The attack on the Radisson Blu hotel in Bamako on 20 November was symptomatic of Mali’s protracted social conflict. Twenty-one people were killed during the day-long siege, including the two jihadists from Al-Mourabitoun, one of several radical Muslim factions operating in the north of the country. A recurring conflict between northern Tuareg actors and the government has also plagued Mali since it gained independence in 1960. In 2012, the ‘fifth Tuareg uprising’ and almost simultaneous jihadist attacks broke out across the north, expelling government forces from Timbuktu, Kidal and Gao regions. These parallel movements threatened Mali’s state sovereignty, prompting French military and UN peacekeeping interventions as well as an internationally mediated peace process. Three years later, it remains to be seen whether lasting peace can be achieved in Mali.
In the short term, successive French military interventions Serval and Barkhane have weakened northern radical Islamic militant groups such as Ansar Dine, which led the 2012 jihad, and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). The French army recently reported that between July 2014 and 2015 Operation Barkhane had removed 125 terrorists from Mali and seized 20 tonnes of munitions. The UN peacekeeping force (MINUSMA) has also helped to stabilise the conflict, despite recently becoming the fourth-deadliest mission in the history of the blue helmets. In addition, Mali’s neighbouring states coordinate to tackle security challenges as part of the Nouakchott Process, which started in late 2014. These initiatives have de-escalated the conflict for now.
The peace process has also made some advances in conflict transformation between 2014 and 2015. The large number of northern armed actors were united in their hostility towards a Malian state they saw as exclusionary and corrupt, but splintered over goals and methods. By July 2014, the mediation team, led by Algeria, had successfully coalesced the actors into two coalitions – the more statist, government-leaning Platform, and the more secessionist Coordination des mouvements de l’Azawad(known as ‘Coordination’) – which became compliant within a political process. By the time the Coordination signed the ‘Algiers Accord’ on 20 June 2015, the process had achieved notable compromises among parties. For example, the Coordination dropped its goal of a separate ‘Azawad’ territory and agreed to back a single, secular Malian state. The government also shifted its position, agreeing to the official use of the name ‘Azawad’ for the northeastern region, and several additional political concessions.
Significantly, the Accord offers considerable devolution to northern Tuareg populations represented by the Coordination. It also promises economic investment in the north, which both the Platform and the Coordination desire. Meanwhile, both northern factions have agreed to disarmament, demobilisation, reintegration and reinsertion (DDRR), including merging some elements into the national security forces. Socially, the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Committee, which aims to investigate violence and abuses committed in the country during 1960–2013, is an important step towards fostering a culture of reconciliation.
The peace deal also generated a positive international response, with France pledging €360 million in reconstruction assistance on 21 October. The following day the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) hosted an international conference on Mali, to solicit further investment from the public and private sectors. The meeting concluded by stating that Mali requires some €3.5 billion in humanitarian and development assistance during the next six years.
All of these initiatives are de-escalating conflict in Mali. But the question remains whether they are actually transforming the conflict. Three developments in 2015 would suggest not. Firstly, the Coordination refused to sign the Algiers Accord when the Platform did so in March, because, among other unmet aspirations, the group rejected the proposed security arrangements. This rejection was almost certainly based on concerns that its forces would not be stationed optimally when ‘guarding’ northern roads. Secondly, both the Platform and the Coordination broke the ceasefire agreement, central to the Accord, several times between May and September, halting the implementation of the peace deal. Each breach was a result of armed elements moving into ‘forbidden’ territories in the northern regions. Their objective, again, was to claim key strategic roads when, through the Accord, they would soon be entrusted to ‘police’ them. This manoeuvring led to several clashes, the last of which, on 17 September, resulted in 15 fatalities. Following this ‘mutually hurting stalemate’, the third key event was a three-week long meeting in Anefis between the Platform and the Coordination, which ended in mid-October with a deal to end hostilities. According to reports, this so-called ‘pact of honour’ again centred around cantonments along the northern roads.
Both parties’ concerns over the control of roads in the north is explained by the prevalence of smuggling in the area. Illicit trade across Mali’s northern border has grown since the 1970s – from cigarettes, to cannabis, to cocaine, heroin, arms and human beings – and has become a vital source of revenue for northern communities. Controlling roads heading into Algeria guarantees vital income through bribery and kickbacks. A worrying associated trend has been kidnapping, particularly by terrorist networks seeking cash for the release of hostages.
The fact that so much of the peace process has, in effect, hinged on control over trafficking routes reveals two key insights: firstly, that criminality and corruption is endemic both in the north, but also reputedly in Bamako, massively undermining Mali’s long-term governance and security. Secondly, that people engaged in such activities seek this income for themselves and their communities, revealing the persistent poverty and deprivation of the north, which is still resource-poor and economically marginalised. As Paul Collier has forcefully argued, this kind of poverty is a key driver of conflict. Both insights suggest that the structurally rooted nature of conflict in Mali persists, despite efforts at delivering peace.
For real conflict transformation in Mali to occur, northern criminality needs to be tackled by force, but also through strengthened governance and rule of law. Broader recognition of the problem is necessary: Mali’s diplomatic community still treats cross-border trafficking as a taboo; radical ‘Islamists’ or tribal dynamics are instead seen as the key drivers of conflict. The Nouakchott Declaration refers to transnational trafficking networks merely in passing. Donors should force Bamako to tackle the issue by disinvesting, for example, when trafficking indicators are triggered. The UN Office for Drugs and Crime (UNODC) remains weak in Mali. International organisations must be capable of confronting corruption at the central level.
But in parallel with such efforts, the international community must support the government in promoting legitimate forms of income to replace this criminal economy. France’s financial pledge is undoubtedly important, but it remains a ‘pledge’, only €80 million of which was dedicated to the north. The government must honour its commitments, enshrined in the Algiers Accord, to northern political and economic integration. Moreover, the international community must incentivise this assimilation into the national economy by promoting existing assets, like tourism, and identifying alternate revenue streams. In this way, the northern groups can be legitimately empowered, in conflict analysis terms, so as to be able to negotiate effectively with the government within an ongoing political process.
As long as trafficking and criminality are allowed to continue, and no viable alternative exists, then this war economy will prevail throughout northern Mali. In this context, armed actors will continue to rise against the state. And jihadi ‘spoilers’ will continue to kidnap and kill, as they did in Bamako on 20 November. As such, Mali’s prospects for peace remain worryingly remote.