Mali’s government has signed a peace deal with Tuareg rebels which will effectively help pave the way for elections which are due to take place at the end of next month. Officials in Mali have indicated that the newly signed accord calls for an immediate ceasefire and for government troops to return to the rebel-held northern town of Kidal. In turn, the Tuareg rebels will be restricted to set areas while long-term peace talks will begin after the elections are held. The Malian army had previously threatened to seize the city if no agreement had been reached however Mali’s security forces will now return to Kidal, which has become a de facto Tuareg state, before the 28 July presidential elections. According to the agreement, the deployment will begin with a unit of gendarmes and police, followed by a progressive deployment of Mali’s army, which will be in close collaboration with African and United nations forces.
Tuareg rebels had captured the northern capital city of Kidal after a French-led offensive forced al-Qaeda-linked militant Islamists out of the town back in January of this year. The traditionally nomadic Tuaregs, who consider northern Mali their hereditary homeland, have been seeking to gain autonomy ever since Mali gained its independence from France in 1960, citing that they have been marginalized by the central government in Bamako, Mali’s capital city. Since the 1960’s, Tuareg rebels have picked up arms against the state a number of times. The National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), which was founded in late 2011, is the most recent movement which has claimed greater autonomy for Mali’s Tuaregs. The MNLA, which signed the accord, had initially formed an alliance with al-Qaeda-linked militants who seized the north in the spring of 2012. However the alliance quickly disintegrated and the Islamist militants swiftly seized control of the MNLA’s strongholds.
As the Malian military began to advance on Kidal last month, many feared that clashes would occur between the MNLA and the army. Consequently, hastily-convened talks were organized in Ouagadougou and were aimed at avoiding a direct confrontation. The accord between the Interim Malian government and the MNLA was reached after nearly two weeks of talks that were brokered by Burkina Faso’s President Blaise Compaore. The talks were held in the capital city of Burkina Faso, which is the regional mediator for the conflict and which has become a de facto home-away-from-home for rebels in conflict with Mali’s government. The accord was signed in front of reporters by two Tuareg representatives and Territorial Administration Minister Moussa Sinko Coulibaly.
In response to the peace deal, Malian government representative Tiebile Drame has indicated that the two sides had overcome their greatest differences, stating that “I think we can say that the biggest task is finished. We have agreed on the essentials…there is an international consensus as well as a Malian consensus on the fundamental questions, which include the integrity of our territory, national unity, and the secular republican nature of our state.” MNLA spokesman Moussa Ag Attaher confirmed that a deal had been reached, stating that “the MNLA and the High Council for the Azawad (the rebel name for northern Mali) have given everything for peace and so we accept this accord.” There has also been a positive international response since the deal was brokered on Tuesday. Leaders at the G8 Summit in Northern Ireland have welcomed the news of the accord while United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has welcomed the signing of the agreement stating that it “…provides for an immediate ceasefire, paves the way for the holding of presidential elections nationwide and commits the parties to discussing sustainable peace in Mali through an inclusive dialogue that will take place after the election.” France’s Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius stated that “this agreement represents a major breakthrough in exiting the crisis in Mali.”
While officials from the United Nations, France and the European Union have all praised the accord, with the EU describing the agreement as a “historic” moment, it must be noted that this is not an overall peace deal which concludes the rebellion that began a year-and-a-half ago. Instead, this is an agreement which is meant to allow a presidential election to go ahead nationwide at the end of July, including in Kidal. However the peace accord does state that a eight-member commission, with equal representation for Tuareg groups and Malian security forces, will be set up. The commission will be composed of four members of each rebel group, along with members of the Malian security forces, as well as six members from the international actors who have been engaged in resolving the conflict in Mali. This will include officials from France, the African Union and the United Nations. According to the agreement, the commission will be tasked with determining how the rebels will be disarmed, how they will be transferred to site where they can be garrisoned and the steps that will be taken in order to allow Mali’s military to return to the occupied area. The body will have ten days to complete this task.
The MNLA’s agreement to allow Malian forces to move into Kidal signifies an immense step towards a possible reunification of the country, which will inevitably further draw out the Islamist militants who continue to pose a threat throughout the entire country. In turn, the Tuareg occupation of Kidal was a major obstacle to holding the presidential elections, which are seen as crucial to Mali’s recovery from the conflict which began fifteen months ago. Although during the worst of the fighting this year, the MNLA sided with France, the group has been reluctant to allow government troops to enter Kidal for the vote. The MNLA had previously warned that the Malian army was not allowed to enter Kidal, citing that the army was discriminating against the Tuareg rebels. However both the Tuareg rebels and the army in Mali have been accused of committing abuses against civilians because of their ethnic origins. With the agreement now in place, Mali’s army will now be able to enter Kidal as the country prepares for elections which are set to take place in about five weeks. However the country’s progress and reunification will also be dependent on the long-term peace discussions which will occur after the elections are held.