantly Tuareg Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) in the north of the country that unleashed a civil war, followed by a coup d’état. Regional violent Islamist groups took advantage of the unrest created by the civil war to take over the north, and an army weakened by the battle in the north overthrew the government.

The accumulated challenges are undermining the government, the economy, and the livelihoods of the Malian people.The government is still relying on international interveners, like the UN’s Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA), to fight the Islamists in the North. Six months into the conflict, there was increasing criticism of regional bodies ECOWAS and the African Union and their member states, for displaying a lack of capabilities and resources. MINUSMA quickly took over and coordinated military operations, overshadowing the AU and its members.

After failing to establish peace, former colonial power France ended its Operation Serval in Mali and is now focusing on fighting against extremist Islamists elsewhere in the Sahel region (Operation Barkhane). Meanwhile, the rebel Tuareg and Islamists in the north of Mali are regaining strength. Early October, a Senegalese MINUSMA soldier was killed by a rocket attack, and nine MINUSMA soldiers from Nigeria were killed in an ambush by Islamists.

Coping with severe living conditions

The Sahel is one of the most difficult places on earth to survive. Mali is world’s 24th-largest country with its northern borders deep in the Sahara desert.

Many countries in the Sahel region suffer from conflict or are classified as ‘fragile’. Conflicts also continue to spill over between these countries. The 2012 food crisis in Niger, for example, was “compounded by instability in neighbouring Mali and the inflow of tens of thousands of people fleeing from the conflict there”, the Human Development Report of 2014 states. The interest of countries like France and China to exploit Mali’s natural resources is challenging local employment, economic diversity and political stability. And most recently, the instability in Libya is threatening to spill over to Mali. More non-neighbouring countries in the region are unstable, including Burkina Faso, the DRC and South Sudan, while the Ebola crisis in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea threatens the broader region with the potential of a political instability.

Mali is Africa’s third largest gold producer. Other natural resources include uranium, phosphates, kaolinite, salt and limestone. Mali is estimated to have in excess of 17,400 tonnes of uranium alone. Yet 85.5% of the population lives in poverty, economic opportunities are limited, and infant mortality and illiteracy rates are high. 48% of the population is younger than 15 years old and life expectancy is around 53. More than 90% of the population lives in the south, mainly in the capital, Bamako. The northern part of the country has had to deal with severe drought, food and water scarcity in recent years. The south has developed a cotton and rice industry, using water from the Niger and Senegal rivers, while the north is home to nomadic herders, many of whom are agro-pastoralists, raising livestock in the dry season and growing crops in rainy season.

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. Droughts are frequent, while from June to December the Niger River floods, creating the Niger Delta. This critical water flow is under threat from dam building and hydropower, also affecting downstream countreis Niger, Benin and Nigeria. The ecological stress has compounded the conflicts of interest over access to water resources, challenging the survival of various ethnic groups.

As in the 1970s and 1980s, recent periods of drought in the north have resulted in diminishing space for nomadic groups. This has increased conflict over fertile land, as large groups of nomads depend on declining areas of fertile ground, resulting in overgrazing and further desertification from which the soil cannot fully recover. After successive periods of drought in Mali, large numbers of Tuareg, whose population extends to Algeria and Libya, fled to these neighbouring countries. International action to improve their health, economic status and security has often further fuelled tensions between ethnic groups.

Mali: transit point for trans-Sahara trade

Historically, the people in the Sahel cope with economic uncertainty by working in informal and cross-border trade networks. An important resource is the informal trade in subsidized food from Algeria. Over the years, criminal networks have become proficient in illegal trade along the trans-Sahara route, smuggling mostly cigarettes, people, weapons, drugs and food. In October, French forces in Niger destroyed an al Qaeda-affiliated convoy transporting weapons from Libya to Mali. Mali has also become a relatively important transit country for migration both for migrants aiming to reach northern Africa or Europe and for trans-Saharan migration. Since the crisis in the country, many people from the north have fled to the south, as well as to neighbouring countries.


