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Mali's crisis hits 10-year mark

March 30, 2022

Tuareg rebels seized key towns in northern Mali in early 2012, sparking a political and security crisis that continues today.

Armed Malian soliders and Tuareg rebels are working together on a military mission
Mali is caught in a cycle of instabilityImage: Baba Ahmed/AP/dpa/picture alliance

Mali's current political and security crisis is a continuation of events that happened a decade ago. 

Separatist Tuareg rebels, fighting under the banner of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), began attacking towns and army bases in northern Mali in January 2012.

They went on to defeat Malian government forces and conquer Gao, a strategically important city on the banks of the Niger river in northeastern Mali, on March 31, 2012. 

"This was a dramatic event that is burned into the consciousness of Malians," said Hassane Kone from the Institute of Security Studies, an Africa-based think tank. 

The group, who had previously taken control of the key town of Kidal, went on to seize the historic desert town of Timbuktu with relative ease. 

Less than a week later, the group declared the independent state of Azawad in northern Mali, making Gao the capital of their new country.

Map of the West African state of Mali, an insert shows Mali´s situation in Africa

Coup enabled Tuareg advances

The Tuareg, nomadic pastoralists who traditionally roamed across the Sahara in West Africa, were able to gain ground by taking advantage of the chaotic political situation in Mali, which had been rocked by a coup earlier that month. 

The March 2012 military coup, which toppled the democratically elected government of Amadou Toumani Toure, was triggered by the army's frustration with the government's handling of the Tuareg rebellion and its failure to properly equip security forces to fight the rebels.

The Tuareg fighters were hardened by combat in Libya — and then equipped with heavy weapons looted from Moammar Gadhafi's arsenals after the Libyan leader was overthrown in 2011.

President neglected Tuareg rebellion

Mali's coup took place shortly before the scheduled presidential elections. Toure, who had already won two terms, was unable to stand in the 2012 election because of constitutional limitations on presidential terms.

Mali´s former president Amadou Toumani Toure next to a flag of his country
The toppling of Amadou Toumani Toure set in motion a cycle of instabilityImage: imago images

"Toure only cared about his own political future," Kone said. 

"Elections were imminent and there were rumors that Toure's supporters and family members were planning to amend the constitution and prolong his time in office," said Kone, adding that this caused Toure's administration to "neglect" the Tuareg rebellion. 

Tuareg paved way for jihadists

But the Tuareg rebels were unable to hold Mali's north for long. 

Just two months after the Tuareg-led MNLA took Gao, they were expelled from the city by jihadist factions, who also seized other northern towns and villages. 

These factions included Ansar ed-Din (Movement of the Defenders of the Faith), the al-Qaida-linked militant group known as MUJAO (Unity Movement for Jihad in West Africa), and Al-Qaeda in the Land of the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). 

French-led troops later managed to recapture Gao and other extremist strongholds. 

But Mali, even with the support of international missions, has struggled to contain this Islamist insurgency ever since. 

2012 events felt today

For the two decades before the coup and the withdrawal of Malian forces from the north, Mali was a stable and peaceful state held up as a shining example of successful democratization in post-colonial Africa. 

But the chain of events in the first quarter of 2012 triggered a cycle of political dissolution that still has repercussions today. 

"The misery of Mali started with a military coup and afterwards more coups followed," said Kone, referring to the 2020 and 2021 coups that have seen the further deterioration of Mali's political and security situation.

Failure of international missions

Several international military missions, including the UN-led MINUSMA mission and European Union training mission EUTM, have been in Mali since 2013 to help stabilize the country and support the fight against terrorist groups. 

Some 1,300 German forces are based in Mali as part of these missions. 

But these peacekeeping missions are generally viewed as having failed.

A German soldier in Mali is seen next to a machine gun and in fromt of a German flag
A German soldier takes part in the international MINUSMA peacekeeping mission in Mali Image: Michael Kappeler/dpa/picture alliance

The country is still under a nationwide state of emergency. "Terrorist attacks are liable to happen anywhere in the country," according to an analysis by Germany's Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development, especially in the northern and central parts of Mali.

The country's borders regions with Mauritania, Burkina Faso and Ivory Coast, in particular, have become terrorism hotspots. 

Civilians suffering

Some 400,000 people were internally displaced in Mali in September 2021, according to the latest figures released by the United Nations. That's four times more people than in September 2020.

Some 7 million people out of a population of more than 20 million are in need of assistance because of the deteriorating humanitarian situation. 

"The balance of those last years is devastating," Hassane Kone said.

Mali´s president Assimi Goïta in a military uniform reading a speech
Coup leader Assimi Goita now serves as president of MaliImage: Präsidentschaft der Republik Mali

Coup within a coup

The 2020 and 2021 coups made a bad situation worse. In August 2020, the military, led by Assimi Goita, ousted democratically elected President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita.

In May 2021, armed forces under Assimi Goita seized power again, booting out a transitional government they had installed following pressure from the international community. 

Some months later, the coup leaders announced they would delay  holding presidential and legislative elections by up to five years.

The African Union and West African region group, ECOWAS have suspended Mali's membership in both organizations. 

French withdrawal 

On top of this turmoil, in February 2022, France announced the withdrawal of their troops after a nine-year deployment fighting jihadists in Mali's north. 

For its part, the government in Bamako has called the French military mission inefficient and accused France, its former colonizer, of interfering in Mali's internal affairs.

Germany, along with other countries and international organizations, such as the United Nations and the African Union, has called for Mali to return to democracy. 

Difficult return to democracy

But a decade after the 2012 Tuareg rebellion and the rise of jihadist terrorism in northern Mali, political analyst Bakary Sambe believes Mali's only chance of returning to political stability is through a process of national reconciliation.

"Only the establishment of a real democracy can lead to reconciliation that will include all minorities in Mali," said Sambe, the regional director of the Timbuktu Institute, a Malian think tank. 

Otherwise, Mali runs the risk of "keeping up a democratic facade" that would solve short-term election problems but fail to address the challenges facing the country. 

Malians suffer under strain of economic sanctions

Mahamadou Kane in Bamako and Eric Topona contributed to this article, which was originally written in German.