Mali Violence Mars Cautious Progress on Joint Patrols

Troops inspect the scene of an explosion at the Joint Operational Mechanism base in Gao, Mali. January 18, 2017. (Yacouba Cisse/Associated Press)

A suicide bombing in the northern Malian city of Gao, likely perpetrated by jihadists, reportedly killed at least 50 people today. The violence targeted a base that 200 former rebels had recently entered in preparation for mixed patrols with the Malian military and pro-government militias. These patrols are intended to fulfill a key condition of the 2015 Agreement on Peace and Reconciliation in Mali, which has faced a rocky path to implementation. The new violence shows the serious and persistent level of opposition that has made peace so difficult to achieve in the country.

The 2015 agreement was designed to resolve outstanding political disagreements and continued violence following Mali’s 2012-2013 civil war. That war began with a separatist rebellion led by members of the Tuareg ethnic group, but it evolved into a complex, multi-sided conflict whose reverberations continue to dominate the political life of northern Mali.

The agreement was the result of long negotiations mediated largely by Mali’s northern neighbor Algeria and represented three primary actors: the Coordination of Azawad Movements (French acronym CMA), which brought together non-jihadist rebel groups; the Platform, a coalition of pro-government militias; and the Malian government. While it remains in effect, it has not yet resolved the political disagreements in northern Mali or removed the drivers of violence there.

The joint patrols are meant to be a key step toward the goal of disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration—in other words, they should convince people to set down their weapons and pursue peace. Arranging the patrols has been a slow process, however. They were intended to start within 60 days after the 2015 agreement took effect, which would have meant late summer 2015. The issue was discussed at meetings of the Committee for Monitoring the Accord in fall 2015 and summer 2016, but did not advance. After the 2016 meeting, rebel groups complained that the government was not allocating the money necessary to start the patrols, let alone to secure the entire north. Participants scheduled the patrols to start in Gao in August, but financial and political delays deferred the launch until December.

One factor in the delay may have been municipal elections taking place in November after several delays and CMA objections. Political conflict over when and how the elections should occur may have distracted key players whose involvement was needed to accelerate the creation of the mixed patrols. Meanwhile, some Malians cautioned that it would not be possible to hold successful elections without the mixed patrols in place, and, indeed, insecurity made the polls a problematic affair, with no vote occurring in some locales and significant violence in the north.

In December, there was another obstacle to the establishment of mixed patrols: conflict among the armed groups themselves. When 200 CMA fighters arrived outside of Gao to join the patrols, other armed groups—dissidents from within the CMA camp—opposed their entry into the city. The dissidents were angry about their exclusion from the patrols, given that they were no longer part of the CMA. The dispute was resolved through government mediation, with the CMA agreeing to give the dissidents some representation.

But the conflict in Gao points to a larger dynamic that makes peace in Mali difficult to envision, at least in the short term: the proliferation of small armed groups and political factions. As the Institute for Security Studies’ Ibrahim Maiga has written, “the cycle of negotiations” itself drives the formation of new armed groups, who seek representation in politics and on the ground. The need for representation, in turn, is driven by the diversity of northern Mali’s people. Often stereotyped as an exclusively Tuareg zone, the region is also home to other major ethnic groups (particularly Arabs and Songhai), and there are divisions within these ethnic groups, including within the Tuareg. In an atmosphere of mistrust pervaded with weapons, even small groups can have a political impact.

Maiga adds, “This multiplication of armed players makes reaching a peace agreement even more complex for the mediators, who find themselves facing armed movements with conflicting demands.” There is need for grassroots peace agreements between different factions to complement the 2015 agreement, but informal grassroots agreements can quickly break down. Gao’s mixed patrols are themselves at risk of such a cycle: If groups represented by the patrols fragment, then there could be a need to renegotiate who is represented in them.

Going forward, there are several key questions about the patrols. First, will they cohere? In other words, will the different groups be able to get along well enough to make the patrols effective? Or will the patrols themselves be a source of conflict among different groups? If the patrols do cohere, will their success be replicable in other northern cities and towns? Will the patrols ameliorate the security situation during regional elections, which are to be held at an undetermined date in early 2017? Can the patrols serve, as intended, as a foundation for a disarmament, demobilization, and reconciliation program?

These questions, hanging over Gao, make the patrols a microcosm of the conflict resolution effort as a whole. If they can act as a unifying force, bringing different armed groups together for a common purpose, then perhaps the centrifugal forces of violence and fragmentation can be reversed, and perhaps other unifying measures are possible in northern Mali. If not, then other ambitions enshrined in the 2015 agreement will come to seem even more unrealistic and peace even more remote. The suicide bombing against the joint forces, finally, shows how jihadists, even when they lack the strength to control territory, can continue to act as spoilers for the peace effort.