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In the Tracks of Boko Haram in Cameroon
In the Tracks of Boko Haram in Cameroon
Mali’s Algiers Peace Agreement, Five Years On: An Uneasy Calm
Mali’s Algiers Peace Agreement, Five Years On: An Uneasy Calm
The local vigilante group of Amchide, Far North, March 2016. CRISIS GROUP/Hans De Marie Heungoup
Our Journeys / Africa

In the Tracks of Boko Haram in Cameroon

Two years ago, the Cameroonian government declared war on Boko Haram. Despite some progress, the group’s violent impact is still seen and felt deeply in the remote north of the country. 

In March 2016, Crisis Group Analyst Hans De Marie Heungoup travelled for four weeks into an insecure area only few researchers are given access to: Cameroon’s Far North Region. He was escorted three days by the military between the front-line towns of Ldamang, Mabass, Kolofata, Amchidé and Gansé, before he went on to travel alone across the region: to Maroua, the Minawao refugee camp, Mokolo, Mora, Kousseri and Goulfey. During the four weeks he spoke to a wide range of people, including traditional chiefs, local inhabitants and administration staff, refugees and Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), vigilante groups, local NGOs, humanitarian actors, academics, the military, former Boko Haram members, former traffickers, and others, some in presence of the military but the vast majority on his own. He completed his research in April and May 2016 with additional interviews in Kerawa, Bargaram, Fotokol, Makary, Hile Alifa and Blangoua. Read Crisis Group’s in-depth report on the crisis in the area.

This is the story of his journey.

Cameroon's Far North district. CRISIS GROUP

At 8 o’clock in the morning, I hear seven vehicles stopping in front of my hotel: two armoured personnel carriers (APCs) and five four-wheel-drive vehicles. Sitting inside are over forty Cameroonian soldiers, who are here to take seven journalists and me into Cameroon’s Far North district – a region that has severely suffered under Boko Haram, and still does.

I want to understand what – apart from weapons – it takes to counter Boko Haram.

I am joining this convoy because I want to find out how Boko Haram operates in this area, and how strong it is, two years after the government started to clamp down on the insurgency. I want to see how the people living here are affected, understand if Boko Haram still recruits fighters in the Far North, and hear how large its network of sympathisers remains. And I want to understand what – apart from weapons – it takes to counter Boko Haram. I am especially curious to learn about the so-called “vigilantes”, local self-defence groups that have gained a certain fame in this Cameroonian war on terror. What can these groups really achieve?

The starting point of our trip is Maroua, a buzzing city of 400,000 inhabitants and capital of the Far North region. The region has never gained the sad notoriety of Nigeria’s Borno state, but it gradually became an important refuge for Boko Haram fighters in the 2000s. And it has suffered immensely under the insurgency over the past years, particularly since 2014 when Boko Haram entered into open confrontation with the Cameroonian government.

The Alpha escort of the BIR in Maroua, Far North, Cameroon. March 2016. CRISIS GROUP/Hans De Marie Heungoup

The group’s tactics then changed quickly: smaller incursions and occasional kidnappings soon grew into larger raids on towns and villages as well as strategic attacks against the Cameroonian army. In just two years, the insurgency staged more than 500 attacks and incursions, and around fifty suicide bomb attacks in Cameroon, making it the second most targeted country after Nigeria. According to Cameroonian soldiers, they fought fourteen fierce battles in Kolofata, Amchidé, Fotokol and Bargaram in 2014 and 2015 against sometimes hundreds and even up to a thousand heavily equipped Boko Haram fighters from mainly Nigeria, Cameroon and Chad.

In total, in two and a half years the insurgents have killed at least 1,300 civilians, 120 soldiers and abducted an estimated thousand people in Cameroon. They have burned down hundreds of schools and businesses and forced thousands to flee. Today, there are over 190,000 internally displaced Cameroonians in the Far North and around 65,000 refugees from neighbouring Nigeria, according to OCHA figures.

Before we leave Maroua, one of the soldiers gives me a helmet and a bullet-proof vest. This will be my outfit for the entire journey, the standard equipment for everyone travelling in this once peaceful area whose broken tracks are now sown with mines and improvised explosive devices (IED). These were laid by Boko Haram to block the government’s way into the territory. More than 50 incidents have been recorded since October 2014, with 22 of the mines killing at least 30 soldiers and wounding many more.

SABC News: "Boko Haram Has Leveled a Threat at Cameroon and its President Paul Biya"

Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau threatens to step up violence in Cameroon. In a video posted online, Shekau threatens the people of Cameroon and its president, Paul Biya. SABC News

I climb into a mine-resistant armoured personnel carrier (APC). But our safety has a price: despite air conditioning it’s over 45 degrees Celsius inside. With sweaty faces, the journalists and I look at each other, suddenly understanding, at least slightly, the physical challenge that the soldiers patrolling the region experience each day.   

