After fighting broke out between rebel groups and government troops in Kidal town in May, Malian forces withdrew, paving the way for the three separatist groups to gain control of much of Kidal Region and parts of Gao and Timbuktu regions in the north, including from Kidal town to Ménaka close to the border with Niger in the southeast.
Clashes have continued in the small town of Tabankort (near Kidal town), between armed elements of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), and the Arab Movement of Azawad (MAA – allegedly fighting on behalf of the government), since a May ceasefire was agreed between the MNLA, MAA and the High Council for the Unity of Azawad (HCUA), alongside the UN, the African Union, the European Union, and the Economic Community of West African States.
Attacks have also been carried out against peacekeeping staff, French forces and humanitarian organizations. In May, two Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) staff were killed as the vehicle they were travelling in hit a landmine, while in February a rebel group kidnapped four staff members with the International Committee of the Red Cross while they were travelling from Kidal to Gao, releasing them shortly after.
Troops thin on the ground
The presence of 8,300 UN peacekeeping troops (MINUSMA) in the three northern regions has failed to keep the peace since French forces withdrew from some areas. The withdrawal of French forces, combined with fighting in Kidal, made May a difficult month for MINUSMA, said David Gressly, acting special representative of the UN Secretary-General for Mali and head of MINUSMA. However, in fact the number of attacks targeting MINSUMA has dropped. “Following the pull-out of French and Malian forces in some areas, MINUSMA are now alone in the field - that is why there seems to be an increase of attacks against them,” said Gressly. “In fact, we have seen a decrease in the number of attacks against MINUSMA peacekeepers since the ceasefire agreements were signed in May,” he added.
MINUSMA numbers are too low to secure such a vast desert territory, say security analysts. MINUSMA says nine of its force members have been killed thus far, with four Chadian peacekeepers killed in a June suicide attack in Aguelhoc and one killed when a MINSUMA vehicle hit a landmine in Timbuktu Region.
In July French soldiers in Operation Serval in the Gao Region were attacked; one soldier was killed and six injured.
Malian forces are still present in Gao and Timbuktu where they man checkpoints, patrol and work alongside MINSUMA forces.
The Malian government estimates that no more than 600 or so individuals in the north who have links to Al Qaeda, and other Jihadist or terrorist networks, remain, and they are weaker than they were, but stifling them for good in this terrain “is not easy”, said Malian Minister of National Reconcilation and Development of the North, Zahabi Ould Sidi Mohamed. “These groups [militants, terrorists] are still there, but they were weakened after the French pushed them out of the northeast,” said a security analyst in Bamako who preferred anonymity. “They can no longer travel in convoys of 4x4s and are forced to move around on foot or motorbike. Others have gone into hiding or simply left Mali,” said the analyst. They are believed to have fled to Niger, Algeria and Libya.
Meanwhile, the French force is down to 1,700, and soon to diminish further to 1,000 as France launches a counter-terrorism operation, Operation Barkhane, in partnership with Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad. Some of these partners will deploy troops.
Surveillance drones in use by Operation Barkhane and MINUSMA, are going some way to make up for low troop numbers, but they also need to be backed up by ground forces, according to security analysts in Bamako.
“Following the pull-out of French and Malian forces in some areas, MINUSMA are now alone in the field - that is why there seems to be an increase of attacks against peacekeepers,” said Gressly. “But in fact we have seen a decrease in the number of attacks on MINUSMA since the May ceasefire agreement was signed.”
During a visit to Mali last month, UN Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations Hervé Ladsous expressed concern over the deteriorating security situation and stressed the need to push talks forward in order to find a stable solution to Mali’s troubles, calling the current security situation “intolerable” at a press conference.
Fears for August peace talks
Some fear peace talks set for August will not work amid ongoing instability. As well as the status of Mali’s north, on the agenda for the talks are reintegration of armed groups into the army, human rights issues, reconciliation, and the return of refugees and internally displaced people to the north.
In past rebel uprisings in northern Mali, peace talks have resulted in some Tuaregs being integrated into the army and promises of more government positions for northerners. Persistent calls for improved development infrastructure, such as schools, health clinics, and better roads have been piecemeal, causing long-term frustration among northern groups.
Peace talks were set to start 60 days after elections were held in August 2013, but the government is flagging, said Mohamed Diery Maiga, a political researcher in Bamako. “The government has lost any momentum it might have had,” he told IRIN.
This time, rebel groups are more fragmented and their demands are unclear, said Boukary Daou, a Bamako-based journalist and editor of newspaper Le Republicain. As such, “the government has been very reluctant to engage in talks with the rebels. It’s also not clear what they want - autonomy or decentralization. With several armed groups, which are not united, participating in the talks, I don’t see how they can reach a long-term solution,” he told IRIN.
However, Gressly, who recently travelled to Gao and Kidal and met groups participating in negotiations, said he was hopeful of the outcome of the peace talks, stressing the May ceasefire was crucial. “I’m optimistic about the fact that everyone wants an agreement in Algiers,” he said.
MNLA, which originally demanded full independence, has asked for autonomy without specifying what this would look like. Officials in Bamako are reluctant to start talks with any groups that might have ties to Islamists. Gao mayor Sadou Diallo warned of Islamist extremists within the Tuareg rebel groups. “The fact is we don’t know who we are dealing with, it’s all a mix,” he told IRIN.
A strong motivation to gain power will likely be to access state resources and to profit from the lucrative trafficking of arms, people and drugs across the Sahara, said WHO. A long history of corruption and criminality in the north implicating all groups, including government officials at very high levels, is also a complicating factor. “Many of the rebels and armed groups are essentially criminal gangs,” said Issa N’Diaye, an analyst at the University of Bamako.
“They have very different agendas and not all of them are interested in independence or self-governance. Many just want to profit from drug and arms trafficking and government resources,” said N’Diaye.
Plagued by internal factionalism, it is not clear if those representing the MNLA, MAA and the HCUA in talks will be able to stick to promises made, given their limited power over parts of their membership. “It will be very difficult to restrain them based on a peace agreement,” he concluded.
Ganda Koy and Ganda Izo, two movements representing the Songhai ethnic group who were present in Algiers but not directly involved in the talks. Ami Idrissa, a social worker in Gao and an ethnic Songhai told IRIN inclusivity was vital. “To create long-lasting peace we need the representation of all ethnic groups at the negotiation table.”
The conflict has weakened community cohesion in the north. In a December 2013 Afrobarometer survey, 56 percent of respondents said their views towards other ethnic groups had become less favourable since the latest round of armed conflict in 2012. Without restoring trust between ethnic groups, peace is unlikely to hold, say residents.
But any peace package, as well as fostering inter-ethnic ties, must also deliver concrete dividends, including the restoration of basic services which were already weak pre-conflict and have been further eroded since, say northerners. “We need the authorities to resume their work, because right now we are suffering,” concluded Idrissa.