In order to better understand what happened in Mali in 2012 and to seek appropriate solutions to the major obstacles facing this country, it is necessary to recall the nature and causes of the numerous challenges confronting the nation. these vital concerns relate to ethnicity, secession, terrorism, coups, governance, poverty, corruption, drought and climate change. These factors affect not only Mali but also represent obstacles faced by a multitude of other countries on the continent. However, in the case of Mali, these issues were all brought together in the same place and brutally erupted at the same time during the course of the year 2012, provoking disintegration and the subsequent French military intervention. Let us take a closer and deeper look.

The Challenge of Ethnicity

The history of Africa has taught us that ever since the first days of independence, our continent was plagued with serious problems of ethnicity followed by secessionist claims, which often led to disastrous civil wars. This was the case in the Belgium Congo in 1961 (renamed “Zaire” and currently called the Democratic Republic of Congo) and in Angola. In all of these internal conflicts, the ethnic factor was the primary trigger. Today, in the era of globalization, Africa reflects the image of a continent confronted with paradoxical influences. On the one hand, there has been an effort to associate and unite African nations. This endeavor has been characterized by an increasing number of regional bodies and unions such as the Organization of African Unity (OAU) and the African Union (AU), as well as the sub-regional organizations such as the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). On the other hand, there are the constant forces of separation and disintegration generated by the rise of micro-nationalism and the exacerbation of ethnic, religious, and/or regional tensions.

Much like many other African countries, Mali has not been able to escape from these contradictory influences. The county is made up of ethnic groups from the far North, such as the Arab, Moor, Berber and Touareg people, and of entirely different ethnic groups living in the Central and Southern parts of the country, such as the Bambara, Peul, Songhai and Dogon people. This long-time, millennial coexistence is at the center of many different types of tensions that have always been temporarily appeased but, unfortunately, never definitively eradicated.

Then, in the aftermath of the Libyan conflict and the fall of the Gaddafi regime in 2011, Mali suddenly had to deal with a violent resurgence of the longstanding Touareg issue involving armed rebellion in the Northern part of the country. This armed rebellion, which occurred in January 2012, was the 4th one since 1990. Under the leadership of the “National Liberation Movement of Azawad” (NLMA), this rebellion benefited this time from the support of local Touareg fighters. They comprised of the salafists jihadists Ansar-Eddine and the “Movement of Jihad Unity in Western Africa” (MDUWA/MUJAO) which, in addition, was joined by external terrorist groups such as the Algerian salafist group renamed “Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb” (AQIM). Mali therefore became the first collateral damage of the Libyan conflict. However one must keep in mind that other countries such as Niger are still under threat. Let us not forget that the Touareg people are located in many other countries, among which are Niger, Libya and Algeria.

One might recall that these same Touaregs had long been integrated in Gaddafi’s army, the “Green Legion” (or the Islamic Legion). However, following his downfall, they fled from Libya with money, vehicles, heavy artillery, ammunition and equipment. As one could well imagine, instead of leaving the continent and directing themselves towards Europe or the Middle East, they simply crossed the border into Mali. By March 2012, the Malian Army had already suffered several defeats, notably due to an acute shortage of military means and resources in comparison to the heavily armed Touareg fighters. Indeed, the substantial military equipment that the Touaregs had recuperated at the time of the fall of Gaddafi gave them a significant advantage. Consequently, the Northern part of Mali fell, de facto, under the control of various armed groups.

These events show that ethnicity represents the most important cause of African internal conflicts. The civil wars in Rwanda, Congo, Burundi, Sudan, Sierra Leone and Liberia are amongst the many tragic examples. In Rwanda for example, inter-ethnic confrontations between the Hutus and the Tutsis in 1994 led to the horrific genocide during which some one million people were massacred, in one hundred days, under the eyes of the international community.

