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Mali is experiencing an unprecedented level of instability and arguably the most difficult challenges since the conflict erupted there in 2012.
Despite the Algiers peace and reconciliation agreements on Mali being signed in 2015 and French and UN forces have been deployed in the country for more than three years, the crisis there is far from resolved.
Armed violence has been escalating in the north, and alarming trends are emerging in the central Mopti Region. Earlier this month, a group of Islamist militants attacked a jail in central Mali, freeing more than 100 prisoners.
What makes the renewed violence in the north and the increasingly volatile situation in the centre of the country particularly intractable is that it results less from the action of extremists and more from the negligence of the Malian authorities.
Both the northern and central regions have a history of underdevelopment, particularly when compared with the south and the areas around Bamako, the capital – home to the elites.
The north and the central regions have a young population grappling with high unemployment, as well as a lack of basic infrastructure and services such as education, healthcare, medicine and drinking water.
Corruption is rife in the Malian state and the government is yet to deliver the 200,000 jobs it had pledged to create in the marginalised northern regions. Disenfranchisement remains a strong catalyst for local tensions.
In the summer, protesters in Gao and Timbuku clashed with police forces over a lack of economic opportunities. Populations in the centre and north feel that they have been abandoned by the Bamako elites, and this frustration fuels recruitment to extremist groups.
Research by the International Crisis Group shows that extremist groups thrive amid already existing tensions between communities, and when the state is virtually absent. In Mali, groups such as Al- Qa’ida in the Maghreb (AQIM) or Ansar Dine, another militant group, are successful because they support certain communities and offer a tangible answer to the chronic lack of state authority, justice or security.
Looking at recent developments in Mali, it is clear that the state’s failure to fulfil its duties, coupled with reignited tensions, have resulted in a dramatic worsening of the security situation. The Azawad Region, in the north, was the epicentre of the 2012–13 Tuareg rebellion, later highjacked by several jihadi groups.
Although French intervention and the subsequent peace treaty brought an end to the violence between Tuareg separatists and government forces, both French and UN troops have suffered constant attacks by Islamist insurgents, particularly groups linked to Ansar Dine and AQIM.
The situation has been deteriorating over the past year, and more particularly since the summer, when former Tuareg rebels violently clashed with pro-government militias. Renewed fighting in the north along nationalistic and ethnic lines was accompanied by a surge in Al-Qa’ida attacks on French, Malian and UN forces. In the attacks, 64 peacekeepers have been killed, making it the deadliest peacekeeping mission in UN’s history.
Furthermore, although the dominant narrative in the fight against terrorism was focused on northern Mali, the escalation of armed violence in the Mopti Region could potentially result in a new source of protracted instability.
In the central region, there are historical disputes between different communities and ethnicities, notably the Fulani and the Bambara, over the management of natural resources and herding territories.
The multiple and recurring nature of attacks from jihadist or bandit groups prompted local officials to support the creation of community-based militias. These groups were initially meant to help locals defend themselves against jihadists and bandits, but they too fuelled inter-communal conflicts.
The region has also suffered deadly attacks from the Macina Liberation Front, a local offshoot from Ansar Dine, which has targeted government officials, security forces and UN convoys.
The recent immigration deal signed with the EU – dubbed ‘Money for Migration’ – could go some way towards addressing these problems. The €145 million agreement intends to facilitate job creation and enhance security in the country.
The return of government officials and security forces in the region after the French intervention was marked by abuses against local population suspected of supporting jihadists. So anything that provides cash to facilite the restoration of government authority and helps with the implementation of inclusion programmes for marginalised communities should be encouraged.
However, no immigration deal will survive for long unless the EU pays closer attention to Mali’s internal problems, and deals with these first.
This will not be easy at a time when there are many other issues facing Europe. But it is absolutely essential in order to prevent Mali’s descent into further violence.
Tristan Gueret is on a short-term research placement in the National Security and Resilience research group at RUSI. He recently completed an MSc in the Political Economy of Emerging Markets at King’s College London. @GueretTma
Banner image: A French soldier on a motorised patrol in Mali. Courtesy of France's 35th Parachute Artillery Regiment/Wikimedia