“We should not be misled by talk of entering a time of peace. Peace is not the absence of war; it is the absence of the rumors of war, the threats of war, the preparations for war….”
– Gil Scott Heron, “Work for Peace” (1994)
Thousands of demonstrators took to the streets of Bamako yesterday to urge an end to the ongoing impasse over a definitive peace deal with northern rebel groups. Malians are unquestionably weary of the conflict in the north, the latest iteration of which which has now dragged on for 42 months. Yet it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what yesterday’s demonstration was calling for, and the divergences in how this event was covered in the media suggest that the current impasse means different things to different people.
Reading the account from RFI (headline: “Mali: Demonstration of support for the Algiers accord in the capital”) we could conclude that the march was in support of the peace deal signed by President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita (IBK) on 15 May amid great fanfare. By this account, the march was a sign of strong public backing for the accord, even though the Coordination des Mouvements de l’Azawad or CMA, the coalition of the most important separatist rebel groups, refused to sign it. The Algeria Press Service proposes a similar reading, and quotes an organizer’s improbable estimate of 200,000 Bamakois turning out yesterday to call for peace — which, if true, would mean that more than one in ten city residents took part.
From Maliactu, though, we learn that demonstrators expressed support for IBK, whose close ties with French businessman and alleged mafia boss Michel Tomi were the subject of embarrassing revelations by the French website Mediapart last week. Maliactu describes protestors’ views that the leaks to Mediapart were part of a French campaign to weaken the Malian head of state.
Then again, Afribone reports that demonstrators directed their ire at the perceived complicity of France and the United Nations with the rebels. “Down with France, down with MINUSMA,” was one slogan they shouted, along with “France + MINUSMA = MNLA” (the MNLA being the principal separatist group within the CMA). The Afribone article also mentions that a French flag was burned. The headline in L’Indicateur du Renouveau reads “Thousands of Bamakois Say No to France and the UN.”
So what happened yesterday — a rally for peace, a demonstration of support for Mali’s embattled president, or a show of defiance toward enemies? Apparently all of the above: pacifist slogans like “No to war” and “Peace now!” came side by side with more bellicose ones like “Liberate the north!” and “Down with the CMA!” The multiplicity of participants’ messages speaks to the multiplicity of views regarding the best way forward for their country.
While I was preparing to write an analysis of the Algiers accord and its significance last week, the International Crisis Group beat me to it: their new report “Mali: An Imposed Peace?” (see the full report in French, or the executive summary in English) offers a detailed and somber assessment of the current situation. The authors are, in my view, justifiably pessimistic. “Mali is heading less toward lasting peace than toward a new phase of confrontations,” they write. Hardliners on both sides have actively tried to torpedo the peace process, and fighting has flared in recent weeks, especially around the town of Ménaka, making separatist leaders more reluctant than ever to pursue a negotiated settlement.
“Without the participation of the CMA, signing the Bamako accord will not guarantee a way out of lasting crisis,” the report concludes. “To the contrary, it could lead to a new phase of confrontations for which the two camps have prepared. This could be deadlier than last year’s. It would lead a generation of young militants, let down by the political process, toward more radical forms of engagement.” (Let’s note that the separatist base is already highly radicalized.)
Even if immense international pressure ultimately brings the CMA to sign the accord, and even if the accord is implemented — and those are two very big ifs — the provisions of the agreement are unlikely to improve governance and state institutions. As discussed in a previous Crisis Group report (published last November, also the subject of a post I wrote in January) on the talks leading up to the accord, the peace talks misdiagnosed Mali’s problem as solely a center-vs-periphery issue, overlooking deep dysfunction within the state apparatus as well as significant schisms and stratification within northern populations.
Further complicating prospects for lasting peace is Malians’ distrust toward their country’s international partners, most notably France and the UN. While I’ve written about this subject before, it’s worth underlining the degree to which this distrust has delegitimated the peace process. Rumors in recent months have alleged that shadowy foreign interests manipulated the Malian government into accepting the deal in Algiers. A good many people, and not only Malians, see the conflict and the international response to it as expressions of global imperialism, not the failings of the Malian state.
In line with such interpretations of events, the Bamako press casts an increasingly accusatory gaze at French and UN presence in northern Mali. Reports allege that France and the MINUSMA peacekeeping mission have sided with the rebels by remaining passive in the face of rebel aggression, plotting with the MNLA to disarm anti-separatist militias, arming MNLA fighters in Ménaka, and secretly drumming up support for the CMA among traditional leaders. While they amount to mere rumors, these reports have shaped public opinion: a recent poll on Maliactu shows that 88 percent of readers agree with the statement “MINUSMA supports the rebels.”
For the most part, IBK and his government have not actively contributed to the demonization of the UN in Mali. At the 15 May signing ceremony of the Algiers accord, however, IBK alluded to MINUSMA’s perceived lack of partiality, asking Hervé Ladsous, the UN’s Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations (also a Frenchman) to show “a little respect for our people.” The remarks won him points at home, and prompted Ladsous and MINUSMA chief Mongi Hamdi to hold a press conference the next day and deny that the UN had taken sides.
(Could there be a connection between the deterioration of the UN’s reputation in Mali and two recent and unprecedented attacks on MINUSMA personnel in Bamako, the latest of which on Monday killed a Bangladeshi peacekeeper? Impossible to say, since the perpetrators remain at large.)
In light of the above, it would be misguided to see yesterday’s massive demonstration in the streets of Mali’s capital as evidence of strong public support for the Algiers accord or the peace process in general. A vocal portion of the Malian public remains opposed to the accord’s concessions to the rebels, and suspicious of the international partners responsible for overseeing its implementation. Malians may not like war, and they may be tired of it, but this does not mean they will accept peace at any price. The conflict in northern Mali is far from being settled.