Mali’s security context exacerbated by COVID-19

10 September 2020: Mali was one of the last countries in Africa to record an outbreak of coronavirus, however the impact of the pandemic on the country is now widespread, and tensions are mounting. In this article, our local peacebuilding expert from Mali examines the government measures to halt the spread of the virus, the impact of the virus on local peacebuilding, and the initiatives happening on the ground to raise awareness and keep people safe.

A country severely impacted by the pandemic

Since the emergence of the coronavirus pandemic, most governments around the world have faced unprecedented health, infrastructure and humanitarian challenges in managing the spread of the disease and mitigating its human and economic impacts. Among African countries, Mali was one of the last to record an outbreak of the virus, with its first cases detected on March 25th after Malian citizens returned from France.

Prior to this outbreak, the government had taken certain measures to limit the spread of the disease, such as suspending commercial flights from affected countries, closing schools, and banning social and cultural gatherings. However, these measures were gradually lifted as of July 25th, 2020 following a decision of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) after they noted a decline in the rate of new infections. By September 10th more than 2,800 people have tested positive for COVID-19. Of that number, 128 people have died, and over 500 cases are being followed up on a daily basis.

The already precarious state of a large part of the population in Mali has been deeply affected by the coronavirus:

  • Poverty and living conditions have worsened considerably;
  • Food security remains particularly worrying. The majority of people living in the border areas with Burkina Faso and Niger do not have access to enough food in 70% of locations assessed;
  • Health security, especially in urban centres, has deteriorated. Access to health services has been severely constrained;
  • Agriculture and farming are reported to have been heavily disrupted.

Under these conditions, the State's weak capacity to sustain growth poses a major challenge in managing the pandemic. A few good-will initiatives, including food donations and salary subsidies are supporting the most vulnerable communities, but this support remains small despite the many needs of the Malian population. Moreover, the Malian economy is strongly dominated by the informal sector. This raises the question around how to balance the need to preserve public health and the essential requirements of a large number of economic actors.

Tensions are escalating

The pandemic’s impact has also been compounded by increased social and political tensions, ranging from a nationwide teachers' strike, parliamentary elections marred by vote rigging and contested results, and two major demonstrations held on June 5th and June 19th by a coalition of political and civil society actors known as “the Movement”, who called for the resignation of the President.

These long-standing tensions came to a head when a mutiny of soldiers on a base in the outskirts of Bamako concluded with the arrest of the democratically-elected President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, his Prime Minister and several high-level dignitaries on August 18th. This ultimately led to the President's resignation; he has since been hospitalised and has left the country. A military committee known as the National Committee for the Salvation of the People (CNSP) has taken power and is engaged in a national consultation with various stakeholder groups to manage the political transition, which will seemingly lead to credible, free and transparent general elections.

Risk of increased stigma, discrimination, and rising community tensions

The inevitable repercussions of the pandemic on peace and social cohesion are cause for concern. The increased fear, stigma and discrimination faced by its victims, survivors and affected families, as well as health workers and other front-line staff, has undermined the overall response to COVID-19.

Affected individuals have faced social stigma or were abandoned by their families because of the high risk of infecting others. Moreover, there is also a risk of suspicion and discriminatory attitudes within communities towards new arrivals from displaced communities, especially if they come from areas assumed (rightly or wrongly) to be at a higher risk of catching the virus. This could lead to a reluctance from host families to receive new IDPs. The impact of the pandemic on peacebuilding is inevitable.

In addition, some individuals and health workers have been victims of privacy violations perpetrated by members of their communities. Reactions to these breaches are likely to lead to violence and public disorder, which may in turn hinder rapid access to testing and treatment centres and other support services, thus undermining efforts to limit the transmission of the virus.

More alarmingly, propaganda on social networks, misinformation and conspiracies have further provoked tensions and acts of violence from vulnerable communities who have resisted government efforts to contain the spread of the virus. The epidemic further risks causing increased inter-community tensions over the control of available resources.

The impact on local peacebuilding initiatives

This COVID-19 situation has had a significant impact on local peacebuilding initiatives. Indeed, since the announcement of restrictions, most organisations have suspended field activities that required movement or gatherings. Some have favoured remote working through video-conferencing, but this is an approach limited to organisations in urban areas while most have limited internet access. Furthermore, the excessive and prolonged heat in Mali has led to an irregular energy supply and electricity shutdowns on strained power systems, known as ‘load-shedding.’

Nonetheless, since the start of the pandemic local civil society peacebuilding organisations have been involved in crucial awareness-raising campaigns targeting local populations, religious authorities, traditional leaders and security forces to highlight the dangers of the pandemic and the need to observe health and hygiene measures to limit its spread. In spite of the limitations described, peacebuilders are actively adapting their work in order to raise awareness through social networks, community radios and television stations.

By way of example, the regional council of civil society conducted a several-week-long awareness campaign on COVID-19 after the region recorded dozens of positive cases in a few days. Similarly, a consortium of local civil society organisations - FENACOF-Mali, (National Federation of Women's Collectives and Organizations) and AFLED (Association of Women Leadership and Sustainable Development) - undertook awareness-raising activities around the COVID-19 pandemic. This campaign is part of the financing of the Voix* et Leadership des femmes* ('Voices and Leadership of Women, VLF-Musoya) rapid reaction fund.

Local actors are acting as a vector of information and awareness on the major issues facing the nation. They have played a leading role sharing their messages through creative media from sketches, daily publications via public and private television channels, internet and social networks. The private press is also being utilised for these awareness campaigns. Messages are translated into most national languages to reach the largest possible audience, especially in rural areas. Here, the emphasis is more on information than on communication.

This work takes place within a moment of transition for Mali – a moment to reconnect, to raise awareness, and to support grassroots effort to deescalate tensions and prevent rising conflict amid the health emergency.