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 (almost entirely composed of black Africans from the south) and the Tuareg (a lighter skinned group related to Arabs and ancient Egyptians) goes back a long time. 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. Islamic radicalism didn’t work.
Until 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.
Most of the 12,000 UN peacekeepers are up 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 is still corrupt and inefficient and continues to be run by southerners who still do not trust the tribes up north.
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 won’t resolve itself unless the government keeps its side of the peace deal. MNLA is obviously ready to work with Ansar Dine again if the central government keeps stalling on meeting its obligations.
The Tuareg never trusted the national government and the current situation 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 tie down the peacekeepers and make it more difficult for the French led counter-terror operations.
The Mali government wants the UN to allow peacekeepers to be more forceful with uncooperative groups (especially Tuareg) up north. The UN is reluctant to do that. While it worked in places like Congo, it would likely backfire in northern Mali. In addition to the peacekeepers there are also a thousand French special operations troops there who are not part of the peacekeeping force and concentrate on finding and destroying Islamic terrorists. This French force is part of Task Force Barkhane, which has 0ver 3,000 French troops and operates throughout the Sahel (the semi-desert area just below the Sahara extending from the east coast of Africa all the way to the Atlantic). Task Force Barkhane can send more troops to Mali, but rarely does because it has so much to do in the rest of the Sahel (the semi-desert area between the Sahara and non-desert south). There are also several thousand Mali Army troops up north where they are regarded (by the largely Tuareg locals) as a hostile occupying force. That attitude goes back a long way and the 2015 peace deal was to have addressed that mistrust. It hasn’t and no UN member is eager to get involved in that kind of mess.
Since 2018 the UN has been threatening sanctions against individuals and groups in Mali if the government and local leaders in northern Mali don’t implement the 2015 peace treaty that ended the war in the north, but has not yet brought peace. To placate the UN and major donors the government has agreed to work things out with the Tuaregs. But promises like that have been made before and always broken. The federal government continues to tolerate corrupt practices which includes stealing a lot of the aid money meant for the north and sending officials up there who demand bribes to get anything done. The UN also insists that presidential elections be held on schedule and would prefer that the incumbent kept it legal and not become another president-for-life. The president is also under pressure from the UN to a December 2017 order for police to shut down any unauthorized protests. That meant all protests against government corruption and mismanagement were to be attacked and that has created more popular anger, especially from the suppliers of all that foreign aid.
The local militias up north, especially the Tuareg ones, continued to sometimes operate like bandits. When called out on that, the Tuaregs point out that they don’t have much choice when dealing with government officials from the south. A final peace deal with the rebellious Tuareg in the north was signed in early 2015 and was being observed, sort of. The reality is that the Tuareg separatist coalition CMA (Coordination of Azawad Movements), and the pro-government Tuareg coalition have not resolved all their clan and family disputes. Azawad is the Tuareg term for their homeland in northern Mali (and several other North African nations). The 2015 peace deal ended the Tuareg support for Islamic terrorism, but not the tribal animosities. These local, and often ancient, disagreements and feuds are often not connected with the 2012 rebellion in the north nor the continuing Islamic terrorism problems, but they do cause security problems that interfere with rebuilding the economy and much else.
The Tuareg peace deal 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 in the 19th century. Like most African countries, dividing the nation is not an acceptable option and the colonial borders are considered sacrosanct. The current mess began when France took swift action in January 2013 by leading a military operation to clear Islamic terrorists out of northern Mali. Aided by Chad and a growing number of other African peacekeeping contingents, this effort continues and is somewhat open ended. The French acted because in 2012 Tuareg tribal rebels (with the help of al Qaeda affiliated Islamic terrorists) in northern Mali chased out government forces and declared a separate Tuareg state. The Mali army mutinied (because of lack of support from the corrupt government) down south and took control of the capital. The army soon backed off when neighboring nations threatened to intervene.
By 2020 France, the UN, foreign aid donors and neighboring countries were fed by with Malian efforts to reform itself and run its own affairs effectively. The Mali military government would not or could not deal with all the problems it had created and responded by blaming France, the UN, foreign aid donors and neighboring countries for causing all the problems in Mali. The government solution is to try and incorporate 26,000 former rebels into the armed forces, which have a full-time strength of 20,000. Less than half belong to the army with the rest belonging to various paramilitary and police units.
