Mali: A Golden Devolution


December 2, 2022: Mali is slipping back to its corrupt and chaotic past. That condition led to a 2011 rebellion in the north which in turn led to a military coup in Mali and the military intervention of France to keep the north part of Mali. Without the French intervention in 2012, Mali would have lost its northern territories to a coalition of Islamic terror groups and their Tuareg allies.

What divides Mali more than anything else is ethnicity and geography. The dry (desert and semi-desert) north contains more than half of the territory but only about 12 percent of Mali's 20 million people. In the southern third of Mali, where 88 percent of the population lives, the population is quite different from the northerners. While most Malians are Moslem there are some sharp ethnic and tribal differences. The Tuareg are the majority in the north and are North African while over 80 percent of Malians are various black African tribes. Most Malians live south of the Niger River (the “Nile of West Africa'') in areas that are more prosperous because they have more water. The hostility between the army, which is almost entirely composed of black Africans from the south, and the Tuareg goes back over a thousand years. Before 2012 the rebellious Tuareg around Timbuktu tried something different and adopted Islamic terrorism as a promising tool to help their fight for autonomy or a separate Tuareg state. That has often failed in the past because the Tuareg have been unable to unite. Islamic radicalism has not solved that problem either.

This changed when the French arrived in the 19th century and over the next 68 years created (for administrative purposes) a united "Mali". The black Africans in the south (along the Niger River) prospered and generally ignored the Tuareg in the desert north. But after the French left in 1960, and Mali became independent, the more populous south was forced to deal with the Tuareg dominated north they now “owned” and were not willing to give up. This has not worked out well for either side.

Since 2013 most of the 12,000 UN peacekeepers have been in the north, dealing with problems the Mali government has caused and failed to remedy. The government has not come through with the autonomy and economic aid it agreed (back in 2014) to provide if the Tuareg separatist rebels made peace. The government was still corrupt and inefficient and continues to be run by southerners who still do not trust the tribes up north, and vice versa.

The most dangerous rebel group in the north is the Tuareg MNLA (French for “Liberation Army of Azawad”), which signed a peace deal in June 2015. The government made a lot of promises to MNLA, mainly to keep the MNLA from reuniting with its former ally Ansar Dine, which long worked with AQIM (Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb). Ansar Dine is, like the MNLA, largely Tuareg. France points out that MNLA and Ansar Dine leaders still communicate with each other, mainly because they are all Tuareg and have tribal connections. MNLA and Ansar Dine relations with AQIM are less friendly and most MNLA members see AQIM as unwelcome outsiders. This unstable situation up north will not resolve itself unless the government keeps its side of the peace deal. MNLA was obviously ready to work with Ansar Dine again if the central government kept stalling on meeting its obligations. That is what the current military government is doing,

The Tuareg never trusted the national government and continued lack of cooperation from the government does not help. Azawad is the Tuareg term for their homeland in northern Mali (and several other North African nations). Ansar Dine refuses to make peace and continues to fund its terrorist operations with drug smuggling profits. MNLA gave up drug smuggling and cooperation with Islamic terrorists when it signed the 2015 peace deal. The continued smuggling explains Ansar Dine involvement with the new Islamic terror group FLM (Macina Liberation Front) down south. AQIM is still something of an umbrella organization for Islamic terrorists in the region and survives in the north largely because the government has not complied with the peace deal. Most Tuareg do not belong to MNLA or Ansar Dine and are mainly concerned with taking care of their family and clan. The clans often have militias and if economic conditions don’t improve up there a lot of those militiamen will use their weapons to get what they need (or simply want).

There are still a lot of unresolved disagreements between the many pro-government and former rebel tribes and clans up there. These feuds are proving more difficult to solve because of the government’s refusal to deliver aid and autonomy. This is causing enough anarchy to give the Islamic terrorists opportunities to move around and carry out attacks and keep their drug smuggling enterprise running. The local squabbles kept peacekeepers busy though this chaos was contained by French led counter-terror operations. Then the Mali government forced the French led counter-terror force out in 2022 and Mali is once more losing control of the semi-desert north. The current government sought a solution by using its gold revenue to hire Russian mercenaries. The Russians were unable to tame the north.

Mali currently produces over 50 tons of gold a year. It is the third largest gold producer in Africa. Not included is the small but growing quantity of gold extracted illegally by individuals and small groups. The usual growing poverty in Mali has caused more men to join this effort.

Russia has long maintained a large gold stockpile for emergencies and it now has such an emergency in Ukraine. In Mali Russia accepts gold for its weapons and Wagner Group contractors. This cozy relationship with Russia threatens to end most foreign aid, including some of the 13,000 AU (African Union) peacekeepers that have policed the north since 2013. This is where most of the Islamic terrorist and tribal or ethnic conflict has always been found. Since 2018 a lot of the violence has moved south to central Mali and the three-border area where the Mali army and tribal militias take most of the casualties.

Being a peacekeeper can be a dangerous job, especially in Mali where peacekeeper casualties since mid-2013 were over 500 dead and wounded. Mali is the most dangerous peacekeeping operation the UN operates. Losses were much heavier among the Islamic terrorists. Part of this was due to the efforts of the separate French Barkhane counterterrorism force which is now gone from Mali. The 5,100 French counterterrorism troops were always separate from the UN Mali peacekeepers because the French force deals with Islamic terrorism throughout the region and has a license to kill. UN peacekeepers mainly defend and are rarely given permission to search and destroy. Since 2018 popular support for Barkhane in France declined and that led to efforts to get other nations to replace the French force completely or partially. Because of all this, the official end of Barkhane was not surprising. Neighboring nations that contributed peacekeepers as part of the G5 coalition to deal with Islamic terrorists in Mali have also left, even though those operations were paid for by European nations. It was not a matter of if, but when. Western nations have long contributed small contingents who operate transport helicopters and surveillance UAVs. Sometimes they send small teams of special operations troops.

