The struggle for control in Mali’s restive north

The struggle for control in Mali’s restive north

Mali’s military leaders in mid-November recaptured the strategic northern town of Kidal from an alliance of predominantly Tuareg armed groups known as the Cadre Strategique Permanent, or Permanent Strategic Framework (CSP).

The groups have long posed a major sovereignty issue for Mali’s ruling junta, which seized power in a 2020 coup.

The West African nation has been plagued by violence since 2012, when Islamist militants linked to al-Qaeda and the so-called Islamic State hijacked an uprising by Tuareg groups that had complained of government neglect and sought autonomy for the desert region they call Azawad.

Recapturing the key city had been a priority for the Malian government, said Christian Klatt, head of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation in Mali’s capital, Bamako.

“But not much has happened since then,” Klatt told DW. “Guarding and supplying Kidal is difficult, which means that important routes in the center of the country are less guarded, and radical Islamic actors are spreading in this region.”
Dwindling enthusiasm

Hoping for change, many Malians backed the military government and its leader, Assimi Goita, after the 2020 coup. However, attacks in northern Mali have more than doubled since 13,000 UN peacekeepers were withdrawn in August 2023 at the request of the Malian government.

According to the aid organization Mercy Corps, more than one third of Malians are dependent on humanitarian aid, and an increasing number of people are fleeing their villages due to the fighting — but few are voicing criticism, said Klatt.

“The initial enthusiasm of 2020 has waned,” Klatt added. “This military regime has restricted democratic spaces, and the expression of critical opinions towards the regime has been reduced further. This makes it very difficult for people to express their concerns.”

A military frontal course

The government is relying on a military strategy in its fight against rebels and militants, said Ulf Laessing, head of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation’s Sahel Program in Bamako.

“The aim is to control as much territory as possible with the help of Russian mercenaries,” Laessing added. “Mali has bought a lot of military equipment from Russia, Turkey and other countries: Helicopters, jets and drones.”

Bamako is also taking legal action against “terrorists.” In November, the Malian judiciary announced investigations into local al-Qaeda leaders and Tuareg separatists for “terrorist acts, terrorist financing and illegal possession of weapons of war.”

However, the government makes little distinction between separatists and jihadists, according to Klatt.

“The northern separatist groups were branded as terrorists. Bamako justified this with the cooperation with al-Qaeda affiliated organizations and therefore, the peace process did not apply to these groups,” Klatt said. “They said they were not negotiating with terrorists, and so Bamako was able to take military action against them.”

Failed peace agreement

Rebel groups had long criticized the slow implementation of a 2015 peace agreement known as the Algiers Accord, which was scrapped in January.

The accord aimed to see ex-rebels integrated into the national army and allowed for more autonomy for the various regions, but Mali’s junta blamed a “change in posture of certain signatory groups,” as well as “acts of hostility” from Algeria, the peace deal’s main mediator, for its collapse.

Bamako rejected proposals from the rebels for international mediation to get the dialog back on track.

At the end of December 2023, the government began planning an inter-Malian dialog to negotiate a cease-fire. It declared the peace agreement null and void in January 2024: Signatories such as the CSP had not fulfilled their obligations and the main mediator, Algeria, was acting in a “hostile” manner.

“Bamako is now using this opportunity to conclude an agreement that is more in its own interests,” explained Klatt.

Strategy of the separatists and jihadists

Meanwhile, the Tuareg separatists are pursuing their own strategies: In December, they blocked important roads in northern Mali that lead to neigboring Mauritania, Algeria and Niger.

“We have a wide variety of actors here with different goals and approaches,” said Klatt. “The Tuareg-based groups see themselves as legitimate rulers and are trying to have a positive relationship with the civilian population. They also want to cut off important routes for the Malian army.”

Jihadist groups, on the other hand, are increasingly concentrating on smaller attacks.

“Attacking a village, retreating quickly, planting explosives on the roads,” said Laessing. “They avoid open combat because they see that they have no chance against the Russian mercenaries and the Malian army. On the other hand, the Malian army is also not in a position to control this huge country. There will always be gaps, and jihadists will use them to attack army bases.”

Further approaches are needed to curtail the groups’ attractiveness, said Laessing. “We need to tackle the reasons why people join such groups. These include a lack of prospects, no jobs, little hope.” Almost 70% of Malians live in poverty and access to education, medicine, electricity and water is severely restricted.

Tensions between Algeria and Mali

Algeria’s role in Mali’s struggle for control is also causing resentment. Mali has repeatedly complained that its neighbor is interfering in its internal affairs and holding meetings with Tuareg separatists without involving Mali.

“Algeria will always have tried to establish contacts with the Tuareg, who also live in southern Algeria,” said Laessing.

“Algeria is therefore very keen to ensure that northern Mali does not become too unstable and that the jihadists who originally came from Algeria do not return.”

Morocco has now offered Mali support — something that should “not please Algeria,” Laessing added. “Whether Mali is open to further cooperation with Algeria in mediating with the separatists is doubtful. I think Mali wants to go its own way.”

Source » dw