The events of 2012 were the most recent illustration of long-standing tensions between the southern and northern parts of Mali. With independence and the end of French colonial rule came the need for new Malian political elites to assert their authority over the whole territory. However, the approach taken at that time not only exacerbated tensions between government and northerners, but also led to the gradual political and economic marginalisation of the north. This withdrawal of the central state from a region once seen as prosperous and valuable turned northern Mali into a liability, and a security threat for the whole region.
The purpose of this chapter is to uncover the different elements that led to southern elites domination over northern Malian, and the construction of a radical opposition between north and the Malian authorities. It analyses the historical fault lines that preceded feelings of resentment among northern communities, the policies implemented by the central government that led populations in the north to turn on the state, and the foreign influences that aggravated an already explosive situation.
The Tuareg uprising of 2012 revealed an insurmountable tension between the north and south of Mali. This resentment can be partly traced back to methods of state formation in the immediate aftermath of decolonisation, which promoted aggressive unity and the constant marginalisation, in economic and political terms, of the north.
Despite past political unity (including the Soundjata Keïta Epic and history of the Malian Empire from the 13th century), relationships between north and south populations have always been distrustful. The French occupation even exacerbated these resentment. This is due to the attitude of the French during the colonial period, when they decided to educate a ruling class almost exclusively composed of majority black southerners. When these new ruling elites decided to free themselves from the colonial rule, they had to find a way to assert political authority over the whole Malian territory, and used strategies to do so that ranged from favouritism and patronage to economic marginalisation, divide-and-rule strategies and military control. This was far from helpful in strengthening the country’s unity and popular adherence to the construction of a nation. In fact, by establishing an independent centralised state, based on the political and economic subordination of the north, the post-colonial elites laid the foundations for northern rebellions and future state failure. This chapter discusses how historical fault lines between the north and the south have shaped these dynamics.
While northern Mali is now seen by Malian authorities as a problem rather than a valuable part of the country, it has not always been that way. At times of trans-Saharan trades and royal pilgrimages to Mecca, northern regions were considered as key elements in the economic prosperity and political power of Mali. Northern Mali was an area of exploitation, commercial trade and a meeting point between Arab, Saharan and African worlds. Timbuktu, for instance, was a powerful commercial metropolis where gold was exchanged, negotiated and sold to countries in the Maghreb, Mashreq, Europe and the Mediterranean gulf. North Mali also had the monopoly over the extraction of salt, a commodity then seen as princely.
The end of the Malian great empires and French colonisation preceded the exclusion of northern regions from the centre of power. When the Malian government decided to abandon the Common Organisation of the Saharan Regions (OCRS) project in 1963, only five years after its inception, in order to avoid obstacles to its nation-building objectives, if fed a strong political resistance to the growing southern influence. Until then, OCRS membership had served as a counterweight to the rising political and territorial domination of the southern-dominated Malian state over the traditional nomadic areas that the Tuareg regarded as their own. Mali’s exit from the OCRS fed a strong conviction among the Tuareg of northern Mali that they had been abandoned by the south.
Source: ‘Les collections de l’histoire N. 58-63’, in Bossard, L., ed., An Atlas of the Sahara Sahel, OECD, Sahel and West Africa Club, 2015, 115.
The decision to marginalise the north after independence, which has been illustrated by the will of the central state to affirm its territorial integrity all over the country, added to the historical bias between northerners and southerners. Southern populations, indeed, have a profoundly negative perception of the north. The Tuareg are historically associated with insecurity because of their long and mythicised experience of ‘rezzou’, or raiding, against sedentary people. Other northerners, especially the Fulani or the Songhay people, have been the regular victims of these attacks. It partly explains the support of those communities for Malian independence and the authority of Bamako. The role of some northern nomadic groups in the trans-Saharan slave trade also helps to explain the historic and long-standing distrust between north and south.
