By Maria Mitri
On Wednesday, December 8, 2021, a roadside IED in Mali killed seven UN peacekeepers. A logistics convoy was traveling between the towns of Douentza and Sevare, an area in Mali where groups linked to larger terrorist organizations operate, per Al Jazeera.
This terrorist act is a single glimpse into a much broader picture illustrating the hostile environment of Mali. To date, the displacement situation is reaching a record high and the overall security issues deserve comprehensive solutions and examination.
The situation in Mali is one marred by political discontent and violence between groups, as 277,000 residents were internally displaced due to conflict and violence throughout the entire 2020 calendar year. Per IDMC approximately 70% of IDPs (Internally Displaced Person) have been internally displaced as a result of inter-communal clashes while the remaining have been displaced by attacks perpetrated by non-state armed groups and operations carried about by Malian forces specifically. How did Mali turn into a country with hundreds of thousands of people being displaced at the hands of violent groups? The answer begins with the country’s independence in 1960.
Since Mali’s independence, the country has experienced five coups, the most recent occurring in 2020-2021. According to the Council on Foreign Relations, Mali’s current political crisis started in early 2012. A separatist group, supported by Islamist militant groups like al-Qaeda, took action to take over territory in northern Mali. The president at the time was ousted by a military coup led by the nation’s army, as many people in the country were frustrated by the government’s inaction in extinguishing the rebellion.
However, the uncertainty and power vacuum created by the coup allowed for the extremist groups to do what they set out to do, and by April of 2012 almost all of Northern Mali was under their control. Soon after, however, the separatist group alliance with the Islamist groups ended due to infighting, and the Islamists were able to retain control of some territory that the alliance had won. The Islamist groups continued to push toward the center of the country, provoking the deployment and intervention of the French military beginning in January of 2013.
As of October, France has now begun withdrawing troops from Mali with the intention to leave the bases to the Malian army. To this day, this fighting has spilled over into neighboring countries like Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger and allowed for militancy to grow in those countries as well.
Following the 2020 Parliamentary elections, political discontent ran through the veins of the country and in some cases, turned into violent protests. There were a few acting groups in these violent outbursts, including political opposition, religious leaders, and civil society organizations. In many cases, governmental security forces used violence and killed suspected initiators of violence, including civilians found to be innocent, with little accountability or oversight.
This conflict spilled over to tribal conflicts in the region, specifically between the Dogon people and the Fulani people, both of which are ethnic minority groups living in Mali. This conflict, running parallel with the political violence, created dangerous living conditions for those in Mali and drove over 40,000 civilians from their homes. In 2020, according to the CFR, 400 civilians lost their lives in the crossfire of communal conflict in the Mopti region during violence between Dogon and Fulani self-defense militias, the latter of which was supported at times by the same armed Islamist groups that disrupted the Parliamentary elections.
These attacks further exacerbated the existing displacement crisis and provoked a hunger crisis. One year later, the number of internally displaced persons in Mali has grown. Between January and June of this year, there were an approximated 89,160 new displacements in several regions of Mali due to the ongoing violence.
These regions include Gao, Mopti, Menaka, Ségou, and Timbuktu, all of which have faced increased occurrences of violent conflict. Compounding this increased violence is also the impact of climate change. Mali is particularly vulnerable to drought and flooding, and this can cause violent disputes over fertile land and water. These disputes are exploited by non-state armed groups who otherwise have no interest in what people are fighting for or against, and are just seeking a stronger presence in the country. When the floods do strike Mali, the communities most affected are the ones who are also hosting the greatest number of IDPs fleeing conflict and violence, including the Gao, Mopti, Ségou, and Sikasso regions.
Despite the COVID-19 pandemic and its presence in Mali, UNHCR has maintained a presence there with the intent to protect and assist internally displaced persons, as well as refugees received from Burkina Faso and Nigeria, two countries neighboring landlocked Mali. The UNHCR also plans on further developing and strengthening its emergency responses and promoting work among non-governmental organizations as well as the Mali government itself.
Specifically, the UNHCR in Mali will focus on advocating for the internally displaced persons and refugees in the context of legislation, including strengthening the institutions that protect these vulnerable populations, and working to make national services more accessible.
Mali’s history of political discontent and religious extremism put the country at high risk for future displacement, as does the growing threat of climate change. According to the United Nations, the weakness of the government itself is contributing to the presence of the armed groups that are active within the country, and many Malians are doubtful that the authorities have the intention of protecting innocent civilians. In order to provide greater security for the people of Mali and protect human rights in the country, the State must reassert its authority and commit itself to protecting its citizens.
Greater oversight of the state’s security forces must be implemented in order to limit and prevent the abductions and extrajudicial killings that occur on behalf of the government’s agencies. According to the United Nations, between April and June of 2021, there were at least 43 executions committed by the Malian Defense and Security Forces. The widespread abuse of human rights both by non-state groups and governmental actors combined with a lack of oversight has created civilian distrust and violence at almost every turn.