Nearly a month after a military coup resulted in the removal of President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, Mali continues to struggle to set in place a transitional period, amidst growing international pressure and fears that jihadist groups will profit from a power struggle. Divisions however emerged over the weekend as just hours after the military junta in power announced their agreement to an 18-month transitional government, the country’s opposition declared its objection to the move. With a meeting due to take place between the regional ECOWAS bloc and Malian authorities on 15 September, questions remain about Mali’s political future.
Talks were held late last week between the military junta, known as the National Committee for the Salvation of the People (CNSP), political leaders and civil society groups, with the aim to forge a path forward. Malian officials are under a 15 September deadline imposed by ECOWAS to name a president and prime minister, with the bloc calling for a 12-month transitional period. ECOWAS has threatened to impose further sanctions on Mali should the deadline pass with no leadership in place. On Saturday 12 September, after three days of discussions, the CNSP agreed to establish an 18-month transitional government until an election could be held. Spokesperson Moussa Camara specified that the interim government would either be led by a military officer or a civilian – a likely sticking point. While ECOWAS, the opposition coalition and the international community have all called for the interim president to be a civilian, the military leadership maintains that a civilian or a soldier can fill the role. The charter for the transition also includes a vice president and transitional council that will serve as the National Assembly. The charter gives control of the defence, security and re-foundation of the state to the vice president. It also states that an interim legislative body is to be established comprising of the opposition coalition, known as the M5-RFP. The agreement effectively moves away from the CNSP’s previous proposal of a three-year transition period and that a new constitution should be written first.
While it briefly appeared that Mali’s political crisis was beginning to get back on track, the M5-RFP announced on Sunday 13 September that it has rejected the transition charter. The coalition, which took part in the negotiations and which led mass protests ahead of last month’s coup, stated that the resulting document was an attempt by military leaders to “grab and confiscate power.” It further disclosed that the charter did not take into account what it said was a majority vote for a civilian interim leader, and “did not reflect the views and decisions of the Malian people.” While the military junta and opposition coalition were initially united in wanting the departure of President Keita, the two groups are increasingly appearing to diverge. Any additional divisions between these two groups are likely to create further instability in Mali, and may result in violent demonstrations and protests amongst locals who are increasingly becoming frustrated with the situation.
The ECOWAS bloc is set to hold a mini-summit on the current situation in Mali on Tuesday 15 September in Ghana. Presidents from six countries in the regional bloc will be in attendance. Issues at the top of the agenda will likely include the timeline of the transitional period, and the fact that it remains longer than the year set by ECOWAS; and who will lead Mali’s transition, with regional leaders having already stated that the leader must be a civilian. Mali’s junta will try to convince regional leaders to accept its road map, though it remains unclear whether a solution will be announced after the summit, including if ECOWAS will accept the 18-month transition period and whether a leadership will be announced, or whether Malian authorities will be forced to go back to the drawing board, and what any delays will have on sanctions that the bloc has threatened to impose. What is evident is that a transitional government needs to be put in place quickly, and it needs to be accepted by all parties to avoid any further tensions and violence. Any delays to having a responsible leadership in place will need to be avoided in order to keep the jihadist threat at bay.
Whatever the final decision on a transitional leader and period, it is evident that the military junta will maintain a relative degree of influence over the transitional government. Even if a civilian leader is chosen, it is likely that they will be close to the junta, and the military is also likely to have a strong presence in other positions of power. It is also likely that the M5-RFP will attempt to have some degree of influence, and will want to have civilian participants within the transitional government that have close links to the opposition coalition. Questions have also emerged about the ongoing peace process, and what impact the transitional period will have on it. The Coordination for the Movement of Azawad had previously signed a peace agreement with the Malian government. While representatives had not travelled to Bamako to participate in recent consultations on the transitional period, the junta had intended to travel to Kidal to hold talks last week, though they were prevented by weather conditions. Sidi Brahim Ould Sidat, the president of the Azawad group, has disclosed that “we have men, weapons and we control two thirds of the country and the CNSP is no more legitimate than us,” adding “we have two choices to make now: either we enter the transition process and have made a new constitution of Mali together in which we recognize ourselves, or we wait after the transition and we continue negotiations with the government that will be put in place.” It is evident that militia groups in Mali are waiting to see the outcome of the transitional process, though either way, Mali’s peace process remains at a standstill for the time being.
