By Anastasia Voronkova, Editor, Armed Conflict Survey; Research Fellow for Armed Conflict and Armed Conflict Database
The date of 20 June 2016 saw the first anniversary of the signing of the Algiers Peace Accord in Mali. The agreement between the two main militant groupings in northern Mali – the largely pro-secessionist Coordination des Mouvements de l’Azawad (CMA) and the generally pro-government Platform – was widely perceived by international observers as a breakthrough achievement on the longer road to peace. In a process that had been driven and imposed almost exclusively by external actors, the very fact that it had been possible to bring local representatives to the negotiating table and keep them there was rightly seen a major success, especially given that this was the result of multiphased diplomatic efforts. Among the provisions of the agreement were support for economic development and public services in the north, the disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration of northern armed groups, and a commitment to a unified, secular Mali.
One year on, concerns about Mali’s stability have intensified amidst increasing prospects of renewed civil war. The United Nations Security Council has extended the mandate of the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) until 30 June 2017 and increased its troop numbers in the area by 2,500. While a political compromise was formally achieved one year ago, escalating tensions between armed groups in central Mali, grievances relating to the lack of communal representation in governance structures (especially for the many minorities who did not directly participate in formal negotiations) and ongoing competition over resources are risking an even deeper destabilisation of the entire country. This situation also demonstrates that the formal cessation of hostilities has so far not removed structural barriers to successful peacebuilding. Slow and incomplete implementation of the peace agreement means that key conflict issues – including economic marginalisation, corruption and the precise mechanisms of representation of all minority groups – are being poorly addressed. There is therefore a strong potential for the increased militarisation of society and growing support for extremist organisations, especially among minority groups who tend to view key political actors with suspicion and distrust.
At the same time, while it is important to acknowledge the role of illicit activities – such as smuggling, drug trafficking and competition over land – in cementing destabilisation, seeing these in an entirely negative light underestimates the extent to which such practices are perceived to provide an alternative system of economic opportunity, given the inefficiency of the central state’s institutions. The impact of such activities on the continuation of violence can hardly be disputed, but their capacity to supersede public authority and gain if not active participation, then at least acceptance and a degree of social recognition among some sections of the wider community in Mali seems to have increased over time, complicating any efforts to dismantle or eradicate them. This difficulty is compounded by Mali’s geographical position (shared borders with African neighbours Niger, Algeria, Burkina Faso), making it easier to engage in trans-border criminal activities in an environment in which borders are almost impossible to control. The inclination to punish individual perpetrators hardly tackles the economic and political circumstances that facilitate such activities.
The pace, timing and scope of demilitarisation and demobilisation measures in Mali remains a major challenge. Despite the formal establishment of new committees dealing with this issue, it is unclear how many combatants will eventually be integrated into security forces and at what stage. Members of Malian armed groups tend to see cooperation on, and implementation of, these strategies as conditional on sufficient progress with regard to decentralisation. The government, by contrast, has largely treated disarmament and demobilisation as prerequisites for the implementation of governance reforms. There have been some positive but insufficient signals on confidence-building measures in this area, such as the setting up of joint patrols between pro-government and rebel groups. Further, the experience of security sector transformations in post-conflict territories, for example in South Africa, Kosovo, Indonesia (Aceh) and Nepal, suggests that this issue is unlikely to be resolved in the foreseeable future. The formation of cohesive national defence forces that integrate the main conflicting parties and the harmonisation of different profiles and backgrounds in a non-partisan way are fraught with difficulties. While international involvement in such reforms may be welcomed, partly due to the perceived partisan nature of the ‘old’ security apparatus, strict external control over internal security frequently impedes local oversight of the process, thereby further undermining confidence in the entire approach.
International attention has focused almost exclusively on the situation in northern Mali. However, the proliferation of radical armed actors, including ethnic militias, and the sharp rise in attacks and violent clashes, primarily over land, in the Mopti and Segou areas of central Mali, raise serious concerns about the future of peacebuilding initiatives in Mali. These developments are contributing to a general climate of fear and continued threats to physical security, while there are reports of very limited state presence outside key urban centres. Comparative evidence from, for example, Somalia, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda and Kosovo, suggests that persistent, entrenched insecurity reinforces the tendency of the population to rely on relatively small-scale, familiar solidarity networks, such as clans, tribes, ethnic groups and armed organisations. This might occur both to recreate a sense of community and also – especially in the case of armed organisations – as a means of self-defence. In that context, with constant violence both a cause and a consequence of the wider insecurity, Islamist jihadist groups operating in Mali, especially Ansar Dine and the Macina Liberation Front, may find it increasingly easy to draw on a fresh pool of recruits.
Furthermore, rumours of ongoing illicit activities allow for, and generate, continued tensions between the parties, as they continue to demonise each other through accusations of criminality, and abuses against civilians. For example, it has been alleged that group leaders regularly threaten the local population not to collaborate with security forces or peacekeepers. Meanwhile, Malian security forces have reportedly been implicated in the torture of individuals suspected of links to Islamist groups, with no mechanisms in place to investigate such abuses. This impunity may contribute to a widespread sense of alienation, particularly in territories like Mali where distrust of formal institutions, including those of law and order, has historically been high.
Despite a clear international recognition of the need to engage in continuous dialogue, the question remains about how external actors build alliances, effectively working with and through local representatives in a coherent way to ensure that communities feel included. The peacemaking process is likely to continue at a very slow pace, and crucial to longer-term social, political and economic change is the need for the international community to listen and respond to domestic discourse.
This post originally appeared in ACD Insight.