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Armed Conflicts

Restive North Languishes in Post-War Mali

Churches in Diabaly, central Mali, were looted and destroyed during the Islamist occupation. Credit: Marc-André Boisvert/IPS

WASHINGTON, Jan 15 2014 (IPS) - A year after Mali’s civil war came to an end, experts here are increasingly concerned that the country risks an eventual return to violence, particularly as Malian authorities continue to marginalise the restive north while neglecting to pursue meaningful political and economic reforms. 

Indeed, a lack of equitable opportunity across Mali has caused northern Tuareg separatists to cite political and economic marginalisation as their reason for rebelling in the first place. The Tuaregs have contested Mali’s north since the 1990s, launching four separate rebellions, finally succeeding due to arms obtained from the Libyan Civil War against Muammar Gaddafi in 2011.

“There have been promises made for increased development and local autonomy, but the Malian government strategy is simply to buy off the leader of the rebellion." -- J. Peter Pham

In 2012, Al Qaeda-linked groups took advantage of the insurgency and a military coup to establish control over the area, though Malian authorities were eventually able to expel the Islamist militants with the aid of French intervention. This led to a June 2013 ceasefire accord known as the Ouagadougou agreement, which allowed the government to station soldiers in the north and paved the way for democratic elections last summer.

Yet today, analysts suggest the Tauregs feel that the Malian government has not lived up to its past promises.

“The Tuaregs as a whole regret their temporary alliance with extremists who pushed them out right away but are by no means fully reconciled with the government in Bamako,” J. Peter Pham, director of the Africa Center at the Atlantic Council, a Washington-based think tank, told IPS.

“There have been promises made for increased development and local autonomy, but the Malian government strategy is simply to buy off the leader of the rebellion – but not address the underlying causes. People have to see some sort of benefit for being part of the state and that has not been the case.”

On Sunday, Malian President Ibrahim Boubacer Keita concluded a three-day trip to Mauritania, where he signed a joint statement increasing cooperation between Malian and Mauritanian security forces as France reduces its presence in Mali. Yet analysts from the International Crisis Group (ICG), a watchdog group, are warning that the country’s internal security remains fragile.

Further, a new ICG report cautions that “the urgent need to stabilise the [security] situation should not detract from implementing meaningful governance reforms and a truly inclusive dialogue on the future of the country.”

Similar sentiments recently came during an official mission to Mali by the International Monetary Fund.

“[G]rowth in Mali must be more equitable and more inclusive,” Christine Lagarde, the head of the Washington-based IMF, wrote in a blog entry last week. “This means that all sectors in Mali’s economy should have access to opportunity, including in the education sector and participate in the benefits of growth.”

Limited reconciliation

The Malian government’s inability to adequately include the north in the economic growth that Lagarde recently praised has hindered reconciliation attempts.

After the conflict, civil service workers staffing these institutions have been slow to return to the north, even as northern infrastructure is in need of rehabilitation.

The lack of public services and economic relief in northern Mali has reportedly made the Malian government even more unpopular, resulting in several protests. In late November, for instance, the Malian army opened fire at civilians attending a protest.

The ICG suggests that Malian authorities should focus on the reestablishment and improvement of judicial, health-care and education systems. The report also calls on the government to end its reliance on community-based armed groups to establish order and launch investigations into the army’s abuse and harassment of civilians.

The unrest has also hindered the shipment of humanitarian aid, while the country continues to lack the resources to restore services in the north. In October, the secretary-general reported that some 65 percent of health centres in conflict-affected areas are either partially functional or completely destroyed, while half of schools are closed.

Despite the government’s unpopularity in the north, a United Nations mission, known as MINUSMA, has worked to support Mali’s National Commission for Dialogue and National Reconciliation, established in March 2013 to foster improved relationships between the Malian government and northern separatists. But in an October report, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon described the “dialogue and reconciliation activities” as “limited”.

Mali has also established a series of conferences focusing on northern decentralisation to soothe unrest by giving Tuareg separatists more autonomy. However, the ICG’s new analysis warns that “the meetings should be more inclusive … and result in prompt, tangible actions,” such as the delayed transference of some state resources to local authorities.

Critics of the reconciliation talks note that they are top-down initiatives from Bamako, Mali’s southern capital, rather than community-led. As a result, armed groups in the north have refused to participate in the meetings on the grounds that the government is uninterested in actual dialogue.

Volatile security

As southern Mali attempts to reconcile with the north, the security situation overall remains tenuous, with significant transitions underway.

“Because of limited resources, budget complaints, and demand elsewhere, you’ll soon be left with barely 1,000 French troops,” the Atlantic Council’s Pham says.” Most of these will be engaged in the southern part [of Mali] and not the northern two-thirds, leaving an undersized and under-equipped, predominantly African, force roughly trying to hold a very large territory.”

Rinaldo Depagne, the ICG’s West Africa director, tells IPS that while the Malian government has not violated the terms of the June 2013 ceasefire, “there’s a kind of will from the government to opt out of the frame of the agreement.”

However, Depagne believes that there is cause to be hopeful. “While certain parts of the agreement are not yet respected, that doesn’t mean they won’t be in the near future. We don’t know if they are ready to fully accept the arrangement but it’s predictable that they could.”

The U.N. secretary-general, meanwhile, found that both parties had violated the ceasefire through the “uncoordinated movement of troops”. Consequently, Malian forces and northern militias continue to clash amidst “armed banditry, new jihadi attacks, and inter-communal violence,” the report notes.

Pham also questions how successful the French intervention was in removing jihadist militants from northern Mali.

“If one believes the numbers put out by French spokesmen or African spokesmen, about 600 militants have been killed in the last year and roughly a little over 400 have been taken prisoner,” he says. “This leaves you with more than 1,000 militants who are unaccounted for and are either biding their time hiding in communities they’re well-integrated into or up in the mountains.”

In the face of northern unrest, MINUSMA has played an active peacekeeping role since France’s offensive in the north. Depagne says that while there are 6,000 MINUSMA troops in Mali right now, “there should be more than 10,000.”

Depagne suggests U.N. forces could be at “full scale” in the coming months.

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