This article was originally published by ISS Africa on 21 July 2014.
Peace talks between the government of Mali and northern rebel groups started in Algiers last week. If they are to succeed, the focus should be on effectively initiating the ‘cantonment’ of armed groups, a military process that involves removing them from the conflict zone and restricting their movements.
Containing armed groups in this way could reduce the risk of further trouble. The UN Security Council emphasised the need to undertake the ‘cantonment’ when it passed Resolution 2164 on 25 June 2014. The violent clashes that took place in Kidal on 17 and 21 May this year after the visit of Mali’s Prime Minister, Moussa Mara, demonstrated how fragile the status quo is. The fighting had resulted in the Malian army and administrative authorities withdrawing from the town of Kidal; striking a severe blow to the Ouagadougou Agreement.
Signed just over a year ago, the effectiveness of the Ouagadougou Agreement has been in doubt for some time now. On 18 June 2013 the Mali transitional government and the northern rebel groups Haut Conseil pour l’unité de l’Azawad (HCUA) and the Mouvement national de libération de l’Azawad (MNLA), signed a preliminary agreement in Ouagadougou paving the way for the 2013 presidential elections and an inclusive peace agreement. On the same day other rebel groups, namely the Coordination des mouvements et fronts patriotiques de résistance (CM-FPR) and the Mouvement arabe de l’Azawad (MAA), complied with the Ouagadougou Agreement.
The inauguration of President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta on 19 September 2013 signalled the achievement of the first objective in the preliminary agreement. Despite some encouraging signs, such as the Algiers Declaration on 9 June 2014 and the platform signed by northern armed groups on 16 June 2014 to harmonise their positions prior to talks with the Malian government, real dialogue remains elusive. Clashes reported on 11 July 2014 in northern Mali between some armed groups indicate that conflict persists.
The situation remains volatile because most of the northern armed groups have not been brought under control. This increases the risk of confrontation not only between armed groups, but also between these groups and the Malian army. Considering that disarmament has not taken place, the cantonment process – which armed groups signed up to in the Ouagadougou Agreement – should be implemented.
The cantonment reflects the compromise reached between the government of Mali, which initially wanted the rebel groups to disarm before holding peace talks, and the armed groups, which have been reluctant to disarm for fear of weakening their position in any future negotiations.
In practice, the cantonment process is to be handled by the Joint Technical Security Commission established under the Ouagadougou Agreement, which comprises both national and international stakeholders. On 18 February 2014, the Commission outlined how the cantonment should take place. However, these plans have not been fully implemented, due mainly to the MNLA’s refusal to be part of the process.
The new round of inter-Malian talks, which started on 16 July 2014, takes place under particularly difficult circumstances. In order to prevent the situation from further deteriorating on the ground, the Joint Technical Security Commission must resume and accelerate the cantonment of rebel groups.
Although there have been some good initiatives to revitalise the peace and reconciliation process, such as the establishment on 20 March 2014 of the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission and the appointment on 22 April 2014 of a high representative of the head of state for inter-Malian inclusive dialogue, the government of Mali has been unable to come up with a clear roadmap for the peace talks. It is worth recalling that Malian authorities agreed to sign the Ouagadougou Agreement largely as a result of international pressure, and did so with some reluctance and reservations.
It seems that these reservations still prevail and have led to delays in the implementation of the Ouagadougou Agreement. In January 2014, Malian authorities requested Algeria to play a more active role in efforts to resolve the crisis. In fact, the government of Mali has never really concealed the fact that it wanted Algeria to be a key player in the peace talks, to the detriment of the mediator appointed by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), President Blaise Compaoré of Burkina Faso, who was considered more accommodating vis-à-vis the rebel groups.
Complicating matters further is Morocco’s involvement in the process to end the crisis. This illustrates that Mali is getting much-needed support at the regional level, but the presence of too many regional actors – each with its own agenda and interests – could jeopardise the search for a sustainable solution.
If genuine peace talks are to take place that produce a clear roadmap, it is imperative to implement the provisions of the Ouagadougou Agreement, especially those relating to the cantonment of armed groups. This will help improve security in northern Mali and provide an environment conducive to successful negotiations. It would test the armed groups’ commitment to brokering a peace deal and restore confidence between the parties in conflict.
Involving Mali’s regional and international partners in this process will be key. Beyond the usual rhetoric, these partners must make use of all political and diplomatic means at their disposal to support the process and put pressure on the MNLA to join the Commission that is responsible for making sure that cantonment happens.
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Ibrahim Maiga is a Junior Fellow in the Conflict Prevention and Risk Analysis Division at ISS Dakar.