June 20, 2020 marked the fifth anniversary since the Agreement on Peace and Reconciliation in Mali was signed between the Mali government, its allied militias, and the Coordination of Azawad Movements (CMA), which is dominated by the Tuareg under the leadership of Bilal Ag Acherif. Hopes were high that the peace agreement would bring an end to the Tuareg rebellion and lead to sustainable peace and reconciliation in Mali, the northern provinces of which have experienced frequent conflict since the country gained independence. The enormous challenges facing the peace agreement continue to cast doubt on whether it can ever be enforced, however.

Signing the peace agreement

The signing of the peace agreement was the result of direct Algerian mediation. The peace agreement contains 68 articles, the most important of which cover the recognition by the central government of the unique nature of the northern region within the framework of a united Mali State, in addition to articles setting out the government’s agreement to pursue further decentralization in order to improve the representation of the people of the northern region in the National Assembly, implement a national development strategy that will bring development levels in the north on par with those in the south, draft a national charter for transitional justice, peace, and reconciliation, form a truth and reconciliation commission, and establish an international commission to investigate war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide.

While this peace agreement was not the first of its kind, having been preceded by four other agreements, each of which stumbled before it could reach the finish line, it is the first to include all the opposition movements and to stipulate that its provisions can be amended only with the express agreement of all parties. It also enjoys extensive international and regional support.

Implementing the peace agreement: efforts and challenges

The peace agreement approved the formation of transitional authorities to govern the five administrative regions in northern Mali (Kidal, Gao, Timbuktu, Ménaka, and Taoudénit), including the establishment of elected councils with broad powers. A draft constitution has been drawn up in preparation for approval by referendum, and the government has taken steps to enhance trust between it and the Tuareg, such as issuing a general amnesty for many Tuareg leaders and establishing the Ministry of National Reconciliation and the Development of the Northern Regions. Tuareg representation within the government remains modest, however; although they lead the Ministry of the Environment, the sovereign ministries remain under southern control.

With regard to security, the central government has begun to deploy national troops in the north, but it has not yet been able to achieve full deployment owing to frequent clashes between government forces and the Tuareg opposition, in response to which the CMA suspended its participation in the peace agreement monitoring committee in August 2015. Terrorist attacks, in particular those committed by Jama’a Nusrat ul-Islam wa al-Muslimin (Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims, JNIM), reached a peak in 2018–2019, targeting government interests and troops and the United Nations mission in Mali (MINUSMA), as well as kidnapping and killing foreigners, government officials, and party members, such as the kidnapping of opposition leader Soumaïla Cissé in late March 2020.

The security situation is currently worse than it was before the peace agreement was signed. While violence was previously limited to the northern regions, civil conflicts have since sprung up in the central regions, including ethnically motivated killings that suggest a sectarian dimension to some of these clashes. This has created a climate of anxiety and distrust, in particular among minorities and poor communities, and has prompted the G5 Sahel to move its headquarters from Sevare in the north to Bamako in the south, after Sevare became a strategic target for terrorist groups. Despite the fact that the previous parliament’s mandate ended in 2018, legislative elections had to be postponed several times before they were eventually held on March 29, 2020. The integration of Tuareg fighters into the national army has also been postponed, prompting the UN Security Council to extend the mandate of MINUSMA until June 30, 2021, with its top priority being to support the implementation of the peace agreement.

Despite the fact that the peace agreement provides for the creation of a commission to investigate human rights violations in Mali, such violations have continued and impunity has become commonplace. The National Assembly has even backed down from prosecuting former president Amadou Toumani Touré — who was ousted in a military coup in 2012 and took refuge in Senegal — and has announced that he will be allowed to return to Mali whenever he wants, which, to the opposition, looks as though the government is colluding in his impunity. In June 2020, Amnesty International condemned the rise in the number of forced disappearances and extrajudicial killings, which the central government denied before it was eventually forced to launch an investigation.

