The Malian Minister of Reconciliation, Peace, and National Cohesion and the leader of the delegation from the Coordination of Movements of Azawad, Bamako, August 2022.
The Malian Minister of Reconciliation, Peace, and National Cohesion and the leader of the delegation from the Coordination of Movements of Azawad, Bamako, August 2022. Bakary Diouara
Report / Africa 20+ minutes

Northern Mali: Return to Dialogue

In northern Mali, fighting has resumed between armed groups signatory to the 2015 peace agreement and government forces, even as clashes with jihadists continue. Bamako's initiative for an inter-Malian dialogue constitutes an opportunity to restore calm.

What’s new? Since August 2023, and amid continuous clashes with jihadist groups, Malian forces and Russian paramilitaries have been fighting some of the rebel movements in northern Mali that signed the 2015 peace agreement. In November, the Malian army regained control of Kidal, a town that has been a rebel stronghold since 2012.

Why does it matter? This conflict has had severe humanitarian repercussions and threatens a new wave of violence in Mali and beyond. While the recapture of Kidal is a pivotal moment, neither party should think that this war will be settled by force of arms alone. 

What should be done? Toward the end of December, authorities in Bamako began preparing for an inter-Malian dialogue, before declaring the 2015 peace treaty null and void a month later. Belligerents should use this dialogue, which opens new prospects for peace, as an opportunity to negotiate a ceasefire and move toward inclusive talks. 

Executive Summary

In November 2023, the Malian armed forces, supported by Wagner Group paramilitaries, recaptured Kidal, a northern town which had been under the control of rebel groups since 2012. This event marked the culmination of a renewed conflict, beginning that August, between the government and some of the signatories to the 2015 Algiers Accord, which had ended the earlier hostilities. All the while, the centre and north of the country faced jihadist attacks. This profusion of deadly fighting has plunged northern Mali into a new spiral of violence, with alarming humanitarian consequences and an uncertain outcome. Recapturing Kidal was certainly a triumph for the Malian authorities, but they should have no illusions: neither of the belligerents can win by force of arms alone. The return to war also accelerated the demise of the Algiers Accord, which had been on life support for the last two years. An inter-Malian dialogue proposed by the transitional authorities at the end of 2023 is an opportunity for negotiations to prevail over fighting once more. Talks remain the only way to achieve a sustainable peace in northern Mali. 

The 2015 Algiers Accord offered a useful framework for peace that all the belligerents had accepted. The subsequent process faced delays, however, stumbling over essential questions related to transferring prerogatives to regional governments and integrating former rebels into Mali’s defence and security forces. The first transitional government, established following the coup d’état of August 2020, wanted to maintain the agreement and made progress in bringing it to fruition. The regime that emerged from the second coup in May 2021, however, took a different path, taking a more military approach.

With power firmly in their grasp, the officers focused on strengthening the armed forces and reasserting the Malian state’s sovereignty over the entire country. To these ends, they stepped up cooperation with Russia and called on Wagner for reinforcements. They also requested – and secured – the departure of the French Operation Barkhane, the European Takuba Task Force and the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA). Finally, Mali’s leaders withdrew from the G5 Sahel and its joint counter-terrorism force. In September 2023, together with military rulers in Burkina Faso and Niger, they set up the Alliance of Sahel States, a mutual defence pact. 

At the same time, relations deteriorated between the transitional authorities and the armed groups that signed the Algiers Accord, grouped together as part of the Permanent Strategic Framework (CSP) since 2021, with each side preparing itself for renewed fighting. Discussions about fulfilling the agreement’s terms reached an impasse: the government that emerged from the May 2021 coup welcomed figures hostile to the agreement into its ranks, while the signatory groups adopted uncompromising positions of their own. Meanwhile, jihadists took advantage of the deadlock and the vacuum created by the departure of international forces to extend their hold on vast rural areas of northern Mali. 

Against this backdrop of escalating tensions, the Malian authorities’ occupation of former MINUSMA bases in the north of the country sparked new hostilities. Fighting resumed in August 2023, culminating in the capture of Kidal by the armed forces in November. This highly symbolic feat of arms remains an important win for the Malian authorities, embodying their commitment to reclaiming state control of the entirety of national territory. This accomplishment resonates strongly with a substantial portion of the public, particularly those most hostile to the separatist aspirations of the part of the CSP that wants to create an independent entity named Azawad. 

Neither the transitional authorities nor the rebel groups appear able to decisively win the war.

Fighting between state forces and the CSP has significantly decreased in intensity since the government took Kidal. Yet it is unlikely that this victory, which has already had serious humanitarian consequences, will bring this decade-long conflict, which has deep political roots, to a definitive end. Neither the transitional authorities nor the rebel groups appear able to decisively win the war. A stalemate could wind up weakening both camps, with the consequences reverberating across the entire central Sahel. The renewed conflict has also deepened a divide among the Malian people between those who support the authorities in Bamako and others who remain close to the CSP. 

Meanwhile, the jihadists, who are less affected by the CSP’s loss of its Kidal stronghold, could take advantage of the dissension among their enemies. Jihadist groups seem to be the most likely to benefit from renewed conflict, potentially mirroring the situation in 2012 when they capitalised on the fighting between the army and northern rebels to strengthen their influence in Mali.

For the government and part of the public, the recapture of Kidal would seem to symbolise the success of a military approach at the expense of the political settlement in place since the signature of the Algiers Accord eight years ago. Yet it is difficult to envisage peace in northern Mali without a political process that allows for dialogue, reconciliation and the prospect of improved local governance. After the clashes of the past few months, relaunching the political process will likely be complicated, but it remains essential. Political talks still offer the best path toward durable peace and stability for northern Mali and its people. 

Despite the transitional authorities’ decision to abandon the Algiers Accord, their move to open an inter-Malian dialogue, a few weeks after the recapture of Kidal, provides an opportunity for both parties to put negotiation over continued confrontation. The authorities should take lessons from the Algiers Accord’s failure, notably by making this new process more inclusive, to find the solutions needed to stabilise the north. They should involve key political players, civil society actors and traditional leaders in the dialogue, but also members of the CSP and possibly the jihadists as well. The government should also seek to include as many women and young people as possible in the inter-Malian dialogueAt the same time, the CSP should seize this moment to re-establish contact with the government, negotiate a ceasefire and engage in a process that is more aligned with today’s balance of power in Mali.

Bamako/Dakar/Brussels, 20 February 2024

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