How did Mali get here? (Part 4: Geopolitical explanations)

In seeking to understand the long-term sources of instability in Mali, analytical perspectives centered on geopolitics emphasize competition among states, including the Malian government, its Sahelian neighbors, and extra-regional players, in shaping events there. These perspectives pit the Malian state’s interests in controlling its territory, population, and resources against those of external actors pursuing their own agendas. This set of narratives overlaps with anti-imperialist narratives in highlighting the role of external powers and their interest in Mali’s natural resources. Foreign governments also have security and diplomatic stakes in Mali and the region. Threats posed by terrorist and criminal organizations have brought the Sahel/Sahara to the great powers’ attention since the beginning of the US “War on Terror” (Lecocq and Schrijver, 2007) and especially since 2012.

Mali is often viewed as either blessed or cursed with a valuable geographic setting as well as abundant natural resources. Historian Doulaye Konaté described Mali’s location to an interviewer as “the transition between North Africa and Africa that reaches the ocean and the forests. This gives us an important strategic position: whoever controls Mali, controls West Africa – if not the whole of Africa… that’s why this region became so coveted” (see video below from the 03:10 mark). In 2013 Issa N’Diaye linked Mali’s conflict to “the covetousness that the immense resources beneath its soil inspire among Western, notably French, multinational companies with respect to oil and uranium.” Following Serval, many scholars (e.g., Jean Batou; see also Claudot-Hawad, 2013 and Diarra, 2013) agreed that foreign competition for Mali’s minerals–particularly energy resources, but also precious metals–had fueled conflict there and throughout the region.

The truth about Mali’s strategic minerals, however, is unclear. Some scholars cast doubt on mineral wealth (e.g., Bergamaschi and Diawara, 2014; Chivvis, 2016) or other economic motives (Powell, 2016) as underlying French intervention. Mali certainly has significant gold deposits, and in the 1990s became Africa’s third-largest gold producer (though it may have recently fallen to fourth place). But these deposits are mainly in the south and west, and in any case French spending on Operation Serval in 2013 was over twice the value of all Malian gold produced that year (Notin, 2014). In the north, the extent of gold, uranium and other minerals is not known. With respect to oil, none was successfully drilled in Mali despite years of exploration up north. If deposits ever were confirmed, the cost of exploiting them would be steep and the rewards uncertain. Energy companies therefore never flocked to explore in Mali, and many of those that did gave up even before renewed instability in 2012 (see Augé, 2011 and a 2013 IMF report). Northern Mali’s hydrocarbons could simply be a mirage and external powers’ purported desire for them a red herring. Yet the mere possibility of their existence has long shaped Malian leaders’ actions on the ground.

More compelling than Mali’s supposed riches or important location in accounting for its instability are the security interests of foreign powers, both regional and global. Numerous geopolitical narratives attest that if the Sahara is no strategic heartland (Lacoste, 2011), it is a zone where real and assumed threats to various governments abounded after 9/11. Violent jihadi groups in northern Mali began as a consequence of civil war in neighboring Algeria during the 1990s and posed a determined menace to the Algerian government ever since. By kidnapping Westerners and hold them for ransom in the Sahara, they also became a Western concern even before they affiliated with Al Qaeda in 2007 (Harmon, 2014). The Malian government was slow to recognize the jihadis as a serious threat, and may even have reached an informal non-aggression pact with AQIM (see also Lasserre and Oberlé, 2013). Yet northern Mali’s 2012 occupation exposed violent jihad in the Sahara and Sahel as a major risk to the region’s relatively weak states.


European Union trainers in Koulikoro, 2017 (source: EUTM flickr)

Despite decades of Malian military cooperation with the US, Russia and other states (as well as the European Union, most recently), France became the most prominent external actor with respect to Mali’s security when it launched Operation Serval in 2013. The French government identified three short-term goals: securing Bamako and its expatriate residents, halting the jihadi insurgency, and restoring Mali’s territorial integrity (Chivvis, 2016). Of these, it was arguably successful only in achieving the first: if the complete collapse of the Malian state was averted, separatist resistance and resurgent jihadi militants kept vast areas of northern Mali outside state control. France also hoped to locate its citizens held by insurgents in the region, but Serval freed none of the seven French hostages then in captivity; two were later killed and the others rescued or released in prisoner swaps.

