Military force inadequate to solve Mali’s governance crisis

By Rebecca Lowe

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France’s military intervention to combat Islamist radicals in northern Mali must be accompanied by fundamental political and economic reform to restore long-term peace and stability, according to experts in the region.

The conflict between the Malian Government and four armed groups – three al-Qaeda-linked sects and the traditional Tuareg nationalist movement – is the symptom of entrenched regional governance problems, say security specialists, which cannot be solved through force alone.

France sent in 4,000 troops on 11 January this year, but began to withdraw from the region on 9 April. Only 1,000 troops are due to remain by the end of the year, when an African force, supported by UN peacekeepers, will take over.

 Amadou Toure

Amadou Toure

While the incursion garnered widespread support, there are fears that the country may disintegrate again following France’s withdrawal. Bamako currently has a weak interim administration following a military coup in March 2012, which ousted President Amadou Toumani Touré.

‘The terrorists are able to enter very difficult terrain, or be absorbed into the towns they are familiar with,’ says Robert McFadden, Senior Vice-President of The Soufan Group, which provides global security advice to governments and companies. ‘So efforts to “defeat” the threat have to involve a 360-degree approach. The military approach is one aspect, but they need to start controlling the narrative of violence, which persuades men to fight.’

The Islamists took advantage of the vacuum of power following the coup to drive the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) out of the north, a nomadic people who had long fought for independence. While it was Touré’s failure to deal with the nomad-led rebellion that prompted the coup, the MNLA has now formed an uneasy alliance with France and its coalition forces.


  Once you think you’ve stamped out the Salafist groups in Mali, you have to figure out if they have moved to Egypt, to the Sudan, to Chad. They could be anywhere’

Edmond J Keller
Professor, UCLA, and former Director of the UCLA Globalization Research Center-Africa

Much of the Islamists’ wealth has come from major drug-smuggling operations and hostage-taking, in which members of Touré’s administration were complicit. It is the prospect of decent wages from the proceeds of these crimes that has prompted many youngsters to join their campaigns.

‘If the capacity to pay that money is severely reduced, I think a lot of the young men will happily peel off,’ says Camilla Toulmin, Director of the International Institute for Environment and Development. ‘But there needs to be a significant political and economic development settlement that allows people to believe their future prospects are better guaranteed by peace and economic development than continued rebellion.’


Many people are angry with the political elite who will be standing for election. There doesn’t seem to be anyone with the stature and the integrity to stand up to the army and force a change in the way business and politics is done.'

Edmond J Keller 
Camilla Toulmin, Director, International Institute for Environment and Development 


Such a settlement may be easier said than done. According to UCLA professor Edmond J Keller, former Director of the UCLA Globalization Research Center-Africa, the extremists’ ability to disperse and regroup may have been underestimated. ‘Once you think you’ve stamped out the Salafist groups in Mali, you have to figure out if they have moved to Egypt, to the Sudan, to Chad. They could be anywhere. There is a lot of territory to cover and the networks are difficult to penetrate.’

While global terrorist incidents are decreasing, according to the US National Counterterrorism Center, violent incidents in Africa last year reached a five-year high. The 2011 UN-sanctioned military intervention in Libya, which destroyed a key bulwark against regional extremism, is believed to have flooded the Mediterranean Basin with weaponry and mobilised a new generation of jihadists.

France is gradually withdrawing troops from Mali

France is gradually withdrawing troops from Mali

A National Commission for Dialogue and Reconciliation has been established to help address the deeply rooted challenges facing Mali, but many believe more is needed. Part of the problem, experts point out, is reluctance by North African countries to seek help from foreign forces due to mistrust and fear of becoming the next Afghanistan. A concerted ‘PR campaign’ by the media, governments and NGOs must be organised, says McFadden, ‘to propagate the message that violence is not the answer and there is not a war against Islam by foreign forces’.

It is hoped that elections in July will help to restore stability to the country. The army, led by Amadou Sanogo, currently holds the true power – an army immersed in corrupt practices and implicated in serious humanitarian abuses against civilians. The main victims have been light-skinned Malians in the north, accused of collaboration with terrorists.

‘The rule of law hasn’t been respected as well as it should have been since the coup,’ says Paul Melly, Associate Fellow of Chatham House’s Africa Programme. ‘The military largely operates outside the law. There have been quite a few severe human rights abuses and people arrested arbitrarily.’

Despite the desperate need for a democratically elected government, Melly and others have expressed concern that the elections may come too soon. They will take place during the rainy season, when many people will be planting crops, and when many displaced people will not have returned from neighbouring countries.

Toulmin believes it may be better to wait – but concedes that what the country needs may not be forthcoming soon. ‘A big problem is that many people are angry with the political elite who will be standing for election. There doesn’t seem to be anyone with the stature and the integrity to stand up to the army and force a change in the way business and politics is done. What they need is a Mandela-type figure.’