The much delayed signing of a new accord between north and south offers a chance to defeat the jihadists and sideline the secessionists
Three days after presiding on 20 June over the signing in Bamako of a peace agreement between northern rebels and President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta, Mongi Hamdi was in New York trying to drum up support at the United Nations Security Council to prolong the peacekeepers' presence. The UNSC has to decide before 30 June whether to renew the mandate for the 7,000-strong Mission multidimensionnelle intégrée des Nations Unies pour la stabilisation au Mali (Minusma), which is headed by Tunisia's Hamdi, the UN Secretary General's Special Representative for Mali.
With France backing Hamdi, drawing up the resolution to extend the mandate and strongly arguing for more UN resources for Mali, Minusma is almost certain to be extended, despite growing doubts about its performance and arguments over its role. Paris, which has promised to bolster the security of the UN Mission, wants 40 extra military observers to monitor the latest ceasefire but stops short of proposing sanctions against those who break the agreement.
Caught between Mali's own army, which appears to have contracted out much of the fighting in the north to state-backed militias, and French Special Forces whose main task is to pursue Islamist fighters into the Ifoghas Mountains, the UN peacekeepers have been struggling to hold the line as political conditions deteriorated. With 36 peacekeepers killed and 150 wounded, the UN Mission has the highest fatalities of any peacekeeping operation apart from Somalia.
Some want Minusma to be given a more robust Chapter VII mandate, giving it the authority to go on the offensive against armed groups. Its current task is mainly to protect civilians from attack, support dialogue and ensure the implementation of the peace agreements. Others strongly oppose such an escalation of the UN role, arguing that the core responsibility for security has to rest with Mali's army and the French forces. Added to which, political support for the UN has tailed off dramatically within Mali, especially in the south, where many politicians accuse the UN and France of favouring the northern rebels of various hues, from nationalists to jihadists (AC Vol 56 No 12, Desert war, Bamako rumbles).
So, the UN was particularly keen to present the peace accord of 20 June as a success. The signing ceremony, replete with extravagant embraces between President Keïta and Mahamadou Djeri Maïga, deputy leader of the Mouvement national de libération de l'Azawad (MNLA), is being seen as an important but not irreversible step in healing the fractious relations between north and south.
This year, antagonism between Keïta's government in Bamako and northern militias seemed to be hardening. There has also been a spate of terrorist attacks and explosions in the south. Much scepticism surrounded the negotiations but for now, an agreement seems in almost everyone's interests, at least in the short term.
The deal provides for the creation of elected regional assemblies but does not offer the political autonomy for Azawad – northern Mali – that successive rebel movements have demanded. Already one splinter from the main rebel groups, an outfit known as MNLA Europe, has dismissed the agreement as 'despicable' because it fails to deliver the autonomy for which they had fought. This reflects growing tension within the Tuareg and Arab groups in the north.
Algeria's Foreign Minister, Ramtane Lamamra, who has played a leading role in the negotiations and will chair the implementation committee, was the most optimistic, hailing 'a new beginning, a new destiny for Mali,' (AC Vol 55 No 3, No end to deadlock). In fact, a framework agreement was signed in May in Algiers but the Coordination des mouvements de l'Azawad (CMA) would only initial it and demanded further amendments, such as targets for recruiting more northerners into the military and more devolution for the region. The success of the agreement will in part depend on how far the rebel forces can be integrated into the national army and how many northerners can find jobs and training in the public sector.
A further complication developed around the role of a pro-government militia, the Groupe d'autodéfense touareg imghad et alliés, which had seized Menaka, on the border with Niger, from the CMA on 27 April. GATIA's Deputy Secretary General, Haballa ag Hamzatta, initially faced down pressure to hand Menaka over to the UN. A group of GATIA leaders, together with their political wing known as Plateforme, returned to Bamako from the Algiers peace talks saying they wanted nothing to do with the peace accord. Bamako officials and the mediators were simply pandering to the northern rebels and ignoring the needs of the Malian people, they insisted.
GATIA was set up by General Elhadji ag Gamou, a Kidal-born Touareg who quickly rose up the ranks of the national army. Because he sides with government, pro-Azawad groups consider him to be a traitor to the north.
Many people also blame him for the Malian army's defeat in Kidal in May 2014. Then, the army, without alerting the French military or UN peacekeepers, attacked the rebel MNLA's positions during a visit by the then Prime Minister, Moussa Mara (AC Vol 55 No 12, Ripples from Kidal). In the rebel fight back, the Malian army was pushed out of Kidal and other key towns in the north.
Back in Bamako, Ag Gamou rallied several small Touareg and other groups into one. All manner of political and commercial deals were struck. Some say Arab groups, such as the loyalist faction of the Mouvement arabe de l'Azawad (MAA), were promised safe passage for drug trafficking between Libya and Niger in return for their support. The Coordination des mouvements et forces patriotiques de résistance (CMFPR) also joined in, along with members of the Songhai ethnic group. So GATIA was born to 'defend the population': its main foe is the Ifoghas Touaregs, those who make up most of the pro-Azawad and Islamist groups.
In April, a split in the MNLA between Colonel Mohammed ag Najem and Bilal ag Acherif, nephew of veteran jihadist Ansar Eddine leader Iyad ag Ghali, weakened the MNLA forces in Ménaka (AC Vol 55 No 6, Talking Timbuktu). GATIA used this opportunity to take the town back from its enemy. Its victory, in which it killed a dozen CMA fighters, prompted celebrations in the south.
