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New SIPRI brief on central Mali shows how interpretations of the conflict shape the responses

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SIPRI announced the publication of a new Insights Paper, entitled ‘Central Mali: violence, local perspectives and diverging narratives’.

At a time when international—and national—actors are increasingly intervening in central Mali, it is imperative to understand how these interventions alter local dynamics, and how external interpretations of the conflict give rise to new meaning to violence in the area. Local actors, in turn, use these external discourses to their advantage—to further their claim to legitimacy or their ability to gain power.

Without a profound understanding of the local perceptions of the dynamics of conflict in central Mali, the current or planned interventions there have little chance of gaining traction in the medium or longer term, according to new SIPRI research.

A late response to the conflict dynamics in central Mali

Early analyses of the conflict that erupted in Mali in 2012 focused on the dynamics affecting the three northern regions of Mali (Tombouctou, Kidal and Gao). However, since 2015, the central region of Mopti has been in the spotlight due to the dramatic increase in violence targeting security forces, elected or traditional officials, market places and schools.

As a result, analysts and policy makers are swiftly focusing their attention on central Mali, as they are concerned with the area’s urgently deteriorating security situation, and its consequences for the stability of both Mali, as a whole, and the wider region, more broadly.

The study explores how the Malian authorities and the international actors who intervened following the crisis of 2012 have struggled to effectively evaluate the threats and adequately respond to the emerging dynamics. In particular, it has been difficult to assess whether the Mopti region was experiencing a spillover from the conflict in northern Mali, or if local specificities were driving the violence.

This study argues that the failure to tackle the conflict dynamics affecting the Mopti region takes root in a number of challenges. In particular, following the 2012 crisis, international and national actors adapted the usual frameworks of conflict analysis; focusing on the northern regions and demands for independence, they overlooked the specificities of central Mali.

The progressive emergence of jihadist groups

The violence in central Mali is, indeed, partly as a consequence of developments in 2012. As a result of the conflict in the northern regions, armed mobilization in central Mali increased. The subsequent emergence of jihadist groups operating from central Mali—a relatively new phenomenon to the area—raised increasing concerns. In response, the narrative underpinning the efforts of security actors working in central Mali has evolved to include the fight against violent extremism and counter radicalization.

The 2015 Peace Agreement did not take central Mali and the dynamics there into account, says the report. The peace process, which guides the strategies and interventions in Mali, therefore, had to be supported by new initiatives to ensure that the security concerns in central Mali were addressed. However, the lack of coordination between these initiatives, and the haste with which national and international actors turned to central Mali, meant that the interventions were not necessarily grounded in a clear understanding of the local dynamics, the report continues.

International, national and local dynamics collide

Based on field interviews, a literature review and original documentation, this paper confronts the diverging narratives on the origins and drivers of the conflict in central Mali, as well as the interactions between them. In particular, it argues that calls for a change in modes of governance are at the root of the conflict in Mopti. However, now the conflict is deeply affected by the presence of groups that espouse jihadist ideology asserting themselves into otherwise local conflicts. This, according to the report, frames the response to the conflict in the region and reinforces the polarisation between, one the one hand, the groups calling for change and, on the other hand, the state authorities that have, too often, relied primarily on hard security measures (such as national army deployment) to suppress demands for change when they take a violent form.

The fight against violent extremism and counter radicalization is central to the mandate of many actors working in Mali. However, if the objectives decided by these actors—and the methods deployed to accomplish them—do not correspond to a local reading of the conflict, the interventions bear the risk of being misunderstood locally. As a result, intervention efforts will not only fail to address the underlying causes of the escalating violence in the region but will contribute to the problem at hand, the report concludes.

Read the brief in English or French at SIPRI

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Africa

Analyzing The American Hybrid War on Ethiopia

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photo: UNFPA/Sufian Abdul-Mouty

Ethiopia has come under unprecedented pressure from the U.S. ever since it commenced a military operation in its northern Tigray Region last November. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed ordered the armed forces to respond to the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which used to be the most powerful faction of the former ruling party, after it attacked a military barracks. Addis Ababa now officially considers the TPLF to be a terrorist group. It fell out with PM Abiy after initially facilitating his rise to power as a result of disagreements over his fast-moving socio-political reforms.

