Seeking Peace in Mali

By Dr Peter Rundell

Dr Peter Rundell

In 2022 I celebrated 29th May, the International Day of UN Peacekeepers, in Gao, in Northern Mali, with the UN Mission MINUSMA.  The conflict in Mali has deep roots, combining colonial occupation, class tensions, trafficking and trading routes interrupted by twentieth-century lines on maps, land and livelihood pressures exacerbated by climate change and population growth, and regional resentment at marginalisation by distant capital city elites.

All these underlie what a recent UNDP report[1] labelled a “conflict ecosystem” of armed groups vying for power and resources.  And into that long-standing and complex context have arrived two contending movements of violent extremism, Al Qaeda and the so-called “Islamic State”.  These violent extremist groups have made the Sahel region one of the deadliest conflicts in the world, and MINUMSA the UN’s deadliest mission ever.

An IofC film once quipped “the problems on the table are nothing compared to the problems sitting around the table”.  Indeed in Mali the continuing conflict was probably not helped when the leader of a powerful so-called “jihadi” armed group married the ex-wife of the leader of a competing regional armed group supporting the state.  Addressing the personal ambitions, resentments and rivalries of the power-holders might indeed open the way to agreements that are currently out of reach.

Thurston’s summary of the drivers of the 2012 conflict[2] demonstrates some of these realities: “the 2012 rebellion was shaped by three rivalries – the rivalry between ag Ghali and the Intalla family, the rivalry between ag Ghali and the younger Tuareg revolutionaries, and the rivalry between the Ifoghas elite and the Imghad[3]”.

So the problems round the table are important.  But we cannot hope that simply addressing them will resolve the problems on the table, such as community resource requirements, or the economic interests of power-holders and armed groups.  The fears, prides and interests – Thucydides’ eternal triad – that mark out leaders’ room for manoeuvre remain real.

What then is to be done?  If leaders seeking a fresh solution are not to be knocked off course they need to be able to demonstrate that their offer to their constituents will work.  They need to be able to show a combination of doing right and doing well enough outbids greed and hate as a means of achieving physical, economic and psychological security.  That includes the moral and political challenge of standing up for the right course when other voices offer angrier or more lucrative options.  It also includes the creative challenge of finding better options.

In Mali the most violent region is in the centre, around Mopti.  The core conflict here is around land use, as traditional synergies between herders and farmers have broken down[4].  Herders used to take their cattle up-country with the rains, away from the growing crops, and come back to the flood plans after the harvest was in, to graze the stubble and dung the fields.  Both parties gained.  Now the growing populations have led farmers to encroach on traditional migration routes.  And climate change has shortened the time herds can be up-country.  With the flood of weapons into the area – often funded by profits from the drugs trade and human trafficking – comes ever higher levels of violence.  And as their communities are stigmatised online and victimised by militias, vulnerable young men become prey for violent extremist groups, cannon fodder for another round of conflict.

There are ways of breaking this vicious circle, such as bringing community leaders together to talk, giving young people the skills to earn an honourable living, “pre-butting” stigmatising messages online and in the media, restoring women’s traditional right to speak out, and tackling the cycles of trauma and revenge – and form the core of a British Government programme in the region.

It may bring to Mali the experience of reconciliation between Pastor James Wuye and Imam Muhammad Ashafa in northern Nigeria[5], who are bridging the divides that cause so much suffering to their communities.  They have shown how groups of women who have been the victims of violence can instead become the bearers of healing.

Initiatives of Change (IofC) has been involved in other aspects of the underlying challenges too.  The Caux Dialogue on Land and Security[6], for example, has demonstrated the possibility of land restoration for regenerating arid land, capturing carbon and reviving livelihoods – and also for reducing conflict.  It has showcased examples (like Tony Rinaudo’s work[7] for World Vision on farmer-managed natural regeneration, or FMNR[8]) of ideas that come in quiet, followed by persistent honest unselfish hard work, to re-green landscapes and create hope.

These initiatives, and many like them, need political and financial support.  This must come from the nations which drew so much of our early wealth from Africa, in slaves and crops and gold.  Instead, our demand fuels the drugs trade which funds some armed extremist groups.  And our laws often make illegal migration the only credible route to safety, reinforcing the human trafficking which is another major source of their incomes.

We can look away, blame selfish local leaders, and hide behind the English Channel.  But the climate emergency that dries up lives on the banks of the Niger river knows no national boundaries; instead it contributes to the floods and droughts and fires we see here, in Europe and across the world. The despair that fuels some violent extremism, and the need for meaning that drives others to violence, have already come to Britain. We would be foolish indeed to imagine that the troubles of the Sahel will stay forever in the Sahel.

We won’t stop the killings in the Sahel without leaders who put the well-being of communities above their own ambition – in Mali and in Britain alike.  But that alone will not be enough.  We need the creativity to develop fresh solutions, adapted to each conflict, that bring benefits to all parties and draw regions forward together.  That, in turn, needs the inspiration that comes in quiet, and the resolution that comes from being ready to put inspired ideas into practice.

Dr Peter Rundell has worked in international development for over 40 years, for the last fifteen years in countries enduring or emerging from violent conflict. He has worked for the British Government, the EU, the World Bank and the UN, and was most recently civilian advisor to the UK Army’s Long-Range Reconnaissance Group in Mali. He was awarded the CBE in 2013 for services to international development.


[1] Dynamics of Violent Extremism in Africa: Conflict Ecosystems, Political Ecology and the Spread of the Proto-State  UNDP 2023

[2] Thurston A 2018 Mali’s Tragic But Persistent Status Quo

[3] Ifoghas and Imghad are two categories of Tuareg society

[4] ASI 2022 Transhumance from a Stabilisation Perspective





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