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Achieving peace and development in Central Mali: Looking back on one year of SIPRI’s work

An agricultural project in Mali.
An agricultural project in Mali.

Since the signing of the inter-Malian peace agreement in May–June 2015, the Malian crisis has changed, leading to new conflict dynamics, new armed groups and new affected regions. The spread of the crisis to the central regions of Mopti and Ségou has confirmed, on the one hand, the difficulties the central government has guaranteeing the security of populations throughout the territory and, on the other hand, the weaknesses in the delivery of public goods and services to local, peripheral communities.

Deteriorating security: Mopti and Ségou

Although the government has recently taken steps to (re)deploy security and defence forces in the regions of Mopti and Ségou, the provision of basic social services and economic development still remain greatly neglected. For years, this situation forced people to turn to other service providers, for example traditional authorities and non-governmental organizations (NGOs), to support them. As a result of the security crisis, non-state armed groups, self-defence groups and community militias fulfil these roles, either by ‘protecting’ the populations or addressing the shortcomings of the state and providing public services such as judicial, health and education systems.

The deterioration of local security requires rapid and comprehensive responses. Specifically, the lack of solid evidence-based and up-to-date knowledge on these two regions (Mopti and Ségou) represents a major obstacle. To address this, SIPRI and its partner, Point Sud are implementing the Central Mali Project for Security and Development (see figure 1). Supported by the European Union for three years, this project uses a mixed-research method approach comprising both quantitative and qualitative analyses.

Project facilitators in Mali's Ségou region
Figure 1. Photo of local residents in Konassedougou (Timissa municipality), Ségou region. Used with permission from Yaya Ballo (Central Mali Project facilitator), 26 March 2020. 

The research is designed both to inform actors engaged in these regions for the implementation of their activities and to support the political decision-making processes in the areas of governance, security and socio-economic development.

This Topical Backgrounder is based on the results and activities of the first year of project implementation and aims at: (a) presenting SIPRI’s main findings from five rounds of perceptions surveys, focus groups and semi-directed interviews conducted in the two regions of Mopti and Ségou from February 2019 until February 2020, and (b) analyzing long-term trends and main developments in these regions. The Topical Backgrounder presents the main research findings for each of the indices, namely security, governance and socio-economic development, and the conclusions highlight four key evidence-based recommendations that could help strengthen current stabilization efforts and pave the way to sustainable peace in the two regions.

Growing insecurity: Local resilience and trust in the Malian defence and security forces

The regions of Mopti and Ségou stand out as the current frontline of the Malian crisis. The interest of national and international actors in these regions, as well as the regions’ growing links to new crisis zones—and more specifically the Liptako–Gourma border region between Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger—calls for more evidence-based approaches to tackle long-term challenges to regional stability.

Local populations feel the effects of the crisis differently. Despite the deteriorating security situation, paradoxically, they are more pessimistic about the overall national situation than their immediate environment. The January 2020 survey shows that 36 per cent of respondents reported a significant deterioration of security at the national level, but only 30 per cent perceived that security was deteriorating in their immediate environment (in their village or neighbourhood). These figures have not significantly changed since the first survey conducted in February 2019. 

This does not mean that the security situation has objectively improved in these regions, rather, it indicates that populations have taken steps to limit or prevent the effects of the crisis on their own safety. Respondents identified a range of means employed such as: (a) limiting their displacement (39 per cent); (b) using new or alternative routes (16 per cent); or (c) establishing their own protective mechanisms; including the creation of self-defence groups (32 per cent). 

Indeed, the weak deployment of Mali’s conventional armed forces in the area has prompted the populations to support the establishment of local, non-state protection structures, such as militias and self-defence/village surveillance groups. In the localities where these groups have been established, the inhabitants support them with equipment, food and subsidies (financial or payments in kind), and due to this support, locals do not perceive them as sources of insecurity. As indicated in a recent SIPRI study conducted in Central and Northern Mali, the emergence of these groups is therefore no ‘accident of history’. On the contrary, they fulfil several state-neglected functions and services, especially at the community and ethnic level. In some instances, these groups are used by the Malian state as proxy security institutions and help provide escorts or guards for local and/or newly established authorities. Last, in other localities, militias also support the security and defence forces in their operations against extremist armed groups. 

