Small Wars Journal

Conflict Resolution: The Case of Northern Mali

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Conflict Resolution: The Case of Northern Mali

Hamid Lellou

The ongoing intra-state conflict in Mali between the central government based in Bamako, and the ethnic minority Tuareg based in northern Mali has seen several short-lived conflict resolutions since the 1960s, including the recent one that followed the 2012 rebellion. Northern Mali has been living in perpetual and unfulfilled postwar reconstruction phases due to repeated unsuccessful national reconciliations. As the Institute for Economics & Peace (2016) has claimed, Mali is near the bottom in terms of security, ranked 140 out of 163 countries. As expected, political instability and access to weapons are the two most critical factors weighing into this ranking. Although Mali enjoyed fair and free elections in 2013; instability in northern and central Mali are preventing institutions from supporting the needs of their citizens. Easy access to weapons, particularly in the north through porous borders with Libya, has led communities to settle their disputes with weapons rather than negotiations, therefore escalating conflicts. (GPI). Although the US is involved in assisting Mali with improving democracy and health issues throughout the country, if successful reconstruction and economic conditions are not improved, Mali’s instability presents a growing security threat to the region. Its porous border with Libya could expand the ‘wild west’ lawlessness that is out of control in Libya. The United States is particularly interested in the stability and prosperity of Mali to counter global terrorism in the Sahel region. This interest has materialized through the United States commitment to help Mali overcome its struggle against terrorism following the fall of its northern territories in the hands of terror groups and traffickers. (U.S. Department of State) This paper proposes a systematic postwar reconstruction framework combined with recommendations on how the United States, and other allies can accompany ECOWAS achieve sustainable reconciliation.

“Twenty-Five percent of negotiated agreements are followed by civil war.” Ramsbotham, Woodhouse and Miall (2016, p.236) When designing a reconciliation plan, the interest and influence of all parties must be included to prevent negative external influences on the process. Nizeimana and Nhema. (2015) One way to map out the parties and the interest is through the PIN (Position, Interests, and Needs) model. When mapping parties involved in the conflict in Mali, it becomes clear that, in addition to the two direct opponents (the government of Mali and the ethnic Tuareg group), many other parties are involved with different interests. The interest of the MNLA (Movement National Liberation of Azawad) and CMA (Coordination Movements of Azawad) evolved from basic needs such as security, jobs, and financial stability, to greater political participation at the national level and independence. The government of Mali would like to recover and impose its authority in the region to ensure the country’s unity.  Terrorist groups have a more global view and are interested in imposing their version of “Islamic rule” throughout the region; controlling Mali would be a step in that process. Smugglers’ interests are solely financial. France is interested in untapped natural resources both in Mali and Niger, establishing a friendly government in Bamako, and countering terrorism. (BBC News) Another way to map out the various involvement in the region is through a SPITCEROW framework. The SPITCEROW framework (Sources of the conflict, Parties involved, Issues, Tactics, Change, Enlargement of the conflict, Role of other parties, Outcome of the conflict, Winners) suggests that the source of conflict is the most important variable that one should uncover to understand the issue. (Mitchel) In the case of northern Mali, it can be argued that the origin of the Tuareg conflict has both an immediate source and distant sources. The immediate source is due to the lasting neglect of the region by the ruling elite in Bamako. As Nizeiman (2015) have suggested, mistrust between Bamako and the Tuareg led the former to keep the latter from participating in both political and economic arenas through various repressive tactics. In addition, drastic climate conditions including drought and water scarcity have exacerbated the Tuareg’s socio-economic situation. Although the conflict may seem ethnically motivated, the root causes of the problem are structural including lack of opportunities for locals, weak or absence of socio-economic infrastructure such as schools, hospitals, trained and professional police, transportation and decent roads to end the isolation of the region from the rest of the country. This conflict is solvable if these roots causes can be addressed and all parties involved agree on their shared responsibilities.

