Market in Bamako, photo by Susanne Schultz

Mali: Protracted Crises, (In)Securities, and a Glimmer of Hope

A donor darling and a beacon of hope for democracy in the region for a long time, Mali has been heavily scarred by political challenges and conflict in recent years. After a military coup in 2020, the current transitional government is beset with its own difficulties. Civil society, however, gives reason for hope.

The current political situation in Mali is complex and protracted. Since the coup of the military junta CNSP (National Committee for the Salvation of the People) under Colonel Assimi Goita and the fall of the government under President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta (IBK) on 18 August 2020, the country has been in a transition process towards a new government and supposed political stability. To that end, a transitional council consisting mainly of representatives of the military and individual political and social groups has set itself a deadline of 18 months. Free elections are to be held in spring 2022 and none of the current council members may run. With this model, Mali is roughly following that of Sudan after the fall of military dictator Omar Hassan al-Bashir in April 2019.

Civil society protests preceded the coup since June 2020. They were led by the M5-RFP protest coalition in Mali’s capital Bamako. The movement was fueled by the people’s discontent with government corruption, the escalating security situation and the weak economic situation in the country. As a result, young people in particular saw themselves depleted of perspectives. The COVID-19 crisis was the last straw. The protests escalated several times. In view of the widespread discontent, most of the population welcomed the coup and there was talk of a spirit of optimism.

Roots of the political conflict until today

The background to this complex overall situation is a multiple crisis mode in which Mali has found itself, especially since 2012. In recent years it has worsened drastically.

Since 1963 a conflict between the Tuareg (the largest ethnic group in northern Mali) and the Malian government for more autonomy rights had escalated several times (1990, 1994-2000, 2006 and 2012), but was never resolved. This goes back to the division of the mainly Tuareg-inhabited territory through post-colonial nation-building and the definition of state borders without including Tuareg interests.

The Malian state has never been able to provide sufficient infrastructure on its territory, especially in terms of education, health and road construction. In fact, in the north and north-east of the country it was conspicuous by its absence. Terrorists from Algeria found refuge in centers in the north at the end of the 2000s. Weapons came with them, as well as from Libya. With the outbreak of the Libyan conflict in 2011, a spread of Islamist ideas by returning fighters followed. This exacerbated a tense situation marked by increasing droughts, poorer soil for livestock and high youth unemployment. “Traditionally”, Islam in Mali follows a tolerant Sufi direction.

The Tuareg uprising in early 2012 was followed by a coup d’état in Bamako. The National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) took advantage of the power vacuum and proclaimed the independent Tuareg state of Azawad. It conquered the central cities of the north within a very short time. The intervention of Islamist groups internationalized the conflict. Thousands of people fled to the south of Mali or to neighboring countries.

After the 2012 coup the international community pushed for democratic elections, which made former prime minister IBK president in August 2013. Despite ambivalent performance and increasing involvement in corruption scandals, he was re-elected in 2019. Since January 2013, France has intervened to “fight terrorism” (and eventually migration), initially at the request of Mali’s interim president as Islamist groups advanced towards Bamako. The African-led UN Security Council military mission MINUSMA (United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali) began its deployment six months later. The European Union is also in the country with two missions, with the participation of the Bundeswehr.

The official peace process, consolidated in 2015 and signed by relevant groups and parties under international supervision in Algeria, is viewed positively in principle by the population despite doubts about its success. However, the government and international actors are not succeeding in pacifying the north in view of the complex crisis and security situation. Since 2015, the conflict has rather decentralized and intensified: centers of “whites” in Bamako as well as international security forces have become targets of Islamist attacks. Jihadists from the north infiltrated groups of the Fulbe ethnic group opposite the Dogon in central Mali, who in turn radicalized themselves as a rebel group. The background are old feuds over land and resources. The conflict has spread across the borders into Niger and Burkina Faso, and now also into western Senegal. Since 2019, ethnically motivated rebels and jihadist groups have increasingly attacked central Mali’s population. In some places, brutal massacres have occurred. In the absence of the state, the groups on the other hand offer the population protection from Islamist and mutual threats. Young men in particular are joining out of great disillusionment. Again, many people have been internally and internationally displaced. The latest survey by the German Friedrich Ebert Foundation (FES) in March 2020 confirmed security, youth unemployment and poverty as the biggest challenges in the country. The situation in central Mali is coinciding with a dramatic drought and thus food crisis. Conflict and crisis modes are complex, internationally and locally interwoven.

Perspectives of local, international, and civil society actors

Even though the international forces in Mali have so far been unable to provide security, there seems to be no credible alternative. The movement “Yèrèwolo débout sur les remparts” calls for the withdrawal of French troops, the former colonial power. The transitional government has declared its allegiance to France and in January, in the face of a ban on demonstrations, used security forces and tear gas against demonstrators. Mali has effectively lost control of a large part of its territory. France, meanwhile, seems to be on the verge of changing its “counter-terrorism” strategy and building local forces towards more autonomy and dialogue. This, however, requires fundamental changes in the Malian security structure. International non-governmental organizations point out that future cooperation should focus on initiatives for civilian peace and dialogue and put more emphasis on the protection of civilians.

The country’s transitional government and its population are facing immense challenges. In principle, many things are possible: the international community is not pushing for quick new elections as it did after the 2012 coup. Elements of the planned transition process, such as the non-re-election of current government members, are positive. There are also attempts to reintegrate the different ethnic groups. They have just signed three peace agreements in central Mali. ECOWAS and the international community recognize the transitional government. Short-term sanctions have ended and the current president Bah N’Daw was invited for the first time outside West Africa in late January. French President Macron had invited him in preparation of the G5 summit of the Sahel countries. Given the international attention, it may be understood that a first revision meeting of the Algiers Peace Agreement has been scheduled.

The fact that the Transitional Council is dominated by the military – contrary to international and civil society demands – is criticized by ECOWAS, but especially by the Malian population and civil society organizations. The head of government, a former general, has since retired, but the newly created post of vice president is held by the leader of the military coup, Colonel Assimi Goita. Whether the reforms for the reconstruction of the state and democracy meet the required openness and transparency is disputed. Accusations of corruption persist. Representatives of the M5-RFP announced renewed protests.

The pronounced commitment of civil society offers an opportunity to redress the current imbalance. Civil society not only created the basis for the last change of power. In other areas, such as the protest against deportations, it has repeatedly achieved success. As the BTI 2020 describes, “Mali’s vibrant civil society organizations have helped strengthen pluralism since the democratic transition in the early 1990s. [….] In the past twenty years, the NGO sector has flourished; it is incentivized by substantial funding from donor NGOs, agencies and countries.” Civil society organizations are engaged in the peace-building process, support the emancipation of women and, as transnational migration networks, provide existential support to large sections of the population. However, many non-governmental organizations exist only on paper, while others depend on state structures. Respondents of the last survey by the German foundation FES described instruments such as the National Inclusive Dialogue (DNI), convened by IBK to involve the population, as useful instruments for change. The current transition process can only succeed if it involves civil society and the broader population.

Susanne Schultz is a Project Manager in the Bertelsmann Stiftung’s Integration and Education Programme. She holds a PhD in Migration and West Africa and is an Associated Research Fellow at the Center on Migration, Citizenship and Development (COMCAD).

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