Fault Lines in the Sahel: Mali’s Patronage Politics and Regional Instability
Under the last two U.S. administrations, the Global War on Terror (GWOT) has expanded beyond the Middle East to focus on fledgling Islamist insurgencies in Africa and Asia. The Sahel region in sub-Saharan Africa stands out amongst multiple hotspots. Home to numerous violent extremist actors, both local and foreign, the Sahel faces multiple conflict stressors, including porous borders, the growth of radical ideological movements, desertification, ethnic tensions and state corruption. These factors were exacerbated by the collapse of the Libyan government in 2011, leading to a flow of arms and fighters across the region. These factors play out differently across Sahelian states, with each country exhibiting its own vulnerabilities. Chad is precariously run by notorious autocrat Idriss Déby, who frequently outmaneuvers rebellions thanks to his loyal armed forces and support from the French military. Niger faces some of the world’s highest rates of poverty, with a per capita income of $420 and 44% of the population living below the poverty line. In 2016, it ranked second to last on the UN’s Human Development Index. Mauritania is witnessing a toxic combination of racial discrimination, government corruption, and revival of Islamist political groups, polarizing an already divided society. Amidst its neighbors, Mali, prior to 2011, might have seemed a beacon of stability. The government in Bamako was democratic, experimenting with positive economic reforms, and enjoyed positive relations with moderate religious leaders around the country. Yet, the region was shocked by the upheaval and violence of 2012 in Mali. The conflict in northern Mali lasted from 2012-2013, and involved a separatist movement, an Islamist insurgency, and a military coup. First, in 2011, long-running northern resentment at the lack of representation in government resurfaced, and Tuareg tribes joined together to form the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA). In January 2012, the MNLA launched a series of attacks across northern Mali, in Menaka, Aguelhok, and Tessalit. While the MNLA sought to create a secular ethnostate, it enlisted the support of armed Islamist groups, including Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and the Movement for Unity and Oneness in Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO). On March 22, members of the armed forces, blaming the success of the insurgents on political corruption, overthrew President Amadou Toumani Touré (ATT). On April 6, the MNLA declared the independent state of Azawad, a victory that ended when the Islamist groups turned on their Tuareg allies, forcing them to retreat to the small border town of Ansogo. The collapse of the Malian state and Islamist conquest of the north necessitated an international response, which came in the form of the UN Security Council legitimizing a regional intervention force, led by the African Union (AU), to reestablish order. While the AU force was preparing to intervene, the Islamists launched a surprise attack southward in early January 2013, taking the buffer town of Konna, putting them within striking distance of Bamako. This triggered French Operation Serval, which deployed 5,000 troops and significant air forces on January 11. Within two weeks, the Islamists were routed from their urban strongholds. While Operation Serval and subsequent French and UN missions maintain stability in the country, the root factors of the conflict remain dormant, risking future instability. Overall, Mali’s supposed resiliencies turned out to be surface deep, revealing a social contract predicated on a confusing network of patronage politics and illicit economies. Ultimately, it was these informal networks, rather than macro-level stressors, that led to the northern Mali conflict. Mali’s supposes strengths failed to prevent state collapse and civil war, and require closer analysis to understand how to support resilience to conflict. Given the informal political roots of the conflict, African and European policy makers should focus on reconfiguring the Malian social contract, emphasizing economic and political reforms over traditional security efforts.
Studies of rebellion often emphasize the effect of formal, pre-war political and economic institutions on the strategies of violence employed. In the case of northern Mali, this is best done by looking at informal networks, which allowed the state to remain influential without investing in public goods. These networks had a significant impact on the type of violence that occurred from 2012-2013, namely due to the material and political resources exchanged. While Mali lacks ‘lootable’ resources, such as oil or diamonds, it lies at the intersection of major transshipment economies. These economic systems are predicated on kinship ties, which make illicit economies ‘licit’ in the eyes of most northerners. In addition, illicit economies are crucial to economic sustenance. Prior to the conflict, 9 million northern Malians lived on less than US$1 a day and 1.6 million faced food insecurity. The decline of licit industries like pastoralism and tourism increased the importance of illicit networks. The 2012-2013 conflicts compounded this, destroying what was left of the tourism industry, disrupting basic public services, contracting growth and increasing consumer prices. In this context, criminal networks faced no shortage of local labor by offering monthly salaries of US$250-400. While the socioeconomic benefits of illicit economies explain their durability at the local level, their political benefits create linkages between local networks and national elites. Prior to the conflict, major traffickers used their wealth to improve their standing, either running in or financing local elections, which allowed traffickers to then co opt local governments. Traffickers further consolidated their power and enhanced their legitimacy by using their profits to distribute patronage, building dams, wells, and mosques. The political nature of illicit economies created violent power dynamics, as new elites disrupted existing hierarchies and weakened the power of established elites. Traditionally dominant networks, like the Ifoghas Tuareg and Kounta Arabs, faced threats to their status from increasingly wealthy Tilemsi and Lamhar Arabs and Imghad Tuaregs. From Bamako, ATT saw these shifts as a way to consolidate his control over rebellious northern elites, and established economic and military ties to the new trafficking class through the strategy of “remote control.” With