Twenty kilometres outside of Maroua the roads become bumpy. And then there are no roads at all. But the driver finds his way toward the north east and after four hours we arrive at Mabass, a village right at the Nigerian frontier. Mabass and the neighbouring towns of Tourou and Ldamang were repeatedly attacked by Boko Haram in 2014 but the insurgents never managed to fully occupy them.

We stop at a rocky plateau overlooking the vast sandy frontier area with Nigeria where the local commander, Captain Ticko Kingue, points at a lake in the distance. “You see the lake over there?” he asks. “That’s the Nigerian town of Madagali. This entire frontier area is plagued by the insurgency. Even last night there were attacks. We cannot go into Nigeria, not here, we’re not allowed to. So what we do is we prevent the insurgents from coming in”.

A soldier belonging to the Emergence 4 Unit deployed at Poste de Mabass, Far North, Cameroon. March 2016. CRISIS GROUP/Hans De Marie Heungoup

It is crucial that the Nigerian and Cameroonian armies cooperate in the fight against Boko Haram. But for a long time, the two country’s historically difficult relations painfully slowed down their military coordination. Today, two years since the Cameroonian government declared war on Boko Haram, there’s still a great need for better exchange of intelligence. But at least cooperation between the two armies has improved significantly within the context of the region’s Multinational Joint Task Force – partly operational since November 2015 with the aim of crushing Boko Haram.

Here in Mabass, we are very close to the Nigerian army base near Madagali. “Sometimes they come to us, especially if we can help them with equipment”, says Captain Ticko Kingue. “And they inform us how things are going on their side”.

On the other side of the frontier, most border towns are still held by Boko Haram. “It’s been a long time since they managed to occupy new territory”, Captain Kingue says. “But they keep trying. They usually come in large groups of 200 fighters or more. We call this a ‘combat de masse’. Usually they come at night in a surprise attack. Sometimes they pretend to attack a larger village or town to divert the army’s attention while they try to seize smaller villages”. Although Boko Haram use indiscriminate violence, they also sometimes target these smaller villages to seize supplies or preach to the population, as happened on 15 December 2015 in Kerawa, where Boko Haram members rounded up the population to preach to them for hours in Kanuri, Haoussa and Arabic.

At Poste de Mabass.

Crisis Group Cameroon Analyst Hans De Marie Heungoup in conversation with local army commander Kingue at Poste de Mabass, Far North, Cameroon. March 2016. (Subtitles available in French and English) CRISIS GROUP/Hans De Marie Heungoup

Boko Haram’s firepower reached its peak between summer 2014 and spring 2015. In the face of Cameroonian, Chadian and Nigerian military pressure since then, Boko Haram had to change its tactics and appears to be in decline. The jihadist group lost much of the territory it occupied and has much less military equipment than it used to. The army claims it has dismantled most Boko Haram cells in Cameroon, killed about 2,000 members in fighting and arrested more than 1,000 suspects since 2014. Today, Boko Haram is ostensibly weaker and is not able to conduct large-scale attacks any more. But it is far from defeated. It still goes after smaller targets, and increasingly relies on suicide bombers.

Contrasting with the army’s success stories, a recent Amnesty International report documents severe failings and human rights violations in the Far North counterinsurgency campaign. According to Amnesty International, many of the army’s arrests were arbitrary, the rights of detained suspects were “routinely denied” and they did not receive fair judicial treatment. The Amnesty report has been widely criticised and rejected by the government, the military, civil society and the majority of local media. Crisis Group research raised similar concerns as Amnesty’s, but when speaking to a wide range of people it also found a high degree of local support for army actions in the face of Boko Haram’s bewildering violence.

Boko Haram is ostensibly weaker and is not able to conduct large-scale attacks any more. But it is far from defeated.

We continue our journey into the Mayo Tsanaga district toward the only refugee camp in the Far North. The camp near the village of Minawao is run by the UNHCR and hosts almost 57,000 people. Most of them are Nigerians from the border areas. More than 190,000 Cameroonians were also displaced, mostly fleeing to other villages and towns of the Far North.

When the camp was built in 2011, living conditions were extremely poor, but that changed, thanks to combined efforts by the UNHCR, other humanitarian agencies and the Cameroonian government. Housing is simple but resembles how people live elsewhere in the Far North. Refugees receive three meals per day, which is more than many ordinary Cameroonians get to eat. Children of all ages can go to school. Nonetheless there is still much room for improvement. The UNHCR claims that not even 10 per cent of the funds needed to care for all refugees have been provided. Because of that, sanitary conditions in the camp are still not up to adequate standards.

A child going to school at Minawao refugee camp. March 2016. CRISIS GROUP/Hans De Marie Heungoup

Another problem is that refugees have nearly no opportunity to work. For security reasons – especially the fear of suicide bombers – refugees are not allowed to leave the camp. The UNHCR is currently trying to come up with social activities to help the fact that many refugees feel condemned to doing nothing.

