Mali, Algeria, and the uneasy search for peace

This summer, Ibrahim Boubacar Keita was re-elected to Mali's presidency; his plan for peace in the country can stem the conflict, but as the Algerian case shows, the process of reconciliation can be daunting 

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In June this year, Mali’s National Assembly approved the text of a new “law of national understanding” meant to heal the country’s deepening wounds. The law is designed to fulfil the mandate of the Agreement on Peace and Reconciliation in Mali, which was signed in Algiers in 2015 to settle the conflict that erupted with the Tuareg rebellion three years earlier. Mali’s president, Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, proposed the law in late 2017; Prime Minister Soumeylou Boubèye Maiga shepherded it through parliament. Given Keita’s re-election to the presidency in August and his reappointment of Maiga as prime minister, it is likely that the law will remain a key part of the government’s reconciliation plans.

When they initially proposed the law, Maiga and other senior Malian leaders indicated that it would draw inspiration from Algeria’s Civil Concord and Charter for National Reconciliation and Peace – which followed the country’s brutal civil war in the 1990s. A comparison between Mali’s and Algeria’s conflicts, and the contexts in both countries, helps illuminate the prospects for reconciliation in Mali.

It appears that the new Malian law would do little to curb violence or bring about genuine reconciliation in the short term, as the victims of Mali’s conflict continue to lack access to justice. Moreover, there have been few governance reforms that will substantively benefit Malian citizens. Moreover, the European Union and its member states continue to heavily invest in Mali’s peace process – of which reconciliation is a key component – as well as related programmes. For instance, the EU has established a €12 million programme to support justice in Mali, while the governments of Denmark and Germany invest in local dialogue and reconciliation. At a time when international involvement in the Sahel is growing – in the form of the Alliance for the Sahel, support for the G5 Sahel, and myriad other programmes – the fate of Mali’s peace process, particularly its reconciliation efforts, is of crucial importance to not only the country itself but also the wider Sahel and Europe.

Learning from Algeria?

Mali’s peace agreement requires the government to create a charter for peace, unity, and national reconciliation. The finished product strongly resembles the reconciliation laws passed in Algeria in 1999 and 2006 under President Abdelaziz Bouteflika. These laws granted amnesty to both militants and state security personnel who committed offences less severe than mass murder, rape, or other crimes against humanity. The Malian version’s key provisions include compensation measures for victims of crime and their families, and a programme for reintegrating these people into society. Similarly, Article 3 of the as-yet-unpublished reconciliation law calls for the dismissal of judicial action against anyone who committed crimes during the 2012 rebellion and its aftermath. This includes crimes that can be punished under the Malian penal code, as well other conventions or international laws on human rights that Mali has ratified. Like its Algerian counterpart, the Malian law does not apply to anyone found to have committed “war crimes, crimes against humanity, rapes, and other crimes that are self-evident and cannot be erased with the passage of time”. The law also includes provisions on compensation for victims of conflict and their families, and on a programme for reintegrating these people into society.

Mali's security environment continues to deteriorate despite the killing or capture of many important militant leaders

Article 12 of the law states that dismissals of judicial action apply to individuals rather than entire armed groups. Article 14 stipulates that they apply to any member of an armed group that signed the 2015 accord and committed no crimes after signing, and to members of non-signatory armed groups who adhered to the accord as individuals.

To benefit from the provisions, Malians must present themselves to the authorities within six months of the law’s publication, and turn in weapons, munitions, and any other deadly materials in their possession. (This condition also applies in Algeria, where militants often turn themselves in to the authorities.)

While the Malian law has not yet entered into force, the government in Bamako has already provided amnesty to some people, particularly jihadists. One high-profile figure to benefit from this is Houka Houka Ag Alfousseiny, the main qadi (Islamic judge) in Timbuktu during the jihadist occupation of the city in 2012. Released from prison in 2014 as part of the Algiers Accord negotiations, Houka Houka reportedly issued injunctions about the proper practice of sharia and even appeared alongside the governor of Timbuktu region in February 2018. Although troops from France’s trans-Sahelian Operation Barkhane reportedly raided his home in Zouera and arrested one of his close allies, he was not detained. Some reports also suggest that Mali, France, and Algeria struck a deal that would allow some jihadist militants to benefit from amnesty if they surrendered – a use of reconciliation laws to divide and weaken militant groups.

Yet for all its similarities with Algeria’s approach – which helped end the country’s civil war – Mali’s peace process faces challenges that make it unlikely to be as effective. For instance, although Algeria’s civil war affected some parts of the country more than others, Algerians in many of the country’s populous areas were forced to cope with frequent attacks, curfews, and a militarised security regime. In Algiers, nearly every family who lived through the 1990s has stories about the trauma of the war – trauma that has helped maintain relatively widespread support for the reconciliation process President Bouteflika instituted shortly after his election.

