A country on a knife-edge

Fighting in the north of the country continues, but Mali’s problems are many and its neighbours look on with interest.


Three years on from the outbreak of one of the most violent crises ever to take place in the African country, Mali is still unable to find a solution to its geopolitical stalemate. Security remains the key issue: the northern area of the country is still threatened by rebel Tuareg groups and the spectre of jihadism continues to haunt the Western Sahara. The renewed wave of violence at the end of April that once again shocked the northern reaches of the country saw the separatist rebels of the MNLA (National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad) face off against regular army troops with the support of Tuareg members of the pro-government group GATIA (Tuareg Imghad Self Defence Group). Once more the key issue at the heart of the dispute is Azawad, the term used to refer to the area between the Sahara and the Sahel, in the northern part of Mali.

The ‘blue men of the desert’ have been seeking autonomy for Azawad since 1958, two years before France finally granted Mali’s independence. 

The latest clashes have come to a head during an extremely delicate moment for the country. Having begun eight months ago under Algerian supervision, the latest round of peace talks between the government and Tuareg factions had reached a breakthrough on 1 March when an agreement was finally drafted. The proposal was accepted immediately by representatives of the Bamako government and pro-government groups, while it was more difficult to convince the CMA (Coordination of Azawad Movements) that represents armed separatist groups such as the MNLA, which initially refused the deal and then made an about-turn following strong pressure from the mediators. The agreement did not set out major changes. After all, it did not recognise the independence of Azawad in any way but instead accepted it as a separate sociocultural reality present in the northern regions and issued some administrative concessions, such as the creation of regional assemblies. Nevertheless, the international community has put pressure on those involved to reach an agreement that might at least put an end to the hostilities.

The latest clashes, however, meant that the rebel groups did not participate in the pact’s signing ceremony on 15 May in Bamako. The CMA chose to sign the treaty the previous day in Algiers where the group also called for new negotiations. Without the definitive signature of the rebels, the peace process remains incomplete.

In addition to the Tuareg problem, there is also the issue of Islamic terrorism. Following French military intervention with Operation Serval in January 2013 and the deployment of MINUSMA (United Nations Multi-dimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali) some six months later, the jihadist groups of AQIM (al- Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb), MOJWA (Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa) and Ansar Dine, which were all active in the north of the country, were forced to withdraw towards Libya. In recent months a string of new attacks has been carried out all over the country, including the first-ever attack on the capital on 6 March, which caused the deaths of 5 people. Responsibility for the attack was claimed by Al Mourabitoune (a battalion of AQIM). Having acceded to power following regular elections in August 2013, President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita is struggling to maintain the promises of his election campaign. His reputation in Mali as a strong and resolute man, earned while he was prime minister between 1994 and 2000, is slowly beginning to crumble. In addition to the security problems, he also faces the problem of corruption in the seats of power in Bamako. According to a report published recently by the Court of Accounts, between 2013 and 2014 state coffers lost almost €234 million due to political nepotism and the shady dealings of state administrators.

A key role in the search for a diplomatic solution is currently being played by Algeria, which replaced Burkina Faso as mediator in the negotiations between the state and the rebels. The Algerians also fulfilled this role following the revolts in 1991 and 2006. In addition to being able to control possible terrorist infiltrations from northern Mali, the government of Abdelaziz Bouteflika is keen to affirm its leadership in the sub-Saharan area, especially in order to counter Morocco, which is increasingly interested in extending its sphere of influence in West Africa. According to press rumours, the hostile attitude taken by the CMA rebels can be blamed on Rabat and Moroccan intentions to destabilize the reconciliation process in order to weaken the political power of its Maghreb rival.

Taking these external factors into account, clearly the crisis in Mali reverberates far beyond the country’s borders and has to be viewed from a more international perspective. It could be surmised that the stability of the entire Sahel-Sahara area in years to come hinges in many ways on the outcome of this crisis. 


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