Mali’s peace negotiations: Déjà vu all over again?

[This piece originally appeared on the blog Fragile States.]

Starting in July 2014, representatives of Mali’s central government and various northern rebel factions took part in peace talks hosted in Algiers. Following the latest round in November, a draft agreement proposed unprecedented changes to the apparatus of the state and the distribution of its resources. Among its more significant provisions:

  • Replacing regional governors, currently appointed by the central government, with elected executives (article 8a).
  • Establishing regional legislatures (article 8a), along with local police forces (article 8i).
  • Creating a national senate to give an official role to Mali’s “traditional and religious notables” (article 8j).
  • Shifting 30 percent of state revenue from the national to the local level (article 16).

At the Algiers talks (RFI photo)

Although the proposal thus grants considerable power to local and regional authorities, it does not establish a federal system—something central government officials have explicitly rejected. Nor does it recognize a distinct northern polity (i.e., the territory rebels claim as “Azawad”). On the other hand, it confers some special status on the north by promoting northerners’ inclusion in state institutions (articles 8k and 8l) and creating a new Development Zone for the Regions of Northern Mali (article 8b). Could this compromise foster the reconciliation Mali needs?

Maybe—but the draft agreement also has serious deficiencies. A paper by the International Crisis Group (“Mali: Last chance in Algiers”) highlights the inadequacies of not only the document under discussion but also the process that created it. For the ICG, the draft “is a useful first step, but it offers solutions that have shown serious limitations in the past.” Many provisions of the current document were included in previous peace deals—the Tamanrasset Accord in 1991, the Pacte national in 1992, and the Algiers Accord in 2006. The question this time around is whether leaders on both sides, as well as their international partners, can avoid their predecessors’ mistakes in finalizing and implementing a peace agreement.

There are three main problems with the current peace process:

1. It reduces the conflict to a problem of center vs. periphery.

Northern separatists frame the situation in northern Mali as one of a breakaway region—“Azawad”—resisting an oppressive central government. They represent the north as suffering under indifferent southern rule. This framing is reflected in the draft agreement, which refers to northern regions’ “considerable lag in terms of socioeconomic development compared to the rest of the country.”

This claim is hard to square with available data. A 2011 household survey found that extreme poverty was lower and literacy higher in Mali’s three northernmost regions (Gao, Timbuktu and Kidal) than in the southern/central regions of Sikasso, Segou and Mopti. Sikasso in particular is paradoxically poor in light of its favorable climate. The north certainly has been and remains underdeveloped compared to Bamako, but not compared to the rest of the country.

While north-south inequities do exist in Mali, they must not obscure the inequities and fractures that exist within populations at the ethnic, regional, and local level. Social hierarchies, often based on ascribed status such as nobility or slave ancestry, have long marginalized large numbers of people throughout the country, while elites have hijacked the state to their own ends, pitting their client groups against one another. A northern development program created by the 1992 Pacte national, for example, was “captured by a narrow elite from the north, which negotiated its privileges to the detriment of other groups” (ICG p. 16).

The north’s internal fault lines have only intensified since the violence began in 2012 (see Oxfam 2013). In a national context where social cohesion is weak both vertically and horizontally, a fairer division of power and resources must be sought within and among communities. The draft agreement’s emphasis on rectifying north-south imbalances therefore misrepresents the problem.

2. It has excluded the voices of ordinary Malians.

Protest in Bamako against northern autonomy, September 2014 (Maliactu photo)

When the peace process began 18 months ago, it incorporated not only Malian government officials and rebel leaders, but civil society representatives as well. The government pledged to launch an inclusive national dialog through which citizens of every region could air grievances and help shape the outcome of peace talks. That process stalled, and the process morphed into two-party talks between government and rebels. Even civil society groups vetted by Malian authorities have been kept away from the negotiating table.

