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The Sahel: Mali’s Crumbling Peace Process and the Spreading Jihadist Threat
The Sahel: Mali’s Crumbling Peace Process and the Spreading Jihadist Threat
Briefing 104 / Africa

Mali: Last Chance in Algiers

As the last phase of negotiations resumes on 20 November, the Algeria-led talks between the Malian government and the armed groups in the north should not be rushed as they offer a unique opportunity for a sustainable peace agreement.

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I. Overview

As northern Mali experiences renewed violence, peace negotiations in Algiers offer a unique opportunity to resolve the crisis. But after almost two months of negotiations, peace remains a distant hope. The Malian government and participating political armed groups have struggled to find common ground. Influential radical groups that are absent from the negotiating table are tempted to resort to violence to derail the process. Conflict resolution will require reconciliation of competing interests regarding security in the Sahara, organisation of the Malian state structure and local balance of power between divided communities in the north. In the face of armed clashes, it is tempting for mediators to move quickly to achieve a deal that would only guarantee security in the short term. But rushing the process will not help. Time is needed to build the foundations of sustainable peace.

After months of deadlock, Algeria arranged international mediation that had long been handicapped by institutional rivalries. The mediation team led by Algeria should maintain this momentum and take the time necessary to build broad consensus for a future agreement. The document that serves as a basis for the drafting of a final agreement is a useful first step, but it offers solutions that have shown serious limitations in the past. It presents the crisis as a centre-periphery conflict without acknowledging the divides within northern communities. It does not provide for political and security institutions that would ensure equitable access to resources and responsibilities for all communities.

All actors involved in trying to resolve the crisis must learn from the mistakes of previous agreements, such as a lack of funds to ensure quick implementation; weak international guarantee mechanisms that did not fulfil their early warning role; and the neglect of the local balance of power in the north due to the focus on relations between the state and the northern regions. On the security front, the integration of former rebels into the armed forces generated a lot of frustration across the board.

During the last few weeks, northern Mali has experienced resurgence in violence, in particular because of jihadi activities and clashes between political armed groups, in violation of the May 2014 ceasefire. In the context of a worrying increase in attacks on the UN Mission in Mali (MINUSMA), it is tempting to strengthen the security response. However, the best option remains to try for a realistic, sustainable agreement. In Bamako, the shock caused by the Kidal debacle in May 2014 has not entirely faded away. Radical nationalist groups have not ruled out the military solution with support from international forces.

As the last phase of negotiations opens on 20 November in a climate of distrust, much remains to be done. Any further stalemate in the discussions will give rise to prejudice in both parties. No one wants to rush the signing of an incomplete agreement. Mali’s international partners, who are the future political and financial guarantors of the deal, should not condone a flawed agreement. Failure would also jeopardise Algeria’s laudable efforts to stabilise the region. On the governmental front, the longer public administration remains absent from the north, the more difficult it will be to fully restore the state’s presence. Meanwhile, insecurity in the north is undermining the political and diplomatic influence gained by the Azawad Movements Coalition, due to their victory over the army in Kidal.

To all actors involved in the negotiations, in particular their leader, Algeria:

  • take the time necessary to conduct the negotiations and in the meantime, find an interim agreement focusing exclusively on strengthening the ceasefire, for example through increased mixed patrols;
     
  • address conflict both within the northern communities, and between these communities and the state, in order to establish political and security institutions that ensure a fair and acceptable distribution of resources and political responsibilities; and
     
  • agree to hold popular consultations prior to finalisation of the agreement, and provide for formal endorsement through a vote by an extraordinary session of the Malian parliament and/or a vote in the regions concerned.

To the mediation team (Algeria, MINUSMA, African Union, Economic Community of West African States, Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, EU, Mauritania, Niger and Chad):

  • provide international guarantees to ensure funding and implementation of the agreement, including an international mechanism to manage donor funds jointly with the relevant local authorities, and an early warning and rapid reaction system in the event of a derailment of the peace process; and
     
  • prepare the international mediation team to become a contact group responsible for enforcement of the agreement, based in Bamako and the northern regions, once the negotiations are completed.

Dakar/Brussels, 18 November 2014

Commentary / Africa

The Sahel: Mali’s Crumbling Peace Process and the Spreading Jihadist Threat

With jihadists and armed groups exploiting political and security vacuums across the Sahel, Mali and neighbouring states will continue to face insecurity. In this excerpt from our Watch List 2017 annual early-warning report for European policy makers, Crisis Group urges the European Union and its member states to rethink international development strategies and to support local government initiatives that combat radicalisation.

 

This commentary is part of our annual early-warning report Watch List 2017.

Despite significant international sweat, the Sahel remains on a trajectory toward greater violence and widening instability. Jihadists, armed groups and entrenched criminal networks – sometimes linked to national and local authorities – continue to expand and threaten the stability of already weak states. Across the region, citizens remain deeply disenchanted with their governments. International actors must review their current strategies, which tackle the symptoms of the Sahel’s problems without addressing their underlying cause: central governments’ long-term neglect of their states. In particular, they should act urgently to prevent the collapse of the peace process in Mali – a genuine danger this year that would have serious implications for security across the Sahel.

Widening Cracks in Mali’s Peace Process

At the heart of the Sahel’s instability is Mali’s long-running crisis. It is spilling over into Burkina Faso and spreading to fragile Niger and more stable Senegal. Twenty months since the government and armed groups signed the Algeria-brokered Bamako peace agreement in June 2015, implementation is faltering and the deal’s collapse is a real possibility. Despite publicly claiming to support the process, Malian parties lack confidence in a deal that was signed under international pressure and has serious shortcomings. It does little to tackle the violent war economy in which prominent businessmen rely on small private armies to protect trafficking routes. It also fails to restore a viable balance of power between northern communities and leaders who compete for resources, influence and territory.