These local security mechanisms are welcomed by the communities. Groups such as young people directly benefit from these non-state security groups since they may provide upward social mobility, independence from customary rules and freedom from abuse by dominant families

The SIPRI research findings indicate that while security is a concern for people in Central Mali, hard security issues and active security protection remains a low priority for most groups who have already taken the appropriate measures to mitigate the impacts of insecurity in their daily lives. However, respondents indicate a very clear mistrust of non-state armed groups and turn to locally embedded militias to protect themselves. 

The absence of state services: Non-state actors fill the void

SIPRI’s research findings in Mopti and Ségou indicate that the provision of public services such as roads, water and education is poor and unevenly distributed, whether due to structural weakness or insecurity. Even when these services are present, the populations express dissatisfaction about the quality. The most commonly identified weaknesses are the lack of functioning schools, the absence of human and material resources in community health services, the deficiency of basic infrastructure (roads and water points) and the dearth of competent staff.

As the security crisis exacerbates the structural weaknesses of the state, the limited provision of basic social goods and services causes deep frustration among the populations. The most vulnerable groups—women and young people—are more impacted than others, especially in terms of access to basic and impartial services, such as justice, education and health. During a focus group in the village of Koubewel-Koundia (Mopti region) in April–May 2019, a midwife complained that the crisis has deepen existing inequalities and increased communities’ vulnerability: ‘The community health centre in Koubewel-Koundia used to receive considerable support from NGOs and technical and financial partners (. . .). Pregnant women used to come regularly for pregnancy monitoring, because they had access to free or cheap medication. Now, with the crisis, this is no longer possible. We are running out of medication and many pregnant women prefer to stay at home and resort to traditional treatments for their pregnancies. This is not without consequences (for their health).’

The security crisis has forced the populations to turn to non-state service providers such as traditional/religious authorities and armed groups. It has also led to local populations organizing to fill these gaps through informal structures such as popular justice and local militias. In some places, non-state armed groups have also assumed state responsibilities, especially in the provision of security and justice. 

Although state officials (municipal councillors, prefects and teachers) are present in the Central Mali, their proportion per head of population varies greatly from one locality to another. This remains largely dependent on the level of security: less secure places have fewer state officials. As a direct consequence, the surveys that have been conducted show an overall low level of trust in the state administration. While the populations blame Mali’s central government for its inability to provide basic social services, their trust in local and informal structures and actors is higher. According to surveys conducted in October 2019, more than 70 per cent of respondents indicated trust in their local authorities (councillors, village/neighbourhood chiefs) and an average of 80 per cent in their traditional and religious authorities. In contrast, respondents have less trust in state authorities (31.6 per cent for judges, 38.2 per cent for prefects and 45.5 per cent for sub-prefects).

This is also reflected in populations’ behaviour towards the traditional authorities. For example, in the event of minor conflict 60 per cent of respondents stated that they turn first to traditional authorities and 53 per cent in the event of a serious crime. The customary system is widely preferred and considered the most impartial. Even formal institutions use traditional leaders to arbitrate conflicts and mitigate tensions between populations. During an interview held in April 2019 in Baraouéli (a region of Ségou), an anonymous respondent declared: ‘We watched the proceedings in a case of the forced marriage of an underage girl in a neighbouring village. Married at the age of 13, the girl had fled from her home village to come and confess to an aunt living in Baraouéli. The aunt had referred the matter to the village council before going to the gendarmerie. The Chief Brigadier requested the mediation of the village council in order to dissuade the perpetrators. [. . .] The next day, the village mediation had been successful, the two families had renounced the marriage out of respect for the traditional authority.’

SIPRI has also undertaken field research in other Malian regions, such as Kidal—Mali’s northernmost region, where non-state actors have been more successful in gaining a foothold in people’s everyday lives. This is in contrast to populations in Central Mali where the state is a focal point. However, the research findings also clearly indicate that this demand should not be interpreted in a monopolistic way: populations deeply trust their customary leaders and the state should complement existing mechanisms rather than replace them.

Meeting urgent social and economic needs: A foundation for sustainable peace in Central Mali

The security crisis significantly contributed to a deterioration of the populations’ living conditions in Mali’s central regions and has especially impacted vulnerable groups. Predominantly comprised of herders and farmers, the regions of Mopti and Ségou are characterized by a low level of development and a subsistence economy. The alarmingly high dependence on natural sources of water (rainwater, river, stream and canal water) for agriculture (70 per cent) makes local economies incredibly fragile and makes populations extremely vulnerable to exogenous shocks such as locust attacks and droughts. This security situation exacerbates problems for an already fragile group. The vast majority of these subsistence farmers are rural and live in banco houses (91 per cent of respondents). Only 16 per cent of respondents in this group had access to electricity and 52 per cent and depended on bore water.

