Conflict in Mali
Author: Jackie Schiffer
The conflict in Mali is multidimensional. The following analysis, utilizing CR SIPPABIO, will establish a basis of understanding for the quickly evolving and escalating conflict. Following, we will explore peace in Mali, challenges to peace, and future recommendations.
Context: Challenges in Mali date from 1960 with post-colonial instability, a territorial dispute over the Azawad region, ethnic disputes between the Malian government and Tuareg people, Islamic militancy across the Sahel region, and multiple military coups— most recently in 2020 and in 2021 (CFR, 2022). Both recent coups were led by military general Assimi Goita, who is the current Interim President of Mali (CFR, 2022).
While Mali was to hold democratic elections in 2022 (CFR, 2022), in late 2021, the parliament approved Goita’s rule for 6 months to five years (AFP, 2022). Presidential elections were expedited to 2024 following sanctions from ECOWAS (Brooke-Holland, 2022).
The multiple parties juggle various power dynamics. Utilizing Mayer’s 10 Sources of Power, the most prevalent are formal authority (exercised by the Malian government), associate power (Islamic militant groups, Mali’s neighboring countries and regional bodies all rely on networks to exercise power), resource power (utilized in humanitarian aid), moral power (MINUSMA intervention), and sanction power (AU and ECOWAS).
At the core of this conflict are disputes over identity, values and beliefs.
Whether it is political, religious, or ethnic identity, multiple parties believe they are denied what they are entitled to and do not believe these priorities can coexist with the myriad of agendas.
From Maslow’s Theory of Basic Needs, Malian citizens are denied physiological and security needs. Challenges include human rights violations, food insecurity and lack of shelter.
As of November 5, 2022, parties include:
- Military-led Malian Government by Assimi Goita
- Malian citizens
- Islamic militant groups: Ansar Dine, al-Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), and Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa
- Neighboring countries: Mauritania, Senegal, Guinea, Cote D’Ivoire, Burkina Faso, Algeria and Niger.
- MINUSMA, EU peacekeeping
- African Union and Economic Community of West African States
- Russian Mercenaries + Russian government
Goita: Largely rejects external involvement. He is opposed to French involvement/neocolonialism (Diallo, 2022) but has unclear goals/motivations (News Agencies, 2022).
Islamic militant groups: Desire to impose Sharia law and establish a caliphate.
Regional Groups: Believe Mali must employ democratic elections.
Foreign troops/MINUMSA: Believe physical violence must cease. Neighboring countries: Burkina Faso and Mali are united in the counterterrorism fight (North Africa Post, 2022); Niger and Mali are not (Reuters, 2022).
Malian people: Have high level of humanitarian need, also desire to be involved in restorative process.
Attitudes + Feelings: The Malian military government feels just in implementing military rule and righteous in their leadership. Neighboring countries are experiencing similar violence, yet lack consensus on counterterrorism due to concerns over sovereignty and Western involvement. Islamic militants believe in their moral right to impose Sharia law. The AU, ECOWAS and international actors believe it is their right to impose sanctions until democratic elections are held.
With two military coups since 2020, withdrawal of French troops, and interventions from MINUSMA and Russian mercenaries, the behaviors are unpredictable at best. The strongest trend is a desire for territorial and authoritative power.
- As of June 2022, there are 17,557 MINUSMA peacekeepers in Mali (United Nations Peacekeeping)
- French military operation from 2013-2022
- $148M in development assistance and $75M for humanitarian efforts in 2021 and military presence from United States (US State Dept)
- Russian humanitarian aid pledged in November 2023 (Reutersb, 2022)
- Increasing violence- The region is 8.3% less secure (Jones, 2022)
- Humanitarian crisis
- 400,000 IDPs – up 30% from 2021(UNHCR, 2022)
- Increasing terrorism: Mali is #7 on Global Terrorism Index (IEP, 2022) and saw 592 terrorist deaths in 2021 (Jones, 2022)
- Presidential elections delayed until 2024
What does peace in Mali look like?
