On May 15, Mali hosted 22 heads of state to witness the signing of the long-awaited peace agreement between its government and insurgency leaders. Arab and Tuareg militants rebelled against the government in 2012, unilaterally declaring an independent state, Azawad, in northern Mali. The revolt triggered a military coup that put an end to 20 years of democracy and stability. The peace accord follows strong international pressure to end the violence.
However, the agreement will not guarantee stability in northern Mali. The security situation there and years of failed promises to address the marginalization of northern communities have created deep mistrust among the various stakeholders. For lasting and durable peace to prevail, the government must ensure a genuine devolution of power that takes into account the ethnic diversity in northern Mali and fair distribution of revenue to improve service delivery and infrastructure in the peripheral regions.
The Arab and Tuareg grievances are deeply rooted in the country’s history dating back as far as the 1950s. This is why Mali has struggled to recover from the latest rebellion, the fourth since its independence in 1960. Inadequate government funding, geographic isolation and the arid climate in northern Mali have led to the marginalization of northern populations and continue to complicate peace and reconciliation efforts.
The Tuareg claim of self-determination and at times independence from Mali reached a turning point in 2011 after the demise of Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi. An estimated 2,500 heavily armed Tuaregs who fought alongside Gaddafi loyalists returned to Mali in December of that year. They formed the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) and quickly allied themselves with Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and another extremist group, Ansar-Dine. A month later, a fourth Tuareg rebellion began when the Malian military lost control of the northern city of Aguelhok.
By April 2012, the rebels had overrun more than two-thirds of the country, defeating the Malian army and laying bare its rudimentary ammunition and poor training. In their quest to impose their strict version of Sharia in areas under their control, the Islamic groups temporarily sidelined the MNLA and eclipsed its claim for independence. This prompted France, the country’s former colonial power, to launch Operation Serval in January 2013 to prevent the expansion of AQIM, Ansar Dine and other extremist groups.
The French intervention was soon bolstered by troops from the African Union and the regional Economic Community of West African States. It eventually received the support of the United Nations Security Council. The French involvement was key to ousting the Islamic fighters from northern Mali. But it was unable to re-establish the Malian state’s authority over the northern regions. Ending the stalemate entailed negotiating with some of the rebels involved in the conflict.
The six rebel groups that are party to the Algiers peace process remain divided on the critical issues of secession and autonomy. More than two years after the French liberated northern Mali, peace and security remain fragile and reconciliation improbable. Three days before the signing of the latest peace accord, the Coordination of Azawad Movements, the main Tuareg-led rebel group, attacked the Malian army in Timbuktu, killing nine soldiers and wounding 14 others. Even as the signing ceremony was underway in the capital, Bamako, fighting continued between pro-government militias and rebel groups. In the northern region of Kidal, a separatist stronghold, locals took to the streets opposing the peace deal, which they say falls short of guaranteeing the independence of Azawad.
The renewed fighting defies the U.N.-brokered cease-fire signed in February. Pro-government militias and rebel groups have repeatedly ignored pleas by the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Mali to end the truce violations. Calls for peace have similarly proved unsuccessful.
The Tuaregs have long campaigned for more authority over local government and increased funding for schools, roads and other infrastructure in the north. While Bamako has in principle often agreed to meet many of these demands, successive Malian governments have failed to uphold these promises. Further hampering cohabitation is the deep racial divide between the traditionally nomadic Tuareg and Arab minorities and the black majority represented by the central government.
Mali’s post-independence leaders have dealt with the Tuareg question very differently, from coercion to conciliatory dialogue and peace agreements. National efforts to integrate Tuareg minorities in the Malian army, civil service and government have not provided any durable solution to the recurrent uprisings. As a vast, poor and landlocked country whose territory is mostly desert, Mali faces significant structural complexities, which make a long-term solution to the upheavals in the north untenable. Efforts by neighboring countries — including Algeria, Niger, Mauritania and Burkina Faso — have similarly failed to provide stability to Mali’s troubled north.
Yet the latest accord appears sensitive to many of the concerns expressed by Malians from the north. It accommodates many of the demands by the rebel groups and even offers greater representation of the northern populations in the national government. Specifically, it provides for a formal mechanism to transfer 30 percent of the national revenue from Bamako to local authorities starting in 2018. The government remains open to further consultations on granting more authority to elected regional councils.The current fragilities and past failures in providing lasting solutions to the northern rebellions offer ample opportunities for the Malian authorities to foresee and avert potential problems. Ultimately, addressing the long-standing political demands of the Tuaregs and other northern communities requires a commitment to tackle poverty, marginalization, underdevelopment and impunity in northern Mali.
Beyond concerns about Mali’s territorial integrity and regional security threats, a lasting peace will be realized only if the rule of law and human rights become integral parts of all ongoing reconciliation and reconstruction efforts.