The turmoil in Mali has been going on for just over a year with increasing international presence on the horizon.
What started off as another in a series of attempted rebellions by the Tuareg ethnic group in northern Mali quickly intensified with a coup by the Malian army, and interventions by a range of outsiders including al-Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM), West and Central African troops and France.
The situation has reached momentary stability in the north with the international community trying to figure out what a stabilisation operation in Mali might look like. The UN Security Council is pushing forward the idea of deploying an official peacekeeping mission which would provide better funding and logistics for regional African troops.
International actors appear to recognise that resolving Mali will not come through force, but dialogue and addressing root causes. As one of the root causes of the crises, the link between corruption and insecurity needs to be addressed. Specifically, corruption in the military and the links to organised crime need to be tackled, but defining corruption properly in context and protecting an international operation from corruption are also crucial.
Corruption as a key issue is not a guessing game in Mali. It is a grievance among all Malians, including the army and rebels. For an international mission to not address corruption as a priority would be like trying to put together a puzzle while ignoring a piece that is right in front of you.
Corruption as a root concern
The most recent uprising of Tuaregs, a nomadic ethnic group in the north of Mali, stems from a long list of issues, from economic mismanagement by the central government in Bamako through to corruption. Previous Tuareg rebellions have resulted in defeat or negotiated settlements for greater autonomy and/or economic development. This time however, a better equipped rebel movement caught the Mali military off guard.
Part of the reason why the Tuaregs initially succeeded was the corruption within the Malian military. There are accusations that senior military staff stole from funds meant for equipment and operations. The overthrow of the government last March by a band of mid-level officers was reported to be an impromptu response to the Malian military's struggles against the Tuaregs, with blame laying on government mismanagement.
Frustration over corruption is widespread in Mali. While the country has been held up as a relatively good example of democratic transition, citizens have been frustrated with elite corruption. Mali ranks 105th out 176 countries on Transparency International's Corruption Perception Index. Foreign observers on the ground in Mali have expressed concerns that the current political class does not seem willing to change much of the habits that led to the current situation.
There are four critical issues related to the link between corruption and insecurity that an international intervention needs to take into account:
Any international actors need to learn about corruption in context including local perceptions, key grievances, and stakeholders. While frustration with corruption is widespread in Mali, there will be difference in opinion in the north and the south on the nature of problems and ways to address them.
Corruption in defence
Tackling corruption in the military and security services will not be straightforward, and will likely be a long-term process. Drawing on past experiences, UN civilian staff addressing corruption need to approach it as a technical and political engagement issue.
Internal checks and balances need to be strengthened on the distribution of funds for soldier pay and livelihoods as well as procurement. The military also needs to be held to account and adhere to democratic oversight. Moving reforms forwards, the military should be reminded of the effects of corruption on operational effectiveness.
Transnational organised crime
At a broad level, stabilisation and reconstruction programmes need to be integrated into a regional approach to tackle transnational organised crime. Mali serves as a transit route for narcotics, people, and weapons through West Africa, the Sahel, and Europe. Both Malian rebels and security personnel have been implicated in profiting from criminal activity.
Corruption risk in peacekeeping
Any peacekeeping or peace support operation will have to guard against corruption as well. Accusations are already arising over human rights violations by Malian troops, undermining the legitimacy of a national military.
Incidences of corruption by international actors have occurred in other UN operations. Repeats of this misconduct will lead to hostility by Malians of all stripes leading to resentment of foreign troops, blocking any attempts at institutional reform, and possibly even expulsion of the mission.
Fitting corruption into any stabilisation efforts in Mali will be key to making a coherent picture out of the puzzle of ethnic and political divisions that leave the country open to militant groups, illicit activities, and a cycle of conflict.
James Cohen is a project officer covering international defence and security affairs for Transparency International.