Despite reaching a peace agreement with the Malian government in June of this year, on Thursday, Tuareg separatists confirmed that they were suspending participation in the peace deal, accusing the Malian government of not respecting the accord that had been reached between the two groups. While the peace accord enabled national elections to go forward in July and August, and allowed Mali’s military to return to the northern Tuareg town of Kidal, it also called for the central government to commence peace talks within two months of the President’s election. In turn, under the signed deal, the government and rebels would agree to respect the country’s territorial integrity and hold peace talks that would focus on the status of the north. Although the signing of the agreement was seen by many as an easing of tensions in a region of Africa that has been on numerous occasions affected by Tuareg uprisings, this latest falling out demonstrates that tensions and a lack of trust continue to be a major issue and may deal a blow to the hopes of a lasting peace.
Following a meeting in neighboring Burkina Faso’s capital of ouagadougou, the separatist groups – the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), High Council for the Unity of Azawad (HCUA) and the Arab Movement of Azawad (MAA) – stated that they wanted to hold an emergency meeting of all parties involved in the peace accord in order to assess the implementation of the agreement. In a statement released late on Thursday, Mossa Ag Acharatoumane, a founding member of the MNLA, accused the Malian government of failing to live up to its promises, which were outlined in the agreement that was signed in the capital of neighboring Burkina Faso. The statement also indicated that “following multiple difficulties in implementing the Ouagadougou accord, caused notably by the Malian government’s failure to respect its commitments,” the Tuareg and Arab rebel groups “decided to suspend participation in the structures created by the said accord.” The three movements involved in the recent meeting dated the decision from September 18, the date of the second meeting of the joint committee as set under the ceasefire accord.
The central issue for Tuareg groups is the future status of northern Mali, which the Tuareg movements call “Azawad.” The rebels are seeking autonomy, an issue which the central government has been unwilling to discuss. Furthermore, amongst the Tuaregs grievances outlined in the statement are that the Malian government has not yet started prisoner releases which are inline with the Ouagadougou agreement. However observes of the peace deal have noted that Tuareg fighters have increasingly been moving outside of their bases in Kidal, which is in contrast to the accord that stipulates that the separatists would garrison their fighters.
While so far neither the Malian government nor authorities from the UN peacekeeping mission in Mali have commented on these latest developments, tensions between Tuareg separatists and the central government in Bamako have been rising has no peace talks have occurred despite Mali’s new President being sworn in and a new government being formed. This decision also risks increasing tensions in a country that continues to be fragile after eighteen months of political instability. Just last week, protesters in Mali’s northern town of Kidal pelted officials from Mali’s newly elected government during a weekend visit to the town.
On Thursday, Mali’s military confirmed that two Malian soldiers were wounded as the army exchanged fire with “bandits” during security operations that were being carried out near the Mauritanian border. While this exchange of fire effectively marks the first time that separatist Tuareg rebels and forces from the Malian government have clashed since the two sides signed a peace accord in June of this year, government sources have rejected claims that the MNLA was involved. Meanwhile Mali’s newly formed government announced earlier this week that it will be carrying out a “compete inventory” of the existing mining contracts in a bid to maintain only those contracts that are in the country’s best interests.
Clashes Between Tuareg Rebels and Malian Forces
According to army spokesman Souleymane Maiga, as part of a week-long “operation to secure people and property,” the troops had been on patrol around the market town of Lere when they encountered gunmen on Wednesday, adding that “there was an exchange of gunfire…two of our soldiers were very slightly injured and we arrested a dozen armed bandits.” While media reports have stated that the fighters were from the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), a Tuareg separatist group that has agreed to be confined to camps as part of a peace accord signed with the government, Maiga has rejected the claims, instead stating that “we were not faced with MNLA fighters, we were confronted by armed bandits who were preventing people going about their daily lives.” The army spokesman added that the security operations would continue until the end of the week.
The MNLA and the transitional government reached an agreement in June of this year, which effectively allowed Malian troops to enter the rebel bastion of Kidal ahead of the nationwide presidential elections which eventually saw former Prime Minister Ibrahim Boubacar Keita elected President. The accord also allowed for the release of fighters who were detained during a Tuareg uprising last year and outlines that talks between the new administration and Tuareg rebels, pertaining to autonomy for a large part of northern Mali, will occur within the next two months. Tuareg leaders however have warned that if the current president fails to reach a negotiated solution, then the MNLA will not hesitate in taking up arms again. If it is proven that MNLA rebels are behind this latest attack, then it will demonstrate that despite the signed agreement, and desires to reconcile the country, their remains a great rift between the new Malian government and the Tuareg rebels.
Mining Contracts to be Examined
Meanwhile earlier this week, Mali’s new government announced that it will be carrying out a “complete inventory” of the existing mining contracts, adding that it is ready to renegotiate any contracts that are not in the country’s best interests. In a brief interview after taking office, Mines Minister Boubou Cisse stated that “the government has decided to carry out a complete inventory of what exists – mining contracts, titles, licenses – be it in the mining or the oil sector,” adding that “if there are contracts which it is necessary to revise in the interests of Mali, we will start negotiations with the partners in question.” Mr. Cisse, a 39-year-old former World Bank economist, indicated that the inventory would be conducted under complete transparency and that its results would be made available to the public. He also noted that his ministry aims to increase the contribution of the mining sector in the national economy from around eight percent at present, to fifteen to twenty percent in the long term. Mali currently produces around fifty tonnes of gold a year. Randgold Resources and Anglogold Ashanti are amongst a number of international companies that operate in Mali. While no comments have been made pertaining to these specific mining companies, their contracts may be affected.
