Hostilities between Goïta and Tebboune amid Mali’s internal conflict

  • Assimi Goïta opposes Algerian involvement in Mali and redirects his alliances, distancing the country from critics of his government. 
  • President Tebboune fails to achieve his regional objectives due to Goita’s rejection of Algerian mediation in Mali’s internal conflict. 
  • Assimi Goïta’s inability to control non-state armed groups in Mali exacerbates the humanitarian crisis in Mali and the broader Sahel region.

Why is Assimi Goïta hostile toward President Abdelmadjdid Tebboune?

Answer: Assimi Goïta no longer views President Tebboune as a reliable mediator in Mali’s internal conflict.

Since Mali’s independence in 1960, there have been persistent tensions between the government and Tuareg separatists in the country. The Tuareg people, predominantly living in Northern Mali and along the borders of the neighbouring countries, have consistently sought autonomy and independence. Tensions peaked in 2012 when Tuareg factions aimed to establish Azawad, an independent state encompassing the Tuareg-majority regions in northeastern Mali. This attempt led to widespread violence across the country, leading to the infiltration and resurgence of Salafi-jihadist groups, who capitalized on the instability.

Bordering Mali from the North, Algeria has historically served as the main mediator between the Malian government and Tuareg separatist factions, brokering four peace agreements. The latest one was the 2015 Accord for Peace and Reconciliation Rationale in Mali, which aimed to end the violence that erupted in 2012. After an eight year period of relative calm, violence resumed in August 2023.

Mali’s interim president, Colonel Assimi Goïta, has been the leading political figure in the country since the military coup that overthrew the previous president in August 2020. Initially, Goïta welcomed Algeria’s mediation to ease renewed tensions with the Tuaregs.  In 2023, the Tuaregs expressed discontent with the 2015 peace deal, criticizing its effectiveness due to the junta’s poor adherence to promises of development in Northern Mali and greater autonomy for the Tuaregs. In response, Goïta asked for Algeria’s assistance as a mediator and cooperated with Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune, showing a willingness to renew the agreement. However the Tuaregs refused further negotiations, citing the junta’s past failures.  

Despite their previous cooperation, relations between Assimi Goïta and President Abdelmadjid Tebboune deteriorated in December 2023. The change in relations occurred when Tebboune met with Malian religious leader Mahmoud Dicko, a vocal critic of Goïta’s junta, without consulting the Malian government. Goïta interpreted Tebboune’s actions as a breach of neutrality and accused Algeria of interfering in Mali’s internal affairs. Shortly after, Mali recalled its ambassador to Algeria, reciprocated by Algiers. Although both ambassadors returned to their posts in January 2024, tensions between Bamako and Algiers persist.

What does President Tebboune want?

Answer:  President Tebboune wants to prevent violence spillover from Mali to Algeria and maintain Algeria’s regional influence.

President Abdelmajdid Tebboune seeks to address the crisis in Mali for two key reasons. Firstly, he aims to safeguard Algeria’s security, and secondly, he wants to enhance Algeria’s regional influence. To achieve these goals, Tebboune wants a cooperative leader in Mali who is open to Algeria’s involvement in diplomatic processes aimed at resolving the conflict with the Tuaregs and eliminating the Salafi-jihadist threat. Additionally, the shared 1,400 km border between the two countries exposes Algeria to other pressing security issues, such as arms smuggling, illegal migration, and drug trafficking. 

Furthermore, Tebboune is interested in the economic benefits associated with improving Mali’s security. In particular, Algeria’s Trans Saharan Highway project aims to connect Algeria with Chad, Mali, Niger, Nigeria and Tunisia, potentially opening up access to a market exceeding 700 million people. However, the project’s completion is hindered by Mali’s deteriorating security situation, particularly in the North. 

Following the resurgence of fighting between the central authorities and separatists in August 2023, Tebboune reaffirmed Algeria’s commitment to all Malians, regardless of their affiliations. This neutral diplomatic approach is rooted in two reasons: Algeria’s longstanding principle of non-interference in the affairs of other nations, and the recognition that military intervention on either side could jeopardise Algeria’s domestic security.

In addition to safeguarding Algeria’s security, Tebboune is determined to elevate Algeria’s status as a regional power. Following France’s withdrawal of troops from Mali in 2023 and the rise of anti-French sentiment in the country, Tebboune saw an opportunity to pursue this goal by playing a key role in resolving the conflict in Mali. In line with this ambition, Tebboune amended the constitution in 2023 to legalise military deployment abroad, enabling military intervention outside Algeria’s borders.

What does Goïta want?

Answer: Goïta wants to stay in power, strengthen Mali’s sovereignty and address the security crisis through military means.

Goïta’s main objective is to retain power. Since seizing control through the 2020 coup, he has consistently delayed scheduled elections, which would return Mali to democratic civilian rule. In July 2023, the junta introduced a new constitution significantly strengthening the President’s powers and authority of his armed forces. Furthermore, to eliminate potential opponents to his rule, in April 2024, the junta issued a decree banning political party activities. Most recently, in May 2024, Goïta announced a further extension of the election timeline, pushing it from two to five years. 

