Addressing Conflict in Mali: Political, Humanitarian, and Security Problems

By Ra’phael Davis


Since Mali’s independence in 1960, Mali has had four significant rebellions. These rebellions have left Mali in perpetual political, humanitarian, and social conflict. The most recent conflict occurred in 2012 and continues today as the international community works to combat the many issues hindering Mali from achieving sustainable peace. The fact that foreign intervention is needed and that there have been numerous uprisings raises four critical questions. The first question asks why intrastate conflict has persisted in Mali. The second question asks what the challenges to building a durable peace in Mali are? The third question asks what has been done to address the problems in Mali and how effective have they been? The final question asks to what extent have recent efforts to resolve the crisis changed the platform for peacebuilding in Mali? This research is an attempt to answer each of these questions.

First, I will present an overview of the history of conflict in Mali and how it connects to causal factors of the most recent continuation of conflict. Second, I will expound on the most significant challenges to peacebuilding in Mali, which are creating a legitimate government and gaining control of the security crisis. Then, I will explain and evaluate the success of policies that have been designed to address these issues. Finally, I will reflect on the prospect of sustainable peace for Mali and explain why durable peace is unlikely in Mali.

Causes of Conflict: Political, Economic, and Security Problems

            The causes of the 2012 re-emergence of violence in Mali are manifold.  The first cause of conflict is the continuous political corruption of Malian government officials. The second involves the growing influence of rebel groups which implies the lack of a stable central authority adequate to counteract insurgency in both the northern and southern regions of the nation. Finally, the third cause relates to the worsening economic conditions that are partially state-engineered but also connected with an ongoing humanitarian crisis in the region.

Corruption in Mali

            The continuous corruption of Malian government officials exacerbates hostilities between rebel groups and other citizens and the government. Political fraud can be found by examining the legitimacy of the form of government and whether that government practices laws. Mali transitioned to democracy in the 1990s, but this transition proved to be a façade. After ten years under President Amadou Toumani Touré, the democracy failed (Chauzal and van Damme 2015). One reason for this failure is that the democratic processes were not legitimate. An interview included in the documentary “Return to Bamako” voiced that although it was said that democratic elections were held in Mali, the elections were often influential people with money bribing the citizens to vote for them (Return to Bamako 2017). Essentially, it became that the rich and powerful gained political influence over Mali, rather than purely democratic elections being held.

            Additionally, the government has failed to give equal political representation to all Malians in these elections. Electoral zoning laws were passed that discriminated against many groups Tuareg and Arabs. Representation of less densely populated areas was increased, which drastically eliminated the Arabs in the north from having any political influence, but also favored some Tuareg groups over others. Tuareg communities that immediately supported the post-colonial Malian regime and were particularly violent against the aims of French colonization were rewarded through these electoral zoning laws (Chauzal and Van Damme 2015). The electoral zoning laws are an example of corruption by political leaders as well as the intentional political exclusion of some groups of Tuareg and Arabs in the north.

Rebel Activity in Mali

The rise of militant anti-state groups has also played an essential role in creating a security crisis. Since independence in 1960, Mali has experienced four rebellions that have been instrumental in continuing conflict in the nation. The first Tuareg rebellion occurred in 1963 voicing discontent with political representation. Rather than consider the demands of those in the north, the government ignored them and chose to intimidate them via military force (Chauzal and van Damme 2015).

            The second Tuareg rebellion occurred from 1990 to 1996 (Chauzal and van Damme 2015). At the start of the conflict in 1990, the Tuareg developed an entirely recognizable and unified political movement through the creation of a liberation group called, at that time, the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Azawad or MPLA. MPLA was formed officially after an attack in Menaka, a town in northern Mali, where weapons and vehicles were stolen from the Malian armed forces. At the time of the attack, the rebels were not a recognized militant group; the acquisition of weapons and vehicles from the state’s military led to their legitimization. In response to the rebellion, the Malian government deployed two-thirds of its military forces to limit and eliminate the rebellion’s influence. Many of the victims of the clash between the military and the uprising were civilians; the incident impelled many people to join the forces of what would later become the MPLA (Lecocq and Klute 2013).

Ten years after the second Tuareg rebellion, violence re-emerged in Mali. The Tuareg movement was no longer unified as is evident by the existence of several militant groups on the side of the resistance by 2006. Despite the disunity, we may understand this movement to be the Third Tuareg Rebellion. These groups include the Popular Liberation Front of Azawad (FPLA), the Revolutionary Liberation Army of Azawad (ARLA), the Arab-Islamic Front of Azawad (FIAA), and the Popular Movement of Azawad (MPA). Still, more groups formed in rebellion to the state. By May of 2006, the internal divisions between the MPA and ARLA led to the creation of the Democratic Alliance for Change (ADC), which then waged an attack on another rebel group known as the GSPC or Algerian Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (Lecocq and Klute 2013).  Additionally, Mali must face terrorist groups such as “Ansar Dine, Al-Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Al Mourabitoun, the Macina Liberation Front, and the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa” (Bere 2017).

