The main coalition of Tuareg-Arab rebels of northern Mali announced last week that it would finally sign a peace agreement with the Malian government on June 20 in the capital Bamako. This is a welcome development just ahead of the renewal of the mandate for the United Nations stabilization mission in the country. Nonetheless, a history of past agreements not being implemented, deep-rooted mistrust, possible fragmentation of armed groups, and pervasive criminal interests, mean the road to building peace will be challenging.
The announcement from the Coordination of Azawad Movements (CMA) comes almost two years after the deployment of the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA), in July 2013. It also comes in a context of regular terrorist attacks, many of which have targeted UN peacekeepers, and of a fresh round of clashes involving various armed groups of northern Mali and government forces, meaning much hope for an improvement in the security situation rests on conclusion of the peace talks.
The international mediation—of which MINUSMA is a member—was initiated by Algeria in the aftermath of the May 2014 Kidal clashes between Malian security forces and CMA rebels, after which the rebels took control of a large part of the territory from which government forces and administrators had fled. Algeria, which has played a key role in mediating Malian crises since the 1990s, started exploratory discussions in January 2014, in an attempt to bring together the various “compliant” armed groups, or “non-terrorists,” into a coherent negotiating bloc.
These efforts did not fully succeed and the various armed groups entered negotiations and signed the July 24, 2014 roadmap for peace as two separate coalitions. On one side was the CMA, which has existed since November 2013; on the other were other groups closer to the government, the so-called Plateforme.
Following four more rounds of negotiations, a compromise document was initialed by the government and the Plateforme on March 1 this year in Algiers. The CMA refused at the time to initial the agreement because it did not address some of its main aspirations, including the recognition of the northern territory, which they call Azawad, as a separate geographical and political entity, and security arrangements therein. Instead, it called for continuing discussions, reaffirming its commitment to respecting ceasefire agreements, partly out of concern of being subjected to “targeted sanctions against those who resume hostilities and violate the ceasefire.”
Following further consultations, all parties were invited to sign the peace agreement on May 15 this year. Meanwhile, when addressing the UN Security Council in April, Mali Foreign Minister Abdoulaye Diop said the government believed the “negotiations are over” and was moving forward with implementation. He called on the international community to “isolate… and impose sanctions” on “radical and extremist individuals” who would not sign the agreement. The threat of sanctions has so far not deterred ceasefire violations.
In the course of the eight-month long negotiations, armed groups have fragmented and alliances have shifted, as they and their leaders position themselves ahead of the conclusion of an agreement and as their relative military strength has evolved. A new group called the Self-Defense Group of Imrad Tuareg and Allies (GATIA) formed in August 2014 and joined the Plateforme following its first clashes with CMA in the Gao region. GATIA openly supports the government, and CMA considers it a proxy militia under the direct orders of Malian General Elhadj Ag Gamou, which the government denies.
On April 27, GATIA attacked the CMA—which had just publically reaffirmed its intention to initial the agreement—in the town of Menaka, leading to a breakdown of the ceasefire and retaliatory CMA attacks against government positions in the Timbuktu and Gao regions. Ensuing fighting around Menaka led to important casualties on both sides, reportedly including members of prominent Tuareg families, which will no doubt make reconciliation even more challenging.
This did not derail the peace process, however. On June 5 in Algiers, in addition to announcing it would sign the peace agreement, the CMA agreed with the government on security arrangements consisting of the withdrawal of Plateforme forces from Menaka and UN peacekeepers temporarily taking over the security of the town and its population, in return for CMA ceasing its attacks in northern Mali. At the time of publication, however, Menaka remained under the control of Plateforme commander Yoro Ould Daha, a former police chief with the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO)—an offshoot of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. Proximity between and mobility of the various forces on the ground also make renewed clashes very possible despite the presence of UN peacekeepers.
The participation of three parties—the government, the CMA, and the Plateforme—and the military strengthening of the latter through GATIA over the past few months created many challenges during negotiations. It may even have rendered confrontation inevitable for the parties to “test” the new balance of military power on the ground.
It was only under strong international pressure that the CMA eventually initialed the agreement on May 14 and now finally decided to sign it, which led some observers to question whether this is an imposed peace. At the May 15 official signing ceremony in Bamako (which the CMA did not attend), UN Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations Hervé Ladsous warned against the agreement being used as a pretext for the resumption of military operations against non-signatory groups. This message was not well received by the Malian president, who in turn accused MINUSMA of lacking impartiality.
The CMA signing the peace agreement represents an important and necessary step towards stabilization of Mali through a political and security agreement dealing with some of the root causes of the conflict. Indeed, if implemented in good faith by all parties, it would help draw a sharper line between compliant armed groups and extremist/terrorist groups by involving the former in the fight against terrorism alongside Malian forces. This would have been almost impossible in the case of an inconclusive and/or partial peace process that would have excluded certain armed groups.
It will not, however, solve all problems. Extremist groups will continue to act as spoilers and could also enroll younger and more radical—and/or opportunistic—members of the armed groups, whose internal divisions may have been exacerbated by the decision of their leaders to sign the agreement. This is a particular risk if there is no attractive alternative provided to them through socioeconomic reintegration or a meaningful role in the Malian forces, or if their nationalist or religious aspirations are not satisfied. This will be all the more challenging in light of the alternative provided by lucrative criminal economy and trafficking opportunities prevailing in parts of northern Mali.
With the end of MINUSMA’s mandate approaching, Security Council members could be divided. On the one hand would be those who may think there is no time to lose now that the agreement is signed and want the mission to implement a robust stabilization mandate in support of the host government. The Malian government and countries from the region have already called for a force intervention brigade to combat terrorist groups (in addition to the already existing parallel French counter-terrorist force Barkhane). On the other hand are those who may wish to emphasize the respect for the ceasefire, putting in place confidence-building security arrangements in the agreement (such as joint patrols between Malian army and CMA forces) and the continuation of political dialogue during the implementation phase.
Last but not least, even if the CMA ultimately signs the agreement, implementation will prove challenging in a country where there is a history of agreements not being implemented. The deep-rooted mistrust and lack of political will on either side to make peace—with each side using and abusing the sentiments of its “populations”—could easily lead to the stalling of follow-up mechanisms to the agreement, as was the case in the aftermath of the signing of the June 2013 Ouagadougou Preliminary Agreement.
This is made more problematic by the fact that many key security issues—including the composition of the restructured security forces due to be redeployed in northern Mali—have not been resolved in the Algiers negotiations and will require further negotiations during the implementation phase. If there is no progress, confrontations between the parties and their allies—with their own criminal and extremist agendas—could continue for some time, and risk deteriorating into full-blown civil war in northern Mali. The international community succeeded in getting the Malian parties to sign peace, now is time for Malians themselves to make it.
Arthur Boutellis is a Non-resident Adviser with the International Peace Institute. He authored Can the UN Stabilize Mali? Towards a UN Stabilization Doctrine? in Stability journal.