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.
In a statement that was published on Sunday, Al-Qaeda’s north African branch has confirmed that one of its top leaders, Abdelhamid Abou Zeid, was killed in fighting in Mali. The confirmation from the terrorist group comes three months after officials in Chad and France announced the leaders’ death.
Algerian-born Abdelhamid Abou Zeid, considered to have been one of the most radical leaders of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), was killed “on the battlefield defending Umma (the Muslim community) and Sharia law.” This is according to a statement that was released on Sunday and carried by ANI, which is a private Mauritanian news agency. According to ANI director Mohamed Mahmoud Ould Abou Al-Maali, “it is the first time that an AQIM statement officially referred to the death of Abou Zeid.” The statement however provided no date for his death. Back in March, officials in Paris had announced that Abou Zeid was killed after France led an offensive to remove al-Qaeda-linked groups from the northern regions of Mali. Both France and Chad have indicated that the 46-year-old militant was killed at the end of February.
Born in Debdeb, Algeria, which is located close to the border with Libya, Abou Zeid was a young activist in the FIS Islamist movement which won the country’s first democratic elections in 1991 but which was denied power. He then disappeared underground and remained in silence for most of the 1990’s. He re-emerged in 2003 as second in command of the GSPC, which kidnapped dozens of foreigners in southern Algeria. The group, along with several other organizations, would later evolve into AQIM. According to court documents Abou Zeid, whose real name was Mohamed Ghdir, was considered to be a deputy to AQIM’s “Saharan emir” Yahia Djouadi. He commanded a battalion of fighters from Algeria, Mauritania and Mali, which was known as Tareq ibn Ziyan, named after an eighth-century Muslim military commander.
Meanwhile in Mali, a female lawmaker is set to run for President in elections which are due to be held next month. Aissata Cise Haidara, 54, announced her candidacy on Saturday at a rally which was attended by several thousand supporters, composed mainly of women and young people. During the rally, she stated that “I am a candidate, not just to make up the numbers but to play a role in the rebuilding of Mali, which has become an unrecognizable country today.” She further indicated that “we must develop all of Mali although more must be done in the north. But we have to be careful because if you focus development in the north, the south will itself revolt.” Ms. Haidara is an MP for Bourem, which is situated in northern Mali. Amongst other candidates in the running for the presidency are former prime ministers Soumana Sacko and Ibrahim Boubacar Keita.
International mediators have so far failed to secure an agreement between Mali’s Interim President and the northern rebels. Although talks last weekend have brought the two groups closer, an agreement is necessary in order to enable elections to go ahead as planned on 28 July. The MNLA indicated last week that it was ready to sign an accord proposed by Burkina Faso, which is the regional mediator, however current Mali President Dioncounda Traore has yet to agree. Consequently the talks are continuing between the two groups. The coming presidential elections are seen as a key step in the recovery of Mali.
A spokesman for Mali’s army has indicated that the country’s soldiers have clashed with secular separatist Tuareg fighters in a town south of the rebel-held regional capital of Kidal, a city which has been under the control of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) since February of this year when Islamist militants fled. This is the first time that the Malian army has fought against the Tuareg separatists since France launched its intervention in January of this year. A number of on the ground sources have indicated that the Malian army is eager to ensure that Kidal, which is located in the far north of Mali near the border with Algeria, is under the government’s full control before the presidential elections take place on 28 July. However the Tuareg separatists have indicated that they will not allow Malian authorities into Kidal ahead of the polls.
According to reports, Malian troops attacked militant positions in the town of Anefis, which is located 200 kilometers (125 miles) south of Kidal. The attack was part of an operation to retake the city from the ethnic Tuareg MNLA. According to Malian army spokesman Souleymane Maiga, “our troops have engaged armed bandits in the Anefis area who have suffered heavy losses of men and vehicles.” The clashes have been confirmed by the MNLA, with vice-president Mahamadou Djeri Maiga stating that “the Malian army has attacked our positions this morning in Anefis. It decided to resolve the situation through war and the Malian government will bear the consequences.” He further indicated that “we never wanted to resolve the situation by war, but as this is so, we will defend ourselves until the end.” The vice-president of the MNLA is currently in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso where he is in talks with Malian officials over the staging of Mali’s upcoming elections. However this recent unrest has cast a shadow over the these talks.
Although France has begun to withdraw some of its 4,000 troops from Mali, after driving Islamist groups from the main towns and cities of the north, attacks and uprisings continue to occur throughout the country, resulting in officials debating wether or not the country is prepared for an early withdrawal. In turn, this incident has further indicated that animosity between the varying ethnic groups in Mali still exists and may slow down the country’s unification process.
Last week, there were protests in the northern city of Gao, in which France was accused of favoring the minority ethnic Tuareg group by allowing the continued occupation of Kidal. In turn, the latest incident comes just one day after a suicide bomber blew himself up on Tuesday at the house of an MNLA leader in Kidal who is suspected by the Malian army of being an informant for the French military. According to a military source, “the suicide bomber was waiting for someone in the (MNLA) colonel’s house when he was caught by some youths and set off his bomb. He is dead and there is one person wounded.”