Stabilising Mali – why Europe must look beyond technicalities

To foster long-term stability in Mali, the international community must not content itself with the implementation of technicalities.

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France’s new president Emmanuel Macron sought to send a clear message with his arrival in Mali on Friday, on his first official voyage as chief of state. In visiting Gao, the main base of the Sahel-wide Operation Barkhane and the largest French operational base abroad, Macron no doubt intended to show his support for French soldiers and continue his forceful stance against terrorist groups – whether in France, in the Levant, or in this case in the Sahel. 

As RFI noted, Macron’s agenda had three components: an increased mobilization of Barkhane forces in northern Mali, an accelerated effort to apply the June 2015 Algiers Accords meant to settle the conflict unleashed by the 2012 Tuareg rebellion, and deepened efforts to support the G5 Sahel, the grouping of five Sahelian countries that includes Mali and is intended to spur security and development cooperation in the region.

Particularly the implementation of the Algiers Accords remains a vital hinge that impacts the region. It is the focal point for international political attention (and significant amounts of international money) in Mali, with armed groups on all sides of the conflict regularly reaffirming their attachment to the Accords that remain the only framework in place to achieve a political settlement in Mali. The only problem: the rapidly changing situation in Mali means that the Accords were outdated almost as soon as they were signed. In order to implement them at all, it is necessary to understand how the political and security situation in Mali has evolved, and how the implementation of the Accords as currently envisaged may cause further problems in the future.

Just a few months ago, the Accords looked to be on the brink of collapse. Both the ostensibly pro-government and anti-government armed groups involved in the peace process had suspended their participation in talks for coordinating the implementation of the Accords, and the Coordination des Mouvements de l’Azawad (CMA) – composed of various rebel groups – demanded an urgent and high-level meeting to discuss their fate. Just weeks prior, a devastating truck bomb tore through an assembly of fighters from different armed groups meant to undertake joint security patrols in the city of Gao, reportedly killing nearly 80 combatants. 

Since then, tensions have partly calmed and slow progress has been made; limited security patrols involving some armed groups with government cooperation have tentatively taken place in Gao and Ménaka. Moreover, after nearly two years of delays, the final Interim Authorities tasked with re-establishing local governance were installed in the northwestern regions of Taoudéni and Timbuktu.

Numerous challenges remain that go far beyond technical questions of implementation.

Yet, these tentative improvements have taken place against a backdrop of dramatically increased bloodshed and attacks. While the Gao bombing and the November 2015 attack on the Radisson Blu hotel in the capital Bamako caused headlines, attacks against Malian, French, and UN forces and civilian officials continue to be an almost daily occurrence in the country’s north and center. According to the United Nations, such attacks tripled from 2015 to 2016, while a group of local and international human rights organizations has catalogued more than 150 killings of civilians and soldiers in attacks this year alone. These include casualties of several deadly attacks just this month claimed by Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wa al-Muslimin (the Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims, or JNIM). This movement, which fused al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and its aligned movements in Mali, has claimed scores of attacks since announcing its creation in early March under veteran rebel and political figure Iyad Ag Ghali.

This crumbling security situation has not, however, altered the international community’s focus on the Algiers Accords as the way forward in Mali. As a senior French official in Bamako adamantly explained to me in February, there is simply no other framework under consideration. The international community’s focus on the Accords makes a certain amount of sense, given the need for a mutually acceptable framework that can serve as a focal point for negotiations and implementation. And it is possible that the Accords could still provide a roadmap for the integration of armed combatants into Malian government and society and the return of governance to parts of the north where it has been absent since the 2012 jihadist occupation – and where in some cases it was absent long before that. 

Still, numerous challenges remain that go far beyond technical questions of implementation. And the Accords fail in many cases to reflect changing realities and the complex dynamics that exist between armed groups, local populations, the Malian government, and international peacekeepers and troops from Operation Barkhane.

For one thing, while the coalitions of armed groups that signed the Algiers Accords were never unified entities, they have since further fragmented under the weight of longstanding tensions. This has further atomized the communities under the protection of these groups, intensifying their need to arm themselves (or align with an armed group) not only for protection, but also to make even basic demands to the government. In different regions of northern Mali, armed groups have increasingly fragmented along ethnic lines in the last two years, competing, but also in some cases realigning, when it suited their security and political needs. 