Mali’s political elite has shaped the system so that public funds and the accumulation of wealth have been monopolized through informal channels of patronage. The benefits of informal cross-border trade are favouring the social and political elite through their linkages with criminal networks. Weak state-governance in the north has made Mali in particular more susceptive to the drug trade than, for example, coastal states like Nigeria. But it remains unclear to what extent the extremist islamist groups are connected to the drug trade.

While evidence directly connecting extremist Islamist 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 extremist Islamist 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.

A large part of the population depends on the regional informal economy for basic services and security. Counterstrategies against organized crime involved in illegal trade networks would impact on civilians.

Locals were initially employed to guide the way, leading convoys to water and fuel dumps in the desert. The rise of cocaine trafficking made the Saharan trade route much more lucrative. Unemployed youth in particular have eagerly taken up opportunities to make the dangerous journey trafficking cocaine. This is not isolated to Mali. Across West Africa, a long line of young people are willing to risk trafficking small quantities of cocaine to Europe, with many couriers arrested in airports along the coast and in Europe. The ability to make fast money from drug trafficking means it is often seen as a good thing by communities that benefit.But the revenues from drug trafficking are often captured by elites with drug couriers paid very little considering the risks they take.

As a result, anti-terrorism strategies often lead to further radicalization amongst the population. This also creates a ‘balloon-effect’, as the drug trade is rerouted via other weakly governed territories. Military responses to the illegal drug trade in Latin America have led to drugs to Europe being rerouted via West Africa. While factors such as poverty, unemployment, corruption and weak governance contribute to Mali’s conduciveness to the drugs trade, responses need to be informed by understanding of global drugs trade networks.

Security sector weakness and frustrations

Since gaining independence from France in 1960, Mali suffered from a series of coups until a multiparty democracy was established in 1992 with the election of President Alpha Konaré, after the coup of 1991. That resulted in the devolution of power to local officials with linkages to the capital city. At the same time, the country reduced its military power. During this period Mali was regarded as one of the most stable countries in the region.

However, the devolution process reduced the power of the central government and the security sector (the armed forces and the police) was also weakened over the years, to the extent that the army was unable to resist the coup d’état in 2012. This weak central governance and the political under-representation of certain ethnic groups fuelled tensions.

The northern parts of the country are highly unstable and insecure. Due to the conflict, property is being destroyed, financial arrangements are cancelled, poverty has increased and crime rates have amplified. Travelling the long distances between cities has become less safe, due to increased robberies and other criminal activities. Corruption is rising and confidence in the ruling institutions is extremely low. Mutual trust between individuals is lacking, the predictability of the outcome of an individual’s action is open to wide interpretation and is not something to rely upon. The behaviour of individuals is directed by risk aversion. Social cohesion at family or ethnic group level provides some degree of trust between individuals.

The revolt of the Tuareg dates back to their fight for an independent state of Azawad during Mali’s transit to independence in the 1950s. Since the country eventually gained independence in 1960, Tuareg revolts have been repressed several times, fuelling their grievances towards the state. In 2011, the fall of Libyan President Gaddafi army generated spillovers in Mali. Many Tuareg had served in Gaddafi’s army. He had opened up his arms caches to resist the Arab revolution in February 2011, and after he was executed, Tuareg ex-combatants fled to Mali armed to the teeth from Gaddafi’s arsenal. Later, the Algerian group Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) ‘bandwagoned’ the Tuareg rebellion to capture northern Mali. While some Tuareg remained loyal to the state, others joined the extremist Islamists.

Changing formations of the rebellion

The ethnic composition and territory of the MNLA has shifted over the years. During the latest revolt in 2012, the MNLA was supported by a mosaic of extremist Islamic groups. But shortly after declaring the independent state of Azawad, the MNLA was defeated by its one time Islamist allies.

