In 2013, native and French military forces celebrated the relatively successful ousting of Tuareg rebels and Islamist factions in Mali. Two years later in June 2015, Mali bowed to international pressure and signed a peace agreement with an alliance of Tuareg and Arab-led rebels called the Coordination of Movements for Azawad (CMA). The trajectory toward peace was interrupted last November by a terrorist attack at the Radisson Blu hotel in Mali’s capital Bamako, which left 27 people dead. The attack disrupted any semblance of stability and surfaced the deep systemic challenges that signed treaties alone cannot resolve: the issue of the Tuareg people, drug trafficking and corruption.
The Tuareg question
The Tuareg have been at the center of rebellion in Mali since colonization. When the French attempted to colonize the Maghreb in the early 1900s through border enforcement and migration restrictions, the Tuareg sparked a failed anticolonial rebellion. The French policy struck at the heart of Tuareg’s nomadic culture and means of survival. Free movement across the western Sahel was fundamental to the Tuareg for purposes of trade and agriculture.
The decolonization of French territories in the 1960s led to a cultural conflict between the Tuareg and the new Malian government. The new government was led by southern ethnic groups who were not sympathetic to the Tuareg minority. Mali’s first President, Modibo Keita, was a socialist who built the economy through collectivized farming, a state monopoly on subsoil and land reform policies which proved to threaten the nomadic pastoral culture of the Tuareg and ushered in institutional oppression and marginalization.
In 1962-64, the Tuareg waged the first of three periods of rebellion for autonomy and statehood. The suppression of the uprising was met with heavy-handed counterinsurgency operations, which placed the Tuareg-dominated northern region under repressive military administration. The 1970s-80s bore witness to large migrations of Tuaregs into neighboring countries like Algeria, Mauritania and Libya.
These events set the tone for the rebellion in the 1990s, as Tuareg youth returned militarized from countries like Libya where they were recruited into Qaddafi’s Islamic Legion (read: mercenaries). This exposure, coupled with high unemployment, formed the basis of a movement for a Tuareg independent state. The internal differences within the movement bore various rebel factions, including the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MPLA) led by Lyad ag Ghali, the Revolutionary Army for the Liberation of the Azawad led by Rhissa ag Sidi Mohamed and the Liberation of the Azawad (FPLA) led by Chamon-Amas. The combination of rebel-waged low-intensity conflict, pressure for democracy in the south from the civil society, and the collapse of the Moussa Traore military dictatorship, meant Mali failed to achieve stability and national reconciliation despite signed peace accords in 1991 and 1992.
Tuareg rebellion in the 2000s was characterized by Malian military defections, failed and revived peace deals, and the hijacking of the independence movement by jihadist organizations. To this day, discriminatory policies and asymmetrical warfare continue to inadequately address the plight of the Tuareg people within the borders of the Malian state.
Rise of narco-terrorism?
Mali and West Africa have become a highly sought after drug trafficking route for South America since Europe tightened law enforcement measures in the early 2000s. Anti-terrorism experts have cited Jihadist organizations in Mali such as al-Qaeda as providing protection for drug smuggling convoys across the desert for a fee. Other reports have cited sedated jihadist fighters who use narcotics to fight without fear or pain when wounded. The money generated from illicit trade not only goes towards financing terror campaigns, but has also been used by elite smugglers as an ostentatious display of wealth. The outskirts of Gao is nicknamed “Cocainebougou” (cocaine town) due to the strip of newly built mansions and SUV’s. Narcotics smuggling makes up a very small percentage of income for Jihadist in Mali, and the network which facilitates this illicit trade is loosely connected as opposed to tightly organized crime. This is not to minimize the role narcotics plays in the funding of terrorism in Mali, but there is the danger of oversimplification. Focusing on narcotics diverts attention away from the Malian government officials and military that are complicit in making such activities possible.
In 2014, Transparency International ranked Mali 115 out of 175 on the corruption perception index. The low ranking may not fully convey the degree to which corruption is rampant in Mali. The lines between law enforcement and criminal activity are blurred. This is best illustrated by the Mayor of Tarkint, Baba Ould Cheikh, who served as a hostage mediator for former President Amadou Toumani Toure on several occasions. Mayor Cheikh’s success in securing the release of hostages came through his close connections with AQIM, which raised suspicions that he benefitted monetarily from the kidnapping of westerners. In 2013, Government prosecutors arrested and charged Mayor Cheikh (along with other elected officials) for drug trafficking, sedition, terrorism and crimes against internal security of state. The charges related to several incidents, including the 2009 “Cocaine Air” scandal, where a Boeing 727 airliner from Venezuela said to be carrying up to 9 tons of the drug was found burned in the desert (having landed in a makeshift runway) near Tarkint. The high profile arrests of state actors may have demonstrated seriousness on the part of the government, but for many Malians this is just a dog and pony show.
Mali’s share of dark clouds is not without its silver lining. Mali recently became Africa’s third largest gold producing country and is expected to exceed its output of 50 tons in 2015. As a result, investors are returning but very cautiously. Turkish Airlines has added Bamako to its list of destinations, and French construction company Sogea-Satom has repaired its equipment which was damaged during the 2012 rebellion — but engineers have yet to return due to regional insecurity.
Mali’s President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita is currently navigating a political and security minefield that’s occupied by jihadist, smugglers, the French military, and a 10,000-strong UN peacekeeping force on the MINUSMA mission.
In the long term, Mali will have to commit to addressing its systemic challenges before it can become a truly stable nation. It will have to develop both new policies and a new perspective in order to change the course of this troubled West African nation.