Did Libya Cause Mali?

Did the fall of the Gaddafi regime in Libya cause the ongoing crisis in Mali?

A lot of people seem to think so. Number 4 on Max Fisher’s “Nine Questions about Mali You Were Too Embarrassed to Ask” is: “I heard that this whole crisis happened because of the war in Libya. Is that true?” Yesterday on the BBC’s This Week, former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan seemed to answer in the affirmative when he described Mali as “collateral damage” from Libya.

The accounts I’ve read from people who closely study the country generally attribute the crisis in Mali to two things: 1) the resumption of armed rebellion in northern Mali in January 2012; and 2) the mutiny and coup that ensued in March. As I understand those experts’ arguments, the scale of the current crisis is due to the intersection of these two. Neither the rebellion nor the coup alone was sufficient to produce the state collapse that is compelling the large-scale international response. If neither was sufficient alone, then both were necessary.

Did Libya’s collapse cause one or both of these events? It certainly seems to have played some role. As proponents of the “Libya caused Mali” line have pointed out, the resumption of rebellion in the north was driven, in part, by an inflow of fighters and arms fleeing Libya after the fall of their patron and purchaser, Moammar Qaddafi. The resumption of the Tuareg’s rebellion, in turn, appears to have helped trigger the military coup. After seizing power, the putschists sometimes identified the government’s weak support for their fight against the rebels as the motivation behind the mutiny that evolved into a coup when it encountered little resistance.

To make strong claims about the importance of Libya to Mali, though, we have to believe that one or both of these things—the rebellion and the coup—would not have happened if Libya hadn’t imploded. Here, I think the assertion that “Libya caused Mali” gets much weaker.

On the fight in the north, a recent Think Africa Press piece by Andy Morgan asserts that the resumption of rebellion had been planned for some time, suggesting that Libya’s collapse was not a necessary condition for its occurrence. “In truth, neither Gaddafi’s fall nor AQIM nor drugs and insecurity are the prime movers behind this latest revolt,” Morgan writes. “They are just fresh opportunities and circumstances in a very old struggle.” Morgan’s account isn’t gospel, of course, but it does imply that rebellion could have and probably would have recurred in the north regardless of Gaddafi’s fate. Libya’s collapse seems to have affected the timing and possibly the strength of that assault, but it doesn’t appear to have been necessary for its occurrence.

The connection between Libya and the March 2012 coup is even more tenuous. Statistical models I developed to forecast coups d’etat identified Mali as one of the countries at greatest risk in 2012 before the coup happened, and that assessment was not particularly sensitive to events in Libya. The chief drivers of that forecast were Mali’s extreme poverty (as captured by its infant mortality rate) and the character of its pre-coup political institutions. One of the models takes armed conflict in the region into account, but it’s not an especially influential risk factor, and the impact of Libya’s civil war on the final forecast is negligible.

This forecast suggests that a coup in Mali was entirely plausible absent the rebellion in the north, and that impression is bolstered by the reporting of Bruce Whitehouse from Bamako in a March 2012 blog post:

The way [coup leader Capt.] Sanogo went on to justify the coup was inconsistent and wide-ranging. His initial responses to questions about his troops’ demands indicated that their primary concerns centered around living conditions, pay, and education and job opportunities for their children. When prompted about insecurity in northern Mali, however, he claimed that this issue “occupied 70 percent of their preoccupations.” (During a later interview, Sanogo again had to be reminded about the rebellion after listing the factors that led to the coup.)

The statements of actors engaged in the politics in question aren’t always (often? ever?) honest or reliable, but in this case they align with the information we get from the statistical model. It really isn’t that hard to imagine a coup occurring in Mali in 2012 regardless of events in Libya.

In retrospect, it’s easy to construct narratives that connect Mali to Libya. What’s harder is to imagine the other ways things might have unfolded and assess how likely those counterfactual histories are. We’ll never know for sure, of course, but I think this quick accounting shows that we could have arrived at something very much like the current crisis in Mali even if the Gaddafi regime had never collapsed. That doesn’t mean events in Libya have had no effect on the crisis in Mali, but it does suggest that the one is not the cause of the other.

Leave a comment


  1. brucewhitehouse

     /  January 18, 2013

    I agree that while the fall of Qaddafi was a contributing factor to the collapse of the Malian state, it was not a determining one. Mali under President Toure (2002-2012) was badly governed and increasingly lawless. By the time Tuareg fighters returned to Mali from Libya in late 2011, the Malian army had been hollowed out by years of neglect and nepotism; it was unable to confront the renewed rebel threat. Those fighters had to pass through Algeria or Niger to get there (Mali shares no border with Libya), and ex-Qaddafi loyalists also returned to those countries at the same time, but only Mali’s government was already vulnerable enough to be brought down.

