Mali: Opportunities and challenges – What are the solutions for ending the crisis?


by Irina Tsukerman and Anis El Okbani

The management of crises in the Sahelo-Saharan space today presents itself as a tension between opportunity and challenge. The fall of the Malian regime of IBK and of the Libyan Muammar Gaddafi only underscored and exacerbated the security vacuum in the Sahelo-Saharan zone, which is already suffering from the offensive of jihadist terrorist networks, organized crime, the fragility of states and ethnic and religious conflicts.

Mali: Multidimensional crisis or Sahelo-Saharan curse?

The reasons relate, in part, to The New Geopolitical Deal in the Sahelo-Saharan region, where various actors are active.

The Sahel is becoming one of the world’s top – yet forgotten – geopolitical hotspots, with over 4000 people dying throughout the region in terrorist attacks last year alone. It’s an aslo considered the world’s fastest growing Islamist insurgency. The idea of the “new geopolitical deal” in the region was for various concerned powers to join forces to assist the beleaguered governments in the area through a combination of defense support, humanitarian assistance, economic infusions, and political coordination. In 2015, for instance, the United Nations tried to raise 2 billion pounds in aid for the region – and that was only a start of the investments that would flow into the affected countries.

These  actors could be divided into four distinct but intertwined spheres. The first sphere is made up of the Sahel countries, members of ECOWAS; the second, from the Maghreb countries; the third sphere includes the countries of Europe, led by France, a former colonial power, and the fourth sphere is that of the United States of America, China or other powers interested in the natural resources of the Sahel-Saharan zone.

Why is it a Sahelo-Saharan curse?The reasons can be found in this observation:

Rarely has a country been so supported, financially and securely, as Mali has . The UN sent thousands of peacekeepers there, France has sent more than 5,000 troops from the Barkhane operation  force and the European Union sent, a “European Union Training Mission in Mali” (EUTM).Despite all this combat and logistical support, Mali is undergoing a chronic war between jihadist groups and regular forces, weak governance, institutional corruption and the rejection of politicians.The rise of Imam Dicko is a symbol of the failure of the Malian political elite. The popularity of Imam Mahmoud Dicko, who contributed to the downfall of President IBK, and the warm welcome given to the coup leaders by thousands of demonstrators, is proof of this crisis.This failure is also that of France and its allies.

This chain of events follows the failure of the peace process, which started with the June 2015 Bamako peace agreement once led by Algeria. The agreement did not address many of the central security issues. It did not oust the Islamist forces from the North nor did it return security forces – domestic or international – to the troubled region. Tensions among communities and local disputes went unresolved and became persistent in the south and center of the country, which facilitated the spread of jihadist groups. Some of these security challenges ended up spilling over into Burkina Faso, which was suffering from its own insurgency. Islamist attacks on the army headquarters and the French Embassy were among some of the increasing terrorist attacks in Burkina Faso linked to the Al Qaeda network in the area, and arising from the weak security apparatus in the country.  The situation has deteriorated to such an extent and the official services proved to be so incapable of containing the threats, that the government made the decision to arm the civilians against the terrorists.

The insurgency continued to gain force throughout 2020 pushing into Niger, where the US military base is located, and further into Burkina Faso. Meanwhile the human rights watchdogs continued criticizing the security services of these countries for incompetence and for alleged summary executions of civilians. Allegedly the unarmed individuals may have been cooperating with the jihadist groups in the Sahel, but a proper investigation was never conducted.  The jihadists meanwhile have gained influence in political, economic, and social operations through the countries of the Sahel, increasing their influence on a local level and blurring the lines between civilians, collaborators, and actively participating members.

The French, while devoting substantial human and finacial resources to the counterinsurgency operations, nevertheless failed to provide assistance in the following key areas:

  • Restructuring government security forces
  • Fighting the spread of extremist ideology
  • Pushing back against corruption
  • Strengthening civic institutions and society
  • Addressing infrastructural issues
  • Filling the gaping holes in operational intelligence
  • Helping and identify and recruit potential political leadership
  • Contributing long-term logistical assistance towards stabilizing the overall environment
  • Helping mediate local dispute and set up credible local governance bodies to address grievances

Combat forces along have long proven to be insufficient in creating a successful model for counterinsurgency; perhaps the French were less interested in building up societies immune to the spread of extremism than in making sure that whichever wind the way blew, the French access to natural resources and political capital endured. Indeed, perhaps having strong federal governments independent of the French defense presence was not deemed to be in the interests of the French.

