Mali appears to be in a state of perpetual instability: a string of recent high-profile terrorist attacks has added to a picture of nationwide de-stabilization, amid continued fighting between numerous armed groups in the West African country’s fractured northern region. After a period of relative calm since last November’s attack on a hotel in Bamako which left 20 dead, renewed violence has broken out: in July, Tuareg fighters attacked an army base in Nampala, leaving 17 soldiers dead and 35 wounded. As a result, Mali’s lawmakers have now extended the state of emergency for an additional eight months, reflecting the worsening security situation in a country which has been plagued by conflict from multiple sources across the past five years.
Mali’s current wave of violence began in January 2012, when several insurgent groups launched a sustained campaign against the Malian government directed towards achieving independence or greater autonomy for the north, in an area known as Azawad. In March of that year, President Amadou Tourmani Toure was removed from office in a military coup, launched as a result of his poor handling of the ensuing crisis. In the power vacuum that followed, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) – a group fighting to forge an independent homeland for the Tuareg people – took control of large swathes of Northern Mali.
This event became known as the ‘Tuareg Rebellion’, which was fuelled by an influx of weapons to the Sahel region following the ousting of Libyan leader Colonel Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. The collapse of the Gaddafi regime left Libya to descend into a state of chaos and lawlessness; prompting many ethnic Tuareg’s living in the North African country to return home to the Sahel, becoming involved in the insurgency in Mali and other conflicts across West Africa.
The success of the Tuareg rebels however was short-lived: their rebellion was hijacked and their territorial gains were soon wiped-out by a collection of more extreme Islamist groups such as Ansar Dine and Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). By the end of 2012, Islamist groups had taken-over large portions of territory encompassing more than 50% of Mali’s land area, imposing strict sharia law in areas under their control.
By January 2013 the situation had spiralled out of control, and Mali’s government asked for external assistance to re-take the north from the rebels. On 11th January the French military began operations against the Islamists, whilst on 23rd April the UN established the United Nations Multi-dimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA), deploying 12,000 peacekeeping troops to Mali’s troubled northern region. In support of these engagements, the US established a drone based in Niger to provide intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance to France and its partners in fighting extremism. African Union (AU) Forces from the neighbouring states of Burkina Faso, Chad, Mauritania and Niger also played a role in combating the militants, fearing the spread of instability across borders and into the surrounding region.
By the end of 2013 the situation had stabilized: Mali had a new President, Ibrahim Boubacar Keita; whilst the government had regained the majority of Islamist-held territory, facilitated through the support of its international partners. In June 2013 a preliminary peace deal was signed between the government and Tuareg rebels; however many Islamist groups were not included and some of the original signatories later pulled-out of the agreement. The next two years saw the continuation of sporadic violence until a more meaningful ceasefire was signed between the major parties in Algeria in February 2015.
An initial hope that the deal would signal an end to the conflict proved to be unfulfilled. Fighting is still ongoing despite the continued presence of French troops and UN forces, whilst the number of terrorist attacks increased dramatically throughout 2015. In March, a gunman representing militant group Al-Mourabitoun killed five people in a gun attack on a restaurant in Bamako, whilst six MINUSMA soldiers were killed by members of AQIM in a roadside ambush near Goundam in July. In August, gunmen attacked a residential building housing UN sub-contractors resulting in the deaths of ten people, whilst in October six civilians were killed in a rocket attack on a UN convoy on-route to the northern city of Gao.
However, the most dramatic attack occurred in November 2015 when militants from AQIM and al-Mourabitoun attacked the Raddison Blu hotel in Bamako, in a well-coordinated gun assault. The militants took 120 hostages and killed 14 foreigners along with six Malians, before the siege could be brought to an end by security forces. The attack claimed international headlines, and for the first time focused global attention on Mali’s worsening predicament.
The Bamako hotel attack led many western policy-makers and media analysts to frame the instability in Mali in the context of the wider global picture of Islamic terrorism, linking the situation to the ideology of groups such as ISIS in Syria and Boko Haram in Nigeria. Others were keen to frame the situation in the national context in the form of a simplistic North-South divide, between the secular government in Bamako and Islamist militants fighting for an independent state in the north. In reality however, the roots of violence in Mali are far more complex, with a history of grievances and conflict stretching back over many years.
Firstly, there are no clear ‘sides’ which can be distinguished, as the various inter-locking conflicts consist of multiple actors with opposing, contrasting and contradictory aims. For example, over the last four years the MNLA umbrella grouping which originally led the 2012 insurgency has splintered into numerous groups and militias, including Ansar Dine and a number of smaller Islamist groups. In addition, AQIM and Al-Mourabitoun have grown in prominence and capability, whilst the Malian government is allied with external forces from France, the UN and several AU countries in combatting an increasingly diverse array of opponents. As a result, the Malian conflict can be described as multi-faceted with no clear narrative: it is more a collection of separate integrated conflicts which feed into an overall climate of instability, resulting in the de-stabilization of the country and the fracturing of society.
Secondly, a history of economic underdevelopment goes a long way towards explaining the repeated patterns of violence which have plagued the region. For many ordinary people in the north, sympathy for rebel groups is fuelled by more basic and instinctive considerations than adherence to an ideology of independence or Islamism. A high youth unemployment rate, along with lack of access to vital services such as education and healthcare, has culminated in widespread discontent with the central government in Bamako. The UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) estimates that 1.5 million people in Mali are threatened by food insecurity, whilst 150,000 have been made refugees and another 90,000 internally displaced by the conflict. Discontent has also been heightened by the government’s failure to address corruption; leading many Malian’s to grow tired of the country’s poor governance and unequal society. Many across the north feel that the region has been neglected by the Bamako elite, culminating in a strong sense of frustration and resentment which fuels jihadist recruitment.
Thirdly, climate-induced environmental stresses are an exacerbating factor, adding to the multiple political and economic drivers of an already-complex conflict. In recent decades drought has become more frequent, whilst average rainfall in northern Mali has dropped by 30% since 1998 according to a study by the US Strategic Studies Institute. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (UNAO) estimates that more than 270,000 people here face starvation, with more than 660,000 children in need of food aid in order to survive. Looking further into the future, the Sahara desert is predicted to expand southward at a rate of 48km per year. This could force nomadic herding communities to migrate into lands historically occupied by other groups, fuelling resource-based tensions and resulting in an increased frequency of inter-communal conflicts in the Sahel region.
Such a dire scenario fits in with long-held predictions from researchers that climate change has the potential to worsen conflict in the world’s poorest regions, leading groups to take up arms to fight over increasingly scarce resources. In the already-complicated conflict landscape of northern Mali, there is a clear potential for environmental stresses to exacerbate poverty, fuelling grievances and providing further motivation for deprived individuals to join rebel groups in a region which has long been neglected and has few economic opportunities.
Overall, the conflict in Mali cannot be defined through any simple narrative: it is not a clearly-demarcated battle between north and south; and neither does it fit squarely into the wider global picture of ISIS-inspired Islamist extremism. Instead, the conflict in Mali is complex: it has numerous causes and drivers, and is typified by multiple actors fighting for territory, resources and ideology in an under-developed region which offers few alternatives or opportunities. Therefore there is no simple solution: whilst substantial diplomatic engagements and co-ordinated multi-state military operations may have the effect of temporarily lessening conflict and creating a momentary illusion of stability, the repetitive cycles of deprivation and conflict will only be ended once the underlying issues are tackled over the long-term.