Dumping One Government Won’t Fix Mali

March’s deadly massacre exposed the lack of progress since the country’s peace accords—and the many political and security reforms that are needed.

Former Malian Prime Minister Soumeylou Boubeye Maiga (2L) is received in Mopti on his visit to Mali's central region on October 14, 2018. (Photo by Michele Cattani/ AFP/Getty Images)
Former Malian Prime Minister Soumeylou Boubeye Maiga (2L) is received in Mopti on his visit to Mali's central region on October 14, 2018. (Photo by Michele Cattani/ AFP/Getty Images)

On Thursday, Mali’s prime minister and his government resigned, four weeks after a deadly massacre in the central Mopti region. On March 23, the town of Ogossagou became the latest target in a series of attacks across the country. In the early morning, a group of about 100 armed men arrived in the village on motorcycles and pickup trucks and began to shoot people at will and burn down the village. According to eyewitnesses, the attackers “started shooting at everything that moved, old people, children, pregnant women. … Nobody was spared.” The attack on Ogossagou, with a death toll of more than 160 from the ethnic Fulani community, marked the single deadliest attack in Mali since the conflict in the country’s north with separatist groups and a jihadi insurgency in 2012.

The perpetrators are believed to be members of the ethnic Dogon militia Dan Na Ambassagou (“hunters who confide in God”), a group believed to be responsible for many atrocities in the Mopti region over the past two years. The Dogon suspect the Fulani of harboring Islamist militants, which the Fulani deny. This attack is part of a spate of intercommunal violence in central Mali, which has intensified in recent months. Fulani leader Amadou Koufa established his Katiba Macina militia roughly four years ago, consisting primarily of recruits from the Fulani population. The Bambara and Dogon communities, which mainly practice agriculture, have created their own self-defense groups, feeding a cycle of reprisals.

In the first two months of 2019 alone, the United Nations’ multilateral peacekeeping mission in the country reportedly documented seven violent incidents involving unidentified assailants, resulting in the deaths of at least 49 civilians in the central region. On March 17, a Mali-based al Qaeda affiliate claimed responsibility for an attack on an army base that killed 23 Malian soldiers, citing violence against the Fulani as the motivator. Although the former prime minister and President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita had vowed to disarm the responsible group, they have not yet done so. Four months into 2019, intercommunal violence and terrorist attacks threaten the stability of Mali, not only in the north and central areas but in the east as well.

Since the Tuareg-led rebellion in northern Mali in 2012 that prompted interventions from France and the U.N. in 2013 and 2014, the country has faced increasing violence. Four years after the signing of the Algiers peace accords with Tuareg-led rebels in the north and other armed groups, Mali’s security situation has barely improved. In February of this year, an independent evaluation of the peace accord implementation was published, which concluded that only a quarter of it has been implemented to date—mainly preliminary measures, including a mutual acceptance by the signatory parties to register combatants potentially eligible for disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration. However, the report underlines that Mali’s citizens have seen “virtually no concrete results.”

Aside from a number of terrorist groups active in the center and western border regions, militant groups are also profiting from chaos and illicit trade. Several self-defense militias have formed, seeking protection from intercommunal violence. To increase civilian security, the country must pursue a long-promised inclusive political framework and serious reform of the security sector.

Political and security reform are closely connected goals and would allow breakaway groups to play a larger role in the governance and development of the northern regions. In 2012, Mali’s government announced a comprehensive plan for decentralization of the country, but it has yet to be implemented on the ground.

The decentralization policy was meant to provide communities in the north with more autonomy in the hope that inclusion in governance would prevent local groups from taking up arms. The plans consisted of redrawing the borders of the existing regions. However, the lack of progress in the decentralization efforts, as well as the vague and arbitrary way in which the borders of the newly created municipalities have been drawn, has prompted severe criticism by different actors, including traditional local leaders who feel their authority is being undermined, communities whose request to jointly form a municipality has been denied by the government, and community leaders who lack the financial capacity to fulfill their governance duties. A shared criticism among these parties is that through the decentralization agenda, power is hijacked by local elites and power brokers.