Within weeks, the MNLA found itself in exile, reduced to controlling only a few small pockets of northern Mali and issuing bellicose communiqués from offices in Mauritania, Burkina Faso and France. Many of its fighters joined the ascendant Islamist group Ansar Dine, led by veteran Tuareg rebel Iyad Ag Ghaly. Others retreated to Niger and Burkina Faso as Ansar Dine and its allies − Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) – began to consolidate control over their new territory, imposing a harsh and destructive interpretation of Sharia law.

The resurgence of violence in the north by the MNLA and AQIM and the military coup in 2012 led to killings and forced displacements of civilians. Sharia law was introduced and slavery re-emerged. There were reports of darker-skinned northern Bella and Tamasheq slave descendants being the first to be punished under Sharia law or recaptured by their former masters.

By 2006, Nigeria’s Boko Haram members were training in the Sahel alongside AQIM fighters. Cooperation continued until at least 2013, when a large contingent of Boko Haram fighters attended an AQIM training centre in Timbuktu, Mali. Ansar Dine received funding, logistical and military support from AQIM, and hosted the members of Boko Haram in territory it controlled in Timbuktu. Timbuktu villagers reported that Boko Haram militants lived and trained there, taking up abandoned government buildings. An al-Qaeda offshoot, the Movement of Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), has also worked and trained alongside Boko Haram in Mali.

In Algeria, the extremist Islamist splinter group Djound Al-Khilafa en Algerie (Soldiers of the Caliphate in Algeria) that was responsible for beheading a French tourist, pledged allegiance to the Islamic State (ISIS). Also in the east of Libya, an Islamist group called MSSI that claimed it would become the new security force in the city of Darnah, declared its support for ISIS. These groups might be framing their statements to negotiate their power.

The wide variety of groups active in the Sahel region are fluid in nature and operate along national borders in the region. AQIM, for example, has a series of shadowy leaders who hold sway for a short time (Hassan Hattab, Nabil Sahraoui, Abderrazak “El Para” and currently Abdelmalek Droukdel) and many high-profile regional commanders (Abdelhamid Abou Zaid, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, Abdelkrim “the Tuareg”). Mostly, these leaders are based in one country while AQIM’s fighters are mostly in another.

During my stay in Tegharghar, in Kidal province near the border with Algeria, in 2005, I witnessed training camps, Madrassa (Koran schools), shutting places and tunnels. It appeared a very well organized system, with connections to the capital Bamako. I learnt how the extremist recruited people, fitted to their specific work needs. I also learnt that they had a deal with Djandjawids (fighters from Sudan), Al-Qaeda, Ansar El Sharia, Saharaoui Democratic Republic fighters and the Boko Haram group. Boko Haram has nowhere to train in Nigeria. Thus, the group was permitted to train in the north of Mali, in exchange for reinforcing the extremists if they needed help. That is what happened in Kidal and Gao in February 2012, at the beginning of the most severe crisis.

These fluid patterns mean that criminal networks can easily relocate along their transboundary networks throughout the area, regroup and strengthen, creating new hotbeds of conflict. Examples include the training of Boko Haram in Timbuktu, and the jeeps with Malian rebels that were spotted in Darfur in 2013. This ‘waterbed effect’ undermines local military interventions; actions in the north of Mali have accelerated new hotspots of conflict elsewhere in the region.


Military interventions have not been successful in reclaiming the north. The international interventions have expelled most of the Islamists, but they still have a presence in the town of Kidal. Early October, several MINUSMA soldiers (from Niger, Senegal and Chad) were killed in an ambush by Islamists around Kidal after the number of French and Malian forces in the town had been reduced. This illustrates that local interventions are a temporary solution to these violent groups. It simply creates a waterbed effect, allowing them to relocate and strengthen before returning to northern Mali when the interveners leave.

Negotiations for peace and stability in the Sahel

In January 2013, Ansar Dine was hit by French air strikes and the Malian Tuareg Alghabass Ag Intallah formed a moderate breakaway faction of Ansar Dine, the Islamic Movement of Azawad (MIA).

