Mali’s most precarious peace and fragile future

Mali’s most precarious peace and fragile future

The Malian peace plan signed a few months ago does not seem to have had a discernible effect on the conflict. From Bamako, SIMON ALLISON reports on the intricate web of drugs, terrorists, separatists and corruption that makes this conflict so intractable. The bottom line is that Mali is already dangerously close to the bottom, and treading water – and that’s about the best we can hope for. Maybe it’s time to rethink our approach.

There’s something about downtown Bamako that reminds me of Saigon, or at least the image of Saigon I’ve conjured up from reading Graham Greene’s The Quiet American so many times. There’s the undeniable thrill of the exotic, from all the brightly-dressed people living their lives on the street to the grinning baboon skulls on display at one of the fetish stalls at the Grand Marché. There’s the none-too-subtle French influence, in the wide boulevards and traffic circles and baguettes, and even in the colonial stamp of the architecture, although this too has a few Malian flourishes: picture zig-zag rooves and walls of deep, earthy pink, set against palm trees and vegetation that’s so green its almost luminous.

But most of all, there’s the little matter of the fighting. As in war-time Saigon, it’s easy to forget that this is a nation at war. The frontlines are far away from the capital, and no one here sees the body bags. Life goes on much like normal in the markets and tea shops and jazz clubs, except there are more soldiers marching around than there should be, and they’re pretty strict about checking under your car for bombs.

Every now and then, brutal reality intrudes. Alex Duval Smith, the BBC correspondent in Mali, showed me around a nightclub that was attacked in early March this year. (An Islamist group claimed responsibility.) La Terrasse is on a busy bar street in the upmarket Hippodrome area and no one was paying attention when a gunman strolled in and started shooting. Five people died, and it should have been more: as Duval hurried to the scene, she remembers passing several unexploded grenades. Their pins hadn’t been pulled. Why not, remains a mystery: did the attacker panic when he fled? Was he a novice who forgot how grenades work? Did he have a sudden change of heart?

Like most politics in Mali, the incident raises more questions than answers.


Photo: The exterior of La Terrasse restaurant, where militants killed five people in a gun attack, is seen in Bamako March 8, 2015. REUTERS/Adama Diarra

A precarious peace

Within a few months of starting this job at Daily Maverick, I had to get to grips with two inter-linked crises in countries I knew little about: first the revolution in Libya, and the chaos unleashed by the death of Muammar Gaddafi; and then the civil war in Mali, fuelled and exaggerated by an influx of Libyan weapons and Libyan-trained fighters.

Four years later, Libya is still a mess. Mali, on the other hand, has made some progress. Somehow, this most strangely-shaped of nations – a testament to the lunacy of colonial borders – has survived a civil war, a coup, an Islamist insurgency, a French invasion and a famine. And while it hasn’t exactly come out the other side, it has shown remarkable resilience in electing a new president, Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, known universally as IBK; and, against all odds, getting the government, loyalist militias and separatist rebels to sign a peace plan, which was concluded in June.

So this, roughly, is where things currently stand.

IBK is in charge in the south, although there are major questions over how far his authority extends, or if he really controls the army. A United Nations (UN) peacekeeping mission occupies the main urban centres in the north, with help from the French who also use these positions to hunt alleged terrorists. On the sidelines, separatist rebel groups – particularly the Coalition of Movements for Azawad (CMA) – skirmish with loyalist militias. The Algiers Agreement, the peace plan, is supposed to put an end to the fighting for good, and to address some of the separatists’ concerns over inclusivity.


Photo: Despite the instability, life goes on as normal at Bamako’s Grand Marché. (Simon Allison)

So far, however, implementation has been patchy. The disarmament and security sector reforms have not begun. There have been several low-level clashes between the CMA and other militias. The government has been slow to organise monitoring meetings, focusing its attention instead on using the peace plan to raise funds. In other words, the situation post-peace plan looks an awful lot like the situation pre-peace plan, and it is getting harder and harder to ignore the dark clouds on Mali’s horizon.


Photo: Men prepare goat’s skulls for sale in local fetish markets. (Simon Allison)

It’s not at all clear if this most precarious peace can hold – or if it’s holding at all. So many of the world’s fault lines pass through Mali that, frankly, it would be a miracle if the country did not backslide. Islamist fundamentalism, ethnic tensions, separatist movements, drug trafficking, endemic poverty, climate change. Any one of these can sink a country, and Mali has them all.

An impossible mandate

In more developed places, the Hotel L’Amitié would be an eyesore. Built by the late Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser at the height of his pan-African mania, its 18 storeys of bleak concrete tower over the low-slung city, the isolation lending it a kind of brutal grandeur. There’s a fine view over Bamako from the hotel’s top floor: to the north we have downtown, with the President’s Palace perched on a hill in the distance, while to the south we overlook the Niger River as it wends its way through the suburbs.


Photo: View over central Bamako from the top of the Hotel L’Amitié. The presidential complex is on the top of the hill in the background. (Simon Allison)

It is here, nestled in converted en-suite double rooms, that the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (Minusma) has its headquarters (apparently the name makes more sense in French).

