On 22 September 2017, the Republic of Mali celebrated the 57th anniversary of its independence. However, if not for French protection, Mali as we know it now would probably have been history. In 2012, France’s Operation Serval was essential in stopping the rebellion launched by Salafi jihadists to seize control of the country. In 2014, Serval became Operation Barkhane, which is still run by the French army, hunting down the jihadists entrenched in the northern part of the country.

How did Mali get to this point? How can it recover control of the country? This Is Africa discussed these issues with Serge Daniel, a renowned specialist on Malian issues. This Franco-Beninese journalist and writer, who has been an AFP and RFI correspondent in Mali for around 10 years, has penned several books, including Les mafias du Mali: trafics et terrorisme au Sahel [Mafias in Mali: Trafficking and Terrorism in the Sahel], published in 2014. In this exclusive interview, the uncompromising observer is categorical: “Mali is still a very long way from resolving this conflict through war. I don’t see any side winning the war in northern Mali. I believe only a new type of governance can make a change.”

This Is Africa: What is your assessment of Mali’s situation, 57 years after independence?

Serge Daniel: I am everything but pessimistic. What Mali is going through can happen to any country in the sub-region. What is happening in Mali has happened elsewhere; what matters is figuring a way out. Governance, as it stands, is seriously criticised, even within what is referred to as the “majority”. Criticism is rampant because people thought that, with a wave of a magic wand, the President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita [IBK] of 2013 would be the IBK of 1994. Back then, he was prime minister and knew when to put his foot down and assert the authority of the state. It was therefore a mistake to think 2013 would be a repeat of 1994; it could never be. As for IBK himself, he used this as a campaign slogan, but later asserted – or rather, let it be clearly understood – that things had changed.

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However, he underestimated the realities of the balance between the forces on the ground. What he can be criticised for, the blame that can be put on him, stems from the fact that as difficulties arose along the line, he failed to talk about the issue. He could have sounded a warning from the very beginning; made it known that the situation had been underestimated and was different from what we had imagined. The people imagined that the issues, the problems at hand, could be resolved with the wave of a magic wand.

Tuareg rebels in 2012. Photo: wiki commons

Mali’s history is punctuated by small tragedies, but also by moments of great felicity. There is a need for a “Big Bang” – and that is possible, provided Mali faces up to its responsibilities and clearly resolves to move forward.

My assessment is that I cannot say the situation is all negative, given that there are things that are not taken into account in the human development index, such as people’s joy for living. In Mali, people have this joy for living that is lacking in other places. This joy for living is present, in the villages, in homes. But there is a fundamental element that has yet to be established: government. If I were on a jury, what I would criticise IBK for would include issues such as state reform.

I strongly believe that, with the authority he wields, the Malian state could have been overhauled. Look at the use made of public property: government vehicles being used on weekends, being taken to farms. I believe that, with IBK, order could have been restored at least, but that was not done, and he will have to explain why. What is therefore needed is a democracy centred on appeasement.

TIA: How come jihadist groups have become so strong in Mali?

SD: The jihadist groups have grown in strength in northern Mali because after the French intervention in 2012, dubbed Operation Serval, which helped to basically stop the jihadists’ southward advance, there was no security operation worthy of the name or efficient enough to take over from Operation Serval. What should have been done was to launch a vigorous, ferocious intervention against the Islamists and drug traffickers. The mission of the UN peacekeeping force that came thereafter was to intervene between the two forces, that is, the armed jihadist groups and the Malian army. In reality, there were three forces on the ground: the main force, then the Islamists, jihadists and traffickers, and then a small group of separatists receiving support from abroad. The assessment of the situation was therefore either flawed or people refused to face reality regarding these forces. As such, after the intervention of Operation Serval, the French withdrew.

There was no security operation worthy of the name or efficient enough to take over from Operation Serval.

