Au Revoir Mali, and why empty rhetoric is fueling vicious conflicts across the Sahel

After almost two years based in Bamako (hot, dirty, compelling, terrible traffic) I have just left Mali and am temporarily based in the most English city that ever was…… answers on a tacky email postcard please as I haven’t had the time nor the heart to subscribe to Instagram.

Living and working in Mali was challenging, and hugely thought-provoking: the Malians, diverse populations of some 16 million scattered across a country of 1.2 million km² , are beautiful, proud, often conservative peoples, 95 % Muslim, pragmatic who share a wonderfully dry English-ish sense of humour. I traveled North to South, spent considerable time in central Mali, and Timbuktu, and I’m very glad I stayed for two years.


The political and conflict landscapes are deteriorating as Mali confronts unresolved crises, presidential and legislative elections, and a moribund peace process that excludes the majority of Malians, including some major armed groups, like the Macina Liberation Front (MLF) who are increasingly politically active. Civil society space is contracting as communities are increasingly normalized to violence. In central Mali, especially the region of Mopti (600 KMs North of Bamako) communities are killing each other on a daily basis, mainly based on conflicts over control of water and pasture, intensified by armed and political entities manipulating the situation for their own political power, and of course for money. In this context, conflict is far more financially rewarding than peace for many “actors’, including Malian politicians, national and international troops on peacekeeping with counter-terrorist mandates, and international aid organisations mopping up the mess.

But before I get too John Pilger about all this, let me just share what I learnt during my two years in Mali: there is no singular conflict in Mali: the country is wracked by a series of unresolved historic grievances being fed by different parties invested in maintaining this violence. Why? Because these conflicts are lucrative. Not only for armed groups profiting from trafficking (of legal goods as well as drugs, arms and people) but also for military and peacekeeping entities. The UN’s multi-dimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) has a current annual budget of more than US$1.04 billion, including almost $500 million for military and police personnel. The G5 Sahel co-joint task force of five Sahel countries (Mali, Niger, Mauritania, Chad and Burkina Faso) is a multinational force with its operational HQ in Mopti, and an initial budget of $523 million to counter-terrorism in Mali and the wider Sahel.

These substantial funds, you could argue, will be well-spent if it allows these military actors to defeat Jihadist violent extremists in the Sahel, thus creating stabilization and security. But let’s just unpick this sentence for a moment, because it raises a few hard questions. What is this Jihadist terrorism in the region? What does defeating it mean, and what, in this context, is stabilization?

When I first arrived in Mali, in 2016, I didn’t hear Malians talking about jihadists: they complained about two things – criminals and terrorists, by which they often literally meant the rogue elements in their own communities who were terrorizing them, usually for money. They rarely mentioned jihadists, though some acknowledged there were men seeking to impose Sharia law locally, and banning traditional weddings celebrated with music and dancing. NGOs were the ones enquiring about Jihadists, which made me uneasy: we were risking introducing a coda to simplify the multi-layered complexities of communities living in conflict, and men joining armed groups for different reasons, including to protect themselves, and their families, as well as the much-cited reasons of poverty and unemployment and lack of education.

It’s worth noting two things here: firstly, these communities told me they were at least as afraid of Malian security forces as they were of armed groups of violent extremist jihadists: and secondly, there is no agreed international consensus on what the term “violent extremist” (VE) actually means, nor its rhetorical neighbours, countering violent extremism (CVE) and preventing violent extremism (PVE), as highlighted in this insightful recent reportSo VE programming is, literally, stabbing in the dark.

As I spent more time in the field, especially in central Mali, where I helped train security forces, I heard this jihadist and violent extremist rhetoric creeping into mainstream Malian narratives, making things simpler, though the local dynamics remained very complex. I was working with International Alert a British peace-building organisation that questions conventional military and humanitarian approaches (which I consider one of its great strengths). I co-authored a punchy  policy paper questioning “violent extremist” programming. But over the next eighteen months I saw and heard this jihadist counter-terrorist approach tightening its grip on political discourse, justifying the increasing militarization of central Mali, and the near-impunity of Malian security forces fighting, and killing, local “jihadists.”

What I didn’t hear was interrogation of where solutions lie, beyond counter-terrorist military operations in communities who distrust and despise the military, for good reasons. I didn’t hear interrogation into what security means for these beleaguered communities: for some people security means freedom of movement, for others it means paid work and a salary for their family: for many young women it means freedom from the threat of being raped by soldiers, armed groups, or members of their own families. I didn’t hear debate about developing strategies to increase trust between communities and security forces, how to increase accountability and intelligence sharing: I didn’t hear the military acknowledge they need to reduce impunity, and the targeting of certain communities en masse. Without these peacebuilding tools, they are fighting a war they cannot win.

At the end of May this year a series of communal graves were discovered in central Mali, containing dozens of bodies of men (I understand they were all men) from one particular ethnic group: the Peul, or Fulani, traditional nomadic herders, long stigmatised as jihadists by many in Mali’s security forces. The Malian Minister of Defense, Tiéna Coulibaly, was forced to acknowledge his own security forces were implicated in these killings. An enquiry has been launched: many other enquiries into security force abuses have been launched in Mali. I do not know of a single Malian soldier who has been sanctioned for violent abuses committed whilst on duty. By targeting certain already-stigmatised communities, Mali security forces are further destabilizing the region not only of central Mali, but the wider Sahel (Mali has 6 international borders which are largely unmonitored). In addition, these abuses directly assist armed groups to recruit young men, especially from Peul communities. International Alert has just published insightful regional research on drivers of conflict across the central Sahel and especially the implications for Peul communities.

