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Seven Ways to Steady a Tunisia under New Attack
Seven Ways to Steady a Tunisia under New Attack
Mali’s Algiers Peace Agreement, Five Years On: An Uneasy Calm
Mali’s Algiers Peace Agreement, Five Years On: An Uneasy Calm
Tunisian special forces take position during clashes with militants in the southern town of Ben Guerdane, near the Libyan border, on 7 March 2016. AFP/Fathi Nasri

Seven Ways to Steady a Tunisia under New Attack

The Islamic State (IS) attack into the heart of the south-eastern Tunisian city of Ben Guerdane opens up a new zone of conflict. This alarming spillover from Libya 30km away requires a fresh response from Tunisia’s political elite, still struggling to steady the country after three major terrorist attacks last year.

Beginning at dawn on 7 March, dozens of IS fighters stormed into the city and attempted to overwhelm the city’s key security installations. They were countered by virtually all regular and specialised units of the police, National Guard and army. Several hundred troops surrounded the city, taking up positions to defend targeted buildings and scouring neighbourhoods for the assailants.

The death toll was heavy: 36 jihadis, eleven members of the security forces and seven civilians were killed. Although the attack has not been officially claimed by IS yet, it is likely linked to the 19 February U.S. airstrike on an IS camp 170km away in Sabratha, in north west Libya, that killed over 40 alleged members of the group, mostly Tunisians.

The Ben Guerdane attack was repulsed by security forces but marks a new departure. It is unprecedented since the “Gafsa coup” of 27 January 1980, when a raiding party armed by Libya and supported by Algerian military intelligence took control of the central Tunisian city of Gafsa and called for a popular revolt. Tunisia should expect further attacks and prepare to mitigate their impact by bearing in mind seven key points:

  1. This was no simple “terrorist” attack. It was a simultaneous assault on an army barracks, the local headquarters of the National Guard and the city’s police station, accompanied by three targeted assassinations of a customs officer, a police officer and a member of the counter-terrorism unit of the National Guard. It was an attempt at a local insurrection, coordinated by some 50 members of IS sleeper cells in Ben Guerdane. The term “terrorist” would obscure the political objectives of the assault: win the support a part of the city’s notoriously rebellious population by inciting an insurrection even as it takes military control of the city. IS broadcast a revolutionary jihadi message from mosque speakers at dawn and attempted to distribute weapons. In this respect, this week’s attack resembles the events of Gafsa in 1980.
     
  2. On this occasion, IS forces were insufficiently numerous and made tactical mistakes despite their knowledge of the terrain. But Tunisia’s armed forces will not always have a numerical advantage. Tunisia’s army, National Guard and police should redouble their vigilance and rapidly draw operational and strategic lessons. A few kilometres from Ben Guerdane, Zarsis, a nexus of illegal migration towards Europe, or Djerba, a touristic hub and centre of Tunisia’s Jewish community, could be targeted. In the west of the country, jihadis operating in the forested mountains along the border with Algeria could take advantage of any new crisis to attack nearby Kasserine or reach as far as central Sidi Bouzid.
     
  3. The attempted insurrection in Ben Guerdane is not just a Tunisian-Libyan affair, but a regional problem that demands a regional response – in particular a significant reinforcement of Tunisian-Algerian political and security cooperation. The mental geography espoused by IS does not adhere to the borders established in North Africa in the twentieth century. Experts on the group say IS members dream of re-establishing the historic borders of the Aghabid dynasty (800-901), which ruled a semi-independent emirate roughly based on the ancient Roman province of Africa Proconsularis, including Tripolitania (western Libya), most of modern day Tunisia and the eastern half of Algeria. In this vision, Ben Guerdane is a strategic nexus point of a “liberated” zone that would tie south-eastern Tunisia to western Libya. The city’s business life has long been dominated by a parallel economy based on an informal foreign currency exchange market and smuggling; it could become a convergence point between jihadis and regional criminal networks.
     
  4. Tunisia’s political class and its media must absolutely avoid any attempt to take advantage of the attack to settle scores or revive the Islamist-secularist divide. A calm examination of facts is necessary, not polemics.
     
