Fractured States: The cycles of conflict, violence and corruption in Mali and the Sahel
Tuesday Reitano, Mark Shaw.
The international community has reiterated its commitment to supporting the government to rebuild the fractured state of Mali. Despite formidable investments in sponsoring the electoral process, reinforcing the security sector and convening the ongoing peace process, the complex and interwoven challenges of chronic poverty, insurgencies, criminal economies, widespread corruption and impunity and extremist groups have created fissures in the state that are an increasing challenge to resolve. Within this environment, the requirements of international assistance have arguably failed to provide the right incentives to create the foundation for genuine democratic governance, investing in state institutions, promoting the rule of law and providing sustainable development across the population. Achieving this objective will require a far more nuanced and engaged response, which draws together political, security and development objectives in a holistic manner, targeted at insulating the democratic process both from criminal flows and clientalist politics.
A fragile foundation
Decisive political and economic developments have dramatically changed the nature of regional and economies and trade across the Sahara, resulting in land-based traditional trading routes constricting down to become conduits of almost exclusively illicit trade. The subsidy policies of oil-rich north African countries combined with investments in port infrastructure along the West African coast suppressed legitimate incomes for those nomadic populations who relied on cross-border commerce for a livelihood, which left a propensity towards engagement in illicit trafficking. As these regions were characterized by limited state reach and distinct ethnic groupings, the growth and reliance on illicit activity meant that control over illicit trade reinforced local power structures and servedasadisincentivetocentralstateconsolidation. Furthermore,theneedtoprotectandcontrolkeyroutesor commodities, both from state attention and from competition from other groups, introduced escalating levels of violence into the community.
The separatist ambitions of the Tuaregs, fuelled by the widespread poverty, food insecurity and marginalization that characterizes the northern reaches of Mali has been a long-standing feature of the country’s history, dating back several decades. Repeated cycles of violent rebellion was typically quelled by clientalism rather than genuine inclusion or resource reallocation, providing temporary respite but little genuine reform. This played out into a complex divide and conquer strategy, which was further complicated by introduction of insurgents from Algeria, Mauritania and other neighbouring countries coupled by a resource base increasingly reliant on illicit trade to which state actors turned a blind, or complicit, eye. Enriched by funds from cigarette smuggling, drug trafficking and kidnapping for ransom, the armed groups and militias formed along clan lines became better armed, more violent and more professional in their criminal activities. This in turn allowed them to become more effective at leveraging the state to consolidate both administrative and political control over their geographic and ethnic bases. The result was high levels of both corruption and violence, and the increasing involvement of the state in illicit activity on a rising spectrum that runs commensurate to the value of the illicit commodity in question.
Groups that could access illicit funds were afforded a greater capacity to buy arms, consolidate the monopoly on violence, corrupt state officials and subsume state functions, whilst at the same time building legitimacy with local populations as the dominant source of livelihoods, security and occasionally of service provision. Those groups that charted this path successfully were able to create a “zone of protection” in which the ability to provide security becomes a commodity in itself. While authority over a zone of protection confers significant advantages, it does not guarantee permanence.
Shifting drivers of instability
It is a common misconception of trans-Saharan trafficking that all contraband items, from smuggled flour to cocaine, are trafficked along the same routes, by the same actors, who draw little distinction between them. A closer and more granular analysis, however, highlights the risks to policymakers who assume that all flows are equal in the Sahara. While there may have been an evolution of growing criminality, and in some case synergies between actors and flows, in fact there are few incentives to combine illicit flows of higher value goods with the smuggling that occurs in the informal economy. More pertinently, documenting the evolution of illicit trafficking demonstrates that a new resource flow – either licit or illicit – will not necessarily feed into the same power structures that have developed around a pre-existing flow, and this can have a dramatic impact on levels of local violence and insecurity.
Landlocked Mali, situated in the heart of the Sahel, is particularly vulnerable to the political, economic and social shifts of its seven neighbouring states: Algeria, Niger, Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Guinea, Senegal and Mauritania, with whom it shares 7,243 kilometres of land borders. National borders, drawn under colonial rule, cut through clans and ethnic groups that keep the states of the greater Sahara uniquely bound together and inter-dependent geographically, culturally and economically. A number of regional dynamics over which the state itself had little or no control, can be seen to have directly contributed to the crisis in Mali that culminated in the 2012 coup.