Its mandate is broad, and nigh on impossible. Mission one: to stabilise the North. Mission two: to protect civilians. Both of which are difficult to do from Bamako and the swimming pool and golf course of L’Amitié. Minusma’s real work, therefore, and most of its personnel, are up north. The irony is that Gaddafi’s ghost looms large over the war that the peacekeepers are trying to stop, while headquarters does its things from a building that, until he died, Gaddafi owned. In this part of the world, his tentacles are inescapable.

While in Bamako, I speak to several Minusma staffers. Like most people I talk to, they don’t want to go on record: it can be dangerous to depart from the official narrative, which is that Minusma is doing a great job in difficult circumstances. This assessment isn’t necessarily wrong, but it’s definitely more complicated than that.

The first problem is that mandate. What, exactly, does it mean to “stabilise the north”? And who interprets that? It doesn’t help that Minusma’s leadership team is large and unwieldy, hamstrung by a regional representation system that makes it difficult to always select the most qualified personnel.

The reason this question is important is because no one really knows which of the north’s problems to tackle first – and, naturally, different people think different things. Should Minusma concentrate on getting rid of terrorist groups? Yes, say the French. Does it need to keep armed groups in check? Yes, says the Malian government. Should it somehow put a stop to the rampant drug and human trafficking which are financing the conflict? Yes, say rights groups.


Photo: Off duty peacekeepers relax in a Bamako hotel. (Simon Allison)

Or maybe it shouldn’t be here at all. “The international community is only helping the international community. The big powers are here for their own geo-strategic interests, and they are destabilising Mali. They want to impose good governance and democracy, but they don’t practise good governance themselves to attain their objectives,” said Dr Mariam Maiga, head of a major coalition of civil society organisations.

Her view is not unusual, and is even shared by some within Minusma. It is rooted in accusations that Minusma is not active enough in confronting rebel groups, and does not do enough to support the government. There’s an element of truth to this: there’s no question that Minusma’s international backers are more worried about fighting terrorism than solving Mali’s domestic problems, and this can drive Minusma’s agenda. But it’s also true that Minusma does not exist to cheerlead for the Malian government, nor to fight the government’s battles for it.

Besides, it is hamstrung by logistics: despite its size of 10,000-plus peacekeepers, the force is dangerously overstretched, making more active participation difficult. Mali is huge, don’t forget (the Timbuktu region alone is more than twice the size of Senegal), and it can take weeks to get supplies into remote areas.

Another serious concern is that Minusma’s focus is simply too narrow. This is not just a Malian problem, but a regional problem. Borders in the north are pretty much non-existent, which allows a free flow of traffic from Mauritania, Algeria, Niger and Libya. Many of the groups fighting in the North have strong external links. This is especially true of the Tuaregs, who have close ties to Libya: many fighters shuttle between Libya and Mali, according to where they’re needed. It’s also true of the terrorist organisations, and the drug traffickers. If the bad guys can cross borders, but the UN can’t, how can peacekeepers contain them effectively?

All this makes it hard for Minusma to really make a difference. Positive change will have to come from somewhere else. This doesn’t mean the mission is irrelevant, however. It plays a crucial role in maintaining the status quo, and preventing things from getting out of hand. “We patrol, we advocate between the armed groups. Without Minusma, it would be the end of the end,” says one staffer.

A case in point: last week, CMA rebel forces came within four kilometres of Timbuktu city, flagrantly violating the peace deal which requires all armed groups to stay in position. Minusma called the rebel leaders and persuaded them to withdraw, almost certainly preventing an attack on the ancient city.

The criminal element

The most obvious culprit for the many years of economic deprivation and political instability in the north is geography. Unlike the fertile south, irrigated by the Niger River, the north is desert, and is just as hot and dry and barren as you would expect. Living here can be brutal.

Nonetheless, people do live here, and have done for hundreds of years. Locals know how to survive in the desert, and can read it like a map. Every sand dune is a landmark. (Even with GPS, it is much harder for soldiers unfamiliar with the terrain). This is important: this intimate knowledge of the terrain is the locals’ competitive advantage, both in conflict and commerce.

The key to survival is trade. Without much in the way of natural resources, the region’s inhabitants have long used their local knowledge to take goods and people from one side of the desert to the other. Historically, this has been things like gold and salt, and sometimes slaves. Now it’s drugs, and cheap goods smuggled in from southern Algeria’s tax-free zone. But mostly drugs.

There are three main routes through the desert. The first goes to southern Algeria; the second cuts through Algeria and ends up in Libya; and the third connects with Mauritania. These have all become key transit points for the global narcotics industry. Typically, drugs are flown from Colombia or other parts of South America into West Africa somewhere. From there, smuggling networks take the drugs overland all the way to North Africa, and from there it’s just a short boat ride across the Mediterranean to the lucrative European market.

The most challenging part of this route is crossing the Sahara, which is where northern Mali comes in. It’s the lure of four-wheel-drive vehicles that attracts young men to the smuggling business. Often, that’s the deal: if you take this drug-laden vehicle from here to there, and don’t get caught, then you can keep it. And with a four-wheel-drive car, in this part of the world, you’re a made man, able to trade on your own account (in a funny way, the drug trade is doing more to encourage small-scale entrepreneurship than any number of well-meaning social enterprise programmes).

