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Special Report
Last Updated: 03/04/2013
Mali Conflict: Causes and Effects
Lawal Tsalha

Journalist Lawal Tsalha traces the history and context of the Mali conflict, clarifying the motivations and relationships between various parties, and offering some insight into the present situation.


Following the seizure of power in the northern part of Mali by Al-Qaeda-backed Islamist fundamentalists, and the declaration of the Islamic State of Azawad, the Malian leader, President Dioconda Taore, called on the United Nations for urgent assistance to restore the stability and territorial integrity of his country. In response to his call, Mali’s erstwhile colonial master, France, responded with massive air strikes and a ground military offensive.


The Mali Empire existed from the fifteenth to the sixteenth centuries, with Timbuktu established as a great Islamic centre of study and knowledge, as well as trade. The French entered the region in the mid-nineteenth century and conquered the lands as a part of French West Africa. In 1946, French Sudan, as it was called at the time, became an overseas territory of the French Union. On 28 November 1958, it was proclaimed the Sudanese Republic. On 20 June 1960, the Sudanese Republic joined with Senegal to form the Federation of Mali (Federal State of Mali). Because of political differences, Senegal withdrew on 20 August 1960, and what was left became the Republic of Mali and joined the United Nations.[1]

On 24 December 1960, Guinea, Ghana, and Mali signed an agreement that unified the three countries; in January 1961, the agreement was expanded to include Algeria and the United Arab Republic under the Charter of Casablanca. When the Organization of African States (OAS) was formed in January 1962, Mali, along with the other Casablanca states, refused to attend because Algeria had not been invited. In November 1963, Mali was instrumental in bringing an end to the Algeria-Morocco border war.[2]


After gaining independence in 1960, Mali has encountered decades of instability. Following a coup in December 1985, fighting broke out along the Mali-Burkina Faso border and lasted for six days before a ceasefire could be arranged. And there was a military coup on March 26, 1991 led by Amodou Toumani Toure, reinstating a civilian leadership under Soumana Secko. But before the year’s end, Secko was faced with problems in the north, where Toureg tribes had clashed with the military. Elections for legislatives were held in 1992, and something that Malians saw as terrible took place in that year: the disclosure that 5.7 billion in local currency was missing from the treasury. There was also a students' riot in Bamako, the capital, on 5 April 1995, in which one student was killed, another 45 students injured, and numerous public building were destroyed. As a result, the country's prime minister, Younoussi Toure, resigned. The former president, Moussa Traure and several of his aides were sentenced to death on charges of complicity in the deaths of 106 civilians in the march 1991 anti-government demonstration.[3]

In post-colonial Mali, race has been a key factor in exacerbating tensions between the Malian state, Tuareg and the Arab populations at the Saharan borderlands. Racial arguments have played a significant role in the two civil wars fought in northern Mali in 1963-64 and 1990-95. The conflict between the Malian state, Toureg, and Arabs in Mali parallels a problem that haunts all of the Sahel; a problem often described by foreign experts as one of ethnicity, but locally phrased in terms of race.[4]


Rebels in Mali are closely associated with a tribe called Tuareg, popularly known as the “Blue Men of the Desert” for their indigo robes, who have faced many challenges to their independence and to their livelihood.[5] The history of their grievances include the attempts first by the colonial states and then by the new national states to integrate them into a state structure, in which they would be an underrepresented minority group, and to fix international borders, which the Tuaregs have never recognized.[6]

The Tuaregs have a long history of struggle with the Malian state, starting in 1992 in the Adrar N’gufaghas Mountains when the Tuaregs resisted the attempt to bring them under the control of the newly independent state. A history of rebellion against the French had strengthened their resolve to protect their way of life; however, a concerted military campaign by the new Malian state forged an uneasy peace. A second rebellion opened up in 1990, and the Malian state quickly realized that a military solution was not possible.

According to Rudolph Atallah:

The Taureg began their uprising for independence barely two years after the Mali independence and the uprising escalated in subsequent years to include sophisticated attack. The Tauregs' grievances were based on three main issues; 1. discrimination from the southern ethnic groups which governed Mali following the independence. 2 Fear that land reform would threaten their privilege access to agriculture 3. And concern that national elites would destroy Tuareg culture under the guise of modernization.[7]

In order to bring peace and sanity in the country, the government and the Tuaregs signed the Accords of Tamnrasset, which led to a national pact in 1992. The basic position was that the state would make a commitment to decentralisation, and to some kind of development assistance.

