In the 1990s, Mali was often put forward as a model of African democracy. It is not hard to understand why. Following an extended period of authoritarian rule after becoming independent in 1960, Mali held three elections as of 1992 in which power passed to the winner. An anomaly among the Sahelian states during that decade, it remains so in several other corners of the African continent two decades on.
But in fact, Mali has more in common with its fellow Sahelian states than not. Historically, Mali has long been part of the same politico-administrative space. In the late nineteenth century, Mali was called le Soudan français, an entity that was administered as part of la Fédération française de l’Afrique de l’ouest. In 1958, Mali, then renamed la République du Soudan, became part of la Communauté française. In 1959, together with Senegal, Mali formed la Fédération du Mali. This entity became independent in March 1960, but within two months the two constituent parts separated.
Mali can also call upon an impressive historical heritage. Long before the French colonial administration was in place, antecedents of contemporary Mali were major actors in trans-Sahelian trade, playing a pivotal role in connecting the Maghreb and West Africa. And for almost four centuries after 1230, there was a Malian empire that dominated West Africa culturally, economically, militarily and linguistically, and whose rulers were celebrated for their great wealth and charity. Mali’s is thus a proud culture where any outside intervention, but especially one associated with the former colonial power, is bound to be greeted with mixed emotions.
The 1960 separation meant that modern Mali would become just as landlocked as four other states of the Sahel, and just as much confronted with debilitating challenges in getting its goods to markets that could pay an acceptable price. Limited access to market was partly about the lack of viable transportation networks, partly about the ubiquitous rent-seekers that controlled those that did exist, and also partly about the absence of a viable vision for fostering economic growth and development in both regional and donor capitals.
With its neighbors, Mali shared a lack of preparedness for assuming independence. Was this because the colonial power left too soon? Because the latter failed to train a national elite capable of taking over the reins of government? Because Mali – and this was the norm for African states after they achieved independence – was pressed into a Westphalian mode that was somewhere between an awkward and an impossible fit? Or maybe because Mali, like other new states the world over, needed time measured in generations, not in years, to mature as a governing entity?
Adding to these issues, Mali has also long been incapable of devising a power-sharing formula acceptable to its 800,000-strong Tuareg minority, concentrated in the north of the country. The Tuaregs, a Berber people with significant brethren communities aross the Sahel and North Africa, have rebelled against the central power no less than four times since Mali’s independence. Successive governments in Bamako have failed to give the North, where other ethnic groups are also active, an effective stake in the overall evolution of the state. A sense of acrimony and disbelonging has come to characterize relations between the Tuareg-dominated North and the rest of the country.
The most recent rebellion was precipitated by two factors. With the collapse of government authority during the Arab Spring in Libya in 2011, many of the Malian Tuaregs who had worked in the Libyan oil industry or served in its military, returned to northern Mali, often seriously armed. This was a development that was not unwelcome to Western governments trying to take down Qaddafi and destroy his power base.
In northern Mali, or Azawad, the Tuareqs found dramatic food shortages caused by a series of droughts that had visited the region since the middle of the previous decade. This had further undermined Bamako’s already tenuous authority in this part of the country. In response, the Tuaregs under the leadership of the Mouvement national pour la Libération de l’Azawad (MNLA) challenged central control over their homeland and went on to easily best the elements of the Malian Army stationed there. In April 2012, AZAWAD proclaimed its independence and the implementation of Shariah Law. In this phase, they were initially supported by an al-Qaeda affiliated group called Anwar Dine.
Developments in the North led a disgruntled group of Malian soldiers to stage a coup in Bamako in March 2012, whereby they deposed the President and dissolved the constitution. Under the pressure of ECOWAS and the African Union, the military then handed power over to an interim government.
