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Jan 9, 2013 | Commentary

Before March 2012, not many would have expected Mali to be the next potential battleground in the war on terror.  A relatively stable democracy since 1991, Mali’s free and fairly elected government, led by Amadou Toumani Touré (ATT), was overthrown in a military coup spearheaded by Captain Amadou Sanogo who cited dissatisfaction with the handling of a rebellion in the North as the reason. Although an interim government was established, a power vacuum was created allowing a Tuareg rebel group, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) (allied with Islamist factions Ansar Dine), the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) to seize control of Northern Mali.

Residents in the North have since been subject to a series of human rights abuses under the Jihadists’ strict brand of Islamic law. These include mass rape, public amputations and executions and the recruitment of child soldiers. Their brutal rule has led to the displacement of thousands of Malians and helped contribute to a growing humanitarian crisis in the Sahel region. Top US officials are also expressing worry over the apparent cooperation between Mali’s extremist groups and other regional offshoots of Al Qaeda such as Boko Haram and Al-Shabaab. In this sense, Mali may become fertile ground for the training and recruitment of terrorists that could launch attacks into other parts of the continent. The international community has taken notice and on December 20th,2012,the United Nations approved an African-led plan for military intervention in Northern Mali, when the Security Council passed Resolution 2085.

While much focus has been on the North, another important factor in ending the turmoil is for the central government in Bamako to get its house in order. The overthrow of ATT revealed a number of problems hidden beneath Mali’s seemingly stable exterior, particularly in the security sector. Many of these are outlined in a Geneva Centre for the Democratic Control of Armed forces (DCAF) report written in 2008 titled, Parliamentary Oversight of the Security Sector in West Africa: Opportunities and ChallengesNotably, the report mentions: an enduring sense of militarization in Malian society; a prevailing culture of secrecy; a disconnect between parliament and the military due to a lack of knowledge and expertise within the former; and corruption leading to complacency in dealing with arms and drug trafficking that fueled the rebellion in the North.

To the credit of the United Nations, their support for an intervention has been made conditional upon the reform of Mali’s security sector. This is of the utmost importance, considering the actions of Sonogo in March, then again in December when the interim prime minister was also ousted from power. Furthermore, there have been reports of human rights abuses being committed by Malian security forces. There is also the question of militias in the North. The Malian army has a history of subcontracting their duties to tribal militias, using a ‘militiatary’ strategy to suppress rebellions. There is evidence that this may once again be the case. Such a strategy can have unpredictable results, raising questions over accountability, conduct, disarmament and integration, and can also risk inflaming inter and intra-tribal tensions.

To address these problems and reform the security sector in Mali, local and regional actors must take the lead in a coordinated effort involving regional organizations (such as the African Union and ECOWAS) and international partners (like the United Nations and the European Union). They must also work with Mali’s vibrant civil society to ensure accountability and oversight.  The United Nations has recognized the central role to be played by local actors by establishing the African-led International Support Mission in Mali (AFISMA).  Of the many tasks given to AFISMA, security sector reform is at the forefront.

The African Union and ECOWAS have experience in similar operations in Liberia and Sierra Leone, and are particularly well-placed to take the lead.  While the African Union has already developed a common SSR framework, ECOWAS is currently working toward the same. Progress can be seen through their adoption of the Code of Conduct for the Armed Forces and Security Services in West Africa. Without reform, a military operation in Northern Mali could prove to be short-sighted and may actually risk worsening the crisis. If Mali is to again become a model for democracy in a region of instability, it is essential to improve governance of the security sector, and bring it effectively under civilian control.


Matthew Redding is a blog contributor for the Security Governance Group and a Masters candidate in the Global Governance program at the Balsillie School of International Affairs.