Previous Agreements and Why They Failed

In addition to understanding the parties involved, their interests and the root causes, it is also important to understand the previous peace agreement attempts, their components, and why they failed. The last peace agreement of 2015, Accord Pour La Paix Et La Reconciliation Au Mali Issu Du Processus D’Alger, was signed in 2015, between the government of Mali and the Tuareg factions, was at the time, hailed as a new beginning for the country, “The signing of the peace and reconciliation agreement in Mali, scheduled for 15 May in Bamako, will open a "new page" in the history of this country, which is seeking stability, security and development. Signed in Algiers on March 1st by the government of Mali and the political-military groups of Northern Mali, under the supervision of the international mediation, led by Algeria, the peace and reconciliation agreement is the fruit of a long negotiation process launched in July 2014.” (allAfrica)

To have a successful negotiated agreement, disputants need the help of a third party, which will create a safe environment for talks, facilitate constructive communication, and help them decide the best course of action. (Mayer 271) Algeria was that third-party mediator, supported by ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States), AU (African Union), UN (United Nations), EU (European Union), ICO (Islamic Cooperation Organization), as well as Mauritania, Niger, Chad, Burkina Faso, and Nigeria. According to the Algiers’ Accord, all parties agreed on more than 70 articles including principles and commitments of the opposed parties for sustainable conflict resolution, creation of a participatory institutional framework, ensuring adequate central state representation, organizing local elections, implementation of DDR (Disarmament, Demobilization, Reintegration) and SSR (Security Sector Reform) programs, implementation of sustainable development program, and so on. Mediators and donors agreed to support this agreement financially and institutionally on a three-month basis, based on recommendations from an independent monitoring committee. (allAfrica)

Prior to Algiers’s Accord, in 2013, the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali was established to support Mali The mission of United nation in Mali (MINUSMA) mandated the following tasks: “ceasefire, support the implementation of the agreement on peace and reconciliation, good offices and reconciliation, protection of civilians and stabilization, promotion and protection of human rights, humanitarian assistance and projects for stabilization, protection, safety and security of United Nations personnel, and support for cultural preservation.” (United Nations Peace Keeping) The UN mission in northern Mali tried to implement the rules of Peacebuilding, by simultaneously overcoming structural and cultural violence. Ramsbothman et al. (2016, p.237) However, this was a separate mission that had no coordination and integration with the planning and/or eventual implementation of the Algiers Accord.  Therefore, there was disconnect on the ground between peace keeping and the policies that have been implemented. It’s worth noting that at least five critical elements are missing in the peace agreement as proposed in Algiers Accord.

1) The selection of representation for infighting did not reflect the reality on the ground. Some groups were excluded, or excused themselves from the accord, as suggested by Stockholm International Peace Research Institute “the [Algiers]accord’s silence on the modalities to allow for the representation of interests, issues and perspectives of the diverse groups within the Malian society means that it fails to address adequately the inclusion claims underlying all episodes of the conflict, and risks perpetuating the recurrence of violence.” (Nyirabikali) The conflict has lasted too long to have one homogenous and monolithic Tuareg representation. The existence of many distinctive rebel groups means that there are many divergent views, thus weakening the Tuareg representation.

2) Opponents from both sides are being corrupted and rewarded. Some of the rebel groups have already been recuperated by terrorists and other malign groups as suggested in the conflict mapping. “Ever since Azawad rebels rejected a UN-brokered deal in March, the peace process in Mali has gone nowhere. Restarting it isn’t the only problem, though. True peace won’t come to the country until the links between rebel groups and transnational criminal networks are effectively broken.” (Sebastian) Some Tuareg elites that were the best representatives of their communities were corrupted by the Malian government and rewarded with political positions in the government. Thus, the solution must include a capacity building component that incentivizes all parties to become a part of the Peace agreement.

3) In 2012, the Malian government lost total control of the north, until the intervention of the French military, but without losing its independence, as suggested by Ndiayeis. (2013) The Malian government state has failed its northern citizens by dismissing their culture, continued racism, prejudice, and failing to include them in the state building process. One key component of post conflict state building consists of “attempt[ing] to rebuild self-sustaining institutions of governance capable of delivering the essential public goods required to underpin perceived legitimacy and what is hoped will eventually become an enduring peace.” Ramsbotham et all. (2016, p.237) The same government workers and security apparatus who mismanaged the region’s affairs for years and fled, because of infighting, should not be allowed to come back and be in charge again.