Since 1960, the Tuareg and the Arab populations have never succeeded in fitting within the new Malian state model and have been regularly marginalised from positions of power and the central ‘national cake’. Northern populations did not directly benefit from development programmes (unlike the south to a certain extent), nor did they succeed in securing access to the state’s rent (due to very limited representation in parliament and government). This unequal access to state resources can be seen as the result of a divide-and-rule strategy implemented by the Malian government, which reached its peak under the ATT regime.
Beyond the political and economic marginalisation of northern populations, southern authorities kept trying to divide northern communities in order to prevent one group from gaining too much political influence and to ensure a weakened north. Electoral zoning constituted, for example, an important resource for the authorities in Bamako in terms of political representation of northern communities. By deciding to increase representation of the less densely populated regions, the Malian government gave the Tuareg communities, mainly living in deserted areas, an electoral advantage over the Arabs, who are generally considered to be even ‘less Malian’ than the Tuaregs, especially because of the privileged links they were supposed to have with other Arab-speaking countries (Mauritania, Algeria, Libya). It allowed them not only to favour the Tuareg over the Arabs, but also to favour certain groups within the Tuareg community. The underlying idea was to ‘reward’ those Tuareg communities that were the most hostile vis-à-vis the French coloniser and those that immediately supported the post-colonial regime. The Tuareg Iwellemmedan, for instance, a group spread in several northern districts, was more represented than the Tuareg Ifoghas ruling class, concentrated in the Adrar and supposed to have collaborated with the colonial settlers. But overall, the exercise of power largely remained the prerogative of southern elites, who made the rules and controlled the administration. When the 2012 crisis erupted, out of 147 deputies, only 12 Tuaregs were elected to the National Assembly while not a single representative of the Arab community (about 5 percent of the total population) occupied a seat. Since the last legislative elections in 2013, Zahabi Ould Sidi Mohamed is the first (and only) Arab representative to be elected for a position at the National Assembly.
On a security level, Bamako’s government has also tried to undermine northern power by using the deep divisions within communities and by actively supporting anti-Tuareg vigilantes. Tuareg and Songhay militias (Ganda Koy or Ganda Iso, and today the Tuareg Imghad and Allies Self-defense Group (Groupe d’auto-défense Touareg Imghad et allies GATIA movement), which have been financed and equipped by the Malian government, are a good illustration of Mali’s counter-insurgency tactics. These northern proxy combatants provided Bamako with an efficient tool to fight the Tuareg separatist movements and exacerbate tensions with northerners. Moreover, they gave the Malian authorities the opportunity to portray the northern region mainly as a security problem, and thereby to legitimate their own military approach to the situation.
While political dialogue and national consensus are said to have been part of the Malian political culture since the 13th century (Soundjata Keita’s political myth mainly), the post-colonial period has been exclusively dominated by southern political and military elites, who have known each other for a long time and are used to working together, having enjoyed the same schools, the same clandestine anti-colonial or democratic associations, and the same political influences and international networks (Pan African movements, Internationale Socialiste). This southern microcosm has been the main actor in the construction of the post-colonial state in Mali. Since independence, this solidarity-based group ran Mali for its own corporate interests, feeding a southern nationalism when it was politically necessary but without clearly addressing, at the same time, issues affecting south Mali communities (lack of economic development, high rate of corruption, very low generational turnover, etc). One cannot then consider an homogeneous and privileged south fighting against Tuareg or Arab irredentism but, more specifically, a central political society fighting for its own interests and using the southern nationalistic ground for consolidating its control over the Malian state.
In its own self-interest, Bamako implemented gestures of openness and reconciliation towards northern populations through the integration of northern elites into the state apparatus. However, these symbolic measures remained mostly focused on the need of the central state to use influential northern elites to ‘manage’ problems in the north. They also followed the strategic objectives of Bamako leaders, who sought to instrumentalise local divisions between communities in order to assert their power. These symbolic nominations, and strategies of buying northern support, were never aimed at increasing the national adhesion of the northern population to the Malian state. On the contrary, while these co-option strategies generally aimed at strengthening the presence of the central state in the peripheral regions, they also contributed to de-legitimating some northern ‘collaborators’ and exacerbating tensions between groups. In the end, Arab and Tuareg populations remained largely excluded from political power and, as a consequence, from rent-sharing circuits (even if local embezzlement strategies allowed some connected northern circles to be indirectly part of those circuits).
