Analysts say a solution to the conflict in Mali needs to go beyond counterterrorism [Benoit Tessier/Reuters]
Last week’s decision by Mali’s government to postpone regional and municipal council elections, amid concerns over security, sends a bad signal for the prospect of long-term stability in the West African country, analysts say.
The territorial, administrative and municipal council elections, planned for December 17, were postponed to April 2018 to give the government “more time to organise absolutely inclusive elections”, Tieman Hubert Coulibaly, Mali’s minister of territorial administration, said in a statement last Sunday.
He added that the challenge for Mali is stability, and ensuring the parties that have signed on to a peace accord between the state and various opposition and rebel groups in Algiers, in 2015, take part in the electoral process.
But Marie-Joelle Zahar, a professor at the Universite de Montreal and co-author of a recent report on peacebuilding in Mali, said that holding the elections would have been the clearest indication that the state can implement the 2015 peace agreement, aimed at bringing stability and security to the conflict-ridden north.
The 2015 deal, known as the Algiers Accord, included provisions on disarmament, constitutional reforms and a return of state institutions to the north.
The government signed the transitional agreement with two separate coalitions of opposition groups: the Coordination of Azawad Movements, composed largely of armed groups from northern Mali, and the Platform, which includes Touareg and Arab movements.
Zahar told Al Jazeera the vote was especially important for Malians living in the country’s northern region, who have long called for better representation and for the central government in Bamako, the capital, to allow for more decentralised power sharing.
“This was going to be an opportunity to finally set the record right and to have people [councillors] there who are more representative of the populations,” Zahar said.
“If the [local] elections don’t happen,” Zahar added, “then the peace agreement will be moot, because that in many ways was the one gain from that agreement for the people of the North: this extensive decentralisation and their ability to elect the people that will represent them and that will take decisions on their behalf.”
Plagued by violence
An armed uprising in northern Mali in 2012 displaced tens of thousands of people, and the area was gripped by instability as armed opposition movements clashed with state forces and pushed them out of several areas.
A coup d’etat quickly followed, creating further instability and a political vacuum that allowed armed groups to enter the conflict.
French soldiers intervened in Mali after the coup to help prop up the state, in a mission known as Operation Serval.
Ibrahim Boubacar Keita was elected president in 2013.
But the Malian government has been unable to retake control of several areas of the country, which remain in the hands of armed fighters, including some with ties to al-Qaeda and other groups.
The next presidential election in Mali is expected to be held in July.
Deadly UN mission
Yvan Guichaoua, a lecturer of conflict analysis at the Brussels School of International Studies, said postponing the elections was natural, given the prevailing security situation in Mali.
An international, UN-led mission in the country, known as MINUSMA, has become the deadliest UN peacekeeping mission in the world. According to UN figures, more than 146 members of the 11,000-soldier mission have lost their lives since 2013.
|Macron met Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita in July in Bamako [Christophe Archambault/Reuters]|
About 4,000 French soldiers have also been stationed in Mali, under the French mission now known as Operation Barkhane.
However, despite international peacekeepers and troops, the situation remains “very volatile”, Guichaoua told Al Jazeera.
Last Tuesday, three separate attacks on UN camps in northern Mali’s Kidal region were carried out, but no casualties were reported.
Two attacks in the area on November 24 left at least four UN peacekeepers and a Malian soldier dead, while injuring nearly two dozen others.
In October, a handful of UN peacekeepers were killed and wounded when their patrol vehicle hit an improvised explosive device.
Guichaoua said the state is struggling to retake control of some parts of the country, and putting the Malian army in place “is not enough” because “what matters really is the presence of an administration” that can respond to residents’ needs.
“You have places without representatives of the state, with schools closed, with no teachers, with no civil servants,” he said.
Lack of legitimacy
The Malian government’s main problem is that it suffers from a lack of legitimacy, said Aurelien Tobie, a senior researcher with the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute’s (SIPRI) Mali project.
“The crisis has revealed how weak the state was,” Tobie told Al Jazeera.
“In fact, what we are seeing is [that] the state is not accepted, the representatives of the state are not accepted, in most parts of the country,” he said.
“People either find it irrelevant … or they just reject them outright.”
He added that while the Algiers agreement “still acts as some kind of framework for dialogue between rebel groups and the government”, and “it’s important to continue implementing it, it certainly won’t be enough to bring about peace in Mali”.
The conflict has changed since the deal was signed, with fighting spreading to the country’s central region, and new groups have also emerged, he said.
According to Tobie, postponing the elections is therefore “a good indicator that the situation is not improving in Mali despite the peace agreement, despite the international presence [and] despite all the support that the international community is giving” to the state.
Nonetheless, some observers have pinned their hopes on a multinational military force, the G5-Sahel, which is expected to deploy as many as 5,000 troops from Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger into the country.
The force launched its first operation in late October, according to Reuters news agency, and a summit will be held in Brussels later this month to raise funds for the deployment.
The US alone has pledged $60m to the new force.
According to the Universite de Montreal’s Zahar, the one thing that can change between now and the new date of the regional and municipal election is the G5-Sahel force deployment.
“But is the G5-Sahel capable of deploying something right now, so quickly? There are lots of questions about that,” Zahar said.
Guichaoua, meanwhile, said focusing solely on security will not yield a solution in Mali, where citizens are looking for protection wherever they can find it.
“It’s a matter of being protected and at the moment, some communities feel that they receive better protection from the jihadists than from the government or local militias that operate in the area. That’s one of the reasons that [is] breeding jihadism in the area,” he said.
“Counterterrorism and [the] G5-Sahel are not going to address this problem right now. The solution needs to be comprehensive and not just focused on counterterrorism.”