Examples of this are the Coalition pour la Justice de l’Azawad (CJA) which formed in the Timbuktu area in October 2016, and the Mouvement pour le Salut de l’Azawad (MSA) based in Ménaka near the border with Niger. The CMA fractured in the region of Ménaka after disagreements with the more Kidal-based fractions. Both the MSA and CJA have pursued local agendas and partnerships, including with the ostensibly pro-government Groupe d’Autodefense Touareg Imghad et Alliés (GATIA). Both the CJA and MSA have at different points also participated in protests delaying the implementation of Interim Authorities in order to receive greater attention for their movements and to demand a role in the peace process as well as the UN-sponsored Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration program (DDR). 

Once these concerns were dealt with, some of the armed groups in question began participating actively in security patrols and laying the groundwork for the return of education and some local government services. The MSA and a more pro-government Tuareg group, for instance, have come to a series of local agreements that have received the support and backing of Bamako. This is a mixed blessing: on the one hand these agreements can help bring the stability and security demanded by local populations, but on the other hand they can lead to disenfranchisement and unrest among groups excluded from these agreements, engendering a cycle of escalation, protest, and appeasement whenever different communities feel slighted or underserved by the peace agreement in place.

The process of fragmentation and realignment of armed groups can also be an excuse to settle scores and attempt to extend the power of some communities to the detriment of others. This will affect which groups gain positions of power and influence under the Accords, which will in turn shape which communities can exert power and influence, possibly driving others to either rebel or seek assistance from jihadist groups. This is particularly true when it comes to determining which groups have access to certain routes used for trafficking – in drugs, foodstuffs, fuel, and people.

Helping restore peace and stability in Mali cannot be just a question of implementation or of supporting the government.

The implementation of the Algiers Accords will not fully tamp down Mali’s spreading violence. The absence of the state after the 2012 rebellion and the jihadist occupation of northern Mali left many communities to fend for themselves. Now that the state and especially security forces have returned, the government may be returning to past models of managing conflict by pitting some proxy groups against others. Recently, local civilians accused the Malian government of arming groups of traditional hunters known as Dozo, who have allegedly carried out a spate of killings of nomadic Peuhl populations, accusations echoed during my interviews with human rights activists and researchers active in central Mali. This kind of conflict is not new in Mali, but it takes place in the context of the implementation of the Algiers Accords, and shows how state fracture and governance failures impact an area beyond the scope of the Accords themselves. These dynamics feed communal conflict as well as the jihadist insurgency so active in northern and central Mali.

The problems and conflicts outlined above are not just technical, but ultimately political and in some cases social. The provision of justice and security to local populations remains a core concern, one that will not arrive through a calculation of which armed groups get what posts in the security forces or government, and how many payments are made to whom. The Malian state must also rebalance its own form of governance towards inclusion instead of temporary, fleeting deals between competing armed groups and communities. 

For Europe, this means that helping restore peace and stability in Mali cannot be just a question of implementation or of supporting the government, but also of maintaining a nuanced understanding of local and national dynamics, and of applying pressure to all sides if necessary, including partners like the Malian government. In the past, various governments active in Mali were aware of the risks of corruption, poor governance, and uneven or unjust treatment of some communities. Yet out of a desire to maintain Mali as a beacon of democracy in West Africa, little action was taken to head off these looming problems before they could explode, as would happen in dramatic fashion in 2012. 

Now, having arrived at a seemingly workable framework for peace, the general response of the international community is to focus on implementation, presuming that if only the Malian government and international partners make good on the Accords’ provisions, then stability can be restored. However, this approach risks further inflaming tensions in some cases and further solidifying local rivalries and fiefdoms in others. And it chooses short-term stability over dealing with long-term governance deficits in Mali, putting at risk the hundreds of millions of euro spent or slated for the country over the next few years, and the sacrifices made by Malian, UN, and French soldiers since 2013. 

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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