On top of these patronage tactics, Malian authorities also tried to unilaterally assert their presence all over national territory, and especially the north, by appointing loyal (i.e., southern) civil and military servants (préfets, governors). Most of the time, these appointments were seen as a ‘punishment’ for southern officials who always considered the northern region to be a hostile place and, somehow, a means for Bamako to keep them away from the centre. Some of them, belonging to the Malian military, were designated as governors of the northern regions.
Southern representatives sent to the northern regions then acted, most of the time, as if they were in a war or an occupied zone, with distrust and sometimes violence (several accusation of forced marriages, violence or humiliation of elders). This policy greatly contributed to a deep discontent among Arab and Tuareg populations, who interpreted it as a second colonisation and never accepted this legal authority. By unilaterally setting out the terms and conditions of its institutional presence in the northern regions, the Bamako government directly paved the way for local contestation and resentment. Moreover, through discretionary appointments of some northern actors to official functions, without prior consultation with local communities or consideration of regional fragile balances, the Malian government only exacerbated tensions within northern populations. These measures played a big role in damaging relations between the north and the southern political society –fostering episodes of violence that have punctuated Malian history since independence.
This perception, and the tendency of the Malian government to militarily administrate northern regions, has been very apparent since independence. It started in 1963 with the decision to place the north under martial law, and has continued recently with the appointment of Colonel Adama Kamissoko (a military senior ranking official) as the governor of Kidal after the 2012 rebellion.
The first post-colonial rebellion in 1963 can be seen as the direct consequence of this ‘movement of local affirmation’ that encouraged some Tuareg to use the momentum of political independence for their own separatist objectives. Despite several programmes aimed at reinforcing national unity and the legitimacy of the Bamako government within the northern region, north-south relations always remained overtly distrustful. The military coup in 1968 by General Moussa Traoré, and the establishment of a 30-year praetorian and centralised regime in Bamako (until the revolution of the 26 March 1991), did nothing to improve that.
Bamako’s ‘military’ approach to the northern issue has been seen as one of the major components of the 2012 crisis. The embezzlement of funds allocated to the Special Programme for Peace, Security and Development in northern Mali (PSPSDN in French) in order to construct military barracks in northern regions is a good illustration of this military pattern. Using money that was supposed to be spent on local economic and social development, Mali’s government decided to rebuild and re-equip its military infrastructure in the north. Local populations, hoping for social and development improvements, were greatly disappointed and saw this as another failure of state policy in the north.
By deliberately setting aside the economic and social dimensions of the repeated northern conflicts and mainly giving priority to repressive actions, Malian authorities paved the way for other non-national allegiances and foreign interferences.
Because of its geographic location, the north of Mali has always been a meeting point for foreign influences and for cultural, economic and religious connections. A constant lack of interest on the part of the Malian authorities, associated with post-colonial longing for a mythologised Tuareg state, have encouraged local populations to welcome and support some neighbouring countries’ interference. Over time, northern Mali even became a central location in the competition for regional leadership, especially between Libya and Algeria, the two most active ‘players’ in the region over the past 30 years. These countries have been sometimes accused of supporting the rebels (Libya), or using this geographic area to contain insecurity outside their own borders (Algeria).
On top of these foreign state influences, north Mali also attracted foreign charity organisations, who officially assisted local populations with humanitarian aid. It is indeed true that these organisations generally helped northern populations to handle the weaknesses of the Malian state in terms of publics services and goods. Islamic NGOs, for instance, fulfilled an important social role among northern populations; in the absence of any economic perspectives and the withdrawal of the state, they provided education, health services and water supply to local communities. However, some of these organisations, supported by foreign countries (Saudi Arabia, Qatar, UAE, Libya, Kuwait), were accused of combining their charity activities with religious programmes and preaching, or with illicit trade. As a consequence, and despite their positive effect on northern populations, the real intentions of these NGOs were often questioned.
