Small Wars Journal

Shifting Militia Allegiances and the Prospects for Ending the Small War in Northern Mali

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Shifting Militia Allegiances and the Prospects for Ending the Small War in Northern Mali

Michael Keen

Last month, a small militia group operating in northeastern Mali, the Movement for the Salvation of Azawad, or MSA, announced it was joining a broader umbrella group of pro-government northern militias known as the Platform.  The move, formally announced on social media, went largely unreported in the Malian press, much less the international media.  On one hand, this is unsurprising: on the ground in northern Mali, the move is likely to have little impact and did not come out of nowhere, as the MSA has long been coordinating military patrols with Platform fighters in order to counter jihadist forces in the area.  Nevertheless, the MSA joining the Platform has immense symbolic importance: it is likely the final nail in the coffin of the ideology behind the 2012 rebellion in northern Mali, which sought to cut across preexisting tribal and ethnic lines.  Instead, this ideology has withered and died in the face of pragmatic, local realities in northern Mali.  Troublingly, the MSA’s accession to the Platform also means that no non-jihadist forces in the north are seeking to challenge the status quo in the area—bad news for the Agreement on Peace and Reconciliation, the peace agreement that ended most conflict in 2015, and French-led counterterrorism efforts.

Before digging into what happened with the MSA last month, a brief history refresher is in order.  In January 2012, a predominantly Tuareg group called the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA by its French acronym) launched an armed rebellion against the Malian state seeking the independence of Mali’s three northern regions as the nation-state of Azawad.  Joining the MNLA in its rebellion were several jihadist groups affiliated with Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM); the precise extent to which the MNLA cooperated with these groups during the first months of the rebellion is hotly disputed.  By April, the MNLA and the jihadist groups had soundly defeated the Malian military within the borders of the state-to-be of Azawad, and the MNLA declared Azawadian independence.  Shortly thereafter, though, the MNLA and the jihadist groups turned against each other, with the jihadists winning and taking control of all major cities in the area.  Jihadist advances south prompted a French-led international intervention in January 2013, which eventually gave way to a UN-sponsored peace process.  In 2015, this peace process resulted in the Agreement on Peace and Reconciliation, which formally ended separatist ambitions.  (The Agreement was signed between three parties: the Malian government, an umbrella group of formerly pro-secessionist armed groups called the Coordination of Azawad Movements, or CMA, and an umbrella group of anti-secessionist armed groups, the Platform.) The Agreement is ostensibly still being implemented, but implementation has stalled in recent years.

The MSA was founded in September 2016 by former members of the MNLA.  Unlike other groups that splintered off the MNLA in 2015 and 2016, mostly in an attempt to extract rewards from the peace process, the MSA’s departure was genuinely significant thanks to the personality of its leader, Moussa Ag Acharatoumane.  Ag Acharatoumane was one of the founders and intellectual leaders of the Tuareg nationalist project that gave rise to the MNLA.  The MNLA and its ideology were unprecedented in northern Mali: despite the MNLA’s Tuareg roots, it advocated for a secular state that made no distinction between the tribal and ethnic identities of its inhabitants.  This broad nationalism allowed the MNLA to win support across the entire Tuareg community of northern Mali, as well as significant support from other ethnicities, and from the beginning, Ag Acharatoumane was at the center of it.  In 2010, Ag Acharatoumane helped found an organization dedicated to pursuing independence along these lines through peaceful means.  He was promptly arrested by Malian authorities, triggering popular protests in northern Mali and turning him into a celebrity, especially among Tuareg diaspora communities following events online.  After the MNLA began its rebellion in January 2012, Ag Acharatoumane was one of the group’s first official spokespersons and was regularly cited in Western media.  After the MNLA declared Azawad’s independence in April 2012, Ag Acharatoumane was named to a post in the MNLA’s would-be transitional government.  Ag Acharatoumane continued to communicate on behalf of the group, and thanks to his media savvy and ability to articulate himself in French (he was a student in France prior to becoming involved with politics in Mali), he was one of the biggest champions of the MNLA and its supratribal nationbuilding project on the international stage.

Why, then, has Ag Acharatoumane allied his group with the Platform, an organization which, by opposing any sort of formal autonomy for northern Mali, fundamentally stood against every facet of that ideology?  The answer lies within the changes that have taken place within northern Mali since 2012 and especially since the international intervention against jihadist forces in 2013.  Although the MNLA attracted a broad base of support within the Tuareg community, its support was weakest among the highest echelons of the Tuareg religious and political elite, which hail from the Ifoghas tribe of Kidal Region.  The Ifoghas elites, who had little to gain and much to lose in an environment where tribal status was minimized, instead primarily aligned themselves with AQIM-linked groups.  The French intervention prompted an exodus of these elites out of groups that were being targeted by French airstrikes, and the result of this exodus was a new organization called the High Council for the Unity of Azawad (HCUA).  By the time the HCUA was founded, it was clear that Azawadian independence could not be won through military means alone, and the group aligned itself with the MNLA to take part in the political process, forming the CMA, the umbrella group that ultimately signed the Agreement on Peace and Reconciliation.  As the political process wore on, the HCUA, representing the traditional Ifoghas elites of Kidal Region, came to hold greater clout within the CMA, as the MNLA itself was greatly weakened by splintering along tribal lines as tribal leaders sought to use the political process to feed patronage networks.  At the same time, leaders of the MNLA, formerly largely outside traditional tribal power structures in Mali because of their residence abroad, used their new status stemming from their positions in the MNLA to integrate themselves into tribal power structures.  For example, Mohamed Ag Najim, the MNLA’s military commander and formerly a longtime officer in the Libyan army, assumed leadership of his Idnan tribe in January 2016.  Moussa Ag Acharatoumane himself followed this path: despite being only in his 30s, he was able to become chief of the executive committee of his Idaksahak tribe, which also comprises almost the entire membership of the MSA under his control.  These twin processes, namely the increase of the HCUA’s power and by extension the power of traditional Tuareg elites within the pro-independence movement, and the irresistible lure of tribal power for MNLA leaders themselves, have effectively combined to discredit the MNLA’s initial revolutionary ideology. 