The TPLF refused to join PM Abiy’s Prosperity Party upon its formation in December 2019. It also regarded his decision to postpone national elections last August until this June due to the COVID-19 pandemic as resulting in him illegitimately remaining in power. In response, the TPLF organized its own elections in the Tigray Region in September 2020 that were not recognized by the central government. This set a tense backdrop against which the group attacked the military a few months later in early November, which was what triggered the ongoing conflict.

The U.S. and its allies claim that Ethiopia is carrying out a campaign of ethnic cleansing in Tigray, which Addis Ababa, of course, denies. This set the basis upon which the U.S. began to sanction the country. The first sanctions were imposed in late May to target Ethiopian officials as well as some of their Eritrean allies who, the U.S. claimed, were supporting them in their military campaign. The Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF) pulled out of Tigray a month later in June, claiming that this unilateral move would facilitate the international community’s relief efforts in the war-torn region that had attracted so much global attention.

The conflict did not end, however, but actually expanded. The TPLF felt emboldened to invade the neighboring regions of Afar and Amhara, parts of which it continues to occupy. Addis Ababa suspected that the group was receiving various equipment and other forms of support under the cover of UN aid shipments. It also accused the TPLF of manipulating international perceptions about the region’s humanitarian crisis in order to generate more support and increase pressure on the Ethiopian government. PM Abiy published an open letter to U.S. President Joe Biden last month, urging him to reconsider his country’s policy towards the conflict.

It regrettably went unheeded but deserves to be read in full, since the Ethiopian leader compellingly argued that the American policy is counterproductive and influenced by the TPLF’s lobbyists. Shortly after that, his government expelled seven UN officials at the end of September, who it accused of meddling. In early October, CNN published a report claiming that Ethiopian Airlines was illegally transporting weapons to and from Eritrea during the early stages of the conflict. This, in turn, prompted more sanctions threats from the U.S. The situation is such that the U.S. is now actively working in support of the TPLF against PM Abiy’s government.

This American hybrid war on Ethiopia is waged in various ways that deserve further study. They closely resemble the American hybrid war on Syria in the sense that the U.S. is using humanitarian pretexts to justify meddling in the country’s internal affairs. Its motivations to backstab its regional ally are entirely self-interested and zero-sum. The U.S. is uncomfortable with PM Abiy’s geopolitical balancing between Washington and Beijing. Although the former TPLF-led government was also close to China, the U.S. likely expected PM Abiy to distance Ethiopia from it, considering the pressure that Washington exerts upon its partners to do so.

He came to power in early 2018 around the time when the U.S. began to intensify its ongoing New Cold War with China. From the American perspective, it is unacceptable for the country’s partners to retain close ties with its top geopolitical rival. It is for this reason why the US far from appreciates PM Abiy’s balancing act since it likely expected for him to move away from China. This leads to the next motivation for the American Hybrid War on Ethiopia, which is to return the TPLF to power there, if not in a national capacity, then at least in its home region. Such an explanation will now be elaborated on more at length.

Ethiopia finds itself at a crossroads whereby the country can either continue on the path of centralization, like PM Abiy has attempted to do, or pursue the course of further federalization to the point where its regions receive more autonomy than before. One of the TPLF’s primary criticisms of the Ethiopian leader is that he is allegedly going against the country’s post-civil war federal foundation. If it can succeed at least in securing broad autonomy for its home region by force after failing to do so peacefully, this might then trigger radical reforms that result in advancing its federal vision throughout the rest of the country.

The U.S. could exploit the broad autonomy that these regions might receive in order to individually pressure them to distance themselves from China. Ethiopia is, after all, Africa’s second most populous country and used to have one of the world’s fastest rates of economic growth before the COVID-19 pandemic. From a continental standpoint, the U.S. might believe that turning Ethiopia against China could eventually become a game-changer in the New Cold War’s African theater. In other words, everything that the U.S. is doing against Ethiopia is motivated by its desire to “contain” China. It is now time to explain its modus operandi in detail.

The U.S. immediately exploited the TPLF-provoked conflict in Ethiopia to pressure PM Abiy to treat the group as his political equals. This was unacceptable for him, since doing so would legitimize all other groups that attack the armed forces in pursuit of their political objectives. The Ethiopian leader rightly feared that it could also trigger a domino effect that results in the country’s “Balkanization”, which would advance American interests in the sense of taking the country out of the “geopolitical game” with China. In response to his recalcitrance, the U.S. alleged that his government was carrying out ethnic cleansing.

