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January 30th, 2013, by Meenakshi Dalal

Meenakshi Dalal

Background on Mali: An Interview with the Council on Foreign Relations’ John Campbell


After French forces went into Mali in mid-January, Global Experts conducted an interview with the Council on Foreign Relations’ John Campbell to provide journalists with some background information and context. Campbell is a Ralph Bunche Senior Fellow for Africa Policy Studies.

The transcribed version of this interview can be found below.


The conflict in Mali is making news at the moment because of France’s involvement. When did this conflict actually start?

“There has been a low level insurgency against the government of Bamako for a very long time.  The current wave of it accelerated with the military coup in Bamako last year creating a vacuum in the North. During this period of a power vacuum and with access to Libyan heavy weapons, the insurgents managed to drive the Malian forces out of the north.  However, shortly after that occurred, essentially those who were looking for autonomy, or possibly even independence in northern Mali were out-maneuvered or pushed aside by radical Islamist groups that in many ways function as criminal networks that support themselves on kidnapping and smuggling.”


Many people are citing Mali as the next “extremist hotspot.”  Do you think this is a real threat?

“I think it’s a limited threat because it implies that the Islamist insurgents are considerably more unified than they really are.  If you look carefully both at their rhetoric and at their behavior you will see that they’re very often attacking each other as well as attacking anybody else.”

Who are the primary actors involved in this dispute?

“In Bamako, the principal actors are essentially the remnants of the political class that has run the country for a very long time and is currently led by the interim president. That’s one.

The second is the military, and the relationship between those two groups is unstable.  In the north you have Ansar Dine, Al Qaeda and the Islamic Maghreb and the reminisce of those who have been looking for some kind of northern autonomy.

One has to think of the situation as extremely fluid in which none of these boundaries are particularly hard and fast and people move around amongst those various groups pretty easily.”

Why is France going in now?

“First of all the French responded to an urgent request which would appear at least in part to be stimulated by the Islamist insurgents pushing south and threatening the local airport.”

How does the average Malian citizen feel about the current events?

I would start with the fundamental point. And that is that Mali is one of the poorest countries in the world.  It is more or less in perpetual food security crisis.  What Malians are concerned about mostly is how to stay alive from today until tomorrow. The kind of fighting we’re talking about of course makes that all the more difficult. And that accounts in part for some of the significant refugee movements into countries near the Malian border and also the growth of the number of internally displaced persons.”


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