Negotiating in Mali: Why Failure is Not an Option (Part 3/3)

After the successful French intervention in Mali, a fragile balance still exists in the country. This article is the last of a three part series. Read part one here.

The Greatest Challenges for the Government

Repairing a tarnished image: Even under the spell of decades of corruption, and two military coups following a war almost lost, and given its current status as an interim unity administration, the government of Mali has invested heavily in repairing its image and credibility in the international arena with extraordinary efficiency. Capitalizing on the previous benefits and fruits of its long tradition of democracy, the current representatives of the state, both domestically but especially so internationally, have managed to restore confidence on Mali in the international community. This have led them to pledge extraordinary resources for restoring the integrity of Mali, sometimes as if the Asawad affair was only a bad dream, or as if the issue of democracy is simply a matter of time.

To reach this point, Mali has led itself through strong and brave reforms in pursuing the return of democracy: They have declared elections, while checking the military back to its traditional role of protecting the nation from internal and external enemies; they have taken the initiative in establishing a dialogue for reconciliation committee, opened up to nongovernmental and international governmental organizations; and are feverishly collaborating openly with their allies, to demonstrate accountability and commitment to contemporary democratic principles.

Mali has undertaken the impossible role of fighting two or even up to four different types of insurgencies and waves of terrorism from domestic to international. It has become the playground of geopolitical confrontations far and beyond its traditional size and scope, and yet it has come out, instead of a victim, as a potential winner in reasserting itself on the international stage, this time as a critical strategic player.

Sticking With One Last Critical Issue

The Malian government questioned quite effectively the credibility of the MNLA's claim for an independent north, and managed to come out almost unscathed from a war which raised, and still raises, many questions over the human rights situation in the country and in regards to the strength of influence of the retreating military regime.

To this effect, Mali worked hard in utilizing every potential source and diplomacy, from hiring lobbyist companies in the US to using disarming honesty in press conferences and public exchange opportunities. Through diplomatic missions such as the one in Washington DC, Mali has extended their hand for assistance and collaboration to nongovernmental organizations and associations, to the academia, to religious global entities such as The Organization of Islamic Co-operation, and others. Mali has done everything practically possible to develop its “Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement (BATNA)” And yet, it still has to pass the test of negotiating with the MNLA successfully. It is not the last test left for Mali but it is certainly absolutely critical.

The Issue of Sovereignty

Treated as black and white, the issue of sovereignty is not a brainer for any modern state. The answer is simply “no” to any attempt to question this most vital source of legitimacy of the authority on a nation state’s owned physical and legal space. Yet, the issue of sovereignty does come along with legitimacy, and effective governance is the supreme judge in deciding who is entitled to which.

Due to chronic corruption and mismanagement, the seemingly stable democracy of Mali was, in fact, a boiling cauldron ready to explode especially in the north. And even though the war begun with the return of Qaddafi’s Tuareg soldiers from Libya, that alone does not explain the limited resistance of the Northern Malian population — or even the army in some cases — against the MNLA. Nor does it explain the persistence and resilience of the MNLA, fighting since October 2011 in a "foreign land" without an outside available life line. Nationalist separatist insurgencies, such as this, are heavily dependent on local resources to remain active.

A Vacuum of State Legitimacy

As in many other cases — including in Colombia, Kosovo, Northern Ireland, Nepal, Sri Lanka, India, Mexico, and others — when the state neglects a territory under its jurisdiction, for one reason or another, citizens grow marginalized and eventually revolt or become vulnerable to joining outside forces in challenging the state's authority on the basis of legitimacy. When that tendency is combined with historically existent identity issues, such as ethnic strife, religious competition, ideology, and other ingredients, then follows the incipient formation of insurgencies which now openly and by force challenge the state’s legitimacy.