4) Gender bias and cultural considerations. The Tuareg ethnic group is a matriarchal society, where women hold a certain degree of responsibility and power and yet this population was ignored in the Algiers’s Accord. As Daily Mail article puts it, “the Tuareg have maintained their way of life for centuries, crossing from one side of the world's largest desert. Yet beneath the traditional way of life lies a progressive society where women's rights have been embraced.” (Drury) In addition, women who live in harsh remote areas, like northern Mali region, are accustomed living on their own and taking care of their kids while their men are either at war or working in cities. Thus, they have earned the status of active and primordial actors in the society. Conflict resolution experts suggest four stages in engendering conflict resolution including, “making women visible as agents of change in conflict resolution, removing male bias in conflict resolution data-collection and empirical research, rethinking conflict resolution theory to take gender into account, [and finally] incorporating gender into conflict resolution policy-making practice.” Ramsbotham et al. (361)

5) Reconciliation is mentioned only in the title. Like in any conflicts, atrocities and abuses were done by all sides, and yet there is no article in the Algiers Accord suggesting healing, dealing with trauma, or setting truth and forgiveness commissions, “[as they] have been set up in more than twenty countries … [in which] each reflects the nature of the situation in that country… The Truth and Reconciliation Commission contributes to the building of ‘a historic bridge between the past of a deeply divided society characterized by strife, conflict, untold suffering and injustice, and a future founded on the recognition of human rights, democracy, and peaceful coexistence and development opportunities for all … irrespective of color, race, belief, or sex.” Ramsbotham et al. (2016, p.293) Reconciliation between opponents who have been fighting for an extended period of time is not an easy thing to do. Our experts continue and point out that, “[t]he greatest difficultly from a conflict resolution perspective comes when conflict has escalated through the stages of difference, contradiction, polarization, and violence to the point where atrocities have been perpetuated.” (289) Northern Mali hasn’t seen genocide. However, armed groups and security forces were behind mass killings of civilians. Third party sponsors should have created an independent truth commission, where victims and perpetrators would come together. Victims would express their suffering and describe their pain, whether physical or psychological, and remember their loved ones. Perpetrators must talk about their acts, what motivated their acts, take their responsibility, and ask for forgiveness.

The Proposed Reconciliation Plan

Different parties have different and sometimes opposing interests, which complicates the conflict and increases its complexity. Understanding the root causes and competing needs, interests, and positions identified in this paper can help those working with the conflict begin the development of a proposed solutions. The government of Mali can’t resolve this conflict, because it doesn’t have the resources, nor the political will. It is the international community’s responsibility to help Malian people to solve this problem before it spreads to neighboring countries and increases global terrorism and an expanded lawless region. The Malian government lost its credibility in the north long ago.  Local problems can be solved only by applying local solutions. Recent history in African conflicts has shown the limits of foreign/western interventions. It has also shown the inefficiency of African countries to deal with their own issues, particularly the African Union (AU) organization. It is anticipated that the newly created organization, the G5 Sahel force (composed of Malian, Nigerien, Burkina Faso, Chadian, and Mauritanian militaries) will be a short-lived initiative as well, because it is an imposed solution by the former colonial ruler, France. Although, there are some exceptions such as the relative success of ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States) peace operations in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and the Ivory Coast. Thus, as phase one, ECOWAS may be that regional military intervention that would identify and impose control over armed factions, supervise DDR (Disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration), begin demining, capacity building, security reform and training, restore essential services, ensure protection of vulnerable populations, supervise return of refugees.” Ramsbotham et al. (2016, p.251) While implementing this first phase all belligerents willing to participate in this peace process, including Tuareg factions not associated with terrorism, and the government of Mali, will be invited to participate in phase two of structural peacebuilding.

The Algiers’s Accord is a good start that can be used as framework to which the following elements should be added.