What is the role of the French lobbying summits?

PAU Summit: the 5 African Heads of State involved in the fight against terrorism in the Sahel

Faced with the increase in jihadist attacks in the Sahel, French President Emmanuel Macron and his five allies of the G5 Sahel – Roch Marc Christian Kaboré (Burkina Faso), Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta (Mali), Mohamed Ould Cheikh El Ghazouani (Mauritania), Mahamadou Issoufou ( Niger) and Idriss Déby Itno (Chad) met on Monday 13/01/2020 at the castle of Pau, a city in southwestern France bereaved by the loss of seven of its soldiers in Mali.

Others who joined the gathering included the Secretary-General of United Nations, Antonio Guterres, the President of the Commission of the African Union, Moussa Faki, the President of the European Council, Charles Michel and the Vice-President of the European Commission and High Representative for Foreign Affairs, Joseph Borrel.

Objective: It was a very high priority and important date in the agenda of the French head of state.

According to the Elysée, this Summit was called  to “reassess the framework and the objectives of the French engagement in the Sahel. It will also lay the groundwork for increased international support to the countries of the Sahel “.  Part of the program involved taking  stock of the strategy pursued by these Sahel countries against terrorism, strengthening the contested legitimacy of the French soldiers deployed there and mobilizing European allies at a time when the United States intended to reduce its presence. Since the summit, however, protests against the continuing French presence, continued . Others criticized France for entangling itself in a “forever” war with no end in sight, nor a strategy to achieve concrete objectives.

ECOWAS summit against terrorism: What role is there for Morocco?

The situation was considered alarming in this area and there was a security emergency, and that was the sole and central issue of the summit of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) devoted to “the fight against terrorism. ”, Which took place on September 15, 2019 in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso.

The 15 ECOWAS countries plus four invited countries: Morocco, Cameroon, Mauritania and Chad, participated (Algeria was absent).Objective of this summit was to achieve a greater mobilization of the member states of the ECOWAS against terrorism, in particular for financial and material resources. Commitments to eradicate terrorism were made, but no coherent blueprint for achieving measurable results were introduced, nor followed.

The absence of Algeria, once considered a leader on the peace process on the Maghreb side, opened the door for Morocco to take its place.  However, leadership in the Maghreb would have had to include the following factors missing then and still invisible to date:

  • effective and timely intelligence sharing and long-term planning by alert pro-active intelligence agencies
  • Close diplomatic coordination with other partners with a focus on several concrete practical goals which advance everyone’s interest in a more secure region, despite whatever the internal conflicts
  • Awareness of conflicts of interests among some of the participats on the ground, such as France’s concern about the growth of Morocco’s influence in Africa
  • Investment of diplomatic resources and other human involvement on the implementation level of specific civic society, job security, humanitarian, and infrastructural goals.
  • Stringent financial oversight to avoid misappropriation of funding and in response to endemic corruption.
  • An integrated communications system among mid-and lower-level government officials
  • a joint rapid response framework to security, political, economic, social, and public health crises.
  • Crisis management training for the relevant officials; institution of a permanent joint task force focused on implementation and tracking of results between high level meetings.
  • Presentation of comprehensive, innovative, yet realizable strategic and operational proposals, including ideas for internal and regional reconcilaition processes to address local grievances and sectarian disputes exploited by extremists.

Morocco has indeed had plenty of opportunities, as well as inherent natural advantages to lead on these fronts, but instead opted for the outdated system of cash infusions into preferred government projects and some infrastructural and other projects, which are prone to various forms of systematic dysfunction due to corruption, mismanagement, lack of skills, tensions in the joint ventures with the local authorities, and other foreseeable and avoidable problems.