In the case of Mali, the chronic situation of deprivation in the north, mounted by an extensive and disastrous drought, prepared the gates for an insurgency to arrive in the shape of returning Tuaregs from Libya as MNLA. The great challenge for Mali is not dealing with the MNLA's aspirations for independence. This issue can be addressed effectively, as mentioned earlier, with constitutional and political arrangements. The greatest challenge for Mali will be to establish its presence and administrative credibility in the north in order to regain its legitimacy. Given the resources made available for after elections, this task might become easier now than it was before the war started. The return of the refugees in a stable and growing North will resolve the MNLA problem in the long run, just as it did in Niger.

Disentangling Disarmament from National Sovereignty

In dealing with issues such as disarmament, there is plenty of space to address the concerns of MNLA fighters over their own safety. Framing the armed MNLA  as “two armies in one Mali,” and contrasting Malian sovereignty with them being armed, is a treacherous path to follow. The French or the oncoming UN-AU ECOWAS peacekeeping force may provide mechanisms which will increase security, including for MNLA fighters, allowing for a much more orderly and conclusive disarmament.

However, this might be too much to expect to happen before the elections. Seeking the cooperation, if not collaboration, of the MNLA with a thoroughly chosen Malian, as well as French, and a UN contingent in providing security together in Kidal for fair elections might provide a better option; all this of course in exchange of the promise of the MNLA to disarm after elections — given an agreed sequence of steps, similar to the IRA disarmament process in Northern Ireland.

The Temptation to Spend More on Another War

Given the abundance of resources provided to the Malian Army, and in spite of their short training and rushed mobilization towards Kidal, the temptation of many in the government and the military to take the city with an assault is enormous and maybe justified. Yet, besides the risk of winning a Pyrrhic victory, taking the path of war once again may determine where the priorities of Mali will be overspending most of the money pledged by its friends in Brussels and elsewhere.

If the country finds itself trapped in a chronic counterinsurgency quagmire, whatever was to be spent towards building infrastructure, schools, providing incentives to youth to distant themselves from militants or those involved to disarm, and assisting the refugees for a successful return, most instead will go towards supporting the counterinsurgency effort. Especially if Tuareg nationalism overlap as narrative with international Jihadism, then the pattern will be replicated along sub-Saharan Africa in a much larger scale.

To put things in perspective, the total amount of money pledged recently by the international community to rebuild Mali was more or less the same with the amount spent by the US for the war in Afghanistan for a month in 2009. Furthermore, in counterinsurgency over-investing on the military option while neglecting the other, socioeconomic parameters usually fuels the given insurgency even further. The consequences will be lasting. Mali’s profile for the next fifty years may depend on the effort invested in avoiding the war with the MNLA today.

Easy Ones for the Government

A commitment to constitutional amendments and/or a Malian Bill of Rights: It is in accordance to the democratic traditions of Mali and the spirit of tolerance for the other — part of a combined heritage as a Muslim and a multi-ethnic society — to maintain and improve institutions that will consolidate such traditions.

Considering the long history of rebellion in Mali, it may be time to contemplate over new political and constitutional instruments which will address those challenges once and for all. There are examples of successes and failures in that domain and I will recite Spain as a failure in addressing the Basque issue via constitutional amendments vs. the far more successful French constitutional reforms in addressing the exact same Basque minority within its own borders.

A Bill of Rights may provide more confidence to state institutions in avoiding a clientele culture of party favoritism and potential retribution rising from the grievances caused by the war in the new Mali. Many Tuareg including returning refugees will fall victims of retribution, unless there is a strong solid framework of protection in  place.

Strengthening the Mandate 

Even though the commitment to the absolute application of law and punishment of those who committed crimes during the war is totally understandable, when it comes to peacebuilding and reconciliation dialogues, in particular, things get more complicated. The Reconciliation Committee must acquire a mandate to include the powers of impunity (especially when it serves progress on the truth front); executive powers in regards to victims, including surviving victims and families of victims; returning refugees and resettled IDPs; mechanisms to absorb and adopt orphan children of rape victims or parentless youth; and in dealing with other specific and circumstantial cases of victimhood.

