Mali & CAR: North-South Division Under Religious Lines?

In the past year, Mali and Central African Republic (CAR) who gained their independence in 1960 have drawn the attention of the international community which fears that the security and humanitarian crises in the former French colonies might spill over to neighboring countries. Mali is located in the Sahel region[1] while CAR, as its name suggests, lies in the center of the African continent. CAR’s neighbors, Chad in the north and Sudan in the north-east belong to Sahel. Sahel is one of the poorest regions in the world where terrorist groups managed to finance their activities through drug, weapon and human trafficking. These two states are characterized by weak and corrupt governments, who are unable to face security issues. Their operational capabilities and institutions are insufficient to provide their citizens with judicial protection and secured borders. Young generations struggling through poverty in a hostile environment are more likely to fall into extremism leading the country into sectarian violence.

Recent political events in the Maghreb with the so-called “Arab Spring” have had major consequences on the Sahel region. Popular uprisings began with Tunisia in December 2010, before spreading to Libya, Syria and Egypt. Most significantly for the Sahel region were the outcomes of the uprising in Libya which remove Muammar Gaddafi from power with the support of a NATO air campaign. In spite of its military success, the operation contributed to a certain extent to the further destabilization of the Sahel region through the proliferation of weapons and the influx of fighters. In fact, the fall of Gaddafi brought an increase in jihadist enlistment and weapons smuggling from Libya, reinforcing AQIM’s strength therefore favoring the Islamist destabilization of northern Mali. In fact one of the blatant outcomes in the region of the collapse of Gaddafi’s regime was the influx of combatants and of weapons in this already traffic prone area. Reports indicated that Tuareg tribesmen who served under Gaddafi’s rule returned to Mali loaded with weapons and desires of independence from Bamako.[2]

In January 2013 Islamist extremist groups including Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) took control of major towns in the north of Mali while ousting Tuaregs – their former allies- and managed to progress south. Responding to a Malian request, France intervened[3] to roll-back Islamist fighters to the north of the country. At present, the situation remains unstable with a weak agreement between Bamako and Tuaregs and report of violent incidents. The exclusively military strategy in the Libyan conflict failed to take into account the specificity of the country – which was a tribal system – and of the Sahel region –political vacuum and weak borders.

Separately, in Central African Republic, the governance, political, economic and social crisis ended up causing sectarian violence. In March 2013, a Muslim rebel alliance from the North, the Seleka feeling betrayed by the central government in Bangui ousted President François Bozizé. Although the conflict was not religious initially, attacks by Seleka forces on the Christian population have brought about a division between Muslims and the Christians. At this stage, France supported by an UN Security Council Resolution[4] launched a military intervention in CAR aiming at protecting population and stabilizing the country[5]. Following the French intervention, Seleka fighters were pushed back to the north but by that time the cycle of revenge and hatred was underway with the formation of anti-Balaka[6] militias to protect the Christians. Recent reports by the NGO Amnesty International expressed concerns about ethnic cleansing taking place.[7]A backlash is feared in the north-east while the Seleka might get support from Nigeria, Mali and Chad. An internationalization of the conflict in CAR is not to be ruled out as the Organization of Islamic Cooperation is sending fact-finding mission,[8] while, Al Qaeda is blaming France for the attacks on Muslims[9] and might use it as an excuse for further involvement in the country.

Due to transnational movement of terrorist, CAR can be now seen as belonging to the wider AQIM area of influence which stretches itself from Mauritania to the Horn of Africa. Facing the dilemma of being accused either of neo-colonialism or failing to protect population, on February 25, 2014, Paris voted the prolongation of the military operation in CAR. To recall, in 1994 France has been accused of playing a role in the Genocide of Tutsi in Rwanda. Some reports suggested that the French knew that a genocide was in preparation but did not react to protect the endanger population. Twenty years after the genocide, the trial of Pascal Simbikangwa who is suspected of being accomplice in the genocide[10] might shed the light on the role of France during the genocidal conflict.[11]The shadow of Rwanda has enshrined the Responsibility to Protect (R2P)[12] in the French military’s thinking as regard to its politics toward its former colonies.

In the light of recent events, both Mali and CAR are facing difficult security issues that in spite of different roots might split the country along religious lines. It is worth mentioning that Nigeria –the richest and most populous country in the region- is the symbol of actual division in Western Africa with the Jihadist group, Boko Haram[13]coming from the north and mostly targeting Christian populations. The weakness of their governments, their inability to fight poverty, secure control of its resources and borders has major consequences on the stability in the region. Restoring security then fall back into the hand of former colonial power, France, whose socialist government, while struggling with tight budget at home, has undertaken two major military operations in the region since it came to power in 2012. France has been, however accused of neo-colonialism especially in CAR which possesses important natural resources. As regard to Mali, France is blamed for being at the origin of the security crisis in Mali because of the military approach that was adopted in Libya. Aside, from the strictly military strategy, its alliances are pointed out. Indeed, Chad took part in the military intervention in Mali, while the country itself is subject to many tensions and while later in CAR, Muslim Chadians have been accused of supporting Seleka fighters against Christians.[14]France should also reevaluate its relations with states such as Qatar that is known for giving financial support to Islamist terrorist groups in the Sahel, groups that France is fighting on the ground.

To conclude, although, operation Serval in Mali was seen at first as a rapid military success, the international community is rather reluctant to invest in the stabilization of the country, peacekeeping forces is at the moment insufficient and France is already involved in another military operation in the CAR whose risk of sinking is much higher than in Mali. Military interventions are yet to be included in a wider strategy. Problems in Sahel are transnational and interlinked. Only a global strategy for the entire region encompassing the various actors could provide some progress in the security sector.

[1] For further information on the Sahel region please refer to the Encyclopeadia Britannica

[5]Operation Sangaris December 5, 2013 please refer to the French Ministry of Defence on

[6] Anti-Balaka means “anti-machete” in Sango

[7] Amnesty International (February 12, 2014) “Central African Republic: Ethnic Cleansing and Sectarian Violence”

[8] Associated Press (February 20, 2014) “Organization of Islamic Cooperation to send fact-finding mission to Central African Republic”

[9] Reuters (February 24, 2014) “Chad troops kill civilians in Central African Republic: residents”

[10] Le Monde (February 2, 2014) « Le génocide rwandais en procès à Paris »

[11]BBC News (February 4, 2014) “Rwanda ex-spy chief tried in Paris on genocide charges”

[13] Reports suggest that Boko Haram and AQIM are collaborating,

[14] Reuters (February 24, 2014) “Chad troops kill civilians in Central African Republic: residents”