Why Do Political Challenges in Mali Persist?

Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta arrives to attend celebrations marking Mali's 58th anniversary of independence in Bamako on September 22, 2018. (ANNIE RISEMBERG/AFP/Getty Images)

Last week, rights groups expressed concern about the increase in violence between ethnic militias in Mali that has resulted in the deaths of hundreds. Since the beginning of the crisis in central Mali in 2015, over 1,200 people have been killed according to some reports. Why, amid years-long widespread violence, is there so much continuity in Malian politics?

On one level, Mali has experienced tremendous upheavals since the early 1990s, a pivotal period in its history. Since that time, there have been two successful coups against central governments, six presidential elections, three different two-term civilian presidents, three major rebellions in the north, and four prominent peace agreements. With a median age around sixteen, meanwhile, the early 1990s are outside of living memory for well over half of Mali’s population.

On another level, there has been astonishing continuity since the early 1990s in terms of who comprises the political class in Mali, both in Bamako and in the far northern city and rebel hub of Kidal. For example, Mali’s current president, Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta, was prime minister from 1994 to 2000. The present-day leading opposition politician, Soumaïla Cissé, was finance minister during roughly the same period.

Other actors have made more dramatic transitions. Iyad Ag Ghali, the leader of a separatist northern rebellion that began in 1990, is now a hardened jihadist. He has gone from negotiating with the Malian government in the early 1990s—and even serving as a Malian diplomat—to heading the formidable jihadist coalition Jama‘at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (The Group for Supporting Islam and Muslims). The point here, however, is that he remains central to understanding politics and conflict dynamics in Mali. The forms of conflict have changed, and new actors have entered the arena, but many of the old actors are still present and even, in their own ways, dominant.

But given that ordinary Malians would have so many reasons for resenting and overthrowing these figures, the question is particularly acute there—why has so much of the status quo persisted for so long? In a new report for the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation, I give two main answers.

First, the country’s violence does not fundamentally threaten some of the key actors in Bamako or Kidal. Many of these actors have a genius for political and physical survival. Assassinations do sometimes target senior politicians and militia commanders—such as the Tuareg politician Cheikh Ag Aoussa, who died in an unsolved car bombing in 2016—but assassinations are not as common as one might expect. Figures with seemingly irreconcilable political divisions, such as Iyad Ag Ghali and the loyalist Tuareg militia leader El Hadj Ag Gamou, simultaneously have surprisingly close familial and interpersonal ties; e.g., Ag Ghali is married to Ag Gamou’s ex-wife.

The violence, moreover, constitutes a “wartime political order” that these leaders find navigable. This is not to say that they prefer violence, but they can cope with it and even thrive amid it. The 2018 presidential election offers one example of how this works. In general, President Keïta and the northern ex-rebel bloc the Coordination of Azawad Movements (CMA) have major tensions concerning the implementation of the 2015 Algiers Accord, a key peace agreement. But Keïta and the CMA reached common ground concerning the elections, with the CMA helping to secure the vote and with northern regions—partly, it seems, under the CMA’s influence—voting massively to re-elect the president. In other words, Keïta and the CMA may disagree on a lot of things, but they can agree to help each other maintain position and power.

Secondly, peace agreements and conflict resolution mechanisms often inadvertently both extend the conflict and empower the same figures who have been on the scene since the early 1990s. For the purposes of the Algiers Accord, the dominant actors in peacemaking are the central state, the CMA, and loyalist militias—with Ag Gamou most prominent among the latter. Foreign powers consider these actors their primary interlocutors, which further entrenches their positions.

At the same time, however, the Accord and related processes unwittingly encourage fragmentation within both rebel and loyalist ranks—new groups form or break off from existing groups in order to demand a share of the wartime order and the anticipated spoils of peace. Various problems ensue, as the government and its external partners must decide whether to extend the Accord to encompass new groups—and in this way incentivize further fragmentation—or leave the new groups on the sidelines and allow them to play the role of spoilers.

The jihadists, who were never included in the Accord, are positioned as the ultimate spoilers. The central government intermittently considers the possibility of opening a dialogue with them, and particularly with Ag Ghali, but foreign backers, particularly France, are openly reluctant to see that proposal advance. The internal contradictions and glaring limitations of the formal peace process have made the Algiers Accord a feature of the status quo of Malian politics, rather than a mechanism for moving to a new status quo.

One partial exception to these trends—and particularly to the trend of leaders maintaining their power over decades—is the multi-sided violence in the Mopti region. In Mopti, a jihadist insurgency has intersected with violence by ethnic “self-defense” militias, bandits, the Malian armed forces, and other actors. The violence has activated longstanding, hyper-local grievances over the management of pastures, farmland, and water.

In contrast to the violence in the north, the violence in Mopti has brought figures to the fore who were marginal in the 1990s. The major example is the jihadist leader Amadou Kouffa, who rose from itinerant preacher in the early 2000s, to a third-tier jihadist actor in the 2012 rebellion, to the dominant jihadist in Mopti. After 2012 and particularly after 2015, Kouffa’s forces expanded in part due to widespread resentment against village-level authorities, with Kouffa’s young fighters assassinating village heads, demanding the implementation of their version of Islamic law, and overturning older and widely despised systems for managing pastures.

Recently, French counterterrorism forces claimed to have killed Kouffa, but that event may usher in greater fragmentation in Mopti and may elevate lesser-known figures. In Mopti, there are hints of what the darkest future for Mali might look like: violence that overturns even the “wartime political order” that established elites can still navigate, and generates a situation where the central government does not just lose physical control of the territory but also loses the ability to negotiate settlements with local elites. For the moment, though, the violence in Mopti still does not fundamentally threaten the central state, and thus it is a part, albeit the most volatile part, of the status quo.

Is there a way to resolve this complex crisis? Admittedly, the list of diagnoses is long, while prescriptions short. In part this is because the solution is somewhat self-contradictory. In the short term, Mali may actually need more settlements between the figures who have dominated the scene since the 1990s, including a settlement between the central government and Ag Ghali. But in the long term, Mali will need more mechanisms for ordinary people to have the decisive say in who rules Mali and how it is ruled. Eventually, in other words, Malians will have to have choices that go beyond selecting which old men will take the key positions in government, and which militias will control which areas.