Quick Facts

Geographical Size: 482,077 square miles. Eighth largest country in Africa. A landlocked country, Mali’s porous borders extend approximately 4,500 miles and border seven countries: Mauritania to the West, SenegalGuineaIvory Coast and Burkina Faso to the south, Niger to the east, and Algeria to the north.

Population: 18.5 million (2018).

Language: French (Official), Bambara (80%), Berber, Arabic.

Religion: Muslim (90%), indigenous beliefs (9%), Christian (1%).

Capital: Bamako (size: 2 million estimated).

Currency: CFA Frank (XOF).

Government Type: Republic. A semi-presidential representative democratic republic, with the President as head of state, a Presidentially appointed Prime Minister as the head of government, with electoral politics contested by a multi-party system. Executive power is exercised by the government. Legislative power is vested in both the government and the National Assembly and the legislature. The Judiciary is independent of the executive.

Head of State/President of the Republic: Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta (age 73). First elected on September 4, 2013. First election held since early 2012 when mutinous soldiers overthrew long-time President Amadou Toumani Toure, who had been in power since 2002. Keïta won second 5-year term in run-off presidential elections in August 2018.

Opposition Leader: Soumaïla Cissé (age 68). Cissé, the candidate in the August 2018 presidential election run-off, and his supporters, refuse to recognize Keita as President.

Significant Historical Events

1960:  Mali gained independence from France.

1992:  Mali moved from a one-party state to multiparty democracy when Alpha Konare won multiparty elections to become the first democratically-elected president.

April 2002:  Amadou Toumani Toure was elected president, with the poll marred by allegations of fraud irregularities.

March 2012:  In the midst of an armed rebellion that overtook the north of the country, long-time President Toure’s elected civilian government was overthrown in a military coup, with an interim administration put in place, followed by a return to elected government.

April 2012:  The Tuaregs declared an independent state.

October 2012:  The government resigned, with a new “government of national unity” unveiled.

January 2013:  With Islamist forces capturing the central town of Konna, President Traore requested French military assistance. In Opération Serval, approximately 4,000 French military forces intervened militarily following the government’s request to restore stability, with Malian and French forces recapturing most of the north.

April 2013:  With France beginning withdrawing its troops from Mali, a MINUSMA (United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali) peacekeeping mission was deployed to maintain Mali’s territorial integrity.

September 2013:  Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta was elected president in the run-off elections.

June 20, 2015:  A United Nations cease-fire with Tuareg separatists was signed, followed by a Peace and Reconciliation Accord to lay the foundations for reconciliation between Mali’s contending communities. In the Accord, the government agreed to devolve more autonomy to the country’s north, with northerners promised greater representation in the state. The government, however, fell short in meeting its pledges, with fighting regularly braking out between loyalist and separatist Tuareg militias.

Early 2017:  Mali, Chad, Burkina Faso, Mauritania, and Niger (the G5 Sahel countries) announced an agreement to set up a joint counter-terrorism force to tackle the jihadist threat.

March 2017: AQ-M Sahel, Ansar al-Dine and al-Murabitun merged into a new group Jamaat Nusrat al-Islam wal Muslimeen.

August 2018: Presidential elections, with run-off, held on August 2018.

October 24, 2018:  The Malian government extended the state of emergency that had been in existence since November 2015 by a year, until October 31, 2019.

Drivers of Instability

Festival Tamadacht au Mali

Climate Change

The Sahel region – which includes Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, Chad and Mauritania – comprises some of the world’s poorest and most fragile states, and is regarded as highly vulnerable to climate change. The increases in temperatures in the Sahel are projected to be 1.5 times higher than the global average, according to a United Nations report.[i] As a result, droughts and floods are expected to become more frequent and last longer, with land available to pastoralists shrinking, thereby undermining food production.

