Sévaré — France and allied European countries are withdrawing their anti-jihadist forces from Mali after diplomatic relations broke down with the ruling junta, which has reportedly welcomed in hundreds of mercenaries from the Russian Wagner Group.
The diplomatic crisis has overshadowed a worsening humanitarian emergency that has seen severe hunger hit the highest level since 2013 and over 350,000 people flee violence linked to jihadists aligned to al-Qaeda and the so-called Islamic State – a nearly 70% increase from early 2020.
Conflict is especially severe in northern Mali, where jihadists have killed dozens of civilians in recent weeks, while former separatist rebels have grown increasingly impatient with the junta, which they accuse of failing to implement a 2015 peace agreement.
Violence is also spiking in central Mali – which The New Humanitarian visited last month – where jihadists have stepped up their use of sieges and other forms of collective punishment against communities ostensibly resisting their rule.
“We have been requesting security for our population since 2012 [when the crisis started], but we never got it,” said Amadou Lougué, a youth leader from the central Bandiagara region who organised a series of protests late last year as insecurity worsened.
Escalating conflict has been compounded by climatic shocks, while sanctions – imposed in January by the Economic Community of West African States after the junta proposed plans to delay elections until 2025 – have caused economic problems.
Aid groups have requested nearly $700 million to meet the growing needs but expect to receive a much smaller amount. Most other humanitarian missions are facing the same challenge, which could worsen as donors devote resources to Ukraine.
Though Mali’s junta is contributing funds for humanitarian purposes, its assets at the Central Bank of West African States have been frozen on account of the sanctions, and it has defaulted on debts worth almost $200 million.
Government officials have also been unwilling to declare a food emergency that would have helped relief groups access additional funding pots, according to aid officials and documents seen by The New Humanitarian.
Still, the junta, in power since August 2020, draws significant support from Malians – many of them fed up with nominally elected politicians and with France, the former colonial power, whose nine-year Sahelian intervention is widely seen as a failure.
This briefing – based on interviews with residents in several hard-hit regions as well as civil society groups and local aid workers – explains why foreign forces are withdrawing and explores three humanitarian concerns in the country: conflict, food insecurity, and a new wave of human rights abuses by government forces.
Why are foreign forces withdrawing?
France deployed troops to Mali in 2013 as jihadists captured northern towns. The operation was initially successful, but fighters soon regrouped in rural areas before spreading to the centre and to neighbouring countries.
More recently, militants have expanded to parts of southern and western Mali and are “almost at the door of Bamako,” the capital city, said Mamoudou Diallo, director of the Malian NGO IMADEL. “The strategy of the international forces is not working,” Diallo added.
Despite the escalation in conflict, analysts say France failed to adapt its mission – known as Operation Barkhane – doubling down on military action while neglecting the social and political issues driving jihadist recruitment.
French forces also killed dozens of civilians, collaborated with abusive militias to fight jihadists, and were seen by government officials as too closely associated with the former separatist rebels in the north.
Tensions between Mali and France deteriorated in mid-2021, when Paris announced plans to reduce its troop numbers. The junta then welcomed in Russian instructors. Western countries say these include Wagner fighters, though Bamako denies this.
A European military task force, Takuba, is also leaving alongside Barkhane. The foreign forces will likely remain active in neighbouring countries, including coastal West African states increasingly threatened by jihadists.
Barkhane’s exit will take several months to complete and will likely have a major impact on security dynamics in Mali. Despite what many analysts see as an overall failure, the mission still executed jihadist leaders and disrupted their operations. It also supported other military forces, including UN peacekeepers.
“We are worried about what is going to happen next,” said Abdoulaye Dicko, a local official working on social reconciliation initiatives in central Mali. “We have been working for years with [these] military forces, and now they are withdrawing.”
Mali has a new partner in the Wagner Group, whose mercenaries intervened unsuccessfully in Mozambique’s jihadist-hit Cabo Delgado province and are accused of grave human rights abuses during counter-insurgency campaigns in Central African Republic.
Still, while some Malians fear a security void, others hope France’s withdrawal might enable the transitional government to open a dialogue with jihadist leaders – some of whom have expressed a willingness to talk.
Paris had previously opposed such negotiations, though reconciliation pacts between jihadists and communities are increasingly being struck at a local level in the centre (as a forthcoming in-depth report from The New Humanitarian will examine).
“If you find the real actors of the crisis and talk to them, it is a way to make peace,” said a community leader who directed talks between jihadists and residents of Sangha, a commune in central Mali’s Bandiagara region.
The community leader said the mid-2020 Sangha agreement ended two years of conflict that had hindered farming activities in the commune, cost 269 lives, and resulted in the theft of at least 32,000 cattle.
Where is conflict flaring?
Internal displacement is highest in Mali’s central regions, where jihadist fighters have met strong resistance from self-defence militias that often collaborate with the Malian army.
Though militias and community leaders are increasingly striking pacts with jihadists, many remain opposed to negotiations. Agreements also regularly break down, leading to even deadlier cycles of violence that have peaked in recent months.
Civilians are punished by jihadists in areas where militias are active. In the Bandiagara region – a stronghold of the Da Na Ambassagou militia – dozens of people have been killed in recent months and entire villages displaced.
