7 December 2016

FOI analysis: Expand the dialogue for peace in Mali

The United Nations’ implementation of the peace agreement in Mali is going slowly and requires a broadening of the discussion between the partners. This is one of the conclusions of a new report about the conflict-ridden country.

War, terrorist attacks and criminality. The last five years in Mali have been characterized by major conflict between the government, the Tuareg population and armed Islamist groups. Most countries, including Sweden, advise against travelling to Mali.

Still, it was not so long ago that many saw a glimmer of hope for the future when, in the summer of 2015, the international community succeeded in getting Mali’s government and two large rebel groups to sign a peace agreement.

“Today we see two different problems. In part, the international community has great difficulty in making the parties follow the agreement, for example in the administration of the northern region and disarming the rebels. There is an underlying problem: even if the agreement were to be implemented in full, it still wouldn’t be enough to ensure sustainable peace for Mali,” says Cecilia Hull Wiklund, analyst in FOI’s Africa Group. She is co-author, with her colleague Claes Nilsson, of the report, Peace in Mali?

Insisting on Sharia

The reason is that there are at least two areas of conflict that are not regulated by the peace agreement, the historical conflict between Mali’s north and south and, among others, the desire for an independent Tuareg state.

One involves the rivalry between the two rebel groups that signed the agreement. They are fighting each other for, among other things, control over cities and illegal trade routes, often the only means of making a living in Mali’s barren north.

The other area involves the armed Islamists, who have remained outside the agreement the entire time. They intend to impose Sharia law and so far have not only opposed the United Nations’ peacekeeping presence in the country, but have also intensified their attacks on the state of Mali, the civilian population and other international actors.

“The peace agreement was signed under pressure from the international community, before all its details were finalized. Instead of implementation, the period since the signing has been preoccupied with continued negotiation and political manoeuvring.”

Include groups

In FOI’s report, the authors stress the need for continued dialogue linked to implementation. Unresolved questions must be dealt with in order to ensure that the peace process is broadened to include both the sub-conflicts and those parts of the population that had previously been kept out of the process.

How the international community can continue to support Mali will be an important question for Sweden during its tenure on the UN Security Council, in 2017-2018. FOI is contributing data, statistics and research-based analysis on what the different options might entail. This is one of the intentions of the Mali report, which is based on other reports, research material and interviews.


The conflict originates in part in domestic factors, such as the marginalization of northern Mali, which in the last sixty years led to several uprisings, but it has also been influenced by recent changes in North Africa and the Sahel region. The war in Libya and the death of Gaddafi have led to the return of many Tuareg, armed and unemployed, to Mali.

The presence of armed Islamist groups is also a regional phenomenon, but is amplified by the fact that since northern Mali is a “no-man’s land” with no state presence nor border controls, these groups can circulate freely. The conflict also has major local components. Drought and a scarcity of arable land have resulted in violent fighting between farmers and herders about land rights both in the north and in central Mali. These conflicts have been aggravated by climate change, which also appears to underlie the increasing violence in central Mali in the last year.