  5. A new national discourse is needed to address regional and social divides, particularly a sentiment of historical exclusion in the south of the country. The attacks over the past year – on the Bardo Museum in Tunis in March, a tourist resort in Sousse in June, and the presidential guard in November – have weakened the old discourse of “national unity” advanced by the political class. Tunisia will have to do more to preserve the culture of compromise and civil society inclusion in 2013-14 that helped political activists of the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet win the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize.
     
  6. Security forces should react in a measured manner when questioning Ben Guerdane residents who may have lent logistic or other support to the IS raiding party. The scale of the attack means they could number in the hundreds. A wave of mass and indiscriminate arrests accompanied by police brutality could polarise families, feed into residents’ frustrations, and increase support for IS in the future.
     
  7. The Tunisia-Libya border cannot be secured without the close collaboration of the local population, especially the smuggling cartels operating in the area. Trying to combat these at the same time as jihadis would dissipate energy and likely feed local resentment of the state, since so much of the local economy depends on this smuggling. In order to secure their cooperation, Crisis Group has argued that the government should consider the creation of free trade zones at the border that would legitimise at least part of the border trade.

A French version of this article was published by Al Huffington Post Maghreb.

Le président du Mali, Ibrahim Boubacar Keita (G), donne l'accolade à Mahamadou Djery Maiga (D), vice-président et porte-parole du Conseil de transition de l'Etat de l'Azawad, le 20 juin 2015 à Bamako. AFP/Habibou Kouyate
Q&A / Africa

Mali’s Algiers Peace Agreement, Five Years On: An Uneasy Calm

La mise en œuvre de l’accord de paix au Mali demeure incomplète et laborieuse cinq ans après sa signature. Mathieu Pellerin analyse la situation actuelle et explique pourquoi il faut accélérer les efforts pour instaurer les réformes de fond prévues par l’accord de 2015. 

Five years after it was signed in June 2015, what has happened to the Agreement on Peace and Reconciliation in Mali?

In June 2015, the Malian government, a coalition of pro-government armed groups from northern Mali called the Platform and the Coordination of Azawad Movements (Coordination des mouvements de l’Azawad, CMA) – an alliance of rebel groups – convened in Bamako and signed an agreement to restore peace in the country. The signatories were under great pressure from an international mediation team to accept the final text, which was drafted after less than a year of often indirect negotiations. The mediation team was led by Algeria and included the UN Stabilisation Mission in Mali (MINUSMA), the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the African Union (AU) and the European Union, as well as the United States and France, who were initially designated “friends of the mediation”.

The agreement seeks to restore peace in Mali principally through a process of decentralisation or regionalisation, reconstituting a national army from the members of the former armed groups that were signatories, and boosting the economy (particularly in the north), based on dialogue, justice and national reconciliation.

None of the agreement’s five pillars have been satisfactorily applied.

The parties claim to support the agreement five years after signing it in June 2015, but its implementation has proved to be extremely difficult. The Carter Center – appointed as the Independent Observer in Mali in late 2017 – reports virtually no progress on this front: in 2017, 22 per cent of the agreement’s provisions had been put into effect, compared to 23 per cent three years later. None of the agreement’s five pillars have been satisfactorily applied.

The parties have not carried out the substantive political and institutional reforms defined in Section II of the agreement (the first section lays out the agreement’s general principles), starting with regionalisation. So far, the measures have been temporary or too limited to make any real impact on the ground. It took months of negotiation between the signatories and international partners of the Peace Agreement Monitoring Committee (Comité de suivi de l’accord, CSA) to appoint interim authorities in the northern regions, and with few tangible results. Three years on, these authorities have insufficient financial and human resources, and lack the training, to manage the regions effectively. The two new regions (Ménaka and Taoudenit) created in northern Mali, based on commitments made by President Amadou Toumani Touré in 2011, also lack resources. Voters in these regions could not choose deputies in the April 2020 legislative elections because the electoral districts had not yet been delineated.

On matters of defence and security (Section III), the process of Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration (DDR) initiated by the state and backed by MINUSMA has weakened. Despite the deployment of a reconstituted Malian army battalion in February 2020 in Kidal, a hotbed of rebellion and CMA’s centre of operations in Mali’s far north, this force has never patrolled the town, and the CMA – chafing at its exclusion from a command role – has now “assigned” the battalion’s third company to Gao. The leaders of the movements and the Malian state’s chiefs of staff have not discussed the framework for a lasting means of integrating former armed groups’ members in the national army and its chain of command.

