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The Sahel: Promoting Political alongside Military Action
The Sahel: Promoting Political alongside Military Action
A fighter from the Coordination of Azawad Movements (CMA) stands on his vehicle covered in mud for camouflage outside Anefis, Mali, on 26 August 2015. REUTERS/Souleymane Ag Anara
Briefing 115 / Africa

Mali: Peace from Below?

Hesitant steps toward peace in Mali have been helped by the recent pacts signed in Anefis by pro-government armed groups and by rebel representatives. While not sufficient or without risks, they are rooted in local initiatives and tackle issues left out of June’s Bamako accord. This offers a serious opportunity to put the peace process back on track.

I. Overview

After a summer marked by renewed clashes in northern Mali, a surprising détente began taking shape in October 2015 following a series of talks between leaders of the Coalition of Azawad Movements (CMA), the main rebel coalition, and those of the Algiers Platform, the pro-government coalition. For three weeks, negotiations took place in Anefis, the site of recent fighting and a regional hub south west of Kidal. The talks led to several “honour pacts” signed on behalf of the major nomad communities in the region. In Bamako, the pessimism of the past few months is giving way to cautious optimism. This “bottom-up” reconciliation could restart implementation of the Bamako accord signed in June, itself stalled since summer. Nevertheless, these local pacts will have to be carefully monitored as the Anefis process also carries risks, including that of the reestablishment of a militarised political-economic system that was the source of much of the violence in the north.

The Anefis meetings represent a reappropriation by some local actors of a peace process until now largely driven by external partners. There should be no mistaking who took the initiative: these are less “traditional” community leaders than politico-military leaders and businessmen at the head of armed groups. Yet, this is precisely how the Anefis pacts can reinforce the Bamako peace process: by involving major local actors and strengthening their trust in a peace otherwise largely externally imposed. The Anefis meetings have allowed for important questions concerning the north’s politico-military elite to be addressed, including issues of trafficking, power sharing, and intercommunal rivalries. These are sensitive subjects that the negotiations in Algiers were either unwilling or unable to tackle.

The peace process nevertheless remains fragile. The 20 November attack on the Hotel Radisson was a stark reminder of the persistent threat posed by radical groups excluded from the peace process. Indeed, this moment of calm should not be confused with a return to sustainable peace. The current window should be seized as an opportunity to refocus attention on the implementation of the Bamako agreement, not as an end in itself, but rather to allow for genuine change of governance in Mali. A majority of actors, however, privately admit to having given up on this goal. Consequently, the risk remains that Mali could revert back to a pattern of poor governance and violence in the north. To avoid this, Malian parties and their partners should remobilise around an intelligent and ambitious implementation of the Bamako accord that, with time, will allow for a “demilitarisation” of economics and politics in the north. For this to occur, the following measures should be taken:

  • Mali and its main partners, gathered in the extended mediation team, should support local initiatives such as the intercommunal meetings, to allow for the extension of the Anefis process beyond political-military elites. In parallel, they should maintain a right to prosecute important criminals, specifically those involved in arms and drug trafficking, regardless of their participation in the process.
     
  • The same actors should prioritise demobilisation, disarmament and reintegration (DDR). In doing so, Malian parties should adhere to the text of the Bamako accord, specifically concerning the mechanisms for the interim period, and the UN mission, MINUSMA focus on the logistical and political preparation of the DDR process.
     
  • In Bamako, Malian parties and the international mediation team must clarify each actor’s role in the implementation and follow-up of the peace agreement. They should also restart discussions on the creation of a government of national unity in order to reinforce the peace process and facilitate the implementation of the accord.
     
  • This period of reduced tensions should, in sum, be seized upon to break with the governance problems of the past: development projects in the north must be accompanied by concrete mechanisms to fight corruption and guarantee that investments benefit local populations, rather than just the elites. The government in turn must cease the politics of division that fuel the “militarisation” of society and threaten the security of the Malian state.

Dakar/Brussels, 14 December 2015

Commentary / Africa

The Sahel: Promoting Political alongside Military Action

Rural insurgencies across the Sahel are destabilising the region and undermining local security and governance. In this excerpt from our Watch List 2018, Crisis Group urges the EU and its member states to continue support for the Alliance for the Sahel and promote local dialogue to buttress law and order.

This commentary on promoting political and military action in the Sahel region is part of our annual early-warning report Watch List 2018.

The Sahel region faces particularly acute challenges. Rural insurgencies across parts of Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger are expanding. Jihadi groups exploit local conflicts to secure safe havens and win new recruits. Other militias are being formed, whether to defend communities, conduct criminal activities or both. Sahelian states, supported by Western powers, rely ever more heavily on force. The new G5 Sahel joint force (FC-G5S), encompassing army units from five Sahelian states, must avoid angering local communities and stoking local conflicts. It should be accompanied by local mediation and peacebuilding initiatives, outreach to communities and, where possible, efforts to engage militant leaders.

