Mali has signed a controversial ceasefire deal with Tuareg separatist insurgents, paving the way for government troops to return to the last rebel-held town of Kidal ahead of presidential elections next month.
The agreement allows for the immediate “phased deployment” of government troops in the troubled Kidal province of northern Mali – the last rebel stronghold in the country.
“This agreement is very important for the future Mali. It allows for the strengthening of the Malian state” said Manga Dembele, minister of communication for Mali, speaking to the Guardian by phone from capital Bamako.
“But it is a preliminary agreement, and it is important to note that the agreement recognises the territorial integrity of Mali, and provides for disarmament of rebel groups. This is in the best interest of the nation.”
Mali’s complex history of Tuareg rebellions has played a central role in the country’s ongoing war.
Malian soldiers, weary after a series of defeats at the hands of the Tuareg Mouvement National de Libération de L’Azawad (MNLA), mutinied in March last year, and then instigated a military coup in the capital city Bamako. In the ensuing power vacuum, the MNLA seized control of the north until they were ousted by the al-Qaeda-linked jihadist groups.
After a French-led international military intervention in January ended Islamist control, the MNLA and other Tuareg groups have re-emerged in the region, and retained control of the town of Kidal, a traditional seat of Tuareg power.
“There has been deep distrust between these two entities for a long time, and both sides have legitimate grievances, with serious problems for the security sector in that region” said Joseph Siegle, director of research at the Africa Centre for Strategic Studies.
“This agreement does have some potential far-reaching significance – it suggests an acceptance on the part of the Tuareg leadership that they are a part of the state of Mali, and it then opens the door for their participation in these elections.”
The new peace agreement is seen as part of a broader peace process to resolve Tuaregs’ longstanding demands for greater autonomy for northern Mali.
But concessions to Tuareg calls for self-rule are a highly charged issue in the west African country. A long history of tension between black African ethnic groups – who form the majority of Mali’s population – and nomadic Tuaregs, who have a separate cultural-linguistic heritage – has been inflamed by allegations that Tuaregs raped and persecuted black Malian residents in northern towns under their control.
Malians are also divided over the forthcoming elections, due to be held on July 28, with many saying the international community is forcing the country to rush into voting before the country, deeply scarred by the events of the last year, is ready.
“The international community wants to force Mali’s hand,” Diakité Fatoumata Siré, president of women’s group Association pour le Progrès et la Défense des Femmes au Mali (Apdef), told journalists.
“If the authorities don’t change their position on this, we will mobilise women to act and defend the interests of Mali.”
“We want to see justice done,” Siré continued. “Just becomes there are negotiations it does not mean that the crimes [that have been perpetrated] should be ignored.”
Many Tuaregs also accuse the Malian forces of ethnically-motivated abuses against them.
The international community hailed the agreement as an essential step towards restoring democracy in Mali, and restoring peace after repeated clashes between government and Tuareg forces in Kidal.
“The signing of this agreement represents a significant step in the stabilisation process in Mali,” said UN special representative to Mali, Bert Koenders in Ouagadougou, where mediators and representatives of the two groups met for almost two weeks before reaching the new agreement, which also unlocks a £2,8bn aid package pledged by western nations last month.
In a statement released today, French foreign minister, Laurent Fabius said that Mali had been “on the abyss” when France had intervened in its conflict, and welcomed the peace agreement.
“This agreement represents a major breakthrough in the crisis in Mali. Looking ahead to the presidential election on July 28, it reconciles respect for the territorial integrity of Mali and the recognition of a specific approach to the problems of the north,” said Fabius.