sahel security

Mali: Is the North about to explode into war?

By Flore Monteau

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Posted on July 21, 2023 09:28

A fighter from the Coordination des Mouvements de l’Azawad (CMA) patrols Kidal, 28 August 2022. Mali
A fighter from the Coordination des Mouvements de l’Azawad (CMA) patrols Kidal, 28 August 2022. (AFP/Souleymane ag Anara)

Increased tensions between Mali’s transitional authorities and former rebels are raising fears that hostilities could resume.

On 5 April – the eve of the symbolic Azawad independence day celebrated by Mali’s former Tuareg rebel movements since 2012 – the Malian army sent its Albatros L-39 and Sukhoï S-25 fighter jets to fly low over Kidal and several other northern towns.

The independence groups retaliated with warning shots against what they perceived as aggression on Bamako’s part. The Coordination des Mouvements de l’Azawad (CMA) denounced a “blatant violation of the ceasefire and a serious provocation” by the transitional regime led by Assimi Goïta.

Algiers agreement stalled

The incident went no further, but it was symptomatic of the extreme tension that has reigned for several months between the government and the armed groups that signed the 2015 Algiers peace agreement, fuelling fears of a possible resumption of hostilities.

The rebel signatories of the Cadre Stratégique Permanent pour la Paix, la Sécurité et le Développement (CSP-PSD – a new alliance that brings together the CMA and the Platforme), who have regularly complained about a lack of commitment from Bamako, now say the transitional authorities are “blocking” the peace process.

“The agreement is in its eighth year and there has been no contact between the parties involved for nearly seven months,” CMA spokesperson Mohamed Elmaouloud Ramadane tells The Africa Report.

He says the succession of decisions made by transitional authorities are making it “more difficult each day” to implement the Algiers agreement.

Opposed to the new constitution

Recent changes include the new draft constitution adopted by referendum on 18 June. For months, the CMA has been sharply criticising this text, which it sees as “a clear decline in the government’s interest in the peace agreement”, Ramadane says.

There were no elections in Kidal or in the northern regions

On 19 June, the Kidal regional coordinator of the Autorité Indépendante de Gestion des Elections (AIGE), an independent electoral body, noted “a total lack of interest in the region’s elections” – a version later contradicted by the ruling junta, for whom Kidal’s insubordination is a recurring source of irritation.

The CMA spokesman added: “There were no elections in Kidal or in the northern regions. We don’t recognise the Constitution, even if the Constitutional Court has validated it.”

Two days earlier, transitional authorities asked the United Nations (UN) Security Council to withdraw Minusma peacekeepers “without delay”.

“Dismayed” by this decision, the CSP-PSD referred to a “fatal blow deliberately dealt to the peace agreement” before requesting the renewal of the mandate of the UN mission, which it calls “the lynchpin of the peace process’ implementation”.

But the CSP-PSD’s hopes were dashed. On 30 June, the Security Council took note of Bamako’s request and adopted a resolution giving the more than 12,000 peacekeepers six months – until 31 December – to leave Mali.

No more mediator

For Ramadane, the withdrawal of Minusma is a blow to the peace agreement.

“It is clear that the authorities in Bamako have no real desire to implement the agreement. It’s worrying,” he says.

With the announced departure of the Blue Helmets, the independence movements are still waiting for “concrete proposals” from the transitional authorities. “The worst is to be feared,” Ramadane says.

After the Minusma troops are gone, who will act as a mediator in northern Mali? Some say it will be a new, dedicated UN political mission, while others envisage a reconstituted Malian army.

“There are bound to be changes between now and the end of the year, which could give rise to very high tensions,” says Andrew Lebovich, a researcher with the Hague-based Clingendael Institute’s Sahel programme.

In accordance with the Algiers agreement, some fighters from the signatory armed groups have already joined army contingents. This process of reconstituting Mali’s armed forces was Minusma’s responsibility.

Wagner lying in ambush?

All eyes are on the 1,400 mercenaries from Wagner, the Russian reinforcements of the Malian army.

Already present in a number of northern cities – Timbuktu, Timbuktu, Gao and Ménaka, among others – they could well take over from the Blue Helmets at their forward bases in the north, such as Tessalit and Aguelhok.

On 19 July, Wagner Group boss Yevgeny Prighozin made a clear statement that his troops were leaving Ukraine to concentrate on Africa.

“If Russian [mercenary] forces move in, the temperature will rise even higher,” says Lebovich. According to the researcher, the signatory armed movements “are afraid that Wagner may be the spearhead for an operation against Kidal”.

As proof of their mistrust, a delegation from the CSP-PSD met the Russian ambassador to Mali on 3 July to express “concerns and fears about Russia’s support for the Malian army against the Azawadis”, according to the group’s Twitter post.

During his visit to Mali in February, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov reminded Bamako of its commitment to the Algiers agreement.

“Even if the Malian government tries to retake the North militarily, we don’t know how much Russia will tolerate,” says Lebovich. Moscow could set certain “red lines”, according to the researcher, who believes such a military operation would be “difficult and costly” for Bamako.

Just as they have with Russia, the northern movements are calling for dialogue with all partners, including Algeria, Turkey and the UK. Several meetings have occurred over the past few days.

“Everyone must play their part in pushing the transitional authorities to respect the Algiers agreement,” says Ramadane.

Has the strategy paid off? On 15 July, Colonel Modibo Koné, head of the powerful Sécurité d’État (SE, Mali’s intelligence services) and a key figure in the ruling junta, discreetly travelled to Kidal to meet with CMA leaders.

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