Once considered Africa’s flagship of democracy, Mali has turned into a shipwreck of anarchy seemingly overnight. A military coup ousted Malian President Amadou Toumani Touré in March 2012, and within weeks state authority completely withered in the northern regions of Gao, Timbuktu and Kidal. Covering an area as large as the state of Texas, these regions are currently controlled by three “hybrid organizations” blending Islamic radicalism with transnational crime. Deeply concerned by the security threats posed by such a sizeable sanctuary for terrorists, the international community has pressured the Malian government and military to overcome internal wrangles as preparations for an international military intervention are underway.

Restoring state authority and legitimacy to northern Mali will require a radical break with the governance and security strategies adopted by Malian political elites during previous decades. The Malian state has recurrently relied on local militias in response to security threats in the northern regions, thereby fueling rivalry between and within local communities. Falling back on such a “militiatary”[1] strategy in the context of the current crisis will be counterproductive to the efforts undertaken to restore state authority and legitimacy and could provoke a civil war.

This article will show why northern Mali is prone to rebellion. It will then explain how the state has supported militias to quell these frequent uprisings, argue that the state might reemploy that same strategy to unseat Islamist militants in the north, and identify what results an international military intervention might bring.

In the Margins of Development
Situated in one of the poorest countries in the world, development prospects in Mali’s desolate and desert-like northern regions are particularly restrained. Most of Mali’s economic and agricultural resources are confined to its southern regions. In the north, soil fertility is extremely poor, rains are sporadic and irregular, access to water is restricted and severe droughts occur frequently. Agricultural GDP per capita is inferior to any other region on the continent, while infant mortality rates are high. Covering almost 70% of the national territory, the northern regions only host a mere 10% of the population. Government investment and international aid have therefore long been primarily oriented toward the south.[2] Northern pastoralist communities were particularly marginalized by state policies adopted under the socialist regime of 1960-1968, as well as under the military rulers from 1968-1991 that strongly favored sedentary constituencies.[3]

Development prospects in the region improved from the mid-1990s as a result of increased government spending (particularly in infrastructure) but also due to the resources made available by actors and transnational networks operating beyond the state. Tourism flourished, international non-governmental organizations, religious networks, multinational corporations and migrants all invested considerably in the area, the information and communication technology revolution facilitated enhanced connections with the outside world, and transnational smuggling further developed as a pivotal economic pillar in the region.

Rebellion and the “Militiatary”
Just as the Malian state relied on non-state actors to deliver services and invest in northern Mali, it has also depended on others to perform its core function of security provision. Far from obtaining a monopoly on violence, the state repeatedly adopted a “militiatary” strategy to respond to the series of armed rebellions that occurred in northern Mali during the last half century.[4]

The first violent conflict erupted when a small group of Tuareg leaders took up arms to rebel against their forced inclusion in the Malian state shortly after the country gained independence in 1960.[5] The Malian army brutally crushed the revolt and kept the northeastern region under strict military control for decades.

A second Tuareg rebellion emerged at the start of the 1990s. Tuareg society consists of multiple clans (confederations) and is stratified along strict hierarchical lines whereby “subordinate” groups have increasingly contested “dominant” castes. The renewed rebellion soon fragmented along these tribal and caste lines, with different militant Tuareg groups fighting each other. The conflict gradually evolved into a small-scale civil war involving other—notably Arab[6] and Songhai[7]—communities. Frustrated by the army’s poor response to the Tuareg revolt, senior Songhai officers deserted from the army and created the Ganda Koy militia to defend the interests of the sedentary Songhai population.[8] Particularly violent confrontations took place between the Ganda Koy, the predominantly Arab Islamic Front of Azawad (FIAA) and the Tuareg Popular Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (FPLA).