So what can be done? What type of solutions can be recommended? According to Mr. Sam G. Amoo, a United Nations Africa expert, the structural response to ethnic conflicts in Africa is based on the following elements: decentralization and delegation of authority and governmental responsibilities, harmonious integration based on supportive policies, and innovative electoral arrangements that will counteract the tyranny of the majority. Indeed, all too often elections in Africa are unfortunately transformed into simple ethnic census taking. Therefore, true democracy is not the abuse of the elected majority but power sharing.

Former British Prime Minister, Clément Atlee, went even further to say that “Democracy is not only the rule of the majority but the rule of the majority which respects, as it is required, the rights of minorities.” Ibrahim Boubakar Keita, the new, democratically elected President of Mali, seems to have followed the aforementioned approach. One must nonetheless admit that these problems are not always so easy to resolve.

The Challenge of Secession

In Africa, this challenge is generally linked to that of ethnicity and to the unconditional claim of separation from State. For the past 50 years Africa has been constantly plagued by secessionist threats that often lead to civil wars. The cases in the DRC, marred with attempts for independence in the provinces of Katanga and Kasaï and in Nigeria, with the Biafra secessionist war, represent two of the most noteworthy examples.

With regard to Mali, the NLMA and Ansa Eddine agreed to combine forces on 26 May 2012, when the two Touareg movements announced secession from Northern Mali and proclaimed the birth of the “Azawad Islamic State”. In doing so, they violated the two, main, basic principles of the legal framework for the continent, i.e. the universal principle of ‘defense of territorial integrity’ and the ‘in- tangibility of borders inherited from the colonial States’, a principle the continent has inherited from its colonial legacy. However, divergences quickly emerged between the two factions—the radical Islamic jihadists and the more secular movement—regarding obedience to Sharia law and the destruction of sacred mausoleums. These differences led to violent confrontations between the NLMA and Ansar Eddine in Timbuktu and between the NLMA and the MUJAO in Gao. At the end of June, Ansar Eddine and the Mujao controlled the two sacred cities of Gao and Timbuktu, as well as much of Northern Mali. Not only was the NLMA defeated but the state of Mali was also divided into two parts. The AU and the ECOWAS immediately intervened and condemned the coup, suspending Mali’s membership in the AU and advocating strong sanctions. The AU called on the United Nations (UN), France, and other international organizations to take urgent action against the secession. At that very moment, the invaders who attempted a desperate mission to attack the South of the country knew their days were numbered.

It should be kept in mind that Africa does not pretend to ignore or underestimate the crucial issues of ethnicity, or the principle of self-determination of people. The two exceptional cases of Southern Sudan and Eritrea are remarkable examples. However, we are well aware that once borders are questioned, everything will start to unravel very quickly and the specter of “Balkanization” will suddenly appear on the horizon. That is why, in spite of all opposition, any attempts for secession have always been strongly condemned and actively fought by Africa and its regional and sub-regional organizations. Moreover, the above-mentioned sustainable solutions concerning ethnicity are also relevant here because the two challenges are directly linked and have common roots.

The Challenge of Terrorism

At the outset of the 21st Century, a new form of terrorism emerged: hyper-terrorism or international terrorism characterized by global structures and the obscure organization of “dispersed and dislocated structures”. This new form of terrorism made its first major appearance on September 11th, 2001, with attacks against the United States of America. For the first time in their history, Americans no longer felt secure on their own soil. In addition, it was an invisible enemy, having neither homeland nor territory to attack from. However, the counter-attack was immediate and coordinated on the global level. Africa, which had already been (and continues to be) one of the first victims of this phenomenon, immediately took part in this battle. As a matter of fact, the AU has been leading an unrelenting battle against Shebab terrorists in Somalia.

