Mali: Security, Dialogue and Meaningful Reform
International Crisis Group
11 April 2013
For the population of northern Mali, the feeling of being “liberated” by the French military intervention launched on 11 January 2013 is real. The sudden, but clearly well-prepared intervention, which received widespread support in Mali, West Africa and beyond, ended the offensive by jihadi groups that the Malian army had been unable to repel. France also took the opportunity to try and destroy al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) forces. Although Mali is in a better place than a few months back, sporadic fighting in the north continues and formidable threats to security, stability and the coexistence of the country’s various communities remain. The authorities in Bamako, regional organisations and the UN, which is preparing to deploy a stabilisation mission, must quickly agree on a strategy for the resolution of the crisis that provides security, protects civilians, promotes an inclusive inter-Malian dialogue, reestablishes state authority in the north and sees peaceful, credible elections.
Mali descended into turmoil at the beginning of 2012 when the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) chased the Malian army out of the north and demanded independence for this vast part of the country. With its roots in the Algerian civil war, AQIM has established itself in northern Mali over the last decade, building local alliances that allowed it to significantly weaken both the state and the MNLA and resulted in armed jihadi groups – Ansar Dine and the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) – taking control of the north in June 2012. This and the coup in Bamako on 21 March 2012 brought the country to its knees. A laboriously prepared Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) plan to deploy an African force was finally, though reluctantly, endorsed by UN Security Council Resolution 2085 on 20 December 2012.
The sudden jihadi offensive towards the centre of the country in January 2013 proved suicidal. The jihadi groups did not anticipate France’s strong military response, following a request from interim President Dioncounda Traoré. The Malian army itself did nothing more than accompany the French forces that took the three most important towns in the north, Gao, Timbuktu and Kidal. French and Chadian troops entered the northern-most Kidal region without the Malians, less to reconquer it for the Malian state than to pursue AQIM combatants into their sanctuaries, destroy stocks of arms, ammunition, fuel and food supplies, and “finish the job” in the context of a declared war against terrorism. Whether or at what point it will be possible to declare the capacities of jihadi groups sufficiently reduced to avoid exposing the civilian population and the forces of the African-led International Support Mission to Mali (AFISMA) to terrorist reprisal attacks is unclear.
Now as much as before the French intervention, a solution to the crisis will only be sustainable if it combines political and military measures. The north remains very insecure and the state is absent from the Kidal region, where the MNLA claims control. Mali’s army is fragmented and incapable of preventing its soldiers from committing atrocities against civilians, notably Tuaregs and Arabs who are indiscriminately accused of collusion with the enemy. The military action in the north has strengthened the president's authority, but the ex-junta retains influence and civilian political actors look incapable of mobilising citizens to take the country’s destiny into their hands. The government has announced that presidential election will be held in July, although conditions – technical, political, security and psychological – for a genuine vote look unlikely to be met.
Even if French troops remain and AFISMA is rehatted as a UN stabilisation mission – which currently appear probable -- the interim authorities, political actors and civil society face an immense political challenge. Political dialogue in Bamako, zero tolerance for atrocities by members of security forces, intercommunal dialogue and the redeployment of the state in the north are essential. Elections must be held soon, but not at any cost. The work of reconciliation should begin immediately. So too should the provision of basic social and economic services in the north, so as to facilitate the gradual return of thousands of internally displaced and refugees. The radicalisation of public opinion is a major risk, especially during the election campaign, and firm action by Malian leaders and institutions should aim to prevent people lumping together rebels, terrorists and drug traffickers with all Tuaregs and Arabs.
A focus on terrorism alone also risks distracting from the north’s real problems. The roots of the crisis lie much more in corruption and bad governance than they do in the terrorist threat, the Tuareg issue or even the north-south divide. The international community must insist that Malian leaders assume responsibility for tackling these problems. The most reasonable and realistic way for the state to regain its presence across Mali and maintain lasting security is to find a compromise between the representatives of all communities, ensure even the most isolated populations feel included, and take into account the vulnerability of vast border areas to the flow of weapons and armed groups.
The most important and immediate challenge for regional organisations and the UN is to align their positions on the political process. First, they must convince the MNLA that its interests are best served by renouncing its armed struggle and discussing how its representatives and supporters can participate in a dialogue on the north’s real problems. Secondly, they should persuade Bamako that it should not impose so many pre-conditions on talks – such as, for instance, requiring the MNLA to immediately disarm – that it closes the door to dialogue, or even discrete contacts, with MNLA representatives. ECOWAS, the African Union (AU), the UN Security Council, Mauritania, Algeria, Niger, Burkina Faso and France must all send the same message to the authorities in Bamako and the leaders of those armed groups in the north. Even this would not resolve everything, however. Without new regional security mechanisms involving all the countries of North and West Africa, any victory over terrorism, extremism and drug trafficking in Mali will only be temporary. (…)