Political elites in Bamako exploited these intra- and inter-communal tensions. The army actively cooperated with the Ganda Koy to combat the Tuareg and Arabic resistance groups. By adopting a “militiatary” strategy, the Malian state deliberately ensconced rivalry and mistrust between local communities in the north. It was mainly due to the conciliation efforts undertaken by local traditional and religious authorities, supported by the international community, that a fragile peace emerged by 1996. Almost 1,500 Tuareg rebels were subsequently integrated into the army which, to the anger of other local communities, made former rebels responsible for maintaining security in the north.[9]

Transnational Crime, the “Militiatary” and State Collapse
Situated on the margins of formal state development opportunities, northern Mali gradually took center stage within various transnational smuggling networks. Subsidized consumer goods from both Libya and Algeria have long been popular contraband sold in northern Mali, while transnational cigarette smuggling networks rose to prominence in the 1980s. Demand for small-arms in the wider region prone to conflict particularly increased throughout the 1990s.[10] During the course of the last decade, transnational drug networks started to benefit from this well developed “social infrastructure” underpinning the smuggling economy in northern Mali.[11] Conflicts between competing smuggling networks proliferated concordantly, fueling both intra- and inter-community tensions.[12] Traffickers established private militias to protect their business interests.

By 2006, internal rivalries within Tuareg society instigated yet another armed revolt. Leaders of the previous rebellions had witnessed what they considered their subordinates obtaining leading positions within the Malian army. Fearing a significant loss of influence, they decided to take up arms again.[13] In response to this security threat, Touré fell back on the “militiatary” strategy; he proactively supported the mobilization of “subordinate” Tuareg to fight the rebels but also leaned on private Arab militias established by drug smugglers in both Gao and Timbuktu.[14] Malian army representatives commanded these militias on various occasions.[15]

Touré’s balancing act in the north became increasingly complicated as the southern wing of al-Qa`ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM)—which, until 2007, was known as the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC)—gradually anchored itself within the region. Despite substantial international support, Touré frequently emphasized that the Malian army lacked the capacity to confront this rather small group[16] and persistently called for a concerted regional response.[17] Yet internal political motives also seemed to play a significant role for his non-confrontational attitude. AQIM had solidified ties with influential local Arabs in the Timbuktu region, people on whom Touré heavily relied for his “militiatary” strategy to confront the Tuareg threat.[18] International diplomats increasingly complained that the Malian regime colluded with (rather than merely tolerated) AQIM.[19] Despite its international reputation as a flagship of democracy, the Touré regime relied on what the International Crisis Group has referred to as “remote-control governance through dubious criminal and mafia intermediaries” in the northern regions.[20] State representatives became deeply involved in the drug trade and kidnapping industry established by AQIM.[21] As a result, the state lost much authority and legitimacy in northern Mali.

This delicate power balance altered decisively when well-armed Tuareg fighters from Libya returned to northern Mali following the fall of Mu`ammar Qadhafi. Yet preparations for a renewed rebellion had been ongoing since October 2011 and various leaders actively sought support from their kinsmen in Libya.[22] While some returning Tuareg fighters decided to join the Malian army or refrained from fighting altogether, many joined the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), a recently formed Tuareg rebel movement.[23] These well-armed rebels, joined by militants from Ansar Eddine, launched a new offensive by the end of January 2012, which the Malian army was unable to repel. The military coup that overthrew the highly unpopular Touré in March removed the final remnants of state authority in the north.[24]

Northern Mali is currently controlled by an uncertain and opaque alliance established among AQIM, the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO)[25] and Ansar Eddine[26] who have introduced and vigorously applied Shari`a law. Private militias established by smugglers have either realigned themselves to these new authorities or kept a certain distance, while former government-allied Tuareg and Arab militias moved across the border into Niger and Mauritania, respectively.[27]

At the frontline between Mali’s northern and southern regions, several local militias eagerly await being deployed by the Malian army. The Ganda Koy militia, a strategic government ally in the 1990s, has revived itself, and the Ganda Izo, which was established by other Songhai and Fulani in response to the renewed Tuareg rebellion in 2006, stand ready. Confrontations between the latter and a Tuareg militia have already taken place. The two militias teamed up with smaller northern self-defense groups under the Patriotic Resistance Forces (PRF), which is primarily opposed to ethnic Tuareg and Arab communities.[28] A leader of the Ganda Izo recently told a journalist, “We are not going to let the Arabs and Tuareg enslave us again.”[29] A Ganda Koy member indicated he was “ready to beat the ‘light-skins,’” referring to the Tuareg.[30] It is clearly within a context of revived ethnic and racial rivalry that a potential international military intervention will operate in northern Mali.