Specifically, there are three weather seasons in Mali that are affected by climate change. From around June to October, primarily in the country’s tropical savannah in the south, the rainy season is prevalent, with torrential rains in the affected regions causing floods and landslides. During this period, flooding of the Niger River is common, creating the Inner Niger Delta. The period from November to February is marked by a dry and cool season. The dry and hot season lasts from March to June, with daytime temperatures in the arid desert in the north reaching a maximum of 45°C. Droughts are frequent, with desert sandstorms’ harmattan wind blowing during the dry season, bringing a dust haze which may damage aircraft and cause respiratory diseases to the inhabitants. Droughts are also common.

In a corollary impact of climate change, according to Peter Maurer, the President of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), “We often look at arms and armed actors, and maybe at underdevelopment, but now we see that climate change is leading to conflicts among communities and this is a different kind of violence.”[ii] The intensification in climate threats, food insecurity, and other related threat factors are, therefore, expected to metastasize into escalating violence in Malian society as the affected populations will be confronting each other over their shrinking agricultural resources, with insurgent groups exploiting such combustible conditions.

Economic Conditions

Mali is one of the poorest countries in Africa. According to the World Bank, the poverty rate was 42.7 percent in 2017 (an improvement over the rate of 47.8 percent to 50.4 percent between 2011 and 2013).[iii] It is described by the World Bank as a low-income country with an undiversified economy that relies on agriculture and fishing, and therefore is vulnerable to raw material price fluctuations.[iv] Around 10 percent of the population nomadic. It experienced an economic recession in 2012 with a negative economic growth rate of minus 1.3 percent. From 2012 to 2018, however, Mali has been on a path to recovery with a projected growth rate of 2.9 percent in 2017 (it is project to grow at about 5 percent over the medium term).[v] Nevertheless, a high population growth rate of 3.0 percent and severe climate change still constitute major challenges for the country’s economic prospects over the long-term.

Regional economic bodies help keep Mali’s government’s role in the economy on a sound footing. Mali is a member of the West African Economic and Monetary Union (WAEMU), with monetary policy managed by the Central Bank of West African States (BCEAO), which keeps a fixed exchange rate between the CFA Franc and the Euro, a policy supported by the French Treasury.

Despite pressure on public expenditure, the authorities have managed to contain the budget deficit, which narrowed from 3.9% of GDP in 2016 to 2.9% in 2017, thanks to the rationalization of current expenditure and significant improvement in domestic revenue.

Mali is a member of the West African Economic and Monetary Union (WAEMU). Monetary policy is managed by the Central Bank of West African States (BCEAO), which keeps a peg between the CFA Franc and the Euro – a policy that is also supported by the French Treasury.

Political Conditions

Mali experiences a high degree of political instability, which is caused by several factors. These include: (1) an historical conflict between the country’s southern and northern regions, with the south dominating the north, which is largely Tuareg, which continues to be exacerbated by the slow implementation of the 2015 peace agreement; (2) intra-elite infighting, such as the refusal by opposition leader Soumaïla Cissé and his supporters to recognize President Keita’s victory in the August 2018 presidential run-off election, and the postponement of parliamentary elections, which were scheduled for the fall of 2018 until the first half of 2019; (3) a high degree of political corruption by government officials; (4) weak central authority due to the government’s inability to counter the growing insurgency by jihadi and Tuareg groups in the country’s northern and southern regions, and the difficulty by the 12,000-strong United Nations peacekeeping force to contain them; and (5) the worsening economic conditions that are exacerbated by the region’s humanitarian crisis.[vi]

In another manifestation of the country’s political conditions, following a request from Parliament, the constitutional court accepted the postponement of the parliamentary elections until 2019, as its mandate had ended in December 2018.