The first of these was the introduction of cocaine trafficking through the coastal West African states. While there had been increasing levels of illicit trade in commodities that ranged from cigarettes to cannabis, the profitability of the cocaine trade was a game changer. As noted, the higher value illicit commodities required a greater degree of protection – brought about by either violence or corruption. For traffickers to ensure the safe passage of cocaine required complicity with the highest levels of the state. Those groups able to engage successfully in the trafficking of cocaine were able to use their profits to change long established community hierarchies, significantly alter cultural and societal dynamics and leverage state infrastructure and political processes in unprecedented ways.
In parallel, the global war on terror was increasingly being brought to African soil, thanks to the alliance of insurgent groups in Mauritania and Algeria choosing to formally ally themselves to Al-Qaeda and commit to global jihad. Governments newly resourced and empowered to fight terror dispersed their insurgency threat further afield, resulting in key individuals rooting themselves into northern Mali and Niger, as well as further afield, and introducing an extremist discourse that had not been present in Mali previously. 2011saw,forthefirsttime,thedebatearound an independent Azawad become mingled with the desire to impose a caliphate, and the northern separatist began to fragment along political, ethnic and ideological lines and a number of new groups emerged, including the MNLA, MUJAO and Ansar Eddine. Kidnapping for ransom, a practice that began almost accidentally in 2003 and proliferated opportunistically over the next decade, became a convenient practice that both resourced and aligned ideologically with terrorist and insurgent agendas. Successfully concluding ransom negotiations, however, much like the cocaine trade, required engagement at the highest levels of the state, and implicating key state officials from the President downwards.
The noteworthy turning point in the narrative of insecurity and insurgency in Mali was the fall of the Gadhafi regime in Libya. Not only did this exponentially increase the quantity and caliber of arms available to militia groups across the Sahel, but it also changed the nature and direction of key trafficking routes as the capacity of Libyan authorities to manage their borders decreased dramatically.
Control over illicit resources changed hands in Libya itself, respectively changing the fortunes of ethnic groups and alliances further south, and cracking open some zones of protection and triggering conflict between northern groups over control of key nodes along trafficking routes. Cities changed hands with an ease that surprised even the aggressors, as the empty shell of the state was quickly revealed, and an uneasy coalition of northern militia groups found themselves beating a swift path to the south.
Papering over the cracks
In a discourse dominated by fears of narco-terrorism,” in fact the rising levels of corruption, impunity and its impact on the legitimacy of governance is arguably the most deleterious consequence of the growth of criminally resourced militia groups. The trigger for the 2012 coup, which came only weeks before a scheduled democratic Presidential election, was in fact widespread disillusionment with the incumbent government and political leadership, not the northern separatist movement. What should have been understood as a signal of something deeply rotten in the state of governance was instead obscured by the rhetoric of countering terrorism.
The international community should take little pride in its policies that followed the coup in Mali. Unconstitutional regime changes require the immediate suspension of international development assistance, thereby blocking further intervention by key donor states in quelling the threat of terrorism. A rush to reinstitute“legitimate democratic governance” reinforced existing elites, as well as those with access to resources (illicit as well as licit), rather than offering the opportunity for a genuine dialogue process that might have resolved some of the underlying tensions, or for promoting the more structural reforms that would have moved the country away from the status quo of clientalist politics. In accordance with the wishes of the international community, combatting terrorism sat front and center as a principle of the peace accords but there was little there to hold authorities accountable for higher standards governance.
The international donor community’s re-engagement in Mali was evidenced by the rapid deployment of an astonishing number of overlapping programmes to counter terrorism through the delivery of capacity building to state security institutions and the construction of border posts. These initiatives have largely been perceived to have done little to dampen either the drug trafficking or the potency of groups with a terrorist agenda. Instead, it has closed most neighbouring borders with northern Mali, reducing cross-border smuggling in basic foodstuffs and other commodities and delaying the delivery of humanitarian assistance in a deeply food insecure region. This has exacerbated insecurity, raised inter-communal tensions and violence in a competition for scare resources, and deepened resentment between north and south.
