Guide to the Conflict in Mali: Part 1

Map of the Mali Conflict. Illustration by Peter Ansell for La Jeune Politique.

Map of the Mali Conflict. Illustration by Peter Ansell for La Jeune Politique.


Since gaining its independence from France in 1960, Mali has been dealing with northern Tuareg separatist movements. This ethnically Arabic group roams the desert in the north of the country and has rebelled many times in hopes of obtaining independence for what they call “the country of Azawad.” Their chance came when the Libyan conflict erupted – fighting alongside Gaddafi, they got their hands on many more weapons than they had ever been able to before. After the fall of the dictator, they made their way back to Mali, heavily armed. Although the Tuareg Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, and the Salafi group Ansar Dine, whose leader is Tuareg, express different beliefs and goals, they fought side by side and secured several locations in the North.

Mali has been presented as one of the few truly democratic governments in Africa since 1992, but this so-called shining example has been exaggerated. In reality, the Malian State has been making numerous compromises, most notably with Islamists. The constant antagonism between the South, the “useful Mali” and the North, where the Tuaregs are considered to be second-class citizens, is another structural cause for the nation’s fragility.

Furthermore, democracy could not survive the loss of part of its territory. A military coup in March 2012 toppled the elected president, Amadou Toumani Touré. The military men involved in the coup accused the government of failing to deal with the Tuareg insurgency. In a great paradox, this coup created a power vacuum that made way for Islamists, who started to push south, further aggravating the issue the military rebels used to justify their seizure of power. Power struggles separated the Islamist fundamentalists from the rest of the Tuaregs – the latter lost, rendering the surge an Islamist one, led by at least three different jihadist groups – the infamous Ansar Dine, but also MUJAO (the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa) and AQIM (Al Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb).

When news that this coalition had made it to the cities of Konna and Mopti hit Paris, President François Hollande announced that France would directly intervene.


There are several concerns when it comes to France taking action in Africa in general, and even more so in one of its former colonies.

Neo-colonialism- The first accusation against France is that of neo-colonialism. However, the tendency of the past few years has been to withdraw and limit France’s involvement in Africa. Former President Nicolas Sarkozy was very reluctant to intervene in the Ivory Coast, and under his presidency, French diplomacy took a step back from West Africa, instead placing a greater focus on Asia. When Hollande took office, he announced the end of Françafrique (French Africa), as shady collusions between French and African politicians and militaries were known. With this intervention, Hollande is not completely taking back those words – he did not intervene in Central Africa despite being asked by the government because it is a “domestic issue” that “neighboring countries” can help with if necessary.

On Friday, January 18, a national solution to the crisis was found in Central Africa when President François Bozizé appointed his opponent Tiangaye as prime minister. There are important French interests in Mali, including 6,000 French citizens who reside in the country (although Hollande formally asked any non-essential personnel to leave). But the relationship between France and Mali has changed over the past sixty years. Not only has it moved away from domination to partnership, France is no longer the only player in Mali. It now has to share the market with many rivals, including China, who is now building bridges in Bamako. The intervention might help French corporations in Mali, but they will benefit other foreign investors as well, who need for the country to be stable and safe if they want to make a profit.

Hypocrisy- Libyan “freedom-fighters,” who benefited from the help of France though NATO in 2012, and North Mali “rebels” are sometimes connected. France did provide weapons for some fringe groups who were fighting Gaddafi, but this contribution is minor. Most of the weapons came from instances in which Tuareg separatists were being hired as mercenaries and fought alongside with Gaddafi. When he fell, they raided the armories, getting their hands on guns and also on vehicles. France is also partnered with Saudi Arabia and Qatar, who are believed to be among the first financial providers for the jihadist groups.

Escalation- Did France kick the hornet’s nest? Although contributions from other countries have been nothing more than encouraging words as opposed to troops or funds, this could be the start of something much bigger – a new fight against global terrorism, against a new Al Qaeda. If the Islamists were to regroup, the conflict could rapidly become the new Afghanistan – with a failed government, a foreign terrorist force locally supported by ethnic groups, and western powers left powerless. It is one thing to push a few insurgents back, but winning the war on terror is a completely different matter. The Sahel region, which is mostly a desert where nomads roam and regular armies have a hard time getting their bearings, has been a haven for Islamist terrorists who can navigate it even in large groups without being disturbed, and the backlash from disturbing them could be stronger than anything France has anticipated.


The actions taken by France are sanctioned by three UN resolutions, and follow the Malian government’s plea for help. In this way, Mali’s situation is very different from Syria’s, where western countries are siding with the rebels, the government is refusing foreign intervention, and both Russia and China are effectively blocking, through a veto in July 2012, any prospect of action. France has both legal and diplomatic legitimacy in this matter so far, with Muslim Brotherhood-controlled Egypt being the only country to disapprove of the intervention.


France supports Pan-africanism and the African-led International Support Mission in Mali (AFISMA), and its intervention can be seen as pragmatic. The first African troops, from Niger and Togo, reached the city of Bamako on Thursday, January 17 and are making their way to the frontlines. However, as proved by previous missions (such as the Nigerian army’s intervention in Liberia), these armies are not as well structured, organized or equipped as those of western countries such as France. They would not have been able to mount a joint operation in time to save Bamako. They are, however, greatly supported by the United States, who used to train the Malian army, and the European Union, who is currently doing so. It is a wish all around the board that West African armies should take matters into their own hands, unfortunately, they are not yet able to do so.


Today, the French army is one of the most powerful worldwide. It is the 14th biggest military in the world, but also has more active soldier members per capita than the United States, at one of the highest rates in the world, and the highest of the G20. France has intervened many times in Africa as part of military missions, including several in the recent past.

Counterinsurgency is believed to be one of France’s specialities, from military strategy to practice in Afghanistan. Despite the absence of drones from its arsenal, the French military can target the mobile yet identifiable jihadists, practically.

France has been actively trying to negotiate with Ansar Dine for the past three months to help resolve this conflict, but these negotiations failed. It also has many contacts with the Tuaregs and could utilize these connections to its advantage.

However, the operations could last years, and depending on the progression of the conflict, it is not assured that France could last in the long run – France’s economy is already slowing down and the budget it allocates to the military, while the largest in Europe, could probably not withstand a global conflict all by itself. France can do it, but whether it can do it alone is questionable.

The second part of this guide to the conflict in Mali will be published in the coming days. 


  1. […] from Part 1 of La Jeune Politique’s Guide to the Conflict in […]

  2. […] “Guide to the Crisis in Mali: Part 1″ and “Part 2″ – by Sasha Papazoff in La Jeune Politique […]

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