Mali: Mali Muddles Along


January 31, 2024: The West African nation of Mali faces another bad year in 2024. That is saying something because this nation of 23 million is one of the most corrupt in the world and also one of the ten poorest in the world. Per capita GDP is about a thousand dollars and most of the population are subsistence farmers. About 70 percent of the population are farmers and their crops account for about 40 percent of GDP. Most of the exports are cotton and livestock. Then there is gold. Mali is one of the top 20 gold producers.

Politics is complicated by high levels of corruption, ethnic rivalries, and Islamic terrorism in the north. This kept Mali from achieving a lasting peace and much prosperity in the north. Since 2012, when a separatist rebellion in the north was defeated, there have been efforts to revive the fragile economy up there. In 2021 the situation got worse when there was another military coup. The Mali military has staged three government takeovers since 2012. The last one, in May 2021, was because of an internal dispute within the military. Since the May 2021 coup foreign donors have warned that most of the foreign aid would stop coming if Mali did not carry out a significant reduction in corruption, government ineffectiveness and overall instability. None of these three military takeovers were about corruption, but rather anger at the corrupt politicians stealing money meant to finance operations against Islamic terrorist and separatist minorities in the north. The colonels running the military government are unwilling to step down and are trying to make it on their own, despite the large number of UN peacekeepers and French troops dealing with the Islamic terrorist problem up north.

The May coup was led by the army colonel who had earlier been appointed deputy head of the CNT (National Transitional Council). The colonel replaced the civilian who originally held the job as CNT leader. After that the military-dominated CNT rapidly replaced many existing CNT officials with army officers or civilians known to be pro-military. When foreign donors, including France, criticized this, the army threatened to seek financial aid elsewhere. There was no elsewhere for the Mali coup leaders, at least not one they could afford. The Mali officers’ threats said a lot about their motives, which was mainly about maintaining their power and helping themselves to a portion of foreign aid. The coup leaders did have one source of wealth, the Mali gold mines. In late 2021 protestors tried to block access to one of the largest mines, but that effort only lasted a few days before the security forces cleared the roads. Since then, exports have been stable although not much of the income has been spent on improving infrastructure. A lot of the export income still disappears into the foreign bank accounts of government officials.

Mali has long had problems in the sparsely populated north, where most of the population is Tuareg or Arab. Most of the Mali population is black African and prefers to live south of the Niger River in the more populated and prosperous south. Animosity between dark skinned Africans and lighter skinned people from the north has been around as long as the two groups have been in contact. Arabs first moved south of the Sahara in large numbers over a thousand years ago and often came as conquerors and slavers. Although many of the black Africans encountered converted to Islam, the lighter skinned Arabs, including the non-Arab Tuareg and Berbers, considered themselves superior. This racist attitude has persisted, and the black Africans often reciprocated. This is one reason why the majority Tuareg of northern Mali constantly rebel. Not only is the Mali government corrupt but it is dominated by black Africans, which is what 90 percent of Malians are. Officially, Islam and most African governments deny that such ethnic tensions exist. This in itself is progress, but the animosities remain and often become quite deadly. The slaving also continues and sometimes gets into the news. This happened a lot in Sudan since the 1990s as the government encouraged Arabized tribes to raid non-Moslem black African tribes and take slaves. In northern Mali retreating al Qaeda men sometimes took newly enslaved blacks with them.

Meanwhile the CMA (Coordination of Azawad Movements) coalition in the north has agreed to put aside their disagreements and form a unified group. CMA had long been a pro-government Tuareg coalition that had 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 ethnic 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 years 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 that were formerly European colonies, dividing the post-colonial 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 a lack of support from the corrupt government down south and took control of the capital. The army is still in charge and not showing any signs of confirming the old peace deals with the CMA.

Several Islamic terror groups maintain bases in Mali, near the Niger border. The most prominent of these is ISGS (Islamic States in Greater Sahara). Islamic terrorists near the Niger border took advantage of the departure of French counterterrorism forces in 2021 by seizing and holding territory in Mali. This began 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, or unwilling, to carry on with that effort or prevent the Islamic terror groups from crossing the border and advancing into Mali. ISGS is one of the two ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) groups in the region. When they showed up in 2018, ISGS operated mainly in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger, especially the area where the three borders meet.

Since late 2022 ISGS have been working to take 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 ISGS. Appearing in 2015 as an affiliate of ISIL and part of ISWAP (Islamic State West Africa Province) that changed in 2021 when ISGS declared itself separate from ISWAP and declared northern Mali and some areas in Niger and Burkina Faso its future caliphate. The ISIL affiliated Islamic terrorists are far more violent than the more numerous al Qaeda. This also means casualties for the 12,000 UN peacekeepers. ISGS violence involves attacks on Islamic terror groups that refuse to take orders from ISIL.

