During the most acute phase of the conflict that erupted in 2012, most of the international observers agreed on the fact that Mali was facing a two-faced and probably unprecedented crisis.
The war in the north could be understood only by taking into account the collapse of the system of governance that had ruled the country during the previous two decades. The breakdown of the Malian regime, in fact, had been accelerated but not caused by the revolt in the north, as it was primarily the result of the intrinsic limits of an inefficient, corrupted and nepotistic way of governing. Seven years later, despite the multidimensional international efforts for stabilizing the country, similar considerations can be advanced to describe the Malian security and political landscape, with the major difference that this long-lasting crisis has now partially changed its nature, presenting a third, and for different reasons even more worrying, epicenter.
In the northern regions, four years after the sealing of the Peace Agreements signed in Algiers by the Malian Government and two coalitions of rebel armed groups – namely, the Coordination of Azawad Movements (CMA) and the Platform – the Malian state is still far from re-establishing its sovereignty and exerting an effective administrative, security and territorial control. With the partial exception of the DDR (disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration) programs addressed to the former rebel combatants, the peace process remains threatened by a dangerous mix of political blockades, internal oppositions and contrasting agendas between actors who appear more and more fragmented. On the one hand, as repeatedly denounced by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, the constitutional, administrative, and development reforms contained in the peace agreements – which provoked strong popular opposition in Bamako in recent years – have never been implemented. On the other, the failed re-deployment of Malian security forces in the area (less than 3,500 soldiers and national guards are currently present in the north and the center of the country) has deeply weakened the possibility of stopping the centrifugal dynamics that are affecting the north. While the jihadist organizations – now reorganized into the JNIM and the ISGS competing terrorist ‘cartels’ – have exploited these uncertain transitions for reasserting and even reinforcing their presence, the former rebel front is becoming extremely heterogeneous and affected by numerous scissions, which are determining a situation where control of the territory remains disputed between myriad armed groups and militias, making every mapping exercise extremely difficult.
The main drivers explaining this dangerous and unstable stalemate can be found in the structure of economic and political opportunities created by the persisting conditions of low-intensity conflict. Newly formed armed groups, essentially organized around socio-political and economic entrepreneurs, reclaim their place in the still ongoing ‘post-crisis’ transition process – this is the case of the CME (Coordination des Mouvements de l’Entente), created in 2017 – while different investigations have started to denounce the free-riding or even criminal behaviors of various militias leaders, whose main interest seems to be exploiting the situation to gain material and symbolic resources. All these elements are furthering violent clashes and the use of armed violence among armed groups and against both the representatives of the state and the civilian population, while Barkhane and Minusma – by far the deadliest UN missions – appear unable (or even unwilling) to stop the deterioration of the northern crisis.
At the same time, if the persisting instability in the north represents a formidable challenge to recovering an effective and functional state, another crisis is putting into question the very existence of Mali. On 23 March of this year, around 100 armed men belonging to the Dogon militia Dan Na Ambassagou (‘hunters who trust in God’ in Dogon language) attacked the village of Ogossagou, a town mainly inhabited by the Fulani (Peul in French) people not far from Bankass, in the center of Mali, killing around 160 civilians (including women and children) and completely destroying the village. This dramatic episode is not a horrific exception in the central regions of Mali, where different observers are now openly reporting the risk that the spiral of violence affecting these lands could assume a genocidal nature. The security situation in the center began to heavily deteriorate during 2015, when the newly formed Katiba Macina – a jihadist group mainly (but not only) formed by Fulani fighters, pretending to be the successors of the theocratic Massina Empire (XIX century) – made its appearance and started to conduct attacks in the region of Mopti. The leader, Amadou Koufa, presented his group as motivated by a dual purpose, being both a Salafi organization allied with the jihadist fighters of the north, and an armed group aiming to protect the discriminated Fulani community. Ethnic and socio-economic tensions have indeed affected inter-community relations in central Mali, also as a consequence of the economic specialization that has characterized the different local communities – the Fulani historically practicing pastoralism, while the Dogon are mainly farmers. In this sense, inter-community clashes and contentious episodes have essentially been linked to conflicts concerning access to and the use of lands, in a territory where the combined effect of institutional mismanagement and climate change has heavily reduced the space for the activities of both farmers and herders. In a context where the Malian state was still trying to reassert its material and symbolic presence beyond Bamako and the southern regions of the country, Koufa’s preaching was able to instrumentally reactivate Fulani grievances. In the following years, while the official discourse started to frame the Fulani issue in terms of terrorism and security threats, various Dogon and Bambara ‘self-defense’ militias made their appearance in the area, usually with the tacit support of the central government – as in fact has been the case for the Dan Na Ambassagou. As a result, violence has spread in the region along ethnic lines, transforming the center into the most pressing and challenging security threat for Mali, with destabilizing effects that have rapidly reached neighboring regions in Burkina Faso and Niger. The Ogossagou massacre has been the most terrible episode within an ethnic conflict that has killed more than 2700 people since 2016. Once again, the Malian central authorities and security forces appear unable to limit the violence, while UN peacekeepers received an explicit mandate to act also in the center of the country only in June of this year.
Given the explosive situations in the north and the center of the country, the third pole of this ongoing crisis is represented by Bamako. Notwithstanding the flourishing of international and regional initiatives for supporting the country, six years after the election of President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita the Malian state is still unable to reaffirm its presence over its whole national territory. What is more, old practices of informal power-sharing and clientelism are still characterizing politics at all levels, while state authorities seem to lack a comprehensive and strategic vision for tackling the enormous challenges they are facing. In the north and the center, central authorities have tried to boost their influence by supporting customary leaders and presumed pro-government militias. The Ogossagou massacre has shown the limits of this approach, and it forced the former Prime Minister Soumeylou Boubeye Maiga to resign in April. At the same time, Malian security forces are indirectly accused of furthering grievances and radicalization among the populations, as a result of different accusations of abuses and human rights violations perpetrated during their interventions in the north and the center.
In this context, new actors and proposals are rising. Islamic leaders, such as the former president of the Islamic High Council, Mahmoud Dicko, are finding new room for maneuver, becoming influential actors in the Malian political arena. On the other hand, different voices are now emerging, in the government and within civil society, asking for a new approach to managing the crisis, which should be based on dialogue with all the actors involved, including representatives of the jihadist galaxy such as the Katiba Macina. Despite the opposition of most of Mali’s international partners (and of a part of the population), the government is adopting an ambiguous stand on the issue, alternating hard security initiatives with the opening of informal communication channels with rebels and jihadists. In this sense, even if the idea of negotiating with violent and extremist actors can raise different material and ethical questions and poses many risks and challenges, it still possibly represents the last chance for diverting Mali from a road that is currently leading the country towards collapse.