The psychological burden is hardest on those who came to the camp traumatised by the atrocities they saw or experienced during the insurgency, particularly women and girls who suffered abuses. There are only a couple of psychologists in the camp providing care for the newcomers – not enough to give permanent psychological assistance to the thousands who need it.

Most refugees tell me that they want to return to their homes as soon as the security situation allows it. But nobody can estimate when that will be. Many find it hard to believe that they will be safe again in the near future. One refugee from the Nigerian town of Pulka in Borno state says, “I may have many complaints, but nonetheless we are fine here in Minawao. I won’t go back”.

Our convoy returns to Maroua before night falls. Situated 100 kilometres away from the border, Maroua is out of Boko Haram’s reach and therefore one of the safest places in the Far North. But it too has suffered violent attacks. In July 2015, Boko Haram sent four young girls as suicide bombers to four public places in Maroua. When they blew themselves up, they killed over 37 people with them and wounded 114 others.

Youth are seen by Boko Haram as easy prey. The insurgents can either recruit or force them into their ranks and use them for their purposes.

My tour with the military over, I meet with one of the survivors, 13 year old Kevin, who tells me what happened on the night of 25 July: “It was night and I was with my friends. We wanted to buy candy from a shop close to the Boucan bar. There was a queue with six or seven people ahead of us. And then suddenly, a girl who was sitting right next to the vendor blew herself up. I remember hearing the detonation of the bomb before I passed out. I only woke up later at Maroua hospital. It was there that I realised that one of my legs was completely burnt. There were lots of small splinters in my belly, chest and neck from the explosion. The government paid for the surgery and I could leave the hospital about a week later, but I wasn’t the same. They had amputated the lower part of my burnt leg and I learnt that one of my friends had died during the attack. My other friend is alive, but they amputated both his legs and his face is burnt. I had never seen the girl who had blown herself up in the neighbourhood before. After we left the hospital, neither the government nor any of the humanitarian NGOs followed up with us on what had happened. A Catholic priest passes by from time to time at our house to speak with my mother and help my parents buy medicine”.

Luckily, the horrors of the attack have not taken away Kevin’s hope for the future. When I ask him if he still goes to school he says: “Yes, I have passed the first trimester. My teachers are very happy with me. When I finish school I want to become an engineer”.

Hans De Marie Heungoup with a victim of a suicide bomb explosion. Maroua, Far North, Cameroon. March 2016. CRISIS GROUP/Hans de Marie Heungoup

65 per cent of Cameroon’s population of 23 million is under 30 years old. Children and youths are the most vulnerable in this war. Many are traumatised by the violence they see or experience at a young age.

At the same time, youth are seen by Boko Haram as easy prey. The insurgents can either recruit or force them into their ranks and use them for their purposes, like the four girls in Maroua.

Recruitment is helped by the fact that many young people are unemployed, poorly educated, belong to a part of the society that is not well integrated or don’t see a future for themselves for other reasons. Local authorities and traditional chiefs in Maroua as well as in Mokolo and Mora told me that Boko Haram has lost its appeal and capacity to recruit almost entirely. Very few youths are still joining the movement voluntarily. Nonetheless, forced recruitments still continue in the border areas. As Boko Haram indiscriminately killed Muslims and Christians, fundamentalist Muslims distanced themselves from the movement, stating that Boko Haram represents neither Wahhabi nor Salafi Islam. Many Imams and Muslim clerics told me that the war against Boko Haram has actually limited the spread of fundamentalist trends of Islam as hard-line preachers are now afraid to speak up in public. 

The Far North is the poorest of Cameroon’s regions, with 70 per cent of its people living on less than one dollar per day. During the past three decades, the influence of conservative Salafi Islam has increased in the region and many children grow up exposed to radical religious viewpoints. There is an urgent need for the state and public institutions to care for these youths and make sure they do not radicalise in the first place – and if they do radicalise, offer them help to leave the group and be fully re-integrated into society.

Maroua has a big prison, and the vast majority of suspected Boko Haram members arrested in Cameroon, almost 900 of them, are detained here. What is sorely missing is a de-radicalisation program, one that teaches a more tolerant Islam and re-integrates into society those who were recruited by force and are willing to abandon the movement. 

When speaking to the regional administration, I learn that there are also no public counter-radicalisation programs outside of the prison aimed at keeping young people and others away from extremist groups. The only efforts made in this direction come from civil society groups and the churches. Cameroon’s Association for Inter-Faith Dialogue (ACADIR) has set a positive example by organising conferences and meetings that have brought together religious leaders of different strands of Christianity and Islam. But these initiatives only scratch the surface of the problem. They don’t reach those who are the biggest threat to religious dialogue in the Far North: radical Islamist leaders.

If the government does not invest in development, the impoverished local population will stay vulnerable to radical groups and religious radicalisation.

If the government is to turn a security-focused approach into a long-term political strategy against radicalisation, there is still much to do. If the government does not invest in development, the impoverished local population will stay vulnerable to radical groups and religious radicalisation.

