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Mali’s Elections Are an Opportunity to Reboot the Peace Process
Mali’s Elections Are an Opportunity to Reboot the Peace Process
Report 201 / Africa

Mali: Security, Dialogue and Meaningful Reform

Mali and its international partners need to seize the moment for national dialogue to forestall renewed political and security crises.

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Executive Summary

For the population of northern Mali, the feeling of being “liberated” by the French military intervention launched on 11 January 2013 is real. The sudden, but clearly well-prepared intervention, which received widespread support in Mali, West Africa and beyond, ended the offensive by jihadi groups that the Malian army had been unable to repel. France also took the opportunity to try and destroy al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) forces. Although Mali is in a better place than a few months back, sporadic fighting in the north continues and formidable threats to security, stability and the coexistence of the country’s various communities remain. The authorities in Bamako, regional organisations and the UN, which is preparing to deploy a stabilisation mission, must quickly agree on a strategy for the resolution of the crisis that provides security, protects civilians, promotes an inclusive inter-Malian dialogue, reestablishes state authority in the north and sees peaceful, credible elections.

Mali descended into turmoil at the beginning of 2012 when the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) chased the Malian army out of the north and demanded independence for this vast part of the country. With its roots in the Algerian civil war, AQIM has established itself in northern Mali over the last decade, building local alliances that allowed it to significantly weaken both the state and the MNLA and resulted in armed jihadi groups – Ansar Dine and the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) – taking control of the north in June 2012. This and the coup in Bamako on 21 March 2012 brought the country to its knees. A laboriously prepared Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) plan to deploy an African force was finally, though reluctantly, endorsed by UN Security Council Resolution 2085 on 20 December 2012.

The sudden jihadi offensive towards the centre of the country in January 2013 proved suicidal. The jihadi groups did not anticipate France’s strong military response, following a request from interim President Dioncounda Traoré. The Malian army itself did nothing more than accompany the French forces that took the three most important towns in the north, Gao, Timbuktu and Kidal. French and Chadian troops entered the northernmost Kidal region without the Malians, less to reconquer it for the Malian state than to pursue AQIM combatants into their sanctuaries, destroy stocks of arms, ammunition, fuel and food supplies, and “finish the job” in the context of a declared war against terrorism. Whether or at what point it will be possible to declare the capacities of jihadi groups sufficiently reduced to avoid exposing the civilian population and the forces of the African-led International Support Mission to Mali (AFISMA) to terrorist reprisal attacks is unclear.

Now as much as before the French intervention, a solution to the crisis will only be sustainable if it combines political and military measures. The north remains very insecure and the state is absent from the Kidal region, where the MNLA claims control. Mali’s army is fragmented and incapable of preventing its soldiers from committing atrocities against civilians, notably Tuaregs and Arabs who are indiscriminately accused of collusion with the enemy. The military action in the north has strengthened the president’s authority, but the ex-junta retains influence and civilian political actors look incapable of mobilising citizens to take the country’s destiny into their hands. The government has announced that presidential elections will be held in July, although conditions – technical, political, security and psychological – for a genuine vote look unlikely to be met.

Even if French troops remain and AFISMA is rehatted as a UN stabilisation mission – which currently appear probable – the interim authorities, political actors and civil society face an immense political challenge. Political dialogue in Bamako, zero tolerance for atrocities by members of security forces, intercommunal dialogue and the redeployment of the state in the north are essential. Elections must be held soon, but not at any cost. The work of reconciliation should begin immediately. So too should the provision of basic social and economic services in the north, so as to facilitate the gradual return of thousands of internally displaced and refugees. The radicalisation of public opinion is a major risk, especially during the election campaign, and firm action by Malian leaders and institutions should aim to prevent people lumping together rebels, terrorists and drug traffickers with all Tuaregs and Arabs.

A focus on terrorism alone also risks distracting from the north’s real problems. The roots of the crisis lie much more in corruption and bad governance than they do in the terrorist threat, the Tuareg issue or even the north-south divide. The international community must insist that Malian leaders assume responsibility for tackling these problems. The most reasonable and realistic way for the state to regain its presence across Mali and maintain lasting security is to find a compromise between the representatives of all communities, ensure even the most isolated populations feel included, and take into account the vulnerability of vast border areas to the flow of weapons and armed groups.