Meanwhile, in the North, the MNLA and Anwar Dine had fallen out, principally over the future direction of the newly-proclaimed AZAWAD state. As the alliance disintegrated, Anwar Dine was joined by a number of other jihadist groups. In particular, there was al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Originally known as Le Groupe Salafiste Pour La Prédication et Le Combat-GSPC and focused on taking power in Algeria, it had changed its name to AQIM in 2007 as it sought to become active across the region. To AQIM, Northern Mali seemed to be an ideal place for carving out a beachhead where their forces could train, regroup and prepare their next operation. Algeria was only too happy to witness their displacement to northern Mali.
The interim government in Bamako was unable to halt the advance of the Tuareg-jihadist coalition and, fearful of being routed, its forces began to withdraw from the North. In the last days of March, AQIM declared the independence of this expanse of Mali. Soon after, it sought to expand its jurisdiction southwards.
Faced with the prospect of a new jihadist enclave emerging, the international community, supported by several African states, ended up responding favorably to a request from the interim government in Bamako for support in dealing with the security situation in the North.
The Security Sector Pre-Crisis
Central government weakness, adverse impact of climate change and upheaval in the neighboring Arab world would have presented Mali with major governance challenges under any circumstances. However, it was the serious shortcomings in the Malian security sector that pushed the country over the edge. Under-equipped, under-trained, largely unspervised and grossly under-representative of its Tuareg population, Mali’s security forces failed to prevent the country from plunging into civil war and proved incapable of halting the violence once it was underway.
The deficiencies facing the Malian security sector, then as now, are multiple:
(1) the perception and, to a great extent, the reality that the primary role of the security actors is to protect the government and only secondarily the population;
(2) the government’s inability to provide security across national territory;
(3) the far-reaching lack of transparency with regard to the activities of the security actors, inter alia their recruitment policies, which have tended to favor personal connections rather than professional capacity;
(4) the lack of oversight over the security actors, in particular owing to the structural weakness of the parliament and the media, and the relative marginalization of active and committed CSOs;
(5) a pervasive culture of corruption and complacency in dealing with issues such as arms and drug trafficking;
(6) a systemic lack of capacity owing to inadequate budgets, leading to serious equipment and infrastructure shortfalls;
(7) weak leadership and managerial capacity on the part of those responsible for the security forces, both at the level of government and at that of the leadership of individual forces; and
(8) an almost total absence of a culture of coordination, communication and cooperation across the Malian security sector.
There were several attempts to address these issues, even before the crisis. These included a ten-year Development Programme for the Northern Regions launched in 2008, a Shared Governance Programme for Peace and Security initiated the same year and a Special Programme for Peace, Security and Development in Northern Mali that saw the light of day in 2011. In 2010, Mali also began work on a raft of laws on security sector issues and actors.
These initiatives had not matured by the time the crisis broke at the end of 2011. Could they have made a difference? Whatever the case may be, Mali and its security sector were simply not ready for the huge challenges that were to emerge. For many years, the Malian security sector had been ineffectual to be sure, but its ineffectuallity does not appear to have been a state-threatening issue. This changed with the overflow of the Arab Spring into the Sahel, and the emergence of jihadist groups in states to the Sahelian south, in particular such as Boko Haram in Nigeria. 
 For a brief description of the different actors of the Security Sector in Mali: Veerle Triquet and Lorraine Serrano. Gender and the Security Sector: A survey of the National Police, Civil Protection, the Armed and Security Forces, Justice system and Penal services in Mali. Geneva: DCAF, 2015. For a good understanding of the Malian Security Sector, see: Report of the UN Secretary General on Progress towards the United Nations Integrated Strategy for the Sahel; On the importance of SSR in Bamako (CSG Blog contribution); DCAF report on the role the Malian Parliament has played in the civil-military relations since 1992 and draws conclusion as to state of SSR before the 2012 crisis (for an analysis of the situation before the 2012 crisis, see Dr Zeini Moulaye and IGP Mahamadou Niakate, Shared Governance of Peace and Security – The Malian Experience).