Mali Tuareg peace deal raises hopes but faces challenges
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Activists and analysts in Mali hope that a landmark deal between the government and a Tuareg-led rebel coalition will bring stability to the north, the cradle of several Tuareg uprisings since the 1960s. But there is only cautious optimism that the Algiers Accord, signed this weekend will end years of unrest.
The UN-brokered peace accord calls for the creation of elected regional assemblies but stops short of autonomy or federalism, a long-time rebel demand.
There are hopes the accord will allow Mali to find peace and prosperity, according to Camilla Toulmin, director of the London-based International Institute for Environment and Development.
“Peaceful economic development is urgently needed, especially in the north,” she said. “This opens up the possibility - looking backwards - to try and ensure that many of the things that went wrong in the past can be put right and – looking forwards – building much better systems of governance, representation and accountability.”
The agreement was initially signed in May but the Coordination of Azawad Movements, an alliance of rebel groups, had been holding out until amendments were agreed on 5 June.
"We will make sure that no one is disappointed,” said Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita. “We will build a brotherly Mali together."
Ramtane Lamamra, the foreign minister of Algeria, which has been leading international efforts to mediate the peace talks, hailed "a new beginning, a new opportunity and a new destiny for this great Malian nation".
But the prospects of the deal are unclear.
“Peace is needed, it’s really needed,” said Zakiyatou Ouallet Halatine, an ethnic Tuareg former minister, said in a phone interview from Mauritania. “We are getting to a very important phase intended to make people get together, work together. It’s time to forget the past. That’s why it won’t be easy. When there is a war it’s never easy.”
The country remains deeply divided, with the Tuareg and Arab populations of the north accusing sub-Saharan ethnic groups in the more prosperous south of marginalising them.
Tuareg groups themselves are also divided.
Tensions are rife within the main ethnic Tuareg armed group, the Azawad National Liberation Movement (better known as the MNLA, its French acronym).
One MNLA splinter group, the MNLA Europe, issued a communiqué at the weekend denouncing a “despicable” agreement that failed to grant Azawad special status.
“We know that there’s been strong opposition to the Algiers Accord,” said Lehigh University social anthropologist Bruce Whitehouse. “There’s a large and powerful and sincere opposition within the movement’s rank and file.”
There are chances that hardliners in both the government and rebel camps will try to torpedo the deal, according to Whitehouse, who notes that some military officers remain opposed to the integration of former rebel combatants in Mali’s security forces.
Yet the survival of the deal hinges on the integration of northern former rebels in the ranks of security forces and the recruitment of northerners in the public service, according to observers.
But these historic demands, often made in recent decades, have turned a string of peace agreements into a string of broken promises.
The Tamanrasset Accord, signed in Algeria in 1991, and the National Pact, signed the following year, raised hopes by recognising that Azawad deserved a special status but failed to appease the historic tensions between north and south.
“I am hopeful but not very confident,” said Susanna Wing, a US-based scholar who writes on the Sahel. “Mali cannot move forward without such a peace deal but whether or not this is the peace deal that will be implemented remains to be seen.”
French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, speaking in northern Mali on Monday, said France is set to provide extra logistical support to the UN peacekeeping force in Mali, Minusma, often been targeted by Tuareg fighters and jihadists.
"I want to emphasise that [Minusma’s] failure would also be our failure,” he told French troops in Gao. “It is essential that France increases its support for Minusma to allow it to succeed in the noble peacekeeping mission for which the United Nations have already paid a heavy tribute.”
Mali was shaken by a coup in 2012 that cleared the way for Tuareg separatists and jihadist groups, including Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, to seize control of the north for nearly 10 months, until they were ousted in a French-led military offensive.
Follow Michel Arseneault on Twitter @miko75011