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The Misunderstood Malian Conflict

Updated: Aug 27, 2019

The deadly and lingering Malian conflict is less about religious extremism than about secular societal tensions.

N.B : This article has been written before the Ossogassou slaughter on March 23rd. This tragic event tends to confirm what is argued in this article.

Executive summary

Despite the lack of media coverage, a violent conflict is still ongoing in Mali. Its latest

evidence is the slaughter of the village of Ogossagou, Central Mali, on March 23. A Dogon (Central Mali ethnic group) self-constituted militia entered into the Peul (ethnic group present in all Western African countries) village of Ogossagou and killed 157 Peul civilians. The Malian conflict has multiple faces: ethnic, religious, social and economic. The conflict revolves mainly around Islamist terrorism, which has been destabilizing the region for multiple years. However, this aspect, and particularly its religious dimension, represents only a small factor of the ongoing insecurity and violence outbursts in Mali. Regardless, the International Community and its ally, the Malian government, have continuously focused on the religious aspect of the conflict, while forgetting that the majority of the violence is due to a lack of state presence, as well as non-religious ethnic tensions. This article calls for a rethinking of the approach to the Malian conflict, insisting less on terrorism and more on local grievances that have almost always nothing to do with religion.


This article is going to explore a particular feature of the Malian conflict. Indeed, from a

Western point of view, one often has the impression that the major threat to security in Mali is Islamist terrorism. The International Community, as well as the Malian government declared a “war against terrorism” (Chyvis, 2015) in Mali and more broadly within the Sahelian region. Militarized operations such as the French operation Barkhane, the MINUSMA and more recently the G5 Sahel Joint Force have been launched with the exclusive purpose of fighting and suppressing the terrorist threat in the region. However, 5 years after the arrival of all those foreign troops on the Malian ground, insecurity is still very present, if not increasing (Châtelot, 2018). Two factors can explain this failure. First, the interventions have failed to suppress jihadist’s capacities of actions. Second, most of the peace spoilers in Mali are terrorists but their main motivations are often not religious. Also, some non-terrorist ‘peace spoilers’ are voluntarily ignored by peacemakers for various purposes that will be evoked later in this article. It means that the religious factor is overestimated, while ethnic, social and economic tensions are voluntarily ignored by peacemakers. This article will first present a large overview of the Malian conflict. Then, we will analyze the precise issue of the massive focus on religious terrorism by both peacemakers and the Malian government. Finally, we will make some recommendations for a more balanced approach between terrorism and other threats to insecurity, as well as some insights for a more efficient pacification of Mali.

Islamist terrorism, that will be referred to as simply terrorism for simplicity purposes in this article, has not yet been defined by the United Nations. Thus, we will use here the definition stated by the USA’s Code of Federal Regulation : it is “the unlawful use of force and violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives”. However, this definition suggests that a state could conduct terrorism actions, which has been heavily criticized by scholars. The term “peacemakers” will refer to the International Community, mainly the UN, France, the USA and the EU.

The background of the Malian conflict

Mali is a country with one of the richest histories in Africa. Located at the crossroads of

transsaharien commercial routes, Mali used to be one of the richest empires of the world, under Sundjata Keita and Mansa Musa at the 13th century. This history is still very important for today’s democratization (Smith 2003, cited in Charbonneau & Sears, 2017, p.204). Starting from the 16th century, Mali is depopulated by the slave trade, lasting for more than two centuries. In the last quarter of the 19th century, Mali is colonized by France despite a strong resistance. At their independence in 1960, Mali and the other former French colonies decide to keep the boundaries fixed by colonizers at the Berlin conference (1884-1885), even though they do not match the ethnic and religious borders. Mali is thus a multicultural and multiethnic nation. Bambaras and Malinkés ethnic groups, living mainly in the South of the country, form the majority of the population. Tuaregs and Arabs live in the north and represent 15% of the population. Peuls (15% of the Malian population) live everywhere around the country and Dogon (5%) live in the central part of Mali. As many other African countries, Mali experienced dictatorship under Moussa Traoré (1968-1991). Then, Mali entered into a process of democratization which is still going on today.

