How did Mali get here? (Part 2: From military rule to multiparty politics)

Introduction: This post is the second in a series reviewing Mali’s modern history and present trajectory. Subsequent posts will survey the distinct but overlapping analyses of Mali’s postcolonial development. As I work to improve my draft for publication, I invite readers’ comments and criticism. This post picks up in the late 1960s, where the previous one left off.

The coup that ousted Modibo Keita in November 1968 ended Mali’s period of revolutionary socialism. Under the presidency of junta leader Lieutenant (later General) Moussa Traoré, the government undid some unpopular US-RDA policies but kept a firm grasp on the economy and society and tolerated little dissent. Keita died in prison in 1977, and the regime’s detention of dissidents, including many former members of 131602370_title0h_872823418government, drew censure from abroad (Mann, 2015). Severe droughts in 1972-73 and 1983-84 left Mali dependent on foreign aid and government debt, intensifying historical patterns of emigration to neighboring countries and beyond. Migration for labor and trade had been a central part of the male life course for men throughout southern and central Mali for generations. From the 1970s, thousands of Tuareg joined this outflow and headed for Libya, where some joined the Libyan armed forces (Lecocq, 2010). In Bamako, the combination of neopatrimonial politics, elite predation of aid, and IMF-induced fiscal austerity further compromised the Traoré regime and damaged the economy to a degree scarcely offset by pragmatic policy decisions, such as abandoning the Malian franc and rejoining the CFA franc zone in 1984 (Baudais, 2015). Mali’s second Tuareg uprising began in 1990, and like the first elicited a harsh reaction from government security forces. 100,000 refugees fled the country, and many remained abroad for years (Lecocq and Klute, 2013). This rebellion, which saw the first explicit rebel demands for an independent homeland, continued through the mid-1990s.

Amidst the northern conflict, nationwide opposition to Traoré’s authoritarian rule culminated in massive street protests in Bamako. Traoré was forced from power in March 1991; Amadou Toumani Touré (known at “ATT”), the army colonel who toppled him, headed a transitional government which in 1992 organized Mali’s first democratic presidential election since the end of the colonial era. Thirty years of one-party rule gave 1059725637468way to a multiparty political system and new constitution. The new regime of President Alpha Oumar Konaré legalized private newspapers and radio stations, devolved some state powers to a new layer of elected local officials, and expanded public primary schooling from 28% of school-age children in 1991 to 62% in 2000 (Zobel, 2013). With the economy expanding by more than five percent annually, observers declared that Mali had achieved “a thriving multiparty democracy with competitive elections, a free press, better protection of civil liberties and political rights, less corruption, and stronger governance” (Radelet, 2010: 10).

This combination of growth and formal democracy, however, failed to foster sustainable, inclusive politics into the 21st century. Especially after the 2002 election of Amadou Toumani Touré as president, the government appeared increasingly unable to cope with att_mal_491620852persistent challenges. ATT adopted a “consensus approach,” bringing a host of political parties into his government. Without significant opposition, his government had little incentive to make hard political choices or enact meaningful reforms. Voter turnout was among the lowest in the region. Public schools became dysfunctional, social divisions widened, and state dependency on foreign aid increased (N. Keita, 2013; O. Sidibé, 2013; Charbonneau and Sears, 2014; Baudais, 2015; Bergamaschi, 2016). Public satisfaction with democracy plummeted from 63% to 31% of survey respondents while perceptions of corruption rose (Dulani, 2013). Lucrative smuggling interests, including the transit of South American narcotics across the Sahara, facilitated criminalization at every level of the state, from elected officials in the north to top-ranking authorities in Bamako, and magnified disputes between local communities (Ag Alhousseini, 2016). Sporadic, low-intensity rebellions in the north blended into criminal activity.

