The Audacity of Indifference: Can Mali’s government resolve the conflict in the north?

Peace & Security,Sahel Watch03 Nov 2014Bruce Whitehouse

When Malian voters overwhelmingly elected Ibrahim Boubacar Keita to the presidency in 2013, many in Mali and abroad felt that the veteran politician known as “IBK” had both the experience and the political legitimacy necessary to lead the country through its darkest period since independence. In the months that followed, however, the buoyant mood gave way to frustration. With low-level violence and instability plaguing much of Mali’s north despite the presence of French and UN troops, and the Malian government unable to maintain a tenuous toehold in the separatist stronghold of Kidal, IBK has not demonstrated that reunifying the divided country is a top priority of his administration.

Instead, he has focused his efforts on protecting his personal power and its perquisites. He cracked down on the remnants of the army junta that took power in 2012, arresting its leaders and purging its supporters from the security forces. He stacked the political system with allies and relatives. His frequent travel abroad in a new presidential Boeing 737 acquired under dubious circumstances, coupled with allegations linking him to shadowy French business interests, has disillusioned those who took seriously his pledges to fight endemic corruption and promote transparent governance, and has sullied his reputation among donors.1

After Prime Minister Oumar Tatam Ly resigned in early April, the appointment of Moussa Mara to succeed him offered a glimmer of hope. Mara, a 39-year-old who had built a reputation as a reformer, announced an ambitious agenda of national reconciliation, institutional change and public investment. “We have been victims in the recent past of a lack of vision,” he told Mali’s parliament on 29 April; “We will no longer let events surprise us”.2

Yet just weeks later, during the new prime minister’s tour of the country’s northern regions, that is exactly what occurred. On 17 May, after an uneventful passage through Timbuktu and Gao, Mara went on to Kidal, where no Malian head of government had set foot since the rebel takeover in early 2012. Foreign diplomats and UN officials had urged Mara not to make this trip, fearing it would lead to unrest. (His predecessor had scuttled a planned visit six months earlier after separatist protestors occupied Kidal’s airstrip to prevent his plane from landing; Mara circumvented this threat by flying to the city in a UN helicopter.) The visit was carried out with little preparation, minimal security and no respect for customary protocol. In the ensuing violence, the Kidal governor’s office—the chief symbol of the Malian state in the region—was attacked by rebels, many of them affiliated with the Mouvement National de Liberation de l’Azawad or MNLA. At least 36 people were killed, including eight Malian administrators executed by gunmen, and 30 others taken hostage in what Mara described as the rebels’ “declaration of war.” The Malian state suffered a more serious reversal on 21 May when rebels routed government troops sent to retake the town, killing 50.3

The political and military misadventure in Kidal was disastrous for IBK and his governing team. Although Mara’s visit to Kidal won him favor among pro-government loyalists for whom separatism is anathema, it only deepened the mistrust between the Malian government and rebel groups, which have been ostensibly involved in peace talks for over a year. For months, neither the government nor the rebels was willing to initiate substantive dialogue, each accusing the other of flouting the June 2013 treaty they signed. As IBK and Mara continued to swerve between talking tough and preaching peace, they never managed to chart a coherent course of action. To many Malians, their president appears indifferent to the strife engulfing both his government and his people. With opposition parties emboldened and the government in damage control mode, Mara’s lofty policy agenda lay in tatters. It came as little surprise when he was sacked in January 2015.

The only good to come out of the bloodshed in Kidal was the reluctant acceptance by many loyalists that the government could not shoot its way out of this problem. Bamako’s dominant portrayal of the MNLA (as a tiny foreign-backed criminal gang with no popular support) is perhaps no less preposterous than the MNLA’s self-representation (as a multiethnic liberation movement embodying the hopes of every inhabitant of the territory it calls “Azawad”). But while Bamako’s portrayal plays well domestically, and has the benefit of obscuring from view the government’s history of misrule, it renders meaningful engagement with the rebels politically impossible, fueling loyalists’ calls for a military resolution. Since the events of last May, the notion that Kidal could be forcibly pried from the MNLA’s grip is less credible, and many in Mali recognize that the Malian state can neither project nor sustain power in that remote separatist stronghold.

The international community can play a constructive part in Mali’s post-conflict transition, but its role over the past year has been controversial, particularly in Bamako. Initial public enthusiasm for French military intervention soured amid reports that France secretly aided the MNLA for its own purposes.4 While such reports should raise legitimate concerns about France’s policy, it is now gospel truth in portions of the Malian press that France created the MNLA as part a shadowy plot to partition the country, and other governments as well as the UN lately stand accused of similar malfeasance.5 Public suspicion of foreign powers’ motives have severely restricted the ability of Mali’s partners to broker a lasting peace deal.

A resolution to Algerian-mediated peace talks is now long overdue, and the draft agreement has provoked outcries from both sides. Given that virtually any concession IBK or the heads of separatist groups might make is bound to be politically unpopular with their base and could threaten their hold on power, how much interest do these leaders have in resolving this conflict?