  1. A UN resolution declaring northern Mali under ECOWAS entire administrative and military authority, instead of tacitly accepting French control on northern Mali. This military force may be assisted and supported by United States by providing air support, some logistics, and intelligence. United States should continue providing expertise and trainings through Security cooperation, and civil military operations.
  2. Closely monitor all activities along borders with Algeria and Mauritania.
  3. Niger-Mali is a high-risk spot, Mondafrique (2017) Thus momentarily closing land border with Niger, until those borders are controlled and secured by ECOWAS mission to organize census and identify all key players including legitimate armed groups (rebels and/or insurgents), tribal elders, civil society.
  4. Economic commission to assess emergency needs such as food, shelter, schooling, medical assistance
  5. All contracts will be awarded to local companies and contractors unless these providers don’t satisfy technical requirements.
  6. Strong and aggressive communication campaign to inform locals about proposals as well as the progress of the programs. These communications will be done through available media outlets, when possible, and through local partners identified in article (3)
  7. Truth commission to record all complains from all sides such as violence, looting, killing, and other abuses
  8. Organize workshop to train and educate locals on their civil and human rights as well as their obligations in order to participate in state building.
  9. Awareness workshops: use previous success stories from different parts of the world and let those victims and their perpetrators who reconciled to share directly their experiences with the locals, of all sides.

All these suggestions are meant to answer immediate demands, but more importantly to achieve long term goals without which there will be no sustainable reconciliation. Groups in conflict binding together to create cohesive society is the ultimate achievement of long term process of reconciliation as suggested. As mentioned in the introduction, this conflict has seen several short-lived resolutions, because the processes were exclusive and long-term objectives overlooked.


allAfrica. (2015). Mali: Signing of Peace Agreement to Open New Page in Mali’s History. Algiers: Algérie Presse Service. Retrieved from

Drury, F.  (24 June 2013). Sex and the Sahara. Daily Mail. Retrieved from

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Institute for Economics & Peace. Global Peace Index 201. New York. Institute for Economics & Peace. 2016. Web. 10. Jul. 2017.

Mali crisis: Key players. (12 March 2013). BBC News. Retrieved from

Mayer, Be. The Dynamics of Conflict: A Guide to Engagement and Intervention. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass A Willy Imprint, 2012. Print.

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Niger-Mali: une economie à haut risque. (23 Dec 2017). Monde Afrique la Redaction. Retrieved from

Nizeimana, J.B., and Nhema, A.G (2015). “The Malian Crisis: Multiple Actors with Diverse Interests and Values.” Journal of Public Administration and Governance 5.3: 120-133. Retrieved from

Nyirabikali, G. (27 August 2015). Mali Peace Accord: Actors, issues and their representation. SIPRI. Retrieved from

Ramsbotham, O., Woodhouse, T., Miall, H. (2016). Contemporary Conflict Resolution: The prevention, management and transformation of deadly conflict. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Sebastian, S. (27 April 2015) Why Peace Negotiations in Mali Will Not Succeed. ISN ETH Zurich. Retrieved from

United Nations Peace Keeping. (2017). Fatalities by Mission and Appointment Type. New York: The Department of Peacekeeping Situation Center. Retrieved from Operation

U.S. Department of State. (2018). U.S. Relations With Mali. Washington, DC: Bureau of African Affairs. Retrieved from

About the Author(s)

Hamid Lellou is a linguist and MENA Region Cultural Analyst.



Wed, 02/28/2018 - 3:12pm

I respect your assessment and am familiar with Mali.

What if your objective is not attainable?

"Groups in conflict binding together to create cohesive society is the ultimate achievement of long term process of reconciliation as suggested."


What is the alternative? What are the political and non-military options? We can address it now or in 10 years like Afghanistan.

I encourage you to assess Stathis Kalyvas, "The Logic of Violence in Civil War" coupled with semi-autonomous regions enabled by the government and international community. Decentralized functions enabled by centralized security and economic resources. The military instrument is the "easy button" and rarely consolidates the gains required to stabilize the systems.

Cohesive societies do not have to be bound.