The Taureg population is about 1.5 million, and their worldview is based on a combination of Islam and traditional tribal practices that cannot be separated from their culture. They believe both in Allah and in sprits, differing from pure Islam, which teaches belief exclusively in a monotheistic God. Taureg society is divided into a class of nobles (camel rearers), vassals (goats rearers), and the descendants of black African slaves who are originally from southern ethnic groups. This rigorous class structure still exists, despite slavery being abolished by the French colonial authorities in the early part of the last century.[8]


The militants, who are Islamist extremists, have in their possession very high calibre weapons. It has been reported by the New York Times that many of them were involved in the fight against the late Muammar Gaddafi’s regime in Libya, through which they were able to attain sophisticated weaponry. The Mali’s neighbours fear that the militants, if care is not taken, will destabilize the entire region of West Africa.[9]

Although it is believed that the radical Islamist movements do not yet have transcontinental coherence across northern Africa, the militants form part of a phenomenon that is essentially a post-9/11 development and is increasing in intensity and geographical distribution. There appear to be many informal linkages, made far easier by modern communications and new social media, allowing North African groups to connect informally with developments across the Middle East and South West Asia.[10]


After the United Nations Security Council Resolution 2085 of December 2012, following the insurgency, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), has deployed security force. Besides acting in conformity with the UNSC Resolution 2085, the ECOWAS offensive was also designed to halt the further spread of terrorists into the West African sub-region. The ECOWAS security force has a full pledge of backing by the United Kingdom and Norway, in line with the position taken by the sub-regional group, the African Union (AU) and the United Nations (UN). Other contributing contingents include the African-led International Support Mission (AFISMA) and the European Union Training Mission (EUTM)[11]

But to the belief of some current affairs and political analysts, it was advised that the military intervention in Mali should be avoided. It would inevitably involve western military units, and this will enable Islamist propagandists to concentrate more on their message of repression of Islam by outside forces. The old concept of “the far enemy” of the early 2000s could well get a new and unifying lease of life.[12]


Analysts also argued that the France’s immediate reaction to the Mali conflict and subsequent military intervention is related to the abundant uranium resources in the country. Proving that the World Nuclear Association has disclosed that 75 per cent of French electricity is being produced from nuclear energy, which explains French dependency on uranium.[13] According so some news reports, mineral resource analysts believe that beneath the deserts in northern Mali and eastern Niger, territory now exclusively claimed by the nomadic Tuareg tribes, exists the world’s third largest uranium reserves, as well as substantial oil reserves. [14]


As a result of the conflict, about 370,000 people fled their homes to the safer south of Mali and another 140,000 have crossed the borders into Burkinafaso, Mauritania, and Niger during the extremists' 10-month reign over Mali. Local media reported that most of those who stayed inside Mali's borders ended up with family members in the capital or other major towns such as Segou and Mopti. Mali is one of the poorest countries in the world, so the pressures of accommodating displaced communities can stretch already fragile socio-economic conditions to the breaking point.[15] In some areas, public services have been shut down, schools are closed, there is no drinking water and there is no electricity for the filtration system, and people have to fetch unclean water from natural basins in the desert.[16]

The conflict is threatening the country's food security because many farmers are among the hundreds of thousands of people who have been displaced, and it seems that the next planting season is in jeopardy. Many of the displaced farmers are reported to be in refugee camps or with host families in Burkina Faso, Mauritania, or Niger. Many farmers lost everything because they are away from their places. They don’t have agricultural tools. They don’t have basic seeds. And their animals are also at risk because there is no availability of veterinary drugs and so on. This is also a major challenge for the displaced households because animals represent years of savings.[17]


The Malian forces in collaboration with French troops and ECOWAS security force have entered the northern Mali, the stronghold of the Islamic militants, and dislodged them from the areas they have captured since the beginning of the conflict. However, some analysts have a view that the dislodgment of the militants is not a sign that the conflict in Mali is over, but only that it is about to change into another dimension as the militants have adopted tactics of suicide bombing, hostage-taking, and other guerrilla tactics. They are now hiding in mountains caves, and engaged in building bombs for suicide attacks. They also tactically conceal themselves and thus complicate targeting for any attack.[18] However, the French troops have vowed to stay in Mali until July as the battles are being tougher than expected.[19]

According to an NGO, Safe World for Women, Mali has been increasingly insecure since the conflict as Malian women continue to be subjected to sexual violence by Tuareg rebels and the other armed groups that have swept across the country.[20]

[1] Jessup, John E. Mali Conflict. Encyclopedic Dictionary of Conflict and Conflict Resolution.

[2] Jessup, John E. Mali Conflict. Encyclopedic Dictionary of Conflict and Conflict Resolution.

[3] Jessup, John E. Mali Conflict. Encyclopedic Dictionary of Conflict and Conflict Resolution

[4] Bellah History of Colonisation, The Meaning of Slavery in the Late_Colonial Niger Bend (Mali) 1944-1960

[5] New African, No. 490, December 2009: Taureg-Military aspects.

[6] Atallah, R. The Taureg Revolt and The Mali Conflict, Hampton Roads International Security Quarterly, No. 1, January 1, 2013.

[7] Atallah, R. The Taureg Revolt and The Mali Conflict, Hampton Roads International Security Quarterly, No. 1, January 1, 2013.

[8] Atallah, R. The Taureg Revolt and The Mali Conflict, Hampton Roads International Security Quarterly, No. 1, January 1, 2013













Lawal Tsalha is a Nigerian journalist and an Intern with the Peace and Conflict Monitor.