    • Thanks very much for reading and commenting. I’ve really appreciated and learned a lot from your reporting on happenings in Mali over the past year.

  2. Hi Jay,

    We’ve been discussing these events a bit in one of my classes and using your coup risk rankings (from your Foreign Policy piece) as a starting point for that discussion. So thanks for posting all this stuff; its been helpful.

    Your post today makes me wonder how the onset of neighboring conflict (or neighboring-country regime collapse or neighboring-country leader ouster) influences the \emph{change} in the predicted risk of a coup in Mali. I wouldn’t be surprised if your predicted coup risks for Mali 2010, 2011, and 2012 aren’t all very close to each other. If these predictions mostly stem from the IMR and pre-coup political institutions — information that doesn’t change much from year to year — the coup risk predictions probably don’t change much from year to year either.

    Perhaps another way to assess the extent to which events in Libya influenced the coup in Mali is to see how much your variable for neighboring conflict/regime collapse/leader exit influences the percent change from the medium-term moving average of the predicted coup risk for Mali. Then compare this change in predicted risk resulting from neighbor instability to the change in predicted risk that would result from a “typical” increase in the (logged) IMR that occurs during an acute drought in a place like Mali.

    If neighbor instability still doesn’t do much to account for the change in predicted coup risk relative to other factors, then I’d be more on board with you poo-pooing the idea that Libyan events may not have played much of a role.

    I understand that our confidence in the changes in the predicted risk of a coup is much lower than our confidence in separating the high coup risk places from the low coup risk places but it still might prove a useful exercise and shed some light on whether Libyan events influenced the coup and subsequent military intervention in Mali.


    • Thanks very much for using the forecasts in your class, Joe. That’s really exciting to hear.

      I just reran the 2012 coup forecasting script with values for Mali that pretend there was no rebellion in the north at the start of the year and that the civil war in Libya wasn’t happening. The predicted probability barely moves from 0.039 to 0.036. That would have left Mali’s position near the top of the global rankings largely unchanged. Those variables only appear in one of the two models across which I’m averaging, and the coefficients associated with them are small (0.05 and 0.17, respectively). In the algorithm I used that year, problems with domestic political institutions, poverty, and recent coup activity are the heavy lifters. Mali didn’t have the third, but it had the other two in spades.

      So that’s where I’m coming from when I say that events in Libya had little impact on the risk of a coup in Mali. I realize that doesn’t address the part of your question about changes in infant mortality due to other factors, but that’s partly because the short answer to that question is that it wouldn’t have a big effect, either. For these models, I’m measuring infant mortality relative to the global median. For countries like Mali that are already toward the extremes, even noticeable year-to-year changes in the absolute rate of infant mortality have a very modest effect on the normalized measure. In general, infant mortality rates don’t fluctuate a lot, and that risk factor is much more about cross-national sorting than cross-temporal variation in risk.

  3. Good article.
    Disagree with the assertion that the insurgency in Mali would have happened without the West instigated insurgency and NATO destruction of Libya. Both were necessary, the first to create a reason and opportunity to ferry in extremists and to provide abundant weaponry, the second to create a safe haven environment for the expansion of extremist forces and freedom to cross borders.
    Remember that the LIFG that works closely with AQIM is a CIA controlled and led gang. To divert part of AQIM’s forces to Mali would be a trivial task. Also Saudi funds al Nusra that represents the Muslim Brotherhood that is playing a role in Mali. For the CFR (that controls the CIA) to influence the MB via Saudi would also be trivial.
    Stopthewar.org had a nice article (/2187-blood-for-uranium-frances-mali-intervention-has-little-to-do-with-terrorism) that mentioned “Although Niger has been France’s primary uranium trading partner in the region, investors are currently estimating 5,200 tonnes of untapped uranium sources in Mali, making the requirements of a favourable government and a suppressed civil society all the more urgent.”
    Just more government for corporations and against the people as far as I can see.
    Worth noting, if a Malian invitation to Hollande to suppress terrorists is acceptable, a like request by Syria to Russia, China and Iran must be equally acceptable.

    • Garuda

       /  January 20, 2013

      Do you mean before or after Syria started shooting dead unarmed protesters?

  4. david

     /  January 19, 2013

    I do wonder if Americans overlook their own involvement in the Sahel, largely since 9/11 and with a military / CT focus. The Malian army had a US SOF training team in residence, not visiting.

    In my reading as Mali came into the foreground I was intrigued by this passage in a NYT report: ‘According to one senior officer, the Tuareg commanders of three of the four Malian units fighting in the north at the time defected to the insurrection “at the crucial moment,” taking fighters, weapons and scarce equipment with them. He said they were joined by about 1,600 other defectors from within the Malian Army, crippling the government’s hope of resisting the onslaught’.

