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Mali’s Algiers Peace Agreement, Five Years On: An Uneasy Calm
Mali’s Algiers Peace Agreement, Five Years On: An Uneasy Calm
A boy runs in front of a mural that reads "Peace" in Timbuktu, on 24 July 2013. REUTERS/Joe Penney
Report 226 / Africa

Mali: An Imposed Peace?

Fighting recently resumed in Mali, while a peace accord remains a façade. Both sides, with help from international mediators, need to re-open negotiations. They must go beyond prioritising security to include all belligerents and improve access to basic social services, jobs and justice.

Executive Summary

After eight months of negotiations between Malian parties, the government and some armed groups signed an agreement on 15 May 2015 in Bamako. Fighting has resumed, however, in the north and centre of Mali. Crucially, the Azawad Movements Coalition (CMA) has still not signed the agreement. It initialled the text on the eve of the ceremony but demands further discussion before fully accepting it. An agreement without the signature of the main coalition opposing the government is of little value and will likely make disarmament impossible. The mediation team should establish a framework that would allow for further talks and Malian parties should return to the negotiating table at the earliest opportunity. The UN Security Council and its UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilisation Mission in Mali (MINUSMA), backed by France, must take a stronger stance against violations of the ceasefire.

All actors bear responsibility for the recent resumption of fighting. A significant part of the Malian political and military leadership still pursues the idea of seeking revenge for their earlier defeat at the hands of rebels through military means. There is a real danger that elements within the government try to portray non-signatories to the Bamako deal as spoilers to be dealt with militarily – an option that would have disastrous consequences. The government has problematic ties with groups within the Platform coalition, northern opponents of the CMA that regained control of the town of Menaka on 27 April. Meanwhile, some of the CMA’s demands are unrealistic and it continues to ignore the profound diversity of the northern populations, not all of which support all aspects of the CMA’s agenda. International mediators have imposed their own security agenda and have been too quick to close the door to further talks. Despite weeks of pressure the CMA has refused to sign the peace agreement but the mediators were nonetheless adamant about holding the ceremony on 15 May. During the ceremony, tensions between the Malian president and the UN under-secretary-general for peacekeeping operations revealed substantial divergences on the process that should follow the signing.

Although no agreement is perfect, the proposed document has clear shortcomings. It repeats mistakes of the past, encouraging, for example, models of decentralisation and clientelism that have failed to bring peace. Rather than trying to change a deeply flawed political system, it seeks only to strengthen the institutions within it. The Malian parties, who refused to engage in direct dialogue, inherit a document that is written mostly by international mediators and in part reflects the mediators’ own interests. It prioritises the restoration of order and stability rather than aiming to meet a desire for genuine change that runs deep among northern populations. The agreement makes scant mention of issues like the access to basic social services, jobs or justice – concerns at the heart of popular demands. Prioritising security overshadows the need to restore the state’s social function across the Malian territory.

While the signing of the agreement closes the framework of dialogue without being able to include all belligerent parties, renewed fighting over recent weeks threatens parts of the country. The attack on Menaka took place on 27 April following the CMA’s proposal to initial the agreement in exchange for a resumption of talks before signing. The renewed fighting indicates that months of negotiations did not resolve the lack of trust between the parties. Hardliners on both sides appear uninterested in signing an agreement that includes all actors and instead took advantage of the deadlock to relaunch offensives. Neither the presence of MINUSMA nor the threat of sanctions has been sufficient to deter ceasefire violations in late April.

The Platform’s groups, which represent genuine interests in the north, are in part being manipulated by hardliners within the Malian government, who use them as proxies to avoid the Malian army directly engaging in combat. The risks of the conflict spreading are all the more worrying given that other parts of central Mali have been the scene of unprecedented insecurity in recent months. With armed groups becoming increasingly community-based, the resumption of fighting can lead to their further fragmentation and additional civilian casualties. To prevent Mali entering a new cycle of violence despite the signing of the Bamako agreement, political discussion must prevail over diplomatic coercion or military force.

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.