Mali: No Quick Fixes for a Complex Crisis
Mali: No Quick Fixes for a Complex Crisis
France’s Troop Withdrawal from Mali
France’s Troop Withdrawal from Mali
Op-Ed / Africa

Mali: No Quick Fixes for a Complex Crisis

The Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) has agreed on a revised concept of operations for the deployment of an international military force of 3,300 soldiers to help the Malian state wrest control of the northern part of the country from Islamist fighters.

This step, taken on November 11 following a collective effort by regional and international partners, is welcome. But military intervention alone cannot solve the country's deep crisis.

The situation in Mali is desperately fractious. A military coup toppled the government in March, while separatists and al-Qaeda-linked fundamentalists took over the northern half of the country. Mali is now divided geographically, politically, militarily and religiously.

The need for international intervention, with precisely identified objectives, is clear. The next step will be a resolution at the United Nations Security Council, expected by the end of this month, giving authorisation to the new mission. However, getting boots on the ground will take far longer. The restructuring and training of Malian units by a separate mission conducted by the European Union will also take some time.

In the meantime, a political process is vital.

It is necessary to make sure that the various communities of Mali truly agree on which groups should be targeted by the use of force. Some of the groups controlling the northern part of the country are clearly beyond the pale - they are terrorist groups, and they are not interested in coming to the negotiation table.

However, the situation in Mali should not be looked at solely through the lens of anti-terrorism. It is critical to isolate extremist outfits from other armed and non-armed groups in northern Mali whose grievances could be discussed within a formal framework for national dialogue.

In this regard, Algeria's recent involvement as a facilitator for preliminary talks with one of the groups, Ansar Dine, is quite positive.

Still, these discussions - conducted mainly in Burkina Faso, whose President Blaise Compaoré was appointed some months ago as the Ecowas mediator for Mali - should not end in an agreement tailored to fit the local agenda of a few opportunistic leaders of an armed group. They need to include legitimate demands of the population in the north as well. A previous effort in 2006 failed for exactly that reason, and the international community should be careful not to repeat this mistake.

In addition, efforts should address the political crisis in the south and in Bamako. The growing suspicions about the transitional authorities' personal ambitions constitute an obstacle to the resolution of the crisis. The decision taken by West African heads of state at the recent Ecowas summit that the interim president and prime minister, as well as other members of the transitional government, shall not be candidates in the next election will frustrate them. But they need to confirm their willingness to respect this commitment and focus their minds on the key challenges of the next few months.

Thankfully, the international community has finally come together in recognising the complexity of the crisis, and most acknowledge that the military intervention is just part of the global strategy needed to solve it gradually. There is now more coherence and coordination than in the last few months and the creation of the positions of UN and African Union special envoys on Mali and Sahel should help in keeping consensus on the way forward.

There are no quick fixes and the risk of escalation in the region is huge if Ecowas, the AU, the European Union and key members of the UN Security Council get it wrong.

Podcast / Africa

France’s Troop Withdrawal from Mali

In this episode of Hold Your Fire!, Richard Atwood and Naz Modirzadeh talk with Sahel experts Ibrahim Yahaya Ibrahim and Richard Moncrieff about France’s announcement it will pull troops from Mali, and what the withdrawal means for the fighting against jihadist insurgents.

On 17 February, President Emmanuel Macron announced he would withdraw all French troops from Mali after a deployment in the country of almost ten years. In early 2013, French forces together with Chadian troops ousted jihadists from cities and towns in northern Mali, which created space for a peace deal between Bamako and other, non-jihadist rebels. Since then, however, the French-led campaign against militants in the Sahel has struggled against local al-Qaeda and Islamic State branches. French operations have killed jihadist leaders, but militants have extended their reach from northern Mali to its centre and to parts of Niger, Burkina Faso and even Gulf of Guinea countries. Inter-ethnic violence has ballooned. Mali has also suffered two coups over the past couple of years. Relations between Paris and the junta currently holding power have deteriorated sharply, partly because Mali’s military leaders had agreed, mid-2021, to the deployment of Russian private military contractors to help fight jihadists. Popular anger toward France’s deployment has also mounted, seemingly partly fuelled by disinformation. 

This week on Hold Your Fire!, Richard Atwood and Naz Modirzadeh talk with Ibrahim Yahaya Ibrahim and Richard Moncrieff, respectively Crisis Group’s senior Sahel analyst and interim Sahel director, about the French decision, its causes and its implications. They look at the collapse in relations between Bamako and Paris, the direction the junta is currently taking Mali and how other countries in the region have responded. They talk through what the French departure might mean for other forces, including the UN force in Mali and the G5 Sahel regional force. They also examine the repercussions for the balance of force between jihadists and their enemies in the Sahel and ask what a future French presence in the region might look like after the withdrawal from Mali. 

Click here to listen on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.

N.B. This episode was recorded before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. 

For more information, explore Crisis Group’s analysis on our Sahel regional page. For our analysis of African perspectives of the Ukraine War, check out our commentary ‘The Ukraine War: A Global Crisis’.

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