his blessing, pro-government ethnic militias emerged, led by figures like Col. Abderamane Ould Meydou, security services with deep informal ties to northern trafficking networks. While these militias were established using donor aid meant for counterterrorism purposes, they served the interests of ATT and his new northern allies, who needed a low-cost means of ensuring control without having to invest in public goods or representative armed forces. This policy increased instability in several important ways. First, it fueled intercommunal violence, as local elites engaged in kidnappings and attacks against one another. Local elections became increasingly violent, as opposing networks backed different candidates and used force to manipulate voters and polling officials. Second, ATT’s patronage approach to ruling the north created an unsustainable political economy. His support for certain networks built expectations of patronage, a form of rent. This not only made his support in the north already prone to collapse, but also generated mechanisms that would allow armed groups like the MNLA and AQIM to supplant the state by entering these networks of exchange. In fact, as certain “noble” tribes moved to support the MNLA in response to state support for their local rivals, the “vassal” tribes responded by mobilizing around AQIM and other Islamist groups. With all three Islamist groups enjoying greater economic ties to local networks, support tilted away from the MNLA, explaining its rapid defeat. Despite this initial uniform support, the Islamist groups operated with vastly different illicit networks throughout the remainder of the conflict, whose unique configurations created variations in the strategies of rebellion that they employed.
The most powerful Islamist group during the conflict was AQIM, as it had the most well-trained and equipped fighting force, which numbered around 1,000 combatants in 2013. AQIM emerged at the end of the Algerian Civil war (1992-1998) as the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), an offshoot of the brutal Armed Islamic Group (GIA). From 1998-2003, it experienced considerable turmoil, as its membership defected to the Algerian government’s amnesty program or was killed by security forces. In 2004, newly established National Emir Abdelmalek Droukdel led the group south into the Sahel. With his subcommanders Abou Zeid and Mokhtar Belmokhtar, Droukdel built an enclave for the GSPC in remote northern Mali around Léré, from which the group launched attacks into neighboring Algeria and Mauritania. In order to ensure survival in an inhospitable terrain, the GSPC forged ties with the local Tuareg and Berabiche communities, using intermarriage and distributing SIM cards and medicine to build trust. These ties gave the GSPC access to existing networks of smuggling and trafficking. These networks extended beyond the local level, with Droukdel respecting an informal code in which kidnappings took place outside of Mali; in return, Bamako turned a blind eye to insurgent activities in the north. These strong social ties helped the GSPC rebuild, to the point where it attracted the attention of Al Qaeda central. In 2006, Droukdel pledged formal allegiance to bin Laden and renamed his organization AQIM. In terms of involvement in illicit economies, AQIM depended primarily on kidnapping for ransom. The importance of kidnapping is highlighted by internal communications, which stated that “Kidnappings are at the top of military action in the Sahara region…We don’t know of a single case that the Emirate [name for the collective of AQIM rulers] did not oversee.” Between 2003 and 2012, AQIM kidnapped around 60 individuals, a combination of Western tourists, aid workers, and diplomats, for a total profit of US$90-175 million. While the revenue was key to AQIM’s expansion, it was also relatively limited in its importance to the local economy. Prior to 2003, kidnapping was infrequent and carried out by small criminal gangs with little to no standing. As a result, AQIM generated little political capital from its vertical integration across an industry with limited social network involvement. During the conflict, AQIM settled in the region of Timbuktu, where Abou Zeid administered the regional capital. Within Timbuktu, Zeid sought to ensure continued local support by creating recruitment quotas to include local ethnic groups. His fighters distributed their cell phone numbers as hotlines to report criminal activity. Additional revenue was spent on distributing goods and paying medical staff to operate the local hospital. Expenses from AQIM account books recovered in Timbuktu show payments for services such as US$4 for medicine for a sick child, and US$100 for a local wedding. While these initial actions generated significant support from AQIM, its ideological approach to governance eroded this support base. Initially, Droukdel established a clear line about governance and Islamic law in his letters to his sub commanders. He called for them to avoid imposing all of their laws at once, although they must immediately ban places of “immorality” where drugs and alcohol were consumed. He instead emphasized a focus on providing public goods such as healthcare, water and electricity. According to Droukdel, “the aim of building these bridges it to make it clear that our Mujahideen are no longer isolated in society, and to integrate with the different factions, including the big tribes and the main rebel movement [the MNLA] and tribal chiefs.” Further support can be found in his recommendation to AQIM commanders in Timbuktu written in 2012; “You should limit the circle of confrontation and of your enemies to the maximum... You are walking in a minefield full of tribalism, conspiracy, and revenge, corruption and arrogance.” Despite these warnings, Zeid implemented an Islamic Police force that used beatings to enforce a strict code of Islamic law. These tactics generated strong resistance, as women’s groups launched non-violent protests. Droukdel would later criticize his sub commanders for the rapid pace with which they implemented their interpretation of Islamic law, which triggered a strong backlash by the local population. Among other factors, AQIM’s limited dependence on patrimonial networks explains how local commanders misfired in their provision of public goods. Absent dependence on local networks, Zeid faced lower costs from implementing unpopular forms of governance to pursue his personal ideological goals. While AQIM nonetheless invested in basic administrative services, it enjoyed low levels of public support.