Security Conditions

The security risk situation in Mali is considered high and critical. With political turmoil, continuous threats of the possibility of kidnappings and terrorism by groups that engage in such attacks, and the prevalence of violent crime in the form of theft and mugging, Mali is considered an unsafe country for foreigners to visit. Although MINUSMA and French troops, in collaboration with Malian security forces, conduct counterterrorism operations against terrorist groups, their campaigns are not sufficient to defeat such threats. The use by foreign visitors of security guards is recommended for personal protection.

Terrorist Groups

The primary jihadi terrorist groups are allied to al-Qaida and the Islamic State (IS). They also pursue their own local agendas. The primary al-Qaida-linked group is al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), which merged with other small groups, such as Ansar al Dine (“Supporters of Religion”), to form Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (translated as “Support of Islam and Muslims” – JNIM), which is the country’s primary jihadi group. JNIM has carried out numerous attacks, including the large scale, multi-stage attack on the MINUSMA camp in Timbuktu in April 2018.

Terrorist groups in Mali attack Western targets throughout the Sahel (including Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger). The most spectacular mass-casualty AQIM attacks against foreigners, particularly Westerners, included a multi-day siege by one of its predecessors al-Mourabitoun  at the Amona gas plant in Algeria on 16 January 2013. In that attack, its leader, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, had organized a multi-day attack at the Tigantourine gas facility near AmenasAlgeria, in which some 39 foreign hostages were killed along with an Algerian security guard, as were 29 terrorist attackers, with three other terrorists captured. In another incident, on November 20, 2015, this group carried out a 7-hour mass shooting siege at the Radisson Blu Hotel in Bamako, which killed 20 people.  

In later attacks, throughout 2017 and 2018 JNIM operatives targeted MINUSMA’s northern base camps in Timbuktu, Gao, and Kidal. They also attacked hotels, restaurants, and other recreational areas where Westerners congregate. This included an attack on June 18, 2017 against Hotel Kangaba, a popular gathering place for Westerners and expatriates, on the outskirts of Bamako, in which five civilians and a Malian first responder were killed.  

JNIM also attacked targets in neighboring countries, including along the border with Burkina Faso.

The Islamic State (IS) in Mali is led by Abu Walid al Sahrawi, a leader of MUJAO, who had split from al Murabitoun in 2015, and pledged allegiance to the IS. This group has since referred to itself as IS-Greater Sahara.

In addition to conducting violent attacks, Mali’s terrorist groups also engage in kidnapping for ransom operations not only in Mali but in neighboring countries, as well. Numerous western nationals, including tourists, NGO humanitarian and development assistance workers, and diplomats have been kidnapped in the Sahel region, with several killed by their captors and others still being held. In one recent incident, in mid-January 2019, a kidnapped Canadian citizen was found dead in Burkina Faso. He was abducted by at a mining site owned by the Vancouver-based Progress Minerals in an area near the border with Niger. The kidnappers may have had links to JNIM and IS-Greater Sahara from neighboring Mali and Niger.[vii]

Political instability is manifested by the outbreak of terrorist incidents, such as the following with a focus on the almost 12-year period from 2007 to early 2019:

August 2007:  Tuareg rebels abducted government soldiers in separate incidents near the Niger and Algerian borders.

May 2008:  Tuareg rebels killed 17 soldiers in an attack on an army base in the northeast.

December 2008:  An attack by Tuareg rebels on a military base in northern Mali killed more than 20 people, with several taken hostage.

February 2009:  With the government announcing the army has taken control of rebel Tuareb bases, 700 rebels surrendered their weapons in a ceremony related to the peace process.

April 2012:  Tuareg rebels seized control of northern Mali, declaring independence.

June-July 2012:  Ansar Dine and its al-Qaida ally turned on the MNLA and captured the main northern cities of Timbuktu, Kidal and Gao.

Autumn-Winter 2012:  Islamist rebels consolidated their hold on the north by seizing the strategically important town of Douentza.

April 2015:  Armed groups abducted Western nationals from the Tambau region in Burkina Faso.

November 20, 2015:  Two AQIM terrorists attacked the Radisson Hotel in Bamako, with several hostages killed Over 20 persons were killed in the attack.

