Mali: The Good, The Bad And The Deadly


January 18, 2021: The five-month-old interim government has a new problem; the recent loss of Soumaila Cissé, the popular and long-time opposition politician favored to win the next presidential election in 2022. The 71-year-old Cissé died from covid19 in late December. Now the interim Mali government has to take a closer look at other possible winners of the 2022 election.

The August 2020 coup ejected a corrupt president but failed to establish a military government. Instead, the CNT (National Transitional Council), an interim (temporary) government was organized, at the insistence of local politicians and major foreign aid donors. The CNT has until March 2022 to organize new elections and disappear. The CNT is composed of 121 members generally agreed to represent the Mali population and institutions. The CNT elected a president and vice-president who are both army colonels who were not part of the coup. The CNT serves as a temporary legislative group to determine and approve measures required to maintain order and organize new the 2022 elections. Without Cissé it is unclear who is now most likely to win the 2022 presidential election.

The CNT was preceded by the populist J5M (June 5Movement) that carried out months of demonstrations in the capital and made the coup possible by forcing a corrupt president out. J5M criticized the composition of the 121 member CNT because of the 22 army officers on it, in addition to some shady civilians. Most of the CNT members are less suspect and do represent a wide spectrum of groups. Nevertheless, J5M declared a boycott against the CNT and refused to cooperate with it. J5M represents civilians who seek a less corrupt and more effective government and do not see a military dictatorship making a difference.

The main leader of J5M is Moslem cleric Mahmoud Dicko. He has been the de-facto spokesman for J5M and managed to maintain that position. Dicko is a popular senior imam (Moslem cleric) who studied Islam in Saudi Arabia and came to be chairman of Mali’s High Islamic Council. Despite (or because of) his education in Saudi religious schools, which stress the need for Islamic law, Dicko openly backs a secular government, but one run by honest (or a lot more honest than now) politicians and officials. Imams like Dicko are one reason Islamic terrorist beliefs have not spread to the majority of Malians, most (95 percent) of them Moslem. Many foreign students in Saudi religious schools note that for all its piety Saudi Arabia is very corrupt as are most other Arab oil states. There were some exceptions but without all that oil wealth many Arab governments would be undergoing the same political pain Mali is suffering.

Many Mali politicians and economic leaders don’t trust Dicko, feeling that he must be in touch with Islamic terror group leaders and actually willing to try a religious government. Dicko has never expressed support for that and more and more Malians are believing him rather than less popular and trusted politicians and other prominent Malians.

It’s not just J5M that demands a more effective government. Many nations threatened to impose sanctions after the August coup if the coup leaders did not organize elections and a new democratic government. That led to the interim government and CNT and subsequent decisions leading to elections.

The August 2020 coup was the second one since 2012 and the third since Mali became independent in 1960. The 2020 coup got the same hostile reaction from the neighbors, international organizations and Western supporters as did the 2012 one. The prompt installation of the temporary government, with 21 of 25 ministries led by civilians, is an attempt to get local and international sanctions lifted.

So far, the UN sanctions remain in place, at least until August 2021. Lifting some of the sanctions depends on progress the CNT makes. The interim government is acceptable as long as it is temporary. The sanctions have disrupted trade and been a bonanza for smugglers. Islamic terrorist groups control a lot of the smuggling so as long as the sanctions remain in force the Islamic terrorists make more money.

The March 2012 coup was triggered by the lack of financial and political support for troops stationed in the thinly populated north, which was being taken over by a Tuareg rebellion led by Islamic terrorist groups. Elections were held in 2013, after a French-led force advanced into the north in January and quickly defeated the Taureg rebels and their Islamic terrorist allies. Now it is 2021 and the Taureg tribes are still waiting for the government to deliver the economic aid promised when the Tauregs agreed to a peace deal. The Islamic terrorist groups are still up there and have spread to central Mali, partly to support their smuggling operations (drugs and people) that finance the terror groups. The corruption and mismanagement are still prominent and the target of growing popular anger. Despite all the peacekeepers and counterterror forces, there will be no peace until a competent and a lot less corrupt government is installed.

Since 2013 the Mali military has been rebuilt, a task carried out largely by French trainers and advisors. Currently the army has about 7,000 troops. Another 800 personnel serve in the air force and riverine navy. There are also nearly 5,000 paramilitary troops, including the 2,000-man Republican Guard stationed in the capital to protect government officials and facilities. Most of the paramilitary personnel act as national police and serve throughout the country. Overall, the rebuilt army is a more effective force than it was in 2012. Mali troops are still considered the least effective in the region. The 2020 army has a few units that are first-rate and these often operate with the French counterterrorism forces. These elite Mali troops account for less than ten percent of the army.