However, in the 1990’s, the Algerian civil war pushed some terrorist organizations south, which settled in the north of Mali. This lead to the creation of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in 1997. In 2011, the Libyan civil war and the fall of Muammar Gaddafi’s regime brought a second wave of terrorists to Mali. Ansar Eddine, a militant Islamic group, led by Iyad Ag Ghali was formed in 2012. A few months later, those terrorist groups and the secular National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) formed an alliance against the government of Bamako. The rebellion progressed towards the South and proclaimed the independence of Azawad (which represent the north 2/3rd of the Malian territory) on April 6th, 2012. The Economic Community of West Africa (ECOWAS) launched the African-led International Support Mission to Mali (AFISMA) but it took months to get operational. In January 2013, jihadists broke the alliance with the MNLA and then attempted in January 2012 to extend their conquest to the South, towards the capital Bamako. It is in this context of jihadist progression, poor resistance by Malian government forces and AFISMA’s inoperativeness that France launched the operation Serval, January 11th 2012. The French army successfully fought the jihadists and reconquered all the North part of the country in 3 months. The Bamako peace agreement is signed in the 20th of June, 2015 between the Tuaregs separatists and the Malian government. However, the peace agreement did not manage to solve the Malian conflict yet. Nowadays, there are still violent ongoing tensions between Tuaregs and jihadists in Menaka and Gourma region (at the border between Burkina Faso and Niger). Also, the Tuareg movement is itself divided between pro-Mali (the ‘plateforme’) and pro-independence of Azawad (the ‘coordination’, former MNLA). Both groups frequently fight against one other, even if they fight jihadists together. Additionally, even if jihadist groups have been kicked out from major cities, they remain strong in rural areas. Terrorist attacks increase in number and in violence, targeting mainly Malian and foreign military forces as well as the ‘plateforme’ and the ‘coordination’ movements. This resurgence is due to the unification of several terrorist movements under one mouvement called “Jamaat Nosrat al-Islam wal-Mouslimin” (JNIM) under the terrorist leader Iyad Ag Gahli, in March 2017.

In response to the unsolved security crisis, the French government via its president Emmanuel Macron tried to impulse a regional autonomous military force, the G5 Sahel Joint Force (FC- G5Sahel). It has for goal to replace progressively Barkhane and MINUSMA in the long-run. It has been officially launched July 1st 2018 and is leading its first operations in Menaka and Gourma regions right now, at the end of March 2018. Thus, today, at the beginning of 2019, the major actors of security and insecurity in Mali are : the French Army via operation Barkhane, the UN via the MINUSMA, the EU via the EUTM Mali, the Malian government of President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita (IBK), the G5 Sahel and its Joint Force, the JNIM, the ‘plateforme’ and the ‘coordination’ Tuareg rebels movement and several ethnic militias.

An analysis of the Malian conflict

This case analysis will focus essentially on the overestimation of the religious factor by peacemakers in the Malian conflict and its consequences. There are two dimensions of this overestimation.

First, the religious factor is overestimated within terrorist groups. Several studies (Charbonneau, 2016, Campana, 2018) have shown that the main factors pushing people to join those movements are not religious. Instead, it can be either because of ethnic tensions, for economic purposes or for expressing social grievances. However, it is clear that for the leaders of the movement, the religious aspect is the most important, as they express the desire to ‘establish a caliphate over the Sahara’ (communication of JNIM, 2017). But a large and underestimated proportion of the fighters do not feel the religious dimension of their fight as much as their leaders (Charbonneau, 2016). However, work is missing from what precisely are their grievances if not religious. Although some studies have identified that the grievances were focusing on the « need of state » (‘besoin d’Etat’) (Bleck and Michelitch, 2015) the precise motivations are still largely blurry. This gap in knowledge is probably due to the logical difficulty of interviewing terrorists. This overestimation of the religious dimension is very important in dealing with these groups. Indeed, the answer to religious fanatics ready to sacrifice their lives for religion can be fought only through the military action while social grievances, ethnic tensions as well as the lack of economic perspective cannot be fought with arms (Collier & Hoefler, 2004). The most appropriate responses would be DDR (Disarmament, Demobilization, Reintegration), dialogue between communities as well as initiatives for economic development. However in Mali, these methods are not used nearly as much as military actions. Because of the overestimation of the religious dimension in the terrorist action, the military approach of peacemakers is thus irrelevant.

