In the wake of the Mali conflict


Another chapter of the war on terror? A conflict of nationbuilding and statebulding? Or a strange combination of both?

Hungarian and international audience following foreign affairs probably got acquainted with the Mali question in 2013, after the beginning of the French military intervention.  The situation, which can be observed in the Western African country, is however the result of a longer process: the current series of events can be regarded as the escalation of an old conflict as a consequence of certain circumstances. My analysis is divided into two parts. The aim of the first is to unfold these circumstances in order to put the Mali civil war in a wider context of the local and international political interests identifiable in the region. We can distinguish three determining factors in chronological order: direct effects of the Libyan war, domestic political crisis after the military coup and finally, the motivations of the international community and of France, in particular.

maliMapThe society of the country which attained its independence in 1960 is ethnically divided. The secessionist movement of the Tuaregs living in the northern part of the country and amounting to 10% of the total population of 16 million people has been accompanying its history. The black population consisting of four significant groups (Mande, Fula, Voltaic and Songhai) is predominant with its share of 85%, but the Tuaregs live in a homogenous ethnic block covering almost half of the territory. This ethnic group, which has strong positions in the Trans-Saharan trade to the present day, lives in five different countries (Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, Algeria and Libya). In contrast with the Kurds living in similar division, in their case we cannot talk about transnationalized national aspirations aiming to found a unified nation state. These are rather country-specific secessionist movements and only the Mali separatists could reach the level of an armed uprising. They have made claims on the Timbuktu, Gao, Kidal triangle and the Northwestern part of the country bordering Mauritania.

  1. The role of Libya and the islamization of the rebellion

The Tuareg movement received new impulse in the fall of 2011, when the rebels established the Azawad National Liberalization Movement (MNLA), roughly at the same time when Muammar Gaddafi died. The collapse of the Libyan regime was in close and direct connection with the evolution of events in Mali since the Tuareg mercenaries coming from abroad accounted for one of the most important pillars of the system and relevant factors during the civil war. After the death of their “employer” most of the battle-hardened soldiers experienced in desert warfare looted the arsenals in Libya and came back to Mali, to the home country for most of them. The return of the mercenaries lent an Islamist character to the rebellion, which stood on secular bases thus far and aimed only to take possession of the territories mentioned above. Several Islamist organizations appeared in the country, among others the cells of Al-Qaida operating in the Maghreb region. On the one hand, their appearance strengthened the movement, but on the other hand it invoked the danger of dividing the forces. The objectives of the Islamists were not identical with the original Tuareg secessionist ambitions, some actors aimed at the islamization of the whole country, while the goal of more ambitious groups was to spread the jihad in Northwestern Africa.

  1. Domestic political crisis evolving after the military coup

The military coup during the summer of 2012 was led by General Amadou Sanogo, whose education on democratic values was financed by Washington, opened a window opportunity for the rebellion evolving in the North.  The coup against the democratically elected president put the country in a relative isolation within the African Union and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and generated public disturbances in the capital. While the new leadership dealt with the serious challenge of gaining legitimacy and regaining some scope for action in foreign policy, rebels marched towards the South achieving more and more success. The Islamist wing of the fighters even introduced the religious law of the Sharia in certain places. The government’s forces were unable to cope with the situation; in December 2012 it seemed that even Bamako could fall.

  1. Interests of the international community and the motivations of France

In January 2013 it was clear for everyone that government forces cannot fight off their enemy and the only solution is an international intervention. Nevertheless, how did the fate of the Western African country became so significant – in the first place for France – that the intervention on January 11 could be launched?

To answer this question we could come up with two decisive and some supplementary arguments. The most important objective was to prevent the emergence of a failed state which would serve as asylum and base for international terrorism, or the emergence of an Islamic fundamentalist one interwoven with the Al-Qaida or other international terrorist organizations. It would be a dangerous scenario also because of the possible effects on other countries of the region, since both Chad and Niger are vulnerable states and in Northern Nigeria Boko Haram – a jihadist organization – has strong positions. If we add Somalia to the picture, which has caused great anxiety for a long time, it becomes distinctly visible that in fact the whole Sahel region is a potential source of instability.

It is clear that France is connected to Mali due to its colonial history, the French citizens residing in the country and the region and its economic interests. Especially the uranium production in Niger is of great importance, which covers 33% of the uranium consumption of France which ranks first regarding the share of nuclear energy worldwide. The Areva energy company, in which the French state has majority ownership recently made investments extending its capacity near the Mali border. In addition, the worldwide race between the United States and China has to be stressed for the oil reserves of West Africa. Nevertheless, beyond the previously mentioned security questions, the second decisive argument is to be found in the domestic politics of France. More specifically in the maneuvering of Francois Hollande – elected half a year before the intervention – to improve his popularity index. According to the IFOP public-opinion research institute the popularity index of the French president in December 2012 was 37%,[1] which is 24%[2] lower than in May. There is an old tradition among French statesmen to utilize foreign political activism in domestic politics; it is enough to recall Napoleon III and his bonapartist politics.

To sum up, it could be reasonably argued that the collapse of the Libyan regime, the political crisis in Bamako and the interests of the international community and France collectively led to an international intervention. Besides France, African states play the most important role in the mission called MINUSMA, established with the authorization of the United Nations Security Council Resolution 2100. The second part of the analysis will discuss the experiences and results of the period from the intervention and the possible perspectives of the conflict.

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Bálint Vidovics

About Bálint Vidovics

My name is Bálint Vidovics, third year law student at the Eötvös Loránd University and member of the Mathias Corvinus Collegium. I have my bachelor’s degree in international studies from the Corvinus University of Budapest. My field of interest is first of all international law and the law of the European Union, but on the blog rather complex foreign political analyses could be expected of me.

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