What perspective for Northern Mali?

And what role for Dutch military in UN Peacekeeping?

Tuareg rebellions    There have been 4 Tuareg rebellions since the independence of Mali: 1962–64, 1990–95, 2007–09, and 2012-2014. During the second rebellion – while I was there – the Tuaregs started reclaiming the right to nationhood in a large area in northern Mali known as Azawad. In 2012, the long-simmering hostility between the Mali government and the Tuareg erupted once again. This last rebellion was very successful and led to the conquest of the northern half of the country by various Tuareg movements, some with links to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). French forces intervened in 2013 and 2014 to retake much of the country. The French continue their anti-terrorism work to prevent the situation from escalating again. The rebels retreated to the deserts and mountains of northern Mali to continue their war. In 2013, the United Nations established Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA).

Dutch role     Since 2014, the Dutch military participate in MINUSMA with 450 troops and 4 Apache helicopters, mainly to collect intelligence for the on-going MINUSMA peacekeeping operation. As is normal during UN peacekeeping activities, MINUSMA soldiers, including Dutch military personnel are not to engage the enemy, except for self-defence. It all seems rather pointless, especially when well-trained and well-equipped soldiers are not allowed to intervene, even in situations of flagrant violations of peace treaty terms or severe criminal offenses. People fear that the effectiveness of MINUSMA, including the Dutch deployment, will be very small and will remain minimal for as long as can be foreseen. The problem has been debated in Amsterdam on the first of June, 2016, see here (Dutch announcement) and here (English summary). Unfortunately I could not participate. The point of this post is to add a few points to the debate (ex-post) and put them into context. As usual I start with a concept map, under the slogan “think before you write”. In grey capitals I indicated themes for different areas on the concept map. I have already dealt with the (upper middle) PEACEKEEPING part.

northern mali

Partial state fragility       There have been discussions whether Mali is a fragile state or not. That question is important because peacekeeping missions in fragile states are very likely to fail. My first point is that Mali suffers of partial state fragility (in the North), which in turn threatens the viability of Mali as a whole. That may sound self-evident, but it is a conclusion that is not always reached. What it means is that state institutions, elite behaviour and social cohesion in the (Bambara-dominated) South are all of a sufficient level to avoid the epithet ‘failing state’. However, Mali fails big in the North, partly because of a different ethnic composition, partly because the North is remote, vast, arid and sparsely populated: 1.3 million people in the three northern regions (i.e. provinces). One might be inclined to think that perhaps, perhaps indeed, these Tuareg rebels have a point.

Northern demography       Whereas in the South the largest group is that of the Bambara (Bambara is spoken by more than 50% of the population), the North has no representatives of the Bambara ethic group at all, except for a limited number of civil servants and NGO and IO staff. There are three main groups, Sonhrai (700.000 inhabitants), Tamasheq (500.000 inhabitants) and Peul (about 100.000 inhabitants). The Tamasheq and Peul are (agro-)pastoralists, whereas the Sonhrai are sedentary farmers. The Sonhrai live in towns (Timbuktu, Gao) or farming villages, all along the River Niger, West Africa’s main artery, and one of the main reasons for the colonial French to combine Northern Mali with Southern Mali. The Tamasheq and Peul live in small nomadic camps. The Tamasheq are the second largest group in the North. They can be further divided in the “red” Tamasheq or the upper class Tuareg proper and the lower class Tamasheq of African descent, i.e. their former slaves or serviles.

Key problems    The upper class Tuareg or “rouges” count in the vicinity of 100.000 inhabitants (exact figures are lacking) or less than 10% of the Northern population. Clearly this is not enough to claim nationhood, even if they are ethnically marginalized. And if they are marginalized, by how much more than their former slaves, they claim to represent, or the Songhai, who are far superior in number? And to what extent are they themselves – or their culture – to blame, since there respect for people of African descent is minimal? Traditionally, the upper class Tuareg had many different occupations, from Islamic scholar to trader, and from warrior to raider. As the latter, they were a fearsome lot, to the detriment of those living in their vicinity. It is not surprising that Muammar Gaddafi used them in his army. After Gaddafi’s death hundreds of well trained, heavily armed Tuareg combatants returned to Mali, where they were joined with hundreds of young recruits and overran the poorly armed Malian military. They were further joined by Al Queda jihadists, some of them Tuareg, who managed to take over their operation until the French stopped them near Mopti. In today’s chaotic situation many Tuareg turned to smuggling, while others continue to dream of a nation of their own, funded by the proceeds of uranium mining and oil exploration.

Effective interventions       Some think that national elections can provide a solution in a situation such as that of Northern Mali. Clearly, they can result in a new president and a new prime minister and a new parliament. But can they bring an end to the chaos and the mix of banditry, smuggling, jihadism, and rebellion in the North? So far they haven’t. What are the prospects for creating enough social cohesion in the North. Is it possible for a Northern elite to emerge that is not tainted by (too much) corruption and at the same time representative of the different groups? Can the smuggling operations be transformed into more legal forms of business? Lack of trust between various groups is an important issue. The patience of the southern black population with the Tuareg is running out. Many Tuareg rebels integrated in the army as part of earleier peace deals turned against the army during latest rebellion. The Tuareg lack a central leadership. Let’s take a long-term view.

