#12 power
Emmanuel Kwesi Aning / Lydia Mawuenya Amedzrator

Mali: Insecurity Hotspot in the Sahel

For a long time, Mali was a rather peaceful country in the Sahel. Today, it is the region’s hotspot for insecurity. Why? An analysis of the conflict parties’ interests and alliances.

What actually happened: the Mali crisis

Since the early 1990s, Mali’s democracy has been considered quite solid, although recurrently interrupted by nomadic Tuaregs’ rebellions in the country’s north. In 2012, however, a dramatic crisis suddenly rocked the entire state.

Tuareg militias which formed the National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad (MNLA) rose up against the State and demanded the secession of the Tuareg population. They were supported by radical Islamist groups.

As the government proved unable to effectively address the threats posed by these militant groups, a section of the Malian army rebelled in March 2012. This rebellion culminated in a military coup toppling former President Amadou Toumani Toure’s regime.

During the resultant political vacuum, the MNLA joined militant Islamic groups to defeat the military and temporarily capture the North. Subsequently, the MNLA declared the independence of the northern territories. Besides, weapons had been easily available since the overthrow of Libyan dictator Muhammad Gaddafi. His former military arsenals in Libya and Mali were no longer subject to any control and arms were being traded among the Sahel countries, adding to those which were already in circulation in Mali.

The MNLA was founded at the end of October 2011. In the early days of the uprising, the movement consisted of:

  • Tuareg mercenaries who had fought in the Libyan civil war and returned to Northern Mali afterwards
  • A group of Tuareg soldiers known as lés intégrés (the integrated) who defected from the Malian army and joined the MNLA
  • Former members of the Northern Mali Tuareg Movement (NMTM), a remnant group of rebels who participated in the Tuareg rebellion of the 1990s
  • Migrants and the local population

During the uprising, the MNLA received support from militant and opportunistic Islamist groups from the Sahel region such as Ansar Dine, Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA).

However, relations between the allies soon grew adversarial and murky. Tensions based on ideological differences emerged between Ansar Dine and AQIM, both radical groups, and the liberal MNLA. Although all the groups demanded the independence of the North, they disagreed over the installation of an Islamic State. The MNLA, which was in favour of a secular state, was chased out of its strongholds in the North by AQIM, Ansar Dine and MUJWA, and subsequently shari'a law was imposed in the northern cities.

The different actors and their interests

None of these events happened out of the blue though. Some of the underlying conflicts have been ongoing for quite some time. If we analyze the different interests and actions of the parties involved in the conflict – the Malian government, the Tuaregs, the MNLA, Ansar Dine, AQIM, and MUJWA – we can identify four main differences or levels of tension:

  1. Traditional rivalry between the Malian government and its army, and the Northern communities, particularly the Tuaregs
  2. Tension between the nomadic pastoralists (Tuaregs) and the sedentary populations in the Northern communities
  3. Disparities between the Malian army and the separatists groups that have collaborated with militant Islamist and opportunist groups
  4. Divergent interests among the separatists and Islamist militant groups

The Mali Government and the Tuaregs

The March 2012 rebellion was an attempt by a segment of Tuaregs involved in the National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad (NMLA) to promote their demands for secession. This demand had already given rise to Tuareg rebellions in the 1960s, 1990s and 2006. Which raises the question: what could possibly have perpetuated such tension between the Tuaregs and the Malian State for nearly half a century?

It has been argued that the ‘politics of race’ or a ‘complex set of stereotyped images’ has influenced the nature of political and economic relations between these two groups (Lecocq, 2010). As a result, the recurrent rebellions are located within these stereotypical images of ‘self’ and ‘the other’. These racialist perceptions have continued to influence and define the relationships between the two parties. Tuaregs, for example perceive the government as ‘black usurpers of a power they had no right to have and which would upset social structures and power balances within society’ (Lecocq, 2010).

The Tuaregs perceived “the politicians and inhabitants of the South as an overwhelming mass of religiously ignorant and uncivilized blacks”.

