Crisis in Mali: Policy Report
Dr Vasabjit Banerjee

A Background to the Regional Conflict

Mali is part of the broader African arid and desert region called the Sahel, which stretches from Mauritania on the West Coast of Africa to Somalia on the East Coast. The main ethnic divisions in the region are between the northern tribes who identify as Arabs and Muslims, such as the Tuareg and Hausa, and the southern black population that may or may not be Islamic. These divisions are worsened by the historical role played by the northern tribes in capturing and enslaving blacks.

In terms of law and order, the area has never been effectively controlled by post-colonial states. In the past, the French, British, and Italian colonial regimes were also unwilling or unable to control the area. This has led to uncontrolled population flows, accompanied by criminal activities, through what are known as Trans-Sahelian networks. At present, these networks undertake human and narcotics trafficking. The border regions of southern Algeria and northern Mauritania are especially prone to these issues.

Given the trans-border networks, the crisis in Mali has either co-opted members from other insurgencies in neighboring countries or threatens to spread to them. The foremost group that has delivered members and received training with the Mali insurgents has been Boko Haram of Nigeria, which has an Islamic ideology. The first major sign of the conflict spreading was the January 2013 capture of a gas facility in Algeria, which led to the taking of 41 foreign hostages, by a terror group called Belmoktar that is associated with the Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.

International Actors

The international actors’ are involved in Mali for different reasons, which blocks coordinated responses. In terms of western powers, the US is involved because it views the crisis in Mali through the prism of Islamic terrorism. The former colonial power France allegedly wants to secure the Uranium reserves in the Gao administrative region of Mali or intends to protect the supply route to Niger from where France gets 32 percent of the uranium supplies it requires for domestic electricity production. However, a recent article by Rod Adams uses data from the World Nuclear Association to argue that France neither depends on uranium from Mali nor does it need to maintain the supply route to Niger.1 Nevertheless, France is the most actively involved international player because it has sent troops into the country that have pushed back the Islamist-Tuareg rebels, and is now supporting the training and buildup of Malian government forces. Also, the African-led International Support Mission (AFISMA) in Mali is present in combating the terrorists with the backing of the UN. The strength and capability of this force will grow via the recent injection of funds by the European Union.2

With regards to Asian players, China also reportedly wants to maintain its assets in northern Niger, specifically the SOMINA uranium mine, which have been targets of Tuareg hostility.3 It is widely acknowledged that Pakistani presence in Mali goes back to connections made via the military backed A. Q. Khan nuclear proliferation network. However, Pakistani presence in Mali is now through terrorists in the Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).4 In a similar vein, Qatar has become involved because Islamic NGOs from there have channeled cash to the Tuareg rebels. 5

Domestic Politics: Situation and Players

The crisis in Mali arises from the interaction of weak state authority with failed democratization. Although the 22nd March, 2012 coup in the wake of the successful advances of the Tuaregs was a setback for democracy, the political system was already oligarchic and corrupt. In fact, the Islamists have frequently presented themselves as honest alternatives to entrenched political-economic elites. According to Dr. David Zounmenou of the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria, the extant social divisions were ignored or mishandled by the democratic government. For example, the Tuaregs were already beneficiaries of affirmative action policies, but their real aim has been to restore political dominance lost due to democratization.6

As of March, 2013, there are four major groups vying for power in Mali. The southern region, containing the administrative districts of Kayes, Koulikoro, and Mopti, has three competing centers of power centered on the capital city of Bamako: President Dioncounda Traoré, Prime Minister Django Cissoko, and Captain Amadou Sanogo.

In northern Mali, the Ansar Dine representing the Tuaregs was present in the regions of Timbuktu, Kidal, and Gao. However, after suffering major losses against French forces, the group fragmented in January 2013. The Movement for Azawad broke away from Ansar Dine and accepted dialogues with the government, and a regional commander moving to the other Tuareg group, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA). Initially fighting against the government, the MNLA was trained in Libya under the Gadhafi regime, but has reportedly switched sides and is now fighting for the government. The Islamist-Tuareg group called Al Qaeda Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), with its roots in the 1990s insurgency between Islamists and secular elites backed by the army in Algeria, is also present in the north. However, the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), also present in this region, has broken away from the AQIM, perhaps because of ethnic and ideological differences with the predominantly Algerian AQIM leadership.7

Policy Prescriptions:

At present, given its minor economic involvement in the region, India should only support the French, UN and African Union efforts to control the insurgency in the region. On the positive side, the conflict has not become centered on the control of mineral resources in the area, which extends from energy resources such as petroleum and natural gas, to mineral wealth like gold and diamonds, as well as uranium.

However, if the pattern in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Sub-Saharan Africa is considered, then such resource-centric insurgencies could appear in the future (especially if state institutions remain weak). Insurgent groups would then seek to capture resource rich areas and earn rents from international investors. Furthermore, once this dynamic appears, the states would find it increasingly difficult to control the lost areas because it would entail destruction of industrial infrastructure and insurgent groups will acquire better weapons due to a higher and steadier revenue streams.

If Indian companies were to invest in the area in the region under such conditions, the Indian government should follow a two-pronged strategy of negotiating with locally powerful groups and the pertinent national state. India should also consider an overall industrial investment strategy in Africa that addresses the security concerns of private and public companies.


  1. Adams, Rod. “France does not need Mali’s uranium despite all conspiracy theories to the contrary.” Atomic Insights, Jan. 24, 2013. .
  2. Karls, Tsokar. “AFISMA gets EU’s N15b financial lifeline.” The Guardian, Nigeria Apr. 10, 2013. .
  3. “Niger rebels menace uranium miners after China deal.” Reuters Nov. 14, 2007.
    Armstrong, Hannah. “China mining company causes unrest in Niger.” Christian Science Monitor Mar. 29, 2010. .
  4. Blair, David. “Timbuktu: al-Qaeda’s terrorist training academy in the Mali desert.” The Telegraph, Feb. 11, 2013.
  5. “France launches unprecedent campaign against Qatar role in Mali.” Middle East Online Feb. 04, 2013. .
  6. Zounmenou, David. “Mali: Collateral Damage of the Complex Security Challenges in the Sahel.” Presentation at the Centre for Mediation in Africa. Pretoria: University of Pretoria. Mar. 14, 2013.
  7. George, William L.. “Mali’s irrevocable crisis.” Al Jazeera Apr. 16, 2012. .

Published Date: 24th April 2013

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