February 3, 2015
Mali: Transition from Conflict?
Figure 1. Mali Facts
With substantial international assistance, Mali began to
emerge in 2013 from a complex political and security crisis.
Despite some progress, the underlying causes of conflict
and poor governance have not been resolved, and security
conditions have deteriorated since mid-2014. These factors
pose policy dilemmas for the United States and others
seeking to foster regional stability and prevent a new
security vacuum and humanitarian crisis from emerging.
Congress authorizes and appropriates funding for U.S. aid
to Mali and for U.S. support to a U.N. peacekeeping
operation. Congress also oversees long-standing U.S.
efforts to address humanitarian needs, promote
development, and counter transnational terrorism in Mali
and across West Africa’s Sahel region.
Challenges include an ongoing, multi-faceted conflict in the
vast desert north of the country, widespread poverty, and
state corruption. Peace talks between the government and
northern separatist rebels began in 2014, but have yet to
deliver an agreement. In early 2015, the talks appeared to
falter. In the meantime, the separatists, Islamist extremist
groups, and government actors appear to be backing locallevel proxies in intercommunal conflicts, contributing to
ethnic tensions and battling over the spoils of endemic
illicit smuggling, including drug trafficking.
In 2013, donors pledged about $4 billion for post-conflict
assistance to Mali, about half of which had been disbursed
as of late 2014. Foreign troops are also deployed in Mali to
support the extension of state authority in the north and for
counterterrorism purposes. The U.N. Multidimensional
Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) is
authorized to have up to 12,640 uniformed personnel.
France, which conducted a military intervention in Mali in
2013, is drawing down from a peak of about 4,500 troops to
about 1,000, now considered part of a regional
counterterrorism mission, Operation Barkhane.
Members of Mali’s semi-nomadic minority ethnic Tuareg
community launched a separatist rebellion in the north in
2011, leveraging flows of fighters and arms from Libya.
Mid-ranking soldiers, reportedly angry at their
commanders’ mishandling of the war, overthrew Mali’s
elected government in a coup. By mid-2012, Al Qaeda in
the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), an Algerian-led regional
network that has had a presence in northern Mali for over a
decade, along with two loosely allied groups, had ousted or
absorbed most of the separatists and asserted control over
most of the north. These events displaced hundreds of
thousands of Malians and exacerbated a regional
humanitarian emergency caused by a severe drought.
In January 2013, France launched a military intervention
that ousted extremist groups from most northern towns.
Mali’s transitional government and the main separatist
groups signed a ceasefire agreement that called for the start
of peace talks as soon as an elected government was seated
in Bamako. MINUSMA was rolled out in July 2013,
absorbing an African Union military force. Veteran
politician Ibrahim Boubacar Kéïta (KAY-tah, often referred
to as IBK) was elected president later that year and his
supporters won a majority in parliament, putting an end to a
shaky transitional government that was widely perceived as
influenced by the former junta.
Security and governance challenges have severely
undermined already daunting development prospects in
Mali, one of the world’s poorest countries. Cotton and gold
are key export earners. Some 80% of the labor force is
engaged in agriculture. Droughts, poor infrastructure, high
population growth, and land degradation have contributed
to endemic food insecurity. Security threats and contested
political control in the north have reduced humanitarian
groups’ access to needy populations. About 143,000
Malians are refugees in neighboring states, with the largest
populations in Mauritania and Niger, and about 86,000
more were internally displaced as of late 2014. Many
refugees reportedly fear that they would not be safe
returning to their home regions.
Despite the 2013 ceasefire agreement, President Kéïta
delayed seeking a meaningful peace process for nearly a
year after being elected. For their part, northern rebel
commanders refused to confine their combatants to
barracks or to abandon claims of territorial administration.
Broadly, Kéïta faces challenges in meeting the expectations
of his southern constituents (e.g., improving living
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Mali: Transition from Conflict?
conditions, fighting corruption, and reasserting sovereignty)
while also responding to international pressures to
acknowledge and address northern grievances stemming
from perceived state neglect and persecution. Meanwhile, a
series of high-level corruption scandals have undermined
public and donor confidence in his administration.
In May 2014, clashes broke out between the military and
rebel forces when then-Prime Minister Moussa Mara
attempted to visit the far-northern town of Kidal, which
remains under rebel control. The rebels defeated
government troops, reportedly killing civilian officials as
well as soldiers. Although a ceasefire was ultimately
brokered, the military withdrew from much of the north
after the Kidal violence. Apparent internal military
dysfunction during the clashes revealed continued
shortcomings, in spite of European Union-supported efforts
to retrain the Malian armed forces. Efforts to re-extend the
government’s presence in the north were also set back. The
Kidal events arguably forced Bamako to the negotiating
table, and talks began in Algeria in July 2014.