The Sahel, a new theater of inter-Maghreb rivalries? Mainly the Algerian-Moroccan rivalry!

While the Sahel crisis could have constituted a unifying element of the Maghreb states, it is in the  divided  ranks that these states have developed their national security policies vis-à-vis the Sahel. Indeed, concerning the question of the Sahel in general and Mali in particular, Algeria and Morocco have often taken concurrent parallel initiatives.

Algeria has always sought to exert great political influence in the Sahel region, while Morocco seeks religious leadership. However, Algeria’s political leadership, even in the early years of the crisis in the Sahel, was always questionable. Algiers avoided coordination with the neighbors (including, in particular, Morocco), appearing to believe that a joint strategy on security might lead to encirclement, the fear that drove its policies in the 1970s.

Algeria’s approach was mired in contradictions. Beleaguered by internal power struggles, the country appeared to follow President Obama’s idea of “leading from behind”, wishing to be seen as a regional leader while simultaneously refusing to engage in proactive diplomacy and waiting to see what other regional forces have in store. That only confused the other regional actors, without empowering anyone in particular to step up and fill in the vacuum of power this  passive leadership style inevitably produced.  The promising potential for collaboration with the leading powers lauded by the Europeans never came to fruition.

Morocco’s goal is none other than to establish itself as a pioneer of a religious movement based on the wasatiyya (the idea of moderation or the “middle path” in Islam) and the ability to counter radical rhetoric. Furthermore, Morocco saw this role as a form of diplomatic leadership which would earn goodwill among neighbors, and contribute to a more secure environment without having to get involved in combat or being perceived as interfering in the internal affairs of the Sahel countries.

European and French strategies in the Sahel: between competition and complementarity

The European strategy is structured around four complementary axes touching on areas as varied as good governance and the settlement of internal conflicts, political and diplomatic action, the rule of law and the fight against extremism. However, only the combat action on the European side gained prominence and visibility. Europe had been outsourcing  all other aspects of these issues to local officials, NGOs, and others. However, the failure of these efforts after a number of years due to various internal factors such as corruption, mismanagement, lack of effective streamlining of resources, lack of strategy, internal weaknesses, and lack of skill and supervision eventually lead to European reassessment of the generous donations towards these causes and a consideration of a more hands-on and direct approach in all of these areas.

Lack of transparency and accountability also may have contributed to France’s lackluster support for the shaky and now fallen IBK government in Mali; perhaps Paris surmised that the new regime could be cooptable, malleable, more popular with the locals, and less troublesome to prop up.

Some questions and controversies.  Is the American presence in the Sahel, an opportunity or a threat for the Maghreb and Europe?

Read some of the comments from the transcript of the Sahel summit:

“We entrusted the French army with an impossible mission”“The jihadist groups, which were fragmented, gathered around a common enemy: France. “Did you think this failure was programmed?Yes, the French army has been given an impossible mission. In Mali, jihadism was never more than a symptom of a failed state. Can operation “Barkhane” take a long time to achieve certain objectives? Are local armies therefore irreformable?France has been doing military cooperation in Africa for sixty years, but for what results?Would France not then pass for an unreliable ally?But how to respond to the risk of an extension of the threat?In these asymmetric wars, of course, a military response is needed. It can’t just be negotiation. But is this the role of France? No, it’s up to Africans to take charge. We cannot keep Mali indefinitely under humanitarian, financial and military infusion.

At some point, the Malians have to pull themselves together, say what kind of state they want.“We cannot keep Mali indefinitely on humanitarian, financial and military infusion.There is also the question of the objective of this war in the Sahel. But it was a preventive action, because none of the groups we are fighting in the Sahel have ever carried out an attack here.Are we really in a fight against jihadism?We are dealing with insurgent groups and the use of the term “terrorist” introduces a lot of confusion. There is a religious veneer but a mafia logic. The religious motivation to join these groups is by the way not decisive. It is more often out of opportunism, to protect against abuses by the armed forces or to seek revenge. Calendars are primarily local.