Peace is Mali is a multi-layered process. In Contemporary Conflict Resolution, Ramsbotham, Woodhouse and Miall noted:
The Mali case highlights…the creative flexibilities needed to respond to it in contemporary peacekeeping operations, where political, military security, human security (protection of civilians), humanitarian, development and cultural roles are all vital components for a mission to be effective (2016).
Employing Johan Galtung’s negative and positive peace framework, negative peace in Mali would require an end to all overt violence. This includes violence from the Malian government (MFSD), Russian mercenaries and Islamic militants against the Malian people, ethnic conflict, and attacks on MINUSMA peacekeepers. Negative peace would also require an ousting of Islamic militants from Northern Mali, the re-establishment of government authority, and secure borders with Mali’s neighboring countries. To achieve positive peace, a new peace agreement also must be established as the 2015 agreement has proven ineffective.
Positive peace in Mali will require significant peacebuilding. Of Paffenholz’s seven criteria for peacebuilding, “protection of citizens against violence from all parties; monitoring of human rights violations; and advocacy for human rights” (2009) are the most pressing. Of primary importance to human rights and the restoration of peace and justice systems are democratic elections.
Once a democratic government is established, two priorities for peacebuilding include reestablishing diplomatic relations with neighbors and former allies and strengthening national peace and justice institutions.
Peacebuilding must address the root of decades of conflict in Mali. Notes Jeong, “to prevent unrestrained violence against innocent victims, members of different communities need assistance in recognizing shared interests in survival and long-term prosperity” (2000). A democratic government can assist in the peacebuilding process by developing a vision of shared national interests and prosperity.
Regarding peace and justice, “Mali has yet to genuinely address a legacy of authoritarian rule, extrajudicial killings, sexual violence, torture, enforced disappearances and the displacement of over 400,000 people” and the “systematic violence and marginalization from the national authorities” endured by the Tuareg and other communities in the north (ICTJ, 2016). Positive peace means accountability for crimes of the current and former Malian government against its people.
On a citizen level, the growing humanitarian crisis in Mali is of critical importance. This includes trafficking, human rights violations, food insecurity and lack of jobs/educational opportunity. Additionally, repatriation of 687,000 displaced people (UNHCR, 2022) is needed.
To achieve peace on a citizen level, restorative justice is needed. Based upon 5 principles: Relationship, Respect, Responsibility, Repair and Reintegration (Restorative Solutions, 2022), restorative justice might include trying the current and former Malian government officials for crimes against its people in International Criminal Court, trauma counseling and services via the Trust Fund for Victims (Trust, 2020), further hearings and action by Mali’s Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Council (Haidara, 2021), and victim-offender mediation.
Challenges to Peace
As Mali pursues peace, there are a myriad of challenges. Due to the non-linear nature of violence (i.e. it is not a two party conflict), it is difficult to identify and isolate the root of violence. Human Rights Watch notes violence from Islamic militant groups, ethnic self-defense groups, and violent political protests as challenges to peace in Mali (2021). “Human Rights Watch has for several years also documented serious abuses by the Malian security forces and forces widely believed to be with the Russia-linked Wagner Group” (2022). The U.S. State Department and MINUSMA have further documented forced disappearances by MFSD and extremist groups against ethnic Fulani, use of torture by MFSD and terrorist organizations, and the use of child soldiers (Bureau of Democracy, 2021).
Terrorism in Mali poses a significant challenge. As of 2020, the U.S. Department of State reported, “Terrorist groups active in Mali include ISIS in the Greater Sahara and Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslim — the umbrella group that formed in 2017 after the Sahara Branch of al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb, al-Murabitoun, Ansar al-Dine, and the Macina Liberation Front merged” (Bureau of Counterterrorism, 2020).
