Arrow Left Arrow Right Camera icon set icon set Ellipsis icon set Facebook Favorite Globe Hamburger List Mail Map Marker Map Microphone Minus PDF Play Print RSS Search Share Trash Twitter Video Camera Youtube
The Sahel: Mali’s Crumbling Peace Process and the Spreading Jihadist Threat
The Sahel: Mali’s Crumbling Peace Process and the Spreading Jihadist Threat
Report 210 / Africa

Mali: Reform or Relapse

President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta’s current legitimacy and a strong international presence give Mali a unique opportunity to engage in serious reforms and inclusive dialogue. However, the window for change is narrow and dangerous political habits are resurfacing.

  • Share
  • Save
  • Print
  • Download PDF Full Report

Executive Summary

A year after the beginning of the French intervention in Mali, constitutional order and territorial integrity have been restored. However, the north remains a hotbed of intercommunal tensions and localised violence as both French and UN forces struggle to consolidate security gains. Expectations for president Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta (IBK) run very high. He is supposed to help elaborate consensus for the future of the northern regions as well as implement reforms to strengthen state institutions. It is time for his government to act beyond declarations of intent. An easy mistake would be to revamp, in the short term, the clientelist system that brought former regimes to a standstill. While the president cannot overhaul the state in a few months, the urgent need to stabilise the situation should not detract from implementing meaningful governance reforms and a truly inclusive dialogue on the future of the country. The opportunity to do so should not be missed. 

2013 ended with renewed tensions across the north. Reported incidents include armed banditry, new jihadi attacks, intercommunal violence and frequent clashes between Malian forces and local armed groups. So far these have not led to massive violence but seeds of a more devastating conflict are being planted. Peaceful coexistence between communities remains a distant dream. So far, insecurity has prevented the restoration of state authority and the delivery of humanitarian aid in the north. As a consequence, popular resentment against the government is high, as evidenced by a series of protests in several northern towns, especially Gao. Though the legislative vote was almost incident-free, the situation is worrying, especially in Kidal, in the extreme north, where two French journalists were killed on 2 November and the army fired on civilian protesters on 29 November.

The government has been slow to restore basic services in the north as Malian authorities lack resources to do so. Moreover, they have lost the confidence of most inhabitants of these regions, though many of them do not back armed groups’ separatist or autonomist plans. To bridge the gap between the government and the population, the newly started rehabilitation programs should focus primarily on providing concrete services. While redeploying in the north, Malian authorities cannot afford to repeat past, unfulfilled promises of change.  

After the rather quick success of the French military Serval Operation, international intervention is finding it difficult to consolidate its gains in the longer run. France, which is now also involved in the Central African Republic, is not ready to finance, on its own, a long-term stabilisation program. The UN force (MINUSMA) has been complementing French efforts to stabilise Mali since July 2013, but an insufficient number of peacekeepers and lack of adequate means cast doubt on its capacities to carry out its mandate alone. More broadly, while security in the Sahel is a regional issue, progress in building regional cooperation has been slow and mutual distrust remains high between Mali’s neighbours. 

The series of national and regional conferences on decentralisation and the future of the north, held in late 2013, is a positive step toward national dialogue. It could possibly lead to more than a showdown between the government and the armed groups. For that to happen, however, the meetings should be more inclusive, as critics suggest, and result in prompt, tangible actions. For instance, the overdue transfer of state resources to local authorities must be implemented. The regional forums, set as follow-ups to national meetings, should be community-led and not another way to impose Bamako’s top-down decisions. Otherwise, the government’s efforts over the past months will be no more than a communication strategy without any impact on the ground. 

So far, northern armed groups have refused to attend these meetings, which they say are government-led initiatives with little room for a true dialogue. Despite the recent announcement of their imminent merger in a bid to strengthen their position vis-à-vis Bamako, they are divided over the opportunity to restore links with the government. For its part, the latter seems to have returned to the old clientelist system used by previous regimes to control the north. In the legislative elections, President IBK’s party backed several candidates from or close to the armed groups. The government is rekindling clientelist links with Tuareg and Arab leaders with the aim to divide and gradually weaken the armed groups. This policy is likely to bring short-term stability at the expense of long-term cohesion and inclusiveness, vital for peace and development in the troubled north. In addition, it has deepened tensions between armed groups, thus increasing the risk of new splinter groups taking up arms. 

In accordance with the June 2013 preliminary agreement signed in Ouagadougou, inclusive peace talks should take place 60 days after the formation of the new cabinet. This deadline expired at the beginning of November 2013. Contacts between the government and armed groups are still taking place but through informal channels and in an increasingly tense atmosphere. The main bone of contention is the future of combatants. The current uncertainty could threaten the ceasefire. The international community should use its influence and convince the actors that they must respect the provisions of the Ouagadougou agreement. The armed groups must accept disarmament and the full return of the Malian administration in Kidal, which could initially work with MINUSMA to maintain law and order. As for the government, it must show more flexibility and understand that national conferences are not an alternative to truly inclusive talks with all the northern communities, including armed groups. 

