Three Recent, Compelling Pieces on Mali

Recently I’ve read three new pieces on Mali, all of which were very strong and which readers may find of interest:

  • Arthur Boutellis and Marie-Joëlle Zahar, “A Process in Search of Peace: Lessons from the Inter-Malian Agreement,” for International Peace Institute;
  • Ferdaous Bouhlel, Yvan Guichaoua and Jean-Hervé Jézéquel, “The stoning that didn’t happen, and why it matters,” for African Arguments; and
  • Niagalé Bagayoko, Boubacar Ba, Boukary Sangaré, and Kalilou Sidibé, “Masters of the land: Competing customary and legal systems for resource management in the conflicting environment of the Mopti region, Central Mali” for The Broker.

Here’s an excerpt from “The Stoning That Didn’t Happen”:

The episode stresses how complicated it is to gather information about northern Mali. AFP and RFI work from Bamako and Paris, respectively 1,500 km and 4,500 km away from the town of Kidal, where the reported events unfolded. Researchers operate from similar distances for the same security reasons.

The consequence of this is that journalists and researchers rely on indirect sources of information that are far from perfect and then do their best to triangulate them. It can often be difficult to tell whether two accounts are distinct or if they derive from the same source of information, since the same story can circulate through networks under multiple guises.

[…]

The timing of the stoning story is also important. It came as some civil society activists and politicians were calling for negotiations with Islamist leaders – calls that were abruptly rejected by authorities. It also immediately preceded French President Emmanuel Macron’s visit to Mali in which he met with French troops and re-affirmed France’s pledge to fight terrorism.

And here’s an excerpt from “Masters of the Land”:

Customary institutions are still highly relevant – and legitimate – in Central Mali today. Local communities often find it hard to grasp the role of the government in resource management. Decentralization provided a national framework for resource management in Mali by establishing regions, cercles, and communes as units of local government. Governance units are entitled to manage their own natural resources, while electing assemblies or councils to manage these collectively. This decentralization process, which was accompanied by the adoption of a number of new laws for resource management, has deeply affected agro-pastoral management principles.

This overlap and competition between customary and legal institutions (and laws) for the management of resources often triggers tensions between communities and networks involved in farming, livestock breeding and fisheries, fuelling century-old conflicts between the different communities in the Mopti region. Furthermore, the priority given by most development programmes to agriculture-oriented policies, at the expense of pastoralism, has triggered intra- and inter-communal tension, resulting in the emergence of new power relations within communities involved in resource exploitation. This is especially the case within the Fulani community, where domination between pastoral and farming populations has changed since the colonial period due to the enforced settlement imposed on nomadic populations. These upheavals have upset historical balances.

“Masters of the Land” provides an important corrective to the alarmist narrative of “Fulani radicalization” that various irresponsible people are pushing. True, the piece points to a trend where Fulani pastoralists join jihadist groups in order to gain weapons with which to fight local rivals, as well as a trend where some Fulanis are nostalgic for past Islamic empires, but the piece also shows that central Mali has witnessed a growth in (non-jihadist) “politico-military militia” and “self-defence groups.” The authors note, “These groups are sometimes difficult to distinguish from each other and their followers do not fit neatly into one sociological category.” The authors conclude, “The complexity of the recurrent and violent crises, as well as the overlapping and competing customary and legal institutions involved in the management of resources, calls for security and development activities to be better grounded on the socio-cultural context in Central Mali.” Endorsing a shallow, region-wide narrative of “Fulani radicalization” would undermine, rather than advance, such an effort to better ground security and development activities.

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Mali: France, Kidal, and the MNLA

The story I want to tell here can be told with headlines:

  • AFP, May 18: “France Accused of Favouring Mali’s Tuareg Rebels.”
  • Reuters, May 19: “After Crushing Mali Islamists, France Pushes Deal with Tuaregs.”
  • USA Today, May 20: “French Troops Depart Mali, Leaving Joy, Worries.”

These articles leave the reader with the impression that France is continuing to intervene in Malian politics even as it reduces its military presence there, and that its political stances are proving unpopular.

France and other outside powers have flirted heavily with the idea that the Tuareg-led National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad (MNLA), a movement that advocated northern Malian separatism during the early phase of last year’s rebellion, is a politically acceptable negotiating partner, and one that deserves some political stake in post-conflict northern Mali. Some Western policymakers find this belief alluring, I suspect, because it helps them categorize northern Malians into “good” and “bad” rebels and offers hope of putting various genies back into various bottles. If the MNLA speaks for northern Malians, the argument runs, reaching an agreement with it could resolve the conflict.