A lack of national authority further contributes to terrorism. “[Government] agencies are understaffed, poorly trained, and lack essential equipment and resources” (Bureau of Counterterrorism, 2020). Furthermore, the Norwegian Refugee Council traces the presence of armed groups to:
Areas neglected by national authorities for decades. [This] lack of state presence, poverty and unemployment made it easy for these groups to find new recruits in areas that had long been left to fend for themselves (Skretteberg, 2022).
The humanitarian crisis in Mali is bleak. UN News reported that 18 million in Africa’s Sahel region were on “the brink of starvation”, including 1.7M requiring “emergency levels of food insecurity” and 7.7M children under five facing malnutrition (2022). Additionally, there is a lack of access to education and jobs. “One in eight primary school-aged children do not attend school; of those enrolled in schools” (WFP, 2022). Furthermore, UNHCR reports 687,800 IDPs, refugees, asylum seekers, and stateless individuals (2022).
On an individual level, cycles of unresolved trauma also play a role in this conflict. In her “cycles of violence” theory, Barge cites that victims of trauma become likely offenders (Zehr, 2012) implying that trauma could be a contributing factor to the increase of violence in Mali. Yet, perhaps the greatest challenge to peace is the dwindling hope of the Malian people after multiple failed peace agreements, most recently in 2015.
To overcome these challenges, comprehensive humanitarian action, enhanced counterterrorism efforts, democratic elections, restored diplomatic relations, continued human rights monitoring, and empowerment of Mali’s citizens are needed.
1. Humanitarian Action
The international community must commit to a more comprehensive humanitarian mission. The Norwegian Refugee Council alone reports that only 54.8% of funding is covered with a need of $329.6M to achieve its humanitarian goals in Mali (Skretteberg). However, this commitment must be more than financial assistance. UNHCR has detailed “mounting challenges to access people in need and deliver lifesaving assistance and protection. Humanitarians continue to face road attacks, ambushes, and carjacking” (2022). Effective humanitarian action in Mali is not only funding programs but ensuring their success.
The first six months of 2022 saw a dramatic increase in violent attacks in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger (D’Amato and Baldaro, 2022). As this conflict involves terrorist organizations across multiple countries, counterterrorism efforts must be strengthened. D’Amato and Baldaro detail over a decade of counterterrorism efforts in the region, nicknaming the strategy “patchwork of counterterrorism” (2022).
While the Malian government requested Denmark, Germany and the EU not operate in the country and these requests have largely been respected (D’Amato and Baldaro, 2022), a lack international support has contributed to increased terrorism:
The two main ‘jihadist’ coalitions operating across Sahelian countries, are now essentially competing for the control of different areas, specifically the tri-border region between Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger. Aware of the lack of air support from French and international forces, ISGS in particular has significantly increased its pressure since March 2022 (D’Amato and Baldaro, 2022).
By uniting in bilateral, regional and international counterterrorism efforts, pressure can be applied to terrorist organizations operating in the Sahel.
3. Democratic Elections
Malian Interim President Goita has delayed presidential elections from February 2022 until February 2024 (Brooke-Holland, 2022). While ECOWAS lifted sanctions and reopened borders following a confirmed March 2023 referendum, October/November 2023 legislative elections and 2024 presidential elections (Brooke-Holland, 2022), ECOWAS and international and regional bodies such as the UN and African Union must continue to hold Goita accountable to these elections, and if necessary reinstate sanctions and closed borders.
4. Restored Diplomatic Relations
Mali removed itself from the G5 Sahel, cut diplomatic ties with France and has ongoing tensions with Niger and European countries. Additionally, ECOWAS previously instituted sanctions against Mali. The complexity of this conflict will require the financial, humanitarian, and security forces of more than the current forces in Mali alone can provide. Restoring diplomatic relations will establish international, regional and bilateral partnerships to rectify the conflict’s many security, humanitarian and human rights issues.