There was practically no more fighting, but it soon resumed in full force because the northern part of the country is vast and there was no control. The forces therefore re-formed and started planting bombs, orchestrating ambushes, basically engaging in asymmetric warfare, which made it easier for them to gain a foothold in the area.

Touareg independence fighters in 2012. Photo: wiki commons

TIA: What pushes young Malians to join these groups?

SD: The issues faced by the youth in Mali include, foremost, indoctrination, and then you have what is termed as self-radicalisation: When they surf the Internet, they can be radicalised, brainwashed, what I refer to as “brain overheating”.

However, the real problem for the youth in Mali is joblessness and the lack of prospects.

When I first went to Timbuktu 21 years ago, I talked to young people and I gathered that they did not wish to leave Timbuktu, or take the same route as many of their peers, who move to Bamako to roam its streets. They therefore worked as tourist guides, but now tourism is history. Tourism is dead in the area. So, to survive, some had vehicles that they would let out. But when you have a vehicle, on the one hand, and, on the other, someone who offers to pay you CFAF100 000 a month just to come and pray with them, then the temptation is bound to get the better of the youth.

Why do the people in rural areas seldom help in the fight against terrorism? These people are simply asked: “If you see terrorists around here, inform us.” Their reply is: “Why should we report their presence? We do not have to, because it is these terrorists who give us food, something to drink, as well as healthcare and medicine when we are ill.” Fighting against terrorism does not only entail hauling weapons and flying helicopters. Yes, force is needed, without doubt, but thinking of development also is of the essence.

Force is needed in the fight against terrorism, but thinking of development is also of the essence.

TIA: What should be done for peace to be restored in Mali; to recover control of the country as a whole without the help of foreign forces?

SD: I strongly believe that this can be achieved through a new type of governance, because in the history of mankind, reunification has never been achieved through dialogue. There are two cases in point in history: in the case of Vietnam, the country was reunited through the use of force. In the second case, that of Germany, it was through the fall of the Berlin Wall. In Mali’s case, the country is no way near a similar “fall” and a very long way away from resolving this conflict through war. I don’t see any side winning a war in northern Mali.

What the government is doing in Kidal now is very important, that is, helping life to return to normality progressively. The state’s views have changed, because it has been realised that, as in the case of Kidal, the cart was being put before the horse. There is therefore a need for a new type of governance, marked by the increased involvement of the local people. In northern Mali, the rights of minorities have to be respected, which means that the “one man, one vote” principle cannot be applied to this part of the country, because it would result in the marginalisation of some communities.

Kidal Region is the eighth administrative region of Mali, covering 151,450 square kilometres or 58,480 square miles. Photo: Wiki

For instance, as regards the communities that govern Kidal, the traditional ruler of the Tuaregs of the Ifora tribe is from Kidal, but, in order to be elected as a Member of Parliament at the National Assembly, he was forced to run for election in another constituency, because his tribe does not form the majority in Kidal. Consequently, had he run in Kidal, he would most likely not have been elected. Meanwhile, he plays a key role in the efforts for the restoration of peace in Mali. This speaks to the need to rethink the model of governance in this area of northern Mali.

Mali therefore also needs to show that this northern part is indeed part of the country.

Another striking concern is that the only resource that the south supplies to Kidal is coal. The rest comes from Algeria: from pasta products to fuel, amongst others. Mali therefore also needs to show that this northern part is indeed part of the country. When your people are being fed by a neighbour, they look towards the country that feeds them. In Kidal, to know what is happening in Mali, people tune their TV sets to Algerian channels; in Timbuktu, some watch Mauritanian channels.

The crisis really broke out in 2012, but, in my opinion, it started in 2011, because those children who were 13 years old then are 20 now. This changes things significantly. These children know nothing but Kidal, and the slogan “Azawad yes, Mali no” was cleverly instilled in them. You can only bring those children back into the fold of the Republic through governance. Kidal cannot be managed in the same manner as Kays. These are specificities that should be taken into account.