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.



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