These differences date back to pre-colonial and colonial days, when Tuaregs controlled the trans-Saharan trade. During the long distance trade, the Tuaregs wielded political influence over neighboring communities due to their military might. In this regard, the Tuaregs perceived “the politicians and inhabitants of the South as an overwhelming mass of religiously ignorant and uncivilized blacks” (Lecocq, 2010). On the other hand, the Malian elite (mostly black southerners) also believed that they were discriminated against by the colonial masters (France, who the southerners believe preferred the Tuaregs over themselves). As such, the post-colonial Malian State considers the Tuaregs as “white, feudal, racist, proslavery, bellicose and lazy savage nomads, who were used as the vanguard of French neo-colonialist and neo-imperialist projects in the mineral-rich Sahara” (Lecocq, 2010).

Other additional factors have certainly added to the resentments:

Firstly, there is the repression of the Tuareg population during the recurrent rebellions.

Secondly, the government introduced a policy of modernization, meant to ‘modernize’ the North because nomadic pastoralism was considered ‘old fashioned’. During Modibo Keita’s regime (1960-68), pastoralism was looked upon as an obstacle to development. Hence, the government initiated a policy of modernization that sought to convert pastoralists into ‘productive’ citizens through farming (Benjaminsen & Berge, 2004).

Many young Tuareg men had to migrate to neighboring countries in the Maghreb, especially to Algeria and Libya, where they were exposed to revolutionary discourses.

Thirdly, there is the feeling that the government marginalized the Tuareg during the sequential droughts in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. These droughts created a temporary crisis in local production systems, especially those based on both farming and pastoralism. Many young Tuareg men had to migrate to neighboring countries in the Maghreb, especially to Algeria and Libya, where they were exposed to revolutionary discourses. The embezzlement of international drought relief funds by government officials in Bamako added to these young men’s anger (Benjaminsen, 2008).

The sedentary farmers and the nomadic pastoralists:

There are also tensions among the Northern populations themselves – between the sedentary farmers and the nomadic pastoralists, who are mainly Tuaregs. This is partly due to the socio-political structure and economic activity of the Tuaregs. Their nomadic society used to be hierarchically structured. However, this social structure was upset by their colonial masters and the Malian government who set up fractions as the basic unit of administrative, political and economic organization in the North (Lecocq, 2010). The attempts to ‘modernize’ this nomad society are potentially part of the underlying issues contested by the Tuareg rebellions.

There are ideological differences concerning ‘spatiality’ between the nomad and sedentary populations.

Additionally, there are ideological differences concerning ‘spatiality’ between the nomad and sedentary populations. In sedentary societies, social positions are regulated through the ‘appropriation of space’ (Lecocq, 2010). One’s identity in the community is determined in part by land tenure. Land ownership has remained an issue of bitter dispute: the government under President Moussa Traore (1968-1991) felt that land belonged to those who tilled it (Keita, 2007). However, these ideas are rejected by nomads because mobility allows them to avoid such risks as climate variability. Nomads successfully survive droughts and gain access to green pastures for their livestock by changing locations seasonally.

In the post-independence period, the secessionist tendencies of the Tuaregs have possibly been aroused by fears that the Tuareg population will be marginalized due to the large sedentary farmer population. This discord has influenced relations between the Tuaregs, the Malian government and the sedentary population, and led to the formation of ethnic militias such as Ganda Koy (a Songhai ethnic militia formed during the second Tuareg rebellion in the 1990s) and Ganda Izo (a predominantly Fulani ethnic militia formed in 2008 to protect the interests of its members) along with the launching of counter-attacks against the Tuaregs.

The Malian government and Islamic militant groups

There are also tensions between the Malian government, the Tuaregs, and Islamic militant groups. They disagree over the secession of the North and religious ideologies: the Malian government upholds the national constitution and territorial integrity of the country as supreme while the militant groups are calling for the independence of the northern communities and the imposition of Islamic law (particularly their form of shari’a law).

