Refugee exodus, militia attacks: What is happening in Mali

At least 0.1 mln refugees fled to neighbouring countries; about 1.4 mln in critical need of food assistance

By Abhijit Mohanty
Published: Tuesday 02 June 2020

Hundreds of thousands of refugees from Mali are fleeing from their homeland, marked by frequent bloody clashes between armed groups, banditry and militant attacks.

Mali is a poor landlocked country in West Africa. It is home to one of the deadliest peacekeeping operations in the world. Since 2016, about 162 peacekeepers have been killed and 513 wounded — most as a result of ambush launched by the Islamist groups.

The country is in turmoil since the armed group took over north Mali in 2012. But to understand this conflict, there are a few things that one needs to know about the country’s history.

For nearly six decades, Mali was under French colonial rule. In 1960, the country got independence from France, but possession of powers was dominated by the people from south — where most of the population lives and where the capital Bamako is.

The ethnic minority lives in the sparingly populated northern part of the country, which is unrepresented, marginalised and mistreated by the state government.

Ethnic tensions have long existed in Mali, but years of neglecting the northern communities and brutally quashing on dissenting movements led to an unprecedented revolt. The largest ethnic minority in the north, the Taureg, have led multiple uprisings.

In 2012, Taureg separatist succeeded in uniting militant groups in the north to wage the most organised rebellion that the Sahara has seen.

After the fall of Gaddafi in Libya, many Taureg separatists that had joined his ranks returned to Mali with sophisticated weapons and cash. By April 2012, they had captured the north and declared an independent state called ‘Azawad’. But the alliance had already begun to fracture, and a new Islamist extremist group, Ansar Dine, took over the rebellion with the help of al-Qaeda affiliates.

In the South, anger over losses in North led to an impoverished coup. In a matter of months, half the country was under the control of jihadist groups and the other half under junta military group. This set a backdrop of a major humanitarian crisis in the Sahel — for the third time in ten years, the region was hit by a major drought that affected millions.

Considering the desperate appeals from the Malian government that fears the jihadist groups are planning to overrun the capital Bamako, the French military intervened and recaptured the north. In June 2012, a peace deal was signed by the government and the Taureg separatists. This set in motion the creation of a United Nations peacekeeping force called MINISUMA.

Despite the peace-deal, intense fighting over the next few years resulted in another peace-deal in 2015. Since then, the peace process has stalled and the conflict has entered a new phase. The Malian government has been gradually losing its grip on the territory.

Attacks from the jihadist and armed groups are on the rise and violence is spilling over Mali’s border. Joseph Brunet-Jailly, lecturer at Sciences Po in Paris, said, “The peace-deal without actually spelling out, plans for the autonomy of a vast region is obviously suicidal, for the north of Mali, as for Mali as a whole”.

Mali has caught the attention of many western countries that see the volatility in the region as a global security threat. And hundreds of thousands of African refugees are arriving at their borders. Speculating the region’s collapse into lawlessness if nothing was done, five African countries alongside France created the G 5 Sahel Joint Force. Its job is to fight against terrorism and crime in the region as well as provide intelligence support. The UN deployed around 15,000 personnel in 2013 to stabilise security in Mali.

But despite such counter-terrorism initiatives, the situation in Mali has not improved.

“Mali is facing a war,” warned President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita. Recently, 153 people died in one of the worst attacks between the rival tribes. Thomas Dempsey, a retired United States army colonel and professor at the Africa Centre for Strategic Studies, said, “In a Malian war, multiple factions will likely emerge, making it difficult for western forces to identify legitimate allies.” 

To make the situation worse, the underreported drug trade is supplying an endless amount of illicit money to the extremist groups, further complicating the situation.

There are different layers of conflict drivers that feed the danger in Mali. For instance, apart from burgeoning narcotic smuggling, there is a high rate of trafficking, criminal activities, tensions between various ethnic tribes and groups and an influx of terrorists from the borders and inside Mali.

“These are deep-rooted local problems,” said Paul Melly, consultant, Africa programme, Chatham House. “Using local troops in joint-regional force is critical to combat with armed groups in the Sahel,” Paul added. 

Armed groups are gaining strength, while at the same time, the UN peacekeepers are leaving the country. Canada and the Netherlands are also pulling their military troops out of UN force in Mali. Although other European countries typically provide logistical and technical support, France is the only nation with a permanent military presence on the ground in Sahel.

“France has their specific agenda in Mali”, said Marie-Rogger Biloa from Africa International Media Group. According to Biloa: “France is backing the Taureg separatists and helping them not to respect the Algerian peace-deal accord.”

Experts said that the vital interest of France in Mali is the natural resources in the north, which is also the homeland of Taureg. Besides, Areva, the state-owned Uranium Company of France has been mining uranium in neighbouring Niger for over forty years. Therefore, any instability or violent uprising in Mali may affect the economic and geostrategic interests of France in the neighbouring countries, predicted experts

“Paris saw the MNLA as a group that could protect France’s economic interests in the region from al-Qaeda-linked fighters”, said Pape Samba Kane, a Senegalese journalist and political analyst. “And any future attempts by the central government to take full control over the nation’s natural resources.”

On paper, currently, the French military is in Mali to protect the civilians from armed groups and reinforce the territorial integrity of the country as part of Operation Barkhane and the United Nations. But the reality on the ground is slightly different. The most pressing question is whether France is in Mali to control it or protect it?

The answer is tricky.

For France, stability in the Sahel means unrestrained access to the gold and uranium mines in the region. The impoverished countries in the Sahel and sub-Saharan Africa keep light on in France — as one-third of the uranium comes from this region.

At the beginning of this year, the French President Emmanuel Macron deployed 220 additional soldiers to the Sahel in a bid tofortify the French military forces of Operation Barkhane. According to the UN, more than 4,000 people were killed in terrorist attacks in 2019 in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger.

Headlines about Mali often focus on mounting conflict and security concerns, but these stories deliberately conceal the reality for people living through over a six-year-long crisis. With 0.1 million refugees already in the neighbouring countries such as Burkina Faso, Mauritania and Niger, an estimated 1.4 million people inside Mali are now in critical need of food assistance.

As the conflict splinters, in many areas, health workers have fled or are unable to operate and health facilities are mostly abandoned. In isolated communities, malnutrition is at critical levels, with over 15 per cent of children acutely malnourished. Institutional delivery is a far cry for pregnant women.

One thing is apparent, the need for humanitarian aid in Mali is urgent, as has been recommended Médecins Sans Frontières, an international medical humanitarian organisation.

Because, it’s not the headlines, it’s the people that matter. But for the old colonial master France, it’s the headline which matters the most in Africa.

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