Mali’s Conference of National Understanding

This week, Mali is holding its “Conférence d’Entente Nationale,” which might be translated as “Conference of National Understanding” or “Conference of National Harmony.” It began on March 27 in the capital Bamako. The conference is meant to fulfill one condition of the 2015 Algiers Accord (French, .pdf, p. 4), the agreement that is supposed to bring peace between the government of Mali and various non-jihadist armed groups in the northern part of that country. The conference is meant to “allow a thorough debate between the elements of the Malian nation regarding the underlying causes of the conflict.”

Like other provisions of the accord, such as joint patrols in northern cities and the installation of interim authorities there, the conference is being held long after the architects of the accord intended. Nevertheless, some experts see the problem as haste rather than delay. In a piece (French) well worth reading, Kamissa Camara and Mahamadou Konaté argue that the conference is unlikely to succeed in its aims, and that the conference isn’t taken seriously by many political actors in Mali, making it likely that the debates there will be superficial. Further skepticism about the conference can be found here (French).

Like other provisions of the 2015 accord, the conference has faced political questions about its representativeness and fairness. Notably, the past few days have seen first a boycott, and then the renewed participation (Arabic), of the Coordination of Azawad Movements (CMA), the most prominent body representing former non-jihadist rebels in the north. The CMA wanted a longer conference, so as to allow for more discussion, and Malian government representatives reportedly secured the CMA’s participation by agreeing (French) to extend the “first round” of discussions to April 2.

In terms of themes emerging from the discussions at the conference, one central argument (French) many participants are making is the need for reconciliation between the CMA and the “Platform,” a cluster of pro-government militias in the north. There have been numerous attempts at ceasefires and agreements between the two sides before, but that doesn’t mean conference attendees are wrong when they point to the necessity for intra-north understanding as a precondition to national understanding, security, and peace.

 

State(s) of Emergency in Niger

On March 3, Niger’s government declared a state of emergency (French) in two of its seven regions while maintaining a state of emergency in a third.

The new state of emergency affects Tillabéri and Tahoua, two western regions on the border with Mali. Specifically, the state of emergency includes the departments of Ouallam, Ayorou, Bankilaré, Abala et Banibongou in Tillabéri and the departments of Tassara et Tillia in Tahoua. The declaration responds to recent attacks, including one in October that I covered here on the blog, as well as the recent killing of sixteen soldiers in an attack on a military patrol in Ouallam (French) and the recent killing of five gendarmes in Bankilaré. That last incident occurred after the state of emergency was declared.

The Nigerien government also maintained the state of emergency in Diffa, in the far southeastern part of the country near the borders with Nigeria and Chad. The government explained that “despite the relative respite observed in the Diffa region,” it wanted to keep exceptional security measures in place. Diffa has been the site of numerous attacks by the Boko Haram sect since 2015. The state of emergency in Diffa dates to February 2015.

As the cliché goes, Niger is in a “bad neighborhood” and its border zones are vulnerable to multiple sources of violence, whether emanating from Nigeria, Mali, or Libya. The northern Agadez region is not under a state of emergency, but the region (and the city of Agadez) face their own problems amid a new anti-smuggling crackdown. Going forward, then, there will be questions about what the states of emergency allow the Nigerien government to achieve in terms of security, or whether further security challenges are coming.

Northern Mali’s Interim Authorities: Serious Problems Emerge

In late February, different factions in Mali agreed on a timetable for the installation of “interim authorities” in the three northern regions, Gao, Timbuktu, and Kidal. The interim authorities are mentioned in the 2015 peace accord (.pdf, French, p. 18). Per the accord, the authorities should have been installed three months after the signing of the accord, or around September 2015.

Given that the different factions were not even prepared to install the interim authorities until now, one can see how serious the obstacles to a durable political settlement are in northern Mali. The problems with the interim authorities closely parallel the problems surrounding “joint patrols,” which I wrote about for Global Observatory in January. The joint patrols are another important provision of the 2015 agreement. The problems for both the interim authorities and the patrols include continued disputes even after so-called agreements, as well as the threat of major violence against the actors attempting to implement those agreements (the joint patrols became the target of Mali’s deadliest-ever suicide bombing in Gao in January).

