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Christian Alonso

Mali, an invisible crisis

- The recent coup in Mali could revive internal conflicts that have been made invisible to the world.

Mali, an invisible crisis

A couple of days ago the international media filled their headlines with the "surprising" news of the deposition of the Executive in Mali by a group of rebellious soldiers. This is the fourth time that a coup d'état has taken place in the African country since its independence, in 1960, and adds another leaf to the series of conflicts existing in one of the most troubled areas of the planet, the Sahel.

The Republic of Mali is one of the poorest and most underdeveloped countries in the world. Curiously, it takes its name from one of the most powerful and wealthy empires in pre-colonial Africa, the Mali Empire. Among the problems gestated throughout its territory are the secession of the north due to ethnic conflicts, the establishment of the country as the new epicenter of regional jihadism, and the coup d'etat that took place a few days ago.

Although these phenomena are current, the truth is that the biggest problems looming in the country respond to historical and social factors that colonization left behind, which will be detailed in this article.

Mali, a multi-ethnic country

The ethnic composition of Mali plays a fundamental role when analyzing the historical conflicts that have arisen in the country. Throughout Malian territory, about 13 ethnic groups coexist with customs and traditions that are far from each other. For most of their history, these groups found themselves in a constant exercise of struggle and domination characterized by the rise and fall of various groups in power.

The multi-ethnic origin dates back to pre-colonial times. During the splendor of the Mali Empire in the 14th century, the Tuaregs made their appearance, a nomadic people of Berber origin that spread across five countries (Algeria, Libya, Niger, Mali Mauritania and Burkina Faso) and who considers northern Mali as part of their ancestral land (Azawad).

On the other hand, after the collapse of the Mali Empire due to the rebellion of the Tuaregs, the hegemony of the region passed into the hands of another ethnic group, the Songhais who reigned for nearly 30 years. A dissidence on the part of the heir led to the rise to power of the Askia dynasty, which introduced Islam as the official religion and which, after almost 100 years in power, was defeated by Moroccan troops.

The intervention in the country by Moroccans, as well as the constant displacement of Arabs, Berbers and Spaniards, resulted in a mixture with the Shonghai, which gave fruit to the arma, an ethnic group that has played a fundamental role in commercial activity. in Timbuktu, in the north of the country.

Another of the ethnic groups with the greatest preponderance in Mali is the fulani, which had its period of greatness during the 19th century (years before the arrival of French colonialism) inheriting the political structure of the predecessor empires. They were conquered by the Tucoror, from present-day Senegal, who, after seizing power, undertook the jihad against the Bambara (the predominant ethnic group in the south of the country) due to their resistance to domination islamic The war ended with the defeat of the Tucoror due to the alliance between the Bambara and the French settled in Senegal.

The division between communities, the power vacuum, as well as the decomposition of the social fabric that the ethnic wars had left were taken advantage of by the French who, during the 1890s, established a colony called French Sudan, which united in the same territory to peoples with different characteristics and ways of life, fostering uneven development between ethnic groups, which openly favored the Bambara, given their participation in the conquest of the north.

After independence in 1960, the political-administrative structure of the State was based in Bamako, in the south of the country. Although there are members of different ethnic groups in the government, the truth is that the social dynamics do not change. The Bambara ethnic group, being the majority, continues to exercise the same segregationist practices towards the northern peoples, especially the Tuaregs, who, considering themselves forgotten and mistreated by the central government, carry out a series of armed uprisings to gain independence from Mali.

The Bambara are the majority ethnic group in southern Mali, and they also hold important political positions. Source:

Azawad, the ancestral land

The Tuareg people are a semi-nomadic ethnic group that have inhabited northern Mali for centuries. Throughout their history, the Tuaregs have been characterized by a feeling of independence towards the rest of the country, considering the land of Azawad as their ancestral land. With the establishment of the French colony and the benefits obtained by the Bambara ethnic group, ethnic resentment led to a strengthening of the Tuareg segregationist sentiment.