American officials knew that this would attract global attention that they could manipulate to put multilateral pressure upon his government. Even so, PM Abiy still did not relent but continued waging his war in the interests of national unity. With time, the U.S. began to portray him as a “rogue leader” who did not deserve his Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 for resolving his country’s frozen conflict with the neighboring Eritrea. Its perception managers presented him as a power-hungry dictator, who was ruthlessly killing the ethnic minorities that opposed his government, including by deliberately starving them to death.

The ENDF’s withdrawal from the Tigray Region over the summer was interpreted by the U.S. as having been commenced from a position of weakness. It believed that ramping up the pressure at this sensitive point in the conflict could lead to him politically capitulating to the TPLF’s demands. This was a wrong assessment since PM Abiy hoped that everything would stabilize after his decision facilitated international relief efforts to the war-torn region. These were unfortunately exploited, according to Addis Ababa, in order to provide more support for the TPLF, which is why his government recently expelled those seven UN officials.

The U.S. “humanitarian imperialism”, as one can now call its policy against Ethiopia, is very pernicious. It focuses solely on the humanitarian crisis in the Tigray Region while ignoring the ones that the TPLF caused in the neighboring Afar and Amhara regions. This policy also manipulates perceptions about the situation in Tigray in order to delegitimize PM Abiy, the ENDF and the political cause of national unity that they are fighting for. The purpose is to encourage more members of the international community to pressure Ethiopia to the point where it finally feels compelled to politically capitulate. This policy, however, has proven to be counterproductive.

Far from giving up the fight, Ethiopia is doubling down and is now more motivated than ever before to see the war to its end, though ideally through a political rather than military solution due to humanitarian considerations. This does not imply treating the terrorist-designated TPLF as an equal but envisions replacing its leadership in the Tigray Region with a pro-government/unity party instead. That is, of course, easier said than done, which is why military means might continue to be relied upon to this political end. Throughout the course of its struggle, Ethiopia has begun to be seen as an anti-imperialist icon across Africa and the rest of the Global South.

PM Abiy’s open letter to Biden was full of powerful statements articulating Ethiopia’s sovereign interests. It showed that African leaders can resist the U.S., which could inspire the Ethiopian leader’s counterparts who might also come under similar pressure from their partner sometime in the future—due to its zero-sum New Cold War geopolitical calculations. Ethiopia’s sheer size makes it an African leader, not to mention it hosting the headquarters of the African Union, so it can influence the rest of the continent. It also has a very proud anti-imperialist history which motivates its people not to submit to foreign pressure.

China, Russia and India have politically supported Ethiopia against the U.S. at the UN, thereby debunking The Economist’s lie last week that “Ethiopia is losing friends and influence”. To the contrary, Ethiopia is gaining friends and influence, especially among the rising powers and the rest of the Global South. Its principled resistance to the American hybrid war on it has shown others that there is an alternative to capitulation. It is indeed possible to fight back in the interests of national unity. Not all American destabilization plots are guaranteed success. Just like the U.S. failed to topple the Syrian government, so too has it failed to topple the Ethiopian regime.

Ethiopia, however, is many orders of magnitude larger than Syria. This makes its hitherto successful resistance to the American hybrid war all the more significant. The leader in the Horn of Africa is a very diverse country, whose many people could be pitted against one another through information warfare to provoke another round of civil war that would help the TPLF’s U.S.-backed anti-government crusade. That worst-case scenario has not materialized, though, due to the majority of the population’s commitment to national unity even among some of those who might have misgivings about the present government.

This year’s elections saw the Prosperity Party win by a landslide, which shows how much genuine support it and its founder have among the masses. Furthermore, PM Abiy’s concept of “medemer” (“coming together”) aims to counteract “Balkanization” processes by pragmatically reforming socio-political relations inside the country. It is a very promising idea that could inspire other very diverse states across the Global South and help them ideologically thwart divide-and-rule plots like the one presently waged against Ethiopia.

Assessing the strategic situation as it presently stands, the American Hybrid War on Ethiopia is expected to intensify on manipulated humanitarian pretexts. More sanctions and even the threatened revocation of Ethiopia’s access to the U.S. market through the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) could worsen the economic situation for millions of people. The purpose in doing so would be to provoke anti-government protests that the U.S. hopes would be violent enough to catalyze a self-sustaining cycle of destabilization throughout the country after the security services crack down on the rioters.