The move was widely considered an attempt to reconstitute Ansar Dine as a movement that would be more palatable to the international community. The MIA eventually merged with a similar group, the High Council for the Unity of Azawad (HCUA), which then aligned with the MNLA. Furthermore, in November 2013, the MNLA and HCUA agreed to join another armed group, the Arab Movement of Azawad (MAA), in an effort to create a united front for negotiations with the Malian government. This process has been in a stalemate for months.

In June 2013, the Malian government and the Tuareg separatist groups signed the Ouagadougou accord in the capital of neighbouring Burkina Faso. This was a preliminary accord that paved the way for new elections, aiming to start “an inclusive dialogue to find a definitive solution to the crisis” (Chapter 1, Article 2 of the accord) to begin after a new government was elected. The international community expected much of this. For example, Catherine Ashton, the EU’s representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, said the agreement had “historical significance”. However, little has happened since. The conflict in the north is still unresolved, while the Mali’s government has been slow in restoring basic services in the region since the outbreak of the conflict.

The peace talks have started, hosted by Algeria, but have not yet been successful. MINUSMA peace meetings have also taken place, but not all leaders have attended. Rebel groups stay away from the talks, accusing Algeria of inviting representatives who are pro-government. The level of trust between Tuareg rebels and the Malian state is very low, but the sentiment among the majority population in Mali is also not in favour of giving much in these negotiations.

President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta was elected on a popular platform of resistance to large concessions to the Tuareg rebels in Northern Mali. This does not provide a suitable platform for negotiations, but the peace process is also complicated by the fact that the most important armed actors like AQIM and MUJAO are not present at the negotiation table.

France’s decision to work with the MNLA, rather than helping the Malian army retake the town of Kidal from the rebels, enraged Mali’s interim government and set the stage for the current impasse between Mali’s newly-elected government and a host of armed groups.

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.

France has pressured President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita to come to an agreement with the MNLA, despite his reluctance to seek reconciliation. It has not come to an agreement.

Early September, the MNLA and the Arab Movement of Azawad (MAA) came to an agreement to end the violence, support the unity of Azawad and Mali and form a united front [the Coalition for the People of Awazad (CPA)] to conduct the negotiations with the Malian government. The agreement was signed on 12 September, but the Coordination des mouvements et forces patriotiques de résistance (CMPFR) led by Harouna Touré rejected the alliance. Three CPA officials then dismissed the group’s President Ibrahim Ag Assaleh for failing to consult with the party leadership before signing the alliance, after which Assalah fired the mutineers. The preace talk resumed on 15 October. The MAA is under similar tensions, while another group, the SCA, complained of being excluded from the talks. A few days later, the Malian government unveiled a regionalisation plan for Azawad, which was rejected by the pro-Azawad coalition. The talks were suspended, and a pro-unity march was held in Bamako followed. In attacks near Kidal, ten MINUSMA peacekeepers were killed and five Tuareg were abducted, four of whom were released and one beheaded. Mid-September, security forces arrested an AQIM-affiliated Algerian.

Source: International Crisis Watch

President Keita and Prime Minister Moussa Mara are increasingly criticized by the opposition.

When Malian voters overwhelmingly elected Ibrahim Boubacar Keita to the presidency in 2013,many in Mali and abroad felt that the veteran politician known as “IBK” had both the experience and the political legitimacy necessary to lead the country through its darkest period since independence. In the months that followed, however, the buoyant mood gave way to frustration. With low-level violence and instability plaguing much of Mali’s north despite the presence of French and UN troops, and the Malian government unable to maintain a tenuous toehold in the separatist stronghold of Kidal, President Keita has not demonstrated that reunifying the divided country is a top priority of his administration. Instead, he has focused his efforts on protecting his personal power and its perquisites. […] He stacked the political system with allies and relatives. His frequent travel abroad in a new presidential Boeing 737 acquired under dubious circumstances, coupled with allegations linking him to shadowy French business interests, has disillusioned those who took seriously his pledges to fight endemic corruption and promote transparent governance, and has sullied his reputation among donors.