With the support of MINUSMA, many development projects have been implemented in the northern regions to improve access to drinking water, education, and healthcare, establish state authority, increase security, and promote reconciliation and social cohesion. In the Gao region alone, MINUSMA invested an estimated 13 billion CFA francs between 2013 and 2019.

Nonetheless, social and humanitarian conditions have continued to deteriorate in the northern and central regions of Mali, despite government efforts to improve quality of life for citizens. The majority of farmers and herders live in dire conditions, owing to droughts and food shortages, poor road conditions, the presence of mines, ethnic clashes, and a lack of healthcare. Many government officials have also been reported to have been involved in political corruption.

Enforcing the peace agreement and ensuring the legitimacy of the political system

The number of challenges facing the implementation of the peace agreement has led to increased criticism of the government and has eroded the legitimacy of the political system. In response, President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta has shaken up his cabinet six times since coming into office in 2013, which has deprived government action of much-needed stability. In 2018, the opposition rejected Keïta’s candidacy for a second presidential term, on the grounds that he had made no real achievements during his first term. The President even lost support from within his own party, as many of his most prominent supporters abandoned him, in particular former head of the High Islamic Council of Mali Mahmoud Dicko and the leader of the Hamawiyyah Movement Mohamedou Ould. Moreover, in April 2020, the central government announced that it had foiled an attempted coup.

The ruling party lost support during the May 2020 legislative elections, during which demonstrations took place in the capital under the slogan “The Gift of Salvation”. In response, most opposition parties and civil society organizations formed the “Front for the Preservation of Democracy” to call for the President’s resignation, describing him as “the problem that Mali is suffering from”. It is therefore evident that, among Malians, confidence in President Keïta and his political plan is waning, which has widened the scope for discussion on the future of the peace agreement.

The future of the peace agreement

There are three possible scenarios for the implementation of the peace agreement in Mali: 

1. The challenges are overcome and the peace agreement is implemented in full: Some observers believe that, with continued regional and international support, Mali will manage to implement the peace agreement, although probably not within the envisaged timeframe. The peace agreement monitoring committee announced that this was the case during its meeting on June 11, 2020, in which the government, all of the signatories to the agreement, and regional and international mediators participated. This outcome is made more likely by the Tuareg’s weak separatist intentions, the government’s commitment to dialogue with the political opposition, and the government’s February 2020 announcement that it would open channels for dialogue with extremist groups. 

2. The peace agreement breaks down, sparking conflict: This may occur if the central government continues to achieve poor economic results or if the French troops present in Mali as part of Operation Barkhane seem likely to withdraw, as this could provide an opportunity for some Tuareg and extremist groups to reform an alliance and start a war to challenge the central government’s supremacy, as happened in 2012.

Other factors that may make this scenario more likely include: the delays in the implementation of disarmament plans and in the reintegration of ex-combatants into the national army; the flow of weapons into Mali from Libya and elsewhere; the increasing discontent among the Tuareg regarding the failure to implement many of the peace agreement’s provisions; the government’s refusal to refer to northern Mali as Azawad; and the desire of extremist groups for revenge for the killing of their leaders, most recently Abdelmalek Droukdal, leader of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), who was killed in the first week of June 2020 in northern Mali. The deployment of G5 Sahel forces, backed by the USA and France, and the continued presence of MINUSMA, present a strong obstacle to this scenario, however.

3. The peace agreement is partially implemented, and the fragile peace is maintained: It currently seems likely that the central government will manage to implement some aspects of the peace agreement while failing to implement others, as occurred with the previous four agreements signed since the 1960s.

This appears to be the most likely scenario. It would allow the fragile peace achieved in Mali to be maintained for several years, in particular in the north and center, and would foster stability in the south. In this scenario, migration from the central regions toward the capital is expected to increase as citizens seek a better standard of living, while residents in the north will continue to struggle to overcome the legacy of colonialism and the mistakes of successive central governments.

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