MALI : Contemporary History


Mali, a country in French West Africa, gained its independence in 1960. Modibo Keita, the first president elected after independence, was overthrown by Lieutenant Moussa Traoré in 1968. He governed by means of an authoritarian military regime for the next 23 years, before handing over power, holding democratic elections under pressure from street protests and the international community. Under the successive presidencies of Alpha Oumar Konaré (1992-2002) and "ATT" – Amadou Toumani Touré (2002-2012) – Mali was held up to other African countries as an example of a model democracy. Then on 22 March 2012, ATT was overthrown by soldiers led by Captain Amadou Haya Sanogo, taking advantage firstly of mass protest movements against what demonstrators denounced as a corrupt regime and also of the outbreak of an unprecedented political and security crisis in the North of the country.

The conflict since 2012

While the authorities in Bamako failed to manage the fall of the deposed president and to implement the political transition instigated by ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States to which Mali belongs, along with 14 other member countries), the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), which groups together the Tuareg political and military movements, demanded the founding of an autonomous territory in the North of the country. The rebellion gradually became radicalised as arms from the 2011 Libyan civil war poured into the country.

The Malian conflict rapidly grew complex, involving a large number of players: new small groups belonging to the sphere of the MNLA seeking to free themselves from the authority of Bamako; groups expressing their allegiance to radical Islam (MUJAO, Ansar Dine, AQIM) and that saw an opportunity to establish themselves for the long term in this geographically-strategic region; but also local groups taking advantage of the chaos to participate in criminal activities and all kinds of trafficking.

The Tuareg rebels and the terrorist groups allied to AQIM took control of Kidal, Gao and Timbuktu between 30 March and 1 April 2012. The Malian state, unable to stand against the firepower of the Jihadists, called on the international community for help. In January 2013, France, operating under a UN mandate, carried out Operation Serval to put a stop to the Jihadist movements’ advance towards the capital and to support the Malian national army in recapturing the occupied areas (extending from Mopti to the North). This "lightning" military operation, led by France, soon gave way to problems on the ground  however (in the Ifoghas mountain range on the border between Mali and Algeria), and to doubts on the part of the Malian people, as they wondered about the true motives of the former colonial power. Despite pressure from France, the UN struggled to mobilise troops to take over and deploy peacekeepers under the new peacekeeping mission, MINUSMA (United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilisation Mission in Mali), which took up its position in July 2013.

Eighteen months after its launch, Operation Serval was renamed Operation "Barkhane", expanding its role to become a permanent mission to fight terrorism in the Sahel. 3,000 French soldiers are still serving there under it.


A preliminary peace agreement signed by the MNLA and the Malian interim state in Ouagadougou in June 2013, paved the way for the holding of presidential and parliamentary elections. "IBK" – Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta – was elected in the second round of the presidential election with 78% of the vote, on a programme based on dialogue and the restoration of peace, security and unity in the country.


A year later, in July 2014, the government and six armed groups reached an agreement in Algiers on a document establishing the "cessation of hostilities" within the framework of peace negotiations. The agreement was not signed until June 2015. While at the start of negotiations the   biggest, predominantly-Tuareg rebel groups were absent, they eventually did come round to supporting it.

The crisis that began in 2012 was the fourth "Tuareg rebellion" since the country gained independence. The first took place during the first few hours of independence, in 1963, under the social regime of President Modibo Keïta. The second, which began in 1990, was led by young Tuaregs who had returned from Libya. In May 2006, the third rebellion was started by the Alliance démocratique pour le changement (Democratic Alliance for Change). Frustrated at being excluded from the peace talks, the Niger-Mali Tuareg Alliance continued its attacks on garrison towns in the North, abducting soldiers and attacking symbols of the State.

In spite of the peace agreement, the Malian state remained absent and did not succeed in reasserting its authority over the central and northern regions of the country (Mopti, Gao, Kidal, Timbuktu). Self-defence militias had become well established and taking advantage of the decline of the state and the image of corruption of government institutions, they formed a substitute, parallel administration, taking charge of justice, security, health and education.

Peace in the country was still tenuous, and was being regularly shattered by clashes between militant groups which had failed to disarm their troops, and more recently by isolated attacks in crowded districts of Bamako. There have been four successive governments under the presidency of IBK, which has been beset by a divided political class and difficulties in conducting dialogue. It  now also faces the discontent of a population worn down by a very difficult economic situation and growing inequalities at all levels.

The next general elections have been set for March 2018. This date is not very realistic considering the fact that a large part of the population to the North of the town of Mopti may not be able to vote.

It is essential to clarify the use of the term "Jihadist" in the context of central Mali.

Eyewitness accounts reported by investigations carried out by international NGOs indicate that the Malian government forces (FAMA) have conducted military operations against armed Islamist groups that have frequently led to arbitrary arrests, ill-treatment and torture targeting populations accused of collusion, notably the Fulani and Dogon communities. They also revealed that the violence afflicting central Mali is rooted in the inter-community divisions and the frustration of the largely nomadic communities with their own elite at local levels, and with state officials.

The communities accuse the representatives of the state of corruption and of partiality in handling the inter- and intra-community conflicts. It is therefore often in response to the abuses committed by the armed forces that some elements of the local communities have joined the Jihadist movements and now position themselves as enemies of the Malian state and representatives of the administration. During the jihadist occupation, most of the Fulani leaders who had given their allegiance to the MUJAO (Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa) admitted that their purpose was not to fight the state, but to procure weapons. Jihad appears to be more often a cover for achieving their goals of forming self-defence militias.


*Cahiers de la Méditerranée - La nouvelle géopolitique du Sahel, une opportunité pour refonder le partenariat euro- maghrébin ? - Aomar Baghzouz

*CAIRN - Crise Malienne : Quelques clefs pour comprendre - Jacques Fontaine, Addi Lahouari, Ahmed Henni

*ICG - Mali central : la fabrique d’une insurrection

*Résolution 1973 du Conseil de sécurité des Nations unies

*La situation sécuritaire dans les pays de la zone sahélienne - Henri Plagnol et François Loncle

*Geopolitique du Sahel - Jean-Bernard Pinatel

*Études Internationales 126 - Dirassat Duwalya

*GRIP - Le Centre du Mali : épicentre du djihadisme ?-  Bounkary Sangare

*IMRAP Interpeace - Analyse locale des dynamiques de con it et de résilience dans la zone de Koro-Bankass