Mali: Waiting For the Magical Mythical Change



November 12, 2020: The new interim government has been operational for about five weeks. Interim means this government has until March 2022 to organize new elections and disappear. The interim government is being closely watched because government corruption has become part of the local culture and changing that is not easy. For example, the interim government is reviewing the existing contract with mining companies. Mali is the largest producer of gold in Africa, exporting a record 67 tons in 2019.

Deposed president Keita was forced to resign, along with all his ministers, by the military on the August 18th. The many nations which imposed sanctions after the August coup have demanded that there be new elections within twelve months and a new elected government installed.

The August coup was the second one since 2012 and the third since Mali became independent in 1960. The 2020 coup got the same hostile reaction from the neighbors, international organizations and Western supporters as did the 2012 one. The prompt installation of the temporary government, with 21 of 25 ministries led by civilians, is an attempt to get local and international sanctions lifted.

So far, no official response from the nations imposing sanctions but indications are that the new government is acceptable as long as it is temporary. The sanctions have disrupted trade and been a bonanza for smugglers. Islamic terrorist groups control a lot of the smuggling so as long as the sanctions remain in force the Islamic terrorists make more money.

The March 2012 coup was triggered by the lack of financial and political support for troops stationed in the thinly populated north, which was being taken over by a Tuareg rebellion led by Islamic terrorist groups. Elections were held in 2013, after a French-led force advanced into the north in January and quickly defeated the Taureg rebels and their Islamic terrorist allies. Eight years later the Taureg tribes are still waiting for the government to deliver the economic aid promised when the Tauregs agreed to a peace deal. The Islamic terrorist groups are still up there and have spread to central Mali, partly to support their smuggling operations (drugs and people) that finance the terror groups. Eight years later the corruption and mismanagement are still prominent and the target of growing popular anger. Despite all the peacekeepers and counterterror forces, there will be no peace until a competent and a lot less corrupt government is installed.

Since 2013 the Mali military has been rebuilt, a task carried out largely by French trainers and advisors. Currently the army has about 7,000 troops. Another 800 personnel serve in the air force and riverine navy. There are also nearly 5,000 paramilitary troops, including the 2,000-man Republican Guard stationed in the capital to protect government officials and facilities. Most of the paramilitary personnel act as national police and serve throughout the country. Overall the rebuilt army is a more effective force than it was in 2012. But the Mali troops are still considered the least effective in the region. The 2020 army has a few units that are first-rate and these often operate with the French counterterrorism forces. But these elite Mali troops account for less than ten percent of the army.

The 2020 coup was triggered by the inability of the government to agree to reforms and cooperate with the opposition parties. There had been over a month of fruitless negotiations with president (since 2013) Keita, who seemed to believe he could wait it out. After all Keita had been reelected in 2018 amid accusations of voting fraud. The opposition produced many proposals but few Keita was willing to accept. Mediators from ECOWAS (Economic Community of 15 West African States) kept the negotiations going but Keita refused to consider resigning and the opposition saw curbing Keita’s power as essential if there was to be any hope of peace and prosperity. The army leaders, who were not formally part of the opposition, seemed to agree and carried out a coup that had more popular support than the 2012 one.

Foreign Troops

France’s 2012 intervention force evolved into something larger and long-term. This was a counter-terror organization with 5,100 French troops dealing with Islamic terrorism through the Sahel (the semi-desert region south of the Sahara Desert and stretching from the Atlantic to Ethiopia and the Nile River. Coming in after the French force were 15,000 UN peacekeepers, most of them from other African countries. The Islamic terrorists were stubborn because Mali is the main smuggling route used by gangs moving people and illegal drugs. Al Qaeda, as it has does elsewhere in the world, provides security for the smugglers, who must pay well for those services. What it comes down to is that the foe is not so much Islamic terrorists, but well financed Islamic terror groups and their gangster partners. Follow the money, because that’s what a lot of ambitious Malians are doing.

The Religion Angle

Demonstrations had been going on since June 5th and that led to an unexpected coalition, called the June 5Movement (J5M), containing political, economic and religious groups that rarely agree with or work with each other. The coalition held together to the present but past experience shows that such coalitions have a difficult time implementing sustained change. Faction leaders and Malians in general understand that without a much less corrupt government they will be stuck in a cycle of economic decline and inability to deal with tribal, religious and political rebels in central and northern Mali. Foreign aid donors are backing away because of the corruption and the waste of so much aid via theft and mismanagement.

