the crisis in Mali: a failure in conflict prevention?

by Campaign ~ April 26th, 2013. Filed under: News, Uncategorized.

By Tom Burridge, Research Assistant

As France and Mali prepare to engage in post-development talks following the French military intervention earlier this year, it seems appropriate to take a look back at the build up to the conflict between the Malian government and the multitude of different militias, Islamist, ethnic and mercenary groups that comprised their opposition.

To the international media, the conflict in Mali has come as a surprise in a state that has been held up as a beacon of democracy in a desert of dictators, despots and failed states . However the truth as in most cases has many more shades of grey than the media can or will delve into1. While superficially seeming to have a stable democratic system, President Touré who was deposed by military coup in early 2012, employed a system of patronage to limit opposition and conflict from Mali’s main political parties. This system ensured there was no public debate on issues of corruption and criminal activity which the country’s political elites have been fraught with allegations of (including the military)2.

Mali’s independent media has widely reported these allegations; among others drug trafficking and profiting from negotiating the release of hostages, without even dipping into the murky waters of aid embezzlement and informal payments by foreign companies that slip under the radar3. Indeed fostering and maintaining the insurgency led by the poster boy AQIM (Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb) while promoting itself as a bastion of democracy ensured that Mali’s elites could continue to obtain international aid and support, of which they could take their cut. This is exemplified by the Malian army, which despite having received significant funding has been woefully unequipped to deal with the challenges it faces4.

Emblematic of this is Mali’s slipping Transparency International ranked Corruption Perceptions Index from 78th of 182 countries in 2003 just after Touré’s first election in 2002 to 118th by 20115, and a World Bank study indicating that almost two-thirds of Malian businesses paid bribes to win government contracts6.This raises important questions for conflict prevention measures, notably the use by the Malian government of its Islamist insurgency to garner aid and the contested relationship between the state that receives aid in conflict prevention, and those who provide it. The need for aid and conflict prevention activities to have the consent and support of state governments and such institutions tendency to be corrupt provides aid and peacebuilding organisations with many operational challenges.The knock-on effect from the Malian government’s deliberate apathy towards solving its northern conflict was that groups such as the Tuareg (one ethnic group among many in northern Mali) have been further disenfranchised, giving the insurgency further recruits. Combined with the overthrow of the Qaddafi regime (who along with Algeria had played a significant role in constraining rebellion in northern Mali) which resulted in many well armed Libyan soldiers returning to an area which was already destabilized, with easy access to ammunition and money through drugs and people trafficking, conflict would always have been difficult to avoid7.
That this has also occurred across the border in Niger without noticeable conflict, which shares many of the same problems as Mali in its northern territories, is a damning indictment of Mali’s policies. Niger has taken a much more proactive attitude in preventing conflict, particularly with its Tuareg minority, pushing forward engagement with them while also rapidly responding to the Libya crisis, attempting to disarm returning fighters along its border with Libya, a highly challenging task considering the vast, difficult terrain of the Saharan desert where the state boundaries lie. This commitment to engagement is evident from the appointment of Brigi Rafini, an ethnic Tuareg as well as other Tuareg inclusion in government such as in the mining and transport sectors8. Along with corruption and poverty elevation measures set out by the President, Mahamadou Issoufou910, Niger is adopting a much more sound policy in conflict prevention, though as Mali itself shows, there should always be a degree of caution in promoting such state measures.The comparison between Niger and Mali as well as an analysis of Mali’s problems with corruption and democracy and its insurgency in the north shows that much could have been done to prevent the conflict that had been simmering on a small scale long before it erupted in 2012. In addition, peacebuilding and aid organisations need to be vigilant in promoting conflict prevention as well as monitoring corruption in their engagements with the states they are trying to help.

The current situation in Mali is still not stable, with France still having just under 4,000 troops in the country despite an African peacekeeping force being deployed this month. With UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon citing a weak Malian government and no sign of reconciliation between the north and south of Mali, “elections could provoke further instability or even violence”, Mali is unlikely to see a return to its former status as a democratic African success story any time soon11.

1 BBC News, 22 June 2012.
2 Africa Confidential (2009). ‘Mali: Drugs and Thugs’. 50(24): 4 December.
3 Nicholas de Walle (2012). ‘Foreign Aid in Dangerous Places: The Donors and Mali’s Democracy’, World Institute for Development Economic Research (UNU-WIDER) in its series Working Papers with number UNU-WIDER Research Paper WP2012/61
4 Roland Marchal (2012). ‘The coup in Mali: the result of a long-term crisis or spillover
from the Libyan civil war?’, Norwegian Peacebuilding Resource Centre.
5 Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index. (2011), (2003)
6 World Bank, Mali Enterprise Survey (2010), ID V202, Name j6,
7 BBC News, ‘Mali ‘Collateral Damage’ from Libya conflict, says Kofi Annan’ (18 January 2013).
8 Paloma Casaseca (2013). ‘Niger, January 2013: So Far so Good’, Barcelona Centre for International Affairs.
9 Natalie Prevhost (2012). ‘Analysis: Tuareg uprising in Niger threatens neighbour Mali’, Chicago Tribune
10 Yahia H. Zoubir (2012). ‘Qaddafi’s Spawn; What the Dictator’s Demise Unleashed in the Middle East’, Foreign Affairs.
11 BBC News, ‘UN Ban Ki-Moon: Mali needs 11,000 peacekeepers’ (27 March 2013).

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