How did Mali get here? (Part 5: Institutional explanations)

In this final installment of the series we consider the role of Mali’s political institutions in generating the wave of instability and political violence that has engulfed the country since 2012.

Institutionalist analysis ascribes a country’s success–or lack thereof–to the quality of its political and economic institutions. It highlights such problems as government corruption, poor public infrastructure and services, and weak rule of law as preventing stability and prosperity. Where institutions are “extractive,” they take wealth from one segment of a population to benefit another. Because states with extractive institutions have no capacity to hold powerful actors accountable to those with less power, or enforce rules and contracts that serve broad public interests (especially when doing so would threaten elite privileges), they are prone to conflict and economic stagnation (Acemoglu and Robinson, 2012).

Mali’s postcolonial institutions have been extractive in many respects. The multiparty system set up in the early 1990s had no grounding in the political realities of Malian society, and most parties functioned as vehicles for personal advancement rather than political change (see Bintou Sanankoua’s analysis from 2007). State bureaucracy and public services, heavily concentrated in Bamako, were plagued by deficiencies (O. Sidibé, 2013). Yet despite grave threats to the nation since 2012, its ruling elite resisted calls for political reform and inclusive dialogue, seeking instead to restore the pre-coup order (Marchal, 2013; Bleck et al., 2016). Their exclusionary and self-serving rule perpetuated the illusion of a functional state while delivering a bare minimum of public goods, leading critics to brand the post-2012 Malian state a clever counterfeit or sham. From an institutionalist perspective “there is little doubt that the erosion of democracy, rise of criminality, and impunity of state officials are at the very root of the Malian crisis” (Wing, 2013: 481). Corinne Dufka of Human Rights Watch concurs: “It was corruption, poor governance, and abusive security force conduct that significantly contributed  to Mali’s spectacular collapse in 2012,” she writes in a recent opinion piece. “The burden to resolve this situation lies first and foremost with the Malian government.”

Kidal, Mali 2013

Malian administrators in Kidal, 2013  (photo: ICTJ)

Why was corruption so rampant, and how is it that Mali lacked modern state institutions like effective policing, impartial courts, a professional civil service, and checks on executive power? Baudais (2015) blames the neopatrimonial practices of Mali’s ruling elite under successive regimes. These practices were partly an inheritance from French administrators: as elsewhere in the Sahel, colonial governance was authoritarian, unaccountable, clientelistic, and corrupt–characteristics amplified by Mali’s new rulers after independence (see analyses by Olivier de Sardan and Sanankoua), rendering state agencies incapable of fulfilling their duties.

This incapacity was evident in the way the Malian government dealt with donors. Budget support from foreign governments was not effectively monitored, and Malian officials were rarely punished for embezzling public funds. Mali’s ruling elite made a show of being compliant aid recipients, ensuring that aid flows continued and even increased, while finding ways to stymie bids to make the Malian state more transparent and accountable to its citizens (Bergamaschi, 2014). In fact the Malian government proved adept over the years at exploiting competing donor agendas and domesticating foreign aid priorities to serve its own political ends (Bergamaschi, 2016).

Mali arms

Captured insurgent weapons: Where did they come from? (AP photo)

Similar institutional failings undermined the nation’s armed forces. By 2012 the army was a mire of corruption and nepotism, with a top-heavy command structure estranged from the rank and file. Foreign military assistance programs, sponsored notably by the US, poured millions of dollars worth of training and equipment into structures unable to absorb them. New supplies were often stored rather than issued to troops in need, and organizational culture was “overrun by apathy,” according to a US Special Forces officer who advised Malian army units before the coup. The result was a military unable to counter militant threats or even safeguard its own assets, virtually inviting rebellion. Insurgents captured large quantities of government weapons and hardware on the battlefield and from conquered barracks; studies by the Small Arms Survey and Conflict Armament Research found the most common source of rebel arms to be raided Malian army stockpiles, not Libyan or other foreign depots.

Against the backdrop of “empirical state failure” mentioned by Bleck and Michelitch (2015), where state provision of security and public services was poor or absent, government forces were ill-suited to wage a counterinsurgency campaign aimed at winning the hearts and minds of local populations, even in areas not previously occupied by Tuareg or jihadi fighters. Filling the void left by the state, jihadi groups and ethnic militias offered protection and, for some, the opportunity to contest local power hierarchies or penetrate lucrative smuggling networks. Soldiers sent to quell insurgent activity in the Mopti region alienated local civilians with heavy-handed tactics including the detention, extortion, and abuse of civilians, further delegitimizing the Malian government (see analyses by JézéquelSangaré, and Théroux-Bénoni et al.).

