Mali: Could the war between Bamako and the North’s former rebels restart?

By Jeune Afrique
Posted on Tuesday, 22 March 2022 14:20

Colonel Major Ismaël Wagué gives a press conference at Camp Soudiata, in Kati, on 19 August 2020, the day after the coup that toppled IBK © AP/SIPA

Ismaël Wagué, Mali’s minister of national reconciliation, is in Gao to resume dialogue with armed groups in Northern Mali. This trip comes at a time when former Azawad independence rebels may take up arms once more.

Officers from the Mouvement National de Libération de l’Azawad treaded sand while hundreds of men, who were standing in the back of dozens of pickup trucks arranged in an arc, pointed their automatic weapons skywards and cheered. On 26 and 27 February 2022, while Azawad’s flags were flying high, these former separatist fighters, who had signed the Accord pour la Paix et la Réconciliation (APR) in 2015, following the Algiers process and travelled to the Timbuktu region to attend the movement’s regional consultations.

Demonstration of strength

For years, each gathering had been an opportunity for the signatory movements to show off their military prowess. This meeting was no exception. “We have 4,000 men with individual weapons in the Timbuktu region,” said Attaye ag Mohamed, a member of the MNLA executive bureau.

The final tally looked like a show of force, especially since it was accompanied by a harsh statement made against the Malian government. In it, the former independence rebels deplored “the delay in implementing the Accord pour la Paix et la Réconciliation and the upheavals that this could cause if something is not done as soon as possible”.

Is this a warning to the authorities? “The signatory movements have always been clear: the Accord is the only thing that binds them to the government in Bamako. After the August 2020 coup, several of their representatives joined ministries as well as the Conseil National de Transition, and relations were relatively good, but the tone has changed since the arrival of those whom the authorities present as Russian instructors and whom Western intelligence identifies as Wagner mercenaries,” says Adam Sandor, associate researcher at the Centre Francopaix en Résolution des Conflits et Missions de Paix.

Many believe that relations started to become strained during the second part of the transition period, after the second coup d’état in May 2021, when Choguel Kokalla Maïga was appointed prime minister. As soon as he came to power, the latter, one of the APR’s historical detractors, made one of his priorities the “intelligent rereading” of the Accord.

Pandora’s box

On several occasions, the Coordination des Mouvements de l’Azawad (CMA), the main cluster of former armed secessionist groups, have denounced the authorities’ “bellicose and defamatory media stance”. One of the issues is the prime minister’s statements that certain provisions of the Accord “lay the foundations for the partition of Mali”, as he told us in an interview last October. Another concern is his recurrent remarks about Kidal, which he says was a “terrorist enclave” where the jihadist groups currently operating in the central part of the country were trained.

“The Accord’s detractors know that rereading would open Pandora’s box: everyone would propose their own amendments, which would lead to a deaf dialogue, thus rendering the Accord null and void,” says Mohamed El Moctar Ag Mohamedoun, associate researcher at the Timbuktu Institute ACPS.

In 2015, all stakeholders abandoned several amendments, “in the name of peace”, so that they could quickly validate the APR. “The state should not think that it has a monopoly on revision. Rereading would be an adventurous and dangerous step to take,” says Mohamed Elmaouloud Ramadane, the CMA’s spokesman.

Forgotten

Besides the matter of proofreading, the former rebels are especially critical of the government’s inertia when it comes to implementing the APR, which was signed seven years ago. “The political and institutional aspects are stalling, the implementation of the DDR [disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration of former combatants] is not progressing. In this particular case, a meeting to determine the number of ex-combatants that will be integrated into the army was supposed to take place before 15 March. Nothing has happened,” says Ramadane, whose coordination group urges the government to “clarify its final position regarding the Accord’s implementation”.

Nothing exists today that gives life to the Accord, even the commissions that helped implement it are no longer active,” says Housseyne ag Issa, a Malian journalist specialising in armed movements. “The armed groups are now calling on Assimi Goïta, as the country’s top official, to draw his attention to these obstacles and find solutions before the situation worsens.”

Hopes for reconciliation and dialogue seem to be emerging with recent developments, such as the Malian minister of national reconciliation’s visit to Gao on 15 March. In February, Wagué took part in consultations with armed groups that had signed the Rome Agreement in principle, which should help facilitate the 2015 Accord’s implementation.

Is this enough to reopen dialogue and enforce the Accord? Probably not, according to some observers who fear a return to armed struggle. “We must remember that historically, with the exception of the 1992 Pacte National, no peace agreement has ever been implemented in Mali and that each time, the rebels have ended up taking up arms again. Today, all the ingredients are in place for the Accord to be forgotten, all confidence has been lost,” says a specialist in Sahel security issues, who requested anonymity.

Self-determination

The signatory movements repeat over and over again that applying the Accord remains “a priority” for them and “the only guarantee of global peace and national reconciliation”. However, after nearly seven years of waiting, the former rebels say they are “ready for any eventuality”.

Including the resurgence of pro-independence claims and arms usage? In its latest communiqué, the CMA said it was “attentive to the people of Azawad’s profound aspirations […] in particular their right to self-determination”.

“In the North, young people are raising their voices, especially ones who were still children in 2012. They do not know anything about the administration, the Malian state or Bamako. They are only familiar with the North and its weapons, they cannot imagine the Accord being put in place. Faced with this, their separatist demands are becoming increasingly strong,” says the CMA spokesman.

Especially since the situation on the ground has been made more volatile by the end of Operation Barkhane, which will create a “security vacuum and a change in dynamics on the ground”, says Ramadane.

Security umbrella

“Despite not necessarily having a good relationship with Barkhane, the armed groups knew that France was acting as a security umbrella, preventing an incident between them and the Forces Armées Maliennes (Famas).

Neither party wants to be the first to withdraw from the Accord, but on the one hand, the armed groups do not have full command over their elements, and on the other, the authorities do not always seem to be able to control the Famas’ actions. It is safe to assume that in this context anything can happen, even without a direct order from command. An isolated incident could then trigger much larger clashes,” says Sandor.

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