In the case of Mali, as already mentioned, exterior groups such as the Algerian salafists, affiliated with Al-Qaida, and later renamed Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQMI), played an integral role in the crisis. They are also increasingly involved in illicit trafficking and black market trade (e.g. arms, drugs, cigarettes, stolen vehicles and human trafficking). In recent years, they have also been involved in kidnappings and taking European tourists hostage, especially French people. Kidnapping has consequently become somewhat of a major industry. Their chiefs, Abou Zeid (since killed) and Mokhtar Belmokhtar aka “the One Eye”, are striving to “become the absolute masters of the Sahara, the Sahel and West Africa and to make the zone inaccessible, especially to European travelers”. It is in this perspective that these criminal and terrorist groups aim to control the entire Sahara—the world’s biggest desert with its 3.5 million square miles, (almost fifteen times bigger than France) stretching over at least 10 countries from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean. They seek to expand their territory to the East with the Shebabs in Somalia and to Nigeria in the South with the Islamist jihadist organization Boko Haram. The Shebabs, for their part, aim to control the Horn of Africa and to merge their coastline with the Moudjahidines from Afghanistan and Pakistan. It is through these passages that the cocaine from Colombia and Venezuela transits through West Africa on its way to Europe, its final market. As for heroin, which comes from Afghanistan and Pakistan, it proceeds to arrive in Europe via Somalia and the Sahara.

Terrorism, just like drug trafficking, constitutes a world-wide problem and consequently requires a global response and solution. On its part, Africa participates and reinforces international action by strengthening inter-African cooperation for the prevention, management and fight against terrorism. In this respect, an African Convention and Plan of Action were adopted in 1999 and the African Centre for Studies and Research concerning Terrorism (ACSRT) was set up in Algiers (Algeria) on 13 October 2004.

The Challenge of Military Coups

Africa has become the continent most prone to military coups. The history of Africa shows that it has experienced, since its various dates of independence after decolonization, more than 70 overthrows of government. In addition, 31 African Heads of State have been assassinated, including the murder, in particularly horrible circumstances, of President Nino Vieira of Guinea-Bissau.

declined, especially after the Algiers and Lome Declarations, which were meant to eradicate unconstitutional changes in government. However, a disturbing resurgence of this scourge has marked the post-2007 period. Since then, five coups have taken place in the span of four years in Mauritania, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Madagascar, and Mali. Fortunately, the doctrine of the AU obliged all of them to quickly restore the constitutional order.

Regarding Mali, many observers agree that the March 22nd coup was not planned in advance, but instead resulted from an escalation of events. At the beginning of the year 2012, there were already disturbing and ominous signs. In late January and early February, women and children of soldiers were demonstrating for “ammunition for their men”. The morale of the army was at its lowest point, and there was a climate of suspicion, nepotism, favoritism and corruption against senior officers, as some were accused of diverting money and equipment intended for the army. Moreover, neighboring countries denounced the permissiveness of Mali, calling it the “weak link of the war on terrorism”; and worse was to come.

On the morning of the 21st of March, an “ordinary” military mutiny abruptly broke out at the Sundiata Keita military camp in Kati and ended in a coup the next day. The mutineers, organized as the National Committee for the Recovery of Democracy and the Restoration of the State (CNRDR), took power under the leadership of a low ranking officer captain Amadou Haya Sanogo. Sanogo’s tenure was however short-lived, and he was later replaced by the President of the National Assembly of Mali, Dioncounda Traoré.

The Challenge of Foreign Interference

It was during this particularly agitated time in Mali that one was surprised to observe the arrival at the end of June 2012 in Gao, of an armada of ‘humanitarian Qataris Wahhabis’ escorted by MUJAO fighters. The motivation of Qatar’s presence in an African country at a time of war appears questionable at best. Mali and the continent at large deplored Qatar’s forceful interference in the internal affairs of an African State. According to Alain Chouet, former Head of the Security Intelligence Department of the French General Directorate for External Security (DGSE): “Qatar financed this group (the MUJAO), in order to support what they considered likely to be a political rebellion of strong religious content”. Qatar went on to denounce the military intervention of France in Mali, its former major ally against Libya.