Where a weak or failing state is concerned, institutionalist analysis situates the primary source of instability firmly within its national boundaries, ascribing agency (and responsibility) to the nation’s population and political elite. “In the end, the country’s future will not be determined so much by MINUSMA and the international community as by Mali’s inhabitants and its leaders,” write Boeke and Tisseron (2014: 38), echoing Dufka’s statement above. Such declarations illustrate how institutionalist explanations can overlook the ways outsiders incapacitate weak states and the extent to which structural forces constrain local abilities to effect meaningful change. As Sassen (2014: 85-86) puts it, talk of failed states

leaves out many of the negative effects that key actors of the international governance system, notably the IMF and the WTO, have had on program countries. Such language represents these states’ decay as endogenous, a function of their own weaknesses and corruptions…. But it is important to remember that it often is and was the vested interests of foreign governments and firms that enabled the corruption and weakening of these states.

The brutal impact of neoliberal policies on the state, the hollowing out of the public sector and the promotion of an illusory democracy, all under the watchful eye of donors, did not merely fail to promote good governance in Mali; these exogenous factors may have intentionally but actively subverted it, further empowering the country’s extractive rulers.


In isolation, none of the three explanatory narratives reviewed in this series (anti-imperialist, geopolitical, and institutionalist) can properly account for the crisis Mali underwent in the second decade of the 21st century. The forces that destabilized Mali  took shape over a very long period. They are too complex to be understood as primarily internal or primarily external. It is true that generations of leaders in Mali made poor choices that undermined the integrity of national institutions, but it is equally true that these negative consequences were magnified by external factors beyond those leaders’ control. Mali’s destabilization must be recognized as a co-production of inside and outside forces–a composite assemblage of self-serving Malian elites, donor governments oblivious to their actions’ harmful consequences, and foreign actors pursuing their own ends. This assemblage has been taking shape since the colonial period.

Just as importantly, destabilizing forces kept tearing Mali apart well after a concerted international effort to stabilize the country began in 2013. They defied emergency measures and standardized approaches to conflict resolution precisely because they were generated not by an acute crisis but by the accumulation of deeply political tensions, injustices and grievances over decades. And since the roots of these tensions were both internal and external to Mali, their solutions will similarly require the cooperation of people in Mali, in neighboring countries, and beyond.

The future of Malian national unity and identity probably lies not in returning to its revolutionary days of the 1960s, nor in propping up the secular and highly centralized state structure inherited from colonial rule. That old order is almost certainly beyond salvaging. Neither is whatever lies ahead likely to entail ethnic homogenization, as for centuries this society has been multi-ethnic and interdependent with other lands. Instability has made the limitations of the Westphalian nation state apparent in Mali and throughout the Sahel. It may be in this part of the world that new political frameworks will emerge, flexible enough to accommodate difference and resilient enough to guarantee citizens’ basic rights and dignity.

Offline references

  • Acemoglu, Daron and James A. Robinson. 2012. Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity and Poverty. New York: Crown Business.
  • Baudais, Virginie. 2015. Les trajectoires de l’Etat au Mali. Paris: L’Harmattan.
  • Bergamaschi, Isaline. 2014. The fall of a donor darling: The role of aid in Mali’s crisis. Journal of Modern African Studies 52(3):347-378.
  • 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.
  • Bleck, Jaimie and Kristin Michelitch. 2015. The 2012 crisis in Mali: Ongoing empirical state failure. African Affairs 114:1-26.
  • Boeke, Sergei and Antonin Tisseron. 2014. Mali’s long road ahead. RUSI Journal 159(5):32-40.
  • Marchal, Roland. 2013. Military (mis)adventures in Mali. African Affairs 112/448:486-497.
  • Sassen, Saskia. 2014. Expulsions: Brutality and Complexity in the Global Economy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • Sidibé, Ousmane Oumarou. 2013. La déliquescence de l’etat : un accélérateur de la crise malienne ? In Doulaye Konaté, ed. Le Mali entre doutes et espoirs : Réflexions sur la Nation à l’épreuve de la crise du Nord. Bamako: Editions Tombouctou. 171-192.
  • Wing, Susanna. 2013. Mali: Politics of a crisis. African Affairs 112/448:476-485.
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