Throughout the country most people are still unhappy with their government, which has failed to act on the corruption and generally inept performance that caused the rebellion and army mutiny in 2012. This is keeping armed separatist and Islamic groups in business. While the violence is still most common up north, it is spreading south. The Fulani tribes of central Mali are producing a growing number of recruits for Islamic terror groups. The Fulani are only about 14 percent of the population but other black African tribes further south are showing signs of discontent among unemployed and angry young men.
The Great Divide
What divides Mali more than anything else is ethnicity and geography. The dry (desert and semi-desert) north contains more than half of the territory but only about 12 percent of Mali's 15 million people. In the southern third of Mali, where 88 percent of the population lives the population is quite different from the northerners. While most Malians are Moslem there are some sharp ethnic and tribal differences. The Tuareg are the majority in the north and are North African while over 80 percent of Malians are various black African tribes. Most Malians live south of the Niger River (the “Nile of West Africa”) in areas that are more prosperous because they have more water. The hostility between the army (almost entirely composed of black Africans from the south) and the Tuareg (a lighter skinned group related to Arabs and ancient Egyptians) goes back a long time. Before 2012 the rebellious Tuareg around Timbuktu tried something different and adopted Islamic terrorism as a promising tool to help their fight for autonomy or a separate Tuareg state. That has often failed in the past because the Tuareg have been unable to unite. Islamic radicalism has not solved that problem either. Islamic radicalism didn’t work.
Until the French arrived in the 19th century and over the next 68 years created (for administrative purposes) a united "Mali", the black Africans in the south (along the Niger River) prospered and generally ignored the Tuareg in the desert north. But after the French left in 1960, and Mali became independent, the more populous south was forced to deal with the Tuareg dominated north they now “owned” and were not willing to give up. This has not worked out well for either side.
Most of the 12,000 UN peacekeepers are up north, dealing with problems the Mali government has caused and failed to remedy. The government has not come through with the autonomy and economic aid it agreed (back in 2014) to provide if the Tuareg separatist rebels made peace. The government is still corrupt and inefficient and continues to be run by southerners who still do not trust the tribes up north.
The most dangerous rebel group in the north is the Tuareg MNLA (French for “Liberation Army of Azawad”), which signed a peace deal in June 2015. The government made a lot of promises to MNLA, mainly to keep the MNLA from reuniting with its former ally Ansar Dine, which long worked with AQIM (Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb). Ansar Dine is, like the MNLA, largely Tuareg. France points out that MNLA and Ansar Dine leaders still communicate with each other, mainly because they are all Tuareg and have tribal connections. MNLA and Ansar Dine relations with AQIM (Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb) are less friendly and most MNLA members see AQIM as unwelcome outsiders. This unstable situation up north won’t resolve itself unless the government keeps its side of the peace deal. MNLA is obviously ready to work with Ansar Dine again if the central government keeps stalling on meeting its obligations.
The Tuareg never trusted the national government and the current situation does not help. Azawad is the Tuareg term for their homeland in northern Mali (and several other North African nations). Ansar Dine refuses to make peace and continues to fund its terrorist operations with drug smuggling profits. MNLA gave up drug smuggling and cooperation with Islamic terrorists when it signed the 2015 peace deal. The continued smuggling explains Ansar Dine involvement with the new Islamic terror group FLM (Macina Liberation Front) down south. AQIM is still something of an umbrella organization for Islamic terrorists in the region and survives in the north largely because the government has not complied with the peace deal. Most Tuareg do not belong to MNLA or Ansar Dine and are mainly concerned with taking care of their family and clan. The clans often have militias and if economic conditions don’t improve up there a lot of those militiamen will use their weapons to get what they need (or simply want).
There are still a lot of unresolved disagreements between the many pro-government and former rebel tribes and clans up there. These feuds are proving more difficult to solve because of the government refusal to deliver aid and autonomy. This is causing enough anarchy to give the Islamic terrorists opportunities to move around and carry out attacks and keep their drug smuggling enterprise running. The local squabbles tie down the peacekeepers and make it more difficult for the French led counter-terror operations.
The Mali government wants the UN to allow peacekeepers to be more forceful with uncooperative groups (especially Tuareg) up north. The UN is reluctant to do that. While it worked in places like Congo, it would likely backfire in northern Mali. In addition to the peacekeepers there are also a thousand French special operations troops there who are not part of the peacekeeping force and concentrate on finding and destroying Islamic terrorists. This French force is part of Task Force Barkhane, which has 0ver 3,000 French troops and operates throughout the Sahel (the semi-desert area just below the Sahara extending from the east coast of Africa all the way to the Atlantic). Task Force Barkhane can send more troops to Mali, but rarely does because it has so much to do in the rest of the Sahel (the semi-desert area between the Sahara and non-desert south). There are also several thousand Mali Army troops up north where they are regarded (by the largely Tuareg locals) as a hostile occupying force. That attitude goes back a long way and the 2015 peace deal was to have addressed that mistrust. It hasn’t and no UN member is eager to get involved in that kind of mess.
July 15, 2016: In the north (Gao) a large protest against government failure to do what it promised to do when it signed peace deals in 2014 and 2015 turned violent. Mali soldiers (largely southerners) opened fire killing three and wounding over 30. Up north blood begets blood and that will make matters worse.
July 14, 2016: The Dutch are withdrawing their 400 peacekeepers and the UN is trying to persuade the Netherlands to change their minds. In early 2014 the Netherlands agreed to send to Mali a peacekeeping force that included four AH-64 helicopter gunships and three CH-47 transport helicopters to provide fire support, transportation and medical evacuation for the 5,000 peacekeepers stationed there. At the time the peacekeepers had a few of the smaller Tiger gunships and smaller helicopter transports and greatly appreciated the Dutch aircraft. The problem is that the Dutch helicopters have proven invaluable and there are now more than twice as many peacekeepers depending on those helicopters. But the Dutch point out that the seven helicopters have suffered a lot of wear and tear in Mali and need extensive refurbishment that cannot be carried out in Mali. The UN is trying to get some other Western nation to step forward with replacements but so far there are no takers.
July 6, 2016: In the north (outside Kidal) two Dutch soldiers were killed and one wounded during a training exercise. Apparently a mortar shell malfunctioned and exploded.
July 1, 2016: The UN approved a proposal to increase the UN peacekeeping mission in Mali from 12,680 to 15,209. The UN is having problems getting member states to provide the additional 2,529 personnel as well as maintaining their current contributions.
June 29, 2016: Up north (outside Timbuktu) someone fired on an army convoy, killing three soldiers and wounding six. The attackers fled and the convoy went on its way.
June 25, 2016: In central Mali (Mopti province) a long simmering land dispute between two villages led to fighting that left 14 dead and more than 40 wounded before police and tribal elders could halt it. The dispute has been tied up in court for over two years and many of the people involved have lost faith in the government to even run the courts efficiently.