The 2012 Malian crisis has placed Amadou Toumani Touré’s regime in the dock of history. Accused by many, both inside and outside the country, of being the chief culprit for the breakdown of his country, President Touré has at times appeared to be the sole scapegoat for the conflict.

However, the crisis of 2012, which will be recounted briefly below, was also undeniably the result and most recent manifestation of Mali’s political history as well as the long-standing distrust between different ethnic communities. Economic frustration, political resentment and strategic opportunity-taking, all of them rooted in the fragmented nature of the country, played a significant role in the crisis. As a result, any effort to achieve sustainable peace now needs to address not just the immediate run-up to the latest armed conflict in the country, but also the conditions that account for the recurrence of crisis.

The 2012 crisis: the fissures of a united insurrection

On 17 January 2012, three years after the last north-south peace agreement in Mali, a fourth ‘Tuareg’ rebellion was launched through the attack on a Malian military garrison in the north-eastern town of Menaka. Contrary to previous attacks, the rebel combatants seemed better prepared and organised, and above all appeared to have much more equipment than their predecessors, boasting ‘the most impressive arsenal ever seen in the north of Mali’.[1]

The National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), created in October 2011 by former Tuareg exiles in Libya, succeeded in gathering all the rebellious factions that had been divided and weakened by political disputes over time. As a result, the MNLA managed to represent all the main communities of the northern regions of Mali.[2] The accidental death of the MNLA’s chief instigator, Ibrahim ag Bahanga, in a car accident in August 2011 near Kidal could have endangered its military plans and encouraged new divisions. However, neither his death, nor Iyad ag Ghali’s failure to impose himself as the political leader of the MNLA,[3] undermined the planning that led to the January 2012 rebellion. Iyad ag Ghali, an historic figure of the Tuareg movement, was one of the key negotiator in the conclusion of the 1992 National pact. His stance in the negotiations, mainly advancing the interests of his own clan, coupled with his rampant radicalisation during the 1990s, had lost him the trust of other Tuareg communities.

1990-1996: Second Tuareg rebellion

1991: Tamanrasset agreements

1992: National pact

1996: Cérémonie des flammes de la paix

2006-2009: Third Tuareg rebellion

2006: Algiers agreements

2009: Sebha agreements (Libya)

2011: Creation of the MNLA

January 2012: Beginning of the fourth Tuareg rebellion

22 March 2012: Military coup in Bamako

April-May 2012: Islamist take-over of the rebellion

By the end of April, the northern cities of Aguelhoc, Lere, Tinzaouatene, Tessalit, Kidal, Timbuktu and Gao were controlled by the rebellion. However, the MNLA was not able to preserve Tuareg and Arab unity. A few days after the first military operations, a new Tuareg group called Ansar Dine was created, led by Iyad ag Ghali. Contrary to the MNLA’s military and political commanders, Iyad ag Ghali had a long and varied role in Mali’s history of rebellions, of particular note is his alleged collusion with the Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) movement.[4]

Soon after the emergence of Ansar Dine in northern Mali, the nature of the rebellion changed and the MNLA began to lose its influence. While Tuareg rebel groups were first supported by Ansar Dine in their military takeover of northern cities, the MNLA progressively became the enemy of Iyad ag Ghali’s new coalition. On top of fulfilling his own leadership ambitions, ag Ghali and his Ansar Dine movement sought to implement sharia law and to rehabilitate the authority and leadership of the religious elders, the Ulema. Helped by AQIM and the Movement for Oneness and the Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO),[5] Iyad ag Ghali rapidly took over control of the rebellion. At the same time, he abandoned the political objective of independence for the Azawad region proclaimed by the MNLA.[6] The occupation of all the major towns in the north led to the establishment of a new order based on, for instance, the creation of an Islamic police force in charge of enforcing new religious rules (on clothing, or the banning of ‘secular’ practices like smoking or playing football) or removing all un-Islamic ‘vestiges’ (bars and clubs, as well as the polytheist mausoleums in the town of Timbuktu).