Last year, when the government launched an emergency development plan with a budget of roughly $10 million per year, hardly anyone believed that this could make a big difference. Most experts estimate that the current plan covers only about one per cent of what is needed to significantly improve the situation in the country’s least developed region. With $10 million, you cannot construct a road network in the Far North, develop public services in all areas, like health and education, help business owners get back on their feet, create employment opportunities and pay for preventive programs to keep especially the youth away from radical groups.

It might be possible for Cameroon to find other funding to do the job, but a correct assessment of the needs is necessary. Only then can the government show that it has understood the scope of the problem and can hope for help from its international partners.

Members of the BIR in the Far North, Cameroon. March 2016. PHOTO/Erwan Decherysel

I leave Maroua a second time to go up to the Mayo Sava district. This time, I am picked up by soldiers of the BIR, “Bataillon d’intervention rapide” (rapid intervention force). Of the approximately 8,000 soldiers deployed in the Far North, 2,400 belong to this well-trained and equipped elite unit. They take me to a place that has become a symbol of the war: Amchidé.

We are confronted with the sight of a ghost town. Formerly inhabited by 30,000 people, Amchidé is among the hardest hit places in Cameroon and the stage of three long battles between the army and the insurgents in late 2014 and early 2015.

Amchide, Far North, Cameroon. March 2016. CRISIS GROUP/Hans De Marie Heungoup

The BIR camp of Amchidé has been baptised “Le Palais” (the Palace), not just because of its palace-like shape but also because it was one of the insurgent’s key strategic targets in Cameroon. Despite a dozen of conventional attacks, including three where Boko Haram mustered 800 insurgents, the city only fell for one day, on 15 October 2014. But the military base never succumbed. 

In Amchide.

Crisis Group Cameroon Analyst Hans De Marie Heungoup in conversation with Captain Kiki, commander of the BIR military base of Amchide, Cameroon, in March 2016. (Subtitles available in French and English) CRISIS GROUP/Hans De Marie Heungoup

The entire population of Amchidé fled during the fighting and only 10 per cent have come back – to an almost dead city. There are no businesses in Amchidé anymore, since the fighting has cut all Amchidé’s supply lines.

Most of those who came back are men, and about 40 of them joined forces to form a vigilante group. These vigilante or community defence groups are nothing new. In many Cameroonian towns and villages, unarmed vigilante groups have existed for a long time. But they have gained a new level of importance with the insurgency. They are groups of normal citizens – always men – patrolling their villages to make sure everyone is safe, especially at night. 

Members of the vigilante group of Amchide, Far North, Cameroon. March 2016. CRISIS GROUP/Hans De Marie Heungoup

As the Boko Haram threat increased, the government realised how these vigilantes can help in the fight on terror. It provided equipment, such as rifles, torches and night vision gear, and worked with traditional village chiefs who handpicked the most “suitable” men of their village to be part of the vigilante group. Vigilante groups have since played an important role against Boko Haram. They identify strangers they believe could be potential suicide attackers. And sometimes they even fend off smaller Boko Haram attacks. In the past year as well as this year, the Amchidé vigilante group and similar ones in Limani, Kerawa and Tolkomari have been involved in low intensity fights with small groups of about half a dozen Boko Haram fighters. In some cases they were able to surround smaller Boko Haram cells or win a fight against attackers. In other cases, they were not successful – and suffered casualties.

A member of the vigilante group of Amchide, Far North, Cameroon. March 2016. CRISIS GROUP/Hans De Marie Heungoup

Although they are praised by the government and local authorities, the vigilante groups are not exempt from criticism. Sometimes, vigilantes have denounced local inhabitants as members of Boko Haram just to settle private accounts. In other cases, vigilantes have been suspected of providing information to Boko Haram and were therefore arrested by the army. 

In the case of Amchidé, the first vigilante group formed by the BIR had only Christian members, who harassed and extorted money from the local Muslim majority. Following complaints, the BIR dissolved Amchidé’s first vigilante group and formed a new one with Christian and Muslim members. 

Unarmed vigilante groups have existed for a long time. But they have gained a new level of importance with the insurgency.

The last stop of my four weeks’ research trip is Kousseri, an old market town in between the Chari and the Logone rivers. You only have to cross a bridge to reach the metropolis of N’Djamena, capital of neighbouring Chad.

In economic terms, Kousseri is the most important city in the Far North. It has strong links with Chad to the east and Nigeria to the west, especially the Nigerian town of Maiduguri. In the past two years, it has been flooded with Cameroonian IDPs and Chadian refugees. Its population has grown from 200,000 to 280,000. Many of them come from the city of Fotokol, 100 kilometre to the west on the Nigerian border, where Boko Haram caused most casualties suffered in the country during the main phase of the war between May 2014 and March 2015.

