Mali: Intervening in Northern Mali – Don’t Forget the Ethnic Dimension

Bamako — While ethnicity is not a key driver of the current conflict in northern Mali, there is a real danger violence could become organised along ethnic lines.

Northern Mali has seen conflict before, but the ascendancy of Islamist militants and the salience of organised crime – particularly the drug trade – suggest that this iteration is qualitatively different from its predecessors. Accordingly, the current diplomatic discourse emphasises a regionally-coordinated approach to defeating Al-Qaeda-linked militants and restoring the territorial integrity of Mali.

Even the best-planned, adroitly executed military campaign, however, is likely to yield adverse humanitarian consequences in the short term, providing ample opportunity for local actors motivated by a mix of ideological affiliations, economic interests, pre-existing grievances, ethnic identities, tribal networks and even personal animosities to pursue their own agendas.

Right now, the presence of ethnic and local militias might seem like a peripheral concern, but the international community may soon find that failing to marginalise or demobilise these groups could make it difficult to translate tactical military gains against Islamist militants into more strategic goals, such as regional stability.

One of the key challenges for the international community therefore will be to ensure that a protracted, internecine conflict does not emerge from the fog of war. While ethnicity is not a key driver of the current conflict in Mali, there is a real danger that violence could become organised along ethnic lines.

Identity politics by other means

Though violent conflict in northern Mali has rarely been initiated by ethnic animosity, there is some precedent of armed groups forming according to ethnicity. A previous rebellion led by ethnic Tuareg groups in the early 1990s, for example, was originally motivated by political grievances, but later took on an ethnic dimension. These grievances manifested themselves in the establishment of Tuareg and Arab movements that sought to gain concessions from the state through armed rebellion.

While the primary motive for these uprisings was economic marginalisation, the conflict did take on an overtly ethnic dimension with the emergence of non-Tuareg militias who were dissatisfied with the Malian government’s handling of Tuareg rebel groups. To take just one example, the Ganda Koy (“Masters of the Land” in Songhai) was formed in 1994 by ethnic Songhai deserters of the Malian army who were frustrated by the inability of the Malian state to protect northern Mali’s sedentary populations, such as the Songhai and Fulani, from Tuareg rebel attacks and banditry.