Meanwhile Life Goes On

Most of Mali is peaceful and keeping the economy growing, in spite of the corrupt politicians that hamper faster growth and more foreign investment. The peacekeepers are needed to deal with t he thinly populated northern two-thirds of the country, which has a population of less than three million. That is about 16 percent of the population and about five percent of the GDP. The north was very poor in the best of times, and several years of Islamic terrorist violence halted tourism, a major source of income, especially in the three major cities up there, and the movement of many goods. The north is something of a political mistake. The Tuareg majority in the far north are more Arab than African and the peace deal with them was stalled for over a year because the black majority in the south did not want to even consider granting as much autonomy as the Tuaregs demanded. The two groups have always been at odds but were only united in the same country by the colonial French during 70 years of occupation. Like most African countries, dividing the nation is not an acceptable option and the colonial borders are considered sacrosanct. The French colonial government was established in 1892 and it was far more popular in the south than the north. Since independence in 1960 nearly all Mali politicians and business leaders have been pro-French and often educated in French universities. That was less the case in the north.

Death Trap

Mali remains the most dangerous assignment for UN peacekeepers. Since 2013 the 13,000 Mali peacekeepers have suffered 231 combat deaths. That translates to about 200 dead per 100,000 troops per year (a standard measure of such things) for the peacekeepers in Mali. This is largely because most of the peacekeepers are stationed in northern Mali, where most of these deaths occur. There was lots of violence up there since (and before) the peacekeepers arrived in early 2013. The peacekeepers are mainly African and the death rate has fluctuated from year, going as low as 130 per 100,000 per year. 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.

While being a peacekeeper remains a dangerous job, it’s still less dangerous than places like Afghanistan, where in 2013 the rate was 200 per 100,000 for all foreign troops there. That was down from the peak 587 per 100,000 in 2010, which was about what it was during the peak years in Iraq (2004-7). The action in Mali is less intense than in pre-2014 Afghanistan or pre-2011 Iraq but is more than double the rate for peacekeepers worldwide. Total Mali peacekeeper casualties since mid-2013 are about 500 dead and wounded and losses but have been much heavier among the Islamic terrorists.

The 5,100 troops of French counterterrorism forces are separate from the Mali peacekeepers because the French force deals with Islamic terrorism throughout the region. Since 2013 the French forces has suffered 50 dead. That is largely because the French troops are an offensive force that does not do a lot of patrolling and concentrates on finding and destroying Islamic terrorists wherever they are active. There is less popular support in France for the French counterterror effort in and around Mali and the French are trying to get other nations to replace the French force or at least a portion of it.

January 15, 2021: In the north (near Kidal) a peacekeeper was killed by a roadside bomb and another peacekeeper was wounded. The peacekeepers were escorting a supply convoy, which has become a common practice in the north because Islamic terrorists have increasingly attacked road traffic or demanded bribes for safe passage.

January 13, 2021: In the north (near Timbuktu) four peacekeepers were killed by a roadside bomb and six were wounded. The peacekeepers were escorting a supply convoy

January 8, 2021: In the northeast (south of Gao) in the three-borders (Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso) area, six French soldiers were wounded by a suicide bomber. This area, where the three borders meet, has long been known for the presence of Islamic terrorist camps and bases.

January 3, 2021: In the north (east of Timbuktu) French forces made two attacks on Islamic terrorists, killing fifteen in one attack and two in another. At least four were captured by ground forces. Later there were reports that twenty civilians at a wedding in the area were killed by an armed helicopter. France pointed out that they had not used armed helicopters in the area that day, only UAVs and warplanes armed with guided missiles and bombs. Several days later French and local soldiers visited the scene of the alleged attack and could find no evidence of an air strike.

January 2, 2021: In the northwest (Menaka) two French soldiers were killed and one wounded when a roadside bomb hit their vehicle. JNIM (Al Qaeda) took credit for this attack. JNIM (Jamâ’ah Nusrah al Islâm wal Muslimîn, or Group for the support of Islam and Moslems) is the largest Islamic terror group in Mali. This is an al Qaeda coalition formed in early 2017 to consolidate the many separate Islamic terror groups in Mali. In part this was a reaction to the growing threat from ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant), which is hostile to everyone who is not ISIL and will attack or recruit from the JNIM members like AQIM, Ansar Dine, FLM and several other smaller groups. Another reason for the merger was to make it easier to pool resources, especially information and practical advice, and coordinate with other Islamic terror groups in the region. This reduces friction and destructive feuding. Making a coalition like this work is always difficult, especially considering the importance of ethnic differences.

December 28, 2020: In central Mali (Mopti) three French soldiers died when their armored vehicles hit an improvised mine.

December 27, 2020: Across the northern border in Algeria ( Jijel Province, 365 kilometers east of the capital) army investigators seized $100,000 that was part of $10 million ransom paid in Mali to get four hostages released. The money was held by known Islamic terrorist supporters. When Algerian officials found out about the large ransom, they warned that it would mean more terrorist activity in Algeria and that happened. Jijel province has long been the scene of Islamic terrorist activity.

December 25, 2020: Soumaila Cissé, one of the four captives (three of them foreigners) freed by Islamic terrorist kidnappers in early October 2020, died in Paris. He had contracted covid19. Cissé has long been the most prominent opposition politician in Mali and was campaigning in northern Mali in March 2020 when Islamic terrorists kidnapped him and demanded ransom. Cissé had been the runner-up in the last three presidential elections and was expected to win in 2022 when the post-coup democracy is restored via national elections.




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