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Jun 14, 2013 | Commentary

Four months ago I wrote a piece on the situation in Mali after the drafting of UN resolution 2085. This authorized the African-led International Support Mission to Mali (AFISMA), consisting of troops from the African Union and ECOWAS, to take action against rebel and terrorist groups in the North, assist in the political transition and play a critical role in rebuilding the Malian army. Days later, the situation had changed drastically; insurgents stormed the strategic city of Konna, located only 600 kilometers from Bamako, and seemed poised to advance on the capital. This alarmed the international community, who feared that the entire country was on the brink of an Islamist takeover.

At the request of interim President Dioncounda Traoré, France led a military intervention to assist the Malian army and AFISMA in retaking Northern Mali. Since then, France has made significant gains and the fighting has subsided. The international community has begun to shift their focus from the military campaign to reconstruction efforts. As French foreign minister Laurent Fabius has said, “We are in the process of winning the war. We now have to win the peace.”  An overview of early efforts reveals the opportunities and challenges for a national, regional and international commitment to ensure Mali’s peaceful political transition — much of which still hinges on democratic reform and the professionalization of the army.

At the national level, Malians have begun to implement a number of initiatives. In January, Mali’s national assembly unanimously adopted a transition roadmap which established election dates for July, 2013 and welcomed peace talks with Tuareg rebels.  A key piece of this roadmap will be the establishment of the Dialogue and Reconciliation Commission (CDR), which aims to implement a reconciliatory process to address rights violations committed by combatants, as well as deal with issues of security and governance in Northern Mali. On May 15th, the Malian government presented its “Plan for the Sustainable Recovery of Mali 2013-2014” at a high-profile international donors’ conference in Brussels. The plan was regarded as a positive step that set forth tangible objectives to advance Mali’s transition roadmap and was supported by attendees to the tune of €3.25 billion in pledged aid money….

Regionally, the Malian government will continue to receive support from the AU and ECOWAS. While the peacekeeping mission will formally be handed from AFISMA to the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission (MINUSMA), AFISMA will continue to assist in the political transition by providing security before, during and after elections and by providing technical and administrative assistance.

International partners under MINUSMA will act in close coordination with AFISMA to oversee the political transition by providing security, protection of civilians and stabilization, and safeguarding the delivery of humanitarian and development aid. The European Union will also play a particularly important role in building the Malian army. Through the EU Training Mission in Mali they seek to rebuild the army as a cohesive unit, with a focus on instilling values and an ethos that the U.S. had failed to do in their overly-technical counter-terrorism training. These developments are promising. Still, optimism must be tempered with practical considerations and the possibility of spoilers.

For starters, dialogue between the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) and the Malian government may be prevented by the MNLA’s refusal to disarm, as well as internal disagreements within both parties over the desirability of negotiations. A July election date may be somewhat ambitious, as security in the country is far from certain. With rebel groups and Islamist militants still in control of portions of Northern Mali — including most of Kidal — they may turn to intimidation tactics to prevent voter turnout. The credibility of elections could further be in question due to the large number of displaced Malians who are either unable or afraid to return to their homes.

The vast sums of aid pledged to the recovery plan will only be effective if the root causes of the conflict are addressed. This includes reconciling the informal governance and social structures of ethnically diverse Northern groups with the formal structures of the Malian state. This proved difficult when decentralization was attempted as part of the National Pact peace accords in the 1990’s.

Reform of the security sector will be important for combating Islamic extremism and stabilising the country for elections to take place, but it must also address the reported atrocities being committed by Malian soldiers against civilians suspected of complicity with the MNLA and Ansar Dine. This is also important to prevent incidents that demonstrate the continued influence of the military in political affairs, such as the arrest of a journalist by pro-Sonogo security personnel in March.

It is suggested that SSR efforts be done through a peacebuilding lens. This moves beyond potentially abrasive counter-terrorism strategies to “conflict-sensitive” reform that considers the nature of the crisis and its historical roots. An excellent report released by the International Crisis Group rightfully points out that this will require consultation with all legitimate local authorities, including  Tuareg, Songhai and Arab representatives to achieve an inclusive environment of peace and security, build confidence in the security forces, and mitigate fears of violent misconduct.

Since my last post on the crisis, considerable efforts have been made by the international community to restore peace and stability in Mali. However, a number of challenges exist that may derail the process. The technical and logistical assistance of regional and international actors is still a necessary requirement, particularly for holding elections and reforming the security sector. But at the heart of a peaceful transition will be the Malian peoples’ ability to overcome animosity and past grievances through inclusive dialogue and reconciliation.


Matthew Redding is a Research and Communications Intern with the Security Governance Group.