One of the most revealing examples of such alternatives to public systems of provision is that of the Madrasas. These religious schools rapidly became popular in Mali, and by the end of the 1980s, 25 percent of primary-age school children were attending these types of institution. Offering free education, the Madrasa enabled lower-class people to send their children to school, as it presented an alternative to the ineffective public education system and private schooling networks. But it also meant that the education was provided mostly in Arabic (in an area where colonial schools were not the norm, except for selected traditional leaders’ sons, and use of French language was not common) and, therefore, created an additional gap between northern and southern populations.
Because of the inability of the Malian state to assert its authority on the whole territory, the northern regions were progressively controlled, or at least influenced, by foreign sponsors that sometimes directly contributed to questioning Malian unity. The historic position of the north in connecting the Maghreb and Mashreq regions with the rest of the country has progressively made those regions subject to suspicion, especially regarding religious influence and an alleged spread of radicalism.
As a result, while northern Mali was seen as the natural ‘front door’ for religious connections for centuries (with Maghreb and Middle East countries), it has been progressively suspected of becoming a playground for foreign religious influences and Islamic radicalism. Middle Eastern NGOs, religious and charity organisations and Islamic organisations have flourished in the north of the country in the context of State weakness in deserted regions, importing Arab-speaking Imams and developing radical Islamic discourses that have been worrying central authorities and their Western partners.
Moreover, the diffusion of Wahhabism and the Tabligh Jamaat doctrine in Mali since the 1990s has also played a role in Bamako’s suspicion regarding the north. The increasing influence of Saudi and Pakistani preachers and the growing popularity of the Tabligh proselytising organisations among northern populations, especially within the ranks of former Tuareg rebels, has worried Malian authorities and other foreign intelligence services. Despite a significant loss of influence since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the Tabligh Jamaat still constitutes a strong religious reference among Tuaregs of the Ifoghas tribe. The radicalisation of Iyad ag Ghali, one of the main leaders of Tuareg rebellions since the 1990s, and the conversion of some Tuareg traditional leaders (e.g., the son of the recently deceased Ifoghas traditional leader Amenokal Intallah), are the most significant illustrations of the creeping influence of the movement within Tuareg communities. This alleged radicalism was used by Bamako to legitimate its repressive posture towards the north and to justify the ‘martial’ regime it imposed on these regions for decades.
In addition to other issues and mistrust that have historically contributed to the country’s division into two separate entities, the alleged responsibility of northern tribes for the diffusion of radical Islamic doctrine has been seen as a direct threat by southern populations used to a tradition of religious tolerance and Islamic syncretism.
Divisions between north and south led not only to mutual distrust between communities but also to the intentional marginalisation of the north and the south’s economic domination over it. The south imposing itself as the main centre of economic and political life led to growing discontent among northern populations and their continual feeling of distance from Bamako.
Northern regions have played a great role in what is now considered Mali, through their historical influence and economic prosperity. At the time of the great empires (from the 11th to the 16th century), the northern cities of Timbuktu (100,000 habitants in the 15th century, 54,000 now) or Gao (70,000 habitants in the 14th century, 50,000 in 1998, 80,000 now) were the most influential places in Mali, gathering political power and economic domination. After the Moroccan occupation (16th and 17th centuries), the territorial fragmentation of Mali (into local kingdoms and the Hausa ‘cités-Etats’) helped to shift the political centre of gravity towards the southern regions. With French colonial domination (1880/1890-1960), the centre of gravity moved towards the south and relegated the north of Mali to a position of secondary importance.
By becoming a political periphery, the northern regions lost their influence and directly suffered the domination of a ‘foreign’ south. Marginalised from power, they were also mostly excluded from economic programmes and nascent development, before being regarded as a hotspot of insecurity and a danger to regional stability. Due to the lack of regional official figures or local northern statistics (especially over lengthy time periods), this section mainly focuses on the economic trends and global disparities that have fed frustration and motivated some of the most violent uprisings. Where statistics exist, they are noted and interpreted to help explain the 2012 crisis and to highlight Mali’s internal differences.