That brings us to the current situation, which isn’t hopeless, but seems to be. The Malians can still take control of the situation and work it all out. That solution is not as popular as blaming everyone else. Mali now threatens to come apart, with the Tuareg dominated north becoming independent and various tribal coalitions in Central Mali, especially the Fulani, doing what they please despite efforts by the central government to compel obedience. Neighboring countries now accept that Mali is a source of Islamic terrorism and organize to defend themselves from that threat. The Mali military government promises to hold elections by 2026, if only to avoid being cut off from all foreign aid, including that coming from other African countries.
Mali continues to deny accusations that its security forces and Russian Wagner Group mercenaries are responsible for atrocities committed against Mali civilians. France released a video taken from a French UAV showing Wagner Group men collecting and burying civilians the Russians and Mali security forces had killed. Mali describes the Wagner Group men as military trainers. The Wagner Group men are armed and often accompany Mali forces on operations.
September 6, 2022: In the north (outside Gao) the German peacekeeping detachment resumed operations after suspending their work for most of August because of a dispute with the military government over flight clearances. The military government tolerates the UN peacekeepers in the north because the Mali security forces have never been able to control the unruly north. Now the government is sending some of its Russian Wagner Group mercenaries to the north. Earlier in the year a French UAV had captured video of Wagner Group men burying bodies to conceal an attack that killed civilians rather than Islamic terrorists. Currently Germany and Russia are at war with each other in Ukraine and the UN does not want to deal with any of that in Mali.
September 4, 2022:
In the northeast (Gao) a UN peacekeeper was wounded when the convoy he was guarding was attacked with a roadside bomb and gunfire.
September 3, 2022: The leader of the new (Since January) military government in neighboring Burkina Faso visited Mali to discuss cooperation in dealing with the Islamic terrorism that threatens both countries. Earlier this year Mali withdrew its forces from the G5 Sahel counterterrorism force. Burkina Faso has been a major beneficiary of G5 efforts, as has Mali. The Burkina Faso leader sought to convince his Mali counterpart of this and get the Mali forces participating once mire.
The G5 operation was seen as a better peacekeeping solution because it consists of the best troops from five Sahel nations (Mali, Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad) and is capable of dealing with Islamic terrorism throughout the Sahel, which is the semi-desert belt below the Sahara Desert that extends across most of Africa. The problem is that the least effective G5 contingent comes from Mali, which has long had a reputation for the least effective military in the area,
G5 began operations in early 2018 after three years of planning and preparation. In late 2016 the countries involved agreed on the details of G5. This included who would provide what in terms of the 5,000 soldiers and police needed and where they would be based. The G5 force was to be stationed in three operational areas along with troops familiar with local conditions. Sahel East consists of troops from Chad and Niger. Sahel Central is staffed by troops from Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso while Sahel West mainly uses troops from Mali and Mauritania. The G5 force has been most active in the three borders area (where borders of Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso meet) and found itself spending more and more time in this terrorist hotspot.
September 2, 2022: The government released three female members of a 49 member Ivorian peacekeeping unit that has been imprisoned since July 10th. Diplomats from Togo had been negotiating with Mali to get all 49 soldiers released. The UN insists the Ivorians were supporting the peacekeeping effort in Mali. This all began on July 10th when the government ordered the arrest of 49 Ivorian soldiers who had arrived at the airport outside the capital as part of the current UN peacekeeper rotation. The government accused the Ivorian peacekeepers of being mercenaries sent to overthrow the military government. The Mali government was using a technicality to detain the Ivorians, who were there to provide security for German peacekeepers in the capital, not join the Ivory Coast Army peacekeeper detachment in the north. When the spokesman for the UN peacekeeping force made comments on Twitter about Mali being notified about the arrival of the Ivorians, that spokesman was expelled. Mali also accused Ivory Coast of calling for sanctions against the Mali military government.
August 15, 2022: France withdrew the last of its troops from Mali. The French forces had been in Mali for nine years, mainly to fight Islamic terrorists who were seeking to overthrow the Mali government. Mali initially welcomed the French forces, which fought Islamic terrorists and rebels in the north that had defeated Mali forces and threatened to move south and overthrow the government. Mali was unable to elect a stable government or maintain a stable military government. Pressure from Malians, the UN and France on the Mali military to allow fair elections and abide by the result failed. Over the last few years, the Mali military government has gone total outlaw pressured the French and UN peacekeepers to leave. The Mali military sought to replace all those peacekeepers with a smaller (about a thousand) Russian Wager Group miliary contractors. The Mali security forces amount to about 10,000 soldiers and police. These and the Russian mercenaries have not been able to handle the growing number of Islamic terrorists and tribal rebels. The military government blames France and neighboring countries for the growth in Islamic terrorist activity in Mali. In mid-2021 France told Mali that French forces would begin withdrawing and all would be gone by mid-August.