Meanwhile the situation on the ground has not improved, with jihadist militants advancing their operations and continuing to launch deadly attacks. In the weeks since the 18 August military coup, at least 9 terror-related attacks have been reported, spanning from the northern desert regions to the central parts of Mali. Targets have included French forces, and local troops. In Bamako, rallies have been held in support of the CNSP and M5-RFP. The Mouvement Populaire du 4 September (MP4), a new formation that supports the ruling junta, has called for a rally on Tuesday 15 September at the Monument de l’Independence to express support for Mali’s de facto authority, the CNSP, while the Popular African Youth Movement (MPJA) has called for a sit-in in front of the French Embassy on 17 September to denounce French military forces in the country.
On 7 February, the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) issued an update on Burkina Faso, for the first time advising against all travel throughout the nation, with the exception of Ouagadougou. In the capital city, the FCO advises against all but essential travel, up to the toll booths on all roads out of the city.
Since 2013, Burkina Faso has seen a significant rise in criminality, ethnic violence and terrorism. The violence initially emanated from Mali, and made its way into northern Burkina Faso. Over the past several years, the violence has continued to push south, and Burkina Faso is replacing Mali as epicentre of Sahel security crisis.
In 2019 alone, the country experienced 200 terror-related attacks, 30 kidnappings, and 32 incidents of violent crime. These numbers could be higher due to unreported incidents. On 27 December, the Burkinabé government extended the state of emergency in fourteen provinces for an additional year. These measures, which give security forces extra powers to search homes and restrict freedom of movement. will remain in place until 12 Jan 2021.
If current trends persist, Burkina Faso risks becoming a launchpad for Islamic extremists to expand towards coastal West Africa, and the epicentre of conflict will likely shift from northern region to the southern Burkinabé border. Outside of Ouagadougou, there have been regular attacks on police, military personnel and civilians, particularly along the borders with Mali, Niger and Cote d’Ivoire and in the Eastern Region.
Terror attacks are very likely in Burkina Faso, including Ouagadougou. These attacks can be indiscriminate, and targets include security forces, religious sites, restaurants and places visited by foreigners. Travellers are advised to be vigilant at all times, and particularly around religious holidays.
• Malian elections are due to take place on 29 July, with a second-round run-off to be determined if no candidate wins an absolute majority (51%).
• There is significant risk for disruption at polling stations in northern and central Mali, where insecurity is heightened by the presence of terrorist organisations, and ethnic clashes continue.
• There is a potential for residual disruption or violence in the days following the election.
• MS Risk advises travellers in the area to avoid large gatherings or places frequented by foreigners. Terrorist groups have targeted military facilities of the G5 Sahel joint force and most recently conducted attacks at Sevare Airport in the Mopti Region.
MS Risk has previously assessed Mali as a HIGH-THREAT location for terrorist activity and ethnic clashes. There has been an increase in violence in Mali in the lead-up to the 29 July 2018 presidential elections. This is likely to be exacerbated in the period leading up to the election, and in its immediate aftermath. Polling stations in northern and central Mali that are ostensibly in the control of terrorist groups may be exposed to violence or attacks as a means to thwart voting. There is a heightened risk of demonstrations as the election draws nearer; these could result in clashes with police or opposition protesters.
MS Risk advises against all travel over the weekend, especially to the provinces of Gao, Kidal, Mopti and Timbuktu, as well as to parts of the provinces of Kayes, Koulikoro and Segou. MS Risk advises against all but essential travel for the remainder of Mali, including the capital Bamako. Mali is under a state of emergency, which is in effect until 31 October 2018.
The United Nations and France have provided an increased security presence throughout the election process. This is likely to include patrols and security checks. This is in addition to the already robust security measure in place at key junctures throughout the country. There are likely to be more vehicle and personal security checks during this time in which no one will be exempt.
