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Mali (Vol 15, 2018)

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Bruce Whitehouse
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A growing number of fatal clashes between local militia groups combined with jihadi terror campaigns to make 2018 Mali’s deadliest year since a complex security crisis began in 2012. Violence increased, mainly in the country’s central and northern regions. Implementation of the peace accord between the central government and Tuareg separatist rebels continued to lag. The incumbent head of state was re-elected in August. Malian leaders strengthened relations with diverse partners abroad, while at home, commodity production rose and the economy continued its recent trend of moderate expansion.

See also Mali 2004 | 2005 | 2006 | 2007 | 2008 | 2009 | 2010 | 2011 | 2012 | 2013 | 2014 | 2015 | 2016 | 2017 | 2019 | 2020 | 2021 | 2022.

Contents Volume 15, 2018.

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A growing number of fatal clashes between local militia groups combined with jihadi terror campaigns to make 2018 Mali’s deadliest year since a complex security crisis began in 2012. Violence increased, mainly in the country’s central and northern regions. Implementation of the peace accord between the central government and Tuareg separatist rebels continued to lag. The incumbent head of state was re-elected in August. Malian leaders strengthened relations with diverse partners abroad, while at home, commodity production rose and the economy continued its recent trend of moderate expansion.

Domestic Politics

The greatest threat to Mali’s domestic stability and security came from a rising number of attacks by ethnically organised militia groups, especially in rural zones of the central Mopti region. Clashes largely pitted members of nomadic Fulani communities against members of sedentary Dogon and Bambara communities. At least 300 civilians were reported killed in over 100 incidents of communal violence, though an opposition leader estimated the toll at over 1,000 for the Mopti region alone. Malian security forces sometimes contributed to the problem in central Mali, where un and independent human rights monitors joined local residents in accusing government troops of harassing, detaining, torturing, and killing civilians. Most of the victims were believed to be Fulani whom the soldiers suspected of belonging to jihadi groups. Mass graves containing the bodies of civilians were discovered in multiple locations throughout the Mopti region, and surging violence drove an estimated 75,000 people from their homes in that region. Mali’s courts failed to hold anyone accountable for the abuses committed there.

As clashes escalated in the centre, violence by armed jihadi groups remained rampant in Mali’s northern regions of Timbuktu, Gao, and Kidal. Using gunmen, rockets, mortars, landmines, and especially improvised explosive devices, terror groups carried out hundreds of attacks against Malian security forces, French and un troops, and civilians throughout the year. Dozens of Malian soldiers and 11 un peacekeepers were killed in these incidents. Responsibility for most attacks was claimed by the ‘Jama’a Nusrat al-Islam wa-l-Muslimin’ (jnim; Group to Support Islam and Muslims), a transnational jihadi organisation established in 2017. In March, jnim fighters based in Mali also struck targets, including the French embassy, in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. A group known as the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (isgs) carried out other attacks in Mali and neighbouring countries. In October, the Malian government extended the state of emergency, in effect since 2012, for another year. Amadou Koufa, a top leader of jnim, was initially reported killed in a November airstrike by French forces but resurfaced alive and well three months later. In December, the Malian government arrested four members of a jnim cell who were allegedly planning to carry out coordinated New Year’s Eve attacks in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Côte d’Ivoire.

In Bamako, president Ibrahim Boubacar Keita began the year by shuffling his cabinet and naming former minister of defence Soumeylou Boubèye Maïga to the post of prime minister. Keita remained deeply unpopular with a large proportion of the Malian public due to his perceived inability to address the country’s looming security crisis and endemic corruption. Nonetheless, his opponents struggled to defeat him despite forming a united bloc in April. In July, the government conducted the first round of nationwide presidential elections; Keita led the field of 23 candidates, garnering 41% of votes. He faced off against the second-placed finisher, former finance minister Soumaïla Cissé (whom he had defeated five years earlier), in a run-off vote in August. Keita won again, receiving 67% of ballots cast. No major incidents of violence married either round of presidential voting, but low voter turnout and opposition parties’ allegations of vote rigging raised doubts about the legitimacy of Mali’s democratic system. In September, Keita was sworn in to a second five-year term; shortly afterward, Prime Minister Maïga formed a new 33-member cabinet. In November, Mali’s constitutional court postponed legislative elections for a third time, citing insecurity and logistical problems. The court extended the terms of incumbent legislators until a new vote could take place.