The growing number of insurgent groups is directly relatable to the immediate cause of the beginning of the intrastate conflict in 2012. The National Movement of Azawad formed in October of 2010 as a political movement that would demand autonomy in Mali through politics. After the demands of the movement were ignored, more people joined the MNA and formed MNLA or the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad. Rather than requesting political autonomy and equity the way MNA had, MNLA declared that its purpose was to make Azawad an independent state. (Lecocq and Klute 2013). In January of 2012, the MNLA launched an attack in Menaka on a state military brigade (Chauzal and van Damme 2015). If the Malian government were a strong central authority, it would have been better able to counteract insurgency at its beginning or at least dismantle some of the rebellion.

Not only is the growing number of anti-state groups a problem for the nation, but one of the motivating factors behind the formation of these groups: the Malian government’s role in engineering and augmenting an economic crisis that was heavily concentrated in the north. The rebellions expressed frustration with “the disproportionate development of southern versus northern Mali and the failure of the National Pact of 1992”, (Lecocq and Klute 2013). The problem of disproportionate development highlights the economic crisis as a cause of political strife as well as what I will later show to be a peacebuilding challenge.

Economic Conditions in Mali

Finally, the Malian government has exacerbated the economic conditions in the country due to the lack of investment in the domestic economy. Most of the northern population in the country are Tuareg and Arabs, and their contribution to the economy is driven by livestock and agriculture as well as tourism, which makes up approximately 43 percent of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Because tourism has significantly decreased, the income from these areas has declined, leaving more than 8,000 people without a job by the end of 2011(Chauzal and van Damme 2015). The Malian government is not investing in home-grown agricultural products, which has upset many Tuareg because they struggle to provide for their families. One man complained of being fed food from other nations when there is food on the farms in Mali, but they cannot sell it because of the government (Return to Bamako 2017).

            It is also true that the south is primarily dependent on gold export and cotton (Chauzal and van Damme 2015). The Malian government then, by not investing in agricultural production in Mali, effectively stifles the economy of the north, which is primarily Tuareg and Arab. Furthermore, the prohibition of tourism by the Malian government also helped engineer an economic crisis in the north (Chauzal and van 2015). Consequently, the financial situation in Mali angers many Tuareg and Arabs and further encourages them to join the any one of the growing number of anti-state militant groups. Such mobilization is a danger to the Malian government because it causes a decrease in loyalty to the state and makes the northerners more susceptible to receiving help from countries like Libya and Algeria (Chauzal and van Damme 2015).

Major Challenges to Peacebuilding

            According to John Carson, the Assistant Secretary for African Affairs in the U.S. Department of State, peacebuilding in Mali has been met with four initial obstacles, including the need to restore democracy, successfully handling rebellion groups, countering extranational terrorism in the north, and mitigating the humanitarian crisis that is directly connected to the engineered economic crisis in Mali (Assessing Developments in Mali 2012). In this section, I will focus on international military intervention has addressed these problems through Operation Serval and Barkhane, in accordance with UN resolution 2085 (Tramond and Seigneur 2014).

            The humanitarian crisis has been a significant challenge to peacebuilding in Mali. While it is true that the former Malian government created some of the crisis, it is also environmental. The 1970s and 1980s brought with them a severe drought that made growing crops difficult and created a food crisis. As a region whose economy is heavily dependent on livestock and agriculture, conditions were worse for northerners in Mali (Chauzal and van Damme 2015). This crisis motivated people in the north to migrate to other nations where economic and living conditions might be better, but many soon returned because they were forced out due to worsening conditions in those other countries (Hagberg and Körling 2012). Moreover, reports from the UN in 2011 say that there were nearly 200, 000 displaced people in Mali— not including the more than 200,000 that have fled Mali to countries like Burkina Faso, Mauritania, and Niger. Still worse, at least 4.6 million people in Mali experienced severe food insecurity, which prompted the humanitarian organization to help mitigate worsening existential conditions (Assessing Developments in Mali 2012). By 2013 both the number of displaced people internally and externally had risen substantially from about 410,000 to 475,000 (Moseley 2013).

            Furthermore, the presence of terrorist groups and rebel groups in Mali prompted the nation to ask the United Nations for help stabilizing politics and security in the country. The attack of the MNLA in 2012 per the international consensus to intervene in Mali, the African Union and the United Nations launched a military intervention in Mali in response to the humanitarian crisis and security crisis the nation is facing. Support was garnered based on maintaining a basis for Mali’s territorial sovereignty, defending human rights, reinforcing political stability, dismantling and eradicating terrorism, and successfully transitioning to a transparent and credible democratic administration (Bere 2017). Two military operations have been launched by France and the African Union, which can be called Operations Serval and Barkhane. Operation Barkhane is a combination of Operations Serval and the African-led military intervention based in Chad (Bere 2017).

The operation in Serval lasted for seven months and involved over 4,500 soldiers being deployed. The purpose of this mission was to:

“Assist the Malian Armed Forces (FAM) to stop the advance of terrorist groups and repel them while ensuring the safety of civilian populations”, “assist Mali to recover its territorial integrity and sovereignty,” and “facilitate the implementation of international decisions by enabling the rapid deployment of two complementary international missions” (French Defense Ministry 2013).