To boost his domestic support, Goïta has capitalized on rising anti-French sentiments within Mali by demoting French as an official language and employing nationalist rhetoric and anti-Western agenda. The Malian population perceives France’s past presence in Mali as unsuccessful in restoring stability and as an insult to national sovereignty. 

Goïta seeks to address Mali’s security crisis on his own terms. Favoring military solutions over diplomacy, he aims to combat the Tuareg conflict and jihadist insurgency through assertive military action. His confidence in the military’s ability stems from two successful coups, leading him to view military means as imperative for restoring stability.

What is Goïta doing?

Answer: Goïta is reorienting Mali’s alliances, distancing from critics of his junta. 

To enable independent decision-making, Goïta has realigned Mali’s alliances. He has  distanced Mali from Western nations and Algeria, both of which he perceived as critics of his junta. In turn, Goïta has shifted Mali’s alliances towards new partners that do not challenge his authority, such as Russia and Morocco.

In order to eliminate unwanted foreign involvement in Mali’s affairs, Goïta demanded the withdrawal of French and UN troops deployed to help tackle jihadist insurgency, and exited the West African regional bloc – ECOWAS in January 2024. To further diminish French influence, Goïta left the French-led G5 Sahel, forming the Alliance of Sahel States (AES) with Burkina Faso and Niger instead. This is a symbolic move towards sovereignty, as all three nations, once colonized by France, are now moving forward without French involvement.

Additionally, he criticised the UN mission, and ordered MINUSMA troops to withdraw from the country.  This created a power vacuum, which led to fighting resuming between central authorities and northern separatists in August 2023 over abandoned UN bases.  

The resurgence of violence signified the collapse of the 2015 Accord for Peace. Rather than relying on Algeria for further negotiations with the Tuaregs, Goïta proposed direct inter-Malian dialogue, excluding foreign involvement. This shift in approach is motivated by Goïta’s desire to assert Mali’s sovereignty and his perception of Algeria as an adversary, particularly following President Tebboune’s meeting with the Malian separatist religious leader. In March 2024, the Mali junta officially announced the end of Algerian mediation in the conflict. Despite French and UN troop withdrawals, Mali did not seek assistance from Algeria.

To address the security gap, Goïta welcomed a larger role for Russia instead of seeking assistance from Algeria, inviting Wagner mercenaries to combat jihadists and Tuareg separatists. Additionally, right after Tebboune’s meeting with the separatist leader, Goïta participated in a ministerial meeting in Morocco with other Sahel countries.  As Algeria and Morocco are competing for influence in West Africa, Goïta’s meeting in Morocco highlights his changing view of Algeria as an ally.

Who is winning and what about you?

Answer: Goïta is consolidating power, Tebboune faces obstacles in achieving his regional ambitions, meanwhile jihadist groups are strengthening their presence in the region.

Currently, Goïta is winning and Tebboune is losing. Goïta avoided isolation through new alliances supportive of his leadership, while Tebboune lost regional influence and is unable to tackle security challenges stemming from jihadist presence in Mali. Thus, given Goïta’s reluctance to involve Algeria, Mali’s current leadership does not align with Tebboune’s interests. Tebboune initially condemned Goïta’s August 2020 coup d’état, and opposed the junta’s purely military approach.

Despite Goïta’s winning position, he faces domestic opposition fueled by the challenges of a struggling economy and instability due to the ongoing conflicts with separatist and jihadist groups. Contrary to Goïta’s claims of success against jihadist insurgency, these groups have strengthened their control over the Northeastern region of Mali, close to the border with Algeria.

By rejecting Algerian mediation and deploying Wagner mercenaries, Goïta has alienated the Tuaregs, who traditionally relied on Algeria for mediation. Increased attacks by Goïta’s junta has led separatists to seek alliances with jihadist groups who promise to help in their fight against the government. Among these factions, the JNIM Coalition, Al-Qaeda’s Sahelian branch, has emerged as the most prominent non-state actor in Mali. Formed in Mali in 2017 through the merger of various Islamist groups, JNIM aims to challenge the authority of regional governments. 

As non-state actors like JNIM and Tuareg separatists share the common goal of challenging the junta, the growing resentment among Tuaregs toward Goïta’s leadership heightens the risk  of separatist-jihadist collaboration. This collaboration enables jihadist organizations to expand their operations in Mali and the broader Sahel region, exacerbating civilian suffering and the number of internally displaced people in the region. 

The threefold increase in civilian deaths from jihadist activities in the Sahel between 2020 and 2023 signals a trend of worsening humanitarian crises in the region. Goita’s failure to control the JNIM, responsible for the majority (81%) of jihadist attacks in the Sahel, exacerbates this trend. His inability amplifies the humanitarian crises not only within Mali but also in neighboring Sahel states, as non-state armed groups can transverse borders and strengthen their presence across the region.