International Intervention
By the end of November 2012, the UN Security Council will consider specified plans for an international military intervention in northern Mali as recently adopted by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and approved by the African Union. These include the training of Malian armed forces and the deployment of 3,300 soldiers, mostly from ECOWAS members and possibly other African countries. In the meantime, diplomatic efforts to separate Ansar Eddine from both AQIM and MUJAO have generated initial results.[31] A military intervention is then likely to primarily target AQIM and MUJAO and focus on liberating the cities of Gao and Timbuktu.

Such an intervention would require strong Malian leadership. Yet different power factions still compete with and obstruct each other within the interim government, and factionalism continues in the military.[32] Also, while the deployment of government-aligned Tuareg and Arab militias, as well as the Ganda Izo, Ganda Koy and smaller northern militias, is probably useful to achieving short-term military objectives, it would certainly inflame (intra)-ethnic tensions. Falling back again on a “militiatary” strategy will significantly frustrate future political processes that remain at the very core of any sustainable solution in northern Mali. If the Salafists are indeed ousted from the principal urban areas, they are likely to disperse within the vast desert to which they have become well acquainted over the last decade. Profiting from support networks in Algeria, Mauritania and Niger, where AQIM has conducted numerous attacks and abductions in recent years, neighboring countries will be directly affected. It is difficult to see an ECOWAS force, largely unaccustomed to the terrain, defeat the militants in these circumstances.

While increasing military pressure to counter the significant security threats in northern Mali has become unavoidable, this should be done in full recognition of the impact upon longer-term stability objectives. This not only means avoiding the recurrent pattern of deploying local militias for short-term gains at the expense of stability in the longer run, but it also entails recognizing the limited potential of a regional military force and divided Malian regime to secure northern Mali. Efforts aimed at restoring stability and state authority will therefore need to move beyond providing a predominantly military response to Mali’s multifaceted crises.

Martin van Vliet is currently finalizing Ph.D. research on the nexus between security, democracy and governance in Mali at the African Studies Centre in Leiden, the Netherlands. He has previously worked as a Political Adviser Africa for a Dutch political party. As a program officer for the Netherlands Institute for Multi-Party Democracy, he has been responsible for political party support programs in Mali and Zambia between 2004 and 2011.

[1] By deploying a “militiatary” strategy, a state partly outsources its primary mandate of security provision to local militias. While often temporarily integrated into the military chain of command, these armed non-state actors mostly operate outside formal state structures.

[2] David Gutelius, “Islam in Northern Mali and the War on Terror,” Journal of Contemporary African Studies 25:1 (2007): pp. 59-76. Comparative research conducted by the World Bank suggests that countries with a substantial level of socioeconomic inequality that is either regionally or ethnically concentrated face a considerable, latent, security risk. See “Understanding Civil War. Evidence and Analysis: Africa,” World Bank, 2005.

[3] Tor A. Benjaminsen, “Does Supply-Induced Scarcity Drive Violent Conflicts in the African Sahel? The Case of the Tuareg Rebellion in Northern Mali,” Journal of Peace Research 45:6 (2008): pp. 819-836; Pierre Boilley, Les Touaregs Kel Adagh. Dépendances et Révoltes: du Soudan Français au Mali contemporain (Paris: Karthala, 1999), pp. 285-286.

[4] Previous armed conflicts in northern Mali occurred in 1963, 1990-1996, 2006 and 2008.