Operation Serval was a vital mission because, as stated by Tramond and Seigneur, it succeeded in recapturing the northern towns that were most vital to Malian political power and governance. Furthermore, the power regimes of terrorist groups deteriorated due to losses in battle (Tramond and Seigneur 2014).

Following the international military intervention, Mali was able to hold elections in both 2013 and 2014. While some might classify the “handover to Malian authorities” a success (Tramond and Seigneur 2014), Bere is skeptical that the intervention should be classified as a success. While he does acknowledge that there have been positive changes in Mali because of those interventions, he points to the many factors concerning human rights, the security sector, and the humanitarian crisis that still exist. Terrorist attacks are ongoing; many Malians are still displaced, lack of resources provided by humanitarian agencies and discontent with the lack of fundamental social services remain (Bere 2017).

To answer the question of whether policies have been successful, it is imperative that we consider the problems that remain in Mali today and the implications of categorizing strategies as a success at this stage in conflict resolution. If assessed only at the level of what the French Defense Ministry issued in a statement as their goals for the military intervention, it becomes clear that with the problems Bere points to as ongoing, the second goal of helping Mali regain territorial integrity and sovereignty has not entirely been met. While major cities in the north have been reclaimed by the Malian government, other cities are still experiencing humanitarian crises and violence (Bere 2017). For Mali’s government to be sovereign, it needs to have a monopoly on the terrorist attacks and violations of human rights that are still taking place.

The success of the international military intervention in addressing issues in Mali and fostering peace can also be examined according to the four most common peacebuilding standards: the security standard, the social standard, the political standard, and the economic recovery standard. The security standard measures success in peacebuilding by whether violence at the level of full armed conflict has recurred in a state; it examines the chances that a country with a history of intrastate strife will experience it again (Call 2008). This standard prioritizes keeping internal order and preventing civil conflict from happening again. With Mali’s long and frequent history of violence, it is likely that at its current stage Mali could return to full armed conflict.

Another standard called the social standard examines peacebuilding success by whether or not a nation has dealt with the causes of the conflict. This standard takes on two forms. The first form of this theory suggests that disputes should be confronted according to the underlying causes of the conflict. The other, however, approaches conflict with a list of general risk factors to see what is present. Some risk factors are lack of sustainable development, high levels of poverty, rampant inequality, corrupt governance and lack of democratic governance and human rights violations (Call 2008).  Examining the situation in Mali from either method of analysis makes it clear that Mali is not a success story. If we take the political corruption and security crisis to be causes of the conflict, it becomes clear that Mali has not sufficiently addressed the roots of its conflict. The security problem continues to threaten the stability of the government (Human Rights Watch 2017). The question of political corruption also remains a problem as will soon be evident by an official report from the State Department.

The political standard presents another way of measuring peacebuilding success. This perspective prioritizes the character and condition the state’s legitimacy. This framework maintains that civil conflict is a result of the failed authority of the country and demands that we assess whether the state is democratic or participatory. It also urges to examine whether the state can fulfill its essential functions (Call 2008). Mali also fails according to this standard of peace assessment. In 2017 the U.S. Department of State reported that the judiciary was not independent of internal Malian politics, corruption of officials continues to be dismissed, and some $124,000,000 have been embezzled by the Malian Ministry of Health (US Export Statistics 2017). The partiality of the judiciary and embezzlement by state officials is evidence that the character of the state itself is illegitimate and exposes the corruption of governance still taking place in Mali.

The economic recovery standard does not suggest that peace is present when significant economic recovery is present, but rather that poor economic conditions are associated with intrastate conflict emergence and recurrence. Inversely, the economic recovery of a nation is associated with fostering durable peace (Call 2008). Per the World Bank, Mali’s economic recovery is moderately satisfactory which is evident by the number of people benefiting from the improvement of infrastructure and other economic initiatives in Mali (World Bank Group).

Finally, if we categorize the intervention in Mali as a success, it implies that there is sustainable peace and creates the illusion that the country is further in creating that peace than they are. Such an illusion can have the effect of decreasing the attention of the international community in helping ensure that Mali does not revert to conflict as it has in the past.


            As noted above, the current state of peace in Mali is fragile. An economic and humanitarian crisis, insecurity, and political corruption have historically been and continue to be challenges to forming accountable and credible governance in Mali. While the aggressive intervention of the international community has helped address each of the problems, the nation still has a long way to go. Unfortunately, assessing peace according to political, economic, social, and security standards simultaneously helps us understand that Mali should not be classified as a success at this stage. Recent political corruption, which has been one of the leading motivators of violence since 1963 continues to be a challenge for the Malian state. The interim government must not leave it to the international community to solve all of its problems; instead, it should work vigorously to ensure a more transparent, accountable, and credible administration. The current condition of Mali, while grave, does indicate that there is hope for the nation. Sustainable peace is likely to become a reality if international actors continue to work with the country on some level; working with Mali can come in the form of donating money to help combat food insecurity until Mali can sustain itself or further military intervention to improve the nation’s control over violence.

Ra’phael Davis is a junior at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock where he studies Philosophy and International Studies.


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