As a response to the puchase of the presidential Boeing 737, the World Bank, the IMF, and the EU have all frozen their millions of dollars in aid payments to Mali, out of concerns over mismanagement of public funds by President Keita. In September, talks had begun to restart the aid payments.

Ruling interests in the region

Conflicting interests are hampering the peace process, while new hotbeds of unrest are emerging elsewhere in the region. The popular uprising in Burkina Faso is seen as the start of what has been called the Black Spring. Burkina Faso is a strategic partner of France and the US in the coordination of military interventions in Mali, and has a history of taking lead in peace negotiations. Such ongoing safety threats in neighbouring countries problematize relations in the region. The Malian government has always had a strong regional orientation, working to uphold these relationships and counteract spillover effects along its borders (including the threat of terrorism from Algeria and instability from Cote d’Ivoire). This is expressed through its membership of ECOWAS, the African Union, the African Development Bank and many other regional organizations. After the coup, ECOWAS suspended Mali and imposed economic sanctions.

Algeria is increasingly taking up its role as a crucial partner in achieving reconciliation between the conflicting groups in Mali. Morocco and Algeria have been competing for the role of mediator in the region. Morocco historically included parts of northern Mali, and its moderate approach to Islam could carry on a stabilising message of deradicalisation. But now it seems that a new diplomatic era is opening up for Algeria, under pressure from various countries. The United States and France have urged the Algerian government to take on a mediatory role in the peace talks between the Malian government and many rebel groups active in the region, following a decade of dissension between the Algerian government and the former Mali president Amadou Toumani Touré.

President Touré accused the Algerian president of failing to maintain control of his intelligence services, which Mali said were acting on their own in the Sahel and fuelling regional tensions. Sahelian governments also suspected that Algeria is seeking to dominate its neighbours by asserting control over counterterrorism operations and lucrative smuggling routes.In 2013, ECOWAS, France and the Sahelian countries questioned Algeria’s contributions to a negotiation process with the armed groups. In particular since the leader of Ansar al-Dine, Iyad Ag Ghali, is well known in Algeria and works closely with the Algerian intelligence services (DRS). But in May this year, the Malian and French governments asked Algeria to mediate the inter-Malian dialogue. France had spent a huge amount of money on the Serval operation and wanted to involve the regional partners. France also benefited from Algeria’s collaboration during its offensive against armed Islamist groups in the Adrar des Ifoghas in the Kidal region of Mali, and recently when nine terrorists hunted by the French troops were stopped and killed by Algerian security forces near Tinzaouatine (Tamanrasset) in May 2014.

Initially Algeria refused to intervene in the Malian conflict, but it decided to take up this role after the gasfield attack in In Amenas in the south of Algeria and other threats. An action against the French intervention in Mali. Mali’s new stance on Algeria’s was established during President Keita’s visit to Algiers in January 2014, and reasserted during the 2nd session of the Algerian-Malian bilateral strategic committee in April 2014 (which also includes Niger, Burkina Faso and Chad). Mali’s request is rooted in the fact that Kidal remains out of control of the central power, and has always been a zone of influence of Algeria, with the whole economy of the region still dependent on trade exchanges with Algeria.

In neighbouring Libya, general Khalifa Haftar – supposedly with the support of Algeria – initiated an armed offensive against Islamist militias in May 2014. The fall of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 not only destabilized the Algerian government but weakened its control when the Islamic Maghreb splinter group attacked the In Amenas gas facility near the Libyan border in January 2013. Moreover, the failure of the country’s Saharan policy became blatant when seven Algerian diplomats were kidnapped in Gao in April 2012.

During a visit to the country in June 2014, Egypt’s President Al-Sisi called on Algeria to make a coordinated effort to fight Islamist militancy in the region. In October, Egypt bombed Benghazi to stop the threat of further destabilization of Libya by Islamist groups.

