Study on Mali suggests warns of ‘security first’ policies as counterproductive

A paper published by the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime, a coalition of researchers, suggests that interventions by overseas donors against Islamist terrorists have contributed to, rather than contained, the instability and cycle of violence in Mali.

Based on interviews with over 150 stakeholders in Mali and from the international community, “Fixing a Fractured State: Breaking the cycle of crime, conflict and corruption in Mali and the Sahel” makes a number of propositions in the analysis of the conflict in Mali but with relevance for other countries in the Sahel:

  • there are several overlapping conflicts that need to be teased out, with each requiring a different response;
  • states that fail to deliver services lose legitimacy;
  • new forms of governance based on ethnicity or religion will step into the vacuum;
  • these informal governments will provide security by force and fund themselves by crime;
  • international criminal networks take advantage of their territorial control and pay protection for allowing the through-flow of their cargo;
  • violence is proportionate to the value of the illicit commodity traded;
  • security centred responses by donors exacerbate the underlying conditions in which extremists and criminal entrepreneurs can flourish.

The authors locate their analysis of the conflict in Mali in the context of the wider Sahel/Sahara region, where the eruption of radical Islam has charged incipient, long running rivalries between ethnic groups. The key role is assigned to the Tuareg, a group that was once dominant in the Sahel region but who lost their economic and military prominence after subjugation by French colonialists in the late 19th century. Since independence the state in Mali, and to a lesser extent in neighbouring Niger, has been controlled by groups from the south, leading to the neglect, dissatisfaction and eventual uprising by the Tuaregs in the north. The National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad that captured northern Mali, pursued a nationalist not a jihadist agenda. Their objective was to create a Tuareg state, Azawad. But shortly after their capture of Timbuktu, the separatists were ousted by the Islamists, who had a different agenda.

Western countries and their African partners have since focused on military measures to push back the militants and contain the terrorist threat. In the process, the distinctions between the different conflicts are blurred, and the root causes are ignored with grave consequences for the future.

According to the authors, the instability is the product of a weak and corrupt state that has been unable to provide essential services to its people and has therefore lost its legitimacy. The corrupt excesses of Amadou Toumani Touré, the Malian president unseated in a 2012 coup, were largely unrecognised by the regime’s foreign backers.

In such a situation, alternative forms of governance emerge, with a claim to legitimacy based on religion or ethnicity. As these rebel groups capture state functions they entrench themselves by providing security and livelihoods. Critical here, are guns and cash. Arms have been available for many years, but the authors ascribe critical importance to the collapse of the Gadhafi regime, which sent a deluge of lethal weaponry plus cohort of footloose soldiery into Mali.

The second factor is the international drug trade, and particularly of cocaine. Drug traffickers take advantage of the territorial control by rebel groups, to transport their goods towards consumer markets in Europe and the Gulf. Yet, while the injection of capital is an initial enabler that allows the rebels to consolidate their control over such “zones of protection” these criminal subsidies then attract competition. The costs for maintaining control rise with the value of the commodities. With the removal of the state, any groups’ claim to legitimacy is open to challenge, and the outcome settled by violence. The authors suggest, that the higher the value of the illicit commodities the greater the violence, fuelling the cycle of insecurity.

Cocaine is only one illicit commodity, but because it is seen as a threat to the European Union it attracts responses, particularly, with the spectre of cocaine financed jihadism lurking in the imagination of international observers. Echoing the work of Wolfgang Lacher, they dismiss the narco-terror link for lack of evidence and suggest instead that it is the deep involvement of state agents that has opened the region to drug traffickers. Most serious, however, is the scenario found in Mali where corrupt policymakers collude with criminal entrepreneurs in control of remote geographical areas.

The international community has focused so far on shoring up the security capacity of the state, without correcting governance systems or addressing regional grievances. Corruption continues to flourish, as officials disguise their own criminal business by projecting force at radical groups on the fringes. Elites in Mali and other Sahelian states are now benefitting from the scramble among donors to enter the field. France the US and the European Community are among the biggest providers, but many European countries, as well as Japan, Turkey and countries from the Gulf are providing assistance. Guided by the overlapping counter-jihads against Islamic radicals and cocaine traffickers, and of course national interests, these donors fail to distinguish between separatists, terrorists and criminal entrepreneurs. Instead they are investing in a flawed incentive system, that rewards short term stability, when what is needed is long term structural reform and state institutions. And of course, much better analysis based on solid research.