The most important and immediate challenge for regional organisations and the UN is to align their positions on the political process. First, they must convince the MNLA that its interests are best served by renouncing its armed struggle and discussing how its representatives and supporters can participate in a dialogue on the north’s real problems. Secondly, they should persuade Bamako that it should not impose so many pre-conditions on talks – such as, for instance, requiring the MNLA to immediately disarm – that it closes the door to dialogue, or even discrete contacts, with MNLA representatives. ECOWAS, the African Union (AU), the UN Security Council, Mauritania, Algeria, Niger, Burkina Faso and France must all send the same message to the authorities in Bamako and the leaders of those armed groups in the north. Even this would not resolve everything, however. Without new regional security mechanisms involving all the countries of North and West Africa, any victory over terrorism, extremism and drug trafficking in Mali will only be temporary.

Dakar/Brussels, 11 April 2013

Commentary / Africa

Mali’s Elections Are an Opportunity to Reboot the Peace Process

Inter-communal violence along the Niger-Mali border and a scattered jihadist presence have left large swathes of Mali insecure. In this excerpt from our Watch List 2018 annual early-warning update for European policy makers, Crisis Group urges Mali’s next president to reinvigorate the Bamako peace agreement and embark on long-term structural reform.

Only days before Mali’s presidential election, large parts of the country remain wracked by violence. Jihadist insurgencies plague rural areas in the centre and north east. Predation by ethnic militias, often mobilised by local politicians and community leaders to fight jihadists and in some cases tacitly backed by the Malian authorities and the French military mission, Operation Barkhane, fuel animosity among communities. Clashes along the Niger-Mali border have claimed dozens of lives over the past few months.

Amid such volatility, the 29 July vote could reinvigorate efforts to quell violence in central and northern Mali, including by breathing new life in the June 2015 Bamako peace agreement that aimed to stabilise northern Mali after a 2012-2013 crisis that saw jihadists hold northern towns for almost a year. But if it provokes political turmoil in Bamako or aggravates insurgencies in rural areas in Mali’s centre or north, the election could not only provoke intensified violence but also spell the end of that accord.   

The European Union (EU) and its member states can take several steps to improve prospects for peace. Ahead of the elections, they should encourage the main contenders to pledge to pursue disputes peacefully and through the courts. To reinvigorate implementation of the peace deal, notably its provisions related to decentralisation in the north, they will have to press the next Malian president and the armed groups that signed the deal to set clear timelines for elections to regional assemblies. In central Mali, they should press Malian authorities to halt security forces’ abuses of the local population and hold accountable those responsible. They also should promote a shift from the Malian state’s overwhelmingly military-focused approach in the centre to one that includes efforts to address the political disputes underpinning unrest and reinforces policing and the provision of other basic services.

Improving Prospects for a Peaceful Election

For the most part, the government and main opposition parties have maintained a peaceful dialogue about preparations for the forthcoming presidential vote. But clashes between police and opposition protesters on 2 June in the capital Bamako show that tensions persist and could degenerate into violence.

Twenty-four candidates – including only one woman – will contest the presidency. In reality, however, the vote will pit President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta against opposition leader Soumaïla Cissé, in a repeat of the 2013 presidential election. Other candidates, including former prime ministers and ministers, have little chance of winning. But in the event of a run-off, their support to either of the two main contenders could prove decisive.

The inability of people to vote due to insecurity could throw into question the election’s legitimacy and credibility.

The immediate problem is the security of the vote itself. Several districts in Mali’s north and centre, where state authorities are unable to deploy, might be too unsafe for balloting. In the north, armed groups that signed the 2015 peace deal are still negotiating the conditions under which they will facilitate the vote in areas under their control. This is especially true of the Coordination des mouvements de l’Azawad (CMA) coalition, which controls the northernmost town of Kidal and surrounding areas. Central Mali suffers general insecurity, with control over terrain murkier. The authorities have announced that voting would proceed regardless. But the inability of people to vote due to insecurity could throw into question the election’s legitimacy and credibility, especially given that one of Cissé’s supposed strongholds is in central Mali.

In this light, the EU and its members should:

  • Urge the main candidates to sign a pact committing to accept the outcome of a fair election or, if they wish to challenge results, to do so peacefully and through the court system; and
     
  • Encourage whoever wins the presidency to focus on addressing grievances common to much of Malian society, especially the lack of job opportunities, the poor functioning of the state services and rising concerns about intercommunal violence in the countryside; without this, it is likely that an increasing number of Malians will start to believe that violent protests rather than elections can deliver change.