Regarding the interim authorities, “The government statement said…that the interim authorities would be instated in Kidal on Feb. 28 followed by Gao on March 2 and Timbuktu on March 3.”

The authorities arrived in Kidal, Gao and Menaka as scheduled (over some objections in Gao), but armed groups are already preventing the interim authorities from undertaking their functions in Timbuktu:

Armed groups took over parts of Timbuktu on Monday to prevent Malian interim authorities from being installed there under a peace pact meant to end years of lawlessness, the defense ministry said.

Residents reported sporadic gunfire across Timbuktu on Monday. Banks, schools and shops were shuttered up.

[…]

The main Tuareg faction involved in the resistance was the Council for Justice in Azawad, as Tuaregs call the Sahara desert that is their traditional homeland.

The Council itself was only formed in October 2016 (French), reflecting a key obstacle to peace: the proliferation of armed groups. The Council reportedly (French) represents the Kel Ansar, one the Tuareg confederations in Mali. Led by a former cabinet minister, the Council decries (French) what it sees as the Kel Ansar’s exclusion from the peace process. As with other armed groups, the Council can act – and now is acting – as a spoiler.

Other problems are not hard to foresee. If the joint patrols are a precedent, the interim authorities will themselves be targets for violence before too long. I say this not to advocate pessimism about the ultimate prospects for peace (after all, the first joint patrol recently did occur), but just to point out that the situation is very difficult and tense.

Mali: More Details on the January 18 Gao Suicide Bombing

On January 18, suicide bombers attacked the Operational Coordination Mechanism in Gao, northern Mali – the camp for forces preparing to undertake mixed patrols (rebels, pro-government militias, government forces) in the city. The casualty count, initially reported at around forty, has steadily risen, with RFI (French) putting it now at 77.

The attack was soon claimed (French) by al-Murabitun, a group affiliated with al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and led by Mokhtar Belmokhtar, who may or may not be dead. Al-Murabitun said,

We warn all those who have been seduced by France…that we will not accept barracks, bases, patrols, or convoys of the French colonizer who fights the mujahidin.

International media coverage of the statement understandably focused on its anti-French language and the fact that French President Francois Hollande visited Gao just a few days before the attack. But I read the statement more as an anti-peace proclamation, and the attack not as primarily anti-French but as anti-peace. The mixed patrols in Gao represent a small step toward peace in northern Mali (a peace supported by France, no doubt, but also brokered by Algeria and supported to different degrees by the Malian government and other non-jihadist actors in the north), and the achievement of that peace would further marginalize al-Murabitun.

Another noteworthy detail is that al-Murabitun identified the bomber as Abd al-Hadi al-Fulani. Although this is likely a pseudonym, it seems al-Murabitun wished to stress that the bomber was from the Fulani/Peul ethnic group, which is prominent in central and northern Mali and throughout the western Sahel and into northern Nigeria (on central Mali, International Crisis Group’s report from last year is worth reading). The Fulani have come under heavy, and to my mind completely unfair, suspicion as a group over the past few years. Al-Murabitun may be both trying to trumpet whatever Fulani support it has and hoping that identifying the bomber as Fulani will exacerbate collective punishment and suspicion of the Fulani – a scenario that could benefit al-Murabitun, of course.

For its part, the Malian government has swung into action, with President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita visiting Gao (French) and declaring three days of national mourning. But RFI (French) has questions about how easily the bomber (or bombers? there may have been up to five) penetrated the camp in Gao. Malian voices have joined in the critical questioning, with one commentator (French) denouncing the “irresponsibility of the Malian state its partners.” The critics, I think, have a point. If the mixed patrols in Gao are to bring greater security to the north, they must themselves enjoy a basic level of security.

 

Mali’s Mixed Patrols and Yesterday’s Gao Suicide Bombing

Yesterday saw a tragic suicide bombing – the deadliest in Mali’s history – in the northern city of Gao. The bombing targeted a camp housing forces in Gao’s new mixed patrols. I analyze the patrols and their significance in this piece for Global Observatory. An excerpt:

The violence targeted a base that 200 former rebels had recently entered in preparation for mixed patrols with the Malian military and pro-government militias. These patrols are intended to fulfill a key condition of the 2015 Agreement on Peace and Reconciliation in Mali, which has faced a rocky path to implementation. The new violence shows the serious and persistent level of opposition that has made peace so difficult to achieve in the country.

