Mali has a history of Tuareg rebellions followed by fragile peace and return to violence. Dialogue and long-term planning are needed now to avoid repeating this cycle of conflict.
More than a month after the rapid French intervention in northern Mali, events have arrived at a kind of uneasy stasis punctuated by bouts of intense and possibly increasing violence.
In the town of Gao, the threat of militants hiding in nearby villages remains ever-present following a series of assaults on the city that took place earlier this month. In Kidal, the Tuareg secessionist group, the National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad (MNLA), and the Islamic Movement of the Azawad (MIA) share space with forces from France and Chad; the glaring absence of the Malian army, at the behest of France, is meanwhile leading to growing confusion and frustration amongst Malians in Bamako. And while Timbuktu has not seen militant activity since its liberation in late January, it has instead seen the suspicious detention and alleged forced disappearances of locals - largely Arabs and Tuaregs, but also including at least one Songhai man. These incidents are part of a larger series of suspected abuses that has garnered international attention, as well as the promise of an inquiry.
Reconciliation or reprisal for northern rebels?
Even as the situation evolves in the north, events in the south have advanced rapidly, possibly curtailing or making more difficult a long-term settlement in Mali. In a move that was likely motivated in part by the MNLA's continued presence in Kidal and repeated statements warning against the entry of the Malian army - first into the north and then into the city of Kidal - the government issued a series of arrest warrants earlier this month for rebel and Islamist leaders. This included some MNLA members and spokespeople. Last week, Defence Minister General Yamoussa Camara announced the publication of a list of 68 Tuareg members of the security forces who had been formally fired from the armed forces following their defections to the MNLA and other forces.
Yet the escalation slipped further away from the political-military realm last Monday, when Cherif Ousmane Madani Haidara, an extremely popular Malian spiritual leader - walk through the streets of Bamako and you'll see his face on posters, books, and even clothing, while his organisation counts over one million followers, according to a wikileaks cable - declared the rebels to be "apostates" at a public event.
On the one hand, this statement is part of an ongoing public race between Haidara, who is the Vice President of the High Islamic Council's (HCI), and the organisation's President Mahmoud Dicko. One manifestation of their competition for public support for themselves and the strands of the faith they represent, is to see who can more aggressively support the military offensive against rebels, both nationalist and Islamist. This increasing jostling for position and influence follows and is part of an escalation in the importance of the Malian religious arena in Mali's internal public and political forums since the 1990s. On the other hand, Haidara's statement also says much about how difficult it will be to develop a stable post-conflict solution in Mali. In formal and informal conversations in Bamako, interlocutors ranging from government officials to shopkeepers expressed their apprehension about the situation in the north and, in particular, their concern that a backroom arrangement would be struck with rebels, and specifically the MNLA. The subject of the alleged killings of Malian soldiers at Aguelhoc in January comes up frequently in conversations with southern Malians about the north, though the MNLA has denied taking part in the massacre. And many Malians interviewed this month and during the occupation frequently said that they would sooner tolerate jihadists and Islamists in the north than the MNLA.
No return to the status quo
The most recent Tuareg rebellion - the fourth since Mali gained its independence from France - followed on a series of failed attempts to resolve discontent in northern Mali and adapt to dramatically changing security, environmental, and economic situations. The first Tuareg rebellion, which broke out in the area around Kidal in 1963, ended in brutal repression. When a second rebellion erupted in 1990, the increased military aptitude of the rebels, many of whom had received training and combat experience under former Libyan ruler Muammar Gaddafi, pushed the faltering dictatorship of Moussa Traoré and then the elected government of Alpha Oumar Konaré to seek negotiated solutions to the conflict, resulting in the 1991 Tamanrasset Accords and the more comprehensive 1992 National Pact.
Fracturing among rebel groups and the rise of ethnic militias and reprisal violence meant it would be another four years before fighting was brought more or less to a halt with the ceremonial burning of weapons in Timbutku, creating what was known as La Flamme de la Paix. The 2006 Tuareg rebellion also resulted in a quick if fragile peace deal - the 2006 Algiers Accords - though it would be another three years before fighting was brought to a halt, in part due to pressure from Libya and Algeria, and in part due to the creation and empowerment of Tuareg and Arab militias to more directly confront rebel units led in part by Ibrahim Ag Bahanga.