The discontent with the government over the religious differences accounts in part for the destruction of the sacred tombs in Timbuktu by the Signed in Blood Battalion which felt that the tombs were expressions of idolatry and against the Sufi sect (BBC, 2013).

All these differences provoked the 2012 Tuareg rebellion led by the MNLA in collaboration with Ansar Dine, AQIM and MUJWA.

Differences among Islamic militant groups

The success of the militant groups in the North was made possible by a temporary alliance among the MNLA, AQIM, MUJWA and Ansar al-Dine. However, these alliances have deteriorated, as characterized by the splintering and shifting alliances of the militants groups.

For instance, conflict has emerged between Ansar Dine and AQIM. Ansar Dine members are migrants from Libya fighting for an independent Islamic country, and are “against the opponents of shari’a” (BBC, 2013). It is believed that Ansar Dine effectively functions as a local umbrella under which members of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) can operate. Together, the two groups ran a religious police force (Islamic police) which enforced shari’a law in the northern cities.

The two groups run a religious police force (Islamic police) which enforced shari’a law in the northern cities.

But Ansar Dine made some ambivalent statements about its willingness to engage with the Mali government, and has also rejected “all forms of extremism and terrorism” (Dowd & Raleigh, 2013).

Since AQIM staunchly opposes potential engagement with government, it has led to a split between the two groups and the establishment of a new group, the Islamic Movement for the Azawad (MIA) (Dowd & Raleigh, 2013). But this is just one example of the manifold shifting of the militants’ alliances.


The dynamics of the power structures among the parties to the conflict in Mali has had debilitating consequences on the already precarious nature of the Mali situation. Though prompted largely by developmental challenges, the tension between the Malian government and the separatist groups who were supported by Islamist militant groups stems from differences in religious and political ideologies.

Comprised predominantly of southerners, the Mali government is perceived to have liberal religious and economic ideologies, such as industrialization. However, the northern separatist groups are believed to be predominantly traditionalists who believe in installation of Islamic or shari’a law, and in traditional methods of economic activity such as nomadic pastoralism. Tensions emanating from these differences have found expression in the recurrent Tuareg rebellions.

But even more importantly, there are competitive power relations among the militant groups operating in the Sahel. Ideological leanings and strategic interests, such as political gains, have influenced the configuration of the alliances of the militant groups.


Aljazeera, 2012. Timeline: Mali Since Independence.
Available at: http://www.aljazeera.com/news/africa/2012/03/2012322111037483270.html
[Accessed 4 September 2013].

Aning, K., 2010. Potential new hotspots for extremism and opportunities to mitigate the danger: The case of the Sahel.
Available at: http://works.bepress.com/kwesi_aning/8
BBC, 2013. www.bbc.co.uk. [Accessed 27 August 2013].

Dowd, C. & Raleigh, C., 2013. The Myth Global Islamic Terrorism and Local Conflict in Mali and the Sahel. African Affairs, pp. 1-12.

Lecocq, B., 2010. Disputed Desert: Decolonisation, Competing Nationalisms and Tuareg Rebellions in Northern Mali. s.l.:s.n.

Lewis, D., 2013. Armed Tuareg and Arab groups in northern Mali.
Available at: http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/05/18/us-mali-fighting-idUSBRE94H07F20130518
[Accessed 4 September 2013].

Metcalf, S., 2012. www.bbc.co.uk.
[Accessed 27 August 2013].

Miller, R., 2012. The Role of Ideology in Negotiation. Small Wars Journal.

Thornberry, W. & Levy, J., 2011. Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, Washington DC: Center for Strategic and International Studies.

UN, n.d. MINUSMA: United Nations Stabilisation Mission in Mali. [Online]
Available at: http://www.un.org/en/peacekeeping/missions/minusma/background.shtml
[Accessed 5 September 2013].

Zoubir, Y. H., 2012. The Sahel-Sahara Quagmire: Regional and International Ramifications. Mediterranean Politics, pp. 452- 458.

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