January 2016:  Western nationals were abducted from the Tambau region in Burkina Faso.

January 2017:  The Festival au Désert in Timbuktu was cancelled due to security concerns.

January, 18, 2017:   A vehicle-borne improvised explosive device detonated inside a military camp in Gao, northern Mali; over 50 people, including Malian armed forces and UN contractors, were killed

March 25, 2017:  JNIM attacked army checkpoint 150 km from the city of Gao; 3 Malian soldiers reported dead and 4 wounded

April 16, 2017:  JNIM attacked a MINUSMA unit near to the city of Kidal.

April 18, 2017:  JNIM terrorists attacked a military barracks in Tagharoust, located some 92 miles south of Timbuktu, with an unspecified number of soldiers killed and wounded.

May 3, 2017:  JNIM terrorists attacked a MINUSMA Camp at Timbuktu airport, killing one person, with nine UN peacekeepers injured.

May 7, 2017:  JNIM terrorists attacked a military position in the village of Almoustrat in the northwest, with Malian soldiers killed and seven others wounded.

June 18, 2017:  JNIM terrorists attacked the Le Campement Resort in Kangaba, inflicting multiple casualties.

June 18, 2017:  An attack at Le Campement Kangaba resort northeast of Bamako left nine dead including four guests, a Malian Counterterrorist Force member, and four terrorists. Three people were wounded. JNIM claimed responsibility.

October 31, 2017:  An attack between Dia and Diafarabé, against a convoy of Member of Parliament and President of the High Court of Justice Abdramane Niang, caused at least six deaths, including five Malian soldiers and one civilian. JNIM claimed responsibility.

November 12, 2018:  A vehicle-borne improvised explosive device was detonated in close proximity to a residential area in the city of Gao, killing 3 people.

November 24, 2017:  An attack against a MINUSMA convoy in Indelimane, Menaka region killed three Nigerien United Nations (UN) peacekeepers and wounded many others. JNIM claimed responsibility.

December 11, 2018:  Jihadist terrorists, on motorcycles, carried out attacks on nomadic campsites of the Tuareg tribe in the Ménaka region of eastern Mali. The attacks, which continued into the next day, claimed the lives of more than 42 people.

January 1, 2019:  Armed men killed 37 Fulani civilians on Tuesday in central Mali.

January 23, 2019:  Three days after JNIM’s attack on a UN base in Mali, it issued claims in Arabic, French and English of further attacks on Burkinabe forces and on Donzo militiamen and Malian soldiers in Ségou and Mopti.

Attesting to the escalation in terrorist attacks in Mali, “Malilink,” a civil society website, recorded 932 terrorist-related attacks in the first half of 2018, almost double the figure for all of 2017 and triple that for 2015.[viii]

Counterterrorism Response Measures

In one response to the threat of terrorist violence, in June 2018 the Malian Government formulated a national strategy for the prevention of radicalization to violence and terrorism. Under this program, the Ministry of Religious Affairs is tasked with developing and monitoring the national strategy in coordination with the High Islamic Council and other religious associations to promote moderate they hope will appeal to potential recruits into jihadi terrorism. This approach was also integrated into Mali’s “Program for Accelerated Development in the Northern Regions,” as was a draft decentralization policy to attempt to resolve grievances that might lead to extremism.[ix] Mali is also beneficiary country of the Global Community Engagement and Resilience Fund.[x]

Future Trends

In terms of future trends in terrorism, the Jihadi militants, whether belonging to JNIM or IS-Greater Sahara, have regrouped since the French military intervention in 2013 and expanded their influence across Mali’s desert north and into the fertile center. The Jihadists aim to further stoke intercommunal conflict, such as killings along ethnic lines that caused hundreds of civilian fatalities in 2018, as well as continue to target the UN peacekeeping forces.

