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Briefing: Why Mali’s peace deal with northern rebels is on the brink

‘It is not in the interest of Malians to open a new conflict.’

At the center we see a soldier wearing a tactical uniform with a weapon in his hands. He is wearing a UN blue helmet. In the background we see a military car. Philip Kleinfeld/TNH
A UN peacekeeping operation, pictured here on patrol in 2018, is leaving Mali following a request from the ruling junta. The mission was a guarantor of a 2015 peace accord that now seems close to collapse.

Fierce fighting between Malian government forces and former separatist armed groups in the north is generating a dangerous new conflict front in the country, which is already contending with destabilising jihadist insurgencies and the tumult of military rule.

For more than 10 years, Malian authorities have been struggling to contain insurrections by local franchises of al-Qeada and the so-called Islamic State, which have spread across northern and central regions, and into neighbouring countries.

But now the military-led regime says it is also “at war” with non-jihadist armed movements that control large swathes of northern territory. The fighting imperils a 2015 peace accord designed to integrate these rebels into the army and decentralise state power.

“It is not in the interest of Malians to open a new conflict in the north,” said Mohamed Amara, a sociologist and researcher from Bamako, the capital city. “The resumption of the war between the government and the [armed groups] does not suit anybody.”

The groups involved in the clashes are mostly from Tuareg communities that have revolted repeatedly since Mali’s independence in 1960. They declared a breakaway state called Azawad in 2012, but later made peace after an Algerian-led mediation.

The rebels aren’t currently advocating for independence, but their jurisdiction over northern areas is a sore spot for the junta, which has garnered national support by promising to expand state sovereignty and territorial control.

Tensions increased after the ruling junta demanded in June the withdrawal of a 10-year UN peacekeeping mission known as MINUSMA, and its forces started taking over blue helmet bases in northern areas that the armed groups say are under their control.

The UN has said it is “deeply concerned” by the escalating tensions, which come as jihadist groups conduct new offensives and blockade northern towns. Nearly 400,000 Malians are currently internally displaced, and nine million people need aid.

Political parties are calling for dialogue between the junta and the non-jihadist groups, but hundreds of families have already been uprooted as the rebels seize and pillage military bases, and as the army launches airstrikes.

“Everyone has tried peaceful means to alleviate this problem – the state of Mali, Mali's partners – but it doesn't work,” said Awa Maïga, the leader of a women’s civil society group in the northern town of Gao, in reference to Tuareg revolts.

Here is an overview of the current tensions in northern Mali and some of the key events that led up to them. The article is based on interviews with around a dozen Malian analysts and civil society leaders from northern regions.

Who are the groups involved and where have they been fighting?

On one side is the junta, which snatched power in 2020 from elected but disliked president Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta. It ended an unpopular anti-jihadist operation run by Mali’s former colonial ruler, France, and brought in the Russian mercenary Wagner Group in late 2021 as its new security partner.

Facing the government is a group called the Permanent Strategic Framework or CSP. It includes signatories of the 2015 Algiers accord, though some members have withdrawn because they oppose the current conflict.

The main CSP faction involved in the clashes is a predominantly Tuareg alliance called the Coordination of Azawad Movements or CMA. Its fighters are also operating under the name of the Azawad National Army.

Military tensions were building since April, when the army flew jets at low altitude over the town of Kidal, the CMA’s base and a traditional hotbed of rebellion. But the army has been building up its strength since allying with Russia and fighting was long feared.

Rhissa Ag Assaguid, a member of the CMA, told The New Humanitarian its reason for fighting is “legitimate self-defence” rather than an aspiration for Azawadian independence.

In recent days, the CMA has been storming army bases in both northern and central regions, while the Malian army is advancing in a large column from Gao towards the Kidal region, risking a major confrontation.

This is a map of Mali with locator dots on Bamako, Timbuktu, Gao, and Kidal

The situation has drawn comparisons to the 2012 revolt, when Tuareg groups seized key northern towns. The separatists were initially allied with jihadist groups, but the extremists then sidelined them and began the insurgency that continues today.

The junta still refers to the CMA as “terrorists'' and accuses it of collusion with jihadists. CMA officials deny this, though combatants do have family and community links to jihadist actors.

How has MINUSMA’s withdrawal aggravated tensions?

The junta regarded the force as ineffective and resented its investigations into misconduct by national soldiers. But the mission was a key guarantor of the Algiers agreement, helping facilitate talks and monitoring implementation. 

The termination of the mission could therefore “be perceived by certain signatory groups as a desire to resume attacks and not to apply the agreement”, said Kadiatou Keita, country director in Mali for International Alert, a peacebuilding NGO.

MINUSMA bases are currently being handed over to the army, allowing the government to extend its control over national territory. Keita said “many populations, particularly in Bamako” are welcoming of this, but armed groups look upon it “unfavourably”.