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 current Mali military government has no clear plan for dealing with this situation and is withdrawing its counterterrorism forces south, to protect the capital and the more prosperous and populous south. Niger has suffered five military coups since independence in 1960. The recently deposed government was the first elected government in Niger to succeed an elected government. It’s a common pattern in Africa, where the generals believe they can run the government better than elected officials. This is generally untrue. The generals lack the local and international legitimacy of an elected government and tend to be less adept at government administration than the professional politicians.

In 2023 Mali’s military government had hoped that hiring Russian Wagner Group mercenaries would enable Mali to maintain control of northern and central Mali. These two regions have been under growing attack by Islamic terror groups, but the Russians made things worse rather than better. Mali’s military government is running out of people to blame for the mess they got themselves into. The problems began when the military government ordered the independent French Barkhane counterterrorism force out of Mali, and it was gone by the end of 2021. Since then, Mali forced the 15,000 UN peacekeepers to start withdrawing.

The government forced the French and G5 peacekeepers out by the end of 2021. In 2017 Mali, Chad, Niger, the Ivory Coast and Burkina Faso had agreed to form a new G5 counter-terrorism force that would work in cooperation with the similar but larger and better equipped French force that had been operating in the Sahel since 2014. The Sahel is the semi-desert area south of the Sahara Desert that covers much of northern Africa.

Back then the French concluded that the Sahel was still troubled by thousands of Islamic terrorists and that this situation could not be taken care of quickly. In order to maintain pressure on the Islamic terrorists, France established a special force of 3,000 troops to fight Islamic terrorists throughout the Sahel, particularly Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Chad, and Burkina Faso. This French force grew to some 4,000 troops equipped with 200 light armored vehicles, 20 transport and attack helicopters, six jet fighters and three large UAVs. There are also two twin engine C-160 air transports available for use within the Sahel. Supplies and reinforcements were regularly flown in using long-range transports (like the C-17) belonging to NATO allies (especially the U.S. and Britain). From the beginning the French force included a thousand French troops in Mali and the rest dispersed to other Sahel bases and ready to quickly move anywhere in the region that Islamic terrorist activity had been detected. The G5 nations already cooperated by sharing intelligence and providing quick access to their territory by the French force. In addition, the Americans provided satellite and UAV surveillance and other intel services (especially analysis and access to nearly all American data on Islamic terrorist activities in the region). Each of the G5 member countries contribute from 500 to 2,000 personnel and consist largely of special operations troops. Many of these troops have already worked with their French counterparts or been trained by French or American special operations advisors.

All this was meant to keep the Islamic terrorists in the Sahel weak and disorganized. That worked until 2023 when the current Mali military government ordered the French/G5 force out, but AQIM (Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb), which has been around since 2007, was still in business as gangsters smuggling drugs and illegal migrants north and getting support from Islamic terrorists in Europe and the Persian Gulf. Islamic terrorists continue to carry out attacks in Mali, mainly the north and in the G5 states to let the world know that Islamic terrorists were still present in the area.

The peacekeepers were eager to be gone from Mali. That was because of their high casualty rate. UN peacekeepers in Mali suffered 26 dead during 2016, the highest number of any UN peacekeeping operation and 90 percent of UN peacekeeper deaths in 2016, even though the Mali force comprises less than 15 percent of all UN peacekeepers. The Mali peacekeepers have been in this situation for three years in a row. Over a hundred peacekeepers (mostly UN, but some French) have died in Mali since they arrived in 2013. This is the highest casualty rate of all current UN peacekeeping operations.

Mali wanted to keep the 13,500 UN peacekeepers who maintain government control over the rebellious north. These peacekeepers are supplied by AU (African Union) nations and some of the African nations supplying these peacekeepers were withdrawing that support. A few percent of the peacekeeping force consists of troops from NATO nations that supply specialized services, especially transport helicopters and other services. People in areas where the peacekeepers are stationed warn that the security situation will deteriorate once the peacekeepers depart because the military government has not got the ability to maintain local security. That’s going to hurt the economy and cause more residents to flee the country. This is how corruption often ruins the local economy. Then again, elected officials were often corrupt. The pattern is that too many corrupt elected officials leads to rebellion or, more likely, a coup by the military, who tend to be no more effective than the people they replaced.

There was growing opposition among UN members for maintaining the expensive peacekeeper force, which is the most dangerous the UN has ever been 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 of the aid. It is difficult to steal any of the money spent on peacekeepers, but the government was apparently trying to do just that.

Once the UN voted to maintain the Mali peacekeeping force for another year, the military government began harassing the peacekeepers and threatening to expel all of them. The peacekeepers serve on contracts (with the UN) for varying periods, usually between two and six months. The withdrawal of the peacekeepers began on July 1st and was completed by the end of 2023.

After many delays, national elections are scheduled to be held in February 2024. The results may improve the situation in Mali, but that is not guaranteed.




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