Mali: Les dieux sont tombés sur la tête

As the death toll from political unrest rises in Mali, what's behind the conflict and how is it likely to end?

Bamako. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Last weekend, Bamako saw major protests. The death toll remains unclear. Official sources reported 11 killed while protesters mentioned 23 killed and 124 injured. The triggers for the protests were the disputed legislative elections and the severe insecurity in the country. Protesters demand the resignation of President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita (popularly known as IBK), who is perceived as ineffective in dealing with the country’s major challenges. As the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) is mediating the crisis, it is important to remember the origins of the conflict.

IBK, the decay of a myth

All started well. IBK was elected in 2013 with more than 77% of the vote. Elected with record turnout in a country where participation is generally low, IBK quickly became unpopular. A December 2019 opinion poll of residents of Bamako put his favorability rating at just 26.5%. Indeed, the “Mande Massa” has been incapable of dealing with the country’s main challenges. Criticisms include being overly beholden to France, ineffective and authoritarian.

During his tenure, the security condition has worsened. IBK’s campaign slogan, “Mali First,” quickly turned into “My Family First” as the president surrounded himself with family members for a clan management of power, setting up a system of widespread corruption. At the center of the system, his son Karim Keita was elected as a member of the National Assembly and Chairman of the National Defense, Security and Civil Protection Committee (he resigned from the Committee in the wake of the recent protests). The Military Guidance and Programming Act (LOPM) voted to maintain and improve the performance and equipment of the Malian Armed Forces (FAMAs) with an investment of 1.23 trillion francs CFA—1.91 billion euros over the period 2015-2019. These funds were allegedly largely diverted to the benefit of the presidential clan. The IBK era was thus marked by an extractive management of power, as in the darkest times of post-colonial Africa, such as the time of Mobutu and Bokassa.

Despite the LOPM, the reform of the security apparatus did not yield satisfactory results. FAMAS continued to record huge losses and humiliations on the ground in successive and increasingly deadly attacks. In 2019, several attacks were reported against the military camps of Indelimane (50 dead), Boulkessi and Mondoro (38 dead), and Dioura (23 dead). Soldiers killed were most often young men in the prime of their lives, sent on the field without adequate equipment or even complete military training.

Civilians are bearing the brunt

The state was unable to defeat jihadists exacerbating intercommunal violence. In central Mali, the Katiba Macina Jihadist insurgency lead by Amadou Koufa and other armed groups are capturing vast rural areas and expelling state officials. These movements have won large support in local communities by capitalizing on socio-economic and political grievances. The state’s weakness, abuses, and atrocities committed by security forces—combined with endemic poverty and food insecurity now worsened by the impact of COVID-19—are putting pressure on people all over the country. In rural areas, people have enlisted into armed groups creating self-defense militias to protect themselves. According to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), in total, 580 people were killed in the first half of 2019 in Central Mali. Several villages were attacked in 2019: Ogoussagou 1 (160 dead); Ogoussagou 2 (35 dead); Sobane-Da (35 dead including 22 children under 12 years); Gangafari and Yoro (at least 41 dead); and recently Bankass (30 dead and many missing). The modus operandi of these attacks always seems to be the same: armed groups surprise sleeping villages, burn everything, kill people, and take away livestock.

On the social front, the IBK regime has engaged in a conflict with various trade unions, teachers, doctors, and magistrates resulting in a long paralysis of basic social services in the country: education, health, and the judiciary. As a result, children were deprived of education for many months. Mali’s fragile progress towards sustainable development is now seriously compromised.

Mali has become a Wild West where the majority of the national territory is beyond the control of the state. In the extreme north of the country, Kidal is almost a de facto autonomous enclave. In the central region, AQIM affiliated groups, Jama’a Nusrat ul-Islam wa al-Muslimin, and the Islamic State of the Greater Sahara are fighting for control of these areas and trafficking routes, while civil administrators and other central state officials desert because of insecurity, leaving civilians with no protection or basic services.

The presence of international forces, notably the French operation Barkhane (5,000 troops) and the UN Stabilization mission (MINUSMA, around 12,000 armed troops) has attracted international terrorist groups. Their impact on the ground in terms of security gains is insufficient for Malians, who continue to suffer huge losses while Paris regularly claims “tactical gains.” France’s role is ambiguous in the conflict. Many demonstrations regularly call for the departure of French troops. The UN forces, as usual, are totally useless with an inadequate mandate to manage a conflict as is the case in Mali.

What are the options for a de-escalation?

There are three main options to consider.

First, a collective effort of three bodies (M5-RFP) is leading the protests, helmed by imam Mohamed Dicko. They are calling for the president’s resignation. Such an option is not unconstitutional as some international observers claim. Certain provisions of Article 36 of the constitution of Mali provide for the vacancy of power by the President. However, this option entails several issues. It brings together a religious leader, political party leaders, civil society, and a former army general. Imam Dicko has opposed social changes in the past, including reform of the code of persons and families. The rising of political Islam is worrisome and threatens the secularism of the state and the separation between power and religion and gender equality.  However, it seems that most people are in favor of a political Islam due to widespread dissatisfaction toward political leaders.

Second, the presence of foreign forces makes a military coup unlikely. However, if the protests that have turned into urban guerrilla struggle continue, the already fragile country risks collapse, or the conflict could turn into a civil war. The takeover of parts of the country by armed groups is not excluded as was the case in 2012. If IBK accepts an honorary role, as proposed by the M5-RFP, which is unlikely, there would be a transition led by a prime minister. Elections would be held as scheduled in 2023.

The last option, which seems more likely, is that IBK will cling to power by proposing façade reforms to save time. This would lead to a dangerous escalation and radicalization of dissent.

Mali is a resilient nation. Let us hope Malians long tradition of dialogue and multicultural understanding will prevail in the end.

Further Reading