[5] The Tuareg are nomadic pastoralists, culturally and linguistically related to North African Berbers, scattered across various Sahelian states. They strongly opposed becoming a minority within a predominantly “black” African country. In his book Disputed Desert: Decolonisation, Competing Nationalisms and Tuareg Rebellions in Northern Mali, historian Baz Lecocq depicted the racial stereotypes that underpinned relations between Mali’s independence leaders and Tuareg representatives. See Baz Lecocq, Disputed Desert: Decolonisation, Competing Nationalisms and Tuareg Rebellions in Northern Mali (Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 2010).

[6] The principal Arab (Moors) groups residing in northern Mali are the Kunta and Telemsi (concentrated in the Gao region) and Berabiche (of which a majority reside in Timbuktu, but who are scattered around the entire region). They formed the backbone of the militant Arab Islamic Front of Azawad (FIAA).

[7] The Songhai, originally sedentary farmers, constitute the majority population in the Gao and Timbuktu region. During the last decades, they have seen many Tuareg settling in these regions, especially following the devastating droughts in the 1970s and 1980s.

[8] The Ganda Koy also attracted support from former Tuareg and Fulani slaves, who joined out of frustration with the armed revolt of their former masters. Fulani (also known as Fulbe or Peul) are nomadic pastoralists scattered around the entire region. While the distinction between nomadic pastoralists and sedentary farmers is still often used, most livelihood strategies in northern Mali actually consist of combined forms of agro-pastoralism. See Lecocq, Disputed Desert: Decolonisation, Competing Nationalisms and Tuareg Rebellions in Northern Mali.

[9] Baz Lecocq and Paul Schrijver, “The War on Terror in a Haze of Dust: Potholes and Pitfalls on the Saharan Front,” Journal of Contemporary African Studies 25:1 (2007): pp. 141-166.

[10] Kalilou Sidibe, “Criminal Networks and Conflict-Resolution Mechanisms in Northern Mali,” IDS Bulletin 43:4 (2012): pp. 74-88; Wolfram Lacher, Organized Crime and Conflict in the Sahel-Sahara Region (Washington, D.C.: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2012).

[11] “Cocaine Trafficking in West Africa: The Threat to Stability and Development,” United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, 2007; Joelle Burbank, “Trans-Saharan Trafficking,” Center for the Study of Threat Convergence, September 2010; Stephen Ellis, “West Africa’s International Drug Trade,” African Affairs 108:431 (2009): pp. 171-196; “Cocaine:
A European Union Perspective in the Global Context,” European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction & Europol, April 2010.

[12] A smuggling coalition between Kunta Arabs and Ifoghas Tuareg clashed with Imghad Tuareg smugglers, Arab (Berabiche) traders in Timbuktu and Sahrawi smugglers. Furthermore, “subordinate” Arab castes transferred drug money into campaign funds to increase their influence in the 2009 local elections, which further aggravated intra-community tensions. For details, see personal interviews, Malian members of parliament, Bamako, Mali, December 2009. These details also exist in the U.S. Embassy cables published by Wikileaks.

[13] Lecocq, Disputed Desert: Decolonisation, Competing Nationalisms and Tuareg Rebellions in Northern Mali, pp. 391-394.

[14] The short-term advantages of deploying local (Arab and Tuareg) militias, well adapted to the inhospitable northern terrain, enabled the Malian state to effectively counter revived Tuareg rebellions. Yet it also legitimized the drug smugglers behind these militias, raised considerable frustration within the army, deliberately ensconced intra- and inter-community tensions and thereby undermined longer term stability. Also see Lacher; ‘‘Mali: Avoiding Escalation,” International Crisis Group, July 18, 2012.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Until 2010, most analysts estimated the number of AQIM members to range between 500 and 1,000.

