Mali, Mar 6 – Divided into rival armed factions, plagued by drug trafficking and at the mercy of jihadism, northern Mali will only find peace through reconciliation among its warring tribes, experts say.
The west African nation’s vast desert north is riven by ethnic rivalries, a Tuareg rebellion and an Islamist insurgency and has struggled for stability and peace since a military coup in 2012.
The militant Tuareg movement has launched four uprisings since 1962 to fight Mali’s army over the territory they claim as their homeland and call Azawad.
Ministers and various rebel groups, mostly Tuareg but also including Arab organisations, are seeking to resolve a decades-old conflict that created a power vacuum in the desert that was exploited by Al-Qaeda.
The UN Security Council on Wednesday urged the rebellion to follow the Malian government and its allies in signing a peace agreement announced on March 1 in Algiers.
The tide seems to have turned in favour of Bamako amid several recent cases of high-profile players switching from the anti-government side.
The defections include that of a military chief of the rebel branch of the Arab Movement of Azawad (MAA) whose brother, a commander of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, was killed last year by French forces still active in the region.
“They really are Russian dolls. Every day brings new surprises. There are many alliances, re-alliances,” said a high-profile businessman from the north on condition of anonymity.
“Today all alliances are possible because they turn on questions of personal interest.”
– ‘Plagued by drugs’ –
The businessman said the security situation in the north was complicated by drugs traffickers vying for control of the cocaine transit routes through the region.
“Drugs have completely plagued this area,” he said, pointing to recent deadly combat around Tabankort, halfway between the rebel stronghold of Kidal and and the city of Gao, controlled by pro-government forces.
The fighting, he said, was less about pushing a political agenda than it was about gaining control of a crossing point in the strategic Tilemsi valley, coveted by all drugs traffickers.
Mohamed Ag Mahamoud, a former rebel turned chief of the government’s Northern Mali Development Agency (NMDA), said at the heart of the northern crisis was a “tribal question” between rival clans.
The Imghad and Allies Tuareg Self-Defence Group — better known by its French initials GATIA — make up the bulk of the pro-government forces and have been at the forefront of recent clashes with rebels.
Ag Mahamoud is not surprised that the government, bereft of a fit-for-purpose army in the north, is keeping these seasoned fighters on side by exploiting a historical schism between the Imghad and Ifoghas Tuareg communities.
An Imghad Tuareg himself, he laments that his brothers in GATIA are allowing themselves to be used as “cannon fodder” to settle old scores with the rebel National Liberation Movement of Azawad (MNLA) and its allies.
President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita himself appeared to have accepted the use of “armed militias to fight the MNLA”, recognising the right of “populations of free and worthy men to refuse this new serfdom” that the rebellion would want to impose on them.
– ‘Perverse tool of militias’ –
MNLA spokesman Moussa Ag Acharatoumane criticised Keita for resorting to this “perverse tool of militias” to assuage the humiliation suffered by his troops when they were routed by rebels in Kidal in May last year.
“The clashes between armed communities can only pave the way for the resurgence of terrorists,” he wrote in a recent letter sent to several media outlets, including AFP.
In spring 2012 Northern Mali fell under the control of jihadist groups linked to Al-Qaeda, who took advantage of the confusion caused by a military coup to impose a brutal interpretation of sharia on the region.
The Islamists were largely ousted by a French-led military operation launched in January 2013, although they have since launched sporadic attacks from desert hideouts on security forces.
Back at the NMDA, Ag Mahamoud fears that the bloodshed will persist even after a peace agreement.
“There are several norths: the realities are not the same, it is not a homogeneous whole,” he said.
Rinaldo Depagne, west Africa analyst at the International Crisis Group, says the opposing factions in the north are moving further apart, partly as a result of a deliberate divide-and-rule policy pushed by Bamako.
“If we do not get peace between these people we can have all the north/south agreements we want, but the stability of the north will be very fragile,” he warns.
Depagne says he would have preferred “a more ambitious, more robust agreement” than the Algiers accord, but is nevertheless hopeful because “we cannot resolve a conflict this old in one go”.
But he added: “The agreement, if signed, concerns the north/south connection, but it does not apply to north/south relations and of course does not take into account the primary destabilising element — which is the jihadi element.”