In December, jihadists told the residents of two villages close to Bandiagara town to vacate the area after community leaders refused a request to join the fighters and relinquish ties with anti-jihadist militias.
“If we had joined them and fought our own people we would be on the wrong side of history, and perhaps today the army would have attacked us,” one of the community leaders told The New Humanitarian. Their name is being withheld for security reasons.
Residents of the two villages are now living in communal tents or out in the open in another village close to Sévaré, one of the largest towns in central Mali. The camp is near an army checkpoint but residents said they still fear attacks by jihadists.
In other central regions, jihadists are using siege tactics to compel communities to accept their rule. Fighters often encircle villages and scatter explosive devices to prevent people coming or going.
“People stayed inside their homes [and] were scared to move around the town,” said a resident of Dinangourou village, which was embargoed for three months last year after jihadists accused the community of collaborating with the army.
The resident – whose name is also being withheld for security reasons – said people survived the siege by eating crop reserves stored in granaries and meagre supplies brought in by soldiers on monthly rotations.
Elsewhere in the country, dozens of civilians were killed in recent weeks in the northeastern Meneka region, as the local so-called Islamic State franchise – Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) – fought non-jihadist armed groups.
ISGS had been the main target of Barkhane operations over the past two years but is now “in the process of being recomposed”, Laurent Michon, the commander of Barkhane, said earlier this month.
Parts of northern Mali are also controlled by non-jihadist armed groups, including former separatist fighters who have rebelled against the central government four times since independence from France in 1960.
In 2015, these rebels signed a peace agreement with the Malian government that included provisions for integrating fighters into the defence forces and measures aimed at decentralisation and economic development.
Progress has been sluggish, however, and the post-coup transition has further derailed implementation. The main rebel alliance is now increasingly at odds with the junta, even reaffirming aspirations for self-determination in recent press releases.
Why is food insecurity rising?
Conflict is playing a significant role in increasing food insecurity: Jihadist groups and militias often obstruct people from herding animals, attending markets, and accessing fields.
Hunger is most extreme in blockaded villages like Dinangourou, where residents missed the crucial planting season during the siege (which ended in August) and had their livestock stolen by jihadists.
“Most of those that left during the crisis haven’t returned because there is nothing,” said the resident of the village. “They are trying to get some money and food elsewhere before the next rainy season begins.”
Episodes of drought and a shortened rainy season in 2021, meanwhile, resulted in reduced harvests last year, meaning fewer supplies in markets and rising costs at a time when global food prices were also increasing – something the conflict in Ukraine is now exacerbating.
The economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic also worsened the situation – lowering remittance inflows and pushing people into poverty – while structural changes to food systems have had a longer-term impact.
On top of the 1.8 million people expected to face severe hunger in the coming months are a further 4.4 million predicted to be under pressure, said Sally Haydock, country director in Mali for the World Food Programme.
“If those 4.4 million people don’t get any assistance, some of them are going to move into the severe category,” Haydock told The New Humanitarian. “We are expecting quite a few people to move over.”
As with most humanitarian missions, funding is in short supply. The gap between what aid groups have requested from donors and what they received has grown significantly since 2018, even as the number of severely hungry people has shot up.
The government, meanwhile, is seeking to procure more than 60,000 tons of cereal to distribute to those in need, but aid officials told The New Humanitarian it is unclear – especially with sanctions biting – if they will be able to afford that.
Assanatou Dama, a radio show host and peace activist focusing on women’s rights in central Mali, said the sanctions – which block all but essential goods from entering the country – worry her more than Barkhane’s withdrawal.
“If the government doesn’t [organise elections], the population will suffer under this embargo,” she told The New Humanitarian, describing deteriorating living conditions since the sanctions were introduced.
What is the human rights situation?
Facing international isolation and seeking to assert itself as France leaves, Mali’s junta has launched high-profile military operations against jihadists in recent months with reported support from Wagner fighters.
The operations have led to a surge in abuses, however, with at least 71 civilians allegedly killed by government forces since December, according to Human Rights Watch.
“We are worried that if the army continues these types of operations, then more civilians will be killed,” said an activist from central Mali’s mostly pastoralist Fulani group – long stigmatised after its members joined local jihadists in large numbers.
The activist, who requested anonymity over security concerns, reeled off a string of recent incidents they have documented in the centre – from soldiers burning granaries and arresting elderly men in one Fulani village, to troops stealing food and executing civilians in another.
The abuses are no aberration. In 2020, the Malian army – which receives military training, equipment, and logistical support from European governments – killed more civilians than jihadists, according to conflict monitoring groups.
And though recent operations have led to small security improvements, chasing fighters from their bases is only a stop-gap measure, argued a religious leader from Dinangourou, the village embargoed last year.
“When the army is present, the jihadists disappear. But afterwards, they come back again,” the leader said, requesting anonymity since they regularly travel in areas where jihadists and soliders are active.
The junta’s diplomatic isolation may also hamper any battlefield gains, added a Koranic school teacher involved in mediation efforts during a recent siege in Marebougou, a commune in the central district of Djenné.
“If you are fighting against jihadists and against the world, it is difficult for you to succeed,” said the teacher, who also requested anonymity. “Things are improving [but] I am worried about the actions of our current government.”
Edited by Andrew Gully.