Conundrum of Mali’s security apparatus: lessons for Africa

Soldiers during a military coup in Mali. Picture: Malin Palm/Reuters

Soldiers during a military coup in Mali. Picture: Malin Palm/Reuters

Published May 13, 2022


By Chidochashe Nyere and Vusi Gumbi

On February 17, the European Union (EU) announced that it would start to wind down its affairs regarding its military training of the Malian army.

This follows conflicting reports that the government of Mali had enlisted the Wagner Group – Russian mercenaries – that has been reportedly terrorising villagers of Moura, killing in the region of 300 civilians.

It is noteworthy that the EU made this unsurprising announcement a week before Russia’s offensive on Ukraine that reached the proverbial point of no return on February 24.

We now know that the EU’s withdrawal is informed by Russia’s war in Ukraine. For fear of escalating the Russia/Ukraine conflict on African soil in semblance of the Cold War, the EU had to sacrifice Malian security. The African country can be easily sacrificed because it belongs to the zone of non-being which is characterised by strife, conflict, hunger, war and diseases.

The decision was made In order to toe the line of a Euro-North American-centric rhetoric and symbolism of being in support of Ukraine and which says Russia is the aggressor in that conflict and deserves to be condemned by all.

That the EU is withdrawing military training and support from Mali is not a problem in itself. However, certain intricacies and complexities have to be understood. To that effect, we briefly and intermittently historicise the conflict.

Arguably, the security crisis has its roots in the Tuareg and Timbuktu conflict of 2012 when rebel groups, with links to al-Qaeda, sought to destabilise the government of then-president Amadou Toumani Toure.

In response to the attacks, the Malian government enlisted the military help of France in 2013. We argue here that that decision by Mali was frivolous, seeing that France was its former coloniser. What good could come from such a historically perverted relationship? By 2014, the conflict had spilt over to Burkina Faso, which has since experienced several coups, as well as Niger which is also conflict-ridden. The conflicts have been exacerbated by Mali’s insecurity, hence the infamous saying that “coup begets coup”.

Understandably, the three countries share colonially-established borders. As such, the Sahel region has been the most marred by military takeovers of state power and insecurity than any other region in Africa.

The highlight of 2015 was that the Malian government initiated a peace deal with the Tuareg rebels through its leader, Adnan Abu Walid al-Sahraoui who, on the contrary, was pledging his allegiance to the Islamic State at the time. While this may have been deemed necessary to avert bloodshed by the Malian authorities, it remains self-defeating in that when a state negotiates with a rebel group, it legitimatises non-state military rebellion as that is tantamount to state-recognition of non-state armed conflict.

An alarming and key event in 2017 remains the suicide bomber belonging to the al-Mourabitoun rebel group who detonated a bomb in public, killing 77 people and wounding about 120 people. The al-Mourabitoun was to later amalgamate with other splinter rebel groups to form JNIM- Nusrat al-Islam wal Muslimeen. Its members continue to torment and terrorise civilian populations.

Due to this continued government’s negligence of effectively addressing the nature of the conflict and instability in Mali, it culminated in the killing of 13 French soldiers by Malian rebels in 2019. In, August 2020, president Ibrahim Boubacar Keita was toppled by army Colonel Assimi Goita. In a dramatic turn of events which took place a mere nine months later. In May 2021, Colonel Assimi Goita led another coup that was believed to have been staged in order to purge civilian leaders in the newly formed government led by “transitional president Bah Ndaw and prime minister Moctar Ouane”.

This brings us to analysing the implications of the protracted conflict. With the announcement of the EU forces pulling out of Mali, the conundrum that besiege the Malian government’s security apparatus is that it is isolated and vulnerable to the very rebels that the intervention sought to arrest.

The conundrum is that Mali does not have the capacity to deter the rebels and, with the withdrawal of France, the Malian security apparatus is vulnerable. Following the Western exit from Bamako, violent conflict is likely to continue apace, if not worsen, entrenching the long-standing belief that external forces cannot provide long-term sustainable peace and security on the continent.

A study by the International Crisis Group reveals that JNIM is largely dominant in the central and northern parts of the country –the reduced military pressure aided by the West will allow JNIM to further solidify its dominance and avert any attempts by the state to reclaim the territories and assert control. This compounds the quagmire of Mali as it battles with insurgence emitted by rebel groups.

The decision to enlist the military intervention of EU forces exhibited vacancy on the Malian government’s part. The EU’s financial aid, through France, has not resulted in the security consolidation of Mali where money has been sent but no change of fortunes have materialised.

This is a because of two reasons.

First, because a lot of the insurgency has been cross border, if it was the true intention of France to combat rebel groups. The approach should have included investing more diplomatically in regional forces to combat the terrorism, incorporating the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas), for example, which has had some level of success in addressing issues of instability in the region (African solutions to African problems – with or without foreign forces).

Second, the problem with foreign forces on the continent is that the military bases established have less to do with strengthening the security apparatus of a country and more to do with securing the interests of former colonial powers on their former colonies.

Case in point: the US, notwithstanding its short-sighted reasons for the Afghanistan war, deployed more than 800 000 service members (including more than 100 000 soldiers) during the cause of 20 years and still failed in its quest for a “free and secure” world. France deployed a mere 3 000 in Mali – a country whose size is two times bigger than that of Afghanistan. This just shows that France was never in Mali to combat terrorism and Mali, as its former colony, was digressive in its move to outsource help from Paris.

In conclusion, what Mali should have done was to approach Ecowas, its sub-regional body to broker a more sustainable peace-building deal. Although Ecowas suspended Mali from its ambit following the August 2020 military takeover, that sanction does not seem to have deterred the military insurgence seeing that there has been a repeat military takeover of power within a year.

Mali should also have approached and enlisted the help and guidance of the continental mother body, the AU. The regional interconnectedness owing to proximity would have likely yielded a better result than for Mali to isolate these two regional apparatuses in pursuance of solutions from its former colonial master.

The greatest lesson we draw from the Malian situation is that, as Africans, we cannot and should never surrender our military and security apparatuses to other countries, especially to our former colonisers.

* Chidochashe Nyere and Vusi Gumbi are from the Institute for Pan African Thought and Conversation at the University of Johannesburg