Mali’s Humanitarian Crisis: Overmilitarized and Overshadowed

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Alexandra Lamarche

Mali has been the scene of perpetual conflict and displacement for nearly eight years. In January 2012, tensions in the marginalized north came to a head when rebels took over almost a third of the country. Frustrated over the government’s failure to quash the rebellion, soldiers in the capital city of Bamako overthrew the president. As a mix of rebels and terrorist groups moved south toward the capital, France intervened and was subsequently joined by African Union forces. Shortly thereafter, the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) was launched. Together, these interventions have restored some semblance of peace and government control, but the country’s northern and central regions remain trapped in cycles of violence.

In 2015, months of difficult negotiations between the Malian government and coalitions of armed groups culminated in the Agreement of Peace and Reconciliation. The accord offered hope for investment in the north, the decentralization of authority and service provision, and improved governance, but much of its promise remains undelivered. International troop contributors and donor governments continue struggling to present a unified front and convince the Malian government to fulfill its responsibilities under the peace deal or expand its authority in rural areas. As a result, the government in Bamako runs the very real risk of further marginalizing and alienating communities outside of the capital.

Nearly eight years after the onset of the crisis, the international community remains heavily focused on stabilization and counterterrorism, at times to the detriment of the worsening humanitarian situation. As insurgent violence in the north rages on, anti-government elements have spread south into central Mali, where they have exacerbated intercommunal tensions and dissatisfaction with the Malian government, dividing communities and breeding violence. As this trend continues, the number of Malians displaced by violence continues to climb. As of September 2019, 187,139 Malians were internally displaced, compared to 38,000 only two years ago.

On their part, humanitarian organizations struggle to effectively provide for the 3.2 million Malians in need of assistance this year alone. Aid efforts are hindered by underfunding and the complex security environment. However, opportunities exist at the local level to broker access to communities in need. Although humanitarians can do little to mitigate certain threats—particularly those posed by terrorists or kidnappers—they can improve access to certain areas through highly localized negotiations with community power brokers.

Similarly, security actors like MINUSMA struggle to gain and maintain the trust of communities. Their use of Quick Impact Projects (QIPs) to build community support has blurred the lines between the international stabilization presence and humanitarian actors. UN peacekeepers and humanitarians must strengthen civil-military coordination as part of a wider effort to more clearly delineate and communicate their roles and responsibilities to the communities in which they operate. These efforts are essential if humanitarians are to build the acceptance and maintain the neutrality required to access populations in crisis.

There is no purely military solution to the crisis in Mali. In addition, though international humanitarian aid must be strengthened, Mali’s citizens also require a government willing and able to meet the needs of its people. The state must address the grievances at the root of the conflict and implement the terms of the peace agreement in a timely and transparent fashion.