CMA leaders say they have not been consulted as camps are taken over in areas they consider under their control. They believe this constitutes a breach of the Algiers accord, which was supposed to address their demands for territorial autonomy.

“When we say the state, we mustn't forget that the state is the average person. It is all ethnic groups, from north to south.”

In mid-August, clashes between the CMA and government forces broke out close to a MINUSMA camp in Ber, in the Timbuktu region. MINUSMA said it accelerated its withdrawal from the area because of the fighting.

Even before demanding MINUSMA’s withdrawal, the junta vowed to retake areas lacking state presence. A particular point was made of controlling Kidal, which the CMA administers despite some state officials and national soldiers returning there under the Algiers accord.

Dougoukolo Alpha Oumar Ba Konaré, a psychologist and academic, said the junta’s pro-sovereignty message forms part of a wider populist discourse that draws on themes of past Malian greatness.

“There is a narrative of… the proud empire of Mali that is united and not divisible,” Konaré told The New Humanitarian. “Because of that, [the army thinks it has] to push on for Kidal to be back within the fold of the nation.”

Maïga, the leader of the women’s civil society group in Gao, suggested a solution to the impasse would be to view the territory of Mali as belonging to Malian people, rather than to one armed actor or another.

“It doesn't belong to a movement. It doesn't belong to the government,” she told The New Humanitarian. “When we say the state, we mustn't forget that the state is the average person. It is all ethnic groups, from north to south.”

What else is driving the fighting?

The CMA has cited the lack of implementation of the peace accord – which was also signed by a coalition of pro-government Tuareg groups – as a key factor in the return to conflict.

Implementation of the agreement had been slow even under the Keïta administration, with both armed movement signatories and the government accused of benefiting from the status quo and lacking the political will to push things forward. 

Still, after the junta took power, it became distracted by diplomatic jousting with France and other former allies. Soon, implementation had reached an “unprecedented impasse”, according to the Carter Center, an independent observer of the accord.

Maïga argued that “slowness” in implementation is the main reason that tensions resurfaced. “I would say that the majority [of the accord] is not yet realised, so this can create frustrations, misunderstandings, and even another rebellion,” she said.

The junta also expressed scepticism towards the agreement and pledged to revise its terms. This aligned with a broader public sentiment that views the deal as conceding too much to the rebels and compromising national unity.

Three armed military men are standing on a street. Civilians walk behind them.
Philip Kleinfeld/TNH
Mali’s junta has gained national support by promising to expand state sovereignty and territorial control. Pictured here are soldiers securing polling stations ahead of elections in 2018.

Hostility towards the accord irked the CMA, which trained thousands of new combatants. Representatives said last year that it was “preparing for all eventualities”, and in December it withdrew from talks related to the accord.

Tuareg rebel grievances, rooted in decades of struggle and state crackdowns, have also persisted. Rebels have traditionally argued that the north is marginalised, and that colonial borders forced them into a southern-based polity to which they don’t belong.

Still, Tuareg nationalism – which many feel has racial elements to it – is often associated with Tuaregs from higher social positions. It is contested by other Tuareg groups – which have varying loyalties, including to the state – and by other communities in the north.

“We recognise that there are huge problems of development, problems of security, problems of inequality,” said Halidou Malick, president of a civil society platform in Gao. “But we really believe that it is through dialogue that we can solve all these problems.”

What can be done?

Keita of International Alert said the government and armed groups should speak with one another to try to understand what went wrong in implementing the Algiers agreement, and then figure out how things can be corrected.

“It is always possible to restart the process of implementing the agreement,” she told The New Humanitarian. “It requires a good faith approach to analyse the lessons learned.”

Ben Koro Sangaré, a Malian journalist and analyst, called for a “re-reading” of the agreement that includes the perspectives of civil society groups, which were largely excluded from the Algiers process.

Sangaré said new talks should also take account of the fact that Mali’s conflict has spread from the north to the centre, leading to the creation of new armed groups that “we cannot rule out” from discussions.

Still, without MINUSMA’s monitoring and mediation support, Konaré, the psychologist and academic, said he doubts there will be efforts to renegotiate or modify the agreement.

“When MINUSMA was there, both sides weren’t happy with the agreement but they figured that maybe we can discuss some way [forward],” he said. “Now, there is no one to mitigate what the two parties are saying, nobody to try and mediate.”

Maïga, from Gao, called for those involved in the fighting to reflect on the damage that a new conflict is likely to cause. “We know it is very, very easy to destroy things,” she told The New Humanitarian. “But it's very difficult to rebuild.”

Mamadou Tapily reported from Bamako. Philip Kleinfeld reported from London. Edited by Andrew Gully.

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