Map of Sahel. International Crisis Group

The recent fracturing of the main rebel coalition, the Coordination des Mouvements de l’Azawad (CMA), has seen the creation of new community-based armed groups, such as the Mouvement pour le Salut de l’Azawad and the Congrès pour la Justice dans l’Azawad, and may further aggravate insecurity. More worryingly, the appointment of interim local authorities and the launch of mixed patrols comprising army soldiers and former rebels in the north have failed to demonstrate much positive impact at the local level.

Meanwhile, jihadist groups, including al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Ansar Eddine and al-Mourabitoun, remain active. Having been chased out of major towns, rather than trying to hold urban areas they are striking provincial and district centres from rural bases. Al-Mourabitoun claimed responsibility for the bombing on 18 January that killed 61 personnel of the mixed unit in Gao region.

Jihadists and other violent non-state groups are filling the security vacuum as the army retreats and local authorities and the central government abandon immense rural areas.

At the same time, insecurity is rising in areas long neglected by the state such as central Mali, which is not included in the northern Mali peace process. Jihadists and other violent non-state groups are filling the security vacuum as the army retreats and local authorities and the central government abandon immense rural areas. Bamako still has no effective response to the jihadists’ strategy of threatening or killing local authorities or civil society members that stand against them. In addition, the rise of a new group, the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara, and the possible influx from Libya of defeated Islamic State (IS) fighters are further sources of concern.

Jihad Sans Frontières

Despite international military intervention including by UN peacekeepers, jihadists are making inroads into other Sahelian countries. In late 2016, jihadist fighters based in central and northern Mali launched attacks in western Niger and northern Burkina Faso, underscoring the region’s vulnerability and the serious risks of overlapping conflicts across the greater Sahel. On 6 February, the G5 countries (Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger) met in Bamako to announce the creation of a regional force to tackle terrorism and transnational crime. It remains to be seen how effective this ambitious project will prove.

Mali’s neighbours are right to point out that Bamako is responsible for failing to prevent radical groups using its territory. However, they should also pay closer attention to their own internal dynamics. These include years of state neglect and poor political representation of certain communities – especially nomadic Fulanis in the region of Djibo in Burkina Faso and Tillabery in Niger. Chronic resource limitations hobble Sahelian states’ ability to respond effectively: Niger’s state revenue, for example, is €1.7 billion, about as much as France invested in stadiums to host the 2016 European football competition.

In 2016, Burkina Faso suffered eight attacks originating in Mali and it remains the most vulnerable of Mali’s neighbours. The ousting of former President Blaise Compaoré in 2014 left the security apparatus in disarray. National authorities have been slow to rebuild the intelligence system and they lack a defence strategy to help security forces adjust to rapidly evolving threats. Despite recurring attacks, military posts in the country’s northern Sahel region remain poorly protected. With limited resources the government will struggle to meet demands for significant social development, which partly drove the October 2014 uprising, and, at the same time, increase spending to revamp the security forces. Should Burkina be tempted to use the social welfare budget to plug security holes, it could face new protests.

Reviving the Malian Peace Process

International forces have been slow to adjust to changing ground realities and for now there is little appetite in Bamako or the region for a major course correction. However, further deterioration – such as jihadist groups expanding westwards into Ségou region in the centre – would require a response. The European Union (EU) and its member states should anticipate this and encourage Malian parties and the Algeria-led mediation team to meet again before the process loses all credibility. New talks would offer all parties an opportunity to express their concerns about the implementation of the Bamako agreement and reenergise it. They should agree on additional appendices that include a new timetable and mechanisms to ensure that each party respects its commitments. To limit the risk of further armed group fragmentation, discussions should also focus on ways to bring splinter groups into the process. This could mostly be done by integrating them into one of the existing coalitions, the CMA or Platform.

The focus should be as much on helping the state provide services to the population, including justice and security, as on economic projects or infrastructure.

To avoid the further spread of violence in Mali, the EU and its member states should encourage and support central government and local authorities to mediate local conflicts. They should also assist local authorities, through training and direct support, to provide public services and ensure the equitable sharing of natural resources. Such peacebuilding support should not be framed as preventing or countering “violent extremism” (P/CVE) as these concepts lack clarity, mask the complex dynamics of jihadist recruitment and risk stigmatising communities that receive such assistance.

Vital too is the need for a shift in international development strategies. The focus should be as much on helping the state provide services to the population, including justice and security, as on economic projects or infrastructure. The EU and member states should pay particular attention to assisting the state’s local-level redeployment through programs that support public services. They should encourage and assist the government to improve its draft “Plan for Central Mali” and make it a useful tool to coordinate government efforts.

They should also ensure that the EU’s capacity-building mission, EUCAP Mali, closely collaborates with authorities at both central and regional levels to make Mopti region in the centre a pilot site to test policies aimed at improving local security, and specifically reforming the local police. Lessons drawn from here could be applied in northern Mali and other Sahelian regions.

Halting Jihadists’ Cross-border Spread

The EU and its member states should pay more attention to Burkina Faso, which faces a real threat from armed groups. In particular, member states with a military presence in Mali should deploy forces near its border with Burkina Faso, and provide the Burkinabè security forces with helicopters so that they can conduct aerial surveillance of the long shared border. Although the link between underdevelopment and radicalisation is complex and indirect, increasing aid in health, education and professional training particularly in areas affected by attacks, could potentially improve relations between state authorities and communities and therefore undercut an important grievance that extremist groups often exploit.