It is indispensable to emphasize here that in the Malian crisis, Mali, the ECOWAS and the AU specifically asked French forces to intervene alongside Malian, Nigerian, Chadian, and other African troops. This successful intervention supported by the UN was accomplished in accordance with the traditional consent of the nation directly concerned. France’s Serval operation marks a clear contrast with the nation’s modus operandi in the Libyan conflict.

The Challenge of Poverty

Amongst the four universal freedoms advocated in 1941 by Franklin Delano Roosevelt is the freedom from want. Similarly, one of the ongoing basic goals of the UN since its inception in 1945 has been to “promote the economic and social advancement of all peoples.” The founders of the UN had therefore already understood at that time that “peace and security are inseparable from development”. Yet the African Sahel lived in a situation of extreme poverty and severe food crisis aggravated by famine. This affected not only the Horn of Africa (Somalia in particular) but also the African Sahel, which suffered and suffers due to desertification and climate change. Adding to these existing difficulties was the hasty return of several thousands of migrant workers brutally expelled from Libya. This phenomenon has resulted in substantial losses of income in a region already characterized by high levels of poverty and acute food insecurity exacerbated by the drought that then affected the Sahel countries. The lack of prospects for socio-economic reintegration has increased social tensions, with the risk that they could degenerate into political and humanitarian crisis and contaminate the entire sub-region.

The Challenge of Good Governance

At the outset of independence, African Heads of State loudly proclaimed that only an authoritarian and centralized system of governance, based on “one party”, could counter-balance the centrifugal tendencies of the fragile and heterogeneous States of the continent and forge strong, united and modern nations. This form of government would supposedly also facilitate national unity, social cohesion and sustainable development. This position was unanimously shared, quickly declared and rapidly adopted. The door was thereby closed everywhere in Africa to democratic pluralism. However, several decades later, it must be admitted that such a system was not functioning as well as envisaged. On the contrary, it was a painful and resounding failure, which provoked an enormous disillusion and a generalized rejection of single-party regimes. Mali, much like many other African countries, was affected by this bitter experience. Consequently, one had to change one’s opinion and recognize that such a political system only led to bad governance, abuse of power, nepotism, injustice, absence of fundamental freedoms, and ultimately to military coups. Need one be reminded that this was already Mali’s third military coup?

This is why, starting in the late 1980s, there was an attempt to set up multi-parties and establish democracy in the wake of the fall of the Berlin wall and the end of the Cold War. Nevertheless, transforming archaic and semi-feudal structures into perfect modern democracies proved to be a difficult task. The endeavor proved to be more of a gradual progression, with some significant results but also several setbacks. This was precisely the case of Mali and its March 22nd 2012 coup. However, for the soldiers who rebelled, the strong action of the AU and its regional organizations, such as ECOWAS, obliged them to return to their barracks, and to restore the constitutional order. The transitional government setup and run, in conformity with the Malian constitution, by Dioncounda Traoré, the president of the National Assembly, was a step in the right direction.


In 2012, Mali fell victim to the first “collateral losses” due to the series of phenomena, which threatened to destabilize the powder keg that is the Sahel-Sahara corridor. This series of events, started by the small spark lit by an unemployed student in Tunisia, who by immolating himself triggered the successive downfalls of Ben Ali, Hosni Mubarak and Mouamar Gaddafi, led to the military intervention of NATO in Libya, which in turn ignited the conflict in Mali. This new conflict required effort from the African-led International Mission for Mali (MISMA) and the French Operation “SERVAL”, with the support of the United Nations-led United National Multidimensional Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA).

Hence, Mali, with support from the entire African continent and contributions from the international community and principally France, Mali’s former colonial power, was able to rise to the ultimate challenge and to settle the conflict and crisis.

Today, the secessionists have been defeated, the terrorists have been pushed back, the soldiers have returned to their barracks and democratic and free elections have taken place. However, there remains a lot to be accomplished. But, Mali undoubtedly has the capacity and the strong will to move forward towards peace, security, the rule of law, and good governance.