On 29 July, Malians will vote in a presidential election, determining whether incumbent President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita will win a second term amid rising discontent over increasing insecurity in the country. The election occurs amid increasing violence and insecurity in northern and central Mali; with concerns that polls may not be able to open in certain parts of the country. There are three interconnected concerns that exacerbate the security conditions: Terrorism, increasing ethnic violence, and distrust in the security forces.
In recent years, militant extremists have returned from fighting in large terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda and ISIS in areas like Libya, northern Nigeria, and further afield. Upon their return, they have brought with them extremist ideologies, contacts and sometimes significant money that has allowed them to recruit members and build operations in order to start new cells, including the Azawad Salvation Movement (MSA), and al-Qaeda affiliates Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM) and the Macina Liberation Front. This threat is exacerbated by the free movement between West African countries. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), is comprised of 15 countries which, like the European Union, allow their citizens to travel between them without visas. Border areas in much of West Africa are porous and sparsely secured, making it difficult to track the movements of would be militants.
Northern Mali has become a sanctuary for terrorist organisations, as the area is sparsely populated, difficult to patrol, and lacks sufficient government influence. Attacks in the northern regions of the country have typically involved terrorist groups targeting local security officials, the Malian and French armies as well as peacekeepers from the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Mali (MINUSMA). According to open source reporting notes, in 2016 there were 118 attacks in Mali against MINUSMA elements. As the election draws near, the frequency of attacks has increased.
On 29 June 2018, a suicide bomber in a vehicle painted in UN colours attacked the Malian headquarters of the G5 Sahel anti-terror task force in Sevare, killing two Malian soldiers and a civilian. The attack was the first on the headquarters of the G5. Al-Qaeda-linked organisation, “Support Group for Islam and Muslims”, claimed the attack. They are the main extremist alliance in the Sahel region, and in northern Mali.
Two days later on 1 July, French soldiers of the Barkhane military operation in northern Mali were ambushed by terrorists near the town of Boure, Gao region. One resident of Gao said the French convoy was clearly targeted by a suicide car bomb.
On 25 July, Ambodedjo Airport in Sevare, central Mali, was shelled. There were no casualties reported, and reports of damage are unclear. No one has yet claimed responsibility for the attack, but it is believed to be linked to extremist groups that have continually targeted security forces in the region. The G5 headquarters are located in Sevare, and Ambodedjo Airport is one the UN’s major air hubs — and the only terminal serving the regional capital of Mopti.
Mali announced the dates of the presidential election in February, prompting al-Qaeda’s Mali branch to issue warnings on social media against going to the polls. Abdou Abdirrahmane As-sanhaji, senior judge of a coalition of jihadist groups, wrote: “Our duty to all is to neutralize these unbelieving unbelievers [referring to politicians] with hands stained by the blood of the innocent and with pockets and safes filled with the money of the needy.” These threats and the increased violence in the region may thwart voter turnout, particularly in regions that have ostensibly been under the control of terrorist groups. Earlier this year, Al-Qaeda affiliates also issued a threat against Western interests in West Africa. These targets include MINUSMA, the UN peacekeeping mission in Mali, as well as the French-led Operation Barkhane, and the G5 Joint security force.
In May, UN secretary general Antonio Guterres highlighted security shortcomings on several of MINUSMA’s sites in Mali, citing “Poor conditions on and around the site.” Further, the G5 Sahel, which was to be fully operational by mid-2018, has faced delays due to logistical issues, and recently, accusations of human rights abuses. The UN reports that in May, Malian soldiers of the G5 force had “summarily” executed 12 Fulani men in a market in central Mopti region, in retaliation for the death of a soldier. The extrajudicial killing led to significant distrust of the organisation within the local population. This exacerbates the already significant issue of distrust in security forces leading to community organised militias.
