Participants in an international conference in Brussels held in mid-May agreed to provide $4.2 billion in aid to help rebuild the beleaguered country of Mali, which is recovering from both a political coup and a traumatic civil war that ultimately led to a direct military intervention by France at the beginning of this year. Major contributors include France, Britain, the United States, Germany, and the European Union. That the amount pledged significantly exceeded the conference organizers’ initial goal of $2.6 billion is an indication of the international community's ongoing concerns about Mali’s internal state of affairs and its impact on security throughout northwest Africa – and perhaps beyond.
The past two years have been extremely tumultuous for the former French colony that not too long ago was seen as a model for democracy in the region. Three factors converged to bring about the crisis that prompted France to intervene. Foremost among them was growing disenchantment inside Mali with the country’s sclerotic political and military leadership. To outside observers, Mali appeared to be a healthy democracy, having experienced two peaceful transfers of power through national elections since 1991. Public dissatisfaction with government corruption grew over the intervening two decades, however. A once vibrant political opposition atrophied after President Amadou Toumani Touré took office in 2002. Widely viewed as a national hero for his role in establishing democratic rule in Mali eleven years earlier, Touré did not belong to any political party. As president, he co-opted potential opponents by sharing the fruits of power in what was referred to as a “consensus” approach to governing. In this way, opposition movements were neutralized. Over time, a single political class congealed in the capital of Bamako that was increasingly disconnected from the population it was supposed to serve. As a result, the Malian public’s enthusiasm for democracy, which had been relatively lukewarm to begin with, deteriorated considerably.
The second factor involved the influx of well-armed Tuareg militants into northern Mali following the 2011 overthrow of Muammar Qaddafi’s regime in Libya, a development which inflamed long standing grievances held by Mali’s own Tuareg minority against the national government. The semi-nomadic Tuaregs are spread across northern Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, Libya, and Algeria, and they constitute only about one tenth of Mali’s overall population. However, many residents of the north, Tuaregs and others, have long felt marginalized and neglected by the Malian government. Mali’s Tuaregs took up armed resistance in the early 1960s, again in the 1990s, and once more in 2006, but in each case the rebellion was ended after the government promised to grant more autonomy and resources to the north. None of these agreements resolved the underlying north-south tensions, however, and discontent among the northern Tuaregs festered. This resentment was aggravated in the fall of 2011 by the arrival of hardened Tuareg militants, who had been welcomed into Libya by the Qaddafi regime over the years, fled to Mali (mostly via Niger) after he was deposed, bringing large numbers of weapons with them. That October witnessed the establishment of the Mouvement National de Libération de l’Azawad (MNLA), an armed movement dedicated to the creation of an independent state in northern Mali. Its leaders have claimed to represent the aspirations of all of the people of the north, but it is by and large composed of Tuaregs.
The third factor was the emergence of Salafist groups in northern Mali, including Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). The Sufi Islam practiced by most Malians (and African Muslims generally) is antithetical to the religious extremism embraced by al-Qaeda, and for that reason Mali has generally been viewed as hostile terrain for terrorist groups. Over the last decade, however, more conservative strains of Islam have emerged in some areas of the country. Elements of AQIM began to appear in northern Mali in 2003, and its presence in the largely ungoverned region grew steadily. Previously known as the Groupe Salafiste pour la Prédication et le Combat, the group was an outgrowth of the Algerian civil war of the 1990s, but it floundered in the early years of the 21st century in the face of increasingly effective counterterrorism efforts by the Algerian government. In an effort to rebrand and reorient the movement, its leader, Abdelmalek Droukdel, pledged the group’s loyalty to al-Qaeda in 2006, changed its name, and extended its presence into many parts of northern and western Africa. Well financed by kidnapping ransoms and narcotics trafficking, AQIM’s strength in northern Mali grew in the years that followed.
In 2011, a splinter group known as the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (usually acronymed as MUJAO) also established itself in the region. AQIM and MUJAO were joined a few months later by a more indigenous Salafist movement, Ansar Dine, established by a senior Tuareg leader who was rejected by the MNLA’s leaders, somewhat ironically, for being too moderate. Unlike the secular MNLA, Ansar Dine has sought to impose strict Islamic law across the country while keeping Mali’s territorial integrity intact. While nominally distinct, there is, in practice, considerable overlap among the three Islamist groups in northern Mali.
These three trends combined in early 2012 to set in motion a series of cascading events that led to Mali’s current crisis. The MNLA launched an armed rebellion in January that was far more potent than any of the previous Tuareg revolts. It achieved a number of significant victories against government forces along the country’s eastern border over the following months. The rebellion’s military successes in the north, combined with the massacre of dozens Malian troops (probably by AQIM), fueled widespread anger toward the nation’s democratically elected government among civilians and, crucially, the rank and file of Mali’s 7,000-man army, who were ill-equipped and ill-prepared to put down the uprising. A mutiny by low ranking officers and enlisted men at the Kati military base on March 21 quickly turned into a coup that, led by army Captain Amadou Haya Sanogo, overthrew the nation’s civilian government in Bamako.
The government’s inability to restore order in the north was allegedly the reason why Sanogo and his supporters seized power, but their move backfired. Malian army units fighting in the north collapsed in disarray. Northern population centers including Kidal, Gao, and the famous city of Timbuktu all fell in rapid succession to the MNLA-led rebellion. Ansar Dine forces fell in alongside their fellow Tuaregs and together the two groups seized control of the country’s entire northern region, an area consisting of two-thirds of Mali’s total territory (roughly the size of Texas) but containing less than ten percent of its population. On April 6, the MNLA declared the independent state of Azawad.
After the independence declaration, the MNLA and Ansar Dine agreed to merge, but the marriage was short lived. In collaboration with AQIM and MUJAO, Ansar Dine was able to quickly sideline the MNLA through a combination of physical intimidation and superior financial resources. By July, the Salafist groups had taken effective control of northern Mali and imposed a harsh Islamist rule. Alcohol was banned, women required to cover themselves, and alleged transgressions were punished by public whippings and limb amputations. The Islamists also banned all artistic expression in what had been one of the most musically vibrant parts of Africa. In Timbuktu, a historic center of Sufi learning and culture, the militants destroyed ancient monuments and tombs for being un-Islamic. Historical analogies are often overwrought, but it was difficult to ignore the similarities with the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan in 1996.
-- Richard Purcell
[click here to read Part II]