On Tuesday June 18, the interim government of Mali and the Tuareg separatists of the National Movement of Azawad (MNLA) signed a tentative peace deal to put an end to a year and a half of intense fighting. However, not everyone is sanguine about the deal and its ability to solve the root problems behind the conflict.
The MNLA has been fighting for the separation of Tuareg majority areas from Mali and neighboring states and the creation of an independent Tuareg state. The Tuaregs are an ethnic group that speaks a language of the Berber family and that has social customs different from those of its neighbors. There have been many Tuareg revolts, but the current one started in January of 2012. The MNLA made a marriage of convenience with militant Sunni Islamist groups, including Ansar Dine, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and MUJAO (the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa).
This, plus an influx into Mali of Tuareg fighters and armaments from Libya caused by the overthrow of Libyan leader Muammar Gadaffi, gave the rebels the strike force which enabled them to take over the whole Northeastern triangle of Mali including the important towns of Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal. The rebel advance and the failure of the government then in power to stop it was the pretext for a coup d'etat by junior officers of the Malian army in March of 2012. The new military junta, headed by Captain Amadou Sanogo, found that the coup did not stop the rebel advance, and that regional powers were reluctant to send help to a government not established legally.
Time was lost as Sanogo tussled politically with other factions in Malian politics. Meanwhile, the Islamist organizations pushed aside the MNLA forces and established their control over the Northeast.
At the beginning of 2013, the rebels made a sudden push through Mali's narrow waistline, and there was real fear that they might capture the capital, Bamako. At that point the interim president, Diancounda Traore, appealed to the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the African Union and French President Francois Hollande to send military help. Combined Malian, French and other African troops drove back the rebels and recaptured Timbuktu, Gao and other towns, but they have not captured Kidal, which, unlike the other places, is mostly Tuareg.
Earlier this year, reports surfaced that the French were thinking in terms of dividing the rebels by making attractive offers of autonomy to the Tuaregs. This led to some consternation in Bamako. Mali is not alone in Africa in being very wary of separatist tendencies, especially when they are being promoted by the former colonial power. Malians speak more than 60 different languages. Africa is seen as already balkanized enough and to open the door to ethnic separatist movements is perceived as very dangerous. However, the Malian army was not in adequate shape to overcome the rebel forces on its own, without outside and especially French military help.
While there were especially bitter local complaints about the Islamist rebels, there were also complaints about the MNLA. Besides abusive behavior by Tuareg fighters, many Black Malians, especially but not only of the Bella ethnic group, fear that Tuareg aristocrats aim to re-subject them to the slavery that prevailed before the colonial period and persisted in one form or another through colonialism and into the period of independence.
There were many reports in the international media of Bella people being "claimed" by Taureg "owners" during the rebel occupation. In response to these experiences, even innocent Tuaregs and Arabs have been subjected to repression by the returning Malian troops, or have been attacked and driven out by local villagers.
Nevertheless, President Traore's government agreed to sit down with the MNLA and hammer out a peace accord, with various countries, including Algeria and Switzerland (considered a Tuareg ally), playing mediating roles. Tuesday's agreement was signed in Oagadougou, the capital of neighboring Burkina Faso, whose government has spearheaded ECOWAS efforts to resolve the crisis.
The agreement includes acceptance by MNLA that Mali will not be broken up. A mechanism was devised whereby Tuareg rebel troops will withdraw from Kidal to bases outside, and Malian troops and civil administrators will return, with French and allied African help. The cease fire will be supervised by a joint commission composed of representatives from the Malian government, the rebels, the United Nations, the ECOWAS forces, the African Union and (naturally) France. The rebels had asked for an amnesty for all crimes committed by them during their occupation of the Northeast, but this will be a matter, rather, for a joint commission. This interim setup will permit the people of Kidal to participate in Malian presidential elections scheduled for July 28. The new government elected at that time will then pursue a more permanent peace treaty.
But there is much suspicion of this agreement in the rest of Mali. Many fear that it is basically a bit of French chicanery designed to keep Tuareg separatism alive and ultimately allied to French interests. International donors have made reconstruction aid dependent on the deal going through. The main group of the left in Mali, the SADI (African Solidarity for Democracy and Independence) Party, denounced the agreement as a violation of Mali's national sovereignity.
Women's organizations also expressed fear that the agreement would allow the rebels to get away with their abuse of women.
And this agreement does nothing to remedy the basic problems of Mali and its neighbors, which are their extreme poverty and their disadvantageous position in the corporate dominated world economy.
Photo: U.S. Army Capt. Laura Porter with children during a medical capabilities exercise in Senkoro, Mali. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Jeromy K. Cross)