No Peace in Mali
African country still a basket case nearly two years after French intervention
On Jan. 16, 2012, several rebel groups began an armed insurrection against the government of Mali in Central Africa. From their strongholds in the desert north, the Tuareg-dominated groups swept away the ill-prepared and demoralized Malian army and demanded independence.
The rebellion set off a series of events that in turn provoked a costly foreign intervention. But today the country is still a huge mess.
Elements of the Malian army staged a protest in the capital Bamako on March 22, 2012—a protest that mostly by accident resulted in a coup, as Pres. Amadou Toumani Touré quickly stepped down, just two months before an election in which Touré didn’t even plan to run.
At the same time, tensions between northern Islamists and secular secessionists escalated, resulting in a second, internal war that left the Islamists in control of the country’s north, where they enforced a conservative version of Sharia law and destroyed centuries of cultural heritage.
Almost exactly one year after the beginning of the civil war, France launched a major military intervention in its former colony. Operation Serval dealt the Islamist forces a swift defeat and secured all major population centers in the north within a month, making way for a ceasefire between moderate rebels.
A U.N. peacekeeping force deployed and Mali held presidential elections on July 28, 2013. Operation Serval officially ended on July 15 this year.
Looks great on paper
Despite these gains, today Mali is “even more fragile than it has ever been,” says Kamissa Camara, a Sahel political analyst. Talks between the government and the rebels have hit a dead end, because all sides have unrealistic expectations and a complete lack of trust in each other.
“The negotiations are going to fail,” Camara says. The best possible outcome is the status quo—a fragile government in the south that barely has any control over the north.
At this point, French and regional involvement isn’t helping either, Camara argues. France still has 1,000 soldiers in Mali as part of its regional Operation Barkhane, an anti-terror initiative. The U.N.-sponsored MINUSMA peacekeeping mission also maintains 12,000 uniformed personnel in Mali, with many of the troops coming from regional countries such as Niger and Chad.
The problem is that all the actors—also including Algeria, which hosts the peace talks, and chief mediator Blaise Compaoré, Burkina Faso’s president—have their own interests, which don’t necessarily align with Mali’s own best interests.
France is relying on the cooperation of the secular and moderate rebels to combat terrorist groups in Mali’s remote north. Algeria has historically seen northern Mali as its own backyard. Chad is also vying to expand its regional influence.
None of this is exactly furthering Mali’s goal of reestablishing power over all its territory. For its own part, the government still needs to find some incentive it can offer the rebels in return for them laying down their weapons. “There is no plan for the negotiations, at least not a public one,” Camara laments.
The Malian army is still pretty much a wreck, despite a dedicated European Union training mission working to improve it. And even in the areas international troops police, security is bad. Thirteen peacekeepers from Chad and Niger died in attacks in September and October.
Mali is stuck on all fronts, with very little indication that this might change anytime soon.
A country ripe for new leaders
“The issue is leadership,” says Yeah Samake, the mayor of the southern Malian town Ouelessebougou and one of the candidates in the 2013 presidential election. Leaders of the government and the rebels all lack vision, Samake says.
But he says he’s is a bit more optimistic about the outcome of the peace negotiations than Camara is, if only because he thinks that failure isn’t an option. “North and south are both guilty of what is going on right now,” he insists.
And while Samake says he supports efforts to rebuild the Malian army, he argues that the internal conflict can’t be solved by military means because the issues at stake are political and economic in nature. “For a lasting peace in Mali, we need to be able to make sure that the northern area is as much accessible—not only to the army but also to trade and economic opportunity—as the south.”
Achieving this, he says, is the responsibility of leaders from all ethnic groups in the country—and so far all of them have failed to apply the resources that are already available for the country’s development.
“We have to come to the understanding and the commitment of living together,” Samake argues. “But we don’t see that—every side tries to protect some interests that are not the most relevant aspects. We should be more focused on what can be done to reinforce our togetherness.”
Unfortunately, Samake doesn’t represent a broad consensus of the Malian political debate. Absent a radical change of attitude for everybody involved, Mali’s future looks a lot like its painful present.