For a period of several months in 2014 and 2015, Boko Haram staged almost daily attacks on Fotokol. One especially heavy battle took place in Fotokol in early February 2015. For two days, about 1,000 Boko Haram insurgents were fighting against Cameroonian BIR forces and Chadian soldiers, killing 81 to 400 civilians, seventeen Chadian soldiers, seven Cameroonian soldiers and 300 attackers, according to various reports. 

One woman from Fotokol tells me that Boko Haram killed her husband. Another woman describes how Boko Haram raided the village asking: “Where are the Christians?”. Some IDPs in Kousseri tell me that they feel relatively safe now, but the violence they have seen is hard to forget, and life remains hard for them. They receive only limited support from aid organisations like the World Food Program and no support from the state. They have to find their own housing or stay with friends and relatives. Opportunities for work are scarce and the local economy has suffered from the fighting. Tens of thousands of merchants relied on cross-border trade. When the Nigerian border was closed due to insecurity, many of them were left without work. Aya, who used to own a large shop in Fotokol, lost everything. She tells me: “There is no possible turning back for me and my children. We have been chased from our village, our house was burnt; we have to make our life here in Kousseri”. 

Hans De Marie Heungoup with a displaced family from Fotokol in Kousseri, Far North, Cameroon. March 2016. CRISIS GROUP/Hans De Marie Heungoup

After four weeks in the Far North, when I return to the capital Yaoundé, the main concern resonating in my head is that people cannot imagine that security will be restored soon. The military battle against Boko Haram is ongoing and despite some successes it is far from won. At the same time, the military’s performance is tainted by accusations of human rights violations against the population, including arbitrary detention, torture, extrajudicial killings, and forced disappearances - allegations which the military mostly denies. During our discussion, the spokesman of the Defence Ministry replied to similar claims: “Cameroon’s army is republican and professional. We systematically investigate all human rights abuses cases and sanction. As you should know four soldiers in the Far North have been discharged a few months ago for committing grave acts against the honor of the army”.  

While his claim that all abuses are investigated is clearly an exaggeration, and it is not clear that all sanctions concern Human rights abuses, there has been some progress. Disciplinary measures have been taken against some officers and soldiers  in the Far North, who have been removed from operational assignments to administrative posts or dismissed. Some judicial investigations into rights abuses are underway. 

Still, efforts made are far from sufficient and the defence ministry’s focus on sanctions is too narrow. There are no financial or material compensations for victims of the families of victims that suffered human rights violations. Neither has the military officially apologised. The government should pursue a stricter and proactive sanctions policy against soldiers who committed abuses, publicise its sanctions and put in place measures that can rebuild communities’ confidence. If human rights violations by the army continue, they will jeopardise the success of the counterinsurgency, as parts of the population may radicalise and take the side of the insurgents. At the same time, Western countries might withdraw their support for the army, as happened in Nigeria when there was a rash of human rights abuses by Nigerian army.

If human rights violations by the army continue, they will jeopardise the success of the counterinsurgency. Parts of the population may take the side of the insurgents.

As much as security efforts are crucial to curb the insurgency, Cameroon, Nigeria and Chad also need to shape new policies that can prevent the emergence of new jihadist groups. More and more, the central authorities seem to understand that. At the ministry of defence and at the ministry of external relations, I meet several senior officials who recognise that a sustainable victory is impossible without development in the Far North. But then, they all add “the priority is to defeat Boko Haram militarily first”. Otherwise, the sad example of Chinese development workers who were kidnapped in 2014 by Boko Haram while building roads in the Far North could be repeated, they say. 

Boko Haram is much weaker today than in 2014. Nonetheless, the government must not delay proving to its population that it cares for its needs, and that it is trying to give those who feel neglected by the state new hope for their future. 

This commentary is part of Crisis Group’s series Our Journeys, giving behind the scenes access to our analysts’ field research. 

Le président du Mali, Ibrahim Boubacar Keita (G), donne l'accolade à Mahamadou Djery Maiga (D), vice-président et porte-parole du Conseil de transition de l'Etat de l'Azawad, le 20 juin 2015 à Bamako. AFP/Habibou Kouyate
Q&A / Africa

Mali’s Algiers Peace Agreement, Five Years On: An Uneasy Calm

La mise en œuvre de l’accord de paix au Mali demeure incomplète et laborieuse cinq ans après sa signature. Mathieu Pellerin analyse la situation actuelle et explique pourquoi il faut accélérer les efforts pour instaurer les réformes de fond prévues par l’accord de 2015. 

Five years after it was signed in June 2015, what has happened to the Agreement on Peace and Reconciliation in Mali?

In June 2015, the Malian government, a coalition of pro-government armed groups from northern Mali called the Platform and the Coordination of Azawad Movements (Coordination des mouvements de l’Azawad, CMA) – an alliance of rebel groups – convened in Bamako and signed an agreement to restore peace in the country. The signatories were under great pressure from an international mediation team to accept the final text, which was drafted after less than a year of often indirect negotiations. The mediation team was led by Algeria and included the UN Stabilisation Mission in Mali (MINUSMA), the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the African Union (AU) and the European Union, as well as the United States and France, who were initially designated “friends of the mediation”.

