Peace requires economic justice

Sweden is preparing a peacekeeping operation to Mali, as negotiations take place between the Malian government and rebel groups in Algiers. According to NAI researcher Ole Martin Gaasholt, to achieve sustainable peace, poverty-stricken northern Mali needs to become fully integrated economically.

The ongoing conflict in Mali began in January 2012 in the northeast of the country. Ever since independence was gained in 1960 , several Tuareg rebellions have flared up there. This is no coincidence, according to Gaasholt, who since the 1990s has been examining conflict and democracy in Mali.

“The northeast is one of the least developed regions in the country. People there consider themselves wronged by the richer regions of southern Mali. After each uprising , the government has promised economic development in the area. But the only gain, apart from minor infrastructure projects, is that with every peace agreement more former rebels are incorporated into the regular army ” he says.

Army collapses

A military coup by dissatisfied generals overthrew the government in Bamako in March 2012. The commanders were displeased with the government’s handling of the rebellion in the north. However, the coup didn’t help matters. Instead, the regular army collapsed and troops in the north fled as soon as they saw the rebels approaching.

“It was the army´s collapse that led to rebel victories rather than the rebels’ own military strength” Gaasholt states.

Mosaic of Tuareg groups
There are many political groups among the Tuareg, with goals that differ and sometimes lead to mutual conflict. MNLA is the largest grouping and seeks an independent area in northern Mali; Ansar Dine is fighting for an Islamic state; and AQIM largely comprises Islamists from Algeria and its splinter group MUJAO recruits mainly in West Africa. The last two groups have been labelled terrorist organisations with links to al-Qaida. Gaasholt’s research shows that no matter which of these rebel groups advanced into a particular area, the people did not sympathise with them to any great extent.

“The rebellion never had popular support. That is why people fled when rebels attacked. However, they also fled because of the expected counterattacks by regular troops. The population in the north still remembers how the military punished people after the rebellion of the 1990s, whether they had been involved in it or not” he says.

French intervention

After the coup of 2012 and the army´s disintegration, the rebels marched south. Only when they seized the strategically important city of Konna in central Mali did the new interim government realise help was needed. In January 2013, French troops came to the aid of the Malian army and retook the occupied territory fairly quickly. However, soon afterwards the foreign troops allowed MNLA to re-establish itself in the northern region of Kidal. This may have been a French strategy to enable MNLA to control the Islamists.

“Every Malian l have spoken to favoured the intervention. This is in contrast to the foreign experts, who often criticised the former colonial power for sending troops to Mali” Gaasholt observes.

Economic integration of the north

Negotiations are under way for a political solution to the conflict in northern Mali. MNLA wants a federal state, but Gaasholt is sceptical. A more likely outcome, he believes, is greater decentralisation and locally elected governors, and possibly even local police and military forces.

“When you get right down to it, the conflict is really about people in northern Mali wanting to be better integrated into the country´s economy. Through increased trade and economic integration with southern Mali and neighbouring countries, jobs will be created and real economic development will take place. Today, young men in northern Mali have few other alternatives to becoming smugglers or armed rebels” Gaasholt concludes.

Read more about Mali from the the Nordic Africa Institute

A brand new NAI Policy Note by Ole Martin Gaasholt describes in detail the complexity of the conflict in northern Mali. Download and read ‘Who needs to reconcile with whom?’

Read all about the war in Mail in a background study and annotated bibliography by former NAI researcher Emy Lindberg. Download and read here.

Also read Ole Martin Gaasholt’s other published articles on Mali: ‘Northern Mali 2012 : the short-lived triumph of irredentism’ and ‘ State decentralisation and local politics in Mali’.

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