Rebuilding Mali: How to Address the Political and Socioeconomic Issues

Rebuilding Mali requires addressing political and socioeconomic needs in Mali, and the broader Sahel region.

By Samia Basille
September 29, 2013

War is now over in Mali, but many challenges remain in order to ensure its peace and security. France, Chad, and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) intervened in January 2013 after 1,500 Islamists took control of the central Malian city of Konna. At the time, the North had fallen in the hands of the Salafi group, Ansar Dine, and the Tuareg group, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (NMLA). France and its African allies successfully repelled the Islamists from the region and returned it to Bamako's control in a matter of weeks.

This quick victory needs to be followed by ambitious measures for long-lasting peace. The Ouagadougou accords - signed in June between the previous government and Tuaregs from both the NMLA and the High Council for Unity of Azawad (HCUA) - have ensured only tenuous stability in the country. The rebels agreed to a ceasefire, allowing peaceful presidential elections to take place in July and August. In return, the newly elected president, Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, must open negotiations with the Tuaregs over the status of the North within 60 days after his election. Moussa Ag Assarid, spokesman for the NMLA, threatened to resume armed conflict if the Tuaregs’ demands are not satisfied. However, while the NMLA claims that Azawad (a region which covers the Northern regions of Gao, Timbuktu, and Kidal) is autonomous, President Keita is not ready to give up Mali's unity. Ideological divides between the secular NMLA and the Islamist HCUA will further complicate discussions.

Although the legislative elections in November may foment violence, France plans to reduce its forces from 3,200 to 1,000 troops by the end of the year. The United Nations Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA), which replaced African troops on July 1, is composed of only 5,000 soldiers instead of the 12,000 that were announced. The European Union Training Mission in Mali (EUTM Mali), which recently formed a second Malian battalion of 700 men, is supposed to end its mission in March 2014. However, it is likely that the Malian army will not be operational by that time.

Moreover, economic and political underdevelopment in the rural countries of Sahel fuels violence and proliferation of terrorist activity in the region. Most of the international economic aid responds to immediate needs during food security crises, but does not sufficiently address structural issues. French bilateral aid to the region averages only 0.14% of its annual global aid. While agricultural production is the main economic activity in Africa, aid to agricultural development in the world has decreased by 77% between 1983 and 2006. Worse, the Millennium Development Goals for 2015 do not even mention rural development. The situation cannot improve until these fragile zones have improved production techniques and effective local administrations. Furthermore, institutional corruption is deeply rooted and jeopardizes development.

France needs to address each of these problems to avoid America’s mistake in Afghanistan. First, it must be careful not to withdraw its troops too quickly. The situation is still precarious, and Paris must keep Tuareg violence in check during the legislative elections. Tensions are still high in the North, as shown by a clash between the Malian army and NMLA members in Léré on September 12. Moreover, jihadist groups could take advantage of instability and thus perpetrate attacks. French soldiers recently found a vehicle containing almost a ton of explosives near Anéfis (northwest of Mali). Since the Malian army is not yet ready to ensure security and needs more training, the EUTM Mali should be extended another year, as the head of the mission Gen. Bruno Guibert requested.

Second, Paris must open dialogue with both the Malian government and the NMLA, and assist them during negotiations to find points of agreement. Assarid insists that the French have the keys for a solution in Azawad. The NMLA, which at first allied with Ansar Dine to gain control of the North, ended up fighting with French troops against Islamists because of ideological disagreements between the two rebel groups: while the Tuaregs wanted Azawad to become a secular and independent state, the Salafis advocated for a unified Mali under Sharia law. The NMLA notably provided France with GPS data for bomb targets. Paris must now use its influence to help the parties reach an agreement that both preserves unity of Mali and ensures the Tuaregs that their demands will not be disregarded.

Third, France must tackle the structural socioeconomic issues that affect the Sahel. Without a comprehensive plan to support agricultural production, reform governmental institutions, and reinstate territorial administrations in weak zones, food insecurity will sustain violence and extremism. Since France cannot do it alone, multilateral organizations such as the World Bank must be involved. However, economic aid will never be effective as long as corruption remains unpunished. For a long time, corruption has undermined institutions and jeopardized development in the region. In Mali, it even destroyed the army, contributing to the nation’s defeat at the hands of jihadists. Therefore, France should direct its efforts to fight corruption through legal assistance and law enforcement cooperation under Chapter IV of the United Nations Convention against Corruption.

Rebuilding Mali requires addressing the security, political, and socioeconomic needs of the entire Sahel region. It is the only way to fight the violence and terrorism that threaten the region.

Samia Basille is a first-year MA candidate in International Affairs with a concentration in International Security at the Elliott School of International Affairs. She previously studied Political Science at Sciences Po Rennes (France).

Photo courtesy of MINUSMA/Blagoje Grujic via Flickr.

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