After eight months of hard talks the Algiers process resulted in a ceasefire agreement and the final draft of a peace plan on 1 March. The ‘Agreement for Peace and Reconciliation in Mali from the Algiers Process’ represents a compromise between the government in Bamako and the Tuareg and Arab rebel groups present in the negotiations. However, while the preliminary agreement has been signed by the Government-led coalition, the Coordination, representing the rebel groups present at the Algiers talks, decided after consultations with their home constituencies on 16 March not to sign the agreement. Hence, the negotiations will continue, but it is uncertain what other agreement is possible, as there are clear limitations on how far the Government in Bamako can let the agreement slide towards independence for Northern Mali. Against this background, what are the chances of the peace plan ultimately becoming acceptable for all parties? And, what factors played a role in the refusal by the rebel groups to sign the agreement?
The peace accord
For President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita it is vital that the peace plan respects and protects Mali’s territorial integrity. The text calls for the ‘reconstruction of the country’s national unity’ in a way that ‘respects its territorial integrity and takes account of its ethnic and cultural diversity’. To cater for the latter, and thereby also for the position of the rebel groups present in Algiers, the draft text proposes the devolution of power through the establishment of new and more powerful regional assemblies led by a directly elected president, as well as increased representation of the northern populations in national institutions. The idea is that these regional assemblies will give local populations better representation in decision-making that affects their lives, but not the type of regional autonomy that some of the Tuareg groups have been asking for – which is one step short of independence – as the draft text is also supposed to protect the territorial integrity of the country. The tricky issue here is this: while it would be immensely difficult for the Government in Bamako to go any further than what the draft current says, some of the rebel groups are worried that if this is it, all they will achieve is a devolution of power in line with the initial compromise that concluded the Tuareg rebellion of the 1990s and established the National Pact and the Governance and Decentralisation Programme. This compromise calmed the situation at the time, but also laid the ground for further conflict.1
The draft that the Government coalition has signed tried to accommodate both sides. Nobody got everything they asked for, but everyone was supposed to get something. President Keita could claim that he had kept his promise from his election campaign in 2013, which was to protect the territorial integrity of Mali. The rebels, on the other hand would achieve devolution of state power to regional assemblies and an agreement about an institutional arrangement to be established in 2018 to ensure the transfer of 30% of budget revenue from the state to local authorities. This may have looked like a compromise that all parties could accept.
The agreement may have looked acceptable in Algiers, but there are a number of issues on the ground that could compromise it. These can be summed up as follows: an increasingly unpopular national leader with little left of the legitimacy he had when he was elected, combined with armed non-state actors who were not present in the negotiations, but have proven hard to beat militarily.
First, we must recognise that President Keita has lost a considerable part of the popular mandate that he had when he was elected in 2013. At that time he was seen as a ‘man of exception’, someone who could solve the Malian debacle and deal decisively with the rebellions in the North, as well as taming the problem of endemic corruption in Mali. Perhaps this was an impossible task, but the general sentiment on the streets of Bamako and other major cities in Mali is that Keita has failed. Thus, he would find it very difficult to sell any agreement to his electorate that would give any more to the rebels than what this agreement currently does. In fact, considerable segments of the black majority population have strong issues with parts of the current agreement. In particular, many are negative to the issue of ‘greater representation of the northern population (whatever that may mean in practice) in national institutions’ as they feel that the Tuaregs, who only constitutes about 11% of the population, are already are over-represented in national institutions, including elected bodies.
Secondly, we have to observe not only who was present at the table in Algiers – that is, a coalition of rebels organized around the Tuareg National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) and the Arab Movement of Azawad (MAA), as well as the government and a government-allied militia – but also who was not there. Among those who were not there are the armed groups with the strongest fighting capacity on the ground, such as al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), al-Murabitoun (Mokhtar Belmokhtar’s group) and Iyad Ag Ghaly’s Ansar ed-Dine, which as officially-designated terrorist groups have been blacklisted from any kind of negotiations, except total and unconditional surrender. Thus, irrespective of the solidity of the Algiers agreement, the situation on the ground is not likely to change much in the short- to medium-term, as these groups have proven to be very hard to beat militarily and impossible to negotiate with, as there is simply nothing that the international community and the Malian state can talk to them about.
Thirdly, just as President Keita may have a problem selling the agreement to his electorate, the MNLA and the MAA may face similar challenges. It is not entirely clear who they represent and, particularly with regard to MNLA, we must also take into consideration the cleavages within the Tuareg community that Iyad Ag Ghaly’s Ansar ed-Dine brought to the fore. Whereas MAA may have some genuine support among the small Arab minority, the Tuareg population of Northern Mali is clearly divided between those who support MNLA, those who are aligned to Iyad Ag Ghaly and those who do not support any of these groups. It is difficult at this time to say how much (if any) influence Ag Ghaly and his supporters have had on the rebels’ decision not to sign the agreement. What this clearly shows is how fragmented the polity of Northern Mali is.2 The rebels who have been present in Algiers are not a tightly-knit group. Important armed actors have not been part of the process and it remains to be seen how other groups, like the Songhay and the Fulani, who are more numerous in Northern Mali than the Tuareg and Arab groups, will react to the rebels’ refusal to sign the peace plan.
A small step
What this means is that, at its very best, the Algiers agreement is a small step towards lasting peace in Mali. The attacks carried out by AQIM and al-Murabitoun groups against the UN (MINUSMA) and other targets will, therefore, continue and neither the French operation Barkhane nor MINUSMA have the strength needed to fully police and pacify the wide territory of Northern Mali. These groups will remain in nominal control of major cities like Gao and Timbuktu, but have little if any chance of gaining full control of Mali beyond these cities. This means that AQIM and al-Murabitoun will be able to continue to carry out their asymmetrical warfare against the international forces and representatives of the Malian state. For the civilian population this means that they will have to continue to navigate for their livelihoods and security between Salafist-inspired insurgencies, inadequate international and national responses, and a peace plan that currently seems to have little chance of yielding tangible results on the ground.
1 See Morten Bøås and Liv Elin Torheim (2013) ‘The trouble in Mali – corruption, collusion, resistance’, Third World Quarterly, vol. 34, no. 7, pp. 1279–1292. As the draft text stands right now, these regional bodies are not only supposed to be established in the North, but in the whole country. This is also similar to the process that was attempted in the 1990s.
2 References to the Tuareg, as Kel Tamacheq (i.e., the people who speak Tamacheq) apart, the Tuaregs have never constituted one coherent community. Historically, they have been divided between a number of sultanates, ruled by different royal families, sometimes in cooperation with each other, but also experiencing times of violent conflict between them. It is important to keep this aspect of the Tuareg social structure in mind as it continues to inform this society and influence processes of social change. For further details about these historical cleavages and how they continue to have an impact on the formation and fragmentation of Tuareg organizations (armed and non-armed), see Bøås and Torheim (2013).
Photo credit main picture: 14-02-14-Atelier sur la paix 04 / Mission de l'ONU au Mali - UN Mission in Mali via Flickr