The year saw scant progress on implementing the long-delayed peace process between the central government and northern Tuareg rebels. A visit to the United States by representatives of the Tuareg-led ‘Coordination des Mouvements de l’Azawad’ (cma) in January drew a forceful denunciation from Keita, who claimed that the trip undermined trust between his government and the rebels. Although the northern separatist stronghold of Kidal remained mostly outside the zone of central government influence, in March small numbers of Malian soldiers did begin taking part in joint security patrols with rebels in that city under the auspices of the peace agreement signed by the government and rebel leaders in 2015. That same month, Maïga became the most senior central government official to visit Kidal since rebels violently expelled all government troops and representatives from the city in 2014. A programme for the disarmament, demobilisation, and reintegration of ex-rebel combatants, also called for by the peace accord, was launched in November in the cities of Timbuktu, Gao, and Kidal after many months of delays. Officials from the Malian government and rebel groups signed the Pact for Peace, a roadmap to speed up implementation of the peace process. The establishment of interim northern regional political authorities, however, remained stalled, and violence in many forms (terrorist, communal, criminal) remained endemic. Tuareg rebel groups engaged in sporadic skirmishes against fighters affiliated with the isgs. Intercommunity clashes also broke out in northern regions, primarily between Tuareg and Fulani groups, culminating in deadly massacres of civilians on at least three occasions near the northern town of Ménaka, a regular flashpoint for conflicts in the region.

Foreign Affairs

Keita played a less active role in diplomacy than in previous years, making just 15 official trips abroad in 2018, down from an average of 32 per year over the previous four years. Nonetheless, Mali remained heavily dependent on its alliances with foreign governments and multilateral organisations to address its security and economic problems. Through deployment of its peacekeeping mission minusma, the un continued to support the Malian government’s efforts to reassert control over its territory and population. un officials and researchers repeatedly warned that Mali’s peace process was at risk of failure due to a lack of political will among the signatories. unsg António Guterres came to Mali to meet with minusma leaders and Malian officials in May. unsc member states, in voting to renew the mission’s mandate in July, expressed their impatience with Mali’s lack of progress in solidifying peace and stressed that they could not maintain minusma indefinitely. In December, hoping to accelerate the peace process, the unsc imposed sanctions on three Malian militia leaders whom it accused of trafficking narcotics, instigating violence, and violating ceasefire agreements. minusma fielded over 15,000 personnel in Mali, including over 12,500 troops, 1,750 police, and 1,400 civilian staff. Its personnel contributed to regular security, reconnaissance, and capacity-building operations throughout the country’s northern and central regions, but violence persisted. 11 minusma troops died in attacks by jihadi groups. In July, a detachment of 250 personnel and 8 helicopters from the armed forces of Canada joined the mission, marking the most significant deployment of Canadian troops to a un peacekeeping mission in nearly 15 years, and the first in Africa since 1994. In December, Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau visited peacekeepers in Mali. The Canadian contingent replaced a helicopter unit from Germany that had reached the end of its scheduled deployment. The Netherlands, having participated in minusma since 2014, announced that its troops would depart Mali by mid-2019.

The eu sustained its role as another key partner of the Malian government in areas of security, political affairs, and development. In May, it renewed the mandate for its military training mission, based in the town of Koulikoro, for another two years, and broadened it to include technical support for the G5 Sahel’s 5,000-man joint force, established in 2017 to address cross-border security threats facing Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger. The eu was also a primary donor to the G5 Sahel, pledging € 100 m of its own funds and helping to secure pledges of € 314 m from other donor governments to support the joint force. The first phase of the G5’s priority investment programme, covering food security, governance reforms, health infrastructure, humanitarian aid, and military assistance for 2019 to 2021, was budgeted at € 2.4 bn. The G5 Sahel Joint Force remained under-resourced with respect to funding, operational coordination, and logistical capacity, however, particularly since much of the money pledged for the group never materialised. Following a June suicide attack at its headquarters in the central Malian town of Sévaré, the G5 force relocated its headquarters to the more secure setting of Bamako. Insecurity in Mali was prominent on the agenda of a July summit of the au in Mauritania.

France maintained some 1,000 soldiers on Malian soil as part of its Operation Barkhane, underway since 2014. Its troops and aircraft conducted patrols and carried out several strikes against jihadi groups operating in northern Mali. Barkhane integrated troops contributed by other European governments as well. In March, 50 troops from Estonia joined French forces based in Gao. In June, 100 soldiers and 3 helicopters from the United Kingdom deployed to Mali in July to coordinate with French troops taking part in Barkhane. This deployment was part of a British initiative to take a more active role in the Sahel, including by expanding its embassy in Bamako and scaling up its diplomatic presence elsewhere in the region. The United States, by contrast, cut back its military commitments in the Sahel and opposed efforts in the un to fund the G5 force. In January, the us State Department warned its citizens against all travel to Mali, and in September, it officially designated jnim a terrorist organisation.