The 2011 demise of Libyan President Muammar Kadhafi and his regime sparked the gravest threat to Malian stability: Tuareg fighters returning from Libya joined forces with Tuareg groups in northern Mali to organize new rebel movements. One, the Mouvement National pour la Libération de l’Azawad (MNLA), fought for a secular, independent state within Mali’s existing borders. Another, Ansar Dine, fought for the establishment of Islamic law throughout Mali. Both groups allied with Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), which had been present in Mali’s north since at least 2006. These were the main entities responsible for expelling the Malian armed forces from the country’s three northern regions in early 2012. Soon after occupying northern cities and towns, though, the MNLA lost support due to abuses carried out by its fighters, leading to a complete northern takeover by jihadi groups imposing a harsh interpretation of Islamic law (Lecocq and Klute, 2013; F. Keita, 2014; Schulz, 2016).

Meanwhile the March 2012 coup exposed Malian democracy’s failings. Many Bamako residents saw it as divine punishment of a corrupt ruling elite, viewing elections as merely ”arrangements between those in power to perpetuate their hold on society and the economy” (Diawara, 2014: 111). Many greeted the coup as a chance to free the country from predatory rule and establish the true democracy that had eluded them since the 1990s. A return to the political status quo ante was, for them, out of the question. Neither the army junta nor the civilian transitional government officially succeeding it, however, could reunite the fractured nation.

In January 2013 French President François Hollande deployed French forces against an Ansar Dine- and AQIM-led offensive in central Mali. Operating alongside troops from IBK_509189415Mali, Niger and Chad, “Operation Serval” retook the north of the country, ending the jihadi occupation and enabling transitional authorities in Bamako to organize a nation-wide presidential election later that year. Ibrahim Boubacar Keita or “IBK,” a former prime minister, received over 77% of second-round votes.

Key problems persisted, however. Kidal, the country’s sole administrative region in which Tuareg constitute a majority, had been the scene of the 1963-64 rebellion and remained a stronghold of separatist sentiment; it reverted to MNLA control once French troops drove out jihadi groups (Ag Alhousseini, 2016). Kidal’s continued exclusion from central government authority sapped IBK’s domestic support. The deployment of UN peacekeepers from July 2013 brought only limited stability to the north, where jihadi attacks on UN, French, Malian government and civilian targets increased year by year. Violence soon spread from the northern regions of Kidal, Gao and Timbuktu to the central regions of Mopti and Segou. In 2015 Bamako was the unprecedented scene of jihadi terrorist tactics when gunmen targeted two businesses catering to Westerners, killing five civilians at a bar and 20 at a hotel in separate incidents.

These events’ potential to spur a “credible, state-led rethinking of the state” (Charbonneau and Sears, 2014: 11) was squandered in the years following IBK’s election, and Mali’s political establishment demonstrated neither the willingness nor the capacity to undertake serious reform. Implementation of a 2015 peace agreement brokered with separatists, mandating among other things a degree of self-rule at the regional and community level, lagged. As president, IBK outsourced difficult issues to associates rather than deal with them directly (Baudais, 2015). Public service provision remained poor, and in rural areas where the majority of the population lived, most government services never existed to begin with. For rural Malians, the crisis “merely exacerbated what was an ongoing empirical state failure” of long standing (Bleck and Michelitch, 2015: 26; see also Bleck et al., 2016).

This failure left the field open for non-state actors advocating alternative forms of political change, many of them violent. With government authority increasingly tenuous, a proliferation of armed groups in central and northern regions blurred the boundaries between criminality, insurgency and terrorism (Boeke, 2016). Conflicts between herders and farmers and between rival ethnic self-defense militias intensified throughout the Mopti region, with factions sometimes seeking redress for local grievances under the banner of jihad (International Alert, 2016; Sangaré, 2016). Jihadi groups gained strength in northern zones completely outside the control of the Malian state, the French military or UN peacekeepers (Ahmed and Carayol, 2017). For its part the international community was unable to impose a lasting solution, as the French and UN military missions lacked legitimacy in the eyes of the Malian public (Sabrow, 2017).

