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Making Sense of Mali

The Real Stakes of the War Rocking West Africa

A Malian soldier peeks through a doorway behind which Malian and French soldiers are stationed in Niono. (Joe Penney / Courtesy Reuters)

The last few months have shaken Mali to its core. In March 2012, the country's 20-year relationship with democracy ended abruptly after a group of low-ranking military officers overthrew the government. Within weeks of the coup, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), a Tuareg separatist group, seized several cities in northern Mali. Adding to the chaos, just weeks after that, fundamentalist Islamist groups, such as Ansar Dine, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), overran those same cities. 

Regional mediators attempted to help resolve the conflict, but their efforts yielded no tangible results. By late 2012, West African leaders had agreed to send 3,000 soldiers to halt the insurgents' advance, but the soldiers' arrival lagged. Earlier this month, the jihadist groups marched into the town of Konna. They seemed primed to make the short hop to Sevaré, which is home to a Malian military base and airstrip, and then onward to Bamako, Mali's capital.

But on January 11, France, impatient for the African-led intervention, responded to Bamako's pleas for help with air strikes and, soon after, with ground troops. The war, which already involves local, regional, and international troops, is not likely to end soon. As Bamako struggles to regain control of the northern part of the country and maintain stability in the south, observers have explained the conflict and the intervention with crude simplifications that do not reflect the reality on the ground and which point to incorrect solutions to the country's problems.

For starters, the conflict in the North is often reduced to two actors: Tuareg separatists and radical Islamists. For example, in an op-ed in The New York Times called "Nationalists or Islamists?," the Wesleyan Professor Peter Rutland argued that the core of the conflict is the "nationalist secession movement of the Tuareg people," as opposed to the actions of militant Islamists that have caught the world's attention. He refers in passing to the other ethnic groups as "the Africans who inhabit southern Mali."

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