Unceasing Conflict: Northern and Central Mali

Jeremy Jingwei, Writer on Central Asian and African Affairs

12 April, 2019

Rebels from jihadist group Ansar Dine in Mali

Rebels from jihadist group Ansar Dine in Mali


When asked  about the jihadist opposition in the Northern Mali Conflict, the head of the Pentagon’s Africa Command, Gen. Carter F. Ham, said, “realistically, the best you can get is containment and disruption so that al-Qaeda is no longer able to control territory.” Seven years later, he was proven right. Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and other jihadist groups, most notably Ansar Dine and Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MOJWA), still clutch onto power in remote Mali and threaten the Malian government through guerilla tactics and suicide attacks. Consequently, incessant conflict and regional instability have plagued Northern Mali, with jihadist groups, Tuareg separatists, and the Malian government jockeying for power.

Following the 2011 overthrow of Gaddafi’s regime in Libya, many ethnic Tuaregs fighting for Gaddafi’s army fled Libya and settled in Mali, exacerbating the lingering separatist sentiments of Malian Tuaregs. These sentiments erupted in the form of the 2012 Northern Mali Conflict, which was catalyzed by the Mouvement national de libération de l'Azawad (MNLA), a Tuareg separatist organization who sought an independent state in Northern Mali. The MNLA took advantage of a  military coup against sitting President Amadou Toumani Toure to seize large swaths of Northern Mali.

Other parties to the conflict were quick to capitalize on the subsequent chaos. Following the conquering and occupation of these Malian towns by the MNLA, Ansar Dine, a jihadist group associated with AQIM “raised their black flag and told shopkeepers and imams that sharia [law] was being imposed.” Though it is unclear whether jihadist movements arose in partnership with the MNLA or due to the power vacuum that ensued after MNLA-Malian Government conflict, the jihadist groups quickly disaffiliated from the MNLA, resulting in a tripartite war. Though the Malian army and international powers largely routed the MNLA and other Jihadist groups in 2013, pockets of resistance still remain inaccessible to conventional military tactics.

To Western powers, the threat of jihadism spreading in Mali and the rest of the Maghreb required international intervention. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) immediately pledged 2,000 troops and France promised logistical support immediately. The United Nations eventually transferred the functions of ECOWAS to the newly initiated Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) in an attempt to “stabilize key population centres… deter threats and take active steps to prevent the return of armed elements.” MINUSMA involved 11,200 military personnel and 1,440 police personnel, a significant military and financial contribution that seemed necessary to facilitate peace. Furthermore, the French launched Operation Barkhane, a 4,000-member counter-terrorism force to combat the threat of AQIM and its affiliates. Another key actor created in reaction to the growing threat of terrorism was the G5 Sahel joint counterterrorism force consisting of 5,000 multinational troops. In 2017 and 2018 alone, “international donors pledged over US $500 million for the force.”

The dividends of these initiatives have been meagre. Terrorist incidents have continued to flare  and peace has not arrived in Mali. In fact, as of July 2018, the northern half of Mali is largely out of the government’s control. AQIM continues to challenge peacekeeping forces, killing 10 and wounding 25 UN Peacekeepers in a recent attack on a UN Complex in Aguelhoc. Even in areas where there is large counter-terrorist presence, Jihadist groups have continued to terrorize populations through car bombs and landmines. AQIM affiliates even attacked the G5 Sahel joint counterterrorism headquarters with a suicide attack, injuring two soldiers and a civilian.

Mali’s government does not remain faultless either. They have committed various extrajudicial executions and detainments without respect for due process of law. In 2018, there was a marked increase in serious contraventions of human rights during counter-terrorist operations.

The insecurity caused by terrorist groups’ presence in Northern Mali has incited a resurgence in violence within ethnic groups. Throughout 2018, “at least 300 civilians were killed in over 100 incidents of communal violence in central and northern Mali.” Many towns have sympathized with AQIM and other terrorist groups, leading others to establish ethnically-aligned self-defence militias. There has been constant violence between these factions, most notably the nomadic Fulani and the Dogon farmers. Recently, over 160 civilians were killed and 73 wounded by a Dogon self-defense group, who “shot people, burned homes, [and] killed the babies.” This massacre was not an isolated incident, as “armed men killed 15 Fulani civilians in Mali’s central Mopti region earlier [in December 2018]” and “24 members of the Fulani community were killed in an [June 2018] attack by Dogon farmers.” The targeted and continuous nature of these attacks raises questions about whether they are incidences of ethnic cleansing.

Consequences of the region’s insecurity extend further than these incidents. Amnesty International notes that more than 500 schools have been closed in the region and over 150,000 children kept out of schools by the region’s instability. Prisons have remained critically over their capacities, resulting in extremely dire conditions. Some detainees had to “take turns to sleep due to the limited space.” The conflict has internally displaced 120,000 civilians as of March 6, 2019, with millions more displaced into neighbouring Sahel nations. Some “experts project 9.5 million people will be critically food insecure” between June and August 2019.

Solutions to the unceasing violence in Mali and are few and far between. Addressing the symptoms without addressing the underlying problem of ethnic and religious tensions will yield inadequate results. However, expanding government control further into northern and central Mali will alleviate the need for ethnic self-defence militias and should quell some ethnic violence. Should the Malian government take this route, it needs to be careful in how it treats local populations so that it does not incite further anti-government sentiment and ethnic conflict.