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Wrong paths to peace: the re-emergence of armed violence in northern Mali

On 26 November 2012, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) is expected to submit to the United Nations Security Council a detailed plan for a military intervention to help the Malian Government to regain control of the country’s troubled northern regions. The international community—in particular Mali’s neighbours and European countries fearing a spillover of extremist violence—is eager to see the radical Islamists now controlling the region driven out. However, this extreme response is arguably only needed because too much priority has been given to security, at the expense of development efforts to the political, economical and social complexity of the situation in northern Mali.


A history of instability and broken promises

Violence has broken out many times in northern Mali over the years, both before and since the country’s independence from France in 1960. The most recent developments—intensified clashes between the Malian Army and northern Tuareg rebel movements in January 2012; a military coup two months later; rebels taking control of much of the north shortly afterwards; and extremist Islamic factions then seizing rebel-held areas—need to be understood in terms of long-term political failings that have subjected the north to what has been called a form of ‘economic asphyxia’. 

A peace agreement, the Accords d’Alger, was signed between the Malian Government and Tuareg rebels on 4 July 2006, after negotiations aided by the Algerian Government. It included promises of social, cultural and economic development in the north, particularly the Kidal region, which was identified as ‘flagrantly’ lacking infrastructure. 

The 2006 agreement’s overwhelming focus on Kidal caused dissatisfaction among the populations of the other two northern regions, Gao and Timbuktu. Further, many things have changed in northern Mali since 2007, making aspects of the agreement obsolete. Another Tuareg uprising affected northern Mali and neighbouring Niger between 2007 and 2009, and Algeria’s relations with Tuareg movements in its territory have also been tense. Some key figures in the Malian rebellion have become more radical, including Iyad Ag Ghali, a key figure in Tuareg politics who participated in several peace negotiations but announced the establishment of the jihadist group Ansar Dine in December 2011. 

Underdeveloped and undergoverned 

The Accords d’Alger made reference to similar unfulfilled promises of development and political participation in a 1992 peace agreement, the National Pact, with northern rebels. This reflects the enduring problems that have fuelled unrest and undermined attempts to create stability and security in northern Mali for decades.

Despite the existence of large deposits of oil, uranium, gold and phosphates, poverty rates in northern Mali remain among the highest in the world. Gross domestic product growth in 2011 fell to a level similar to that in 2004, and the share of the population below the poverty line in rural areas of Mali, including the north, was almost the same in 2010 as in 2006.

The northern regions have become increasingly marginalized from Malian social, political and economic life.  The population, having limited possibilities for regular employment, has become increasingly vulnerable as a culture of impunity and criminality has taken root. Moreover, the region lacks infrastructure, including telecommunications and roads, that could link it to the wealthier south. 

Today, there is a tangible lack of governance in northern Mali. Malian governments, democratically elected or not, have so far proved inefficient in exercising authority and institutionalizing regional and local administrations outside the larger cities of northern Mali. This vacuum has allowed a wide range of armed actors to operate in the area. There are allegations that some Malian authorities have profited from, and even participate in, organized criminal activity in the north. 

Socio-economic development, especially the suppression of organized criminal activity and the creation of economically viable alternatives, requires a strong and legitimate Malian state that can reinforce efforts to reconnect northern Mali with existing state institutions. Furthermore, development and the restoration of the rule of law would in turn remove much of the discontent that has led some of the population in northern Mali to rebel in the past. 


Limitations of a security-based approach to development

The implementation of the 2006 agreement to date has been characterized by a focus on security, ignoring the enduring and complex problems of the region. On the development side, little of the agreed activity seems to have taken place. Furthermore, little detailed information is available on how Malian and foreign development money is spent. 

According to its public statements, the European Union (EU), a major provider of development aid to Mali in recent years (at least until the March 2012 coup) has since 2007 pursued an integrated approach based on the premise that security and development are mutually supporting. The EU gave Mali €50 million in 2011 under a programme entitled Strategy for Security and Development in the Sahel, and also provided almost a quarter of the funding for the first phase of the Programme spécial pour la paix, la sécurité et le développement au Nord-Mali (Special programme for peace, security and development in northern Mali, PSPSDN), in 2010–11. 

International donors conceived the PSPSDN as a way of reviving the Accords d’Alger. Despite its name, local people have reported that road and school construction projects have been suspended, while the military aspects have gone ahead. Whatever the reality, local perceptions appear to be that the focus of foreign-funded activity has been on security and counterterrorism, including the establishment of a counterterrorism cell, the Task Force Sahel, based in Mali as well as military training, the creation of military units and ‘security sites’ in communities where AQIM is believed to be active (mainly in the Kidal region), and the construction of a prison in the same region. Such a heavy focus on security does little to make local people feel they have the trust and support of the government in Bamako. Furthermore, locals complain that local businesses have been bypassed and that local communities have little representation. Failure to engage local communities will inevitably undermine the implementation of the PSPSDN or any similar future strategy.


Looking beyond the military intervention

It seems now that a military intervention in northern Mali is inevitable. The population of the region appears to be ambiguous, believing that it could make the situation much worse, but also that the current situation is problematic. In the words of one Timbuktu resident recently quoted in Jeune Afrique: ‘On the one hand, the idea of a war makes us very afraid. On the other, everyone would like to get rid of the Islamists factions.’ 

However, an exclusively military approach will never be adequate for a situation of such complexity, and it is far from clear that it would even be able to fully rid the region of the numerous armed groups and criminal networks. The Malian Government and international donors must ensure that any long-term solution includes genuine attempts to address the fundamental problems that have been feeding the conflict for many years, which are related to underlying local structures and dynamics: poverty; social discontent and intercommunal divisions; marginalization and inequality; and the chronic weakness of governance. Otherwise, hopes for peace and security in northern Mali will remain elusive.