The Platform

Chadian UN peacekeepers in Tessalit, Mali. (Marco Dormino)

As expected, the security situation in Mali is deteriorating.

Earlier this month, the Coordination des mouvements de l’Azawad (CMA), a coalition of Tuareg and Arab groups, announced that they had seized control of a military camp in Bourem—a disquieting indicator of the deteriorating relationship between the Malian Army and the rebel factions. This particular camp is strategically situated 90 kilometers from Gao, a pivotal city in Mali. According to Mohamed Elmaouloud Ramadane, a CMA spokesperson, the rebels lost nine fighters in the operation, while inflicting heavy casualties on the Malian Army, killing nearly 97 soldiers.

“I confirm the CMA took control of the camp around 10 a.m. after very violent fighting,” Ramadane said, adding that they captured multiple army positions in the town, along with vehicles, weapons, and ammunition. Although the CMA claimed brief control over the military camp, they later retreated.

The Malian Army General Staff offered a diverging account. While confirming that ten of their own were killed during the fighting in Bourem, they reported a higher toll of 46 rebels killed. The statement notably omitted any reference to the CMA or the capture of the military camp, simply asserting that the situation was “under control.” Surviving rebel forces were said to have retreated northward.

UN peacekeepers in Ogossagou, Mali in 2022
UN peacekeepers in Ogossagou, Mali in 2022. (Harandane Dicko)

Comprising three main groups—the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, the Arab Movement of Azawad, and the High Council for Unity of Azawad—the CMA was established during the Northern Mali conflict in 2014. Accusing Mali’s military-led government of lethargy, the coalition has laid plans for expansive operations aimed at securing northern Mali’s population.

The conflict, which has been simmering since August, was exacerbated by the withdrawal of United Nations peacekeepers. Shaantanu Shankar, an expert on the region, noted that the attacks were concentrated in areas where UN and French forces had provided stability before being kicked out of the country by Colonel Assimi Goïta who had assumed power following a military coup.

The renewed fighting threatens to fill the vacuum left by departing UN forces in a region that has long been a crucible of instability. It also comes at a time when extremist groups like Al Qaeda and ISIS are opportunistically expanding their footholds, exploiting the discord between the Malian Army and the rebel groups who were signatories to a 2015 peace accord.

The intensification of hostilities between the Malian Army and the CMA holds significant consequences for the Islamist insurgency in Mali. Not only does it siphon off essential resources and focus from combating extremist groups in other regions, but it also creates an environment ripe for shifting alliances and opportunistic exploitation by Islamist militants. The resulting fragmentation in the security landscape complicates efforts to resolve the conflict politically and deepens the ongoing humanitarian crisis—making civilians more vulnerable to recruitment by extremist factions.

Adding to the turmoil, Timbuktu has been effectively cut off from the rest of the country. Sky Mali, the sole commercial airline flying to the city, has suspended its flights due to a month-long Islamist blockade. Residents reported hearing artillery fire near the city’s airport. “We heard several shell shots at Timbuktu airport. Flights are canceled,” said a local resident. “Now Timbuktu is completely closed. The access roads are cut; the boats no longer come.”

Osborn Baya is a political, and policy analyst with a keen focus on African governance and affairs and international relations.