Mali’s impunity problem and growing security crisis

On June 13 Malian soldiers and security forces were responsible for killing more than 30 civilians throughout the country – the government and international forces have been unable to reverse the trend

Since 2012, Mali has experienced a procession of horrors, from the slaughter of soldiers to the mutilation and murder of civilians, to the destruction of treasured world heritage sites. The Tuareg rebellion, the subsequent jihadist takeover of northern Mali, and the 2013 French intervention to oust jihadist groups has focused regional and international attention on the country in an unprecedented way. Despite this attention and the hundreds of millions of euros that have poured into Mali’s government and security services, the security situation continues to deteriorate. International actors often attribute this rising instability to a failure to fully implement the 2015 peace accords signed in Algiers. There is real merit to this argument. 

But deeper problems relating to governance and the behaviour of the security forces also plague Mali – problems that have become dramatically worse in recent months. This week, the government confirmed reports that the Malian security forces participated in the extrajudicial killing of as many as 25 Fulani civilians (referred to as “Peul” in much of Sahelian Africa) in central Mali on 13 June – just one of several reported incidents this year. Also this week, the UN mission in Mali announced that Malian soldiers attached to the G5 Sahel Joint Force were responsible for killing 12 civilians in the town of Boulikessi, and urged the Malian government to conduct a swift, credible investigation into the murders.

These major crimes threaten communal cohesion in Mali and facilitate jihadist groups’ recruitment efforts. They also undermine the role the international community plays in Mali, including its training programmes for the security forces and its (often ineffective) efforts to pressure the government to address the panoply of challenges to the country’s stability. Continuing failure to deal with these issues will only make peace harder to achieve, and will have wide-ranging consequences.

Rise in abuses involving pro-government groups

There is a clear trend of ongoing, perhaps intensifying, abuse of civilians at the hands of government and pro-government forces in Mali. The United Nations and other observers have accused the Mouvement pour le Salut de l’Azawad and the Groupe Autodéfense Touareg Imghad et Alliés – two largely communal armed groups who work with Mali’s government, as well as France’s Operation Barkhane – of committing such abuses during ostensible counterterrorism operations (they dispute the accusations).

Mali’s security forces are not the only parties responsible for violence against civilians; jihadist groups and bandits, as well as militias that did not sign the peace accords, are also responsible for killings, robberies, sexual violence, and other crimes. And, as the UN secretary-general noted in his recent quarterly report on Mali, all actors in the country’s multifaceted, interlocking conflicts have contributed to a dramatic rise in violence against civilians.

It is encouraging that the Malian government has in recent months responded pro-actively to accusations of abuse. In addition to promising investigations into some incidents and recognising soldiers’ culpability in the murder of civilians, Mali’s army chief of staff travelled to Nantaka and Kobaka – the sites of the most recently discovered mass graves – last week to speed up investigators’ work. Nonetheless, such crimes have often gone unpunished.

During the 2012 crisis, for instance, the security forces killed 16 members of a Salafi preaching organisation en route to the capital, Bamako; to date, no one has been prosecuted for the murders. In 2013, just after the French intervention cleared the way for the return of Mali’s army to the country’s north, journalists chronicled a series of extrajudicial killings and disappearances. These abuses have reportedly persisted this year.

Moreover, although a number of recent killings have been attributed to communal conflict between Peul and Dogon groups, or between traditional hunters known across the region as “Dozo”, state entities still appear to be fuelling this violence. In one recent incident, Dozo reportedly killed at least 32 Peul civilians near the city of Djenné (Peul activists place the death toll at more than 50). Since 2016 and 2017, local sources and non-governmental organisations have expressed the belief that the Malian security forces were arming some Dozo to deal with the threat from jihadist groups that recruit within Peul communities. It is clear that some Dozo are much better armed than they once were.

Peul activists have accused the Malian army of disarming Peul villagers just hours before heavily armed fighters arrived to attack them. These accusations remain unconfirmed, but reflect widespread suspicion of the state among civilians. The government’s vow to disarm all militias have so far had little appreciable impact on the violence.

Of the 600 EUTM employees deployed in Mali, roughly 400 are tasked with force protection and 50 with administrative tasks, leaving only 150 to conduct training

Growing impunity?

International forces in Mali – including UN peacekeepers, the regional G5 Sahel Joint Force, and the European Union Training Mission (EUTM) – appear to have been unable to reverse this trend towards impunity. Among these missions, the EUTM has the most significant role in training Mali’s armed forces. However, it has had mixed results at best. Although anecdotal evidence suggests that it has improved the tactical proficiency of some Malian military units, the training remains limited in scope.

There is a risk that, even if investigations into abuses succeed, the perpetrators will serve only short prison sentences. Earlier this month, Mali’s National Assembly voted to approve a long-awaited law on national reconciliation. The law is important to President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita’s and Prime Minister Soumeylou Boubèye Maiga’s push to ease tensions in the country ahead of presidential elections next month.

Algeria’s 1999 Concorde Civile and 2006 Charte pour la Paix et la Reconciliation Nationale inspired the law, which contains several provisions on relaxing or eliminating sentences for members of armed groups convicted of violent crimes from 2012 onwards. And – true to the Algerian example – it also contains provisions related to the security services and government employees more generally. Indeed, article 26 of Mali’s law grants amnesty to[CR1]  “any functionary or Agent of the State or territorial collectives who was the object of disciplinary measures” involving crimes linked to the events of 2012 – with the exception of rape, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and violations of “imprescriptible” laws.

If this seems vague, that’s because it is. The text of the law (of which the author has a copy) essentially says that enforcement mechanisms will be defined at a later date. Depending on how these clauses are interpreted, and how loosely Mali’s government defines a link to the events of 2012, many killings could fall under the new reconciliation law. Thus, the law could exacerbate the sense of impunity around the crimes of Mali’s security forces and armed groups.

Algeria’s reconciliation law did just that, contributing to a sense of injustice among victims of the country’s civil war. Although the public broadly accepted the law, the families of the thousands of people who “disappeared” during the conflict continue to protest and demand answers from the government about the fate of their loved ones. Such discontent is likely to be even more acute in Mali in the absence of credible judicial investigations into, and punishments of, members of the security forces found guilty of crimes against civilians.

Regional specialists, along with EU and Malian officials, generally focus on improving the technical proficiency of Mali’s security sector rather than the broader reforms it so desperately needs. According to one European official the author interviewed this month, of the 600 EUTM employees deployed in Mali, roughly 400 are tasked with force protection and 50 with administrative tasks, leaving only 150 to conduct training. The EUTM recently expanded its operations to include deployments of advisory personnel in Gao and Timbuktu. They, along with staff on other EU advisory and capacity-building missions, have conducted exercises across Mali, including in the country’s central region. However, these training efforts are often limited in scope; due to mission limitations and rules of engagement, trainers cannot deploy to the field with trainees, creating a critical gap in oversight that could increase the likelihood that abuses will occur.

These problems within Mali’s armed forces form only one part of a complex security and political environment. But Mali’s government and the international community need to show a genuine commitment to credible justice initiatives and the protection of civilians. After all, Mali’s crisis is one of not just insecurity but also poor governance, corruption, and a repeated failure to build an inclusive state.

The EU, like the rest of the international community, regularly affirms its commitment to restoring the state’s authority in central and northern Mali – as a way of undercutting jihadist organisations and other armed groups, and of stabilising the country. But if civilians have as much to fear from the state as from these groups, there can be little hope of a durable solution to Mali’s troubles.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


ECFR Alumni · Policy Fellow

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