This outcome differs from MUJAO’s approach towards governance. MUJAO emerged as an offshoot from AQIM, due to internal disagreements over the distribution of ransom money and the racist treatment of non-Arab fighters by the Algerian leadership. As a result, when Hamada Ould Mohamed Kheirou founded the group in late 2011, his leadership included a diverse membership with commanders originating from Western Sahara, Mauritania, Mali, and Niger. MUJAO quickly emerged as a key player in the regional drug trade, at a time when West Africa’s role in global trafficking routes was growing. Starting in the early 2000s, increased interdiction along traditional routes and growing European demand shifted trafficking for Latin American cocaine and Moroccan cannabis to the Gulf of Guinea and the Sahel. As of 2012, the market was worth US$1.8 billion. MUJAO’s involvement was strictly indirect, as it never touched the actual drug shipments, but rather taxed local trafficking elites in return for providing protection for them against rival criminal networks. In the Gao region, where MUJAO was active, Kheirou built strong ties with Lamhar and Tilemsi Arab trafficking elites, who, in return for protection, provided donations and recruits. This alliance emerged in part due to mutual enemies, as Lamhar and Tilemsi Arab traffickers were competing with Ifoghas and Idnan Tuareg traffickers who were mobilizing to support the MNLA. This bottom-up competition eventually led to clashes between MUJAO and the MNLA, as their local support bases fiercely competed for control over Gao’s transshipment routes. In terms of governance, MUJAO provided significant levels of economic and political goods. It invested in public transit, establishing a bus network called ‘Mohamed Transports’ to circulate the region. More importantly, it created two political structures that allowed for local political participation. The Executive Council was staffed by MUJAO commanders elected by locals, and carried out tasks including law enforcement, religious education, public health, managing relations with foreign aid organizations, and transmitting directives to the population. MUJAO’s highest ranking commander in the city of Gao, Abdel Hakim, also commissioned the creation of the Cercles des notables, a body staffed by local elites with strong ties to trafficking networks and the Malian government. This form of public goods provision stands in stark contrast to AQIM in Timbuktu, in that it demonstrates how insurgent dependence on strong local networks forces the provision of more inclusive public goods. One outcome of this was the administration of ideological forms of governance, in that Gao witnessed relatively less human rights abuses at the hands of the Islamic Police than Timbuktu. Another was strong support, as MUJAO, the youngest, poorest, and smallest of the three Islamist groups was able to outcompete the much larger MNLA thanks to significant support by powerful trafficking elites.
In order to respond to future conflicts, the Malian government and its partners should critically analyze informal power networks. The strategy of remote policy pursued by ATT is by no means unique, it was equally critical to the dominance (and later collapse) of the Qadaffi and Saleh governments in Libya and Yemen, respectively. These cases reveal three important lessons for policymakers. First, institution building is critical, as it reduces grievances and creates safeguards for national leaders that extend their time horizons. ATT’s corruption and lack of influence in northern Mali forced him to rely on a fragile patronage system which ultimately led to his government’s collapse. These systems of power are dependent on continued transfer of wealth and power from the center, which requires a degree of economic growth and stability rarely present in resource-rich, developing economies. Policymakers should continue to prioritize the growth of accountable governance at the national and local level as a means to prevent conflict. The second lesson is “ungoverned spaces” are a myth and a poor analytical tool for predicting conflict. Groups like AQIM and MUJAO emerged in northern Mali not because of a lack of formal institutions but rather the existence of informal institutions willing to support their goals. These complex networks not only provide resources for insurgents to operate, but their unique configurations explain variations in insurgent strategies towards governance. Policymakers seeking to understand conflict in periphery areas ranging from dense megacities to rural border zones should understand informal networks of power that exist prior to conflict. The third lesson is that illicit economies are highly complex markets that can’t be solved through interdiction alone. A combination of state neglect and complicity led to the emergence of drug trafficking and kidnapping in the Sahel, and efforts to disrupt criminal networks will fail insofar as local populations lack alternative livelihoods to turn towards. Regional governments and their partners must use the lessons from the 2012-2013 Mali conflict to design a strategy that avoids neglecting genuine economic development and institution building at the local level in the north.