Years before the declaration of independence, in 1958, the Tuareg people wrote a letter of petition to the then President of the French Republic, Charles de Gaulle, requesting their separation from the then French Sudan to become an independent sovereign entity[1 ]. In it, the ethnic and cultural foundations that made the South and the North so different were exposed. The request was never answered.

With the formation of the Republic of Mali, in 1960, and the coming to power of Modibo Keïta, tensions between the Tuaregs and the Bambara intensified. Keïta guided the country towards a process of progressive socialization of the economy through agriculture and trade. Infrastructure and modernization works were especially focused on the south and the north was once again forgotten.

This condition led to the "first Tuareg rebellion" taking place in 1963, in which the recognition of Azawad as an independent entity from Mali was sought through arms. The rebellion lasted for about a year, finally being put down by the Malian army that had the support of the Soviet Union. The Tuaregs again found themselves under the martial control of the south.

From then on and for the next 50 years, various rebellions were carried out by the Tuaregs[2]. Each one of them suffocated by the different governments in turn. However, the war in Libya in 2011, which saw the participation of a significant number of Tuaregs, led to the creation of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), made up of a large number of returned soldiers who, heavily armed and with greater organization, they took northern Mali.

Days later, as a result of the mismanagement of the crisis, the then president, Amadou Toumani Touré, was deposed by a military junta. The absence of power in Bamako led the MNLA to form a union with the Islamist group Ansar Dine, who seized the three main cities in the north (Kidal, Gao and Timbuktu), thus declaring the unilateral independence of Azawad[3] . What for years had been a Tuareg self-determination project would soon be overshadowed by Islamic jihadism.

Mali after the independence of Azawad. Source: El País.

The Rise of Jihad

After Azawad's declaration of independence and with the end of hostilities with the armed forces, the MNLA and the Islamist group Ansar Dine began to have an ideological dispute over the vision that both parties had towards the administration of the territory. While the Tuaregs saw Azawad as a place of self-determination, the Ansar Dine saw it as a starting point for the application of Sharia throughout the country.

The disputes escalated into an armed conflict. The Ansar Dine formed an alliance with other radical Islamist groups, such as the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) and the armed wing of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) who sought to unify with Boko Haram in Nigeria. Eventually, the MNLA Tuaregs were expelled from Azawad months later, and the north of the country became a jihadist stronghold and the epicenter of regional terrorism.

The shadow of terrorism hangs over Europe

The secession of northern Mali provoked deep rejection in the international community. Various bodies, such as the UN, the African Union and the European Union, deliberately rejected Azawad's independence status. However, after the expulsion of the Tuaregs and the establishment of a jihadist stronghold in the region, various foreign governments undertook military actions to contain the advance of Islamic terrorism.

Following the inability of the Malian government to confront the Islamist groups in the north, "on October 12 the Security Council of the United Nations authorized an international mission of the countries of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) that was expanded on December 20 to the rest of the countries of the African Union”[4].

This situation caused the jihadist forces from the north to launch an offensive against strategic cities that were under government control. After the fall of the city of Konna, which divides the south from the north, the Malian government requested military aid from France, which responded by sending troops in a military operation known as "Operation Cerval".

Since then, the presence of French armed forces in Malian territory has been a constant. The various combats against the jihadist forces from the north have caused the French government to consider Mali as a vital point for the regional security of the Sahel and all of Europe, since it is known that training camps have been established in the north of the country to perpetrate attacks in Africa and Europe.

Although the cerval operation has served as a containment barrier to the expansion of jihadism, the truth is that the presence of France in the African country responds to particular interests. According to Aminata Traoré, the reasons are:

Economic: access to uranium from Niger (in the border area with Mali), essential for France's energy independence, and which is exploited by the French multinational AREVA.

Security: the fight against the presence in the area of terrorist groups dedicated to taking French hostages and serious crime, particularly drug trafficking and arms sales.

