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Mali – caught between glorious past and uncertain future

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Mali – caught between glorious past and uncertain future

A man stands in front of the Djingareyber mosque in Timbuktu.

Mali, heir to one of the greatest empires in the history of Africa, has descended into a country lurching from one crisis to the other. The people have lost faith in leaders and are at the mercy of armed groups vying for control. Boubacar Haidara, a lecturer at the University of Ségou in Mali, looks at the country’s history to try and find solutions for its future.

Covering 1,241,000km, Mali sits at a major crossroads of the African continent. After Niger, it is the largest of the 15 countries that make up West Africa, and it shares its borders with seven of them: Algeria, Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Guinea, Mauritania, Niger and Senegal.

Due to the way the colonial powers drew the borders, it is also a cultural crossroads that brings together diverse peoples with varied ethnic origins and different lifestyles.

There are around 20 different ethnic groups, split into five main clusters: Mandingo (Bambara, Soninke, Maninka, Bozo), Pulaar (Fula, Toucouleur), Gur (Bobo, Senufo, Minyanka), Saharan (Tuareg, Moor, Arabic) and Songhai.

French is the official language but is only written and spoken by 25% of the population. The population of Mali (20,250,834) is very unevenly spread across the country, with the northern regions being sparsely inhabited, while the central and southern regions are densely populated.

The northern two-thirds of the country receives rainfall of less than 127 millimetres. This might explain why nine tenths of the population is concentrated in the southern part of the country. In fact, 51% of the land in Mali is desert.

A rich past

Mali is the heir to a rich past stretching back to the Middle Ages, when this part of Africa experienced an economic, political, cultural and religious efflorescence at the same time through the emergence of the great empires – Ghana, Mali, Songhai – that have marked the history of Mali.

Trade was a key element that linked together, on the one hand, the Western Sudan with North Africa and the Orient and, on the other, the urban centres and towns through the exchange of goods produced in different regions.

In addition to gold, raw or carved ivory was exported across the Indian Ocean to Arabia and India. The royal courts of Niani, Gao and Timbuktu mostly imported luxury goods: silks, brocades, richly decorated arms and more.

The Ghana empire emerged in the 9th century, prospered in the 10th and 11th centuries and finally declined in the 12th century. Other states and chiefdoms grew out of the ruins and developed. Soundiata Keita then united the chiefdoms of the Mandingo people on the upper Niger river.

He proclaimed the Manden Charter (Kurukan Fuga), which set out the principles that were to govern life in what was to become the empire of Mali. The Kurukan Fuga is one of the first declarations of human rights and is now part of the intangible cultural heritage of UNESCO.

Mali’s most famous emperor is Mansa Moussa, who made the pilgrimage to Mecca in 1324 with a huge delegation and put so much gold into circulation during his stay in Cairo that its price fell considerably.

He returned with books, sponsored Muslim scholars and made Timbuktu an important intellectual centre for the Islamic sciences and a major driver for the dissemination of Islam in Africa, with its period of greatness in the 15th and 16th centuries. Djenné, in the centre of Mali, also became famous as a place of trade and Islamic studies.

Timbuktu and Djenné remained important for the Songhai period, the third great empire that emerged in the second half of the 15th century, after the old empire of Mali had lost control of the northern provinces. Gao became the capital. We should note that all the towns at the heart of these medieval empires now belong to the current Republic of Mali.

The second Songhai monarch, Askia Mohammed (r. 1493-1528), made Islam the cornerstone of his power and attracted the attention of Cairo with his enormous entourage and wealth. The Songhai empire reached its zenith under the reign of Mohammed’s son, Daoud (1549-82).

In the 19th century, Mali was conquered and colonised by France from 1892 onwards, and officially renamed the French Sudan in 1920.

It obtained independence from France on 22 September 1960 under the presidency of Modibo Keita. The new country took the name of the medieval empire of Mali as a symbol of historical continuity and to establish an identity rooted in its long and glorious past. The fact that Modibo Keita had the same family name as the founder of the empire, Soundiata, further reinforced the link.

Contemporary currents

To fully understand the situation in the country, we must look back in time at its history, both ancient and contemporary. Whereas Mali had a truly glittering ancient history in terms of culture, politics and economics, its more recent past has been more noteworthy for the serious and many-faceted crises that seem to have currently reached a paroxysm.

Indeed, 17 January 2012 marked Mali’s decline into a series of crises. Beginning with the Tuareg rebellion in the north, things grew worse on 22 March 2012, with the political and institutional troubles in the south that led to the overthrow of President Amadou Toumani Touré (elected in 2002).