While economic instability preceded the 2012 crisis, its spread to Mali’s central regions has severely affected vulnerable populations. However, the difficult living conditions and the lack of concrete economic opportunities do not seem to have a significant bearing on the populations’ desire to migrate. While other Malian regions are historically more outward-looking, especially the western region of Kayes, the current security dynamics have not drastically changed the central populations’ migration habits. SIPRI’s research findings indicate that 79 per cent of respondents and 69 per cent of youth under 35 said they had not thought about emigrating or moving at all from Mopti or Ségou. The majority of those who had chosen to migrate, or move had generally done so to a destination within the country, with Bamako being the main destination (45 per cent), followed by other regions in the south (10 per cent) and the west (8 per cent). Some 15 per cent head for another country in West Africa as their main destination and only 6 per cent of survey respondents named a European country as their main destination.

As described in July 2019 by a housewife during a focus group interview held in Koubewel-Koundia (Douentza district, Mopti region): ‘For us here, access to employment is very difficult outside of the overwintering period. We don’t have an off season, no weekly market, and even less other income-generating activities. This means that at the end of the overwintering period, the rainy season, many young people prefer to go to the big cities, the gold-mining sites and often abroad, in search of money to support their families. Throughout the dry season, all we women do is prepare food and go looking for firewood in the bush. Often our daughters go to the towns looking for wedding trousseaux because they have no other activities. With the drought, the harvests are not enough.’

Economic priorities are paramount for populations in Central Mali and were so even before the 2015 crisis. While the economic sector has been the most impacted by the deterioration in security, with severe consequences on state legitimacy and local distrust towards exclusive hard security strategies, it is of central importance in the prospect of long-term stabilization strategies.  

Making headway: Stabilizing Central Mali

The perception surveys and studies conducted by SIPRI and its Malian partners in the two central regions of Mopti and Ségou have revealed an apparent strategic paradox. On one hand, populations in these regions appear highly fragile and vulnerable—their localities lack the presence of the state and are limited in terms of their access to basic services and socio-economic development. However, on the other hand, they managed to develop effective coping strategies to deal with the most negative consequences of current instability and do not express a willingness to leave their home regions.

However, all populations groups are not equally affected by the current crisis; the most vulnerable groups experience a greater impact. Stabilization strategies must therefore address this disparity and develop dedicated approaches. Efforts should build on this evidence-based knowledge to maximize the impacts of current programmes and pave the way to sustainable peace in these two regions. SIPRI’s Central Mali research project has generated four main research findings that could help strengthen global strategies for peace and development:

  1. Inclusive processes. The ethnicization of local conflicts, which disrupts traditional hierarchies and leads to serious abuses means the resolution of these conflicts calls for an inclusive process of disarmament, of reintegration and, more importantly, community reconciliation;
  2. Delivery of public services. Strategies and programmes that focus exclusively on security aspects create a high level of mistrust among the populations, who expect that above all the state should deliver quality public goods and services;
  3. Concrete human security measures. Human security issues (employment, economic development)—which largely explain the current situation (loss of trust in formal institutions and/or recourse to other types of non-state actors)—are among the top concerns expressed. Concrete, visible and timely contextualized measures are expected in these areas;
  4. Dedicated programmes for the most vulnerable populations. The most vulnerable populations (women, young girls, young people under 35) are attached to their regions and have little desire to migrate. However, they suffer more than other groups from the consequences of the central government’s failures (lack of judicial systems, access to healthcare and education and food) and the deterioration of the security situation (enrolment in militia groups, gender-based violence). They should be the subject of dedicated programmes.


SIPRI’s Central Mali Project by the numbers
The Central Mali project involves a network of 30 trained local facilitators tasked with carrying out quarterly quantitative perception surveys involving 1800 randomly selected households in 60 municipalities and 120 villages, spread across the 15 cercles (districts) of the regions of Mopti and Ségou. The baseline surveys are organized around three indices—governance, development and security—and are divided into 76 key questions. They are designed to document, for example, political participation and public accountability, institutional effectiveness, the impact of insecurity on vulnerable groups and on the local economy, and community mechanisms in coping with insecurity. From February 2019 until February 2020, the project team carried out five rounds of perception surveys supplemented by three thematic surveys, focus groups and qualitative studies.


Dr Grégory Chauzal was a Senior Researcher and the Director of the SIPRI Sahel West Africa Programme.