The agreement seeks to restore peace in Mali principally through a process of decentralisation or regionalisation, reconstituting a national army from the members of the former armed groups that were signatories, and boosting the economy (particularly in the north), based on dialogue, justice and national reconciliation.

None of the agreement’s five pillars have been satisfactorily applied.

The parties claim to support the agreement five years after signing it in June 2015, but its implementation has proved to be extremely difficult. The Carter Center – appointed as the Independent Observer in Mali in late 2017 – reports virtually no progress on this front: in 2017, 22 per cent of the agreement’s provisions had been put into effect, compared to 23 per cent three years later. None of the agreement’s five pillars have been satisfactorily applied.

The parties have not carried out the substantive political and institutional reforms defined in Section II of the agreement (the first section lays out the agreement’s general principles), starting with regionalisation. So far, the measures have been temporary or too limited to make any real impact on the ground. It took months of negotiation between the signatories and international partners of the Peace Agreement Monitoring Committee (Comité de suivi de l’accord, CSA) to appoint interim authorities in the northern regions, and with few tangible results. Three years on, these authorities have insufficient financial and human resources, and lack the training, to manage the regions effectively. The two new regions (Ménaka and Taoudenit) created in northern Mali, based on commitments made by President Amadou Toumani Touré in 2011, also lack resources. Voters in these regions could not choose deputies in the April 2020 legislative elections because the electoral districts had not yet been delineated.

On matters of defence and security (Section III), the process of Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration (DDR) initiated by the state and backed by MINUSMA has weakened. Despite the deployment of a reconstituted Malian army battalion in February 2020 in Kidal, a hotbed of rebellion and CMA’s centre of operations in Mali’s far north, this force has never patrolled the town, and the CMA – chafing at its exclusion from a command role – has now “assigned” the battalion’s third company to Gao. The leaders of the movements and the Malian state’s chiefs of staff have not discussed the framework for a lasting means of integrating former armed groups’ members in the national army and its chain of command.

On the fifth anniversary of the agreement, this DDR process involves only 1,840 combatants from the signatory groups in an “accelerated DDR” phase, and they are not even the ones who fully reintegrated. UN Security Council Resolution 2480 (2019) set the goal of reintegrating 3,000 fighters by 2020, but it remains distant, and the next phase is uncertain. With nearly 85,000 combatants registered by the signatory groups, DDR remains incomplete and a sensitive issue. The mixed units of the Operational Coordination Mechanism (Mécanisme Opérationnel de Coordination, MOC), consisting of Malian soldiers and combatants from the signatory armed groups and partly assigned to the reconstituted army, were supposed to provide security in large towns in northern Mali. They are rarely seen on patrol, however, and have been targeted for attack, especially the 2017 Gao bombing of their camp. Some former fighters belonging to the MOC or to the reconstituted army have been involved in banditry and trafficking.

The joint administration of a long-term development fund by the Malian authorities and armed groups remains a challenge.

The parts of the agreement on development (Section IV) and reconciliation (Section V) remain largely overlooked. Nothing points to the possibility of genuine economic growth supported by the state or donors. A long-term development fund designed to support initiatives in northern Mali has been set up, but its joint administration by the Malian authorities and armed groups remains a challenge. Mali’s truth, justice and reconciliation commission, established in 2014, has continued its role as defined in the 2015 agreement, and it began holding public hearings in December 2019, but it generates hardly any interest.

Why the standstill?

The delayed implementation is symptomatic primarily of a lack of will among the signatories. Neither the Malian government nor the other parties were enthusiastic about the agreement’s text in 2015; international duress, particularly from Algeria, France and the U.S., pushed them to sign it. Civil society organisations in both northern and southern Mali that were supposed to represent local populations were effectively excluded from the process. While the Malian state and the signatory armed groups feel that outsiders foisted reconciliation upon them, southern Malians remain strongly distrustful of the former rebels and an agreement that was largely opaque to them. Many from the south think that the agreement is the first step toward an eventual partition of the country. According to the Mali-Mètre opinion survey (March 2020), “the vast majority of citizens interviewed (80.1 per cent) stated that they had ‘no’ knowledge (61 per cent) or ‘hardly any’ knowledge (19.1 per cent) of the peace agreement”.

Apart from the lack of will, the Malian state and the CMA are also keen to preserve the status quo: the CMA enjoys considerable de facto autonomy in its areas of influence in northern Mali, while many of its members have paid employment in the bodies set up by the agreements, such as the CSA and the interim authorities. In parallel, this state of affairs allows the Malian state to delay implementation of the 2015 agreement’s more sensitive provisions, particularly those implying constitutional reform. In August 2017, pressure from the public – mobilised in part against the agreement’s implementation – forced the government to postpone a draft constitutional referendum. By maintaining the status quo, the government prevents social unrest while still honouring its commitment to the international community to continue implementing the agreement.