The rebellions of the 1990s and 2006 resulted in a series of promises made by the Malian government to northern Mali, and particularly Tuaregs from the Kidal region, to promote economic development, administrative decentralisation, and the integration of former rebels into Mali's administration and security services - most notably in local units tasked with securing the Sahara. Administrative decentralisation did take place, resulting notably in the creation of a third region in northern Mali around the Tuareg-dominated city of Kidal. And in the years after the 2006 peace deal, special northern security units, the Echelons Tactiques Inter-Armés (or ETIAs), came into existence. However, progress was distinctly uneven, whether in the 1990s or in the last decade, due to a failure by Mali's government to adequately decentralise power from Bamako and a fear of appearing to reward rebellion against the Malian state.
Though some combatants were integrated into the army and the ETIAs, of which four became operational, the integration was by most accounts never as high as demanded by rebel factions. Still, the defection of previously reintegrated fighters and commanders to the MNLA and Ansar Dine - including Colonel Bouna Ag Attayoub (killed in fighting in Gao in June), Colonel Bah Moussa, Colonel Assalat Ag Haby, and others - left its own mark, and the Malian government has been keen to point out the role that these defectors played in the rebellion.
Given that some fighters have now defected multiple times from the security services over the span of two decades, it was unlikely that they would be welcomed back with open arms. Some rebels clearly thought they could pursue that path and the thousands of fighters will have to be demobilised and returned to civilian life. But it remains important that the international community start planning now for how to deal with Mali's post-conflict environment, even as military activity in the north is ongoing.
What solution is there for northern Mali?
During the 1990s, the fragmented and drawn-out rebellion gave way to ethnic tensions and reprisal killings, a cycle of revenge propelled by government and local support for ethnic militias, including the Ganda Koy ('Masters of the Land' in Songhai). The violence again flared, though to a lesser extent, after the 2006 rebellion; it was further enflamed when combined with personal and clan rivalries within Tuareg and Arab communities that the government instrumentalised to help suppress the conflict.
Despite the deeply troubling accounts of extrajudicial killings and arbitrary detention, which have targeted not just ethnic groups but also suspected Islamists, there are glimmers of hope of avoiding a return to the kind of violence Mali experienced during previous rebellions. While elements of sectarian militias have started to be integrated into Mali's armed forces, they remain ill-equipped and disorganised, and may soon have to contend with a UN peacekeeping force in the north and French forces anxious to promote a 'political solution' and avoid violence against Tuareg and other minority communities. Malian and international leaders have also publicly opposed attempts to equate all Arab and Tuareg populations with militant groups.
During the course of interviews in Bamako, northern politicians and residents from different ethnic backgrounds spoke repeatedly of the need for dialogue between villages, communities, regions, as well as nationally, based around a shared Malian identity and a common sense of the histories of geographic co-existence and intermarriage. These dialogues, while far from a solution, are a necessary step in order to defuse tension and reintegrate populations who are scarred by dislocation, political instability, horrific violence, and cultural destruction. The international community can play an important role in helping facilitate this dialogue and other efforts, especially as the conflict grinds on in a political vacuum with little leadership or will for resolution in Bamako and from the other dislocated elements of the Malian government administration. As time passes, tension builds, the euphoria from the French intervention fades, and feelings of insecurity among northern populations grow, this process will only become more difficult.
Haidara is a good example of this hardening of attitudes in southern Mali, having gone from calling for "reconciliation" in the north to essentially declaring rebels of all stripes to be untouchable in the space of six months. Tension and aggression may continue to bleed over into other spheres of Malian life far beyond that of politics, making it more difficult to deal with the many legitimate grievances of northern populations, including Tuareg.
Yet the difficulty in finding a resolution to problems of rebellion, development, militancy, and structural deficiencies in northern Mali make it all the more imperative that those involved undertake the hard work to craft and implement post-conflict planning that goes beyond short-term military goals. As one Songhai organiser and Gao resident told Think Africa Press in Bamako when asked about prospects for coexistence in Mali, "We have no choice. We are condemned to live together."
Andrew Lebovich is a Sahel consultant and researcher with the Open Society Initiative for West Africa (OSIWA). Based in Dakar, he is focused on security and political issues in the Sahel and North Africa. He blogs at al-Wasat. Follow him on twitter @tweetsintheME