France’s Troop Withdrawal from Mali
France’s Troop Withdrawal from Mali
Report 210 / Africa

Mali: 
réformer ou rechuter

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Synthèse

Un an après l’intervention française, l’intégrité territoriale et l’ordre constitutionnel ont été rétablis au Mali. Mais la persistance des tensions intercommunautaires et de violences localisées témoigne d’une stabilisation encore précaire du Nord, alors que les forces françaises et onusiennes peinent à consolider leurs progrès en matière de sécurité. Les attentes à l’égard du président Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta sont immenses. Il doit à la fois élaborer un compromis sur le devenir du Nord et engager la réforme d’un Etat affaibli par la crise. Son gouvernement doit aller au-delà des déclarations d’intention et passer à l’action. Pour consolider la situation à court terme, il est tenté de renouer avec un système clientéliste qui a conduit les précédents régimes dans l’impasse. Le président ne peut certes pas tout réformer brusquement mais l’urgence de la stabilisation ne doit ni faire manquer l’occasion d’entamer une réforme profonde de la gouvernance ni occulter la nécessité d’un dialogue véritablement inclusif sur l’avenir du pays.

Au Nord, la situation s’est à nouveau tendue fin 2013. L’insécurité prend des formes multiples : banditisme armé, reprise des attaques jihadistes, violences intercommunautaires et incidents réguliers entre forces maliennes et groupes armés. La violence reste contenue mais les ingrédients d’une déflagration plus large sont présents. Les conditions d’un nouveau vivre ensemble sont loin d’être réunies. L’insécurité entrave le retour de l’Etat et le déploiement de l’aide. Dans ce contexte, l’insatisfaction des populations à l’égard des pouvoirs publics reste forte, comme l’attestent des manifestations dans plusieurs localités du Nord et notamment à Gao. Les élections législatives ont certes eu lieu sans incident majeur mais la situation reste préoccupante, en particulier à Kidal, à l’extrême nord du pays, après l’assassinat de deux journalistes français le 2 novembre et des tirs de l’armée malienne sur des manifestants civils le 28 novembre. 

L’Etat tarde pour l’instant à démontrer sa capacité à restaurer les services de base au Nord. Au-delà du manque de moyens, il a perdu sa crédibilité auprès d’une large partie des populations de ces régions même si la majorité ne soutient pas le projet séparatiste ou autonomiste des groupes armés. Pour réconcilier l’Etat et les citoyens, les programmes de réhabilitation qui commencent doivent se concentrer sur les services concrets rendus à la population. L’Etat ne doit pas rater son retour dans le Nord. 

L’opération Serval a notamment permis de réduire de manière substantielle l’activité des groupes jihadistes. Après ce premier succès, le dispositif militaire international est confronté au défi de la durée. Alors qu’elle s’engage en Centrafrique, la France ne veut pas assumer seule le coût d’une stabilisation durable du pays. L’opération des Nations unies (Minusma) relaye les efforts des forces françaises depuis juillet 2013 mais des doutes subsistent sur sa capacité à assumer ses missions, en partie du fait du manque d’effectifs et de moyens adaptés. Plus largement, si la dimension transnationale des menaces est reconnue, l’élaboration d’une politique régionale de sécurité progresse encore trop lentement du fait de nombreuses tensions entre les voisins du Mali. 

En organisant fin 2013 les états généraux de la décentralisation et les assises nationales du Nord, l’Etat crée les conditions d’un dialogue national et rompt avec des négociations qui enfermaient trop souvent Etat et groupes armés dans un face-à-face stérile. Ces rencontres doivent cependant aller au-delà des vœux pieux. Il faut maintenant passer aux actions concrètes en installant rapidement des mécanismes pour une redistribution effective des ressources dans les régions et en prenant en compte les critiques sur l’insuffisante représentativité des rencontres organisées par le gouvernement. Les forums régionaux qui prennent le relais des conférences nationales ne doivent pas imposer les choix de Bamako mais associer les communautés locales à la prise de décision. A défaut, les efforts du gouvernement ces derniers mois n’auront été que de vains exercices de communication sans impact sur le terrain.

Les groupes armés présents au Nord refusent jusqu’ici de participer à ces rencontres. Ils reprochent au gouvernement d’en maitriser exclusivement les modalités et de fermer la porte à un dialogue réel. Malgré l’annonce de leur prochaine fusion pour mieux peser face à Bamako, ils se divisent en réalité sur l’opportunité de retisser des liens avec le pouvoir. Ce dernier semble renouer avec une politique clientéliste qui permettait aux régimes précédents de gouverner le Nord en échange de prébendes. Lors des élections législatives, le parti du président IBK a soutenu plusieurs candidats issus ou proches des groupes armés. En renouant les liens avec des chefs touareg et arabes, le pouvoir espère diviser et affaiblir progressivement les mouvements armés. Cette politique peut ramener de la stabilité à court terme mais elle contribue peu aux nécessaires réformes de la gouvernance dans le septentrion malien. Par ailleurs, elle avive les tensions au sein des groupes armés. Dans ce contexte, des éléments se sentent floués et peuvent reprendre les armes.

Selon l’accord préliminaire de Ouagadougou de juin 2013, des pourparlers inclusifs de paix devaient s’ouvrir 60 jours après la formation du gouvernement. Ce délai a expiré début novembre. Gouvernement et groupes armés continuent le dialogue mais par des canaux plus informels et dans un contexte plus tendu. Les discussions achoppent notamment sur la question du sort des combattants. L’incertitude actuelle est dangereuse. La communauté internationale doit user de son influence pour amener les acteurs à tenir leurs engagements. Les groupes armés doivent accepter le désarmement et le plein retour des autorités maliennes à Kidal. Celles-ci pourraient provisoirement assurer l’ordre public conjointement avec la Minusma. De son côté, le gouvernement doit se montrer plus flexible et comprendre que les conférences nationales ne se substituent pas à de véritables pourparlers incluant toutes les communautés du Nord, y compris les groupes armés.

Enfin si l’attention porte aujourd’hui sur les régions du Nord, il ne faut pas négliger la nécessité de refonder sur des bases plus saines l’Etat et la gouvernance sur l’ensemble du territoire. Comme l’a établi Crisis Group, la crise du Nord a révélé les graves déséquilibres qui affectent le pays entier. La démocratie malienne, longtemps tenue pour un modèle régional, s’est effondrée brusquement. Le nouveau pouvoir et ses partenaires internationaux s’accordent à dire que de profondes réformes sont nécessaires pour rompre avec les pratiques passées. Beaucoup estiment cependant qu’elles sont encore prématurées dans le contexte d’un Etat qui se remet à peine debout. Il ne faut cependant pas manquer l’occasion d’une réforme ambitieuse de la gouvernance. A tout le moins les réflexes liés à l’ancien système de gouvernance ne doivent pas reprendre le dessus.

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.
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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