Despite several deadly attacks in Bamako in recent years, most of the violence in Mali has taken place in less densely populated areas in the north and centre of the country. This pattern is changing, as the insurgency and inter-communal conflict increasingly affect more populous areas in central Mali. Nonetheless, more or less normal life continues in Mali’s south even as other parts of the country smoulder – as seen in the government’s acceptance of national election results earlier this year, despite the closure of hundreds of polling stations in central Mali due to insecurity. This reduces some of the pressure on the government to make hard concessions for peace, as well as the potential support for these provisions among ordinary citizens.

Another important difference between Mali’s and Algeria’s conflicts lies in the state of their insurgencies when the government implemented its amnesty and reconciliation policies. In Algeria at the time of Bouteflika’s election, the jihadist movement was in decline. This was due to several factors, including intense military pressure on the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) and the Islamic Salvation Army (AIS), the armed wing of the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS). The growing brutality of the GIA and a series of massacres of civilians helped drive popular support for a reconciliation deal.

The fragmentation and weakening of Algeria’s jihadist groups – which helped make peace possible – stemmed from years of conflict, negotiations, and increasing factionalism. A tentative peace deal that included part of the FIS was proposed at Sant‘Egidio in 1995. Although the GIA and the Algerian government rejected the deal, the AIS had by 1997 declared a unilateral ceasefire after engaging in vicious infighting with other Islamists and coming under intense government pressure. These efforts paved the way for negotiations, and helped Bouteflika provide militants with a route back into society.

The situation in Mali is very different. The country’s security environment continues to deteriorate despite the killing or capture of many important militant leaders, and the aggressive efforts of Operation Barkhane. According to the United Nations’ estimate (which is likely to be conservative), there were twice as many attacks in Mali in the first half of 2018 than in the same period last year. It is difficult to bring armed groups in from the cold if they think they are winning – or, at least, see no advantage in surrender.

The risks of impunity

Mali’s peace process already provides fighters, particularly jihadists, with a path to rehabilitation. The High Council for the Unity of the Azawad (HCUA) – a dominant force among umbrella organisations for Malian rebels – and an offshoot of jihadist group Ansar al-Din are an integral part of the peace process. Although, theoretically, the authorities could prosecute members of the HCUA and other armed groups for crimes they committed during and after the 2012 rebellion, their role in the peace process affords some protection from this – as well as from French and other military operations. This is despite repeated allegations (from the French government and others) that HCUA members maintain ties to al-Qaeda affiliate the Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims (JNIM), the umbrella group announced in March 2017 from Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Ansar al-Din, and several other semi-autonomous jihadist units. Indeed, regional observers and security officials believe fighters in Mali often move freely between jihadist and ostensibly non-jihadist groups.

Any reconciliation process that merely offers impunity to fighters will further degrade the Malian state

Until his assassination in Kidal in October 2016, former Ansar al-Din commander Cheick Ag Aoussa led the HCUA’s military operations despite his alleged role in the massacre of more than 100 Malian soldiers in January 2012. Many who have committed crimes since the rebellion began have avoided judicial action simply by joining armed groups that are associated with the Algiers Accord or slowly integrating into the security mechanisms of the peace process, supported by the international community. Even the international sanctions on Mali implemented last year are likely to affect only a few individuals, at most.

Like its Algerian equivalent, Mali’s peace and reconciliation process may have other major effects on society. In Algeria, the reconciliation process helped an exhausted country slowly make a kind of peace, restoring a measure of stability and public order that was unimaginable for much of the 1990s. The value of this should not be underestimated.

However, no real reconciliation, truth, or justice process followed. Due to the general amnesties for military figures and jihadists such as AIS leader Madani Mezrag, Algeria has found peace but many of the wounds of the civil war remain open. For instance, many Algerians still complain that victims of the civil war have had less access to government financial and other benefits than jihadists who gave up the fight.

In some ways, there is an even greater risk of such discontent in Mali. Algeria barred FIS and AIS leaders from forming political parties. But people involved in the Malian rebellion – including former jihadists – will almost certainly hold important political, and perhaps even judicial, roles in northern and, possibly, central Mali. Some of these people already receive payments from the UN or the Malian government, allowing them to build luxurious homes in Bamako.

Mali’s peace process breeds a sense of impunity (particularly given that the Malian state is much weaker than its Algerian counterpart), making it more likely that armed groups will either continue to have significant sway over state institutions or else will rise up again if it becomes advantageous to do so. The approach will continually undermine the state – especially if the government ignores initiatives such as the Truth, Justice, and Reconciliation Commission’s collection of nearly 9,000 testimonials, or simply dismisses investigations into human rights violations under the national reconciliation law.

Broadly, Mali’s new reconciliation law can be useful in stemming conflict, but it is by no means the only available mechanism for reducing violence. Algeria’s experience shows how daunting a reconciliation process can be, as well as some of the risks of pursuing a process that does not adequately provide justice and strengthen state institutions. Any reconciliation process that merely offers impunity to fighters will further degrade the Malian state – undermining security in ways that could, in the long term, affect the entire region.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


ECFR Alumni · Policy Fellow

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