    Link: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/14/world/africa/french-jets-strike-deep-inside-islamist-held-mali.html?smid=tw-nytimesworld&seid=auto&pagewanted=all&_r=3&

    Open sources show the Malian Army had 7350 soldiers, forming eight battalions; so if the NYT source is correct nearly half the army defected with their equipment.

    One hardly needs to have the reported bonus from Libya if that happens. You do need the Libyan factor and the AQ banner to persuade those faraway to get involved.

  5. I think part of what is understated underneath all of this, is a general crisis in the Sahel from desertification for the rural tribes, less state distribution of goods such as clean water for the cities, and inflation in imported goods everywheres.

    Minority areas the world over are getting more restive, I suspect.

  6. David, I wasn’t aware the defection had been so substantial (attempting to closely follow the Syria situation is a time thief). It lends even more credibility to your article.
    Still in speculative mode, with the new info and assuming the CIA still retains some level of control over terrorist groups by funding and by asset placement, the insertion of registered terrorist groups into the Mali rebellion would provide the justification for demonisation of the rebellion and for the French intervention.
    It would also explain Obama’s haste to have al Nusra declared a terrorist outfit, an action that on the surface injured the Western and ME regimes’ alliance with MB and reduced credibility of MSM and regimes’ claims that the West was supporting a rebellion in Syria rather than the truth, an invasion of West provided and sponsored extremists, terrorists and criminals (via client states).
    For me the bigger picture is that the US is occupying Africa and the ME with a purpose of denying free access to China and Russia by regular market methods whilst ensuring favourable terms for Western corporation exploitation by establishing pan continent puppet regimes and sustaining disunity of the nations and population. The private central bank octopus plays a big role in determination of military objectives.
    The conclusion is still that Hollande and the other actors are defending an acquisition ruled by a puppet gov’t in Mali on behalf of corporate profit but now with the addition, against a popular uprising.

    • Garuda

       /  January 20, 2013

      I’d say you’re working with an inherent bias to deliberately see all of it as a plot by Western nations against any nation that isn’t Western, especially since you seem to see some grand design between banks, corporations and intelligence agencies that isn’t even true of China, much less multiple nations across Europe and North America.

  7. Traveler

     /  June 24, 2014

    I realize that this is an old thread but I just happened upon it. I am very familiar with northern Mali and other parts of West Africa and have lived and worked with Tuareg and other people’s in the area. I am also well acquainted with Iyad ag Ghali and Ahmada ag Bibi and spent a lot of time living with them and traveling across Mali with them. I also know a lot about the mineral potential of the area of Mali and the rest of West Africa. I find some of the comments in these articles and blogs kind of clueless. NE Mali has some potential for gold, base metal and uranium. It would take a lot of investment over a long period of time to make any discovery and even longer to realize any economic benefit. It is an isolated area a long way from any support lines with a climate that would be attractive to very few. To write that the Tuareg are sitting on some kind of treasure chest is pure fantasy. Only the very best discovery could ever be developed there and I am here to tell you that “they ain’t got none yet”. The oil potential is marginal although it does exist. The French were in both Niger and Mali long ago in the 1960’s and they hit barely a sniff. The phosphate potential of the region is very limited. The deposits are not huge or great and they are 2,000 km from tide water.

    I have laughed out loud many times about articles that talk of the impenetrable Sahara and the fact that terrorists/smugglers/nationalists could not be found. Believe me there are very few places that you can hide in Northern Mali. A roads/paths always lead to water and all water sources are well known. Drive a truck across the desert and the tracks will be still apparent 20 years later. Unlike many countries where uprisings have been successful northern Mali is basically un-populated and so any participant would stick out. With current satellite imagery of sub-meter resolution nothing can hide. If the Al Qaeda people could not be found it was because nobody wanted to find them. Just points to the usual Malian corruption. It was ever thus and will always be so.

    I find it very interesting that you predicted instability for Mali. I imagine that you could have done that for every year since 1960. If anything the Mali of 2012 was in better shape since pretty much every year since independence. I would say keep doing your sums on these countries but don’t bet your life or fortune on the conclusions you make.

    I am impressed that Andy Morgan managed to dig up and put so much in his article. It was even reasonably well written. Not bad for a musical type. To conclude I think that you will find the whole Malian-Tuareg issue is much more mundane than you think. Iyad the old whiskey drinker rolled the dice cause the yung’uns did not want him. So typical of the whole Tuareg mess. If a bad situation could be made worse the Tuareg will surely make it happen. It was not great before and it is even worse now. I am sure that France wishes that it had never been dragged into the mess. Mali never ceases to disappoint. To quote Iyad “the black people in southern Mali have gone to the stars and left the Tuareg on earth”. What a great encapsulation of everything about this whole affair. You have to wonder about a guy who thinks donkey carts in southern Mali are proof that others have developed and moved on. So romantic and so completely impractical.


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