Why Mali Needs a New Peace Deal

Mali’s Peace Deal Is Failing

Nearly five years after the signing of a peace accord with northern armed groups, Mali finds itself in a complex and deteriorating security crisis. The 2015 Accord—officially the “Agreement for Peace and Reconciliation in Mali Resulting from the Algiers Process,” or simply “the Accord”—has failed to fulfill its promise of “genuine national reconciliation.” Its fundamental challenge? The Accord addresses only a slice of Mali’s instability: it focuses on the 2011-2012 separatist rebellion in the country’s north and has failed—in its original form and subsequent roadmaps—to address mounting Islamist violence, lethal ethnic tension, and persistent insecurity in Mali’s central regions. In addition, the Accord’s signatories and guarantors—namely the Malian government, northern separatist groups, northern armed groups that favor Malian territorial unity, and an Algeria-headed mediation team—lack the political will and buy-in required to implement essential pillars of the Accord, which include political decentralization and the disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration (DDR) of ex-combatants.

Many Malians never accepted the conditions outlined in the Accord and have, unsurprisingly, grown more disillusioned as the framework has failed to curb violence. Armed Islamist and ethnic militias in Mali (which, for the most part, are not signatories to the Accord) killed more civilians in 2019 than in any year since Mali’s civil war began in 2012. Tens of thousands of people have fled their homes, leading to mass internal displacement and widespread hunger in a country where malnutrition was already endemic. Despite these worsening conditions, international stakeholders including the United States, France, and the United Nations reflexively continue to portray implementation of the 2015 Accord as their top policy goal in Mali. In 2019, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned that the Accord “remains the only valid and viable framework” for the Malian peace process. This commentary outlines seven steps that Malian stakeholders and the international community can take to revamp the Accord and pave a more promising path toward peace.

What’s Gone Wrong?

The Accord, its signatories, and its guarantors have failed the Malian people. The Accord is crumbling due to three interlinked issues: (1) its failure to engage all actors contributing to instability, (2) its limited geographic scope, and (3) limited commitment and political buy-in from its signatories and guarantors.

Lack of Stakeholder Inclusivity

The Accord excludes key actors involved in the Malian conflict. It almost exclusively engages the central Malian government and the primary northern armed movements—the Coordination of Azawad Movements (CMA) and the pro-unity Platform of Movements or “the Platform”—thereby sidelining key stakeholders such as Islamists, civil society, and women and youth groups. The Accord specifically mentions decentralizing power and engaging local elected officials, though implementation of these efforts has fallen short.

  • Islamists. The Accord fails to include or at minimum consider options to engage al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the prominent jihadist group in Mali in 2015 that was allied with some northern rebel factions. Malian president Ibrahim Boubacar Keita insisted during negotiations that Mali remain a secular country, and AQIM and its affiliates were not invited to the talks. Jihadist attacks on the Malian army and civilians in both the north and central regions have increased exponentially. In 2017, AQIM and several of its Malian-led offshoots merged to become Jama’at Nusrat al Islam wal Muslimeen (JNIM), while a separate splinter faction has rebranded as the Islamic State’s local chapter, Islamic State in Greater Sahara (ISGS). If the Accord had contained a track for engaging AQIM and other Islamist groups, the conflict may not have devolved so rapidly.
  • Civil Society. The Accord minimizes the role of Malian civil society, mentioning the term only twice (one of which is a request for civil society to endorse the framework). Despite the Accord’s omission, several NGOs have contributed meaningfully to the Accord, including by coordinating with the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) to organize negotiation trainings for the government, the CMA, and the Platform. In addition, civil society organizations have been key in implementing peace mechanisms such as the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission (TJRC) formed in 2014 to investigate crimes and the root causes of violence dating back to 1960.
  • Women and Youth. The Accord is similarly evasive about the contributions of women and youth. It does call on women and youth to “extend their full support to achieving the objectives of the Accord,” primarily in the context of development and income generation support. Women and youth say they have to “push the doors open” to participate in implementation, according to Maître Saran Keita, a member of the Network on Women’s Peace and Security in the ECOWAS Region. Keita warned that “the peace agreement is a document of the elites in Mali; an international document with no real local ownership.” There is no indication that any of the sparingly few development initiatives have been specifically geared toward women and youth.