Creeping instability in Mali also laid bare the country’s “Tuareg question”: after multiple generations of Tuareg-led rebellion against the Malian central state, the place of Tuareg people within Malian society remained a raw issue. Neither the government nor rebel groups held much confidence in their 2015 peace deal (International Crisis Group, 2017). A significant portion of Tuareg–particularly members of high-status groups–held out for a Tuareg-dominated, self-governing “Azawad.” Down south, where most of Mali’s population lived, Tuareg irredentism was widely viewed as the root cause of the country’s calamities. “For many southern Malians, the MNLA and other Tuareg rebel fronts are responsible for the disastrous conditions all of Mali has experienced since the onset of this recent conflict,” wrote a Malian anthropologist (Koné, 2017: 56).

Before 2012, political violence was foreign to most Malians, but structural violence–in the form of poverty, political exclusion, and social hierarchies based on race, caste, gender, and education–was rooted deep in Malian life (Bayart, 2013). The country’s economy, dominated by the production of a few primary commodities (gold, cotton, cereals, and livestock), never brought about widespread prosperity despite sustained economic growth (Moseley, 2017). Agriculture, employing three-quarters of the population, remained precarious due to erratic rainfall, and food insecurity was rife. As in much of the Sahel, climate change and high fertility rates placed significant economic and demographic pressure on Malian communities. With the nation’s population approaching 20 million–four times its size at independence in 1960–the scale of the human drama playing out in Mali had never been greater.

Coming up in Part 3: Anti-imperialist analyses of Mali’s instability


  • Ag Alhousseini, Mohamed. 2016. Du conflit aux conflits, Kidal dans l’espoir d’une paix jamais retrouvée. FES Mali Policy Paper, Friedrich Ebert Foundation.
  • Baudais, Virginie. 2015. Les trajectoires de l’Etat au Mali. Paris: L’Harmattan.
  • Bayart, Jean-François. 2013. Les racines du mal : entretien avec Jean-François Bayart. Politique International 139.
  • Bergamaschi, Isaline. 2016. The politics of aid and poverty reduction in Africa: A conceptual proposal and the case of Mali. Global Cooperation Research Papers 16:5-33.
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  • Bleck, Jaimie, Abdoulaye Dembele and Sidiki Guindo. 2016. Malian crisis and the lingering problem of good governance. Stability: International Journal of Security & Development 5(1):1-18.
  • Boeke, Sergei. 2016. Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb: Terrorism, insurgency, or organized crime? Small Wars and Insurgencies 27(5):914-936.
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  • Diawara, Mahamadou. 2014. La crise malienne et la politisation des catégories populaires. In Joseph Brunet-Jailly, Jacques Charmes and Doulaye Konaté, eds. Le Mali contemporain. Bamako: Editions Tombouctou. 89-116.
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  • Keita, Naffet. 2005. De l’identitaire au problème de la territorialité : L’OCRS et les sociétés Kel Tamacheq du Mali. In GEMDEV and Université du Mali, eds Mali-France : Regards sur une histoire partagée. Paris: Karthala. 91-121.
  • Keita, Naffet. 2013. Y a-t-il un gouvernement légitime au Mali ? In Patrick Gonin, Natalie Kotlok and Marc-Antoine Pérouse de Montclos, eds. La tragédie malienne. Paris: Vendémiaire. 83-92.
  • Koné, Kassim. 2017. A southern view on the Tuareg rebellions in Mali. African Studies Review 60(1):53-75.
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  • Zobel, Clemens. 2013. Le Mali postcolonial : Perspectives politiques. In Patrick Gonin, Natalie Kotlok and Marc-Antoine Pérouse de Montclos, eds. La tragédie malienne. Paris: Vendémiaire. 57-81.
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1 Response to How did Mali get here? (Part 2: From military rule to multiparty politics)

  1. Pingback: How did Mali get here? (Part 1: Echoes of decolonization) | Bridges from Bamako

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