Ten years from now       One of the participants of the debate in Amsterdam, Pim Klaassen, suggested some broad recommendations for future mission planning based on “innovation process management”, something that seems to be akin to ‘my’ systems approach.  One of his ideas was to work backwards from a desired outcome – a method called ‘backcasting’. The question is: what is a desired outcome. Outlining a desired outcome is part of the systems approach. This involves the notion of ‘framings’, which are ‘very broad ways to look at a situation’. Some time back, after first having applied the some steps of  the systems approach to the Northern Mali conundrum, I came up with three framings: traditional Islam, security & trust, and livelihoods. Then I sketched a possible outline of an ideal situation, by saying that – in ten years’ time – the situation ought to be such that: (1) the threat of a pointless guerilla must be gone and AQIM will be no longer a factor of importance in Mali; (2) the different ethnic groups will have a better understanding of their own and each other’s Islamic traditions and cultural and natural heritage; (3) the foreign military presence will be gone, while the Malian army takes up its role efficiently and without becoming oppressive; (4) the fullest possible identification and publication will have taken place of all prospects for development (including water development, hydrocarbon development, food production, migration, trade); and (5) a planning and implementation regime is established that is able to develop a balanced (and possibly competitive) development plan for all ethnic and cultural groups.

Actual versus ideal situation      Skipping some more steps in ‘my’ systems approach, it is possible to draw up a list of key actions to work towards the ideal situation: (1) trust building by a multi-faceted approach (future) instead of Tuareg appeasement by negotiation (current); (2) consider the northern regions as a whole instead of looking mainly to the Tamasheq demands; (3) attempt to fit Tuareg interests in the wider whole instead of pandering mainly to the interests of Tuareg combatants; (4) look at developmental, military, and social aspects instead of only military solutions; (5) seek positive values other than just security instead of getting stuck in a narrative of fight against Islamist terrorism; (6) seek popular support in the north by building on the rich religious and cultural heritage instead of building on mandates of the UN and a recently elected  (southern) president; (7) aim at a long-term security solution that contributes to development and vice versa instead of seeking a short-term solution as a precondition for development; and (8) recognize that local security expertise is available (but can only be tapped in a smart way) instead of thinking that the Malian state and army are weak and in urgent need of lots of western expertise and some equipment.

A systemic intervention design     … consists of a summary of one’s insights in the current situation, followed by a two-phase implementation plan, where Phase I is the turn-around phase (at first still in negotiation mode), involving all groups in Northern Mali as well as other dimensions to increasingly build trust and establish representative planning. Phase II is the foreign military withdrawal phase, roughly coinciding with the multi-faceted trust building mode, which will render the whole effort as sustainable as possible for foreign military to be able to leave. During this phase (and possibly beyond) the West and UN must remain keenly interested in military, social and economic developments. Donors and the private sector must co-ordinate their efforts while reinforcing the decision-making power by a northern planning authority (NPA), which started taking shape in the previous phase. The national parliament plays a role in this NPA. The NPA activities will not involve military strategizing to fight terrorism. The planning authority will need not only popular support, but also expert advice, good oversight/leadership, objective information, including information about the terrorism problem. All this without becoming a bureaucratic monster. Compromises are OK, but they must be able to stand up to public scrutiny. Such scrutiny requires openness and free press. Economic development initiatives that are not sustainable should be left to die off or credible, renewed efforts and innovation to achieve sustainability must be mounted. The relationship between northern and southern Mali must be balanced. Mopti is like a linchpin between the two ‘Malis’and could house the planning authority. The northern contingents of the Malian army will be composed of a good mix of Tuareg, non-Tuareg, and southern military. The art of combining compromise with openness must get special attention to avoid secretive monitoring that blocks new insights. Diversity of multi-ethnic involvement must also be sought for initiatives to strengthen traditional Islam. Timbuktu will become the Islamic capital of northern Mali. The Centre Ahmed Baba will link up with Islamic studies departments around the world.

P.S. I forgot about the role of the Dutch military. Well, of course I did. Let them just play their role. As well as keep an eye on the larger picture.


About Sjon van ’t Hof

Development professional who worked in rural development, tropical agriculture, and irrigation development in Chad, Zambia, Mali, Ghana, Mauritania, Israel, Burkina Faso, Niger, and the Netherlands in capacities ranging from project design and management to information management. Conducted missions to India, China, Kenya, and Bangladesh. Experience in the development and delivery of trainings in irrigation equipment selection, information literacy, Internet searching and database searching. Explores systems thinking in relation to international development, education, and management, with an ever stronger focus on the systems approach of C. West Churchman. Knowledgeable in tropical agriculture, project design and development economics, agricultural mechanization, irrigation, plant pathology, environmental degradation and protection, rural development. Co-authored "Wicked Solutions: a systems approach to complex problems", a book written by Bob Williams and Sjon van 't Hof. It was published in June 2014 and provides a practical way of dealing with wicked problems. Wicked problems are complex, ill-structured, human problem situations. This book will help you design an inquiry and intervention in such messy, wicked situations. It does so by guiding you through the steps and stages of a systemic process that addresses your own wicked problem. For more information, see https://csl4d.wordpress.com/ or http://www.bobwilliams.co.nz/Systems_Resources.html
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