Subsequently, leaders of many Bamako-based civic organizations condemned their exclusion and criticized the draft agreement. A coalition of civil society associations known as Mali Te Tila (“Mali cannot be divided,” in the Bamanan language) has also assailed the proposed agreement as a prelude to Mali’s partition. While these groups have surely been antagonized by the Malian government’s failure to seek their input, they also articulate a pronounced public sentiment that shifting state power to the local level—an approach first tried in the 1990s—will only further weaken the country. Many activists in the capital, steeped in decades-old nationalist discourse, are loudly calling for a centralized, unitary state… as though Mali’s status quo ante offered a viable way forward. Meanwhile, northern community leaders whose people have the most at stake in any peace deal and who have not taken up arms are unable to make themselves heard.

3. It allows insufficient time for peace to take hold.

The parties are under considerable pressure to reach a deal quickly. “The hour of truth is approaching,” French foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told journalists last month. Concerned that protracted negotiations could break down amid increasing violence on the ground, his government wants a deal wrapped up by the end of January. Mounting attacks on UN peacekeepers in Mali (of whom 44 have died since the mission began in 2013) make it harder to delay an agreement.

In his December report on Mali, however, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon urged caution: “While mindful of the necessity to reach an agreement within a reasonable time frame,” he wrote, “I consider it equally important for the parties to be allowed sufficient time to collectively address and resolve contentious issues to ensure a truly inclusive, viable and implementable agreement.” Such caution is sensible given that northern Mali’s most durable peace during the 1990s formed when an agreement brokered by the central government was coupled by others initiated by local communities, a process that took several months (see the account in Les Liens Sociaux au Nord-Mali).

The ICG paper suggests an interim security agreement to foster the conditions necessary for a more lasting peace, and allow for the groundwork of a final agreement to be put in place. “In the face of armed clashes, it is tempting for mediators to move quickly to achieve a deal that would only guarantee security in the short term,” its authors write. “But rushing the process will not help. Time is needed to build the foundations of sustainable peace.”

Can Malian authorities and rebel groups steer clear of the pitfalls that doomed earlier peace initiatives? Can France, Algeria, the African Union, the UN and the broader international community stop history from repeating itself in the region? The answer lies less in the specific provisions of a formal peace agreement, and more in these parties’ willingness to break from exclusionary politics and to envision ways of governing that allow all inhabitants of Mali fair access to the political process. A lasting solution lies not in making sure that all sides respect the rules of the game; the solution lies in changing the game. It remains to be seen whether any of the parties represented in Mali’s peace talks have an interest in doing so.

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9 Responses to Mali’s peace negotiations: Déjà vu all over again?

  1. Gabbriella Yates says:

    Hi Bruce,

    I hope this email finds you and your family well. I have been following your blog for sometime now and find it insightful and comprehensive. Thank you. I want to share it and give others the chance to follow you. How would I do that?

    Warm Regards,


    • brucewhitehouse says:

      Hi Gabby! By all means, please forward the blog link to potentially interested readers and recommend that they use the WordPress Follow button. Being utterly and willfully ignorant of social media, I’m afraid I can’t suggest anything more high-tech than that.

  2. kc says:

    Dear Bruce, the blog fragile states is not accessible, good you posted it here.

    • brucewhitehouse says:

      Thanks for notifying me–I informed Seth Kaplan, who runs the Fragile States blog, and he has fixed the problem.

  3. Hallo! Thank you for this great blog! It answers a lot of my question regarding the peace building process in Northern Mali.
    I have secured a job in Mali… I am originally from Kenya. I move in March. Could you please tell me more about living in Bamako? Is it generally a safe country to live? Thank you!

  4. Tren Surra says:

    Why is peace in Mali so transient? What will be the long lasting solution for peace?

  5. Pingback: What Mali’s recent past reveals about its present woes, Part 2: Of chiefs, slaves, and “paranoid nationalism” | Bridges from Bamako

  6. Pingback: Who wants peace in Mali? | Bridges from Bamako

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