A New Hope for Peace, but Old Challenges Remain in Mali

Mali’s president Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta addresses the parliament (Flickr/European Parliament)

It was only a matter of time before Bamako was targeted. In the early hours of March 7, armed gunmen attacked a restaurant in the capital of Mali, killing five people and wounding eight. Al-Murabitoun, the jihadist group affiliated with Mokhtar Belmokhtar—the infamous militant and trafficker often referred to as “Mr. Marlboro” for his role in cigarette smuggling—claimed responsibility. This brazen act in the heart of the capital’s popular nightlife scene is a stark reminder of the emptiness and fragility of an agreement struck in Algiers on February 25 to try and bring peace to Mali.

Even before the Bamako attacks, the Accord for Peace and Reconciliation in Mali faced an uphill battle. Since the country gained independence in 1960, recurring conflict in its north has been the norm. Multiple agreements have been proposed to bring peace to the region and none of them have endured. There is little confidence that this time the outcome will be any different. The principal coalition of northern groups, the High Council for Unity in Azawad (HCUA), has asked for more time to consult with supporters before even signing the agreement. The current talks have also excluded key belligerent parties, and thus central figures in perpetuating insecurity remain excluded from the process of reconciliation. The continuing instability has now seen the postponement of local elections previously scheduled for April 26.

The multitude of Mali’s hollow peace agreements until now can be blamed on the unwillingness and/or inability of elites in power to follow through with commitments that have been made over the years. To make matters worse, widespread trafficking in arms, cigarettes, and drugs has flourished thanks to the insecurity and instability of the region. Those participating in trafficking have no incentive for peace since there is a fortune to be made where lawlessness prevails. Sadly, some state actors have also been complicit in the illegal trade and were thereby ineffective and disinterested in establishing security.

Despite this troubled history, international actors were eager to declare the most recent agreement a success. African Union Chairperson Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma praised the mediation of Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika. The European Union commended the deal and committed to participating as a member of a follow-up committee to ensure implementation. Such optimism is premature, given the HCUA continues to bide its time and the Collective of Northern Citizens, which favors preserving national unity, has protested the use of the name “Azawad” in the agreement and the implicit recognition of that region as an entity, if not as an independent territory. It is clear that key players are not yet on-board the peace process.

Malian Prime Minister Modibo Keita, meanwhile, stated that the government held a profound attachment to the constitution and was unwavering on the unity, indivisibility, and territorial integrity of the state. In keeping with this viewpoint, the Algiers agreement reiterates the secular and republican nature of the state as outlined in the constitution. Keita said this could only be changed with the agreement of the sovereign people of Mali. In defense of the references to Azawad in the current accord, the prime minister argued this was nothing new, as the term was part of the National Pact of 1991, the Ouagadougou Agreement of 2013, and the Roadmap of 2014. It is simply an acknowledgement of a socio-cultural reality.

While the majority of Malians want nothing more than security and durable peace, they may have to wait some time for it. Almost on cue, on the day after the announcement of the agreement armed men attacked villages near Niafunké in the Timbuktu region. President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita faces the unenviable task of balancing rebel calls for greater autonomy with a general attitude in the south that concessions should not be made to those who destabilized the country and were to blame for the Islamist takeover in 2012. Negotiations are not popular in the south and treated with suspicion in the north. The United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali also faces difficulties undertaking its peacekeeping mission. Residents of the northern town of Gao, who believed the mission had made a secret deal with separatists, to the exclusion of pro-government militias, attacked the UN base in their town. On March 8, the day after the Bamako attack, two Malian children and a peacekeeper were killed by a rocket attack on the UN base in Kidal.

Though it faces an uncertain future, the Algiers accord does propose some significant steps toward reconciliation. It includes the creation of powerful regional assemblies and proposes to reinforce decentralization by transferring 30 percent of state budget revenues to local authorities. A lack of follow-through on proposed administrative reforms such as this was a sticking point on previous agreements. Decentralization has long been considered a central element for rebuilding the country but the resources to make it effective were never made available to municipalities. The new agreement also proposes integrating Tuareg into the military, though this has been tried before and was only partially successful. Some Tuareg soldiers deserted with arms to join the rebellion, others such as the high-ranking, Kidal-based Colonel El Haji Ag Gamou led 500 troops to Niger to avoid annihilation, but later returned to join the fight against rebels. The new agreement also includes plans for a Conference for National Accord during which a Charter for Peace, Unity and Reconciliation will be elaborated.

Ongoing attempts to secure peace will need to appreciate the complexity of the Mali conflict. This extends to attempting to decipher the major actors involved. They include those who have been labeled “pro-government” militias, the Tuareg separatists in the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, and its various allies within the HCUA. There are also groups that have been designated as terrorist organizations by the United States, including al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, al-Murabitoun, and the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, who did not have a seat at the talks. While inter- and intra-clan conflicts are also a factor, much of the crisis revolves around a lack of development and the vast amounts of wealth to be made through trafficking and ransom payments in the north. In recognition of the importance of economic development, President Keita has committed to creating an International University of Timbuktu, and the current agreement outlines a commitment to building infrastructure and local economies.

Mali has long suffered under a democracy that grew increasingly distant from the population and in which political positions were used for access to resources of the state. Unfortunately, past attempts at decentralization, meant to bring governance closer to communities, have not only lacked proper finances but also opened up even more opportunities for clientalism. Mali has too much to lose if there is no follow-through on the commitments made in the current agreement. Resentment abounds on all sides. Referring to attacks in Gao, Bamako, and Kidal, Mali Foreign Minister Abdoulaye Diop stated clearly: “These are attacks against the peace process.” Peace and reconciliation will depend on the ability to rebuild trust among communities and between the state and the people. Mali faces a long and uncertain way ahead.

Susanna D. Wing is Associate Professor of Political Science at Haverford College.