The youthfulness of the Malian population is both an asset and a challenge that will have to be met in the years to come. If the needs are of the youth not met, they risk being drawn into crime, terrorism and religious radicalism.
The population of Mali is made up of different ethnic communities that have lived in harmony for millennia. French is the official language, but the majority of the population speaks the national languages, especially Bambara. Malians are mostly Muslim, and it is rare to find a village without a mosque. Mali has a young and fast-growing population: the country had 5.3 million inhabitants in 1960; there are 20.3 million today, including 8.9 million urban and 11.4 million rural dwellers.
In the face of threats, this demographic growth contributes to a greater sense of security, international credibility, confidence in the future and affirmation of national sovereignty. However, this demography also contributes to increasing and intensifying competition between farmers and herders for access to natural resources, particularly water and land, which are the main sources of conflict between communities.
The fertility rate has declined only slightly, from seven children per woman in 1960 to six children per woman in 2020. The median age has also fallen – today, half of the population is under 16.3 years old.
The youthfulness of the Malian population is certainly an asset, but it also represents a challenge that will have to be met in the years to come because these young people will need health and education services and jobs in order to participate in the country’s development.
In 2015, the unemployment rate was 9.6 per cent (8.5 per cent for men, 11 per cent for women and 22.5 per cent for young people aged 15–24 years). It is noteworthy that unemployment increases with education level, indicating a mismatch between qualifications gained through the education system and business needs.
At the health and social levels, there are significant human resources deficits resulting from weak recruitment capacities and service provider training. There is also a lack of management in the distribution of staff between the different regions, and insufficient regulations against harmful practices.
In light of the above, the health, education and employment needs created by this significant demographic growth remain unmet. School enrolment remains low. The construction of educational infrastructure has not kept pace with population growth. In the field of health, the numbers of doctors, nurses, etc. are below World Health Organisation standards, which means that Mali must train more health workers in the future to meet the social demand for health.
More generally, the indicators observed over the past two decades are symptomatic of an explosive socioeconomic context that can push entire cohorts of young people, who live with unemployment and endemic poverty, to engage in organised crime, drug trafficking, cross-border organised crime, or to be enlisted in the terrorist groups that are currently sowing terror and insecurity in the country.
United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres’ report of 20 March 2020 revealed that civilians continued to be victims of terrorist group attacks, inter-community violence, improvised explosive devices and banditry. He said, for example, that 218 people were killed in central Mali between 1 January and 4 March 2020. In the central part of the country, civilians continue to suffer the consequences of increased community violence, exacerbated by the presence of terrorist groups.
Antonio Guterres called on the government of Mali to pursue measures to dismantle the militias and redouble efforts to re-establish state authority in order to avoid dangerous security vacuums. In his view, the support of the United Nations Mission remains essential in helping the Malian security forces to protect civilians.
The country’s essential network
Nevertheless, things are moving forward. Referring to the Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration (DDR) process, the Secretary-General reported that the country is refining its strategic plans for the 2019–2023 period. The authorities aim to integrate 10,000 veterans into the security services. A total of 16,000 former combatants will be reintegrated into their communities through the DDR programme.
The geographical distribution of the population across the national territory and the resulting demographic densities are highly significant factors in the interactions between demography, peace, security and development. An unevenly distributed population, as in Mali where 19 per cent of inhabitants are scattered over 65.8 per cent of the country, is easily destabilised, especially if the demographic and social density is low. Hence the need for a security network throughout the country.
When population densities are low or very low, as is the case in some of the administrative regions of Mali (Kidal, Menaka, Taoudenit, Gao and Timbuktu), it is easier for criminals and terrorists to organise and operate. Cross-border crime and terrorism can easily thrive in total anonymity as people’s lifestyles make them mobile and dispersed. With low population densities, interpersonal communications are often difficult, even with mobile phones, as terrorists prevent the predominantly poor populations in these areas from owning and using them. Terrorists can operate over hundreds or even thousands of square kilometres without encountering any inhabitants.
Socially, high youth unemployment keeps young people in a state of despair and leads them naturally towards making a deal with the devil. Many of the unemployed young people who subscribe, without much coercion, to the doctrines of terrorists and armed bandits do so for economic or religious reasons. Fanatics and Islamists want to establish Sharia, whereas Mali is a secular republic.
A significant security budget
By 2040, the population will reach 40 million, doubling in less than a generation, which means increased needs.
To meet these needs, Mali must invest more resources in the health sector to train and equip staff, build health infrastructure, and supply essential medicines.
In the field of education, the country must build schools and universities, train teachers, and support them to carry out their teaching and research work properly. Mali already commits nearly 25 per cent of its national budget to the defence and security sector. However, it will need to commit more resources to this in the future, so that children can enjoy health and education in peace and tranquility.
The government provides constant aid and support to the people and to victims of armed and terrorist conflicts in the affected areas of the country. It developed and adopted a multisectoral national population policy in 2017, incorporating requirements for the empowerment of women, young people and the demographic dividend. It is developing a national migration policy to manage migration at its intersection with development, and to reduce irregular migration.
In conclusion, if the education, health and employment needs of young people and potential workers are not met, they will turn to illicit activities such as drug trafficking, cross-border crime, armed terrorist groups and religious radicalism.