5. Human Rights Monitoring
Multiple international organizations are monitoring Mali for human rights abuses. While Mali established the TJRC to investigate human rights cases between 1960 and 2013, there are more recent violations that also must be investigated. “The occupation of the North was marked by gross violations of human rights law and humanitarian law, but the legacy of abuses goes way beyond 2012” (ICTJ, 2016).
As some allegations are against the current government, it is appropriate for regional, international and NGO parties to continue monitoring human rights in Mali. In his analysis of MINUSMA’s recent mandate renewal, Smith reported, “the next mandate should reassert the importance of MINUSMA’s ability to investigate all alleged human rights violations as part of the wider fight against impunity” (2022).
6. Empowerment of Malian citizens
Mali’s citizens deserve to have their voices heard. Of civic involvement Paffenholz states, “The focus of attention and support should be directed towards the most relevant functions of civil society, given the respective phase of conflict” (2009). While robust civic involvement may not be feasible at this juncture, citizens should be involved where possible.
However, Mali’s “transitional justice has so far been mostly driven from the top” (ICTJ, 2016). This lack of accountability has led to frustration from the Malian people (ICTJ, 2016). Among the myriad of issues on citizens’ minds are “underdevelopment in the North, bad governance, deep regional inequalities, and entrenched grievances in all communities, partly due to the long-unaddressed legacies of past trauma” (ICTJ, 2016).
As the conflict in Mali escalates, the international community has a responsibility to act. This analysis highlights the complexities of multiple conflict parties, and the impact of terrorism, acute humanitarian needs and ongoing trauma as challenges to durable peace.
Of the Malian conflict, Rothsbaum states, “This case study…contains elements of peacekeeping that are clearly unrecognizable from what would have been characteristics of classical or first-generation peacekeeping” (2016). Indeed, this conflict calls for new approaches and action at every level of peacekeeping, peacemaking and ultimately, peacebuilding.
Whether human rights, counterterrorism, food security, a refugee crisis, military regimes or the restoration of peace and justice systems, the Malian conflict will have implications for years to come. In addition to impacting the Sahel region and West Africa, findings from this conflict may be applicable in Afghanistan regarding its Taliban rule, in Myanmar’s human rights investigations and military regimes, and in countries such as Ethiopia that are facing ethnic conflict and acute food insecurity.
Among the greatest lessons to be learned are the importance of strong peace and justice systems; the relevance of diplomatic efforts on bilateral, regional and international levels; the difficulties in combatting terror groups operating across multiple sovereign states; the necessity of human rights monitoring and accountability systems for state and non-state actors; the challenges of implementing humanitarian aid in the world’s most fragile regions; and ultimately, the universal value of empowering citizens in the everyday governance and legacy of their nation.
List of References
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Jackie Schiffer comes to University for Peace with a background in education and the cultural arts. Jackie is passionate about the role the arts play in building empathy and cross-cultural understanding. Her research interests include: cultural diplomacy, civic engagement, women in peacebuilding and food security. She is currently the Director of Institutional Development at NYC’s Perelman Performing Arts Center (PAC NYC). Recently, Jackie was a cultural diplomacy fellow at Tufts University and the US delegation lead for the US-Africa Green Leaders Program (Ghana) with 10 Billion Strong/US Dept of State.
Prior to PAC NYC, Jackie worked at NYC’s Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts where she oversaw a $7.5M portfolio and advocated for arts education and accessibility programming.
Outside of the office, Jackie also maintains a professional performance career. Her artistic pursuits have included a national commercial spot for Lexis Nexis, a new media project selected for Tribeca Film Institute, and numerous musicals and cabaret shows.
She is an avid volunteer with the Junior Leagues of New Jersey State and Public Affairs Committee and recently founded NJ Hunger Heroes, an initiative dedicated to inspiring public action and advocacy on food security.
Jackie holds a BM in Voice from University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and an MSED in Educational Theatre from City College of New York. She is currently pursuing a masters in diplomacy and international development from University for Peace.