A coup in the south

While the northern regions were going through an unprecedented security crisis marked by the split of the most important rebel movement, the general situation in Mali suddenly deteriorated following an improvised military coup on 22 March 2012. From the beginning of the Tuareg rebellions and the first casualties suffered by the Malian military, public discontent grew, especially in Bamako. Mothers and wives of southern soldiers fighting on the northern front protested against the poor condition of the military. Poorly equipped, badly trained and irregularly paid, Malian soldiers – mostly southerners – had always feared fighting in the north, some 1,400km away from their homes or families. According to one analyst, ‘For a southern soldier from Sikasso or Kati, being sent up north to patrol the open desert is akin to a Muscovite being sent to Siberia in the 19th century.’[7]

Popular historical anger against the ‘armed bandits’, traffickers and smugglers of the north was compounded by resentment against the Malian authorities themselves. Denounced by the military as the main culprits behind the impossibility of quelling the rebellion, the Ministry of Defence, the military chief of staff and ATT were at the centre of popular discontent. On 21 March, low and middle-ranked officers from the Soundjata Keita military camp in Kati (16km from Bamako) mutinied. They decided to go straight to the Koulouba presidential palace, where red berets from the presidential guard briefly resisted before finally abandoning their position after President Toure’s evacuation around 9pm. On 22 March, Green Beret Captain Sanogo, aged 40, appeared on the national television channel ORTM as the head of a new military ‘Comité national pour le redressement de la démocratie et la restauration de l’État’ (CNRDRE). Kati putschists suspended all Mali’s democratic institutions, and even arrested some of the main political leaders, with the exception of Ibrahim Boubacar Keita.[8]

At the end of March 2012, Mali thus faced two critical political and security threats. On the one hand, half the territory was controlled by Islamist groups, governing through different rules and law and offering no recognition of Bamako’s constitutional authority; on the other hand, a military junta had seized power in the south, imprisoned most of the legitimate authorities, and called for revenge in the north. Confusion was at its peak and only international diplomatic pressures enabled the restoration of apparent political order on 6 April.[9] On the same day, however, the MNLA unilaterally declared independence of the Azawad region.

Mali’s multiple crises brought into serious question the political regime’s strength and the real popular adherence to national unity. For years, the country had been commended for its democratic transition, institutions and overall political progress. Labelled by many international partners as the ‘poster child for democracy’, Mali was depicted as an example for the entire African continent.[10] What the 2012 crisis appeared to reveal, however, was a giant fraud by the Malian political regime, especially since the election of Amadou Toumani Touré in 2002 and the establishment of his ‘consensus model of democracy’.

While the downward spiral evidently reached its peak in 2012, it had nevertheless been underway for several years, even for decades in the eyes of the most pessimistic observers.[11] This leads to two questions in particular: how did the political situation degenerate so quickly? And, more important, why had northern Mali become a hotbed for rebellions and criminal activities?

Amadou Toumani Touré: a scapegoat for the 2012 crisis?

In answer to both questions, Amadou Toumani Touré[12] is consistently presented as the chief, even unique, culprit for all Malian mistakes or failures. He undoubtedly contributed significantly to the political weaknesses and worsening security threats that plagued the country, but there is also no doubt that Mali’s north-south relationships had been strained for several decades, and for some time before ATT took office in 2002. Unemployment, poverty, systemic inequalities, geographic isolation and lack of political representativeness indeed appeared to be as, if not more, important as ATT’s failures in explaining the 2012 crisis. Since Mali became independent in 1960, territorial unity has been questioned and distrust between northern and southern communities has risen. Lack of goodwill on both sides, foreign spoiling influences and Bamako’s game of divide and rule have contributed to heightened tensions between communities.

While these tensions have existed for decades, ATT’s 10-year regime contributed, first, to fostering the gap between Mali’s public image and the political reality, and second, to speeding the collapse of this democratic façade. By perverting local traditions of political dialogue[13] for electoral purposes, or buying social and community peace with dangerous security compromises,[14] President Touré fed his own weaknesses and fundamentally endangered Malian stability.

