In Mali, does the fusion of three separatist armed groups of the Coordination of Azawad Movements (CMA) signal a new stage in the country's political and security impasse?
Mali is a relatively large country by virtue of its area of 1.2 million km² which brings together two big ethnic groups, the Arab-Berbers in the north, and the Subsaharans in the south. The country holds in all sixty or so ethnicities which include, among others, the Bambara (23.9 percent) living mainly in the Bamako district, the Senufo (12.2 percent), the Songhai (8.9 percent), the Soninke (8.8 percent), the Fulani of the Maasina (8 percent), the Peuls (8 percent), the Maninke (7.9 percent), and the Dogon (5.5 percent).
Since 2012, the country has been going through a major identity crisis, following the Mali War (2012), prompted by an insurrection by jihadist and pro-Azawad independence groups. These political and military organisations, of majority Tuareg affiliation and active in Northern Mali, announced on the 28 October 2014 the creation of a Coordination of Azawad Movements (CMA).
The CMA is made up of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), the Arab Movement of Azawad (MAA), and the High Council for the Unity of Azawad (HCUA), which are its three main movements, although other groups are also present. All these groups are struggling together against the Malian state, albeit with different objectives, and all are signatories to the peace accord for reconciliation in Mali (Algiers Accord) signed on the 15 May and 20 June 2015.
In December 2022, the CMA suspended its participation in the implementation mechanisms of the peace accord, along with virtually all the signed-up armed groups. The CMA denounces “the persistent lack of political will” of the Government of Malian President Assimi Goïta to implement the peace accord. On the 27 January 2023, the Coordination performed a further volte face in indicating via a communiqué its withdrawal from the commission charged with the finalization of the Mali new constitution project.
In the words of the communiqué, the CMA “dissociates itself from the unilateral declarations of Abdoulaye Diop, the Mali Foreign Minister, at the rostrum in the United Nations on the 27 January 2023, speaking of ‘stalling’ in the implementation of the Accord by the signatory movements”.
This collapse in the negotiation process is today reinforcing the jockeying for position in the armed groups within the Coordination.
Unity Is Strength
On the 8 February 2023, the three major groups within the Coordination fused into a single military and political entity. According to Mohamed Elmaouloud Ramadane, a member of the CMA, this new departure should allow the Northern rebels to carry more weight with the Mali Government, as he explained on Radio France International:
C'est une étape très importante qu'on vient de franchir, parce que la population du Mouvement le demandait depuis longtemps. Donc, c'est une chose faite aujourd'hui. C'est une nouvelle donne. C'est un nouvel élan. Si on parle d'une seule et même voix, nous avons un seul leadership, ça va beaucoup booster tout ce que nous avons comme objectif .
This is a very important phase we have just entered, because the Movement's demographic had been calling for it for a long time. So, it's a fact today. It's a new deal. It's a new departure. If we're speaking with one and the same voice, we've got a single leadership, that's going to greatly boost everything that makes up our objective.
Ramadane reiterates this message on his Twitter account:
Une étape importante vient d’être franchie. pic.twitter.com/d5V0eNC5c8
— Mohamed Elmaouloud Ramadaneمحمد المولود رمضان (@MohmedRAMADANE) February 8, 2023
This is a very important phase we have just entered. pic.twitter.com/d5V0eNC5c8
— Mohamed Elmaouloud Ramadaneمحمد المولود رمضان (@MohmedRAMADANE) February 8, 2023
For the spokesman, this fusion aims to unite the efforts of the armed movements to combine in the inter-community conflicts so as to achieve socio-political wellbeing. He imagines that a new title will be given to this union, along with new emblems, after a consensus among the new technical commission charged with the practical arrangements for this fusion.
A likely radicalization in the rebels’ demands
It is difficult to foresee the turn of events in the relationships between the Bamako centre and the armed groups in the North of the country, but they run the risk of becoming even more strained.
Nicolas Normand, former French ambassador to Mali, questioned by Deutsche Welle, considers that the tell-tale signs of such an alliance were in place. The recent meeting of the officers of the groups with Iyad Ag Ghali, Tuareg leader of the Support Group for Islam and Muslims (JNIM); was one of the omens. According to the diplomat, Iyad Ag Ghali thereafter moved freely in the Kidal region situated in Northeastern Mali, which had not been the case at the time of the presence of Operation Barkhane, carried out by the military in the region. According to the same source, Normand fears the radicalization of these groups:
Je crains que cette fusion des trois groupes armés soit un signe de cette radicalisation et des gens qui se préparent à un affrontement potentiel. Je ne pense pas qu'ils vont prendre l'initiative d'attaquer eux-mêmes l'armée malienne parce qu'ils auront le blâme de la communauté internationale. Celui qui commence les hostilités, évidemment, sera responsable et sera blâmé par toute la communauté internationale.
I'm afraid that this fusion of the three armed groups may be a sign of this radicalization and of people preparing for a potential confrontation. I don't think they'll take the initiative to attack the Malian Army themselves because they'll get the blame from the international community. Whoever starts hostilities, naturally, will be responsible and will be blamed by the whole international community.
Such a scenario could bring an escalation in the clashes between the North under the domination of the CMA, and probably abetted by the JNIM, and a Malian state more and more supported by the Russians via the armed group Wagner. All this in a context where the UN's Mission, MINUSMA, is facing three expulsions of its operatives by the Mali authorities and being hampered in the monitoring of human rights violations in situ.
There are those who don't shy away from talking war. For instance, on the 10 February 2023, two days after the announcement of the fusion of the movements within the CMA, Dr Amadou Albert Maïga, a member of the National Transition Council (CNT), the legislative body of transition in Mali, by means of a video broadcast on its Facebook page, predicts a war between the Malian forces and the CMA.
https://t.me/amadoumaiga1/489Pourquoi la Guerre est inévitable à Kidal ?Les raison dans cette vidéoLangue d’expression: Français
Posted by Dr Amadou Albert MAÏGA on Friday, February 10, 2023
« Nous condamnons cette déclaration va-t’en guerre venant d’un responsable de l’une des premières institutions de la République, en l’occurrence l’organe législatif du Mali, et nous prenons la communauté internationale à témoin de tels agissements. Nous prenons cette déclaration au sérieux, car apparemment, cela a été fait suite à sa sortie d’une audience que le président de la transition lui avait accordée. »
“We condemn this warmongering declaration coming from an officer of one of the highest institutions of the Republic, in this case the legislative body of Mali, and we call the international community as witness to such manoeuvres. We take this declaration seriously, as, apparently, it was made on the exit from an audience which the President of Transition had granted him.”
What does the future hold for Mali?
For the moment it is clear that the Malian authorities and the CMA are at an impasse in the implementation of the Algiers Accord supposed to contribute to the reconciliation of the country. The topic arouses sharp debates between Malians: witness this discussion on Twitter organized by Mamadou Ismaila Konate, lawyer at the bar of Mali and of Paris, former Keeper of the Seals and Mali's Minister of Justice, on the 16 February 2023.
— Mamadou Ismaila KONATE (@vieuxmko) February 16, 2023
One of the main questions in the debate hangs on the content of the new Mali constitution awaiting finalization: will Assimi Goïta leave straight after his transitional mandate at the country's helm, or will he seize the possibility of running for the next Presidential elections? On the other hand, will the Coordination of Azawad Movements, which is not taking part in this process, bow to the requirements of the new constitution and abandon its struggle for independence for the greater Northern region?
So many delicate questions which only a genuine and sincere reconciliation in Mali will allow us to answer.