The current volatility of Libya offers AQIM and MUJAO the possibility of new safe havens for local integration. Thus, the immediate outcome will not necessarily be that these actors will reinforce each other as such, but that the emergence of a whole regional space without functioning legitimate state structures will result in the accumulation of instability in the Sahel. AQIM and MUJAO continue to make their presence felt through a series of small-scale attacks against the Malian army and the UN force, supported by larger rearguard bases in the Fezzan region of Libya. Where both security and local livelihood opportunities are lacking, anybody who can offer them will have an opportunity to integrate locally, and the Islamist forces can offer this.

The Algerian-Egyptian convergence might be a key security factor in the Maghreb. This has been complemented by the existing operational security agreement between Algeria and Tunisia. Algeria is now pushing for mediation talks in Libya similar to the Malian dialogue. It is opposing the idea of Western military intervention in Libya. An unconfirmed Algerian operation in Libya is alleged to have taken place in May 2014, in coordination with the US and France.

Neighbouring countries’ involvement in the Malian conflict is motivated mostly by the fear of security threats spilling over. Mauritania is contributing troops to the MINUSMA mission to protect itself against spillover effects from Mali. But others are being accused of benefiting from Mali’s instability to form regional alliances. France, for example, has accused Qatar of supporting Islamists and rebel groups with food and aid via Qatari NGOs in northern Mali, thereby fuelling the conflict. Qatar is alleged to be motivated by Mali’s oil and gas potential and is establishing relations with the Islamic-ruled north of the country. Leaked top secret state reports of a military-security meeting in Sudan showed that the Gulf States approached Khartoum to obtain intelligence on terrorist groups in Mali and surrounding countries. In the leaked document, high-ranking military officers advised maintaining good relations with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States in public, while secretly staying close to Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood.

Governments in the region have been accused of alternately aiding and impeding peacebuilding efforts, with varying degrees of evidence. At various times during and after the occupation of northern Mali, MNLA delegations and representatives were based in Ouagadougou and the Mauritanian capital of Nouakchott; Ansar al-Dine leaders could be found at various times in Ouagadougou and Algeria, while Niger hosted the loyalist Tuareg military commander El Hajj Gamou and his troops until after the French intervention. These states have a security and political stake in the conflicts on their borders and, as the 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 the political and militant movements within them) together.

At the same time Western powers are challenged about their own interests in intervening in the in Mali. In 2012, an uranium mineralized zone was identified in the north of Mali. It has been claimed that France’s early military intervention was largely related to unexploited natural resources. The Dutch government has stated that the natural resources in the region need to remain available to European industry and trade. The Netherlands, together with Sweden, have sent most military support, both aiming at a seat in the UN Security Council.

Against this background, military and statebuilding strategies are unlikely to take the sting out of the conflict.

Without security provision, anti-terrorism strategies often lead to further radicalization amongst the population. In particular to the youth, who are increasingly seeking alternative forms of income by joining these groups [due to rapid population growth, a youth bulge, and a lack of economic opportunities]. The current volatility of Libya offers AQIM and MUJAO the possibility of new safe havens for local integration into the Islamist groups.

The answers cannot be found in short-termism. An example is the retreat of the French troops, whereafter violence re-emerged in Northern Mali. Hereafter France sent back their troops. This illustrates the fluid patterns in which the Islamist groups easily relocate along transboundary networks in the Sahel, regroup and strengthen, creating new hotbeds of conflict. The Netherlands has been criticized for stating its intention to end Dutch involvement in MINUSMA, heading an intelligence mission, by the end of 2015. It is argued that intelligence work and understanding the dynamics of conflict in the region will require more commitment and time.

  1. The French intervention did not resolve the prior armed conflict between the Malian state and secular Tuareg seperatist groups.

  2. Counter-terrorism operations require very different military means as well as comprehensive non-military means as well as comprhensive non-mitary efforts to address the factors that mobilise militants. Lack of peace between BAmako and the northern arme grops has stymied such responses.