The Malian regime had been unable to address the issues that weakened national unity for decades or to create the conditions for an homogenous development of the country. It had also favoured community divisions in order to strengthen its power.[15] As a result, ATT’s trademark ‘wait-and-see’ approach in political, security and religious matters encouraged what were already established trends: namely, the emergence and development of areas free of state presence, and even the control of entire regions or strategic axes by groups involved in illicit or criminal activities that exerted a kind of para-sovereignty. ATT’s rule also deepened Malian’s dependence on foreign or neighbouring countries’ assistance, and sometimes their political interference. The roles of Algeria and Libya in northern Mali have been highlighted several times, and it appears that the Malian authorities had become unable to control or regulate those exogenous influences.[16] Conjecture as to the fate of promising northern natural resources, and to foreigners’ economic prospects (including those of the Algerian public company SONATRACH for instance), also contributed to straining national relationships between north and south.

Furthermore, regular droughts or food crises in northern regions drove the development of foreign NGO activities. The particular permissiveness of ATT’s regime to some of these NGOs, especially regarding their Islamic-related activities (preaching, training of the Imam, Madrasas financing, etc) illustrated how the drift to foreign dependence had already worn down Mali’s formal sovereignty, only for the presidency of ATT to make matters considerably worse.[17]

When the Malian political regime collapsed in March 2012, after a successful but improvised mutiny of middle-class officers, Mali effectively revealed its ‘institutional nudity’ and the political fraud that the international community believed or pretended to believe in for years – and even, in some cases, helped to build.

Structure of the paper

Considering the work that has already been carried out in an effort to describe in detail the events of 2012, and to identify the immediate factors causing the conflict,[18] this report is dedicated to discussing the root causes of the conflict. In so doing, it addresses the long-run trends that were accentuated under ATT, and eventually manifested in the sudden collapse of state control in the north and democratic continuity in the south.

Chapter 1 explores the dynamics of the state-building process in Mali and the long-term opposition between Bamako’s authorities (and southern populations in general) and the Tuareg and Arab nomadic groups. It gives an overview of the main historical factors accounting for the tensions between communities, and explains how frustration and distrust have shaped ‘north-south’[19] relationships since the independence of Mali in 1960. Chapter 2 analyses the violence that accompanied the post-colonial process and the progressive establishment of a growing security threat in the north, which was met with a series of ineffective Malian responses. Bamako’s conflictual relationships with the nomadic groups and the political authorities’ repressive approach towards the ‘northern issue’ contributed to fostering the gap between north and south, and to opening the door to foreign interference. The presence of AQIM in the north, the extreme porosity of the Algerian border and the return of ‘Libyan’ fighters after Qaddafi’s fall are among the main factors that have led to the 2012 crisis, and which are hallmarks of this hollowing out of official state control and its substitution by foreign influence. Chapter 3 details these factors, and highlights the regional and international interferences that have helped to foster the crisis. It discusses the massive security cooperation between Mali and Western countries and analyses the unexpected consequences of counter-terrorist programmes on global stability.

By describing the dynamics that have led, at sub-national, national, regional and international levels, to the 2012 crisis, this report aims to identify the foundations of what would be a viable, long-term plan for peace and security in Mali. It also serves as a one of the starting points for the new Maghreb-Sahel research programme which the Clingendael Institute’s Conflict Research Unit has launched, with the support of the Dutch National Postcode Lottery.

