France’s Troop Withdrawal from Mali
France’s Troop Withdrawal from Mali
mali-22may15
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.

Podcast / Africa

France’s Troop Withdrawal from Mali

In this episode of Hold Your Fire!, Richard Atwood and Naz Modirzadeh talk with Sahel experts Ibrahim Yahaya Ibrahim and Richard Moncrieff about France’s announcement it will pull troops from Mali, and what the withdrawal means for the fighting against jihadist insurgents.

On 17 February, President Emmanuel Macron announced he would withdraw all French troops from Mali after a deployment in the country of almost ten years. In early 2013, French forces together with Chadian troops ousted jihadists from cities and towns in northern Mali, which created space for a peace deal between Bamako and other, non-jihadist rebels. Since then, however, the French-led campaign against militants in the Sahel has struggled against local al-Qaeda and Islamic State branches. French operations have killed jihadist leaders, but militants have extended their reach from northern Mali to its centre and to parts of Niger, Burkina Faso and even Gulf of Guinea countries. Inter-ethnic violence has ballooned. Mali has also suffered two coups over the past couple of years. Relations between Paris and the junta currently holding power have deteriorated sharply, partly because Mali’s military leaders had agreed, mid-2021, to the deployment of Russian private military contractors to help fight jihadists. Popular anger toward France’s deployment has also mounted, seemingly partly fuelled by disinformation. 

This week on Hold Your Fire!, Richard Atwood and Naz Modirzadeh talk with Ibrahim Yahaya Ibrahim and Richard Moncrieff, respectively Crisis Group’s senior Sahel analyst and interim Sahel director, about the French decision, its causes and its implications. They look at the collapse in relations between Bamako and Paris, the direction the junta is currently taking Mali and how other countries in the region have responded. They talk through what the French departure might mean for other forces, including the UN force in Mali and the G5 Sahel regional force. They also examine the repercussions for the balance of force between jihadists and their enemies in the Sahel and ask what a future French presence in the region might look like after the withdrawal from Mali. 

Click here to listen on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.

N.B. This episode was recorded before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. 

For more information, explore Crisis Group’s analysis on our Sahel regional page. For our analysis of African perspectives of the Ukraine War, check out our commentary ‘The Ukraine War: A Global Crisis’.

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