To conclude in my own words (and for the record, this is a personal blog and I no longer work for International Alert) Mali’s security forces (which also include decent men and women who are troubled by these abuses) are part of an international political carousel involving national and international security forces, the Malian and international governments and donors, and humanitarian organisations, that are failing to confront the essential reasons why these conflicts are becoming more entrenched, not less. Because in this context, violent conflict is incredibly profitable. Mali’s trafficking routes are making some people unbelievably rich and influential. Meanwhile, violent conflict has become the daily normality for many Malians, especially in rural areas (where most Malians live) who must wonder, how you can have so many military actors operating across their country, coupled with so little security in their daily lives. One strategy to begin unraveling this toxic dynamic is long-term peacebuilding. When communities can trust security forces, and these security forces are accountable to them, at local and institutional level, this can begin to shift, but not before.

This, ladies and gentlemen, is why I believe in peacebuilding: it asks awkward questions that refocus our understanding of violent conflict, and how we can challenge its festering grip on our lives and the lives of others. Next time you read an article about “Jihadi infested Mali” (an actual NY Times quotation) please read between the lines about who is fighting, and why, and who is really winning. And losing.


55 shades of heat….. in Mali

Heat does amazing things to your body and brain. As Bamako basks (or boils) at over 41°c degrees (that’s 106 fahrenheit for the rest of us) I now think of cold liquids (water, beer, water, water, gin, water) all the time. Sweat pearls down my neck all day, my pee is almost orange and when I lie down to sleep, my bed feels like it already has a giant hot water bottle inside the mattress. This is life in Mali for the next month until la benediction of the rainy season, begins. The temperature might reach beyond 55 shades of burnished heat. When rain does fall I will dance in the raindrops, hold my face to the sky and laugh like a lion.

I’ve just returned from central Mali, the city of Mopti to be precise, where I was training security forces in conflict analysis with my wonderful team. It was intense, challenging and exhausting, especially as this is the first time I’ve trained soldiers and law enforcement officers, women and men. The trick is conveying the layers of analysis necessary to ‘read’ security situations that are so fluid they can change within hours. For the moment Mopti itself is calm, though beyond the city, communities are literally terrorized by armed groups. These are not all the infamous Jihadis stalking central and northern Mali: they include multiple other ‘actors,’ including young men who feel abandoned by the state – which they effectively have been – plus conflicts that have been festering for generations, over land use between Pheul herders and local farmers, who are mainly but not all ethnically Bambara. There are local land conventions dividing land use between herders and farmers, but communities say these are not applied, so herders and farmers now compete for these resources in often violent confrontations.

There also violent power struggles between Pheul communities themselves (who are used to be being armed as they often have to defend themselves) and these are in turn exploited by armed groups for their own ends. In addition, multiple armed groups, some very small, and not all even identified, merge and separate, build and trash alliances between themselves. Conflict analysis in Mali is complex because there are many different strands of conflict interwoven into this national context, plus the regional dynamics of Algeria and Mauritania. Believe me, this is not all about AQMI (Al Qaeda in the Islamic Mahgreb) at all.

The heat in Mopti was staggering: the legendary Harmattan gritted us with dust and coated our throats. So it was a relief to wander at late afternoon when the air had cooled just a little. In fact, the highlight of my whole Mopti visit was passing by the River Niger and seeing the local traffic – see above for one of my snapshots. Our return flight to Bamako, in a small UN plane (think of an 18 seater box in the sky) was almost cancelled because visibility was so low. I kind of wish it had been! Most of the passengers applauded when we crashed, sorry, bumped down in in Bamako – it was a plunging descent. I felt like I’d left my stomach, or what was left of it, up in the clouds.

Meanwhile, in Timbuktu there are new tensions, with a new alliance of several armed groups now calling themselves Jamaat al-Nusra Il-Islam. They have a hardline Jihadist agenda, are violently opposed to the new interim authorities governing the region until full elections can be held across Mali and have claimed responsibility for several recent attacks.  They shelled Timbuktu’s small airport on 3 May, killing a UN peacekeeper, and launched another mortar in the vicinity of the airport again last week. They claim to be taking on all countries with foreign troops based in Mali. This won’t stop me going to Timbuktu again very soon – but it does render daily life even harder for communities there, including isolated fishing communities based on small islands in the River Niger. Heat comes in many different shades. As Le Macron will see for himself when he lands here for his flash-visit to Goa, in North Mali where the majority of French Barkhane troops are based.

But this is no France -Mali state visit: Macron is not flying onto Bamako to greet President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita and his elected Government. President Keita is instead obliged to hurry on up to Gao to salute Macron, who will then streak straight back to the Elysee Palace on his private jet, job done. Power shifts and security rises and falls across Mali and right now there are numerous ‘actors’ vying for power, especially as the Malian Presidential elections loom just eighteen months ahead. Violent political positioning has begun at all levels.

To end on a more sumptuous, sunny note, savour this luscious photo of luscious mangoes I picked with one of my Malian friends on his beautiful plantation just outside Bamako a couple of weeks ago. By the end of the morning I was filthy, sweaty and starving – and very happy indeed. Who would not be with this richesse? You can almost smell them from the page, n’est pas?  This is one of the things I love about Mali, and why, for now, I am staying put.






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