In his first year in office, despite promises of driving national unity, the new President has done little to engage at the community level in the north. Instead his government has been beset by nepotistic appointments and corruption scandals, many of which link directly to the President himself, to the extent that the IMF, World Bank and EU were forced to suspend budget support. With the legitimacy of the government increasingly eroded by its own behaviour, momentum or trust in the peace talks have similarly faded, and attacks on government and international installations in the north have intensified.
As things currently stand, there are few reasons to be particularly optimistic about the future of the fractured state of Mali. Ultimately the incentive structure to shift from a strategy of rapid pacification towards a longer-term structural investment in reconciliation and reform do not appear to be in place. Furthermore, the growing levels of insecurity and fragility beyond Mali’s borders – from Libya to Nigeria – hold ominous portents of continued external stresses and shocks to community livelihoods and resilience, while donors continue to prioritise security over development.
A new conceptual framework
What then can be learned from this analysis, and done differently in future? Conceptually, the report proposed two new conceptual frameworks around which organised crime and its impact on stability, governance and development could be better undertood.
The first conceptual framework observes that in a situation of state weakness or absence, where the government is unable to meet the basic requirements of the community by providing security and livelihoods, competing forms of governance will emerge. These will draw upon levers of authority and affiliation to command legitimacy amongst local communities, and progressively to capture state or political functions. The more homogenous and coherent the group becomes, the more able they are to exploit advantages and consolidate control over territory and resources.
The second conceptual framework identifies the way that “zones of protection” can develop where legitimate livelihood opportunities are scare and the potency of criminal economies accumulate and increase in value. Protecting illicit resource flows requires protection, which is ensured by violence and corruption, both in rising levels as the value of the commodity rises. Zones of protection develop as one group manages to gain supremacy over a specific locality, and the provision of protection becomes a monetized commodity in itself. The incorporation of state actors and functions into zones of protection, either by co-option or corruption, creates a hybridity of governance and security that undermines the legitimacy of the state.
Together these frameworks offer a means by which both to analyze conflict dynamics and to identify entry points to respond in a peace building environment to conflicts that exhibit these characteristics. The report thus draws three main conclusions and recommendations for policymakers.
Firstly, where economies of protection have developed, the priority must be to recreate the link between governance and service provision, rather than strengthen security capacity. Given the hybrid nature of alternative governance and the state, efforts at strengthening state security actors may in fact place greater assets in the hands ofcompromisedstatesorinstitutionstoprotectvestedinterestsinillicitflows. Instead,focusonreconstitutingthe linkage between governance and service provision will rebuild the relevance of the state in previously marginalized and disenfranchised citizenship. Sponsorship by the international community of state consolidation efforts must come conditional not on electoral processes, but on genuine reforms which place accountability and transparency as the primary goal of a stabilization agenda. Power-sharing or decentralization similarly needs to come with requirements that will ensure transparency and tangible delivery of development dividends are realized, or else the risk is that it endorses local protection economies.
Secondly, while the appetite for addressing illicit flows and criminal economies is often absent in the early states of a peace building or transition process, the experience of Mali shows how they can seriously impact the capacity to achieve other state building goals. Addressing illicit flows earlier in peace processes avoids them serving as a centrifugal force against state consolidation. Analysis of protection networks provides a means by which to understand the vested interests in criminal economies and to monitor evolving trends.
Finally, the study highlights that in the case of Mali, there were four distinct entities in the conflict, and the conflation of these actors into “narco-terrorists” or “northern-extremists” reduced the legitimate objectives of certain parts of the conflict. Failure to understand the distinctions between separatists, terrorists and criminal entrepreneurs in Mali lead to crude security-first strategies being deployed that in fact reinforced rather than diminished to potency of key groups. Instead, greater effort needs to be made to understand the basis for community legitimacy, to leverage key actors who sit at the nexus of one or more of the interest groups are of particular importance in terms of shaping change and responding to community priorities.
*Source: Global Initiative