The main leader of J5M Moslem cleric Mahmoud Dicko. He has been the de-facto spokesman for J5M. Dicko is a popular senior imam (Moslem cleric) who studied Islam in Saudi Arabia and came to be chairman of Mali’s High Islamic Council. Despite (or because of) his education in Saudi religious schools (which stress the need for Islamic law), Dicko openly backs a secular government, but one run by honest (or a lot more honest than now) politicians and officials. Imams like Dicko are one reason Islamic terrorist beliefs have not spread to the majority of Malians, most (95 percent) of them Moslem. Many foreign students in Saudi religious schools note that for all its piety Saudi Arabia is very corrupt as are most other Arab oil states. There were some exceptions but without all that oil wealth many Arab governments would be undergoing the same political pain Mali is suffering.

Many Mali politicians and economic leaders don’t trust Dicko, feeling that he must be in touch with Islamic terror group leaders and is actually willing to try a religious government. Dicko has never expressed support for that and more and more Malians are believing that.

Corruption has long been a major problem for Mali. Corruption and misuse of foreign aid are the main reasons for many other problems. International surveys of corruption put Mali in the bottom third of nations, but not at the bottom of the list like Somalia, Yemen, Syria, and South Sudan. In contrast most of the least corrupt nations are the industrialized ones. The least corrupt are Finland, New Zealand and Denmark.

Keita and his associates were supposed to be the cure for the current mess, which began after France intervened in January 2013, leading a military operation to clear Islamic terrorists out of northern Mali. Aided by Chad and a growing number of other African peacekeeping contingents, this effort continues and is somewhat open ended. The French acted because in 2012 Tuareg tribal rebels (with the help of al Qaeda affiliated Islamic terrorists) in northern Mali chased out government forces and declared a separate Tuareg state. The Mali army mutinied because of lack of support from the corrupt government down south and took control of the capital. The army soon backed off when neighboring nations threatened to intervene. The elected government was soon back in charge and more corrupt than ever.

In April 2020 parliamentary elections were conducted after nearly two years of delays. These were the first such elections since the military coup in 2013. Fewer than 15 percent of eligible voters participated. Most of the 19 million people in Mali don’t have to deal with the Islamic or tribal terrorism found mainly in thinly populated central and northern Mali. Everyone knows about this problem and how it has spread from the north to central Mali in the last five years. The main reason for the spread of this violence is corruption. It has been a problem ever since Mali became independent after the French left in 1960. It is a problem common throughout Africa and many other parts of the world. Voters are discouraged because it seems that whoever they elect, they just get another bunch of corrupt and incompetent leaders.

Lots of corruption often produces rebels and in Moslem majority nations that often means Islamic terrorism. There are several of these groups in Mali and largest of them is JNIM (Jamâ’ah Nusrah al Islâm wal Muslimîn, or Group for the support of Islam and Moslems). This is an al Qaeda coalition formed in early 2017 to consolidate the many separate Islamic terror groups in Mali. In part this was a reaction to the growing threat from ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant), which is hostile to everyone who is not ISIL and will attack or recruit from the JNIM members like AQIM (Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb), Ansar Dine, FLM and several other smaller groups. Another reason for the merger was to make it easier to pool resources, especially information and practical advice, and coordinate with other Islamic terror groups in the region. This reduces friction and destructive feuding.

Making a coalition like this work is always difficult, especially considering the importance of ethnic differences. The FLM is Fulani (the largest local tribal contribution) while the other groups are largely Tuareg or Arab and some have a lot of foreigners. Note that JNIM did not incorporate all AQIM groups in the area, just local groups that had long been identified with al Qaeda. The income from the drug trade keeps a lot of these factions in business, while the Islamic terrorists know that business and religious fanaticism do not mix and keep it that way. Those groups that did not went broke and withered to nothing.

Meanwhile the Islamic terror groups evolved with more radical JNIM members joining more radical groups like ISIL, which is universally hated by other Islamic terrorists and Moslems in general. By 2018 there were two ISIL “provinces” in central Africa when the smaller one, ISGS (Islamic State in Greater Sahara), showed up. ISGS is currently active in Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger. The other, slightly older and larger, ISIL province was ISWAP (Islamic State West Africa Province). ISWAP was actually a faction of the Nigerian Boko Haram Islamic terrorists who had been around since 2004. ISWAP personnel are mostly in northeastern Nigeria as well as smaller numbers in Chad, Niger and northern Cameroon. There are also a lot of tribal conflicts in central Mali but these have been active for decades and are made worse by the corruption. The tribal war between Dogon and Fulani has been particularly bloody since 2019.