Lack of Geographic Scope

The Accord is a product of its time, hyper-focused on insecurity and separatism in the north of the country, which was the hotspot during the negotiations process. It did not have the foresight to outline security and development implications for Mali’s central regions, and it has failed to adjust to the evolving conflict. Indeed, the Accord’s emphasis on reconciliation only mentions the “Azawad problem,” referring to a would-be state, self-declared by Tuareg-led rebels, encompassing Mali’s northern regions. The Accord and subsequent roadmaps have remained silent on the interethnic conflict in the central regions between the nomadic Fulani (Peuhl) herders and the Dogon and Bambara farmers. While these ethnic tensions have deepened since 2015, the Accord’s lack of strategies to mitigate existing ethnic tensions in the central regions rendered the document deficient from inception. In fact, critics blame the Accord’s sole focus on northern rebels as having incentivized other minority groups to use violence to extract concessions.

The Accord’s inattention to central Mali, which is more densely populated than the north, has proven fatal. Since the signing of the Accord, northern-based jihadist groups have expanded into Mali’s central regions, most notably Mopti and Segou, waging deadly attacks and exploiting grievances among ethnic groups to drive recruitment. In particular, Islamist recruitment of members of the Peuhl and other ethnic communities has contributed to a surge in ethnic tension, prompting the formation of ethnic self-defense groups and contributing to a cycle of retaliatory violence. Some authorities and elites have reportedly backed Dogon ethnic militias to stem the extremists’ expansion. While the Malian government and international community acknowledge that the political and security crisis is no longer limited to the north, they continue to prioritize the northern-focused Accord as the preeminent vehicle for peace. The national government has tried to implement regional reconciliation forums in central Mali, but local communities are generally suspicious of localized peace processes that are not connected to a national strategy and are thus unlikely to participate, among other reasons.

Weak Political Buy-In

The Accord, which was signed under considerable pressure from Algeria and the international community, has been hobbled by a lack of stakeholder buy-in and political commitment. The Malian government has failed to institute an effective mechanism for monitoring its own commitments to the Accord’s implementation, recording neither the amount of funds allocated to the north nor the nature or location of the projects supposedly being funded. Malian officials’ involvement in corruption has also likely contributed to the government’s lack of implementation. In addition, President Keita continues to reject the idea of ethnic rivalries and loyalties in the country, instead attributing unrest to conflicting lifestyles, e.g., farmer versus herder. And critically, the government has lagged in constitutional reform—failing to adopt the regulatory, legislative, and constitutional measures required to implement the Accord’s key pillars: decentralization and DDR.

The signatory movements (i.e., the northern armed group coalitions) and international guarantors have also displayed a lack of commitment to the Accord. The CMA has repeatedly suspended its participation in the Accord’s Monitoring Committee and has sought to delay the DDR process, withdrawing from DDR meetings without explanation and declining to select members to participate in the process. Renewed animosity, clashes, and infighting underscores the CMA and the Platform’s lack of commitment to the Accord’s explicit rejection of violence. Repeated reports have also noted the northern signatories’ continued engagement in trafficking, corruption, terrorism, and the diversion of humanitarian aid.

Meanwhile, Algeria has been a peripheral player in the Accord and its implementation following the 2017 replacement of its foreign minister, Ramtane Lamamra, the Accord’s key architect, and more recently the 2019 resignation of Algerian president Abdelaziz Bouteflika. At the same time, the Accord’s Monitoring Committee has been bogged down by internal disagreement among mediators over the participation of armed splinter groups.

Transcending the Accord

While stakeholders have failed to implement the 2015 Accord, they have pushed forward ad hoc arrangements outside the bounds of the agreement. In October 2015 and again in 2017, the CMA and the Platform engaged in bottom-up reconciliation separate from the Accord, signing ceasefire deals that have reduced incidents of violence between the groups. In January, France and members of the G5 Sahel group—Mali, Chad, Niger, Burkina Faso, and Mauritania—announced the formation of the “Coalition for the Sahel,” which will focus on counterterrorism and economic development issues in the region. And in February, following years of secret dealmaking with elements of JNIM, the Malian government officially announced that it was negotiating with JNIM to broker a political solution to jihadist violence in northern and central Mali. The numerous peace negotiations and security operations outside the structure of the Accord is a tacit acknowledgement that the Accord simply is not working.