  3. The attempt to destroy highly mobile transnational armed groups with a campaign limited to one country that has compeletly open borders displaced the problem from Mali into neighbouring countries, especailly Niger – where there was a series of attacks in mid-2013 by groups formerly operating from Mali – southern Libya, and northern Nigeria. Some AQIM splinter factions appear to have gained in strength and, like Nigeria’s Boko Haram and Libya’s Ansar al Shari’a, may be making common cause with the ascendant Islamic State.

  4. All five armies of the states that France is partnering up with in its Barkhane operation have overthrown or risen against their own governments in the last decade. Their record against the civilians is often far worse.

  5. The Serval and Barkhane operations have strengthened a number of non-democratic regimes since the logistics infrastructure across the Sahel-Sahara is dependent on maintaining relationships with national governments.

Only from a political solution to the domestic conflict in northern Mali, and a binding ceasefire and demobilisation, can follow a more nuanced and sustainable stabilisation strategy for the north with economic development to the fore.

Greater success in restoring long-term stability and security for the people of Mali and the Sahel as a whole can be achieved by addressing the root causes of the Malian conflict and the competing interests in the effort to resolve the conflict.Without security provision, anti-terrorism strategies often lead to further radicalization amongst the population. In particular to the youth, who are increasingly seeking forms of income by joining Islamist groups – due to rapid population growth, a youth bulge, and a lack of economic opportunities in particular in the north. The current volatility of Libya offers AQIM and MUJAO the possibility of new safe havens for local integration into the Islamist groups. Increasing the resilience of the Malian population, their political representation and security is key. A stable life with income, a job, food, education, health care, political opportunities and a transparent system. Until now, most aid has benefitted the country’s elite.

The emergence of conflict in Mali is influenced by regional dynamics in the Sahel, hotbeds of unrest arise in the continuously conflict-prone region. Constant monitoring of the course of the conflict and the effects of interventions in the region – military, political, humanitarian, economic – improves this understanding.

The stalled peace process underpins the need for a different, regional & integrated approach. In particular, local social and cultural perspectives on the conflict should be included more often. A study by The Broker from a review of the way that international actors analysis contexts of conflict shows that the levels of analysis the local and regional levels are significantly underrepresented, and second that the cultural system of society is often neglected. See link

Six frameworks are listed below that seek the integration of multi-level perspectives, of which some have already been put in place.

In the Sahel and the Sahara, international strategies attempt to address humanitarian emergencies, security, development and governance in a holistic manner. Implicitly, these strategies are based on regional and decades-long planning. But in practice they are much more short term. Six types of frameworks in which regional action can take place are:

  1. In the Sahel, territories with no dedicated or adequate regional organisations, international agreements or Memorandums of Understanding (MOUs) have to be singned. For instance is ECOWAS decides to engage with Sahel-wide issues together with Maghrebian states.

  2. Build regional policy pillars in strateis. So far available financial resources are mostly allocated to the national level of action.

  3. Strengthen cooperation between like-minded groups of states to start joint initiatives like patrols along common borders and infrasturcutres programmes. A recent example is the G5 for security and development composed of Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger and Chad.

  4. Start cross-border cluster activities for local authorities, community leaders, businesses, religious and pastoralist groups working on both sides to live their lives without being overloaded by exaggerated constraints created by states.

  5. Cover territories regardless of stateboundaries to deal with transnational issues like regional environmental challenges, organised crime and illicit trafficking, satellite information sharing, cross-Sahel migration flows, financial flows, curltural and religious reelations, or cyber security. This requires a comprehensive understanding of transnational phenomena, a wide geographical coverage and the ability to combine those assets that engage specific partners at a national level.

  6. Operate through networks of expertise and experience, including civil society organisations (CSOs) and private companies. An example is Eu-Vive, an NGO registred in France operating in over a dozen countries in West Africa with mosly African staff and plugged into a veriety of CSO networks, who recently launched an international federation.

This longread is co-written by:


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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