Mali: Embattled And Forgotten

Mali national flag
Thomas Martin

Mali represents an opportunity for global security, economic development, and human rights. However, failed international intervention from both individual nation-states and multilateral organisations have perpetuated a crisis that is not only engulfing and impacting neighbouring states, such as Mauritania, but is becoming a symbol of failed western safeguarding of democracy and sovereignty. With Russia and China’s growing ties and collaboration with sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East, the future of the petrodollar is in doubt. After the pitiful US withdrawal from Afghanistan, the Taliban got hold of $85bn worth of military equipment, Russia invaded Ukraine, and China are getting increasingly aggressive in the South China Sea with Taiwan. If the west wants to reverse this trend and restore democracy and human rights as a 21st century norm, the prolonged and unfortunate situation in Mali needs solving.

Landlocked in Western Africa, since 2012 a Sahel region-led Islamist insurgency has destabilised the nation. After the Libyan Civil War, Tuareg fighters – mercenaries for Colonel Gaddafi – returned home and joined with local Jihadist groups in rebellion against the central government. The National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) and Islamic Movement of Azawad (MIA) declared what my geography teacher described as the ‘northern triangle,’ an autonomous, independent region from the south, which he titled the ‘southern blob,’ for the ethnic pastoralist nomads, the Tuareg. Nigerian jihadist volunteers from Boko Haram joined the fray in 2013, and Al- Qaeda offshoots groups have littered the conflict.

Within Mali, security forces have completely failed to maintain territorial integrity. In March 2012, a coup d’état of mutinous soldiers overran President Touré’s government and suspended the constitution, ‘a spectacular own goal’ causing greater instability. The largest three northern cities were captured by insurgents: Kidal, Gao, and Timbuktu (latter the last major government-controlled northern city). Plus, the African Union suspended Mali until ‘effective restoration of constitutional order is achieved without delay’. Intricacies of the war are complex, because despite the MNLA declaring, after Douentza’s capture, the war was over, further fighting occurred for a decade. Smaller islamist groups, Ansar Dine and the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MOJWA), saw their imposition of Sharia law conflicting with the MNLA, causing chaos. 

Saw a 4,500-strong French force with a £530m budget headquartered at N’Djamena, the capital of Chad

Concurrently, the military junta government in the south held peace talks with the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), mediated by Burkina Faso’s President Compaore, establishing elections and 2,000 stand-by troops for the new government. Peace, even in the southern region, wouldn’t be achieved, despite Ibrahim Keita being elected President in 2013 and re-elected in 2018. Another coup d’état by the Malian Armed Forces ousted him in 2020.

Back to 2013, the interim administration requested foreign military intervention to re-capture the north and restore territorial integrity. President Hollande of France’s ‘Operation Serval’ was largely a success in halting the jihadist insurgency in the centre, which came about after United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSC) 2085, which authorised ‘the deployment of an African-led International Support Mission in Mali (AFISMA) for an initial period of one year’.

More importantly, ‘Operation Barkhane,’ lasting until November 2022 – the successor to Serval – saw a 4,500-strong French force with a £530m budget headquartered at N’Djamena, the capital of Chad, in co-operation with former French colonies on the Sahel, known as the ‘G5 Sahel’ (a broader regional counterterrorist effort, not 100% specific to Mali). Another coup d’detat (the third one) occurred in May 2021, perpetrated by Vice President Goita, caused President Macron of France to announce in June a phased troop-withdrawal, and by August 15th 2022, all French troops were withdrawn, with Operation Barkhane ending in November. UK involvement in Operation Barkhane is limited, but Defence Secretary Fallon announced support via 3 RAF Chinook helicopters in July 2018, and in July 2019, Defence Secretary Mordaunt announced 250 troops for Gao in collaboration with MINUSMA, ‘in recognition of the increasing instability in the Sahel region’. Additionally, African Union forces joined. 

Unfortunately, this is the UN’s most dangerous peacekeeping mission, with 281 personnel fatalities

On June 18th 2013, a peace deal between the government and Tuareg was signed in Burkina Faso’s capital, Ouagadougou, paving the way for democratic elections and Kidal being returned to government-control. Unfortunately, a common theme, peace is short-lived, and in September 2013 the agreement collapsed. Two more peace-related agreements were signed, later failing: the ceasefire agreed in Algiers, Algeria (February 2015), and the Bamako Peace Accords (April 15th 2015). Part of the French 2022 Withdrawal was spurred on by anti-French protests, accompanied by increasing Wagner Group involvement (Russian mercenaries). The January 2022 influx of these mercenaries/Russian army logistics officials withdrew in October 2022, probably for Ukraine redeployment.

In April 2013, the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) was established for peacekeeping operations after UNSCR 2100. Unfortunately, this is the UN’s most dangerous peacekeeping mission, with 281 personnel fatalities. As of June 2022, of 17,557 personnel, Chad is the highest troop, and Senegal the highest police-contributing countries. Additionally, two other multilateral peace operations occur, the EU Capacity Building Mission in Sahel Mali (EUCAP) and the European Union Training Mission in Mali (EUTM Mali).

In December 2020, UK Defence Secretary Wallace announced a 300-soldier deployment, via the Light Dragoons/Royal Anglian Regiment, and £14.65m in humanitarian aid, making it one of Mali’s largest donors. UK involvement was logistical in Operation Barkhane, and in a ‘highly specialised reconnaissance capability’ for MINUSMA. The EU got involved in February 2014, where a joint Franco-German Brigade was sent to train soldiers.

An Amnesty International report stated that human rights in Mali were its worst since the 1960s

The humanitarian toll has extended to neighbouring states. 284,000 civilians have fled, with 107,000 internally displaced by 2012 alone, and 400 people per day are fleeing into Burkina Faso/Mauritania. Refugee levels were so extreme an Amnesty International report stated that human rights in Mali were its worst since the 1960s. MNLA/Ansar Dine insurgents were ‘running riot’ in the north, with gang rape, extrajudicial executions, child soldiers, kidnapping of women/girls, reinstatement of slavery, and reports of being stoned to death common occurrences. The UN’s World Food Programme warehouses also get raided, such as in April 2012, when 2,354 tons of food were stolen across Kidal, Gao, and Timbuktu in a coordinated assault.

Culturally, Timbuktu (UNESCO World Heritage Site) saw the tomb of a Sufi saint burned, and the Ahmed Baba Institute, holding world-renowned Timbuktu manuscripts, was destroyed. The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCO) ‘advises against all but essential travel to the rest of Mali, including Bamako’.

The image contrasts the claim the Malian army’s control extends through Timbuktu to Kidal. Here, the ‘southern blob’ is now a ‘southern chink,’ where Bamako is nearly fully off-bounds. There is zero territorial integrity, due to the increased capital threat. In November 2015, the Radisson Blu Hotel, highly renowned in Bamako for tourists and bringing in foreign direct investment, was bombed by Al-Qaeda. With 170 hostages taken and 27 dying, it took Malian and French commandos, alongside Kyle Morgan (USA Delta Force member) to restore control.

If the west can broker a long-term peace deal, fostering economic growth that spreads from Bamako into rural regions, hope remains. Global security, human rights, democracy, and global inequality will improve, and Mali will be lifted from unnecessary squalor. Assisting Mali in restoring nation-statehood should be a priority within the world’s foreign offices, not despite, but especially because of the Russian war and Chinese threat.

Democracy needs allies, but perhaps most importantly of all, this embattled and forgotten state has human lives at stake.

Thomas Martin

Featured image courtesy of Aboodi Vesakaran via Unsplash. Image license found here. No changes were made to this image. 

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