With the MNLA’s broader ideology discredited, for Ag Acharatoumane and the MSA, hyper-local concerns came to the fore.  These local concerns have, from the beginning, pushed the MSA into the arms of the Platform rather than the CMA.  Due to its Idaksahak tribal makeup, the MSA operates exclusively in the Ménaka and eastern Gao Regions of northeastern Mali; in this area, the CMA, dominated as it now is by elites from the far-northern Kidal, has relatively little power, while the Platform has a much greater local presence.  The MSA has coordinated militarily with the Platform for years in their joint fight against jihadist forces, especially the Islamic State in Greater Sahara, which have targeted civilians in the area.  Joining the Platform merely formalizes this arrangement.

The fact that the MNLA’s ideology, which sought to fundamentally challenge the status quo in northern Mali, has been unable to survive has serious negative implications for Mali’s future and for the prospects of ending warfare in the north.  Implementation of the Agreement on Peace and Reconciliation has stalled in recent years.  While the three signatories to the Agreement, the government, the CMA, and the Platform, point to various logistical challenges standing in the way of putting their commitments under the Agreement into practice, the truth is that now, the political situation in northern Mali has largely returned to the status quo as it existed prior to 2012, and with the MSA’s accession to the Platform, no significant group is seeking to challenge this status quo.  Just like before 2012, the Malian government, which has always seen the northern part of the country primarily as a source of problems, has the de jure control over the north it demands and provides a small level of services, especially in Gao Region.  The Platform, which enjoys extremely close ties with the government (for example, a major Platform leader is also a general in the Malian military), enjoys significant control in Gao and Ménaka Regions; many of its leaders also led pro-government militias and served as the government’s proxies in the 2000s.  The CMA, now dominated by the traditional elites of Kidal Region, especially the leaders of the Ifoghas tribe, effectively controls Kidal Region; these same elites wielded enormous local power before the outbreak of war.  Both the Platform and the CMA are heavily involved in trafficking of all types, especially in narcotics, which provides most of the economic vitality of the entire region.  The government, the CMA, and the Platform are not inclined to work to implement the Agreement on Peace and Reconciliation because each is fundamentally content with the status quo, which is effectively the status quo ante.

The problem, of course, is that the status quo in northern Mali is dangerously unsustainable.  Most immediately, northern Mali (and now central Mali as well) suffers from an astronomically higher level of violence, especially jihadist violence, than it did prior to 2012.  Hundreds of civilians have died in recent years, and attacks against civilians as well as Malian and international military forces continue at a high rate.  In the absence of formal, effective security forces, non-terrorist crime has also skyrocketed.  Second, the systems of tribal patronage that once again regulate northern Mali are themselves highly unpopular among the residents of the area, who have repeatedly expressed their distrust with the signatory groups and called for broader popular participation in the implementation of the Agreement.  It is vital to keep in mind that popular dissatisfaction with the tribal patronage system in northern Mali prior to 2012 was likely the single largest factor, in laying the groundwork for the outbreak of war.  Exasperation with the armed groups, including signatories of the Agreement, is already a recruiting lever for jihadist groups, and if left unchecked, it will place northern Mali on a path back to large-scale open warfare.

International organizations, especially the UN and France, are unlikely to provide the impetus for a paradigm shift.  The MSA’s switch to the Platform will likely have positive, albeit limited, implications for France’s counterterrorism mission in Mali, Operation Barkhane.  The Mali-Niger border region in which the MSA operates remains a hotspot of terrorist activity, with French airstrikes killing nine suspected terrorists just three weeks ago.  The MSA has been a valuable ally to French counterterrorism operations in the region, but the cooperation between the two raised eyebrows among the Malian government and public, who questioned why France was choosing to work with the MSA rather than the Malian military.  By joining the Platform, which is recognized throughout Mali as being close to the government, the MSA will likely attract less negative publicity in Mali as Malian public opinion is becoming even more hostile to perceived northern separatism, making cooperation with France easier for everyone involved.  However, France’s operation in Mali is aimed at containing, rather than eradicating, the jihadist threat, and France is seeking to draw down and eventually pull out its forces.  Operation Barkhane does not have nearly enough resources to truly change the status quo in northern Mali, and the MSA’s accession to the Platform will not change that.

Unfortunately, there is no easy fix to the situation in northern Mali.  The Agreement on Peace and Reconciliation still provides a blueprint for a more just, inclusive, and peaceful social contract to regulate relations between the government and the people and between different communities in the area.  However, as has been discussed previously, the signatories to the Agreement all appear content to leave the Agreement’s provisions in limbo, endorsed yet not implemented.  A security-first approach focused on killing important jihadist leaders, as is pursued by French troops in Mali, will almost certainly never bring real security to the region, especially not given that France seeks to reduce its footprint in Mali.  The only way forward is likely to work to empower local communities outside the aegis of the armed groups and signatories.  However, even this approach inevitably relies on traditional structures and authorities, which have largely been coopted by the armed groups.  Mali’s problems are far from intractable.  Nevertheless, in looking at the future of northern Mali’s small war, optimism is in short supply.

About the Author(s)

Michael Keen is a Robert T. Jones, Jr. Fellow at the University of St. Andrews.  From January-July 2018, he worked for the Atlanta-based members of the Mali Independent Observer team at The Carter Center.  He is currently writing a book on the use of social media by the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) during its rebellion, 2012-2015.