Second, peacemakers are pretending to lead a ‘war against terrorism’. However a major paradox emerges with this approach. Several ‘peace spoilers’ are movements that are not qualified as terrorists by peacemakers. Indeed, Tuaregs groups have proved to be extremely violent against each other and against civilians from a different ethnic group. Moreover, they execute people that are suspected to be terrorists without judgement. More people (both civilians and fighters) have been killed by non-terrorist groups than by terrorist groups in Mali since 2016. This lead empirical studies on the field to the conclusion that fear of terrorist attacks by jihadist groups were not the biggest fear of Malian populations (Charbonneau, 2017). Not only are those non-terrorist violent groups ignored by peacemakers, they are often allied together against Islamist terrorism. Thus, some, especially Malian observers, argued that peacemakers are accomplices of some non-terrorist violent groups and in certain very specific circumstances this is proven true by the facts.

At the complete opposite, in some parts of Mali, terrorists bring more efficient human security than the Malian government in other parts of the country . Some groups classified as ‘terrorists’ are in fact providing local population “protection and governance where local and state officials are either not trusted or present” (Sandor, 2017). Thus, terrorist groups used the need of population for day-to-day security to establish and legitimize their authority. This is exactly what the Malian government has failed to do. Local population pay more importance to the actual provision of service rather than if the authority delivering it is accountable or not (OECD, 2005, Chapter 4, p. 55-125). Yet, the International Community is criticized for focusing more on the accountability and integrity of the security provider rather than the actual provision of security. There is a contradiction between transparency / accountability and performance / effectiveness (Scheye and Peake, 2006) which is perfectly valid in Mali. Paradoxically, the Malian army is regularly criticized for exactions committed by its soldiers (Caparini, 2015). This reinforces insecurity for the Malian people, as well as a defiance against its army. Yet, it is the strongest ally of the International Community in the country.

Besides those two main remarks, two additional statements concerning the terrorism issue in Mali emerge.

First, scholars often question whether or not the dialogue around peace in Mali should include some groups today qualified as terrorists. For instance, Iyad Ag Ghali is a major actor, maybe the most important one, of the security in Northern and Central Mali for more than 20 years. Although he is a terrorist, which is not deniable, he is also a political actor. Thus, the exclusion of jihadists groups leaders from the peace process, and especially from the Bamako Agreement of 2014 is controversial. He has claims that go far beyond the simple religious factors. Some scholars argue that it would be in the interest of Malian government to “to reach out to those who are the most locally embedded and who are therefore the most likely to exercise a degree of dominance over their supporters and sympathizers” (Campana, 2018, p.28).

Second, determining whether a group qualifies as terrorist or is not is very political and subjective. It can be used as a political strategy by the Malian government as well as by the International Community “to undermine their credibility, weaken grievances, and limit their participation in negotiated solutions to conflict” (UN, 2015). For instance, the Malian government labels some Tuareg rebel groups as terrorists in order to discredit their claim of an autonomy of a Tuareg region in the North of the country (Charbonneau, 2017). This can explain why some groups that are security providers are qualified as terrorists while some groups that are ‘peace spoilers’ are not qualified as such.

To con, the current outburst of violence in Mali is misunderstood by peacemakers. By focusing too much on the religious dimension of the grievances, it has forgotten all the other aspects that also fuel the conflict. That lead to damaging consequences, including the persistence of the conflict since more than five years, hundreds of fatalities, and a few hope for the situation to improve in the future. The International Community as well as the Malian government have to completely shift their views on the conflict, insisting more on the ethnic, social, and economic aspect rather than on the religious dimension.

By Quentin Pujol

I am a student in political science and International Relations in the Euro-African program of Sciences Po. I went on the African continent multiple times, both with my parents and on my own. Those journeys made me aware of the unknown huge material and immaterial wealth of this part of the world, as well as all the challenges it has to face in the 21st century. Fascinated particularly by the issues of security and defense in Africa, especially in the Sahel, for several years, I will start a master’s degree in Public Affairs with a specialization in security and defense in 2019. I am currently on an exchange program at the University of Queensland, Brisbane, Australia for a year, where I expend my knowledge about the fascinating geopolitics of the South Pacific. Contact: quentin.pujol@sciencespo.fr https://www.linkedin.com/in/quentin-pujol-bba4a1129/



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