In response, armed groups that control large swaths of territories in northern and central Mali are carving out a political and administrative role by force. Most recently, in late January, one of the signatory groups to the peace accords, the Coordination of Azawad Movements (CMA)—a rebel alliance that includes the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, a Tuareg group that played a large role in the 2012 conflict—announced de facto independence in the northern region of Kidal. The CMA’s leader, Alghabass Ag Intallah, published a set of policy measures for the region including regulations for road traffic, narcotics, and alcohol trafficking, settling territorial disputes, health issues, and the role of religious authorities in dispute settlement. The group went as far as issuing resident permits for “foreigners in the region”—effectively anyone who did not live or work in the region before these new rules were imposed. To underline the CMA’s ability to enforce these regulations, Ag Intallah also announced the launch of Operation Re-education, a two-week police operation.

Mali has a chance to address these long-simmering tensions. A revision of the constitution, meant in part to address the need to decentralize, is expected to take place before this summer. This adjusted constitution, which will be put forth for a referendum, is supposed to better represent the northern communities by recognizing claims by Tuaregs in the north by officially designating the northern provinces with the Tuareg name “Azawad.” Other than these promises of inclusion, it is not yet clear how the constitutional changes will lead to the much-needed fundamental political reforms. And this will not be an easy task: The government already faced demonstrations in 2017 during the first revision attempt, organized by the civil opposition movement Trop c’est trop (“enough is enough”).

According to the protesters, the revisions would grant exorbitant powers to the president, including immunity to prosecution while in office and the ability to appoint 30 percent of senators, the presiding judge of the constitutional court, and dismiss the prime minister at will. The movement also argued that the insecure situation in central and northern Mali made holding a free and fair vote nearly impossible. Strong opposition remains: A mix of magistrates’ and worker’s unions have united in a movement called “Don’t Touch My Constitution,��� and there have been street protests as well as judicial opposition to the reforms. In line with the 2017 protests, these demonstrators are against the extra powers the changes would grant to the president.

The protests surrounding the constitutional revisions are not the first ones Mali has faced. Former President Alpha Oumar Konaré attempted to revise the constitution in November 2001, and President Amadou Toumani Touré tried in 2012 but was cut short by a coup. In all three prior attempts, increased presidential powers were at the heart of the criticism against the reforms. It seems that Mali’s next government, regardless of who is heading it, is likely to repeat the mistake of making constitutional reform a matter of increasing its own power, rather than truly addressing the much-needed political inclusion reforms.

The central challenge is to establish both a political framework and a secure environment within which local authorities can govern and police. After France’s Operation Serval stabilized the country’s north, Mali’s government failed to provide security or justice to civilians, mainly due to a lack of control over the northern territories and the specific targeting by terrorist groups of state representatives including magistrates, teachers, and judges. Traditional leaders and authorities too have become bystanders to intercommunal violence or are directly targeted. Additionally, they have often been co-opted by the Malian government in an effort to buy peace—and have lost legitimacy with local communities as a result.

To make matters worse, local communities often view Malian security forces as part of the problem, and some soldiers have been implicated in gross human rights abuses. (Some critics believe that this is a result of the government’s complicity because the Malian security forces have allegedly armed some local militias to deal with the threat from jihadi groups.) This means that any changes to the security sector should not just restructure institutions to be more responsive to local needs but reform them from the top down.

It is not easy for a government that lacks popular legitimacy and whose security forces have been involved in human rights violations to take a central role in security and political sector reform—but Keita’s new government, once it is put together, must do so. Keita should prioritize identifying, arresting, and prosecuting the main perpetrators of attacks in order to send a clear signal that these atrocities will not be tolerated. To date, there has been little effort to provide justice for victims of abuses.

The government also needs to play a role in addressing local land disputes, one of the main drivers of intercommunal violence. In the absence of state security, nonstate armed groups have taken up the role of protecting local communities in these disputes. Compounding the issue is the lack of legal clarity and the lengthy and expensive registration procedures regarding land rights, often administered by government institutions far from the territories in question. Until local government authorities get more involved, reconciliation between communities will remain an empty promise.

Finally, the government should not overlook the fact that militancy has a highly limited appeal in Mali. As extensive research conducted by the U.N. Development Program indicates, “the areas where violent extremism have taken root are typically remote areas, peripheral in development terms, often ‘borderlands’ connecting two or more states.” Protecting these vulnerable and isolated communities from armed groups is the best way to diminish the influence of extremist actors.


Liesbeth van der Heide is a researcher and lecturer at Leiden University’s Institute of Security and Global Affairs and a senior research fellow at the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism, coordinating research in the field of counterterrorism in prisons.

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