These movements are rooted in conflicts over livestock and access to land. What can the French soldier do in this? We cannot ask him to turn into a cowherd and lead the Fulani herds.Things are finally said, clearly.In Mali, the junta appoints new men to strategic positions, which ones?Senior officers, generals and colonels, now occupy key positions, replacing soldiers appointed by the former power.”

While the French went back and forth on the utility of maintaining the long term presence in the Sahel, the looming elephant in the room remained the issue of the American presence. Would the United States be an effective complement to the French forces, take some of the burden off the Europeans, and stymie some of the criticism? Or would the Americans present a long term threat to the French influence in Africa and competition for resources and political leadership? It seems, however, that in some respects the US lack of  Africa strategy is proving to be a long term liability for its own interests, and the cooperation is likely to remain at a tactical level.

US presence in the Sahel has been focused entirely on counterterrorism and military objectives, with no contribution to development, economic issues, countering corruption, responding to the growith of ideological extremism,  or the involvement of state actors in the proliferation of terrorist groups.  As a result of this reactionary response, US is seeing the same deterioration in conditions as has plagued its operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere. And while there is no reason why US should be expected to carry that burden alone, three administrations, including Trump, have recognized the political and humanitarian concerns resulting from instability in Africa directly to US interests and international security, so writing off the region as something beyond US involvement will ultimately come back to haunt some future administration.

Dangerous Liaisons”:  Extreme Salafism aka Islamism

The June 5 demonstration in Bamako, where an ultimatum was issued to President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta to resign, was a turning point. For the first time, thousands of people gathered at the call of a coalition of politicians, clerics and members of civil society, including Mahmoud Dicko. It allowed the imam to deepen the dissension within the Muslim community, to amputate the rearguard of Malian politics from its leaders, almost all signatories of the final communiqué asking “IBK” to leave.

Who is Dicko? He is a Salafi/Muslim Brotherhood Imam who long back studied in Saudi Arabia, and who came to chair the High Islamic Council of Mali.

To understand this rupture, we must look at three moments of recent political development in Mali. First, let’s examine the genesis of the meteoric rise of the imam. Successive regimes have helped extreme Salafism (mixed Islamism), much of it imported from the Gulf, and Islamism which had at one point came to play a prominent role in Gulf political and religious life, and initially more prevalent in the Gulf, although a minority current, to rise and remain at the head of the High Islamic Council in a country that has had a Malikite tradition for centuries and is well anchored by its tolerance. Initially developed as a form of theological “originalism” in response to Western European imperialism, this group eventually came to be most prominently associated with hardliner fundamentalist groups.

The hijacking of practices, discourse, and terminology in the popular parlance added to the confusion.  Further lack of discernment between the idea of Salafism as a movement, the Hanbali school of Islam most prominent in Saudi Arabia and Qatar, and the introduction of the marriage between Hanafi Shafei groups, and Muslim Brotherhood ideology erroneously termed “Wahhabism” due to the operations in older Saudi Arabia, further obfuscated the understanding of what became known as religious and politicized extremism.

Ironically, just as the Islamist-influenced Salafist sects started to lose ground  in the Kingdom, the decades of soft power outreach in Africa, fueled by additional and ongoing support from Qatar and Turkey, led to a surge even in the strongholds of the Malikite tradition. The Maliki school prevalent in Africa, including Morocco, differs from the other Sunni schools in deriving additional sources not only from the Qu’ran, and to a lesser extent from hadiths, but from the “rightly guided caliphs”, including, and especially, Umar.

The Islamist current, with conservative ideas, was paradoxically better organized and could be more politically mobilized, at the crossroads of business and power. This contributes to the explanation for the rise of Mahmoud Dicko and the blow to Morocco’s aspiration for leadership in the Malikite tradition.

Irina Tsukerman is a Human Rights and National Security Attorney based in New York. She has written extensively on geopolitics and US foreign policy for a variety of American, Israeli, and other international publications. She can be followed under @irinatsukerman.

Anis El Okbani is an entrepreneur based in NY, a Morocco and National Security analyst, and a specialist in geopolitics and strategy.

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