Of course, this being drugs, it’s a lucrative business, and every armed group has a share of the trade. That’s how they pay their men and afford new equipment. There is no question that drug money is fuelling the conflict.

“The instability in Mali is criminal, not political,” says Ibrahim Iba N’Diaye, a professor at the Ecole Nationale Supérieure in Bamako. N’Diaye knows his stuff: he’s been conducting his own research into the conflict, and travelling throughout the country to do so. “I can do that safely because I’m from here, I know people. The way Malian culture works, if I arrive in a village, even if I don’t know anybody, they will have to look after me.”

The criminal element makes a political solution difficult. While most ordinary people in the north would welcome the return of schools and hospitals and other government services, they don’t want police or border controls or any other elements of the state apparatus that may interfere with their livelihoods. Without trade, there’s nothing; and the only trade going at the moment is illegal. Aside from all the historical factors, then, distrust of the state is an economic imperative.

How then do we address the instability? Minusma can’t do it. The government’s too weak to do it. The French are only interested insofar as they can prevent terrorism. So what’s left?

For N’Diaye, the solution lies in less external involvement rather than more. He says, with a touch of nostalgia, that to make progress, international players might be best served by giving Mali the time to sort out its own problems.

Mali has always been institutionally two countries, and I’m not talking about north and south. There are the elites and the rest. Most people don’t speak French and haven’t been to school. They don’t know democracy and this legal system. But they do know their own traditional systems, their chiefs, their own conflict resolution mechanisms. Everyone in the country knows this. It’s a unifying factor.”

According to Ibrahim, as instability in Mali increased, so did reliance on traditional methods – after all, in many places, the state with its newfangled ways of doing things doesn’t exist anymore. And these methods really work. He tells an extraordinary story, which I have been unable to verify, but is worth repeating nonetheless:

In 2012, when the rebels went into Gao, they started killing and raping young girls. How did the community stop this? At first I thought gendarmes interceded, but actually gendarmes only went in two days later. So what happened?

In Mali, traditionally, women have the right of veto. When a woman comes out on the street, puts her hands behind her head, and screams, all men must drop whatever they’re doing and rush to help her. If they don’t, she will untie her robe and expose herself. The shock of this should force the men to act. If a man doesn’t come, he’s not a man.

In Gao, one woman used this. She walked from her house to the high school where the girls were being kept. She had her hands behind her head and she was screaming. Men started to follow her. She had a whole train of followers. When she got to the high school, she saw her granddaughter through the window. She exposed herself. Everybody had followed this lady. The militias didn’t know what to do. They got scared. They realised that either we stop what we’re doing, or we kill all these people. So they stopped.”

In a place that Mali’s army had fled, and which would not see international peacekeepers for many months, old fashioned customs were revived – and, sometimes, they worked. There’s a compelling case to be made for the virtues of the traditional, as compared to the all too obvious vices of modernity. But even if this is true, it’s an argument rooted in nostalgia, and of dubious relevance in today’s world. Like it or not, modernity is here to stay, and Mali must find a way to deal with it.

For a conflict like Mali’s, there are no easy solutions. If there were, no one would be fighting any more. The peace deal is a start, but it hasn’t fixed anything – at best, it might serve as a foundation to moderate the very worst behaviour of the various armed groups involved. It must fail though, because for all its talk of democracy and accountability and seats in government, the text ignores what everyone’s really fighting about: drugs, money, power and tradition.

The big question is: what comes next? Optimism is in short supply. The drugs aren’t going anywhere, that’s for sure. Neither are the terrorists – northern Mali is exactly the kind of no man’s land in which they thrive, even with France stepping up its counter-terrorism effort. In the best case scenario, the separatist rebels may lay low for a while, but if history has taught us anything it is that they will rebel again. And the government, through its veiled sponsorship of unruly militias, risks losing what little control it did have, as well as its claim on the moral high ground.

Against this backdrop, the definition of success or failure must change. Failure is another all-out civil war, which can’t be ruled out but seems unlikely, given the large UN and French presence. Success in the short-term is treading water: mitigating the terrorist threat, containing but not eliminating the armed groups, keeping famine at bay, and leaving the volatile drug trade well alone. Anything more is a bonus.

Truthfully, no one knows what success in the long term looks like. But it’s worth observing that the normal formula hasn’t worked: top-down democracy, within Mali’s colonial borders, has been a recipe for disaster ever since its inception. Can the current government, even with the best will in the world, be trusted to succeed where all others have failed? Or is it time we started looking beyond sovereignty and pro forma elections when it comes to unravelling situations as messy and multidimensional as Mali’s? DM

Simon Allison’s research in Mali was supported by the Institute for Security Studies.

Photo: A man holds a sign during a pro-government rally in Bamako, Mali, May 26, 2015. The sign reads, “France + Minusma = MNLA”, accusing France and UN mission Minusma of being with the MNLA rebel group. REUTERS/Adama Diarra.


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