And yet, each roadmap, MINUSMA resolution, political speech, and donor-funded report on Mali calls on signatories to commit to the implementation of the Accord. The UN Security Council’s (UNSC) June 2019 resolution extending MINUSMA’s mandate identifies support for implementation of the 2015 Accord as MINUSMA’s “primary strategic priority.” Malian president Ibrahim Boubacar Keita told the United Nations General Assembly in September 2019 that he “remain[s] particularly committed” to the Accord. And in March 2020, David Hale, U.S. under secretary of state for political affairs, told Congress that the United States’ efforts in Mali are focused on the Accord, “which remains the best mechanism for achieving a peaceful and reconciled Mali.” But sticking to this script is shortsighted at best and dangerous at worst. Continuing to call on stakeholders to implement the Accord—an incomplete, unfocused strategy—may be doing more harm than good. The Malian government and relevant stakeholders need a fresh approach to manage and move past the conflict. Below are seven steps for rethinking the peace framework and designing a more effective political and security solution.

  1. Retain Essential Elements of the Accord. As a first step, stakeholders should preserve key deliverables outlined in the original Accord. These might include decentralization, DDR, reform of the national justice system and security apparatus, development and infrastructure efforts in the north, and, critically, constitutional reforms to enable these measures. These approaches should be maintained and melded together with fresh strategies to form an expanded framework.
  2. Integrate Parallel Peace Processes. Malian and international partners should identify and incorporate successful side agreements into a new peace plan. These might include one-off truces between the CMA and the Platform, evolving deals between Bamako and jihadist groups, and reconciliation efforts to address ethnic conflict in the central regions.
  3. Recruit New Actors. The peace framework should expand to incorporate on-the-ground stakeholders originally excluded from the 2015 Accord, including signatories of ceasefires separate from the Accord, envoys representing JNIM and other jihadist groups, civil society organizations and women and youth groups, and representatives of ethnic communities that wish to participate in the process.
  4. Find a New Guarantor. Algeria should be replaced as political guarantor of the new peace framework. The North African country has undergone major changes, including the 2019 election of a new president and the 2017 replacement of Foreign Minister Ramtane Lamamra, one of the chief architects of the Accord. It’s time for the Malian peace process to find a new backer. Perhaps another member of the mediation team—such as the Economic Community of West African States, the African Union, or the United Nations—could serve as the new guarantor. The G5 might also take a more supportive role, perhaps as guarantor, to develop a strategy to incentivize Bamako to implement new and existing peace efforts.
  5. Leverage Carrots and Sticks. The Malian government and signatory movements will disregard a new peace process unless they believe they will benefit from its implementation or incur costs from its failure. Currently, the 2015 parties are not faced with enough incentives or disincentives to move the needle. The UNSC sanctions committees on Mali and the U.S. Treasury Department should continue to sanction individuals obstructing peace efforts in Mali, with equal attention on Malian officials shirking their peace process responsibilities as on extremist groups and signatory movements. International donors should warn Malian stakeholders that they are prepared to halt peace process funding if certain targets are not met within specific time frames. Critically, existing international funders with an interest in the region—such as the United States—should explore options for incentive-based conditioning, such as providing increased security sector assistance once Bamako and the northern movements take steps to responsibility govern, protect civilians, and commit to ceasefires. Incentive-based conditioning “may yield greater effects than punitive measures,” according to a CSIS report on leveraging U.S. security assistance.
  6. Link to MINUSMA Mandate. The United Nations should rework MINUSMA’s mandate to incorporate the revamped framework resulting from broadened negotiations. In 2019, the UNSC tasked MINUSMA to support restoration of state authority in central Mali. This is a good first move, but more should be done to coordinate and protect peace efforts between ethnic groups and to oversee security associated with political and military strategies against jihadist groups.
  7. Refocus the U.S. Role. The U.S. State Department’s establishment in March 2020 of an envoy to the Sahel is a positive step toward deeper engagement in the region in general and in Mali in particular. While newly appointed envoy J. Peter Pham has been tasked with supporting rapid implementation of the Accord, Pham should press for an expanded, more comprehensive peace framework while addressing high levels of corruption and poor management of the military. Vitally, the Department of Defense should shelve its plan to draw down U.S. troops in West Africa, showing solidarity with French, Malian, Burkinabe, Chadian, Mauritanian, Nigerien, and UN forces.

Malian stakeholders and the international community should graduate from the Accord, taking stock of what has not worked, developing an inclusive process, and demanding accountability for achieving realistic targets. Reimagining Mali’s peace framework is simply a recognition that the conflict has outpaced the Accord. Unless stakeholders accept that it is time to adopt a new approach, it will come at a cost to the Malian people, to the region, and to Mali’s foreign partners in Europe and the United States.

Judd Devermont is director of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Marielle Harris is program manager of the CSIS Africa Program.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Marielle Harris