Mali’s stalemated peace process

In Mali, the epicentre of the Sahel crisis, implementation of the June 2015 Bamako peace agreement that aimed to turn the page on the country’s 2012-2013 crisis, has stalled. Having acted as chief broker of the agreement, Algiers appears to have lost interest in leading the process. No African or other actor has stepped in.

Jihadist groups capitalise on local disputes in rural areas.

Malian leaders’ attention has shifted to the July 2018 presidential election. In parts of the country, particularly central and northern Mali, a credible vote appears a remote prospect, due to insecurity and state weakness. But any attempt to postpone the vote would likely spark street protests: President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta has struggled both to restore security and stimulate development, and is increasingly unpopular even in his core constituencies of Bamako and other southern cities.

Nor have state authorities, ousted from much of the north during the 2012-2013 crisis, returned. Security continues to deteriorate in central Mali (Mopti region) and further south (Segou region), fuelling tension among communities. Jihadist groups capitalise on local disputes in rural areas, recruiting new fighters and launching attacks against national and international forces. Their reach is extending into neighbouring countries.

An expanding crisis

Northern Burkina Faso is suffering its own insurgency: notwithstanding spillover from Mali, violence there largely obeys its own logic and feeds off local dynamics. The emergence of Ansarul Islam, a Burkinabe jihadist group that has perpetrated a string of attacks against security forces and state institutions, reflects widespread discontent with the prevailing social order in the country’s north. Ouagadougou and most of its foreign partners recognise that a military campaign alone will not end the conflict, but their response needs to better factor in the deep social roots of the crisis, which means greater efforts to stimulate or facilitate communal dialogue. Ultimately, as militants operate between Mali and Burkina Faso, the crisis also requires that Mali secure its borders and both states deepen their police and judicial cooperation.

In Niger, the October 2017 killing of U.S. Special Forces and Nigerien soldiers near the border between Mali and Niger brought international attention to a long-neglected region that has become the Sahel’s latest jihadist front line. An armed group claiming links to the Islamic State has repeatedly targeted Nigerien security forces. In response, Nigerien authorities briefly backed Malian armed groups as proxy counter-terror forces along the border. Such action can prove counterproductive, adding to the already vast quantities of weaponry in the region and fuelling intercommunal conflict. The large number of armed young men in the border area between Mali and Niger – frequently now with combat experience, including fighting both against and alongside jihadist groups – are a key source of instability. Their demobilisation and reintegration into society is a critical component of any effort to end violence.

Chad is vulnerable to instability in southern Libya, where Chadian rebels have found refuge, and in the Lake Chad basin, where the Boko Haram crisis has spread. President Idriss Deby has positioned his military as a bastion against jihadism. This stance has brought financial and political support from Western powers and largely spared him their criticism, notwithstanding the country’s fragility, growing political and social discontent, and deep economic recession. Many businesses have gone bankrupt. Unemployment, especially among youth, is high. The International Monetary Fund suspended budget support in November 2017 after Chad failed to reach an agreement to restructure loans granted by a mining and oil company. Mounting political and socio-economic challenges pose a grave long-term threat to Chad; left to fester, these problems would till fertile ground for violent actors of all stripes, including jihadists.

Going beyond military solutions

After considerable delays, the G5 Sahel joint force has started to deploy at the Mali-Niger-Burkina Faso border. But it is struggling with funding shortfalls and to define its role, particularly in relation to other forces in the Sahel, from UN peacekeepers to French and U.S. counter-terrorism forces. To secure the support of local populations, the joint force should respect the rights of those living in its operations zones. Efforts to de-escalate local conflicts and, where possible, open or exploit existing lines of communication with militant leaders should accompany military action.

Sahelian states remain worryingly dependent on security assistance. Indeed, foreign donor priorities, to some degree, drive the Sahelian states’ security policies: the focus on curbing human trafficking and migrant smuggling in the region in good part reflects European worries about migration and terrorism. Yet overly strict security measures can upset fragile local economies and balances of power between central state and nomadic communities or between local authorities and ethnic or religious groups.

In this light, the Alliance for the Sahel, launched in July 2017 by France, Germany and the EU, and designed to address both security and development challenges in the Sahel region, could be a step in the right direction, if European short-term concerns over migration and terrorism do not trump efforts to reform local governance, especially in neglected rural areas. The EU and its member states should also support government initiatives to strengthen local law and order – again critical in rural areas – through its EU Capacity Building Missions (EUCAP) Sahel Mali and EUCAP Sahel Niger.

In particular, the EU, including its special representative for the Sahel, should warn governments against relying on militias as proxy counter-terrorism forces. It should instead encourage regional leaders to promote bottom-up reconciliation through local dialogues, especially in Mali. In Chad, the EU and its member states should not only pursue short-term security objectives but also seek to check, as best possible, the government’s authoritarian impulses so that political space does not shrink further.