My own opinion is that the MNLA’s brutality and loss of political control in early 2012 refutes the notion that they can speak for northern Mali – they only speak for part of it. The recent withdrawal from the MNLA of one of its key leaders provides further evidence that the MNLA only speaks for some.

Outsiders would be wise to question the reductionist view that positions the MNLA as the most significant political force in northern Mali. Outsiders’ attempts to apply such a view could cause backlash on the ground. As the city of Kidal, which the MNLA now helps control, becomes a symbol in struggles over the future identity of Mali, France’s positions appear out of step with the views of many Malians. The Reuters article mentioned above explains:

A standoff over how to restore Malian government authority to Kidal, the last town in the desert north yet to be brought under central control, is sowing resentment with Paris and could delay planned elections to restore democracy after a coup.

Mali’s army has moved troops towards Kidal, a stronghold of the MNLA Tuareg separatists, but missed a self-imposed deadline this week to retake the Saharan town. France, which has its own forces camped outside, does not want Malian troops to march on the town, fearing ethnic bloodshed if it is taken by force.

[…]

Many in government and on the streets of Bamako blame the January 2012 uprising by the Tuareg MNLA for unleashing the other calamities that nearly dissolved the country. Nationalists now want the army to march into Kidal to disarm the rebels.

France is instead backing secretive talks being held in neighboring Burkina Faso, designed to allow the July elections to take place, while urging Bamako to address Tuaregs’ long-standing demands for autonomy for their desert homeland.

Clashes between Arabs and Tuaregs have shown that ethnic tension remains high.

More on the talks here, and a short case study of Arab-Tuareg clashes here.

As of Wednesday (French), the MNLA had expressed willingness to let Kidal participate in presidential elections in July, but continued unwillingness to allow the Malian army to enter the city. The longer the political and military standoff over Kidal continues, the more frustrated other parts of the country could become – RFI (French) writes that Kidal has become “a national obsession in Mali,” and that its name “is on all the lips in Bamako.” Historical memories may contribute to this “obsession”: Kidal was created in 1991 (out of the Gao region) with the hopes of helping resolve the Tuareg-led rebellion of that time. Many non-Tuareg Malians reportedly blame the Tuareg for Mali’s crisis and view the Tuareg as angling for a greater share of government largesse than they deserve. As anger grows over the situation in Kidal, Malians who hold such views may become outraged by outsiders’ attempts to elevate the MNLA as the north’s premier political force.

Somalia, Mali, and the Weakness of Analogical Thinking

NPR, in March, wrote the headline, “Western Money, African Boots: A Formula For Africa’s Conflicts.” Somalia’s “success,” the piece suggested, could be replicated in places like Mali. Bloomberg, over the weekend, made the same argument: “To Stabilize Mali, Look to Somalia’s Lessons.” From the piece:

Mali is like Somalia in that, in both places, Muslim extremists took advantage of political turmoil to seize large areas of the country. In each case, African countries agreed to send soldiers to neutralize the threat — a way around Western reluctance to commit troops to far-off places, and a local solution more likely to be acceptable to African populations. Yet the forces largely floundered when left to their own resources.

Other examples of this kind of thinking are legion.

I’ve criticized the Mali-Somalia analogy, as well as the idea of Somalia as a “success story,” here. I will add this: beyond whatever merits the analogy may have, the way in which people make it, their seeming lack of awareness or concern or curiosity about the limits of the analogy, bothers me. Does the presence of “Muslim extremists,” “political turmoil,” “African forces,” and “Western funds” establish a fundamental similarity between two places? Are the separatist movements of Mali essentially similar to those of Somalia? Are the histories of these two countries, particularly over the last twenty years, alike? Is the situation in Bamako now comparable to the situation in Mogadishu? The answer to all these questions, in my view, is no.

I do not see what is to be gained, from a policy perspective, by eliding the differences between Mali and Somalia. Yes, there are Western-funded African forces in both places. But each country seeks, and needs, political solutions that respond to its own particular histories and dynamics (Peter Tinti’s writing on Mali is relevant here). If Somalia’s “model” offers Mali anything, it is grounds for caution:

  1. The length of time it took to reconquer territory
  2. The fragility of political progress
  3. The persistence of problematic center-provincial relations (see here for a grim take on struggles over Somalia’s Jubaland)
  4. Problems with payment and funding 

Etc.

