After a turbulent year and a half, the dust in Mali seems to be settling. The French-led intervention managed to oust extreme Islamists who controlled the northern regions of the country, and the Tuareg factions have sat down at the negotiating table. This combined with the recent presidential election is seen by many as a return to normalcy for the Malian state, righting the previously sinking ship and putting Mali back on track. But the sources of the conflict – deep seated ethnic tension inspired by years of oppression and hatred, famine and a changing environment that can’t support the population’s predominantly agrarian lifestyle, and huge wealth disparity – are still not close to being solved.

Image courtesy of Idrissa Fall, © 2012, some rights reserved.

Image courtesy of Idrissa Fall, © 2012, some rights reserved.

It is all too common for the international community to reduce a conflict down to simply the military aspects, and once that has been brought to a satisfactory conclusion, to ignore the issues that led to the conflict in the first place. In the case of Mali, while the French intervention brought the military conflict between the Malian government and the amalgamation of Tuareg rebels and fundamentalist Islamic militants in the north of the country to a conclusion, Mali remains one of the poorest and most divided countries on the planet.

The greatest destabilising factor in Mali is the land it sits on. Mali exists in what is known as the Sahel Region of Africa, a biogeographic region between the Sahara dessert to the north and the Serengeti to the south. While it has historically been a relatively prosperous reason, the climate has slowly been changing over the past 100 years, and the desert has started to encroach, causing food shortages and a decline in the overall economy. This has seriously hurt the predominantly agrarian economy of Mali, making it 182nd out of 187 in Human Development Index [i], and 214 out of 229 in GDP per capita [ii] Those who beat the odds of 10% infant mortality rate will live on average 50 years only two of which will spend at school[iii]. It is now in time of drafting Mali’s future more important than ever before to reflect on the role of poverty in Malian conflict.

The other issue that will continue to hurt the stability of the Malian state is the historic and continued marginalisation of the Tuareg tribes. The Tuareg are of Berber ethnic descent, and stretch from the middle of the Sahara to its very west end. Their language, bright colour of skin and distinct nomadic way of life make them easy to distinguish from the rest of the Malian population. Although constituting not more than 8%[iv] of the overall population, the Tuareg have shaped much of Mali’s postcolonial history. Since French decolonisation in 1960 there have been four rebellions of the Tuareg people. The motive behind these was a desire for an independent state and, more specifically, long-term grievances between the Tuareg and the government. Nostalgic for their hegemony over the northern regions in the 18th and 19th centuries, many Tuaregs to this very day feel neglected by the government.

It is no wonder they feel this way. Whether the government is scornful of them or just fails to provide public goods – depends on where one stands, the crushing impact of poverty deprives the Tuareg of any decent life prospects. In an extremely hostile environment of the Sahara, it is incredibly difficult for the Tuareg to make a living especially since most of them gave up nomadic way of life and have become sedentary. The education system balances on the verge of collapse and the relief one practically does not exist. In such a environment, void of any economic and social stimuli, frustration and despair work as a catalyst for rebellion. Preceded with two decades of extreme droughts, the second rebellion in early 1990s hardly came as a surprise.

Without poverty there would be no development aid. This simple fact establishes a relation in which poverty assumes responsibility for implications of development aid. Mali has been heavily dependent on development aid since its independence. Before the outbreak of the recent rebellion, the government relied on development aid to fund one third of its budget. Significant portion of that amount went towards programmes in northern Mali. Yet, it is exactly these that added fuel to the conflict.

In 1996 after the second rebellion the UN financed PAREM – Program for the Socio-Economic Reintegration of Ex-Combatants into the society. Over 10 million dollars was given out to the Tuareg in order to disarm, demobilise and reintegrate combatants who fought in the rebellion. However, mismanagement and lack of oversight led to unequal distribution among the distinct Tuareg groups and further destabilised the region.

Similarly, the 60 million dollar Special Programme for Peace, Security, and Development of Northern Mali initiated in 2006 brought more convulsions than improvements. The already tense relationship between the Tuareg and the government was dealt another heavy blow when the resources initially aimed at increasing human capital of northern population were spent mostly on military security instead.

Not all the money evaded the Tuareg, however. Every little insurgency “successfully” ended with a peace deal was rewarded with large sums of aid money and other concessions. It did not take the insurgent leaders a long time to realize what a money machine they had created. Whenever a movement or its particular chief ran out of money, engineering a minor insurrection proved to be an easy and efficient solution.

Increasing economization and, more importantly, the aid-ification of the conflict have significantly redefined its dynamics and development. Together with poverty, these have become the central driving force behind the government – Tuareg tensions. Despite the Ouagadougou peace agreement and relatively propitious recent developments, it is still difficult to see a completely peaceful future for Mali. Without radical rethinking of developmental aid policies and societal overhaul, Mali will never be as secure as we think it is, or indeed want it to be. Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta, the newly elected president of Mali who has been educated with background in international development, seems to have the determination and power to do it. Nevertheless, putting an end to the conflict before another rebellion breaks out faces many impediments and will take a long time.



[i] http://hdrstats.undp.org/en/countries/profiles/MLI.html

[ii] https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/rankorder/2004rank.html

[iii] https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/ml.html

[iv] https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/ml.html