Open letter to the UN Security Council on Mali
Brussels | 3 Jun 2014
The recent clashes between the army and rebels in the Kidal region show that Mali’s crisis is unresolved. The violence is directly linked to the lack of progress in talks between northern groups and the government that have stalled mostly because the main actors have been reluctant to engage in meaningful dialogue, despite their pledge in last June’s Ouagadougou agreement. Multiple and confusing diplomatic initiatives have not helped. The UN mission (MINUSMA) has struggled to reconcile its mandate to facilitate talks with that of helping to restore state authority; some perceive it as pro-government and compromised. I urge the Security Council, with the support of its main partners in Mali, to establish a UN-led international mediation mechanism.
The negotiations that started a year ago with signing of the Ouagadougou agreement are in jeopardy. Crisis Group’s January report, Mali: Reform or Relapse, warned that deadlock would have major security consequences. The provisional ceasefire reached in May under auspices of the African Union’s president, with the aid of the UN Secretary-General’s special representative, is fragile. Unless talks are revived promptly, new clashes will occur, undermining the substantial international efforts since MINUSMA’s deployment last July.
The Malian authorities and the northern-based movements have mostly used the dialogue to voice grievances, not resolve differences. President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta’s government considers the “northern question” a matter of national pride and has stalled to avoid serious concessions. The three main rebel groups – MNLA, HCUA and the Mouvement arabe de l’Azawad – are fragmented, unable to offer realistic or coherent claims.
Regional and other international actors share responsibility. They have been unable to reconcile diverse, often competing interests to promote a common vision of a solution. Initiatives have often been uncoordinated. Mediation needs new impetus to re-launch talks.
For months, MINUSMA has played a vital role in calming tensions between the army and the northern movements, but without political progress, this can only delay new violence. The mission has struggled to facilitate implementation of the Ouagadougou agreement, in part due to perceptions about its neutrality. Resolution 2100 (25 April 2013) calls for it to both “restore the authority and the sovereignty of the Malian State throughout its national territory” and “to facilitate progress towards an inclusive national dialogue”, which by its nature involves bringing in the very armed groups that challenge the state’s authority in the north.
Building the capacity of Malian institutions is of course important. But the mandate’s tension raises competing expectations from the parties. Some members of the northern movements believe the mission backs the government, citing inter alia its provision of armoured vehicles to the defence ministry and that talks have been held almost solely in Bamako. They requested MINUSMA support for talks to be more balanced. The government believes the mission should focus primarily on helping the state recover its full sovereignty, as requested by the prime minister in his 29 April speech to the National Assembly.
The 30 May, Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) summit asked the Burkina Faso and Nigeria presidents to renew mediation efforts, but these have been dormant for months and are unlikely to revive the talks. Mali accuses Burkina Faso of harbouring the MNLA’s political wing; ECOWAS is a key regional institution but does not include countries with influence in the north, such as Mauritania and Algeria. It is thus crucial to establish an international mediation mechanism that is coherent, backed by the region and other major powers and empowered to broker compromises. This new initiative should be UN-led.
The Security Council could consider two options. Neither will be easy, given politics in the region and beyond, but existing arrangements are proving insufficient.
The first would be to strengthen MINUSMA’s political mandate and have it mediate, not just facilitate. The Secretary-General’s special representative would become a full-time mediator. This would allow the UN to use its good offices and, together with Mali’s partners, press parties to resolve deadlocks. To achieve this, the Council must resolve the tension in the mandate by shifting it away from state building. An emphasis on state building might be necessary again in the future – and the gap would need to be filled by others now — but for the moment talks must be the priority.
The second would be to appoint an envoy of the Secretary-General, with African Union and ECOWAS agreement, independent of MINUSMA. The parties could express preferences from a list of names with high-level West Africa experience. The envoy would be an official mediator to whose team MINUSMA would give logistical help while continuing its state building role. This would require greater effort to build consensus, internally and regionally, but might be more likely to break the deadlock.
Whatever the preferred option, the mediator will need the support of Mali’s main partners. They should form a contact group whose membership should be relatively restricted, to ease coordination. It must include France and Algeria, who, working together, have enough influence to bring all the parties to the negotiating table. Algeria’s pivotal role in the region should be recognised, but it must exercise its influence within a multilateral framework.
The mediator, consulting with the main parties and the contact group, should quickly revive the Ouagadougou agreement’s negotiation framework. The current stalemate is not the result of flaws in that agreement but of parties’ refusal to implement it and insufficient pressure on them from Mali’s regional and other partners. The monitoring and evaluation committee established by the agreement has not met since October. It should be resuscitated and, chaired by the mediator, convene monthly to allow international actors to coordinate their efforts. The parties should urgently agree on and commit to a detailed schedule of such sessions.
As the Council prepares to renew MINUSMA’s mandate, it should draw the right conclusions from the challenges the mission faces. In appointing a new UN-led mediation mechanism, whether within the mission or external to it, it has another opportunity to help Malians reach a sustainable solution; it should not assume such an opportunity will come again soon.
President and CEO, International Crisis Group