Mali is preparing for elections that will likely prove highly problematic. Mali faces a massive crisis of refugees and internally displaced persons. Mali confronts a lingering guerrilla conflict in the north. Mali is struggling to determine who will rule reconquered northern territories, and what place the separatist National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad will have in northern Mali’s future (see Reuters on Kidal). Amid these challenges, more attention to the specificity of Mali’s problems would bring greater benefit than than more casually drawn analogies between Mali and Somalia.

Africa News Roundup: UN Political Mission in Somalia, Governor in Kidal, Coup Attempt in Chad

Reuters: “At Least Four Dead in Chad Coup Attempt.”

WSJ: “South Sudan to Resume Oil Exports.”

Magharebia: “Maghreb Minister Back Security Cooperation.”

IRIN: “A Long Road Ahead for Justice in Cote d’Ivoire.”

BBC: “Why Libya’s Militias Are Up in Arms.”

UN News Centre: “Security Council Unanimously Approves New UN Political Mission in Somalia.”

Maliweb (French): “The Government Appoints a Governor in Kidal.”

Times Live: “Ethiopia Confirms Jail Terms for Blogger, Opposition Figure [Eskinder Nega and Andualem Arage].”

What other news is out there?

Mali: Clashes between the MNLA and Ansar Dine

On May 26, the two strongest rebel groups in northern Mali, the National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad (MNLA, where “Azawad” refers to the idea of an independent state in the area) and Ansar Dine (Arabic, Ansar al Din: “Defenders of the Faith”), agreed to an alliance. Their merger was supposed to represent a compromise – the MNLA agreed to impose some version of shari’a law, as Ansar Dine wished, while Ansar Dine endorsed the MNLA’s vision of an independent Azawad. The merger quickly began falling apart, though. The last two weeks have seen stories proclaiming that the pact was dead, or that the two sides were still talking in efforts to salvage the agreement. Whether and how to implement shari’a is a major sticking point. IRIN and France24 have published detailed analyses of the MNLA-Ansar Dine relationship.

Earlier this week, tensions increased when protests occurred in Kidal, one the north’s three provincial capitals:

Ansar Dine members reportedly violently dispersed a demonstration by around 50 women and children in the city of Kidal as they rallied against the Islamists, a local resident said.

“Around 50 women and children marched today from the stadium to the main Kidal market against the Islamists,” said Abubacar Seydou Diarra, a teacher whose description of the events was confirmed by other residents.

“Some of them chanted in the local language … ‘We don’t want strangers here,’ ‘We don’t want Islamists here.’ Men in three pick-ups that had the Ansar Dine flag intervened and beat the demonstrators,” he said.

The city is the hometown of Ansar Dine chief Iyad Ag Ghaly and has become a stronghold for the group since falling under its control in late March.

Ansar Dine appears to have taken the protests as provocation by the MNLA, and the two sides clashed last night, AFP reports, in Kidal:

The clash involving automatic weapons near the remote regional capital Kidal was the first between the rebel National Liberation Movement of Azawad (MNLA) and the Islamist Ansar Dine.

Both groups are made up of Tuareg tribesmen from different various clans and the fighting has raised fears of widening chaos in the vast northern swathe of the country.

[…]

An Ansar Dine fighter, Mohamed Ag Mamoud, said by satellite phone late Thursday that the clash had broken out because “all week, the MNLA was manipulating civilians in Kidal to demonstrate” against Ansar Dine, which is believed to be backed by Al Qaeda’s north African branch.

“They encouraged women and children to demonstrate against us. Now we will show them our strength,” Mamoud said.

“We have been attacked, we will respond,” said Moussa Salam of the MNLA, for his part, asserting that the Tuareg rebels “even attacked the home of Iyad Ag Ghaly,” the head of Ansar Dine and a Tuareg born in Kidal.

It is hard for me to tell whether either side scored a clear victory. AFP says, however, “Calm had returned by dawn Friday, an official said, but he noted that several MNLA flags had been removed from around the city.”

AFP and a Malian journalist it quotes partly frame the two groups’ conflict as “tribal.” One of my weaknesses as an analyst is that I tend to minimize the importance of “tribal” affiliations. On the other hand, I am wary of the supposed explanatory power of “tribes,” which sometimes turn out to be less clearly defined entities than outsiders suppose. To me, the conflict between the MNLA and Ansar Dine seems like it centers on serious political disagreements over how northern Mali should be run. And from the reporting, it appears that the efforts to salvage their merger are failing, which means more conflict may be on the way.