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Warburg Panel Discussion on Mali - Summary Report

Warburg Panel Discussion on Mali - Summary Report

Date: April 16, 2013

Warburg Chair William M. Bellamy, visiting panelists Colonel Birame Diop and Kate Almquist Knopf, and Dean Renée White on April 16, 2013. (Photo: Diane Hammer)

Download the summary report:  Summary_WarburgPanel_Mali.pdf

"A Sudden Onset of Terror: The Sad Case of Mali"

April 16, 2013
Simmons College

(Drafted by undergraduates Ayana AUBOURG and Abena ASARE)

An onslaught of armed Islamist extremists and a military coup that overthrew its democratically-elected government pushed Mali to the brink of disaster in 2012. Mali was rescued by French military intervention in early 2013, but its future remains very uncertain.

Simmons Warburg Professor William M. Bellamy, Colonel Birame Diop, director of the Africa Institute for Security Sector Transformation, and Kate Almquist Knopf, visiting fellow at the Center for Global Development were panelists on April 16, in a well-attended Warburg Program discussion of Mali's grave condition and its impact on the region.


Ambassador Bellamy described Mali's recent history as a play in five acts. In Act One, Mali transitioned in the 1990s from military rule to democratic governance and was relatively calm despite periodic revolts by the Touaregs in the north. Insurgents fleeing the Algerian civil war crossed into Mali in this period, using it as rear base and forming partnerships with narcotics-traffickers and other criminal elements. The insurgents declared an affiliation with Al Qaida in 2007. In Act Two, heavily armed Touareg fighters returned to their homes in northern Mali from Libya, where many had served deposed leader Khadafi as mercenaries. Once home, they rebelled and demanded an independent Touareg state in the north. They were quickly joined by the Al Qaida-affiliated extremists. Most towns in northern Mali fell to the Touareg/Islamist forces. But this cooperation was short-lived as the Touaregs generally rejected the Islamists' ideology. By mid-2012, the Touareg rebellion had been "hijacked" by the Al-Qaida affiliated groups.

Act Three took place in the capital Bamako, where President Toure was overthrown in a military coup led by Captain Amadou Sanogo. Some Malians thought this to be an opportunity for national renewal. Neighboring states and the international community, however, quickly condemned the coup and applied sanctions on Mali. Captain Sanogo yielded to a transitional civilian government, but remained a powerful force on the sidelines. Meanwhile, Islamist extremists in the north implemented a strict, ruthless Sharia law agenda. Extremists in Timbuktu set about destroying traditional Islamic sites and relics. Hundreds of thousands of Malians fled to the south or to neighboring countries.

In Act Four the Al-Qaida aligned groups moved towards southern Mali in late 2012. France and group of allied African forces then intervened militarily and repulsed the Islamist fighters, liberating all population centers in the north. Act Five is still unfolding amid much uncertainty. Mali's government is very weak and dependent on France and outside forces for its security. An African-led force is scheduled to replace France, but its capacity is questionable. Elections are due in a few months, but many wonder how these can be carried off. The extremists, though dispersed, still pose a grave danger.

Colonel Diop situated the crisis in a regional context. He noted the Sahel is a huge region of 3 million square miles with a rapidly growing population despite its many economic and developmental challenges. Mali and its neighbors all suffer from poverty, joblessness (especially among youth), low literacy rates (especially among females), food and water insecurity, health care deficiencies, and a proliferation of small arms. Recent elections in the region have unfortunately raised social tensions and made civilian populations uneasy.

On top of these challenges, noted Col. Diop, the Mali crisis has diverted governments throughout the region from pressing tasks of development. It also threatens to divert limited budgets into more military spending. Diop noted that the Jihadists in Mali were thought to number about 2000, of which only 400-600 have been killed or captured. The remaining forces constitute a continuing danger. Mali's refugee and unemployed youth populations are in a precarious and vulnerable situation, according to Diop. They are susceptible to extremist recruitment based on promises of livelihoods and security they presently lack. There is also a danger that Malian jihadists may forge linkages with the violent extremist Boko Haram movement in Nigeria.

Kate Almquist Knopf described the Washington perspective on Mali. She noted a two-fold focus: first, an overriding preoccupation with Mali as a potential safe haven for Al Qaida (AQIM) and, second, an assumption that US policies and assistance programs across the board had "failed" in Mali. Knopf noted that neither focus had actually received much careful analysis in Washington.

Knopf said the Pentagon had concluded that US military training had been ineffective because Malians simply did not share the US view of regional security threats or priorities. It is indeed the case, she said, that most African governments do not regard Al Qaida or extremist movements as their top security concern. This should be a sobering lesson learned, she said. She questioned the Washington view that poor governance, weak institutions, porous borders, poverty and lack of development were the main factors in Mali's collapse and should have been anticipated by US assistance programs. "Pull" factors such as charismatic leaders, peer group pressure and job opportunities are even more important in extremist recruitment, in Knopf's view.

She said the US needed to better "manage our own expectations" with regard to Mali and similar cases. The US needs accept there are limits to what we can do to influence institution reform and state building. The US cannot impose democratic principles or expect that the US model will be followed. Knopf acknowledged that Mali urgently needed increased security, reconciliation between the north and south, a legitimate national government, an end to human rights abuses and effective humanitarian interventions. She suggested that the best course for the US and other donors might be to concentrate our assistance in areas where Mali and its neighbors have developed plausible home-grown solutions to their challenges.

A spirited question and answer session engaging Simmons students, faculty and invited guests followed the panel presentation.

Biographic notes:

Ambassador (ret) William M. Bellamy is Warburg Professor of International Relations at Simmons College.

Colonel Birame Diop is on active duty in the Senegalese Air Force. He is also Director of Partners for Democratic Change (Dakar), and the Africa Institute for Security Sector Transformation (Dakar.) He lectures frequently in the U.S. and Europe.

Kate Almquist Knopf is a visiting fellow at the Center for Global Development in Washington. She was formerly Assistant Administrator for Africa at USAID (2006-2008).