Distrust in security forces leads to rising ethnic tension
The increasing distrust in regional security forces has caused a rise in community organised militias, which have caused several communities in northern and central Mali to organise their own self-defence organisations. This produces a cycle of distrust that benefits terrorist organisations. The Malian army attacks civilians, believing them to be extremists, and the terrorist groups attack civilians, believing them to be complicit with the military. In turn, the civilians organise defence groups to protect their communities, but in turn express distrust at other communities, who they could believe are complicit with extremists. This divide has recently fallen along ethnic lines, particularly between the ethnic Fulani Muslims and other groups such as the Tuareg, Peuhl and Bambara. Tuaregs in Mali have formed militia called IMGHAD Self-Defense Group and Allies (GATIA), which supports the Malian military. The traditional Tuareg pastoralists have long clashed with ethnic Fulani herders; in recent years, the Fulani have been accused by the Tuareg, Dogon and Bambara of being recruited by extremists. As a result, clashes between the Tuareg and Fulani have exacerbated the crisis. In July, the UN reported that at least 289 civilians, and including young children, have been killed in communal violence since the beginning of the year.
Similarly, light-skinned Arab and Tuareg communities have consistently complained of persecution by Malian soldiers, made up mostly of black ethnic groups from the south and centre of the country. On 25 July, armed protesters from Mali’s Arab community fired shots into the air, burned tyres and torched vehicles in Timbuktu. The protest was comprised mainly of Arab youths protesting against worsening insecurity and ill treatment by security forces. Demonstrators filled the streets, forcing shops and banks to shut. The protest reportedly began after the robbery of a pharmacy owned by a black Bambara trader late on 24 July. Malian troops arrested four Arab youths, sparking a gun battle. There were no casualties reported. The situation has calmed, however the tensions between the groups is ongoing.
Northern and central Mali are already difficult to patrol. However, the lack of security, coupled with the seemingly targeted attacks on particular ethic groups, whether from the military, or from ethnic- or community-aligned self-defence groups, could worsen conditions. These actions could cause some amongst the victims to sympathise with the terrorist groups, creating an opportunity to increase recruitment for radicalised anti-government activity. Alioune Tine, the UN’s Independent Expert on the situation of human rights in Mali, noted that violent extremists had taken advantage of the lack of basic services “to exploit communities and pit them against each other”. Overall, this serves to exacerbate the security situation throughout the country and undermine both domestic and international efforts to quell the rising insecurity.
At least fifty people were killed in a car bomb attack on a military base in northern Mali on Wednesday in what is one of the deadliest attacks on security forces in the country. Officials have disclosed that a vehicle packed with explosives detonated at a camp housing soldiers and members of rival armed groups in the region’s main city, Gao. The attack occurred around 9 AM (0900 GMT). Three days of national mourning have been declared.
The northern Malian desert region has been restive since it was captured by militant Islamists in late 2012. While a French military intervention in 2013 ousted the militants from the main cities in the region, the area remains tense, with attacks being reported on a nearly weekly basis. Since 2015, the threat has spread to the rest of the country, particularly in the southern-most region of Sikasso, as well as in the capital city of Bamako, where terrorist attacks and banditry have become more frequently since Spring 2015. In recent months, the situation in Mali has deteriorated and there has been a rise attacks that have been reported in the central region of the country.
Attacks in Mali have targeted both civilians and the Malian Defense and Security Forces (MDSF) as well as United Nations peacekeepers deployed in the country (MINUSMA). Terrorists have targeted Malian government outposts and bases camps for MINUSMA. In March 2016, heavily armed assailants attacked the European Union’s Training Mission (EUTM) headquarters and primary residence in Bamako. Furthermore, incidents in neighboring states, particularly Burkina Faso and Ivory Coast, have been linked to instability in Mali.
The deterioration of the security situation in central and northern Mali, coupled with inter-ethnic violence, are urgent issues that need to be addressed in order for stability in Mali to return. A major issue however has been the slow implementation of an agreement between the Malian government and coalition-armed groups.
Due to ongoing terrorist attacks and criminal violence, MS Risk continues to warn against all travel to the following regions of Mali:
- The provinces of Timbuktu, Kidal, Gao and Mopti
- Parts of the provinces of Kayes, Koulikoro and Segou
MS Risk currently advises against all but essential travel to the remainder of the country, including the capital Bamako. Mali remains under a state of emergency, which will be in place until 29 March 2017.
