In Mali, ‘risks of political and military escalation’ between the government and ex-rebels of the north

By Manon Laplace
Posted on Monday, 25 July 2022 16:56

Sergeant Thimothee, from Operation Barkhane, questions a suspicious man as the last French convoy leaves Gossi, in the town of Gounzoureye, Mali, April 19, 2022. Picture taken April 19, 2022. REUTERS/Paul Lorgerie

The last time that relations were this tense between the former Tuareg rebel groups and the Malian government was in 2015 when the peace process was launched in Algiers. Meeting in Kidal in an ordinary session on 16 and 17 July 2022, the Coordination des Mouvements de l’Azawad (CMA), which brings together the main signatory armed groups, has once again been critical of Bamako.

In a communiqué, the former rebel independence fighters denounced “the abandonment of the implementation of the agreement, particularly since the advent of the transition”. More than seven years after the signing of the peace agreement, this declaration highlights the separatist calls that have yet to be addressed in the north of the country.

The CMA issued a new warning to the Malian state, stating that it reserves the right to “draw all of the conclusions” from this deadlock. As the secretary general of the Haut Conseil pour l’Unité de l’Azawad Alghabass ag Intalla succeeds Bilal ag Achérif and takes over the rotating presidency of the alliance, the latter has indicated that it is making the merging of its various members a priority. Is this a closing of ranks in the event of an end to the agreement and the resumption of hostilities?

Ferdaous Bouhlel is a researcher, consultant and trainer in mediation, conflict management and peace support. This Sahel specialist explains the consequences of this renewed tension between Bamako and the ex-rebels.

This is not the first time that the CMA has denounced the government’s inaction in applying the Algiers agreement, but the tension seems to be stronger than ever. Is dialogue still possible?

Ferdaous Bouhlel: We are facing an almost unprecedented deadlock since the agreement monitoring committee has not met for 10 months and all the key bodies in the implementation process are frozen, including the technical security commission – a central body in the system.

There are several reasons for this stalemate. These include the institutional imbalances that Mali has experienced over the past two years as well as prime minister Choguel Maïga’s stance – he has never hidden his rejection of the agreement. This has probably not helped the government to build a consensual, clear and politically committed position.

We used to talk about a ‘revision’ of the agreement under then president Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta, but the concept of an ‘intelligent rereading’ came to the fore after the coups of August 2020 and May 2021. This was backtracking, which gave Malians reason to stop believing in the agreement, undermining the hard-won trust between the parties. The latest Carter Center report of June 2022 shows how this factor has played a major role in the stalemate we see today.

Apart from the dialogue, is there any concrete progress in the implementation of the agreement?

Again, there has been a series of blockages and failures, notably around the issue of incorporation, quotas, ranks and assignments of senior officers in the reconstituted army. Although effectively established with the Bataillons des Forces Armées Reconstituées, the joint armed forces, bringing together the signatory movements and the Malian army, did not work.

The prerogatives assigned to the regions and the vision of the political model of the state are also among the main points of contention between the government and the signatory movements. The latter condemns their absence from the consultation process on the reform of the constitution launched by the government in June. This issue, which is central to peace, should provide an opportunity to relaunch the discussions.

Given this situation, is there a real risk of a resumption of conflict in the north?

For several months now, we have seen redeployment movements of men and weapons on the ground, which suggest pre-defence strategies. The risks of political and military escalation cannot be excluded, especially if the government decides to use force, which would definitively undermine the gains of the peace agreement.

It appears that the army is now beginning to deploy men and weapons to the area.

It is certain that the status quo cannot reasonably be sustained if dialogue does not resume. A deterioration of the situation would have a considerable impact on the already critical security situation in the country and could offer the jihadists the opportunity to maximise their incursions.

What are the issues surrounding the merger of CMA member movements?

The weakening of the agreement is helping to create alternative political and military trajectories. The peace agreement should not be seen as a reserve option. By weakening it in this way, we are helping to create the conditions for it not to be implemented and to encourage alternative political and military paths. It is in this context that the CMA’s merger project must be understood.

This very sensitive issue of fusion has actually been discussed since 2012 within the groups, but the urgency and seriousness of the situation seem to have made them decide to ‘join forces’. The more the state neglects or abandons the space for dialogue, the more the implementation of the agreement is endangered, and the more the armed movements tend to unify their forces.

The Cadre Stratégique Permanent project initiated by the armed groups in the summer of 2021 is in line with this logic. It aims to bring together all the signatory movements of the agreement in order to harmonise their vision, but it was in fact badly perceived by the Malian government, which saw – in this process – a revival of calls for independence.

In the northeastern region of Ménaka, so-called “loyalist” signatory groups have been fighting off the attacks of the Islamic State in the Greater  Sahara since March, almost without support from the armed forces. Doesn’t this risk creating a new balance of power between these groups and Bamako?

This situation is symptomatic of the deterioration of relations between the government and armed groups. This is all the more surprising given that we are talking about movements that claim to defend national unity and integrity, and that in the past have even taken up arms against “their Tuareg brothers” of the CMA. In this respect, General El Hadj Ag Gamou was a national hero.

The Groupe Autodéfense Touareg Imghad et Alliés and the Mouvement pour le Salut de l’Azawad fought alone against the Islamic State in Andéramboukane [in the north-east]. These very violent clashes caused the death of dozens of fighters and the departure of hundreds of civilians.

According to the UN, since March in Ménaka, more than 300 civilians have been killed and 25,000 people displaced. The feeling of abandonment of the population was amplified when, despite numerous distress calls, the government never mentioned the hundreds of civilians killed in these regions of northern Mali. This was despite the fact that the government declared a three-day national mourning period following the violence in the central Bankass circle at the end of June.

How the government addresses the protection of people in the north, particularly in Ménaka, will tell us something about its commitment. It appears that the army is now beginning to deploy men and weapons to the area.

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