[17] Since 2002, the United States has supported the Malian government together with Niger, Mauritania and Chad to combat terrorism under the Pan-Sahel Initiative (PSI). Three years later, the program was reformulated as the Trans-Saharan Counterterrorism Initiative (TSCTI) and expanded in volume as well as in partnering countries. A joint military base was established by Algeria, Mauritania, Niger and Mali, although mutual cooperation remained limited in practice.

[18] Roland Marchal, “Is a Military Intervention in Mali Unavoidable?”  Norwegian Peacebuilding Resource Centre, October 2012.

[19] “Mali: Avoiding Escalation”; “La colère en intégralité d’un ambassadeur atypique,” Le Républicain, December 13, 2011.

[20] “Mali: Avoiding Escalation.”

[21] AQIM took more than 50 people hostage between 2003 and 2011, which secured a flow of income in the millions of dollars. See Mohammad-Mahmoud Ould Mohamedou, “The Many Faces of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb,” Geneva Centre for Security Policy, May 2011; Jean-Pierre Filiu, Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb: Algerian Challenge or Global Threat? (Washington, D.C.: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2009).

[22] Anouar Boukhars, The Paranoid Neighbor: Algeria and the Conflict in Mali (Washington, D.C.: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2012); Andy Morgan, “The Causes of the Uprising in Northern Mali,” ThinkAfricaPress, February 6, 2012.

[23] A diplomatic source indicated that at least 2,000 men had returned by October 2011, but stated that the number could well be above 4,000. See Martin van Vliet, “Mali,” in Africa Yearbook: Politics, Economy and Society South of the Sahara, vol 8 (Leiden, Netherlands: Koninklijke Brill NV, 2012); Marchal.

[24] The MNLA proved unable to maintain supply chains, lacked resources as well as popular support among most non-Tuareg communities and was driven out of the principal areas in northern Mali within weeks.

[25] MUJAO’s Mauritanian leader originated from AQIM and the organization currently controls Gao. Various reports indicate their backbone consists of Arab smugglers, while the organization also rapidly secured its market share within the kidnapping industry.

[26] Ansar Eddine was established by Iyad Ag Ghaly, a first-hour Tuareg rebel from the dominant Ifoghas clan. He has been a key player in northern Malian politics during the last decade, involved in negotiations over the release of various hostages, working as a Malian diplomat in Saudi Arabia and being a convert of Tablighi Jama`at. After being sidelined within the MNLA, he established Ansar Eddine and originally attracted support from Ifoghas Tuareg and Kunta Arabs. Ousted from the urban areas, an unknown number of MNLA fighters are believed to have defected to his organization. Kidal is Ansar Eddine’s stronghold.

[27] Lacher.

[28] “Mali’s Self-Defense Militias Take the Reconquest of the North Into Their Own Hands,” Terrorism Monitor 10:16 (2012).

[29] “Grand reportage: avec les miliciens qui veulent libérer le Mali,” Le Parisien, November 2, 2012. Other members have publicly expressed their desire to take revenge against Arabs in northern Mali. See, for example, “Mali: le risque d’une guerre civile plane sur la ville d’Ansongo au nord du pays (habitants),” Autre Presse, October 30, 2012. All militias have at their disposal a vast pool of disgruntled youth who are much less ideologically motivated and primarily in search of income. Defections between the various groups occur frequently.

[30] Anne Look, “N. Mali Militias Train Youth to Fight,” Voice of America, October 9, 2012; Peter Tinti, “Intervening in Northern Mali: Don’t Forget the Ethnic Dimension,” ThinkAfricaPress, November 19, 2012.

[31] Ansar Eddine has formally distanced itself from the other “terrorist” groups with “foreign” elements, while it also restricted its objective to applying Shari`a law to its own stronghold in Kidal. Until recently, leaders of the various organizations were seen together in various urban centers and many questions about the nature of current relations in practice still persist.

[32] Analysts have pointed to recurrent tensions among the interim president, prime minister and former coup leaders, while continued factionalism within the army and police led to open confrontations in recent months.

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