Finally, the focus on the northern region should not overshadow the need to lay better foundations both for the state and for governance. As Crisis Group previously mentioned, the crisis in the north revealed serious dysfunctions that affect the country as a whole. Malian democracy, hailed as a regional example, collapsed suddenly. The country’s new leadership and international partners agree that meaningful reforms are required to break with the past. Some believe that these reforms are too early, too soon for a state still reeling from the crisis. However, it is important not to miss the unique opportunity of implementing an ambitious reform on governance and economic development, supported by a well-coordinated international response. At the very least, bad habits of the past should not resurface.

Recommendations

To ensure security throughout the territory and better protect the populations

To the Malian government:

  1. Ensure that the redeployment of the state in the north focuses on resumption and improvement of services (judicial, educational and health) and not only on restoration of the symbols of central authority.
     
  2. Restore trust between state representatives and northern populations, particularly in Kidal, by:
     
    1. investigating all potential abuses committed by armed forces against civilians and trying those individuals involved;
       
    2. setting up the international investigation committee prescribed by Article 18 of the Ouagadougou agreement as soon as possible;
       
    3. ensuring the professionalism and probity of the armed forces deployed in the north, in particular by using trained police forces, rather than the army, to maintain law and order; and
       
    4. putting an end to the use of community-based armed groups to restore security in the north.

To armed groups in the north:

  1. Respect strictly their confinement into barracks as stipulated by the Ouagadougou agreement, or otherwise accept co-responsibility for incidents happening in localities where they still operate.
     
  2. Clarify and update their political demands.

To the Security Council and countries contributing troops: 

  1. Increase without delay MINUSMA’s human and logistic resources, especially airborne capacity, until reaching full capacity.

To MINUSMA:

  1. Fulfil its civilian protection mandate while remaining neutral to avoid being perceived as a state proxy, especially in the north. 
     
  2. Reinforce significantly its presence in the north, especially in towns where security incidents have been reported, and strengthen its patrol capacities, in conjunction with Malian forces, to secure main roads.
     
  3. Secure the return of refugees, including in pastoral areas, through an increased presence outside of urban centres. 

To the French authorities:

  1. Maintain a rapid reaction contingent and intelligence gathering capacities on Malian soil to support the government and MINUSMA. 

To the African Union, Sahel, West and North African states, the UN special envoy for the Sahel and special representative of the European Union for the Sahel: 

  1. Help revive regional cooperation for security and economic development, by supporting consultation and decision-making mechanisms to defuse tensions between the countries involved, such as the African Union-backed initiative that regularly gathers heads of intelligence services of the region. 

To promote peace and reconciliation

To the Malian government:

  1. Capitalise on the dialogue initiated since the Ouagadougou agreement by:
     
    1. opening inclusive peace talks with representatives of northern communities, including the armed groups that signed the agreement; 
       
    2. opening, as soon as possible, discussions on disarmament and the future of combatants;
       
    3. showing flexibility in organising negotiations so as to hold meetings outside Bamako, including in major northern cities; and
       
    4. refraining from setting decentralisation as the only acceptable basis for negotiations, being open to other institutional arrangements, and implementing measures to facilitate dialogue.
       
  2. Pursue and strengthen a sustainable national reconciliation policy by:
     
    1. making sure the dialogue is held at the grassroots level rather than imposed by the state, and setting up regional and local forums as follow-up measures to the recent national conferences;
       
    2. showing determination to continue discussions and to implement the recommendations of these forums, by linking them directly to a political decision-making process; and
       
    3. clarifying the mission and functioning of the Dialogue, Truth and Reconciliation Commission, adding to its prerogatives a fact-finding mission on crimes committed since 1963.

To MINUSMA, ECOWAS, witnesses to the Ouagadougou Agreement (AU, EU and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation) and the French government:

  1. Continue to facilitate negotiations maintaining a neutral position as between the government and armed groups. 

To initiate a meaningful reform of the state and governance

To the Malian government: 

  1. Show capacity to implement long-lasting state reforms through immediate, tangible actions mainly by:
     
    1. continuing, in the short-term, to enforce discipline and a strict respect of hierarchy within the armed forces and undertaking a long-term reform of the security sector in collaboration with the EU training mission in Mali (EUTM); 
       
    2. implementing short-term measures to restore public services in the north and throughout the country;  
       
    3. implementing, in the longer term, the main recommendations of the general meetings on decentralisation, steering clear of the pitfalls of an ill-prepared decentralisation;
       
    4. facilitating, without delay, judicial action against corruption, and quickly highlighting the first results of such action; and 
       
    5. putting in place a longer-term policy to restore the capacities and independence of the justice system. 

To Mali’s partners and donors:

  1. Review fully the failures of past aid policies, taking into account their own responsibilities as well as those of Malian leaders.
     
  2. Coordinate their actions, especially through the creation of frequent donor forums to define an aid policy tailored to the country’s limited absorption capacities. 
     
  3. Put in place mechanisms to ensure a better monitoring of aid disbursement and to significantly reduce embezzlement.
     
  4. Help the government set priorities and plan decisions while focusing on tangible actions to restore public services and economic development across the country and not only in regional capitals.
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.