Geopolitical: countering the presence of China in the area and the fight against migratory flows from this region.[5]

Operation Serval : point of situation du 4 juillet 2013

Members of the French Armed Forces commanding Operation Cerval in the Sahel. Source: Ministry of Arms

The price of war

Since the beginning of the hostilities in the north of the country, nearly half a million people have been displaced. According to Oxfam data, most of the displaced have sought refuge in surrounding countries such as Niger and Burkina Faso, and another 150,000 have settled in Bamako, the country's capital.[6]

Despite the magnitude and number of displaced persons, it is a very silent conflict. Compared to regions such as the Horn of Africa or Western Asia, where most of the centers of attention are located, in Mali an alarming situation is invisible.

Most of the refugees in the south have not settled in concentration camps, like in other parts of the world. On the contrary, the displaced from Mali live in the houses of relatives or friends under precarious conditions.

Such a situation has continued to this day, which has caused an unsustainable economic crisis. Added to this, the corruption scandals within the government, the jihadist crisis in the north and the more than three million people suffering from food insecurity due to the COVID-19 pandemic[7] were the starting point for a military junta to overthrow then President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita and his Prime Minister Boubou Cissé on August 18.

The eyes of the world are on Mali

The coup that took place a couple of days ago was surprising in the midst of a pandemic that has the world in a constant struggle. Various governments expressed their concern and urged each of the political actors to establish peace and constitutional order.

Despite the violence that characterizes coups, the truth is that the coup junta expressed its desire to "launch a political transition in the country that leads to the holding of general elections within a reasonable time"[ 8] which was celebrated by hundreds of people gathered in Bamako.

Similarly, Ismaël Wagué, Deputy Chief of Staff of the Air Force and leader of the insurrection, affirmed that all international agreements would be respected, which means that each of the military operations carried out in recent years by forces foreigners would remain active.

Despite the promise of Wagué's speech, the truth is that this situation would aggravate the problems in Mali. The power vacuum left by the coup dates back to what happened in 2012 when the north declared its independence and jihadism seized more than half of the territory. Various researchers, such as Ibrahim Maïga, from the Bamako Security Institute, believe that the recent instability could be used by extremist groups to spread insecurity within the country[9]. What happens in the following days will be vital in the future of the African country.


    Aytekin, Emre. ONU: La COVID-19 ha profundizado la crisis en Malí y el Sahel de África. 6 de junio de 2020. (último acceso: 19 de agosto de 2020).

    Caballero, Chema. ¿Qué pasa en… Azawad? 9 de abril de 2012. (último acceso: 19 de agosto de 2020).

    Cembrero, Ignacio. Azawad: Una Somalia a las puertas de Europa. 18 de mayo de 2012. (último acceso: 19 de agosto de 2020).

    Centro de Estudios Internacionales Gilberto Bosques. Ficha técnica de la República de Mali. México, 13 de mayo de 2020.

    El Colegio de México. Mali, la historia ignorada. 23 de mayo de 2013. (último acceso: 19 de agosto de 2020). INFOBAE. Tres claves para entender el golpe de Estado en Mali. 19 de agosto de 2020. (último acceso: 19 de agosto de 2020).

    Kabunda, Mbuyi. EL CONFLICTO DE MALÍ: RETROSPECTIVAS, INTROSPECTIVAS Y PERSPECTIVAS. 5 de agosto de 2013. (último acceso: 19 de agosto de 2020).

    Mazarrasa Rodríguez, Pablo. «MALÍ: RAZONES PROFUNDAS DEL CONFLICTO EN EL SAHEL.» Instituto Español de Estudios Estratégicos, 2012: 1 – 23.

    Oxfam Intermón. ¿Qué pasa en Mali? – Explicado en 4 minutos. 23 de enero de 2013. (último acceso: 19 de agosto de 2020).

    Pérez Triana, Jesús. Operación Serval: El estilo francés de hacer la guerra. junio de 2015. (último acceso: 19 de agosto de 2020).

    Rojas, Alberto. Mali: un golpe de estado en el avispero de África. 19 de Agosto de 2020. (último acceso: 19 de agosto de 2020).

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Alonso, Christian. “Mali, una crisis invisible.” CEMERI, 9 sept. 2022,