It will be impossible for the state to provide such services and creative solutions to move forward the reconciliation process from within its staggering, red tape infested monolithic apparatus — as any state would. By extending the mandate of the dialogue for reconciliation committee to include executive powers, given the right structures of measuring progress, and grinding accountability, things will move much faster and much more efficiently on the ground.

The Equal Distribution of Development Aid

It is already a common understanding between most members of the interim administration and those who have pledged money for Mali’s reconstruction, that the benefits will be distributed equally to all regions and people in the country. The attitude of treating Mali as one big family expressed by many Malian public officials is a noble one, but even in families there are favorites and those considered outcasts, and in the case of a state dealing with minorities, the law makes all the difference.

The distribution of development assistance has to be accompanied by legislative and constitutional reforms. Laws regarding policing, taxes, citizenship, land ownership, and their aspects of Malian life, will have to come to life by the newly elected government as a guarantee for a successful post-war transformation.

What Others Can Do

The French are looking for a way out of Mali, even though their limited presence in dealing with counterterrorism is now considered a given. But for the immediate situation, so far, they have invested into keeping the MNLA separate from the Malian government forces, while at the same time balancing the scale enough against the MNLA to push them specifically into negotiating their future within a Malian sovereign state. It is tedious work, and so far they have excelled even though they are gradually staying out of time. If the MNLA gets desperate enough to join the Jihadists, all of their efforts in resolving the Tuareg nationalist issue separate from the Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb will go to shambles. Maintaining access into Kidal and other Tuareg controlled territories, gives the French an advantage in playing a leading role in the MNLA’s pre-election or post-election disarmament.

The US has so far invested in helping the French and the intervention coalition with logistical support and especially refueling, while at the same time prudently emphasizing both the need for the return of democracy in Mali and a peaceful resolution on the MNLA question. It is now providing aid for elections preparation, as well as for strictly humanitarian purposes. The US is fully aware of the geostrategic significance of Mali and will invest heavily in assisting on reconstruction, security and stabilization in the region. The British, French, Irish, German, and other European countries are currently training the Malian army and will do so until there is a standing force able to repel any further threats.

In spite of intentions, the UN, AU, and ECOWAS peacekeeping force may become a major threat to progress in restoring peace in Mali, unless they are well prepared, ready and trained to dealing with a variety of eventualities, and disciplined enough to stay away from causing trouble, similar to those in Bosnia, Somalia, and DRCongo ("Mon-useless"), such as in promoting sex slavery, human trafficking, and committing other crimes and or by abusing their power. The Malian people are far too vulnerable right now to resist the potential misdeeds of a force as overwhelming as 12,000 troops from more than a dozen different nationalities.

In regards to the MNLA, it might be even preferable that the current negotiations are concluded before the UN peacekeepers arrive en masse, adding one more variable to the already highly complex conflict system. They should, however, be considered as part of any other solution in providing security to returning refugees, delivering humanitarian aid, assisting in decommissioning processes, and actively repelling Jihadist attacks, if necessary.

Ending a War

Theoretically, for as long as the MNLA controls Malian territory alone, the war in Mali is still ongoing. Overcoming issues such as disarmament, and impunity, and restoring peace and stability in the country sustainably, will take much more than the current negotiations between the MNLA and the government. Yet, by closing this painful chapter in time, the interim government may give the oncoming elected government a chance to to a clean start.

Ending the war in Mali will be a strategic victory for all Malians, as well as their neighbors and beyond. A traditionally moderate Muslim state, post-war Mali, while healing, may provide an even better example of itself as a nation which can successfully combine democracy and freedom of expression, along with ancient traditions, living heritage, in an ultra-diverse ethnic setup. To that end, building peace with the MNLA via negotiations will be a decisive step for the future of Mali.

*[This article was originally published by The Conflict Monitor Mali.]

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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