The supplementary purpose is to encourage some Ethiopians to join anti-government terrorist groups allied or working in coordination with the TPLF unless the U.S. succeeds in pulling off a Color Revolution. This modus operandi is identical to the one that it relied upon in its hybrid war on Syria. In the Ethiopian context, the U.S. hopes to forcefully “Balkanize” the country, whether de jure or de facto through an extreme form of federalization. The point is to punish Ethiopia for balancing between China and the U.S., which showed other Global South states that such a pragmatic approach is possible instead of the U.S.-practised zero-sum one.

Nevertheless, the U.S. might still fail. The ENDF and other security services retain control throughout all the country’s regions with the exception of Tigray. It is therefore unlikely that any Color Revolution or Unconventional War there will succeed. Furthermore, Ethiopia enjoys close ties with the rising multipolar powers like China, Russia and India who can help it weather the current crisis by neutralizing U.S. attempts to isolate the country. In addition, the “medemer” concept ensures that national unity remains at the core of the Ethiopian society, reducing the appeal of foreign-backed “Balkanization” narratives.

Altogether, it can be said that Ethiopia is successfully resisting the U.S. hybrid war against it. There have certainly been some serious costs to its international reputation, but it remains committed to the cause of national unity, and it does not seem likely to politically capitulate to the terrorist-designed TPLF’s foreign-backed demands. Expelling those seven UN officials for meddling was a major move which speaks to how serious the country is about protecting its sovereignty. The same can also be said about PM Abiy’s open letter to Biden which preceded that development and explained why the U.S. is wrong for meddling in Ethiopia.

The American Hybrid War on Ethiopia will likely continue since the US doesn’t like to lose. It keenly understands what’s at stake in the realm of international perceptions, and it’s that the US cannot afford to have an African country – let alone one as large and influential as Ethiopia is – successfully resist its pressure campaign. Ethiopia’s resolute resistance can inspire other countries across the Global South, which can complicate the US’ efforts to pressure them into curtailing ties with China in the New Cold War. Had the US simply accepted Ethiopia’s balancing act, then the conflict might have ended by now, but its zero-sum policies prevented that.

From our partner RIAC

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Reducing industrial pollution in the Niger River Basin

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The Niger River is the third-longest river in Africa, running for 4,180 km (2,600 miles) from its source in south-eastern Guinea, through Mali, Niger and Nigeria, before discharging via the Niger Delta into the Gulf of Guinea in the Atlantic Ocean. Tributaries that run through a further five countries feed into the mighty Niger.

Hundreds of millions of people in West Africa depend on the river and its tributaries, for drinking water, for fish to eat, for irrigation to grow crops, for use in productive processes, and for hydroelectric power.

The health of the Niger River Basin is vitally important for the people and for the environment of West Africa. But this health is endangered by land degradation, pollution, loss of biodiversity, invading aquatic vegetal species and climate change.

To both assess and address these environmental issues, a Global Environment Facility (GEF)-funded project has brought together international, regional and national entities to work on integrated water resources management for the benefit of communities and the resilience of ecosystems. (Project details can be found here.)

One part of the early project research found that as the Niger River passes through Tembakounda, Bamako, Gao, Niamey, Lokoja and Onithsa – major trading, agro-processing and industrial cities – wastewater and other polluting substances are discharged directly into the river, often without consideration for the environment. National governments of the countries which the river runs through are either unable to deal with the accumulated environmental problems and/or are ineffective at preventing, regulating, reducing and managing pollution from industrial activities.

For this reason, one component of the GEF project, implemented by the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO), will facilitate the Transfer of Environmentally Sound Technology (TEST) to reduce wastewater discharges and pollution loads into the Niger River.

Despite the limitations on travel resulting from measures to halt the spread of the coronavirus, in August this year, UNIDO successfully identified and engaged with 19 pilot enterprises in various sectors, including pharmaceuticals, mining and agribusiness, operating in ‘pollution hotspots’ in the countries of the Niger River Basin. This number exceeds the original target of one enterprise per country. 

UNIDO experts are now introducing and sharing the Transfer of Environmentally Sound Technology (TEST) methodology with the pilot enterprises. In essence, this will mean the application of a set of tools including Resource Efficient and Cleaner Production, Environmental Management Systems, and Environmental Management Accounting, which will lead to the adoption of best practices, new skills and a new management culture.