As part of their cooperation with the icc , Malian authorities in April transferred to the international court in The Hague a Malian man accused of leading the Islamic Police in Timbuktu during that city’s occupation by jihadi forces in 2012–13. Prosecutors subsequently charged Al Hassan Ag Abdoul Aziz Ag Mohamed Ag Mahmoud with committing acts of rape, torture, and sexual slavery while enforcing the jihadis’ strict interpretation of Islamic law.

The Keita administration continued to prioritise stronger ties with governments throughout the Middle East region. In January, Prime Minister Maïga’s first official trip abroad was to Algeria, where he sought support for Mali’s peace process and the G5 force. Mali’s relations with Algeria suffered, however, following the arrest and forced repatriation of Malian migrants in March, under conditions that sparked heated public protests in Bamako. Mali signed six economic accords with Morocco during a March visit to the kingdom by Prime Minister Maïga. The two governments expanded their bilateral ties as part of Morocco’s initiative to expand its presence in ssa. Mali signed multiple agreements for commerce and aid with Turkey during a visit to Bamako by that country’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in March. Qatar sent 24 light armoured vehicles to help equip the Malian troops for operations with the G5 force, and the uae provided a € 26 m loan (via the Abu Dhabi Fund for Development) to finance new housing construction in 10 Malian cities.

Socioeconomic Developments

The economy grew by an estimated 5%, down from 5.3% in 2017. The imf declared that Mali’s economic performance and progress towards structural reform were “broadly on track” despite a shortfall in tax revenue. Yet insecurity and its associated effects continued to weigh on the population. Food insecurity and malnutrition affected up to one-quarter of the population, with 850,000 children under the age of five at risk of acute malnutrition, according to un estimates. In addition to 75,000 people internally displaced by violence, an estimated 3,000 refugees fled the country, and 1 m children were out of primary school due largely to the closure of hundreds of schools throughout Mali’s unstable central and northern regions. Mali received a € 27 m loan from the Islamic Development Bank to support a € 127 m programme intended to send 600,000 children back to school.

Urban life saw protests in many forms. The judicial system was paralysed by a judges’ strike that lasted three months. Protests by conservative Muslim activists broke out in Bamako amid accusations that a programme for sex education in schools, sponsored by the government of The Netherlands, would promote homosexuality. Street demonstrations continued even after the government scrapped the programme in December.

Mali’s agricultural sector benefited from a string of bountiful cotton harvests: a record 725,000 tonnes of raw cotton were recorded during the 2017/18 season, up 12% from the previous year. Observers predicted that the 2018/19 harvest would reach 750,000 tonnes.

In the mining sector, industrial production of gold (which accounts for most of Mali’s export earnings) reached 60.8 tonnes, an increase of 23% over the previous year’s figure. This increase was due mainly to new mines beginning production at Fekola and Komana. The government granted a 50% corporate tax reduction to Randgold Resources over the next four years, intended to help the company expand production at its Gounkoto mine. Strikes by mineworkers and an ongoing dispute over back taxes claimed by the government dampened Randgold’s outlook for operations in Mali. In March, the government announced its intention to renegotiate the national mining code, which could result in mining companies paying higher taxes and royalties on their output. Mining companies were also expecting to begin large-scale mining of lithium by 2020, with Mali’s reserves estimated at nearly 700,000 tonnes.

Energy production and distribution were boosted by the opening in October of Mali’s first private-sector power project, a € 120 m, 90-megawatt diesel plant operated by Albatros Energy, which holds a 20-year concession to sell its electricity to the state-owned power utility. Additionally, Malian authorities coordinated with their counterparts in Guinea to launch a € 300 m programme to construct a new electrical grid linking producers and consumers in both countries.

New transportation infrastructure initiatives included a contract with dp World to build a logistics hub near Bamako facilitating overland freight and to supply new locomotives for the Dakar-Bamako railroad. The World Bank also approved funds to dredge portions of the Niger River for improved navigation. To spur regional trade, Mali formed a special economic zone with Burkina Faso and Côte d’Ivoire in their shared border regions. The zone aims to promote agribusiness and transport between the three countries.

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