The growing Russian presence is what threatens the continued presence of the peacekeepers. This is because the UN presence also enables investigations of alleged atrocities committed by Mali soldiers or police. This has been a problem for decades and led to the 2011 rebellion in the north, then the military coup, and finally military intervention by France to keep the north part of Mali. The military government can now block some of those investigations because Russia will use its UN veto to block certain investigations.

There is growing opposition among UN members for maintaining the expensive Mali peacekeeper force, which is the most dangerous the UN is currently involved with. The Mali peacekeeping operation costs about half a billion dollars a month and that is about the only foreign aid Mali gets now that the military government is in control. Most foreign aid was halted because the government was stealing so much. It is difficult to steal any of the money spent on peacekeepers but the government seems to be trying to do just that. The UN votes every June on whether or not to keep the peacekeepers in Mali for another year. After the UN voted to keep peacekeepers in Mali until 2023, the military government began harassing the peacekeepers and pressuring the peacekeepers to take orders from the government.

The peacekeepers serve on contracts (with the UN) for varying periods usually between two and six months. This year UN members threatened to withdraw peacekeepers because Mali is paying for about a thousand Russian mercenaries (Wagner Group military contractors) as well as buying weapons from Russia, which is banned from selling weapons to foreign nations.

November 28, 2022: The government suspended the issuance of mining permits. Currently Mali produces, mainly for export, gold, iron ore, uranium, lithium and limestone. Earlier in the month the government formed a state-owned mining company to search for more natural resources and develop mining operations. At the time the government said it would still encourage foreign firms to do the same.

November 25, 2022: In the northeast (south of Gao) IGSS (Islamic States in Greater Sahara) Islamic terrorists near the Niger border have taken advantage of the departure of French counterterrorism forces earlier this year by seizing and holding territory in Mali. This began six months ago with more attacks on the Niger border. The departing French and G5 counter-terrorism forces had kept the Islamic terrorists out of Mali. The Mali army and a small number of Russian (Wagner Group) military contractors have been unable to carry on with that effort or prevent the Islamic terror groups from crossing the border and advancing into Mali. During the last two months IGSS launched a number of attacks and appeared intent on taking control of the border between Mali and Niger. Mali responded with soldiers and a handful of Wagner Group mercenaries but that was unsuccessful. After that Mali did nothing about the situation as its security forces and the UN peacekeepers were needed elsewhere. The Niger government was also unable to respond and sought to negotiate a deal with IGSS.

IGSS has existed since 2015 as an affiliate of ISIL and part of ISWAP (Islamic State West Africa Province). In 2021 IGSS declared itself separate from ISWAP and declared northern Mali and some areas in Niger and Burkina Faso its future caliphate.

The tri-border (Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso) area has been a terrorist hotspot since 2018 because Islamic terror groups can just cross the border to escape any effective counterterrorism efforts. For that reason, this area has been called the Menaka Region. Previously this area was just part of the larger Gao Region, centered on one of the few cities in the north. The area being fought over is near where the borders of Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso meet. Menaka has become ungovernable because so many Islamic terrorists and bandits now operate here. The French counterterrorism forces regularly searched for and attacked specific Islamic terrorist targets. The Mali government underestimated how important the French forces, with their airmobile troops, UAV surveillance and ground attack aircraft were in keeping the Islamic terrorists from establishing themselves inside Mali. The Mali government has no clear plan for dealing with this situation.

Over a thousand Mali civilians have died since March and thousands more have fled towards refugee camps in Menaka City and Gao. The refugee camps are guarded by some UN peacekeepers but Mali does not really have sufficient troops or foreign (Wagner Group) forces to keep the Islamic terrorists from taking those two cities and the refugee camps and over 30,000 civilians taking shelter there.

November 24, 2022: Lithuania is withdrawing its peacekeeping contingent. The Germans already announced they would do so by early 2024. Canada says it will keep its small peacekeeper contingent in Mali.

November 22, 2022: The government banned all French NGOs, including those providing medical or other aid directly to needy civilians. This ban resulted from the Mali military government fearing that French criticism of government mismanagement could lead to sanctions on individual Mali officers for their role in the military government. At the same time Britain has withdrawn its forces from the Mali peacekeeping force for similar reasons, believing the military government was causing many of the problems leading to more unrest in the country. This includes more attacks on the peacekeepers. British troops provided vital intelligence services that kept track of Islamic terrorists and tribal rebels that openly at war against the government and anyone who got in their way.

November 20, 2022: In the capital, a German priest went missing and was believed kidnapped for ransom. The priest had served in Mali since the 1990s. Kidnapping foreigners for ransom has grown in frequency in the last decade. Most of the kidnappings took place outside the capital.




Help Keep Us From Drying Up

We need your help! Our subscription base has slowly been dwindling.

Each month we count on your contributions. You can support us in the following ways:

  1. Make sure you spread the word about us. Two ways to do that are to like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.
  2. Subscribe to our daily newsletter. We’ll send the news to your email box, and you don’t have to come to the site unless you want to read columns or see photos.
  3. You can contribute to the health of StrategyPage.
Subscribe   Contribute   Close