Reviving the Peace Process

The Bamako peace agreement, and notably its main provisions on the devolution of power and economic development in the north, as well as the demobilisation of the armed groups that signed the deal, needs a reboot. Algeria, which negotiated the deal, appears to have lost appetite in pushing forward its implementation. None of the other guarantors, whether the African Union, UN or EU, has stepped up. The Malian signatory parties all dislike the deal and blame each other for its slow implementation.

As a result, the agreement’s impact on the ground remains limited. Joint patrols, comprising the different armed groups that signed the Bamako deal, have started in Kidal and other northern towns, Timbuktu and Gao, which were foreshadowed in the deal. Threats of UN Security Council sanctions appear to have helped push signatory parties to be more conciliatory, including accepting the deployment of joint patrols in Kidal. But the armed groups’ participation remains tenuous; the patrols have yielded little improvement in security; and in Gao tensions among the different groups’ contingents in those patrols resulted in skirmishes.

Overall, international mediators and the signatories have spent too much energy on temporary security arrangements, such as the joint patrols, rather than on structural reform such as devolving power to regional assemblies and the north’s economic development. The Sahel Alliance, a platform to coordinate donor support for the Sahel region launched by France, Germany, the EU and other partners in 2017, could address part of the problem, by advancing the development provided for in the peace agreement. But to do so, the projects envisaged in the Sahel Alliance should be kept separate from Malian or international military operations, to avoid stirring up resistance to them among the north’s inhabitants, exposing aid workers or communities to retribution by jihadists and thus rendering projects less effective.

To help revive the peace process, the EU and its member states should:

  • Encourage the next Malian government, together with other signatories to the Bamako deal, to establish a precise calendar for implementation of its key steps, notably for elections to regional assemblies in the north and elsewhere; and
     
  • Reassess, as part of the Sahel Alliance, the linking of development projects too closely to military operations. In particular, military forces should not be involved in development work.  

Stabilising Central Mali

Perhaps most troubling are insurgencies in central Mali’s Mopti and Segou regions, which are more heavily populated and more integral to the country’s economy than the north. Thus far the government’s response – which it dubs a “special plan” – has been mostly military, attempting to rebuild barracks, redeploy troops and appoint military officials as local administrators. On his 11 February visit to Mopti, Prime Minister Soumeylou Boubèye Maïga stressed the need for political solutions and seemed to open the door to dialogue with all armed groups. But his speech has been followed by few concrete results. Repeated reports suggest extrajudicial killings by Malian security forces, fuelling anger at Bamako and the military.

Animosity among communities in central Mali is on the rise. Armed groups of the Dogon and Fulani (two ethnic groups in central Mali) have clashed repeatedly. Many Fulani suspect that Malian officials are backing the Dogon militias to counter jihadists, though such allegations are unproven. Similar dynamics are at play in Menaka region, where Tuaregs and Dossaaks (two of the nomadic tribes living in the region) cooperate with Malian and French counter-terrorism operations, again fuelling both ethnic rivalries and Fulani alienation from the state, as Fulanis tend to bear the brunt of those operations (see Crisis Group’s 12 July 2018 report, The Niger-Mali Border: Subordinating Military Action to a Political Strategy).

Priorities for the EU and its member states are to:

  • Step up immediate diplomatic pressure to stop the abuses of civilians, including killings, by Malian security forces. The EU’s capacity-building mission in Mali (EUCAP), which trains and advises the Malian police and gendarmerie, and the EU military training mission, which trains the Malian military, also should redouble efforts to ensure their counterparts in the Malian security forces end such abuses. Those missions also should support additional civilian oversight of, and accountability for, the security forces, including the establishment of a chain for reporting abuses; and
     
  • Encourage Bamako to strengthen regional authorities in Mopti and Segou by sending trained specialists rather than political advisers; the Malian police and gendarmerie should focus on their traditional functions rather than be diverted to fighting jihadists. The EU also could consider expanding EUCAP’s presence to central Mali to enhance the impact of the mission’s advice and mentoring and help ensure that Malian national security policies and strategies developed in Bamako are implemented beyond the main urban centres in the south.