As long as Mali suffers from the high levels of government corruption and mismanagement, there will be Islamic terrorism and the threat of separatism succeeding, as it did in 2012-13. France won’t always be willing to move in to deal with the problem. Many in France are questioning the wisdom of remaining in Mali and the Sahel. What keeps the French forces there is past experience. When Islamic terrorists are left free to expand, the terror groups will do just that. Nearly all the mayhem will be local but some of it will show up in the West, triggering demands that “something be done.” At the moment the French, aided by the Americans and a coalition of Sahel states, are doing something and it forces the Islamic terrorists to restrict their activities and spend a lot of time avoiding detection and attack (on the ground or via airstrike).


Violence in the region (Mali and its neighbors), mainly caused by tribal conflicts or Islamic terrorism, has grown in the last decade. In the first half of 2020 there were about a thousand such violent incidents in the area with 46 percent in Mali, 45 percent in Burkina Faso and 17 percent in Niger. The main cause of all this mayhem is corruption, which hurts the economy and tends to steal from the already poor to further enrich the already wealthy. This generates a lot of anger because while many Malians can’t read, they can count.

As is often the case in corrupt, but mineral rich, foreign mining operations in Mali are seen by government officials as a source of bribes and other corrupt income. The foreign firms usually pay, but people living around the remote mining operations find that the mines are a source of jobs and access to the outside world. The mining operations require the use of roads to get stuff in and product out. The Mali government is not willing or able to build such roads, and if they do the work, is often substandard and not maintained. The mining roads are a different mater and usually lead to a major river (like the Niger) and larger towns and cities. This makes it a lot easier for rural people to reach these places. The mining companies will often assist in building access roads from villages to the main mining roads. The mining companies must maintain these roads if they are to remain in business.

The foreign mining operations in Africa are often as corrupt and as indifferent towards civilians as the government officials they partner with. Not so much in Mali after the French and UN intervention in 2012. Since then foreign mining companies have found that they can maintain good relations with local communities. That means the mining roads often have branches to isolated communities. The locals do some of the work but these branch roads make it easier for local employees to get to work. The mining companies bring other benefits, even though they know that could all disappear if the foreign troops leave.

November 5, 2020: A new European counter-terrorism unit, Task Force Takuba, has begun operating in northern Mali. This unit is an EU (European Union) effort to provide expert and sustained training and support for Malian special operations and counter-terrorism troops as well as those in Niger and Burkina Faso. So far Belgium, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Sweden, and Britain have agreed to supply special operations specialists and equipment for the Task Force, which will work closely with the French counter-terrorism force. The Task Force began getting organized in early 2020. Because of covid19 disruptions the initial moves were slower than expected. Currently the Task Force only has a few hundred personnel and that is expected to increase, especially as the French begin long-delayed plans to reduce the size of their counter-terrorism forces.

November 4, 2020: In central Malu (Mopti) someone ambushed a minibus carrying 20 people. The gunfire killed eight civilians, and wounded eight others.

October 30, 2020: In the north, a French UAV patrolling a remote area in the darkness using a night vision camera to scan the terrain below for any suspicious activity. The UAV spotted a large convoy of Islamic terrorists travelling on a rural road. The French sent in airstrikes as well as ground troops transported by helicopter. The convoy was largely wiped out, leaving fifty Islamic terrorists dead. The ground troops arrived and captured four survivors and searched the scene for weapons and documents (usually found on cellphones).

October 15, 2020: In the north (Kidal) a roadside bomb was used against a UN supply convoy escorted by Egyptian peacekeepers. One peacekeeper vehicle was hit, killing one peacekeeper and wounding another.

October 13, 2020: In central Mali (Mopti, near the Burkina Faso border) there were several Islamic terrorist attacks in one day, the first such violence since the August 18 coup that removed the old government. The multiple attacks left 25 people dead, including 13 soldiers. The military quickly responded to the first attack so the other two attacks saw the attackers taking losses because ground reinforcements had arrived as gad air support. The attackers ended up losing about a dozen people.




Help Keep Us From Drying Up

We need your help! Our subscription base has slowly been dwindling.

Each month we count on your contributions. You can support us in the following ways:

  1. Make sure you spread the word about us. Two ways to do that are to like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.
  2. Subscribe to our daily newsletter. We’ll send the news to your email box, and you don’t have to come to the site unless you want to read columns or see photos.
  3. You can contribute to the health of StrategyPage.
Subscribe   Contribute   Close