The patrols comprise three main groups: 200 former separatist rebels (CMA), 200 pro-government militia members (Platform), and 200 government soldiers. Here is one reported death toll from yesterday:

The suicide bombing in Gao has been claimed (French) by al-Murabitun, a unit affiliated with al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb. The incident shows how jihadists retain the ability to act as spoilers. In this case, they have chosen a highly symbolic target, striking at a core vehicle for attempting to build unity and peace in northern Mali.

On a Mauritanian Fatwa Against Operation Serval – at The Maydan

Today’s post is outsourced to The Maydan, which is a publication of the Ali Vural Ak Center for Global Islamic Studies at George Mason University. I discuss a 2013 fatwa that a group of Mauritanian scholars released. The fatwa argued against Mauritanian participation in the French-led Operation Serval, which sought to disperse jihadists in northern Mali and restore Mali’s territorial integrity. From the piece:

In the eyes of the Fatwā’s authors, supporting a Western-led (i.e., infidel-led) military intervention in northern Mali would violate the unity that is essential to the preservation of Islam. In this context, the Fatwā referenced the doctrine of al-walā’ wa al-barā’ (“loyalty to the believers and disavowal of the unbelievers”), which emphasizes loyalty to the Muslim community in exclusive preference to partnerships with non-Muslims. The doctrine of al-walā’ wa al-barā’ is often a core theme within jihadist circles.

The Fatwā did not address the Mauritanian government or make formal recommendations concerning its foreign policy; rather, the text asserted obligations and responsibilities that Muslims have toward other Muslims. Nevertheless, the authors spoke as Mauritanians. At several points, the text stated that Mauritanian Muslims have a special duty, given their proximity to Mali, to show solidarity with the Muslims of Mali. Invoking the idea of Islamic solidarity implied that the government of Mauritania, officially an “Islamic Republic,” should not endorse or participate in any Western-led military operation that might harm Muslims in northern Mali. The Fatwā, appearing just days after Operation Serval began, seemed aimed in part at the government. In this sense, the text fits within a broader context of Islamic discourses in Mauritania that have attempted to influence the government’s foreign policy.

If you read the piece, I welcome any comments you may have.

Francois Hollande in Mali: Media and Civil Society Reflect on His Africa Legacy

Today and tomorrow (January 13-14), Mali is hosting the “Africa-France Summit,” which French President Francois Hollande is attending. The event is occasioning reflections in the French, European, and African media regarding Hollande’s Africa policy and legacy as a whole. Many of the reflections are quite critical.

Deutsche Welle:

It will be an opportunity for Hollande to bid farewell to his African counterparts as this will be his last Africa-France summit. The French leader steps down later in the year; he will not seek a second term at the presidential elections in the spring.

[…]

[Whereas some analysts give Hollande’s Africa policy positive marks,] Other analysts are rather more critical. Roland Marchal from France’s National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) finds it “disconcerting” that French foreign policy under Hollande placed so much emphasis on military intervention. “Nobody questions whether these military operations are justified,” he said. “In the case of Mali, we see that it hasn’t worked.” The standard of governance is worse than mediocre and the president is facing corruption allegations.

Other commentators argue (French) that Mali is a poor choice for the summit’s location, lauding Hollande’s 2013 decision to intervene militarily in Mali but deploring the lack of political progress there in the intervening years. Another commentator places the blame (French) for the lack of political progress on Mali’s leaders, rather than on “the absence of political vision on the part of France,” but goes on to urge Hollande to publicly call on African publics to hold their leaders accountable.

Whether or not Hollande heeds that advice, African civil society groups have decided to hold a counter-summit (French) during the official summit, in order to hold critical discussions about the policies of African leaders and the international community.

It will be interesting to see what comes of these events – the summit and the counter-summit – and to hear what Hollande says.