This widespread state of crisis resulted in the occupation of the entire northern part of the country by armed groups acting in the name of Islam. These were Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MOJWA) and Ansar ed-Dine (defenders of the faith).

Since the democratisation of Mali following the revolution of March 1991, the country has been and still is looking for a democratic model that eludes it.

The coup d’état of 22 March 2012 – the first in the democratic era and the third in the history of Mali – and the subsequent events had already laid bare the shortcomings of the political class.

Whereas the social and political troubles of March 1991 were a crisis leading to the establishment of democracy, those of 2012, in which Mali still finds itself mired, were seen as a crisis arising from the failure of democracy.

After that, the real opinion leaders were no longer politicians and heads of political parties, but religious leaders. For many Malians, the politicians came to embody corruption, poor governance and cronyism. This elite was vilified by the people, who then turned to religious leaders, who themselves do not appear to have the solutions to the problems of governance.`

After the coup d’état of 22 March 2012, until the next one occurred on 18 August 2020, Mali looked more like a country in a state of perpetual transition, insofar as the change of regime did not lead to the emergence of new players, or to a change in the political scene.

The fact that the civil authorities were unable to prevent the interference of the armed forces in the political arena can be partly explained by the weakness and lack of legitimacy of the institutions.

The consequence of this situation is that rather than being an exception, the incursions of the Malian military on the political scene – three coups d’états since the advent of democracy in 1992, and five since independence – have become the norm. Another explanation suggested by analyst and author Céline Thiriot is that “with a deinstitutionalised army, and fragile political authorities, force remains a political resource, and the military retains a role and powers that reach far beyond the barracks”.

Widespread security crisis

Mali has now truly become a place into which the various armed groups (jihadists, secessionists, community militias, etc) can expand. The inability of the state to control entire swathes of its territory, populations left to fend for themselves, and the ease with which these armed groups are able to attract the support of such “abandoned” populations, plays into their hands.

The Algiers Peace Agreement, signed in May 2015 by the Malian government and the Tuareg independence movements, had been seen as the start of the process to make Mali more secure and stable. However, what happened was a proliferation of all sorts of armed groups, now even more numerous than before the signing of the peace agreement.

The general insecurity has spread from the north to the central and southern areas despite the presence of the French armed forces of the Barkhane mission and the United Nations Multi-dimensional Integrated Stabilisation Mission in Mali (MINUSMA), with 5,100 and over 13,000 troops respectively.

While some Malians want the troops to depart, the reality is that, given the current security situation, and in view of the clear shortfall in the capacity of its armed forces, Mali is not ready to do without Operation Barkhane. The presence of the French troops, however ineffective it might seem, nevertheless helps to at least partially deny the armed terrorist groups room for expansion out of the north where they roam freely. 

Furthermore, after the last coup d’état on 24 May 2021, French President Emmanuel Macron unilaterally put an end to joint military operations between Barkhane and the Malian armed forces (FAMA), before threatening the new political authorities in Bamako with the withdrawal of his troops should Mali succumb to the temptation of radical Islam.

Having obtained guarantees from the authors of the coup, joint operations between Barkhane and FAMA were resumed. However, on 9 July 2021 Emmanuel Macron announced, during the virtual Sahel G5 summit, a wide-ranging reconfiguration of Barkhane, with the gradual reduction of troop numbers, as well as the closure of three of the five French bases by 2022.

The announcement should not be seen purely as a withdrawal of the French forces, but more as a move towards setting up a European force – half French, with the remainder made up of Estonians, Czechs, Swedes and Italians.

The way forward

The geographic location of Mali makes it the major cog in the stability and security of the Sahel, and the whole of West Africa. A stand-alone military solution seems to have no chance of success although alternative measures, at least in the short term, are thin on the ground.

The state is no longer able to provide basic services to the population in the north and centre, nor can it offer jobs to young people to keep them away from lucrative criminal activities, including enrolment in the armed groups. In order to do this, Mali must rapidly reinstate constitutional order through general elections that are already planned for February and March 2022; consolidate state presence by reintroducing administration in the areas taken back by force; and provide at least basic social services to weaken the attraction of jihadist forces.

It must also encourage dialogue between communities and some of the local armed groups along the lines of the ‘Inclusive National Dialogue’, which brought together all the Malian stakeholders (religious, political and civil society) in December 2019.

Above all, the quality and capacity of its governance will be the most significant factor if the government is to regain the trust of the people. Any whiff of corruption will bring the whole house of cards down. In this and its other aims, the state will need all the support it can get from its neighbours and international partners

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