Despite common perceptions, the northern regions used to represent a major component of Mali’s wealth and played an important role in the country’s regional influence. However, the strategic reversal that led Bamako to assert its political and economic domination provoked a long-term break between north and south. Difficulties in endogenous development (including technical and security obstacles to exploitation of natural resources), the interference of foreign countries and the general weakness of the Malian state ultimately favoured the economic interests of the south. The end result was that the north turned into a barren economic zone plagued by insecurity and lacking any kind of infrastructure that could have enabled the development of a functioning economy. The south, on the other hand, could rely on a relatively well-functioning economy thanks to agriculture, gold mining and constant attention from the international community.
While northern regions are largely dependent on livestock and agriculture (42.7 percent of GDP) and tourism, the south relies mainly on gold mines (7.6 percent of the GDP and 75 percent of Mali’s export revenue) and the exploitation of cotton (1 percent of the GDP) to fuel its economic activity. This geographic distribution of economic sectors makes the north more vulnerable to exogenous shocks. For instance, droughts in the 1970s and 1980s, or food crises in 2005, 2010 and 2012 have heavily affected northern populations, who are dependent on cereal purchases and self-production in their total consumption mix. Regional crises have also weakened the northern economy, especially with regard to the exportation of livestock.
The growing insecurity in the north of Mali, especially after the first hostage takings in 2003 (when 32 Europeans were captured by the Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC)), has also served to isolate the northern regions and aggravate the economic crisis. Tourism used to represent more than 80 billion FCFA of income (121 M€, only 1.2 percent of national GDP but one of the main sources of income for northern regions, where tourism sites are located) and provided jobs for 17,000 people in 2005. However, more than 8,000 people lost their jobs between 2009 and 2011, and the revenue generated by the sector dropped by 50 billion FCFA (76.2 M€). The continuous presence in the north of the GSPC, whose members converted into Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in 2007, has discouraged all tourist activities. The cancellation of world-renowned events such as the Paris-Dakar in 2008, the relocation of the Tuareg music Festival du Désert from 2003 to 2009, and the increase in travel warnings, has contributed to a further economic isolation of the north.
On top of that, unemployment and poverty have created generational imbalances and frustration for younger people in particular. While this is an often under-researched area, because of the lack of data available, it is important to bear in mind that a growing demography can further aggravate the economic situation of Mali and foster tensions in the future. Young people indeed make up more than 50 percent of the population and do not feel well represented by political, traditional or religious leaders. The lack of job opportunities for them and the low turnover in leadership positions has led to the breakdown of a contract between the cadets sociaux and the elders. Young people have become frustrated by the difficulties of improving their social status, as they see their chances of finding a job or getting married fade away. This situation has fostered a generation of disillusioned young people.
The structural weaknesses of the northern economy and its vulnerability to shocks have often pushed nomadic populations, such as Tuareg and Arab tribes, beyond Mali’s borders. These economic and climatic refugees made temporary settlements in neighbouring countries, for example Niger, Algeria, Burkina Faso or Mauritania, but their arrival also created tensions with local communities, such as disputes over land and over access to water and pastures. In Libya, male refugees were integrated into Qaddafi’s Islamic Legion and took part in several wars which the Libyan regime was involved in (e.g., the 1978-1987 war in Chad). These exiled Tuareg combatants would later constitute the hardcore of northern Mali rebellions, especially those of the 1990s.
With its 1,316km border with northern Mali, Algeria has became an emigration destination for northern populations. Commercial ties between the north of Mali and the south of Algeria have developed over the years. For decades, Malian traders and seasonal workers crossed the Algerian border, looking for economic opportunities. In fact, Algeria and Mali institutionalised this free movement of migrants through bilateral agreements, in order to give a legal framework to this ‘barter economy’. But in the 1990s, at a time of great instability in Algeria, suspicious trades (such as arms, contraband and drugs) started to mingle with this legitimate free movement of good and people. Criminal groups and terrorist organisations thrived on illegal trades. Mokhtar Belmokhtar, for instance, the commander of one the GSPC’s main katiba, made a name for himself (he is now known as Mr Marlboro) by smuggling cigarettes through the northern Mali/southern Algeria border.
