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Mali Debriefing – 2015

Tuareg Nomad outside Timbuktu Mosque

Tuareg Nomad outside a mosque in Timbuktu

Mali is a landlocked country in central west Africa that has a population of over 19 million, about 10% or around 2 million of which live in the capital city Bamako. Due to its history under French colonial rule, French is the official language, but approximately 80% of Malians can communicate in the most prevalent local language of Bambara. Over 60% of the country still lives in rural areas, and 5-10% pursue a traditional nomadic lifestyle. Malians represent many different ethnic groups, the most prominent of which are the Mande (50%), followed by Fula (17%), Voltaic (12%), Tuareg and Moor (10%) and Songhai. Mali is one of the hottest countries in the world, as more than half the country is primarily Sahara desert, though the three regions in the northeast (the states of Timbuktu, Kidal, Gao) hold only 10% of the population. Mali is 90% Muslim, the vast majority of whom are Sunni Muslim, while about 5% identify as Christians and another 5% ascribe to indigenous African religions.

Map showing the regions of Mali including the claimed state of Azawad

Map showing the regions of Mali including the claimed state of Azawad

Mali has a considerable amount of natural resources including gold and uranium, but simultaneously is one of the least developed and poorest nations in the world. Over 80% of Malians are involved in the local agriculture industry, and the country’s biggest trade partner is France. Perhaps the most significant reason why so many Malians are stuck in a cycle of poverty is because of the failures of its education system. Malian primary school enrollment is low at 61% (ages 7-13) but secondary school enrollment (ages 13-18) drops even more to only 15% despite school being compulsory until age 16. The literacy rate is estimated between 27-46% and both enrollment and literacy rates are alarmingly worse for girls and women.

The Malian government is becoming more pro-Western over time, though it has retained an ambivalent relationship with France especially in terms of newer security threats. Since 2012, unrest in the north has persisted between various Islamist groups, Tuareg rebel militants, and the Malian government backed by the French and other international organizations. The November Radisson Blu hotel attack by terrorist group Al-Mourabitoun in conjunction with the region’s Al-Qaeda affiliate underscored the fragility of the west African country in particular.

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Mali’s president Ibrahim Boubacar Keita

Mali celebrated its independence from France in 1960, but did not hold its first democratic elections until 1992. Amadou Toure served as president from 2002 until 2012 and made significant progress in public health initiatives including efforts against Guinea Worm, AIDS, and polio during his tenure. From the mid-late 2000’s, there were numerous brief ceasefires between the government and Tuareg rebels interspersed with periodic clashes and violence. Toure was criticized especially in the later years of his presidency for this failure to stem increasing unrest in the country’s northeast which led to a military coup and his resignation in 2012. After the military coup the country transitioned back to democracy in 2013 which has since led by Ibrahim Boubacar Keita (commonly referred to as IBK). IBK’s party seeks to promote a secular, social democracy, and is a member of the Socialist International organization.

  • 2011: Rebellion reignites after Libyan Civil War due to Tuareg militants returning  to northern Mali
  • March – April 2012 Tuareg rebels effectively control north half of Mali including Timbuktu, Kidal, Gao. Rebels self-declare independent state of Azawad
  • March 2012: African Union suspends Mali’s membership following military coup
  • Late 2012: UN and African Union back West African regional grouping ECOWAS in military expedition against rebels/various Islamists in north
  • January – April 2013: Mali asks for and receives French military help. French rapidly defeat rebels and retake key cities.  
  • 2013-present: Sporadic clashes and incidents
  • April 2015: Upsurge in fighting via clashes with UN peacekeepers
  • November 2015: Islamists storm Bamako’s Radisson Blu hotel, taking 170 hostages and killing 20 civilians

The unrest in the northeast has strengthened calls for a stronger security state while diverting attention to basic economic development and job creation. Security assistance offered by the French military, UN peacekeepers and resources, and the African Union have been critical in rolling back successes from rebels and jihadists, though their involvement has come with its own issues as well. On the ground, many Malians are distrustful of the French in particular, seeing their return to the country as a reminder of European influence and colonial control they have tried to move away from. A balance between counterterrorism and anti-rebel activities must be struck with initiatives to develop the country from the ground up. If development is ignored at the expense of short term gains against extremists, then the region will continue to harbor anti-government sentiments.

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