We are not going to lay down our arms before getting what we took them up for in the first place.

The main parties to the agreement are therefore in a deadlock: the lack of political and institutional progress is leading the signatory armed groups to reject defence and security commitments. In an interview, one CMA official summed up the situation as follows: “We are not going to lay down our arms before getting what we took them up for in the first place”.

The international mediation team that pushed for the signing of the agreement has failed in its commitment to act as “the guarantor of [its] scrupulous implementation”, as specified in its text. The CSA has not exerted enough pressure on the parties to ensure the agreement’s proper implementation, in particular with regard to its key political and security provisions. International actors seem content with the status quo that allows them to focus on the jihadist threat, particularly in central Mali.

If the parties have not clashed since the agreement was signed, why does the impasse pose a problem?

The current stability is significant, and represents a source of satisfaction for some. But it is deceptive. The peace agreement may be partly responsible for the calm, but it owes more to a combination of factors that may turn out to be short-lived.

If they have failed to secure genuine implementation of the agreement, the international forces present in Mali have succeeded at deterring the signatories from resorting to the use of force. Their presence, however, will not be permanent. With instability spreading in central Mali, and across its borders, international actors such as Barkhane (a French anti-terrorism operation in the Sahel) and MINUSMA are increasingly turning their eyes elsewhere, such as Burkina Faso and Niger. In this vast region, the limited military forces (5,100 Barkhane and 13,000 MINUSMA soldiers) cannot be present everywhere.

Moreover, the stability in northern Mali is paradoxically linked to the CMA’s position of strength. Since 2015, violations of the peace agreement have pitted the armed groups of two coalitions against each other (rather than against the Malian state) due to political rivalries between the strongmen of different Touareg tribes or clashes between traffickers. The Platform – the coalition of pro-Bamako armed movements – has steadily weakened since 2017, and many of the factions have split off to join its rival, the CMA. Skirmishes are now rare again in northern Mali. Although the three parties signed the agreement in 2015, the Platform’s dwindling power has now left the CMA facing off against the government. In the longer term, the non-implementation of the agreement could give a pretext for the CMA, now in a strong position in the north of the country, to revive its quest for autonomy.

The non-implementation of the agreement could give a pretext for the CMA to revive its quest for autonomy.

The stability is also linked to the discovery of gold in the Kidal and Gourma regions. Panning for gold has effectively enabled a type of spontaneous yet temporary demobilisation of combatants from armed movements, especially the CMA. But the gold deposits will eventually run out. The current phase of artisanal mining will either come to an end or – more likely – yield to a phase of semi-mechanised mining that requires fewer workers. At that point, taking up arms could become more appealing.  

The current situation is therefore based on a precarious balance and cannot be described as a lasting solution; a flare-up of violence in the medium term cannot be ruled out. The peace process must deliver considerable progress in order to avoid becoming an empty shell that the signatories will end up abandoning in order to resume their hawkish positions.

Could improving the agreement’s implementation help solve the problem of jihadist insurrections spreading across other parts of northern Mali?

Some international actors and the Malian state consider that the reconstituted army, which must bring together Malian soldiers and combatants from armed groups, should engage in the fight against terrorism. It is risky, however, to connect the struggle against jihadist groups to the peace agreement’s implementation.

First, this idea gives the illusion that the signatory armed groups are capable of tackling jihadists. Many members of these signatory groups have been killed in the jihadists’ suicide bombings and other attacks; they are often forced to negotiate unofficial non-aggression pacts with the militant groups. Moreover, the “anti-terrorist” alliance created by Barkhane with two armed groups belonging to the Platform between 2017 and 2019 in the Liptako-Gourma region has proved unable to stem the jihadist expansion. Worse, it has exacerbated the situation by heightening local intercommunal tensions (see Crisis Group’s most recent report on Niger). The armed groups see no advantage in weakening their position in the anti-jihadist fight while the Malian state continues to raise the spectre of revising the peace agreement. Furthermore, most armed groups from the north have combatants in their ranks who were former members of jihadist groups before the French intervention, or else have family or tribal links to jihadist elements.

The issue of territorial and political autonomy is the core motivation for taking up arms in this region.

Although fighting terrorism attracts international attention, it is only one of the problems facing northern Mali today. Even if international and national forces were to succeed in eliminating or sidelining the jihadists, the signatory parties would still demand a satisfactory response to their demands for territorial autonomy in the north, which would almost certainly derail the Malian peace process. The issue of territorial and political autonomy – arising for the fourth time since 1963 – is the core motivation for taking up arms in this region. This is reflected in the agreement’s provisions on the implementation of effective regionalisation. In Niger, the state has allowed elites from the north, including former members of armed groups, to participate fully in running local administration. These elites have thus become better integrated into political and institutional affairs at a national level. Mali could follow this example that resolves a fundamental issue: how to dissuade people from joining armed groups and encourage military actors to take part in political and economic matters; even though it would be naïve to suppose that weapons and trafficking would disappear overnight. The most pressing goal is to ensure that these realities do not play into the hands of those with hawkish agendas.

