Will Mali miss the investment scramble for sub-Saharan Africa?

Will Mali miss the investment scramble for sub-Saharan Africa?
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Violence and political instability threaten Mali’s ability to benefit from increasing foreign investment in sub-Saharan Africa.

Recent weeks have witnessed a spike in violence in Mali between opposing militias, including the first suicide bombing by the pro-government Gatia militia and numerous other skirmishes and bombings. Al-Qaeda-inspired militants also continue to be a threat, as jihadists killed seven Malian soldiers near the Mauritanian border in early January. And it is rumoured that the recent suicide bombing was coordinated by jihadists allied with Gatia, an unusual but concerning alliance if proved true.

In addition, UN forces launched their first airstrike in Mali, targeting the separatist Tuareg MNLA militia, which labelled the strike as a grave political error and declared that it was no longer willing to cooperate with UN forces.

The rise in violence has prompted the UN to hold emergency talks between combatants in hopes of staving off a full-scale descent into civil war. The UN’s Mali mission, by far the most dangerous of all the UN’s mandates, has also decided to completely revamp its strategy in hopes of increasing stability, especially in the north.

The UN has decided to move its base of operations from the capital Bamako, to Gao in the north. This move is meant to bring the UN forces closer to the violence-infested northern areas and enable them to better engage the roving anti-government militias, jihadists and criminals that are attempting to make the north a no-go zone for the Mali government.

Unfortunately, the new move began inauspiciously as anti-secessionist protestors attempted to storm the new UN mission headquarters in Gao, resulting in UN forces killing three demonstrators. While the strategy is in itself a sound plan, it will likely increase the number of UN casualties in the immediate future, which already reached 29 in 2014. The danger of this new strategy will undoubtedly test the limits of the UN’s resolve and how many soldiers it is willing to lose to stabilize Mali.

Mali’s problems also extend to the national political scene, which has endured two government dissolutions and three failures at the peace table with secessionist rebels. Mali President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita only recently formed his third government in two years while the third round of negotiations with anti-government forces failed at the end of 2014.

Furthermore, while the government and various militias have repeatedly stated they are willing to continue negotiations, the recent rise in violence and the Tuareg anger over the UN mission could seriously jeopardize any further progress in the peace talks. Just over two years since France intervened to save Mali from collapse in the face of a jihadist onslaught, Mali appears no closer to any semblance of functionality and the consequences for Mali could be immense.

The new scramble for Africa

With a weak central government, a beleaguered UN force, rising violence and entrenched hard-line militias, successful peace negotiations – and a subsequent return to stability and relative prosperity – are becoming less and less likely.

For Mali, missing the new investment scramble for sub-Saharan Africa due to such instability could very well be disastrous. Private equity investment in Africa has hit record levels and many foreign companies are now willing – even competing – to make long-term investments in African firms and infrastructure instead of just large-scale deals followed by quick sell-offs.

While Mali has done well to privatize many of its sectors and increase its legal desirability for foreign investment, the increase in violence and the on-going political instability are highlighting how fragmented and dangerous the country remains.

As a result, Mali could very well miss out on this new investment boom, a risk that could cripple Mali’s future potential considering its need for large-scale investments in infrastructure and other sectors such as communications, agribusiness, manufacturing and tourism.

Despite the current investment shift to Africa, there is speculation that disease, escalating conflict and cultural issues could soon temper the African investment push. This reality demands that Mali obtain a rational peace with secessionist Malian movements, cleanse the north of all jihadists and forge a cohesive central government as soon as possible before Mali misses out on the foreign investment surge.

If Mali is unable to solve these major issues quickly, it is highly likely that it will be left behind in the new scramble for Africa, with long-term consequences.

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