On the fifth anniversary of the agreement, this DDR process involves only 1,840 combatants from the signatory groups in an “accelerated DDR” phase, and they are not even the ones who fully reintegrated. UN Security Council Resolution 2480 (2019) set the goal of reintegrating 3,000 fighters by 2020, but it remains distant, and the next phase is uncertain. With nearly 85,000 combatants registered by the signatory groups, DDR remains incomplete and a sensitive issue. The mixed units of the Operational Coordination Mechanism (Mécanisme Opérationnel de Coordination, MOC), consisting of Malian soldiers and combatants from the signatory armed groups and partly assigned to the reconstituted army, were supposed to provide security in large towns in northern Mali. They are rarely seen on patrol, however, and have been targeted for attack, especially the 2017 Gao bombing of their camp. Some former fighters belonging to the MOC or to the reconstituted army have been involved in banditry and trafficking.

The joint administration of a long-term development fund by the Malian authorities and armed groups remains a challenge.

The parts of the agreement on development (Section IV) and reconciliation (Section V) remain largely overlooked. Nothing points to the possibility of genuine economic growth supported by the state or donors. A long-term development fund designed to support initiatives in northern Mali has been set up, but its joint administration by the Malian authorities and armed groups remains a challenge. Mali’s truth, justice and reconciliation commission, established in 2014, has continued its role as defined in the 2015 agreement, and it began holding public hearings in December 2019, but it generates hardly any interest.

Why the standstill?

The delayed implementation is symptomatic primarily of a lack of will among the signatories. Neither the Malian government nor the other parties were enthusiastic about the agreement’s text in 2015; international duress, particularly from Algeria, France and the U.S., pushed them to sign it. Civil society organisations in both northern and southern Mali that were supposed to represent local populations were effectively excluded from the process. While the Malian state and the signatory armed groups feel that outsiders foisted reconciliation upon them, southern Malians remain strongly distrustful of the former rebels and an agreement that was largely opaque to them. Many from the south think that the agreement is the first step toward an eventual partition of the country. According to the Mali-Mètre opinion survey (March 2020), “the vast majority of citizens interviewed (80.1 per cent) stated that they had ‘no’ knowledge (61 per cent) or ‘hardly any’ knowledge (19.1 per cent) of the peace agreement”.

Apart from the lack of will, the Malian state and the CMA are also keen to preserve the status quo: the CMA enjoys considerable de facto autonomy in its areas of influence in northern Mali, while many of its members have paid employment in the bodies set up by the agreements, such as the CSA and the interim authorities. In parallel, this state of affairs allows the Malian state to delay implementation of the 2015 agreement’s more sensitive provisions, particularly those implying constitutional reform. In August 2017, pressure from the public – mobilised in part against the agreement’s implementation – forced the government to postpone a draft constitutional referendum. By maintaining the status quo, the government prevents social unrest while still honouring its commitment to the international community to continue implementing the agreement.

We are not going to lay down our arms before getting what we took them up for in the first place.

The main parties to the agreement are therefore in a deadlock: the lack of political and institutional progress is leading the signatory armed groups to reject defence and security commitments. In an interview, one CMA official summed up the situation as follows: “We are not going to lay down our arms before getting what we took them up for in the first place”.

The international mediation team that pushed for the signing of the agreement has failed in its commitment to act as “the guarantor of [its] scrupulous implementation”, as specified in its text. The CSA has not exerted enough pressure on the parties to ensure the agreement’s proper implementation, in particular with regard to its key political and security provisions. International actors seem content with the status quo that allows them to focus on the jihadist threat, particularly in central Mali.

If the parties have not clashed since the agreement was signed, why does the impasse pose a problem?

The current stability is significant, and represents a source of satisfaction for some. But it is deceptive. The peace agreement may be partly responsible for the calm, but it owes more to a combination of factors that may turn out to be short-lived.

If they have failed to secure genuine implementation of the agreement, the international forces present in Mali have succeeded at deterring the signatories from resorting to the use of force. Their presence, however, will not be permanent. With instability spreading in central Mali, and across its borders, international actors such as Barkhane (a French anti-terrorism operation in the Sahel) and MINUSMA are increasingly turning their eyes elsewhere, such as Burkina Faso and Niger. In this vast region, the limited military forces (5,100 Barkhane and 13,000 MINUSMA soldiers) cannot be present everywhere.