Southerners, including army officers, seem unconcerned about the growing power of GATIA, as a government-funded and powerful militia group that adheres to no discernible guidelines (because it is unofficial) and controls key towns in northern Mali. Ag Hamzatta and other GATIA leaders insist they are not funded by the army. Instead, says Hamzatta, wealthy northerners who support national unity back GATIA to fight separatists and jihadists. That means the separatist MNLA, the anti-government faction of the MAA, headed by Sidi Brahim Ould Sidati, and the Haut conseil pour l'unité de l'Azawad (HCUA). These are the main groups in the CMA and 'they have been hiding in the forests and mountains.' Supporters in Libya contribute vehicles, money and fighters, we were told.
However, no one in Mali or beyond believes that the army does not support the group. This was confirmed by a senior officer who quipped that supporting a militia group (meaning the Touaregs) in the past had gone terribly wrong for the army, so why shouldn't this go wrong too? Although the army is widely believed to support GATIA, it is able to keep some distance from the group's actions and escape accountability.
While the army and GATIA cooperate, the rebel side has been fragmenting. Of the Tuareg nationalist groups, the HCUA is battling to push the MNLA out of the limelight. It wants to show that the MNLA is disorganised and undisciplined, and that France and the West should work with it instead. The HCUA decided to exclude 'Islamic' from its name in the hope of distancing themselves from those Islamist fighters that France and its allies are trying to overwhelm. One insider claims this is just a subterfuge: when French aircraft bomb encampments belong to Al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, HCUA recruits rush to their aid with doctors and medical care, we were told. A central figure in the HCUA is Inawalene ag Ahmed, a former customs boss in Tessalit. Now his job is to transfer funds from AQIM to the HCUA, we hear.
This fluidity in political and commercial alliances in the north baffles many outsiders. With its links to the region dating back to the anti-colonial struggle, when northern Mali was a rear base for the Front de libération nationale, Algeria is one of the few countries whose diplomats can unravel the tangled threads. However, Algeria's own military officers and local officials are often deeply implicated in the numerous smuggling rackets across the region.
For UN peacekeepers, negotiating security deals with a changing cast of militia leaders has become a daily necessity. In Timbuktu, UN officials negotiate each day with fighters to prevent attacks on the town. Last month, militia were again at the gates of Timbuktu, ready to attack. Although the UN has kept them out of the historic city, the militia have been terrorising the nearby towns and villages, and making roads impassable. The road to Gourma-Rharous, 110 kilometres east of Timbuktu, is impossible to drive along. There are daily reports of lorries being attacked and their contents stolen.
This year, UN peacekeepers negotiated the release of a truck driver who had been taken by CMA rebels, along with 6,300 mosquito nets sent by the Ministry of Health. At Ber, 53 km. east of Timbuktu, the army has long since left the town and the CMA is in control. At Korioumé, 8 km. south of Timbuktu on the banks of the River Niger, militia in three pick-up trucks attacked the tiny settlement and overwhelmed its army guards. They wanted control of the area so they could gain free passage across the river.
One of the biggest threats is landmines. On 28 May, Minusma's Force Commander, Major Gen. Michael Anker Lollesgaard of Denmark, and Police Commissioner Abdounasir Awale, a Djiboutian, were in a convoy of Burkinabè soldiers when one of the vehicles hit a landmine. Three peacekeepers were wounded. The mines are laid along routes which convoys have already travelled, so that they are attacked on their return journey. The improvised explosive devices are often made by young men recruited from rural camps by Ansar Eddine or its affiliates. A young man can get 400,000 CFA francs (US$683) to make and lay an IED.
Now militia are targeting towns further south towards Bamako. Namapala, on the border with Mauritania, is a flashpoint. The UN wants another 850-strong battalion from Burkina Faso to secure that area. It has become an important staging post for Arab drug traffickers who control the Mali-Mauritania border route and a relatively new armed group, the Force de libération du Macina, based on the Fula (Fulani) ethnic group, are working this area with them. Trafficking drugs, arms and even cigarettes, together with the battle over smuggling routes, is a key part of the conflict. For nationalists and jihadists alike, it means big money to fund their operations. It costs CFA22 million for an escort for a shipment of drugs from the Mauritanian border to Libya, says a northern source.
A Toyota pick-up costs some CFA25 mn., so those in the business are keen to ensure that their contraband will have safe passage across the Sahara. Hashish from Morocco is a big earner for these groups, as is food coming from Algeria, where goods such as pasta are heavily subsidised. Some are then sold in Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger.
One of the drug kingpins at the centre of this trade is a reclusive Touareg millionaire businessman who has a cousin at the top of the MNLA. He organises the trafficking from his home along the Mali-Algeria border. He operates along routes through Tessalit, also a favourite of traffickers and situated on the same border, and along the route connecting the salt mines at Taoudenni, close to the Mauritanian border. His career – combining business acumen, political connections and a sense of military strategy and logistics – is typical of many at the top of the smuggling business. For decades, trafficking has thrived on and reinforced conflict, and has provided a vital source of funding for political agendas of various hues. It will take more than a diplomatically worded peace deal to disrupt the traffickers.
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