Morgan, A., ‘The Causes of the Uprising in Northern Mali’, ThinkAfricaPress, 6 February 2012, (accessed 11 December 2014).
The northern regions of Mali are home to 10 percent of the national population and are composed of several ethnic groups, especially the Tuareg, the Arabs, the Fulani and the Songhay. For more information, see Chapter 2, Section 2.
After being sent by the Malian government as a consular advisor to Saudi Arabia (from 2007 to his expulsion in 2010), he came to Mali and tried to impose himself as the leader of the new Tuareg rebel group, the MNLA, capitalising on his historic role in previous rebellions. The leadership of the MNLA was denied him, in part because of his radicalisation and his contested role in the last peace agreements.
MUJAO is a breakaway faction of AQIM, led by Hamada Ould Mohamed Kheirou at the time of its creation (December 2011). The split with AQIM was reportedly due to the marginalisation of its black African members and the prevalence of Algerians in leadership positions. The group would later merge with Mokhtar Belmokhtar’s Signed in Blood Battalion (another offshoot of AQIM) in order to create Al Mourabitoune.
The MNLA proclaimed the independence of Azawad on the 6 April 2012, after a series of attacks on cities defended by the Malian army. Ansar Dine was quick to differentiate itself from the objectives of the MNLA, rejecting the independence of Azawad and advocating instead the implementation of sharia law all over the country.
Morgan, A., op. cit.
Ibrahim Boubacar Keita (IBK), an important figure in the Malian opposition, had long denounced the policies of ATT. When the military junta decided to hold elections in order to transfer power to a democratically elected president, IBK received the support of Captain Sanogo and the ex-junta (2013). This led numerous observers to believe that IBK collaborated with the junta to overthrow ATT.

For more information, see Bakary, M., ‘22 Mars 2012, 22 Mars 2014: IBK, l’ex-Cnrdre: de la collaboration à la confrontation?’, Maliweb, 14 April 2014, (accessed 18 December 2014).
On 6 April 2012, ECOWAS rejected the MNLA declaration of independence. It then concluded an agreement with the military junta for the return of constitutional order to Mali. Dioncouda Traoré, President of the National Assembly, was appointed as Mali’s interim president.
During a presidential visit to Mali in 2003, French President Chirac declared: ‘President Touré’s political consensus is probably, as every international specialists state, an exemplary model of democracy’, even wishing that ‘all other countries in the world do the same thing’.

Joint press conference with Amadou Toumani Touré, Bamako, 25 October 2003.
See for instance the intervention of Laurent Bigot, director of the West-Africa desk, French Ministry of Foreign Affairs or Mann, G., ‘The mess in Mali: How the war on terror ruined a success story in West Africa’, Foreign Policy Magazine, 5 April 2012, (accessed 10 December 2014).
Lieutenant-Colonel Amadou Toumani Touré (ATT) overthrew President Moussa Traoré in 1991 and established the Comité Transitoire du Salut du Peuple (CTSP). He kept his promise of organising fair elections in June 1992, after which Alpha Oumar Konaré was elected. During Konaré’s presidency (1992-2002), ATT held the position of ‘médiateur de la République’, participating in mediations in the Great Lakes region and the Central African Republic. In 2002, he ran for president as an independent candidate, and was elected. He was then re-elected in 2007, with more than 68 percent of the votes.
In the beginning of the 13th century, the Emperor Soundjata Keita, founder of Mali in 1235, instituted a ‘great council’ formula that was later reproduced by all Mandingue emperors and kings. This ‘Malian’ way of doing politics and managing the state has had a strong normative influence on Mali until today.
Libya and Algeria have always been reluctant to acknowledge the separatist claims of Malian Tuaregs. The reason behind this stance is that their own southern populations (Tuareg or Berbers) might be inspired by a successful Tuareg uprising in Mali. To prevent this, both Algeria and Libya have developed contacts with local populations in northern Mali.
For instance, International Crisis Group, op. cit; Thurston, A. and Lebovich, A., A handbook on Mali’s 2012-2013 crisis, Institute for the Study of Islamic Thought in Africa (ISITA), 2013; Arieff, A., Crisis in Mali, Congressional Research Service, 14 January 2013, (accessed 5 December 2014); Neriah, J., Strategic considerations following the crisis in Mali, Foundation for Social Studies and Analysis papers, no. 165, February 2013; Bonnecase, V. and Brachet, J., ‘Crises et chuchotements au Sahel’, Politique Africaine, 130, August 2013, 260.
In this report, north and south generally refer to northern nomadic groups, historically opposed to Bamako authority, and black African populations living south of the Niger river and who never considered Tuareg or Arabs as a full part of the national community and thus aimed to marginalise them from political power and economic development.