Moreover, the stability in northern Mali is paradoxically linked to the CMA’s position of strength. Since 2015, violations of the peace agreement have pitted the armed groups of two coalitions against each other (rather than against the Malian state) due to political rivalries between the strongmen of different Touareg tribes or clashes between traffickers. The Platform – the coalition of pro-Bamako armed movements – has steadily weakened since 2017, and many of the factions have split off to join its rival, the CMA. Skirmishes are now rare again in northern Mali. Although the three parties signed the agreement in 2015, the Platform’s dwindling power has now left the CMA facing off against the government. In the longer term, the non-implementation of the agreement could give a pretext for the CMA, now in a strong position in the north of the country, to revive its quest for autonomy.

The non-implementation of the agreement could give a pretext for the CMA to revive its quest for autonomy.

The stability is also linked to the discovery of gold in the Kidal and Gourma regions. Panning for gold has effectively enabled a type of spontaneous yet temporary demobilisation of combatants from armed movements, especially the CMA. But the gold deposits will eventually run out. The current phase of artisanal mining will either come to an end or – more likely – yield to a phase of semi-mechanised mining that requires fewer workers. At that point, taking up arms could become more appealing.  

The current situation is therefore based on a precarious balance and cannot be described as a lasting solution; a flare-up of violence in the medium term cannot be ruled out. The peace process must deliver considerable progress in order to avoid becoming an empty shell that the signatories will end up abandoning in order to resume their hawkish positions.

Could improving the agreement’s implementation help solve the problem of jihadist insurrections spreading across other parts of northern Mali?

Some international actors and the Malian state consider that the reconstituted army, which must bring together Malian soldiers and combatants from armed groups, should engage in the fight against terrorism. It is risky, however, to connect the struggle against jihadist groups to the peace agreement’s implementation.

First, this idea gives the illusion that the signatory armed groups are capable of tackling jihadists. Many members of these signatory groups have been killed in the jihadists’ suicide bombings and other attacks; they are often forced to negotiate unofficial non-aggression pacts with the militant groups. Moreover, the “anti-terrorist” alliance created by Barkhane with two armed groups belonging to the Platform between 2017 and 2019 in the Liptako-Gourma region has proved unable to stem the jihadist expansion. Worse, it has exacerbated the situation by heightening local intercommunal tensions (see Crisis Group’s most recent report on Niger). The armed groups see no advantage in weakening their position in the anti-jihadist fight while the Malian state continues to raise the spectre of revising the peace agreement. Furthermore, most armed groups from the north have combatants in their ranks who were former members of jihadist groups before the French intervention, or else have family or tribal links to jihadist elements.

The issue of territorial and political autonomy is the core motivation for taking up arms in this region.

Although fighting terrorism attracts international attention, it is only one of the problems facing northern Mali today. Even if international and national forces were to succeed in eliminating or sidelining the jihadists, the signatory parties would still demand a satisfactory response to their demands for territorial autonomy in the north, which would almost certainly derail the Malian peace process. The issue of territorial and political autonomy – arising for the fourth time since 1963 – is the core motivation for taking up arms in this region. This is reflected in the agreement’s provisions on the implementation of effective regionalisation. In Niger, the state has allowed elites from the north, including former members of armed groups, to participate fully in running local administration. These elites have thus become better integrated into political and institutional affairs at a national level. Mali could follow this example that resolves a fundamental issue: how to dissuade people from joining armed groups and encourage military actors to take part in political and economic matters; even though it would be naïve to suppose that weapons and trafficking would disappear overnight. The most pressing goal is to ensure that these realities do not play into the hands of those with hawkish agendas.

How can the peace process move forward without jeopardising progress toward stability?

Expectations must be realistic. No one should feel satisfied with the current situation. At the same time, no one should exert pressure that may rekindle violence, for example by organising an unsuccessful referendum or redeploying the reconstituted army, which the signatory groups would judge as heavy-handed. The parties must take careful steps toward more effective implementation of the agreement. Given the various parties’ reluctance to apply the agreement in full, there is no magical solution for the problem. There are, however, two main areas where the peace process could gain new impetus: trust in the peace process, and political will to see it through.