The security environment across the country remains fluid and the potential for attacks throughout Mali, including in Bamako, remains high. Terrorist groups in the region are intent on carrying out attacks and kidnapping Westerners. Terrorist targets could include government buildings, public areas such as bars, restaurants and tourist sites, as well as Western interests. Citizens of countries supporting the military intervention are at a particular risk, however all travellers should exercise increased vigilance.
Anyone currently in Mali is strongly advised to remain vigilant and aware of your surroundings at all times. We advise that you exercise caution, especially at night. Due to the ongoing state of emergency, heightened security measures are in place, including random identity checks and roadblocks. You are advised to carry identification and follow the instructions of local authorities at all times. When travelling, we advise that you use varied and unpredictable routes and schedules. You should exercise particular caution when travelling on motorways, in rural areas and in residential areas in Bamako – even during daylight hours. We advise that you avoid all road travel after dark.
Establishments in Bamako frequented by foreigners have been targeted by terrorist attacks. These attacks have caused deaths and injuries. If you are in Bamako, we advise that you avoid travelling in urban areas after dark, particularly in places that are frequented by foreigners.
The threat of terrorism and kidnap is extremely high in northern Mali. Rebel forces, terrorist groups and criminal networks continue to operate relatively freely throughout this region and Malian security forces cannot ensure the safety of foreign travellers. The lack of infrastructure, reliable transportation, safe hotels and emergency services further exacerbate the security conditions in Northern Mali.
There is a high threat of kidnap throughout Mali but particularly in the northern regions of the country and in all border areas. Westerners are a preferred target. Some hostages have been detained for months before being released while some have been killed.
Border Areas with Ivory Coast
Since 25 June 2015, terrorist and criminal incidents have been reported in the border areas with the Ivory Coast. Clashes between Malian authorities and other armed groups have occurred in the Misseni and Fakola sectors.
On Friday, Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar warned the United Nations that the failure to fully implement a nationwide peace accord was helping al-Qaeda and Islamic State (IS)-affiliated groups spread their influence in the West African country.
Speaking at a high-level meeting on Mali at the annual UN General Assembly, President Keita stated, “we have to admit that several factors are contradicting our will and effort,” adding, “in particularly the extension of terrorism and banditry and security of neighbouring countries because of the desire of terrorist groups affiliated to al-Qaeda and Islamic State seeking to expand.” The president further disclosed that Islamists were using the slow implementation of peace accords in order to “manipulate” and “destroy” links between different ethnic groups in Mali. One incident, a clash in the north that erupted earlier this week between pro-government Gatia milita and the Tuareg separatist Coordination of Azawad movements, has highlighted the fragility of the UN-backed deal, which was singed last year between the Malian government and northern armed groups. That agreement is meant to end a cycle of uprisings. Also speaking at the meeting was Algerian Foreign Minister Ramtane Lamamra, whose country is leading mediation efforts in Mali. Lamamra disclosed, “we must redouble our efforts,” adding, It’s terrible that signatories of the accord are involved in the fratricidal killings.” Meanwhile French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault, whose country has thousands of troops deployed across West Africa in a bid to hunt down militants, disclosed that the security situation was “in general satisfying despite asymmetric attacks.”
UN peacekeepers are deployed across northern Mali with the aim of stabilizing the vast region, which was occupied by separatist Tuareg rebels and al-Qaeda-aligned Islamist militants in 2012, before France intervened the following years. Tit-for-tat violence between rival armed groups however has distracted the West African nation from fighting Islamist militants. Furthermore, the country has become the deadliest place for UN peacekeepers to serve. On Thursday, the international mediation team, which includes the UN, Europeans Union (EU), African Union (AU) and regional bloc ECOWAS, disclosed that it believed the situation could not continue without compromising the agreement. The international mediation team also threatened international sanctions on those responsible for blocking the deal’s implementation.