Long-term interests were also at stake. Uranium in neighboring Niger, a major source of the fuel for France’s nuclear reactors, was among them, as was the necessity to keep Mali from becoming a safe haven for militants who could strike at French citizens, embassies and businesses in Africa. Intervention additionally served French strategic interests to which Mali was merely incidental: it raised France’s profile on the world stage. This was among Hollande’s central goals and Mali was a convenient venue for projecting French military power, particularly given other actors’ unwillingness to deploy troops there. Serval “allowed France to demonstrate its willingness to take responsibility for dealing with global terrorism in ‘its’ area of influence,” writes Chafer (2016: 131). In the face of potential defense budget cuts, Serval showcased a robust military as vital for protecting French interests at home and abroad (Chivvis, 2016) and maintaining France’s status as a global power.

But protecting French material and symbolic interests came at a cost to Malians beset by insurgent violence, crime, and injustice in their still-fractured country. French troops came to hunt terrorists, not protect Mali’s people or restore its territorial integrity. Predictions that foreign military intervention would facilitate internal Malian dynamics of conflict resolution and stabilization proved misplaced (see a recent joint report by FIDH and AMDH). The success of Hollande’s Malian gambit has so far proven tactical but not strategic (Boeke and Schuurman, 2015): while it helped prop up the Malian government, it also added new international dimensions to an already complex situation and lacked a clear exit strategy (Powell, 2016). My conclusion is that even if geopolitical dynamics were not primarily behind Mali’s destabilization, they exacerbated the conflict already underway and further fragilized the Malian state.

Coming up in Part 5: Institutionalist explanations

Offline references

  • Augé, Benjamin. 2011. Les nouveaux enjeux pétroliers de la zone saharienne. Hérodote 142:183-205.
  • Bergamaschi, Isaline and Mahamadou Diawara. 2014. The French military intervention in Mali: Not exactly Françafrique but definitely postcolonial. In Bruno Charbonneau and Tony Chafer, eds. Peace operations in the francophone world: global governance meets post-colonialism. Abingdon: Routledge. 137-152.
  • Boeke, Sergei and Bart Schuurman. 2015. Operation “Serval”: A Strategic Analysis of the French Intervention in Mali. Journal of Strategic Studies 38(6):801-825.
  • Chafer, Tony. 2016. France in Mali: Towards a new Africa strategy? International Journal of Francophone Studies 19(2):119-140.
  • Charbonneau, Bruno and Jonathan M. Sears. 2014. Fighting for liberal peace in Mali? The limits of international military intervention. Journal of Intervention and Statebuilding 8(2-3):192-213.
  • Chivvis, Christopher. 2016. The French War on Al Qa’ida in Africa. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  • Claudot-Hawad, Hélène. 2013. La “question touarègue”, quels enjeux ? In Michel Galy, ed. La guerre au Mali : Comprendre la crise au Sahel et au Sahara : enjeux et zones d’ombre. Paris: La Découverte. 125-147.
  • Diarra, Balla. 2013. Le conflit dans le Nord du Mali : les éclairages de l’espace en jeu. In Doulaye Konaté, ed. Le Mali : Entre doutes et espoirs. Bamako: Editions Tombouctou. 47-68.
  • Harmon, Stephen A. 2014. Terror and Insurgency in the Sahara-Sahel Region: Corruption, Contraband, Jihad and the Mali War of 2012-2013. Burlington, VT: Ashgate.
  • Joly, Vincent. 2013. The French Army and Malian Independence. In Tony Chafer and Alexander Keese, eds. Francophone Africa at Fifty. Manchester: Manchester University Press. 75-89.
  • Lacoste, Yves. 2011. Sahara, perspectives et illusions geopolitiques. Hérodote 142:12-41.
  • Lasserre, Isabelle and Thierry Oberlé. 2013. Notre Guerre Secrète au Mali : Les nouvelles menaces contre la France. Paris: Fayard.
  • Lecocq, Baz and Paul Schrijver. 2007. The war on terror in a haze of dust: Potholes and pitfalls on the Saharan Front. Journal of Contemporary African Studies 25(1):141-166.
  • Notin, Jean-Christophe. 2014. La Guerre de la France au Mali. Paris: Tallandier.
  • Powell, Nathaniel K. 2016. Battling Instability? The Recurring Logic of French Military Interventions in Africa. African Security 10(1):47-72.
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1 Response to How did Mali get here? (Part 4: Geopolitical explanations)

  1. Pingback: How did Mali get here? (Part 3: Anti-imperialist explanations) | Bridges from Bamako

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