Mali – is foreign involvement truly for the greater good?

Since the 19th of August 2020, when a military coup forced the democratically elected but unpopular president Ibrahim Boubacar Keita to resign, Mali has been struggling to return to stability. The coup was the culmination of weeks of mass protests against the president who was accused of corruption and mishandling a spiralling security situation in the northern and central regions of the country. However, it was but one of the many symptoms of a crisis rooted far deeper. 

Mali has been in turmoil since 2012, when ethnic Tuareg rebels and loosely aligned terrorist groups seized the northern two-thirds of the country after the fall of the Gaddafi regime in Libya, leading France, the former colonial power in the region, to intervene to set them back. In 2013 the UN MINUSMA[1] mission was established to help stabilize the situation. As the government and international actors sought to restore peace in the north, a power vacuum was created in the central region, which soon became a launchpad for jihadist attacks on neighbouring countries. The international intervention helped lead to a peace agreement in 2015, but very little progress has been made since then in disarming rebel groups. An attempt by the government to give the north more autonomy in exchange for disarmament has also proven ineffective, and extremist groups continue to be active in various parts of the country. 

Now, despite a transitional government having been put in place to oversee an eighteen-month period before elections are held, the situation remains highly unstable. Furthermore, an increased number of voices is calling for a dialogue with certain armed groups, in an attempt to reach an agreement. This move has strongly been criticized by external international actors, first and foremost France, and has been seen by many as proof of the growing gap between Mali and the former colonial power. France believes in fact that it is highly unlikely these groups will abandon their ideology and objectives, such as the imposition of shari’a on the state.

A multidimensional crisis 

Due to its geographical position, Mali has become the centre of external efforts to secure the region and counter terrorism, which has inevitably led to increased and consistent international involvement in the area. The fact that the new government is prepared to negotiate with armed jihadist groups, however, should make us question the nature of French and international involvement and whether it is in the country’s best interests. In this context, it is important to keep Mali’s colonial past in mind. 

Falling under French colonial role in 1892, Mali quickly became a country of marginalized subjects ruled by a controlling colonial administration that feared Muslim jihads. The French, in contrast to other colonizers, chose to implement their customs in all occupied territories, a strategy that proved to be particularly difficult in Mali, which was characterized by a diverse multitude of ethnic communities.[2] This resulted in cooperative groups being favoured by the French over others and intensified ethnic divisions. By the time Mali became independent in 1960, the new country was deeply divided. This fragmentation made it particularly difficult for the new Malian political elites to assert their authority over the whole country, which would eventually lead to the marginalization of the north. 

There is no doubt that other factors have contributed to the current situation as well, yet this is another reminder, of how strongly colonialism has affected the state of many contemporary African countries. Of course, there is no changing the past, but perhaps things could be different when looking at the future. 

Rethinking foreign intervention 

It is undeniable that violence in this area has been steadily increasing and that Islamic extremism poses a big threat not only to this region but to surrounding countries as well, with regional as well as international implications. However, the continued presence of international actors has not been as successful as imagined[3]. These powers may have the institutional framework and resources to face particular threats, but does this justify their involvement? At a certain point we need to ask ourselves: is this engagement really for the greater good of the country or is it just a modern form of imperialism?

In light of what we know about Mali’s colonial past, continued foreign intervention could be doing more damage than good. It could in fact lead to the following scenario: an alliance of national forces, including militant groups, with the goal of requesting the withdrawal of international actors. This would inevitably lead to Islamic militias gaining a foothold in the Sahel area[4] for the first time, something international actors are trying to avoid in the first place. It may be time for a change in strategy in view of the long-term goals that could bring stability to the area. 


[1] To date it remains the largest peacekeeping force in the world. 

[2] B. Oletunji Oloruntimehin, “The French Estate in West Africa, 1890-1918,” Journal of the Historical Society of Nigeria 7.3 (1974): 451.

[3] Foregn Policy: “Can Mali Escape Its Past?”, 21st August 2020.

[4] This term refers to the semi-arid stretch of land just south of the Sahara desert which includes Mali, Chad, Niger, Burkina Faso and Mauritania.

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