Most people that know Mali I think would agree with me when I say that Malians are warm, friendly people, who are rarely caught without a smile on their face. In my experience, Malians constantly look to the future with hope and are optimistic about what’s to come, even in the face of instability and conflict. Since Ramen IR last published an article about Mali in April 2015, quite a few things have changed, including a peace agreement signed in June. For those who don’t follow Mali closely, it is perhaps difficult to keep up with the many events taking place and keep track of developments in this part of the world.
Mali came to the world’s attention again on November 20, 2015 when two gunmen attacked the Radisson Blu hotel in Bamako, popular among expats and businesspeople, taking more than 170 people hostage and killing 20. Al-Mourabitoun and Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) later claimed joint responsibility for the attack. This was the second time that Bamako was directly hit in 2015, with the roots of the violence stemming from the center and northern parts of the country, where different groups of armed bandits and jihadists compete for control. The 2012 conflict in northern Mali (find a brief history here) helped constitute a safe haven for different criminal and terrorist networks by creating a vacuum of power and general instability in that part of the country. With French military involvement in 2013 came the end of jihadist occupation and later the establishment of a UN stabilization mission, MINUSMA, which was able to provide security for large parts of the north, where government presence is still weak. However, this has not meant peace for ordinary Malians.
The government of Mali and Tuareg rebels who once claimed independence for the northern territory they call Azawad, signed a peace agreement in June of 2015, which put an end to hostilities between government-backed forces and different rebel factions. The agreement calls for a transfer of thirty percent of government revenues to the region of northern Mali to speed up development, the recognition of northern Mali as a cultural space, and enhanced decision-making power for individual regions. In addition, the agreement also calls for better representation of northern ethnic groups in all bodies of government as well as the re-integration of former rebel fighters into the Malian armed and security forces. Implementation of the peace agreement is underway with support from MINUSMA, despite having been delayed due to various ceasefire violations.
Mali is faced with a double challenge. The government has to restore relations with rebel groups and regain the trust of various populations in the north all the while fighting different terrorist networks still present in its territory. The peace agreement signed in June did not end the Malian crisis, but it opened a new and challenging reconciliatory process, which has taken place against a backdrop of increasingly frequent terrorist attacks against civilians (Malian and expats alike), the armed forces, and UN peacekeepers. There is a growing sense of impatience as the implementation of the peace agreement is being delayed, particularly in some key areas such as cantonment of former rebels and investment in infrastructure in the north. The Malian government has, however, taken other steps forward: it set up a Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission and Malian armed and security forces have organized joint patrols with former rebels in northern Mali, as a precursor to their integration into the Malian armed forces.
Continued instability, whether caused by rebel or terrorist organizations, continues to impact the daily lives of Malians. Some villagers have taken matters into their own hands and have begun helping government forces find bandits; in Kidal, the north-most region of Mali, former rebels now run police operations against new violent actors. These instances point to a growing sense of trust, at least among local populations in the north.
Reconciliation at a grassroots level will be very difficult to achieve and will take a long time after the 2012 conflict, but different ethnic groups are finding ways to coexist and do business together: the central market in Gao, a northern city, is bustling with business again. Intercommunal dialogue and reconciliation is underway as IDPs and refugees timidly return. Many northern populations realize that the only way forward will be to build peace in their own communities; dialogue and collaboration among different groups is the best defense against hostile actors. Once trust is restored, as shown in the example of Kidal’s former rebel groups, communities can share information more easily, initiate dialogue and shield themselves from radicalization.
Despite timid steps forward toward reconciliation, Malians are growing tired of this sense of uncertainty. The signing of the peace deal in June sparked a sense of optimism for many, particularly in northern Mali, who believed their lives would improve. The continued instability, mostly caused by continued criminal and terrorist activity, is threatening the livelihoods of millions, affecting access to food, water and education among other necessities. Around 3.1 million people in Mali are considered food insecure, the majority of whom live in the north, where forced displacement and collapsed markets, as well as fast environmental degradation, have progressively worsened the situation.
Another major issue is the limited humanitarian access to deliver food aid, a direct consequence of continued hostilities, particularly in the regions of Kidal, Gao and Timbuktu. Frequent attacks on humanitarian convoys increasingly impede access to more remote areas. The government and international partners such as the World Food programme (WFP), the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), have only been able to reach about half of the 450,000 targeted people in need of agriculture and livestock support.
Access to markets is also heavily affected by insecurity. Local politician Bajan Ag Hamatou, from Menaka, Gao region, recently stated: “Trucks going by road from Gao and Ansongo are stopped by armed men, who steal vehicles, rob drivers and passengers and sometimes even kill the drivers.” He went on to say that hundreds of tons of food, including food aid, were stolen between January and July of 2015.
The lack of education in northern Mali is another major issue that the northern populations are facing. More than 380,000 children aged 7 to 15 are still out of school almost 4 years after the conflict erupted, as 1 in 6 schools, more than 300 in total, in conflict-hit areas, remains closed after being damaged, destroyed, or occupied by armed groups. In addition to the lack of facilities, many parents fear violence and the explosion of mines, and don’t send their children to school. There is also a severe shortage of teaching staff, as more than 600 teachers have fled the north, and are still reluctant to return. Despite these shortcomings, many tutors are volunteering their time to educate children in northern areas, and UNICEF is providing training and learning materials for teachers and school kits for up to 100,000 pupils, holding school lessons via radio stations, and rebuilding schools.
In some cases, the lack of education or means for families to support themselves leads to the recruitment of children and young people by armed groups. Ramsey Ben-Achour, child protection specialist with UNICEF, recently stated: “Children join armed groups for many reasons, including by being lured by false promises of education, to earn an income for their families or because they believe they will be able to protect their families and village from other armed actors.” This is a serious issue that could potentially further destabilize reconciliation efforts and peace in Mali.
The government of Mali and its international partners must create the conditions necessary to allow Malians to look after themselves. This should be the primary strategy. If authorities turn a blind eye to the lack of economic opportunities and education in the north, they do a great disservice to the Malian people while committing a grave strategic error. Remaining focused on repressive anti-terrorism strategies without pushing for better opportunities for Malians, particularly in the north, can cause further radicalization and cause major setbacks to the peace process.
Giorgia Nicatore previously worked in Bamako, Mali where she managed a program of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) prevention and social and economic reintegration for survivors of sexual violence from the 2012 conflict. She holds a MA in Conflict Resolution from Georgetown University and a BA in War Studies from King’s College London. Her Twitter is @