A snapshot of Mali three years after the 2012 crisis
Despite a significant increase in international efforts since January 2013, Mali remains highly volatile. Ethnic armed groups, state supported local vigilantes, illicit cross-border trafficking and its effects on high-risk populations, especially the youth, are some of the threats that endanger Mali’s unity as well as long-term stability. Terrorist attacks in the north against MINUSMA’s positions, and in Bamako against a ‘trendy’ Western restaurant on 6 March, demonstrated once again the gap between the means allocated to addressing the country’s security problems and concrete results on the ground.
This commentary presents a snapshot of Mali three years after the 2012 crisis by highlighting a number of pertinent political, security and economic trends and assessing their consequences for Mali’s stability in the medium term.
Bamako’s divide-and-rule strategy on the northern front
Numerous and uncoordinated mediation initiatives (on the part of Burkina Faso, the African Union, Mauritania and Morocco), together with the late Algerian decision to take the lead on the inter-Malian process, have contributed to a proliferation of interlocutors, so far with no significant improvement of the situation on the ground. Furthermore, the government’s procrastinating attitude has had the effect of radicalizing the position of opposing groups, while state support given to community vigilantes (GATIA or Songhay militias) has introduced an ethnic dimension to the conflict and exacerbated feelings of resentment against Bamako among the instigators of the 2012 rebellion. The recent formation of a new Fulani movement in the Massina region (only 350 km from the capital) and its affiliation to Iyad ag Ghali’s Ansar Dine movement is a clear illustration of this hostility to Bamako.
Increased fighting between the armed groups, and the new ethnic undertones to the conflict, have added yet another layer of complexity to the challenge of resolving the crisis. At the same time, the absence of a common agenda and the deep divisions within the ‘northern camp’ have greatly weakened what the MNLA had claimed was its united stand when it launched its rebellion, giving Bamako the opportunity to discredit the northern movement’s claims for the independence of Azawad.
In the medium term, Bamako’s main objective will remain to weaken the northern separatist movements, especially the MNLA. Manipulating tribal divisions and giving political support to the MNLA’s rival group, Iyad ag Ghali’s Ansar Dine and its political counterpart the HCUA, constitute only one visible part of Bamako’s strategy towards this end. Regarding the current negotiation process, rumor has it that the Malian authorities are trying to (re)integrate Iyad ag Ghali into the negotiations – in spite of Western mediators’ reluctance to consider him as a trustworthy partner (in February 2013, the US has categorized Ansar Dine as a terrorist organization). One option for President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita (‘IBK’) to deal with ag Ghali’s negative influence without openly involving him in the talks would be to make his combatants eligible for the lucrative disarmament and reintegration programs. Considering Algier’s influence on ag Ghali and his movement, the mediator could play a role in both approaching ag Ghali’s combatants and in persuading him not to actively oppose the peace process.
A weak regime and a contested head of state: Mali’s political disenchantment with IBK
Despite a third Cabinet reshuffle and the improved relationship between the Malian regime and its international partners, the Bamako government remains weak and its ability to solve the crisis and to improve the living conditions of the Malian population is still very much open to question. Patronage and family nepotism have greatly tarnished IBK’s reputation and the first years of his presidency. However, neither the new head of the opposition, Soumaila Cissé, nor the radical wing of the opposition (mainly Oumar Mariko’s African Solidarity for Democracy and Independence) is in a position to be a credible political alternative. Their exclusion from power and from state resources prevents them from gaining the necessary influence in the country to compete with the current regime. The local elections next October will nevertheless put this assessment to the test.
Religious influence in Malian politics: a growing alternative political offer?
The very active role played by religious leaders during the electoral campaign, their proximity to IBK and the continuing influence of some Salafist groups in the political arena give rise to speculation about their precise role in the anticipated stabilization process. Even though they remain sharply divided, religious leaders have progressively emerged as key players in the country. Since they gained a victory over the Malian parliament by instigating massive protests against more ‘progressive’ family legislation in 2009, there have been voices advocating for a greater role for them in the country’s politics.
Because key religious actors fulfill an important social role in Mali (e.g. by providing financial support, education and medical assistance to the population), their influence often goes beyond that exerted by political leaders. If and when they decide to support a political candidate, they considerably increase her/his chances of being elected.
The question of whether their support to IBK’s regime will last is now raised. President of the High Islamic Council, Wahhabi Imam Mahmoud Dicko, and the Cherif of Nioro du Sahel, Cheikh Hamallah, one of the main guardianship authorities of Islam in Mali, have publicly repudiated the President’s results (including by pointing at corruption and other financial misconducts). Growing popular discontent with IBK’s regime could today, first, encourage some religious leaders to distance themselves from the existing political nomenklatura and, second, to actively seize upon the social discontent to base/legitimate their own political “outing”. The widespread dissatisfaction with political elites and the mythologized nostalgia that now tends to surround the Islamist occupation of northern cities (where, for instance, it is alleged that there is less insecurity and better public services) could appear to be a manifestation of a deeply rooted religiosity in Mali that seems to be expanding.
Adopting a desecuritized approach in the Sahel: a prerequisite for long-term stability?