In a related future political trend in civil unrest, protest demonstrations are expected to occur in the weeks leading up to the mid-2019 parliamentary elections.

On the diplomatic front, in the aftermath of closer ties between neighboring Chad and Israel, including security cooperation, Mali is expected follow suit and start the process for closer diplomatic, military and economic ties with Israel, as well. Mali’s Prime Minister Soumeylou Boubeye Maiga was reported to planning a visit to Israel “in the coming weeks” (likely February or March 2019).[xi]

In response, within hours after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s joint appearance with Chadian President General Idriss Déby, JNIM terrorists, opposed to Chad’s resumption of ties with Israel, killed 10 Chadian MINUSMA peacekeepers and injured more than 25 others in an attack on their UN camp in northern Mali. Such attacks are likely to increase following closer Malian – Israeli cooperation.

Recommendations for Improving Current Situation

Stability in Mali will be achieved if the combined efforts of internal and external actors succeed in resolving the country’s myriad problems. Internally, the country’s political actors need to commit the necessary resources required to resolving the underlying socio-economic, climactic change, and insurgent causes that produce conflict. Successfully resolving these issues will result in movement towards reconciliation among the contending forces, as well as tangibly improving vulnerable people’s livelihoods. This will require resolving contentious issues such as (but not limited to) open grazing, for instance, by encouraging livestock to be moved by rail and road, redressing political and economic inequalities, and resolving the Tuareg/jihadist insurgency.

Externally, foreign actors, such as international humanitarian and development agencies, including private sector organizations, need to invest in upgrading Mali’s infrastructure. This will consist of large-scale and small-scale projects that focus on sustained economic development and job- and income-generating enterprises, such as solar electricity generators, community markets or dairy production, as well as delivering services to peripheral areas. Examples of such initiatives include the World Bank’s Regional Sahel Pastoralism Support Project, the Regional Investment Program for Livestock and Pastoral Development in Coastal Countries, and the initiative for Pastoralism and Stability in the Sahel and the Horn of Africa.

Cumulatively, expanding employment opportunities and economic safety nets, such as expanding job opportunities and safety nets for populations, especially the young, who are involved in the agricultural and livestock sectors. This will also provide alternative opportunities to the young from joining militant groups, who, in many instances, are “the only game in town” for them.   In conclusion, early warning forecasting mechanisms need to be established by Mali and its neighbors on the governmental and private sector levels that will support the prioritization of resource expenditures to redress problems in areas such as agriculture and livestock production that might be negatively affected by climate stress, politically-driven violence, and food shortage crises.[xii] These mechanisms would include the World Bank’s Famine Action Mechanism, the UN’s Early Action System, the ACLED violence monitoring datasets, and Uppsala’s Violence Early Warning System (VIEWS).[xiii]

Joshua Sinai, Senior Analyst at Kiernan Group Holdings and contributing writer to FireWatch Solutions. Bespoke reports upon request.

[i] https://www.bbc.com/news/the-reporters-46921487.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] https://www.worldbank.org/en/country/mali/overview.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] https://travel.state.gov/content/travel.html.

[vi] http://www.sirjournal.org/research/2018/10/1/addressing-conflict-in-mali-political-humanitarian-and-security-problems.

[vii] “Kidnapped Canadian Found Dead in Burkina Faso,” Washington Post, January 18, 2019.

[viii] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/aug/16/malis-president-wins-second-term-in-country-plagued-by-violence.

[ix] https://travel.state.gov/content/travel.html.

[x] Ibid.

[xi] https://www.timesofisrael.com/after-chad-ties-restored-israel-set-to-host-malis-pm-in-coming-weeks/?utm_source=The+Daily+Edition&utm_campaign=daily-edition-2019-01-22&utm_medium=email.

[xii] https://reliefweb.int/report/world/un-secretary-general-world-bank-president-and-ministers-developing-and-donor-countries.

[xiii] Ibid.