Armed with these tools, the enterprises will be able to reduce product costs and increase productivity, while reducing the adverse environmental consequences of their operations. An awareness-raising campaign will be carried out so that the demonstration effect resonates across the Niger River Basin, prompting other enterprises to follow suit.

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Wagner: Putin’s secret weapon on the way to Mali?

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Soldiers from the Wagner Group (source: middleeastmonitor.com)

France is outraged at the prospect of Russian mercenaries from the Wagner group arriving in Mali. However, Paris is seeking a way out of an unwinnable conflict.

On September 13, a Reuters news agency article citing unnamed sources and reporting advanced negotiations between Mali and the Russian mercenary company Wagner sparked a firestorm of reactions. The United States, Germany, and the United Nations have all warned Bamako’s military against such collaboration. According to them, the arrival of Russian mercenaries – a thousand have been estimated – would jeopardize the West’s commitment to fighting the jihadists who control a large portion of Malian territory.

But France, understandably, is the most vocal against such a move. The former colonial power has maintained a military presence in the country since 2013, when it halted the jihadists’ advance on the capital. Florence Parly, the French Minister of the Armed Forces, visited Bamako on September 20th to warn Malian colonels in power following two coups in August 2020 and May 2021. Wagner’s choice, she said, would be that of “isolation” at a time when “the international community has never been so numerous in fighting jihadists in the Sahel”.

What the minister does not mention is that France’s commitment to Mali is waning. Emmanuel Macron used the second Malian coup d’état last June, less than a year before the French presidential election, to announce a “redeployment” of French forces in Mali. Although Paris refuses to discuss a de facto withdrawal, even if it is partial, the truth is that the tricolored soldiers will abandon the isolated bases of Kidal, Timbuktu, and Tessalit in the country’s north by next year, concentrating on the area further south of the three borders with Niger and Burkina Faso.

Europeans, who are expected to be more supportive of France, are also perplexed. The humiliation of the Western withdrawal from Afghanistan has served as a wake-up call. The Afghan government’s sudden collapse in the face of the Taliban has demonstrated how difficult it is to build a strong army and institutions. This scenario appears to be repeating itself in Mali.

The possibility of a rapprochement between Bamako and Moscow is taken seriously because Putschists in Mali have always been sensitive to Russian offerings. Colonel Sadio Camara, Mali’s Defense Minister, visited Russia on September 4. Disagreements over a reversal of Mali’s alliances are said to have been one of the causes of the Malian colonels’ second coup, which ousted the civilian transitional government last May.

Russia also acts as a boogeyman for the Malian military. According to a Daily Beast investigation, the Malian army organized a supposedly spontaneous demonstration last May demanding Russian intervention. This was also a warning to the international community, which is growing weary of the country’s poor governance and repeated coups.

Is Mali transitioning from the French to the Russian spheres of influence? Since Moscow gained a foothold in the Central African Republic, the scenario is not a figment of the imagination. Russian instructors and Wagner’s mercenaries have proven their worth in this former French backyard. Even though the UN condemns Russia’s atrocities in this conflict, the Russians were able to push back the rebels who were threatening the capital Bangui last December with the help of UN peacekeepers and Rwandan reinforcements.

The Kremlin denies any involvement with the Wagner group. However, the company is actually run by a close associate of Vladimir Putin. The use of private mercenaries allows Moscow to avoid military commitments abroad, as it did previously in Ukraine and Libya. “Russia is not negotiating a military presence in Mali,” said a Kremlin spokesman in mid-September. When questioned by the magazine Jeune Afrique on September 20th, Central African President Faustin-Archange Touadéra swore that he had “not signed anything with Wagner.” “In the Central African Republic, we have companies that were established in accordance with the law and operate on liberalized markets,” he explained.

Nothing has been decided on Wagner, it is repeated in Bamako. According to the military, the selection of foreign “partners” is a matter of Mali’s “sovereignty.” They regard these “rumors” as an attempt to “discredit the country.” The Malian junta is under siege, not only from jihadists but also from the international community. The latter is calling for elections to be held in February to return power to civilians, as stipulated in the military-agreed transition charter. Electoral reform must come before the election. However, Colonel Assimi Gota, the transitional president, has shown little interest in preparing for these elections. The Malian junta may also be hoping that Russia’s partners will be less stringent on democratic requirements.

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