Eight years ago, Mali descended into a vicious and protracted civil war that devastated its people and displaced hundreds of thousands. Heavily-armed Tuareg rebels and Islamist groups seized control of nearly two-thirds of the country. It took another half a year before the Malian government – with the help of the French – managed to finally drive back the insurgency.
The origins of the unrest went to the heart of governance in Mali. 90% of Mali’s population is concentrated in the south around Bamako, Mali’s capital and seat of government. The remaining 10% live in the north where the violence was most intense.
The Tuareg people, who predominantly inhabited the north, felt marginalised by the central government. Alongside their exclusion from decision-making and pervasive corruption, the Tuaregs also faced desertification of their land due to climate change. These grievances went unaddressed due to a lack of appropriate channels to air them. This, combined with opportunistic jihadist leaders willing to join forces with the Tuareg and a heavy flow of weapons from Gaddafi’s Libya, caused the explosion of violence.
The 2015 Agreement on Peace and Reconciliation in Mali, concluded in Algiers, sought to redress these wrongs. It took an ambitious, whole-of-society approach, institutionalising inclusion of the Tuaregs through the empowerment of local government in the north. The agreement was underpinned by sincere aspirations for social cohesion between all ethnic groups, sustainable development and reconciliation.
Yet, as some at the time noted, the outlook of the agreement was still too short-term and focussed on disarming and demobilising militants. To tackle the root causes of the violence, the Malian government needed to create meaningful channels for peaceful dialogue and the resolution of local ethnic conflicts. Further, the agreement was not signed by any leaders from the central regions, where intercommunal tensions were already escalating by 2015. This would prove to be a crucial omission.
Fast forward to present-day Mali: violence in the north and especially in the centre has risen fivefold since 2016. There have been frequent suicide bombings and an alarming surge in ethnic intercommunal violence. According to the UN, in 2018 over 300 civilians lost their lives and more than 10,000 people in the Mopti region had to flee their homes.
The fighting is primarily taking place between the largely Muslim Fulani ethnic group and the Dogon and Bambara peoples. The latter groups have formed ‘self-defence’ militias and have carried out massacres against the Fulani, accusing them of collaborating with Islamist extremists. The Fulani, believing that the Malian state will not ensure their protection against such attacks have in turn looked to jihadist organisations to ensure their security. This has provoked more violence from the Dogon militias and the cycle has spiralled.
Meanwhile the Malian state has been largely unable to put a stop to the bloodshed. “Justice has not done anything for now. The perpetrators carry on killing people,” the youth delegate of Mali’s biggest Fulani association recently argued, “We don’t trust Mali’s justice system.” Jihadi groups, seeing an opportunity, have exploited Fulani grievances to swell their ranks, promising good governance, crackdowns on corruption and protection from attacks.
The most worrying feature of the conflict is that there is no shared understanding between the communities on what is causing the violence in central Mali, let alone agreement on how to address the grievances on each side. Peacebuilding efforts at the local level are therefore imperative. Far-reaching state-sponsored dialogue among all communities in central Mali is imperative if the bloodshed is to be stopped.
Yet there are unsettling parallels between the conflict in 2012 and today, particularly in the approach of the government to countering the violence. The capital maintains a high-handed and complacent attitude. In an alarming dismissal of Fulani concerns, the ruling party legislature circulated an open letter in May 2019 stating “Mali is left to the whims of a minority of its population that instead of serving their homeland, rather undermine its social cohesion and foundations”.
Increasingly elites are portraying the 2015 Agreement as a threat to Mali’s territorial sovereignty and an undue reward to minority communities in northern regions. Playing to their base in the south, the government has been reluctant to invest in long-term peacebuilding and good-governance efforts in war-torn provinces such as Mopti, Gao and Kidal.
What can Europe do?
There is a valuable opportunity for Europe to play a meaningful role as a peacebuilder in Mali, but time is running out. Existing efforts by Europe to stabilise the region are overwhelmingly focussed on traditional security goals and approach peace in a top-down state-centric manner. The G5 Sahel Joint Force is one such example, where emphasis is placed on counter terrorism training and securing borders against trafficking. The EU’s vast PARSEC programme, worth €29 mn is another notable case.
Such initiatives do not sufficiently target the governance issues which had sparked the violence in the first place. Bottom-up peacebuilding efforts have largely come from NGOs such as the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, focussed on fostering trust between communities, for instance between clerics and imams of ethnic groups with different understandings of Islamic law. But these efforts are not enough on their own. Without Bamako’s interest in institutionalising processes of dialogue at the local level to address inter-ethnic concerns, it will be impossible to build a durable peace and minimise the chance of violence recurring.
It is for this reason that Europe and the international community must overcome their reluctance to push for change on the domestic political level in Mali. If the EU, currently pouring money and expertise into Mali, is to achieve its goals of stabilising the country in the long-term, Europe must start to pressure Bamako to listen to the requests of the Fulani, to do more to ensure their security against ‘self-defence’ militias and to establish meaningful channels for inter-communal dialogue.
Colonialism in Mali left a weak state, a lack of inclusive institutions and a legacy of systematic corruption; these problems lie at the heart of the violence in the country today. Europe should push for the inclusion of all ethnic groups in Mali’s governance and a fresh start to achieve the long-term peace and stability Mali’s communities so greatly deserve.