President Kéïta reshuffled the cabinet in January 2015,
appointing as Prime Minister Modibo Kéïta (not a direct
relation), a senior advisor and former head of Bamako’s
peace negotiation team. Observers have portrayed the new
prime minister as more experienced and effective than his
predecessor, Mara, a populist youth leader. Whether he and
his cabinet can salvage the peace process and boost the
government’s reputation remains to be seen.
Stalled Peace Talks
Northern armed groups, both separatist and loyalist, are
represented in Algiers by two fractious alliances. The
“Coordination” includes the largest Tuareg-led separatist
group, the National Movement for the Liberation of
Azawad (MNLA), and the High Council for the Unity of
Azawad (HCUA), which broke from the AQIM-aligned
Tuareg-led group Ansar al Dine. The second alliance,
known as the “Platform,” is viewed as close to Bamako.
Ceasefire agreements laid out commitments to respect
Mali’s territorial integrity and secularism, but commitment
to these principles likely varies among participants. In late
2014, talks stalled over the government’s rejection of
federalism, which the Coordination has insisted on. In early
2015, the Coordination threatened to withdraw from the
talks after U.N. airstrikes on its positions. (MINUSMA
maintained that its troops had come under rebel fire.)
Peace talks are expected to deliver a consensus on thorny
issues such as the decentralization of political power;
security arrangements in the north; the potential integration
of rebel combatants into the security forces and state
administration; and justice and reconciliation issues.
Similar issues were nominally addressed in peace accords
in the 1990s and 2000s that broke down, making the path to
a sustainable agreement uncertain. The talks are also
unlikely to resolve local struggles that have fed conflict in
the north, related to disputed political legitimacy, shifting
social hierarchies, control of smuggling routes and
patronage, and access to scarce water and arable land.
U.N. Peacekeeping Challenges
The U.N. Security Council has mandated MINUSMA to
help stabilize the north and protect civilians, promote the
reestablishment of state authority, and assist with political
dialogue, among other tasks. In northern Mali, MINUSMA
faces severe logistical constraints and security threats, and
its troops have suffered high casualty rates in extremist
attacks. Leading troop contributors include impoverished
African states—such as Chad, Niger, Burkina Faso, and
Togo—as well as frequent U.N. peacekeeping contributors
such as Bangladesh, and several European countries,
notably The Netherlands. The operation has reached only
three-quarters of its authorized size, and many troop
contingents remain under-equipped by U.N. standards.
Strained Donor Relations
In December 2014, the International Monetary Fund (IMF)
resumed lending to Mali after the government agreed to
independently audit several controversial spending
decisions. In May 2014, the IMF had suspended its Mali
programs, stating that the purchase of a new presidential jet
and a set of defense procurement contracts had
demonstrated improper fiscal management and a lack of
budget transparency. The decision prompted other donors to
suspend their budget support as well. According to news
reports, the purchases were overvalued; spending was not
included in the official budget; and contracts involved
middle men reputed to be close to President Kéita.
U.S. Policy and Aid
U.S. officials have emphasized the need to improve
governance, foster reconciliation, and marginalize violent
extremist groups. U.S. aid aims to support peace and
reconciliation, development, and health programs in Mali.
The United States has also provided humanitarian
assistance; financial support for MINUSMA’s budget;
logistical support for French military operations; training
and equipment for African troops in MINUSMA; and
security assistance for neighboring states seeking to prevent
terrorist spillover. U.S. bilateral aid in FY2014 totaled $116
million, in addition to $319 million for MINUSMA’s
budget, emergency humanitarian aid, and other funds
budgeted on a regional or global basis. For FY2015, the
Administration requested $122 million for bilateral aid and
contributed an estimated $291 million to MINUSMA.
Prior to 2012, Mali received substantial U.S.
counterterrorism assistance under the State Department-led,
multi-country Trans-Sahara Counter-Terrorism Partnership
(TSCTP). Mali continues to receive TSCTP assistance,
notably for countering extremist ideology. In the near-term,
U.S. security assistance appears likely to focus on defense
sector reform rather than building counterterrorism
capacity. Mali is one of six African focus countries under
the Administration’s new Africa Security Governance
Initiative (SGI), but the program’s scope and the level of
funding for Mali remain to be seen.
Alexis Arieff, email@example.com, 7-2459
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