Southern Malians’ opposition to the agreement has prevented progress toward its implementation. Since 2017, the government has postponed the deadline for the referendum on constitutional reform now scheduled for late 2020. This reform seeks to bring Mali’s constitution into line with the agreement’s terms, particularly by setting up a senate and regional assemblies whose presidents would be elected through direct universal suffrage. Opposition to the agreement, compounded by widespread discontent with a state weakened by seven years of crisis and recent disputed legislative elections, makes a positive outcome in such a referendum unlikely this year. Southern and central Malians account for almost 90 per cent of the electorate, and their mistrust of an agreement they do not properly understand would most likely lead them to reject the planned constitutional reform.

It is vital for southern Malians to give more support to the process.

It is therefore vital for southern Malians to give more support to the process through the political elites and civil society organisations supposed to represent them. They played no part in the discussions that led to the signing of the agreement in 2015, and many reject a text negotiated without their input. The 2015 text gave the Malian government the job of providing information and raising public awareness about the agreement’s content, but as the Carter Center observed, the government did little in this regard. There are now more public campaigns protesting against the peace agreement than in support of it. Awareness-raising initiatives have focused on northern populations, disregarding the fact that the agreement also applies to southern Mali, particularly through the regionalisation reform and the creation of a senate.

Five years after the signing of the agreement, it remains essential to address this shortcoming. Without the support of the population of southern Mali, many of its local interest groups will continue agitating to put the agreement on hold and to renegotiate its terms. Renegotiation is not in the interest of either the international community or the CMA, and over time could even lead to a resumption of belligerent discourse. The denunciation of the peace agreement is one of the grievances voiced by the organisers of the Movement of 5 June - Rally of Patriotic Forces (M5-RFP), a protest movement calling for the resignation of President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita that gathered tens of thousands of demonstrators on 5 and 19 June 2020, mostly in Bamako. Some of the movement’s leaders, such as filmmaker and former Minister Cheick Oumar Sissoko, have publicly called for the agreement to be revised, a position the M5-RFP has so far not adopted officially. The agreement remains a secondary issue for the movement, with other grievances aimed directly at President Keita taking precedence.

The CMA therefore needs to engage with southern Malians to explain that the agreement does not threaten to split up the country, and that regionalisation is a national reform and not limited to the north. The southern regions have everything to gain from a regionalisation process that would guarantee them a transfer of powers and resources unprecedented in Mali’s history. This awareness-raising could continue the work started with the inclusive national dialogue of 2019, namely the initiation of talks between the CMA and civil society organisations from southern Mali. Local elected representatives and traditional authorities from the north should be involved in these information campaigns in the southern regions. International partners sitting on the CSA monitoring committee, in particular MINUSMA, could help organise this work. Without guaranteeing the success of the referendum, such a move could still help relieve the pressure on the government exerted by southern elites that is holding up the agreement’s implementation.

The political authority in charge of implementing the agreement needs to be invested with greater power. The country’s president or, failing that, the prime minister, should become directly involved and support this authority, since these figures are the only ones able to give orders to the technical ministries and to resolve any disputes. The creation in 2016 of the president’s high representative to implement the agreement was a step in the right direction, but the person chosen for this job never had the necessary political clout or support to impose his views on a government that often remains unwilling to implement the agreement. The ministry of social cohesion, peace and national reconciliation, currently the government body in charge of this portfolio, has had no more success.

The key to implementation lies with the signatories themselves.

The top-level authorities of the signatory groups should be a more regular presence in Bamako, especially during the CSA’s most important sessions, since these constitute the main dialogue framework among the signatories. Otherwise, second-tier actors represent the groups, and their decisions fail to influence the other movements.

The international community must also continue to monitor progress, and to press for more, even though the current situation reveals the clear limitations of an externally imposed peace. The key to implementation lies with the signatories themselves.

The reality, however, is that Mali’s president must commit himself decisively and publicly to support the most sensitive provisions of the agreement – particularly the transfer of resources and power in terms of regionalisation and a reconstituted army. As long as he does not do so, the parties’ lack of will to implement the agreement will prove an insurmountable barrier.