In 2014, Mali has fallen off most news agendas, replaced by more urgent and potentially more devastating conflicts in South Sudan and Central African Republic.
For Mali, however, there is some comfort in the relative obscurity, which is also a recognition that things maybe aren’t so bad anymore. The dire predictions made in 2012 and early 2013 about what would become of Mali have not come to pass. There is a democratically elected government in place, once again; a ceasefire still holds in the restive north, albeit only just; and the humanitarian situation, while still poor, is not actively deteriorating.
After 2012’s rebellion, civil war, military coup and de facto secession of the north – it truly was Mali’s annus horribilis – the country has achieved some form of stability. Yes, it is tenuous. Yes, it is only maintained thanks to the presence of thousands of French, European and African peacekeepers. But it exists – and for this Mali has the French to thank.
Vive la France! Operation Serval, the unilateral French military intervention launched in January 2013 as Islamist rebels were advancing on Bamako, was well-timed. It almost certainly prevented the collapse of Mali’s central government, and the consequent imposition of strict Islamic law on most of Mali’s population. It also staved off the probability of even more conflict between the various Islamist groups jostling for power, and ensured access for aid agencies working to alleviate the humanitarian crisis. Malian authorities were so grateful for France’s efforts that they gave French President Francois Hollande a prize camel to show their appreciation – and even replaced it a year later, after the original found its way into a delicious tagine.
Since the intervention, there have been several encouraging developments. Although still active, none of the three major Islamist groups are anything near as influential in Mali as they were two years ago. Forced out of major towns, they have been reduced to hit-and-run attacks or, in the case of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, have decided to focus instead on other targets in the region.
The drug trade that allegedly funded the Islamist group’s activities has also been disrupted. The French advance was bad for the drug business. Reporters describe how the residents of an opulent suburb in Gao known as ‘Cocaine City’ abandoned their mansions in panic, while other suspected drug dealers were attacked by vigilantes for allegedly collaborating with the Islamists. The political instability that has followed, with various groups competing for power and cities such as Kidal changing hands regularly, hasn’t helped either. Ironically, drug dealers (like most other businesspeople) require some degree of law and order to do business.
‘There’s this idea that ungoverned spaces mean that the drug trade can go through easily. Actually what’s quite important for traffickers sometimes is to have a stable state that provides you with good infrastructure, good airports, good roads, where you can trade your drugs through … state weakness doesn’t always mean it’s beneficial to the drug trade,’ commented Gernot Klantschnig, co-author of Africa and the War on Drugs. (Of course, too much stability is bad for the drug business too – it is precisely because of the unregulated airstrips and easily corruptible officials in countries like Guinea-Bissau and Mali that these places became so attractive to traffickers in the first place.)
Not that everything has gone according to plan for the French, or for Mali. Infamously, Defence Minister Laurent Fabius said the French military presence in Mali would last ‘a matter of weeks’. He was wrong. It’s been nearly 18 months, and although the French contingent has been drawn down, there are still 1 600 French soldiers in Mali, and they’re not going anywhere soon. Mali might be more stable, but it is nowhere near stable enough.
As if to underscore this, fighting broke out in the key northern city of Kidal on 17 May – just days before Fabius was hoping to announce the end of Operation Serval. Mali’s Prime Minister Moussa Mara had made an ill-advised visit to the city, and was greeted with gunfire from militants belonging to the Tuareg nationalist National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) – the separatist group that started Mali’s swift downward spiral with their rebellion in early 2012. A nasty confrontation followed over the next few days between the resurgent militants and a bullish Malian army force. At least 50 soldiers were killed, and another 50 taken hostage, and by the end of it the MNLA controlled the city and were able to dictate terms for a new ceasefire. It was, concluded the Economist, ‘Mali’s worst crisis’ since the military coup.
France was instrumental in negotiating the ceasefire, and dissuading the rebels from marching on Timbuktu. That it can do so is significant. No one else seems to have the authority to act as interlocutor. But it raises even more concerns, most importantly about what happens in Mali if and when the French do depart.
Operation Serval was not a magic bullet. While it may have halted Mali’s collapse, it certainly didn’t fix any of the underlying problems that caused the crisis in the first place. Some of these have yet to be addressed.
For one thing, the central government, even under a new president, has retained many of its bad habits. Nepotism, corruption and extravagant spending are all still prevalent. An example: the International Monetary Fund has suspended any further budget support until the government explains why it saw fit to purchase a $40 million presidential jet.
For another, the economic inequalities between northern and southern Mali persist, and may be getting even worse. The south has always been more populous, more fertile and prosperous in comparison to the north (although this is very relative: Mali as a whole remains one of the poorest countries in the world, ranked 182nd of 186 countries assessed on the UN’s Human Development Index). Since the French intervention, the return of aid money to Bamako has kickstarted the south’s economy, while the north remains in the doldrums. Of course, systemic issues like this cannot be solved overnight, or even in the course of a few years. Nonetheless, extreme poverty coupled with obvious inequality are always grounds for unrest.
But perhaps the most significant threat to Mali’s stability is exactly what sparked the crisis last time round: the separatist aspirations of the MNLA. French muscle and diplomacy cannot keep the group in check forever. ‘So far, France has been able to leverage the Tuareg influence to help it control the north, but has failed to make any headway on their political aspirations’, said David Zounmenou, a senior researcher at the Institute for Security Studies. ‘It was a kind of balancing act for France, seeking to work with the MNLA to identify and free French hostages while at the same time offering support to Mali. That dilemma is what is likely to ruin the overwhelming sympathy France enjoyed initially,’ said Zounmenou.
In the nearly 18 months since the first French bombs were dropped on Islamist positions, Mali – on the brink of political and humanitarian disaster – has managed to just about get back on its feet. This is a significant achievement, and represents an effective riposte to all those knee-jerk critics of western intervention in Africa. It is not, however, the end of the road for Mali, which still faces some daunting challenges. Most notably, the new government must find a way to meaningfully include the restive Tuaregs in the political system, or risk repeating the devastating mistakes of the last few years. Until then, the French probably aren’t going anywhere.
Written by Simon Allison, ISS Consultant.