IBK’s regime does not have the military and economic means, nor the necessary political influence, to secure the country’s future stability. While support from neighbouring countries and international partners will remain crucial variables to achieving long-standing stability, the anti-terrorist bias they historically favored left aside other adequate responses to address insecurity as a whole.
International actions in the region since 2002 have been strongly focused on fighting against terrorism, and have tended to underestimate other issues connected with instability, such as illicit trade or economic development. Geographical isolation and lack of infrastructure and other public services have played a large role in feeding insecurity and frustration among northern populations and nomadic groups. It also led to the emergence of a criminal economy in the Sahel and growing interferences from foreign actors (armed groups or charity organizations which provided humanitarian assistance, goods, and Islamic education). Foreign assistance never gave priority to non-military issues in Mali and, by doing so, it encouraged Bamako’s authorities to first address the security threat and to devote most of its time and resources to it. Those strategies met Southern expectations and the needs of Bamako’s “securocrat hawks” for firm responses to northern insecurity.  With the first western hostages in the early 2000’s and the subsequent international backing, this trend grew stronger, leaving the desert areas even more marginalized and creating a fertile ground for instability.
Despite a very volatile security situation, northern populations have become used to dealing with a ‘tolerable’ level of violence, as the lack of public services and goods (drinking water, infrastructure, medicines, etc.) appears to be their main concern. By addressing the economic issues that underpin the northern ‘malaise’ and that foster distrust between northern and southern communities, foreign partners and authorities could contribute by laying out the foundations for a long-term stability plan. Indeed, this would lead to more State presence in the Septentrion and help to re-legitimate Bamako’s authorities in the eyes of the northern groups.
Specifically, this could be accomplished by oxygenating the northern regions, opening up the space and making the economic exchanges more fluid between the desert areas and the Maghreb, Mashreq and Middle-Eastern markets. The model of the ancient caravan trading routes, now fallen into disuse with the post-colonial State and the 1990’s protectionist measures, could be of a great help in that regard. Beyond proper infrastructure, this also requires the full cooperation of the Malian government and, above all, of the neighbouring countries. For example, Algeria’s active protectionism (US$9 billion of subsidies for widely consumed products and oil) directly contributes to the conduct of illicit activities in the region. Its tax barriers greatly affect regional prices and make it difficult for Bamako to supply the northern regions. Algerian protectionism encourages all kinds of illicit activities and the establishment of an enduring prosperous grey zone in the already terra nullius of Sahel. Although unlikely, a change of policy on the part of Algeria with the aim of contributing to the economic development of the desert border areas would help to strengthen the legal cross-border economy and improve the living conditions of people on either side of the border.
Three years after the crisis that split the country and precipitated an unprecedented military action, Mali has still not recovered its stability. Despite a successful election (77% of the votes won by the regime, a turnout of more than 45%), IBK is hardly a reliable partner for the international community.
Religious interference in the political sphere and growing popular discontent with IBK’s regime are weakening Bamako’s legitimacy to implement long-term stability. A historical security bias toward the ‘northern issue’ and the counter-productive effects of state support to local ethnic vigilantes have led to an exacerbation of intra-Malian tensions. Algeria’s mediation failed to result in a quick and effective response to the crisis and even contributed in some ways to postponing an enduring settlement of the 2012 conflict (new participants and proliferation of interlocutors at the negotiations table, lack of coordination).
Urban-rural and north-south disparities, national deficiencies in public services and the political use of ethnic divisions all remain key components of the current situation of instability in the Sahel. However, these elements have never been properly addressed, neither by foreign partners, nor by the Malian authorities, which historically favored security approaches and the fight against terrorism. Involving the anticipated beneficiaries (population, civil society, etc.) in the planning process regarding security and development strategies, and incorporating development and economic aspects into those programs, are preconditions to long-term stabilization. International partners will have to help Malian authorities to address the root causes of insecurity and to deal with the whole continuum of threats from the drinking water issue to the fight against illicit flows or terrorism. This would be necessary to directly and positively impact the living conditions in the north and ensure more legitimacy for the Malian State.
 This commentary is the result of a seminar and interviews conducted in Bamako in March 2015. For more details, see G. Chauzal, ‘After the Malian crisis: security and stabilization in the Sahel region’, discussions and findings from a seminar held in Bamako on 12 March 2015.
 G. Chauzal, ‘Bamako’s new government: implications for Mali and the north–south reconciliation process’, http://www.clingendael.nl/publication/commentary-bamako%E2%80%99s-new-government.
 Religious leaders “are not taking a position (…) politically, but (…) with respect for the interests of the country. We are in a country where we are Muslims. The structure that represents the totality of these Muslims is directed by us.” Radio France International, ‘Mahmoud Dicko: les décisions doivent revenir aux Maliens’, 9 August 2012.
 Examples of posters promising to teach the Koran in three weeks, advertising in Arabic – including in Bamako – a project to open a new Islamic university in Timbuktu, lobbying for state recognition of Islamic school diplomas, etc.
 See G. Chauzal and T. Van Damme, The roots of Mali’s conflict: Moving beyond the 2012 crisis, Clingendael’s CRU report, March 2015, p. 21.