The Malian “Twin Crisis”: More Collaboration Needed from Unlikely Partners

Mali’s interim President Dioncounda Traore announced the formation of a new national unity government on Monday, August 20th, as had been requested by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) as part of the regional efforts to restore political stability in the country. The expanded government is expected to pave the way toward institutional normalization in the south. However, concerns remain about the adoption of a comprehensive and sustainable strategy to address Mali’s “twin crisis” of regime overthrow in the capital and insurgency in the north.

Key Conclusions

The March 22nd military coup in Bamako, far from bringing an appropriate response to the Tuareg rebellion in northern Mali, has led to a deepening of the crisis and exposed the country to Islamist groups that have set out to wage a religious war in a traditionally secular country. In addition to the conflict, the absence of a legitimate government contributes to sustaining a deteriorating humanitarian situation caused by food insecurity.

While the new unity government and transitional institutions in Bamako highlight a shift toward a Malian-owned peace process, a holistic and sustainable response to the crisis requires stronger partnerships between ECOWAS and the Malian authorities as well as between President Alassane Ouattara of Côte d’Ivoire, the current ECOWAS president, and the incoming African Union (AU) Commission chairperson, the South African Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma.


In 2011, the demise of the Qaddafi regime and the end of the war in Libya forced heavily armed Tuareg fighters to return to Mali, who reactivated old claims for autonomy as a response to political and socio-economic grievances. The ethnic Tuareg subsequently launched an insurgency in northern Mali in January 2012, which was followed by a mutiny and a military coup led by mid-ranking officers in the south in March. The poorly paid and ill-equipped soldiers complained about the weak response the corrupt government in Bamako had given to the Tuareg rebellion. However, rather than solving the crisis, the coup contributed to further unsettle the country, allowing Tuareg fighters to gain more ground and facilitating the multiplication of criminal and Islamist groups in an increasingly “ungoverned space.”

Initially a fight against political discrimination and for better socio-economic conditions led by the Azawad National Liberation Movement (MNLA) – which proclaimed an independent Azawad state in early April in violation of the AU’s principle to protect members states’ national unity and territorial integrity – the rebellion in northern Mali has now turned into a religious battle waged by al-Qaida-linked groups including Ansar Dine (or Defenders of Faith in Arabic) and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA), which pushed out MNLA from Gao in June. Since taking over the northern half of the country, both movements have begun to impose a strict interpretation of sharia law on the local population.

People drinking alcohol and women seen with their heads uncovered were whipped; a couple accused of adultery was stoned; and a petty thief had his hand cut off. Moreover, Ansar Dine proceeded to deliberately destroy centuries-old mausoleums in the historic city of Timbuktu, which UNESCO had declared as a world heritage site. This destruction was qualified as a possible war crime by the International Criminal Court (ICC) prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda. There could be a future ICC investigation into this as well as other crimes such as reported cases of abductions, killings, rapes, and the recruitment and use of hundreds of children for military purposes.

Increased insecurity in the north is worsened by a deteriorating humanitarian situation. Water scarcity, poor rural infrastructure, and volatile prices give rise to food insecurity across Mali and the Sahel region. As a result, 4.6 million people are in need of assistance according to the Food and Agriculture Organization. Close to 500,000 Malians – including over 250,000 registered refugees in neighboring Niger, Burkina Faso, and Mauritania – have been displaced due to both conflict and food insecurity. The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs has declared that 80 percent of Mali’s humanitarian needs are located in the south and could be addressed in the current context of relative stability. However, as for the security crisis in the north, an effective response to the humanitarian challenges facing Mali calls for an inclusive, legitimate, and accountable government in Bamako.

Despite committing to hand over power to a civilian government after an ECOWAS-brokered agreement in early April, the military junta, led by Captain Amadou Haya Sanogo, has continuously interfered with a weak government appointed to resolve the crisis in the north and lead the country to free and democratic elections. Moreover, a brutal attack by a military-backed mob on interim President Dioncounda Traore in May – which sent him to France for two months of medical treatment – and Prime Minister Cheick Modibo Diarra’s close ties with the junta leader rapidly eroded the credibility of the first post-coup government. Neither the interim President, nor the Prime Minister attended a July ECOWAS summit in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, which convened to devise a roadmap for tackling the crisis in Mali.

After months of ECOWAS negotiations, the expanded government of national unity confirmed controversial Prime Minister Modibo Diarra in his functions. While a new ministry of religious affairs takes into account the Islamic rise in a traditionally secular society, the military gets to keep five posts including the strategic ministries of the Defense, Security, and Territorial Administration, which will be tasked with the preparation of elections. Additional transitional institutions have been established, among which a national commission for negotiation, which is expected to begin, with the assistance of ECOWAS and other neighboring countries, a dialogue process with the rebels in the north. Some Malians have questioned the West African mediation, which has been perceived as advancing regional leaders’ interests. Thus, the new transitional government and the national commission for negotiation can be seen as paving the way to a more Malian-owned peace process.

Furthermore, a recent declaration by the Malian military rejected the deployment of any ECOWAS troops in Bamako, suggesting instead that a 600- to 800-troop regional force could support a national intervention in the north. This proposal is far below the 3,200 troops proposed by ECOWAS and authorized by the AU to support the transitional process; restructure and reform the security and defense force; and assist in restoring State authority in the north and combating terrorism and criminality. The position of the Malian military is thus another illustration of the distance between those pulling the strings in Bamako and the West African bloc. ECOWAS is waiting for a formal request of support from the Malian government for its military intervention. ECOWAS has also yet to obtain a mandate from the UN Security Council, which requested further information on the objectives, means, and modalities of the proposed regional force to authorize the mission.

Core countries in the region, namely Algeria and Mauritania – which have also been facing an insurgency by al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb – have expressed reservations to a military solution in northern Mali. Increased recruitments of combatants by armed groups that have generated considerable amounts of money from hostage taking and drug trafficking, the complexity of a terrain unknown to most West African soldiers, and the lack of adequate equipment are important elements to consider before an ECOWAS force is deployed in Mali.

Acknowledging the complexity and multidimensional nature of the Malian crisis, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has warned that “its resolution requires a holistic and comprehensive approach, rather than partial and disconnected measures.” The persistent lack of a common and comprehensive response strategy provides unnecessary time to the radical Islamic groups in the north to entrench their power and further terrorize the population. With the support of the international community, a sustainable solution to the crisis in Mali calls for enhanced collaboration between ECOWAS and the Malian transitional authorities, however arduous that may be. In addition, with a change of leadership at the AU, addressing the crisis in Mali and preventing it from spreading to the entire region will require Ivorian President Alassane Ouattara, as the current ECOWAS chair, to work closely with the incoming chairperson of the AU Commission, South African Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma. It was South Africa that firmly opposed the 2011 military intervention in Côte d’Ivoire which helped President Ouattara to assume office following the contested election in November 2012. Undoubtedly, the road to peace in Mali hinges on the most unlikely partnerships.

Mireille Affa’a-Mindzie is a Research Fellow at the International Peace Institute.

Ambassador Youssoufou Bamba of Côte d’Ivoire (left), Ambassador Oumar Daou of Mali (center), and ECOWAS Commisioner for Political Affairs Salamatu Hussaini Suleiman (right) speak after a Security Council meeting on Mali. UN Photo taken by Devra Berkowitz.