The limited economic opportunities and the geographic location of northern Mali have made it a hub for trafficking. The criminal economy that emerged in the 1980s attracted more and more young people as it intensified and diversified. Drugs, cigarettes, illegal immigration flows, counterfeit products and stolen car parts were exchanged between the Sahel’s populations. The passivity and sometimes collusion at the highest level of the Malian state allowed this illicit economy to prosper. The example of ‘Air Cocaine’ in 2009 is revealing, as it triggered world-wide suspicion of the Malian state; the fact that a plane of this size was able to land in this region raised questions about the involvement of state officials.
Rampant corruption also presents a challenge for any economic recovery for the north. While the region contains resources that could potentially benefit the population if exploited effectively, the short-term perspective adopted by the authorities, coupled with prospects for personal gains, seriously undermine this opportunity.
Northern Mali is thought to be very promising in terms of energy and mineral resources. According to a study conducted by the Authority for Oil Research (Autorité pour la recherche pétrolière, AUREP), a service created by the Malian government in 2005 and attached to Secretariat General of the Ministry of Mines, the subsoil of Kidal, Gao and Timbuktu could contain around 850,000km2 of oil and gas. Four main basins have been identified: Taoudeni (in the borderland of Mali, Algeria and Mauritania), Tamensa (halfway between Mali and Niger), the ‘graben de Gao’ and the ‘rift de Nara’ (close to Mopti). The Algerian national company SONATRACH has already made massive investments in the Taoudenit field for prospect operations (alleged $60 million). After operations were suspended during the 2012 crisis, Algeria asked for a quick restart of its activities in northern Mali. Furthermore, there is uranium in the north of Mali, as shown by the potential 200 tonnes available in the Samit deposit in the Gao region.
Source: ‘Global Crisis Atlas Access’, European Commission, May 2012.
These findings are encouraging with regards to the future economic vitality of the northern regions and could be a sign to central government that it should work on the economic development of the north. However, the AUREP study seems designed only to attract foreign investors, and indicates that the north should be divided into several ‘blocks’ (most of the licences have already been sold to foreign companies such as SONATRACH). Moreover, Bamako has not so far shown any will to involve northern populations in those projects (fearing that mining income will create new separatist tensions), nor has it any plans to link these economic opportunities to the development of essential local infrastructure. Worst of all, northern natural resources could encourage new tensions between north and south, and contribute to new cycles of violence. For some southerners, the exploitation of natural resources would hence constitute a major threat to Malian national unity as it would fuel economic competition between the different communities, each trying to gain a ‘slice of the cake’.
Source: Bossard, L., ed., op. cit., OECD, Sahel and West Africa Club, 2015, 53.
Economic inequalities and unequal political representation have fed historical resentment against the state, especially among northern Malian communities, for decades. Experienced as a double marginalisation by northern populations, they partly explain the permanent disagreements with Bamako, and played a huge role in rebellions that have occurred since independence in 1960.
From the Tuareg side, the establishment of Bamako as the capital of a new state they never wanted to be a part of, has never met local expectations. From the Bamako side, the deserted regions have long been seen as highly dangerous, no-go areas. The southern military have never been trained or well equipped to fight against rebels, who are well organised, have very mobile units and perfectly control their environment.
Since 1963, however, Malian authorities have often preferred to use a military option to address northern crises. Martial law, military governors, and the building of new barracks and garrisons have always constituted a permanent (and the most symbolic) component of conflict and post-conflict management frameworks.
By deliberately setting aside the economic and political dimensions of discontent, Bamako indirectly gave some groups and northern leaders the grounds on which they could mobilise parts of the local population against the central state. Except for the 1963 post-independence movement, the three other rebellions that Mali has experienced (in 1990, 2006 and 2012) were all founded on political and economic claims.