Representatives of the Malian government and Tuareg separatist groups have signed a peace agreement in Ouagadougou, capital of neighboring Burkina Faso, and the response from abroad has been enthusiastic. The EU’s top diplomat hailed it as an “historic accord,” while the French foreign minister called it a “major advance” in ending nearly 18 months of armed conflict in Mali. Tiébilé Dramé, the Malian government’s chief negotiator at the Ouagadougou talks, told the Associated Press that “the biggest task is finished. We have agreed on the essentials.”
But hold on: the deal signed on 18 June (the full text of which Mr. Dramé has made available online) is only a preliminary agreement, intended to enable presidential elections to be held across the country on 28 July, including in the northern-most region of Kidal, which remains in the control of MNLA rebels. The plan is that after a new Malian government is elected, the two sides will begin “an inclusive dialogue to find a definitive solution to the crisis” (Chapter 1, Article 2). In other words, the Ouagadougou accord is just a temporary fix.
Last week, a document said to be a draft of the agreement appeared online, after the MNLA announced it had accepted the terms of the Ouagadougou negotiations. The terms contained in the document generated vociferous opposition in the Malian media and among politicians. A Bamako newspaper published it under the title “the full text of dishonor,” and Mali’s chief prosecutor warned that any Malian official who signed it “would answer to history.” The parties of two Malian presidential candidates denounced the agreement as “the accord of northern partition,” part of a “vast conspiracy” to turn the Kidal region into a “foreign protectorate.” Issa N’Diaye, one of Mali’s best-known public intellectuals and a star of its “anti-globalization left,” wrote an op-ed charging that the Ouagadougou accord put the country “at grave risk of civil war.” And Interim President Dioncounda Traoré refused to sign the initial version of the agreement.
While the authenticity of the document that circulated online last week was not officially verified, its text is about 97 percent similar to that of the document signed this week in Ouagadougou. Let’s consider the reasons behind those objections to the initial document, and assess how the final accord differs from the earlier one that produced so much uproar.
Objections were concentrated around three substantive questions:
- How and when will the MNLA disarm? For many Malian leaders, disarming the MNLA and other armed groups in the north of the country was a precondition for any negotiations whatsoever. They felt that Resolution 2100 of the United Nations Security Council provided a mandate for immediate disarmament. Yet both versions of the Ouagadougou agreement (Articles 6 and 10 in the old one, Articles 6, 7 and 11 in the new) call for armed groups to be kept in “cantonnement” [like being confined to barracks; see postscript below] with their weapons, under the supervision of UN peacekeepers, until a definitive post-elections peace deal can be reached. Critics see this as merely kicking the can down the road.
- How and when will the Malian army re-occupy Kidal? The early version of the Ouagadougou agreement called for both sides to halt all combat and intelligence-gathering operations and maintain their present positions. Malian administrators, police and gendarmes would come to Kidal, followed later by the Malian army, prior to election day; this deployment would be in “close cooperation” with UN and French forces. “How,” wondered Issa N’Diaye, “can a supposedly sovereign country only deploy its own armed forces under the supervision of foreign forces?” The final version (Article 11) calls for a “progressive deployment of Malian defense and security forces in the region of Kidal,” still in coordination with UN and French troops. The fact that the Malian army and armed MNLA fighters will have to share space in Kidal over the next several weeks or months is cause for concern, to put it mildly.
- How and when will rebels be prosecuted for alleged war crimes? A great many Malians blame Tuareg rebels for perpetrating massive human rights violations when they took over much of northern Mali in early 2012. The massacre of several dozen Malian troops at Aguel Hoc stands out as the most unspeakable incident, and became a rallying cry for Malian loyalists (although abroad, doubts persist as to how the killing took place). The government in Bamako issued a number of international arrest warrants against rebel leaders; Alghabass Ag Intalla, who represented one Tuareg group at the Ouagadougou negotiations, is under one such warrant. While the initial
version of the agreement (Article 17) called for the suspension of criminal proceedings against rebel leaders who signed the deal, the final version contains no such provision. This fact could allay widespread fears in Bamako that rebel fighters and their leaders would be granted immunity — if not for fresh reports indicating that the Malian government is under pressure not to enforce those warrants, and journalist Serge Daniel says the warrants “look likely to be dropped.” (It’s worth noting that Article 18 of the final Ouagadougou accord calls for an international investigation into “war crimes, crimes against humanity, crimes of genocide, crimes of sexual violence, drug trafficking and other serious violations of international human rights law” — which will presumably cover crimes committed by loyalists as well as rebels.)
Aside from these substantive concerns, there are others one could describe as symbolic — but which are no less politically significant. That the Malian government even entered into talks with separatist rebels rankles plenty of people in Mali; the negotiations appeared to put a member in good standing of the community of nations on the same footing as a relatively small breakaway movement, legitimizing a group some Malians regard as criminal. (Here they see a double standard: in the words of Issa N’Diaye, “Why require Mali to negotiate when France refuses to negotiate with the Corsican and Basque [separatists]?”) The mere mention of the name “Azawad” in the text of the agreement (though it is granted no official status) is another sore point. Realistically, concerns over these symbolic issues can hardly be assuaged: opposing any form of negotiation means supporting an armed solution, which the Malian army is ill-prepared to pull off, further reminding Malians of their nation’s effective loss of sovereignty. The Ouagadougou accord, hammered out under considerable international pressure and mediated by two governments (France and Burkina Faso) that are widely distrusted in Mali, was always going to be a bitter pill for Malians to swallow, whatever its provisions.
I believe this accord does constitute a step in the right direction, but as noted, it leaves many important questions unanswered, which means there is great potential for things to go wrong. We don’t yet know how the Malian public will respond to the new agreement’s provisions. (So far at least one presidential candidate, Moussa Mara, has come out in support; another, Soumana Sako, has “categorically rejected” the Ouaga accord.) Assuming elections take place in July (something of which I remain skeptical), will the government that’s voted in even honor this agreement? Will hostile street demonstrations (like the one recently quashed in Koutiala) force politicians to back away from it? Will the junta in Kati intervene once again to “save the nation” from its craven politicians? And even if the deal is implemented, can it pave the way for a definitive solution that will actually break the cycle of impunity and lawlessness that has been the rule in northern Mali for so many years?
Postscript, 21 June: Tiébilé Dramé has explained to RFI his understanding of the term cantonnement: “It means that a place will be found where members of armed groups to be disarmed will be confined. While waiting [for disarmament], all weapons will be inventoried.” To learn more on reactions to the Ouaga accord (particularly from the Tuareg), see Andy Morgan’s analysis and Al Jazeera’s “Inside Story” from yesterday.