How can the peace process move forward without jeopardising progress toward stability?

Expectations must be realistic. No one should feel satisfied with the current situation. At the same time, no one should exert pressure that may rekindle violence, for example by organising an unsuccessful referendum or redeploying the reconstituted army, which the signatory groups would judge as heavy-handed. The parties must take careful steps toward more effective implementation of the agreement. Given the various parties’ reluctance to apply the agreement in full, there is no magical solution for the problem. There are, however, two main areas where the peace process could gain new impetus: trust in the peace process, and political will to see it through.

Southern Malians’ opposition to the agreement has prevented progress toward its implementation. Since 2017, the government has postponed the deadline for the referendum on constitutional reform now scheduled for late 2020. This reform seeks to bring Mali’s constitution into line with the agreement’s terms, particularly by setting up a senate and regional assemblies whose presidents would be elected through direct universal suffrage. Opposition to the agreement, compounded by widespread discontent with a state weakened by seven years of crisis and recent disputed legislative elections, makes a positive outcome in such a referendum unlikely this year. Southern and central Malians account for almost 90 per cent of the electorate, and their mistrust of an agreement they do not properly understand would most likely lead them to reject the planned constitutional reform.

It is vital for southern Malians to give more support to the process.

It is therefore vital for southern Malians to give more support to the process through the political elites and civil society organisations supposed to represent them. They played no part in the discussions that led to the signing of the agreement in 2015, and many reject a text negotiated without their input. The 2015 text gave the Malian government the job of providing information and raising public awareness about the agreement’s content, but as the Carter Center observed, the government did little in this regard. There are now more public campaigns protesting against the peace agreement than in support of it. Awareness-raising initiatives have focused on northern populations, disregarding the fact that the agreement also applies to southern Mali, particularly through the regionalisation reform and the creation of a senate.

Five years after the signing of the agreement, it remains essential to address this shortcoming. Without the support of the population of southern Mali, many of its local interest groups will continue agitating to put the agreement on hold and to renegotiate its terms. Renegotiation is not in the interest of either the international community or the CMA, and over time could even lead to a resumption of belligerent discourse. The denunciation of the peace agreement is one of the grievances voiced by the organisers of the Movement of 5 June - Rally of Patriotic Forces (M5-RFP), a protest movement calling for the resignation of President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita that gathered tens of thousands of demonstrators on 5 and 19 June 2020, mostly in Bamako. Some of the movement’s leaders, such as filmmaker and former Minister Cheick Oumar Sissoko, have publicly called for the agreement to be revised, a position the M5-RFP has so far not adopted officially. The agreement remains a secondary issue for the movement, with other grievances aimed directly at President Keita taking precedence.

The CMA therefore needs to engage with southern Malians to explain that the agreement does not threaten to split up the country, and that regionalisation is a national reform and not limited to the north. The southern regions have everything to gain from a regionalisation process that would guarantee them a transfer of powers and resources unprecedented in Mali’s history. This awareness-raising could continue the work started with the inclusive national dialogue of 2019, namely the initiation of talks between the CMA and civil society organisations from southern Mali. Local elected representatives and traditional authorities from the north should be involved in these information campaigns in the southern regions. International partners sitting on the CSA monitoring committee, in particular MINUSMA, could help organise this work. Without guaranteeing the success of the referendum, such a move could still help relieve the pressure on the government exerted by southern elites that is holding up the agreement’s implementation.

The political authority in charge of implementing the agreement needs to be invested with greater power. The country’s president or, failing that, the prime minister, should become directly involved and support this authority, since these figures are the only ones able to give orders to the technical ministries and to resolve any disputes. The creation in 2016 of the president’s high representative to implement the agreement was a step in the right direction, but the person chosen for this job never had the necessary political clout or support to impose his views on a government that often remains unwilling to implement the agreement. The ministry of social cohesion, peace and national reconciliation, currently the government body in charge of this portfolio, has had no more success.

The key to implementation lies with the signatories themselves.

The top-level authorities of the signatory groups should be a more regular presence in Bamako, especially during the CSA’s most important sessions, since these constitute the main dialogue framework among the signatories. Otherwise, second-tier actors represent the groups, and their decisions fail to influence the other movements.

The international community must also continue to monitor progress, and to press for more, even though the current situation reveals the clear limitations of an externally imposed peace. The key to implementation lies with the signatories themselves.

The reality, however, is that Mali’s president must commit himself decisively and publicly to support the most sensitive provisions of the agreement – particularly the transfer of resources and power in terms of regionalisation and a reconstituted army. As long as he does not do so, the parties’ lack of will to implement the agreement will prove an insurmountable barrier.