Mali's peace deal represents a welcome development, but will it work this time?
After months of shuttle diplomacy, the Coordination of Movements for Azawad (CMA), the main rebel coalition in northern Mali, officially signed a peace agreement in Bamako on 20 June. The Mali government and the Algiers Platform, a coalition of pro-government armed groups, had already signed the deal in May. All the protagonists involved in peace talks in Algiers have officially endorsed it.
This is a welcome development for Mali and a great relief for the Algerian-led international mediation. However, after previous agreements failed to restore peace in 1992 and 2006, there are reasons to remain cautious. Three stand out.
First, the CMA – an alliance of Tuareg and Arab-led rebels – signed the agreement under huge international pressure. Algeria, France and the UN Mission in Mali(Minusma) pushed hard to persuade the CMA’s leadership not to miss this unique opportunity to join the peace train. The CMA, not wanting to be seen as an enemy of peace, like the al-Qaida-linked fighters who overpowered the Tuareg rebels in northern Mali during 2012, eventually decided to sign up.
This form of authoritarian diplomacy succeeded in forging the Bamako agreement. But it came at a price.
After negotiations stalled in March, tensions between armed groups in the north escalated. This May was the most violent month since 2013. About 30,000 peoplefled their homes around Timbuktu because of fighting. Renewed attacks on civilians included summary executions near Gao.
Despite the peace agreement breakthrough, distrust between its signatories – the government, the Platform and the CMA – is running high. This will complicate the implementation of any lasting deal.
The day after it was signed, a few disgruntled CMA members announced that they had rejected the peace framework and called for an extraordinary meeting of militants and combatants in favour of Azawad, the territory in northern Mali that rebels briefly declared independent in 2012.
A second problem is that the agreement focuses on short-term security through disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration. These are important steps, but more is needed. The agreement does not do enough to build solid foundations for a sustainable peace.
The deal puts its faith in extended decentralisation – meaning that central authorities will devolve more power and resources to regional assemblies – to stabilise northern Mali. But that can only be part of the solution if it addresses the specific challenges that affect the north. Demilitarisation, for instance, will need to mean more than simply disarming rebels.
Political institutions that would allow peaceful resolution of local conflicts must be built as well. Regional assemblies, if adequately organised, supported and funded, could, for example, help address local disputes over territory and power.
The lack of more ambitious provisions to strengthen governance leaves Mali in a vulnerable position. This is all the more regrettable as instability has recently spread to areas outside the north.
Since January, military barracks have been attacked and so-called “collaborators” murdered in central Mali. Significantly, no leader from the central region attended the peace talks in Algiers. Their absence at the signing ceremonies casts another shadow on the prospect of lasting peace.
Third, implementation remains a huge challenge despite some positive signals. The agreement’s monitoring committee, in which Algeria and Minusma play a leading role, met for the first time the day after the CMA signed.
The monitoring committee will play a pivotal role in clarifying contentious provisions in the deal. For example, it remains unclear how many combatants from the Platform and the CMA will be integrated into Mali’s security forces. This could quickly become a major problem.
Past experience shows that integration will not be sufficient to break the cycle of “armed nomadism” in the region whereby individuals become rebels, soldiers or bandits depending on the volatile context in which they find themselves.
At best, the deal will buy a few months or years of relative stability, interrupted by short but “acceptable” episodes of violence. But it is unlikely to end the longstanding crisis in northern Mali.
The efforts of the mediation team in facilitating a peace process that keeps the CMA on board should be commended. Yet by imposing peace, Mali’s partners have taken a risky approach.
There should be no misunderstanding: the 20 June agreement did not end the Malian crisis, it opened a new phase in which peace will have to be won. If mediators and signatories do not invest the time needed to tackle some of the deal’s weaknesses or ensure implementation and follow-up, even the deal’s short-term security commitments will not hold.
The danger is that Mali could become a house of cards that seems stable on the outside but risks collapse as international interests shift to other hotspots.
This article first appeared in The Guardian on 1 July 2015.