Throughout history, the Republic of Mali’s position in the Sahel region of Africa has been seen as a strategic location, linking West Africa and the Maghreb. Cities such as Timbuktu served as trade hubsas well as centers of Islamic learning from the 13th to 17th centuries. A significant group of traders dating back to the early development of Malian commerce centers are the Tuareg, a population of nomadic Islamic berbers. Tuareg people lived in the Sahara Desert and primarily traded salt. Later in Mali’s history, Tuareg fighters would prove to be instrumental in the outbreak of civil war in the early 1990s.
For decades following its 1960 independence from France, northern rebellions, drought, famine, and a generally corrupt government plagued Mali.
Autonomy for the Azawad territory, Mali’s northern half, was the source of the first phase of the Malian civil war. In 1990, Tuareg rebellions instigated by many different groups fought for cultural and land rights over Azawad. Despite efforts for peace, including a negotiation mediated by Algeria, France, and Mauritania, tensions remained high and conflict generally unresolved.
By 2007, the influence of the Al Qaeda Organization in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), had taken root and several Malian organizations engaged in minor conflict in the north, destabilizing the region. When the Libyan civil war broke out in 2011, arms began to flow readily into Mali and AQIM, along with several other Islamist groups, seized power over the Azawad in 2012. Islamic law was established, and Mali’s northern region was effectively cut off from the Malian government’s reach. In contrast to the conflict in the 1990s’ aim to achieve an autonomous Azawad, the goal of the Islamic groups was to unseat the Malian government and establish sharia law in Mali.
The international reaction to this secession was swift—the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) led efforts to resolve the conflict; eventually, the French encouraged the implementation of an African-led, France-backed operation to take back the north. The town of Konna, as well as clashes between rebels and Malian forces just 680 kilometers from the capital Bamako, was captured by rebels. In response to this strong showing by the rebel extremists, France launched Operation Serval. French military presence in the area decreased violence considerably.
In April of 2013, the United Nations Security Council voted unanimously to undertake a UN-backed peacekeeping mission in Mali. This mission authorizes no more than 12,600 troops and police to replace the ECOWAS and French troops, who have are being phased out after deployment in January 2013.
Major roots of the cyclical conflict in Mali can be found in its economic situation and large population. About 68 percent of Mali’s population lives below the poverty line, and its population is growing at an unsustainable rate of about 2.7 to 3 percent per year. Time and again, poverty and large population have been major factors in the onset and lengthened duration of civil wars. Additionally, the environment of northern Mali is hostile and unfamiliar to international troops as well as troops deployed from Bamako, which is in the southern half of the country and has a markedly different climate. Tuareg fighters can seek refuge or trade arms with other members of the Islamic Maghreb in surrounding countries. Furthermore, the conflict has many groups of combatants, all of whom must be satisfied with the terms of peace before it can be realized.
A litany of peace accords have been negotiated, broken, and renegotiated throughout the duration of Mali’s civil war. After an election that was deemed free and fair in July, the government seeks to rebuild a nation that has known little but conflict. Peace with the Northern rebels is the first step towards achieving a more economically sound and safe Mali. Just days ago, a merger between three major Arab and Tuareg groups was agreed upon in a step towards a lasting peace process. However, the peace cannot be lasting until all players in the conflict agree to lay down arms—a process that could take years to achieve.
This post reflects the author’s personal opinions, not the opinions of Arizona Model United Nations.