The once tense relations between President Keita of Mali, and leader of the opposition Soumalia Cissé have been tempered in recent weeks, as both parties have agreed to work together to find a solution to the country’s rapidly escalating internal conflict. The two met on September 9th to begin the first of a series of talks, with Cissé remarking that an “atmosphere of dialogue” was needed in order to foster peace and revitalise the country’s ailing peace agreement.
Keita’s government declared a State of Emergency on July 30th, to end in March 2017, following a series of violent altercations between government forces and Islamist groups in the central region of Kidal. Extremist groups such as Ansar Dine, Al-Mourabitoun, Macina Liberation Front, and Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb have established a foothold in the sparsely populated north, since the defeated Tuareg insurgency of 2012, alongside the continued efforts of Tuareg groups such as the National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad. The violence, which has been steadily increasing since the end of 2015, had primarily been limited to the same area of the country, and had been overwhelmingly directed towards the UN peacekeeping forces, with 106 fatalities reported since the operation began. However, a series of attacks on government troops in Kida in July by Islamists showed a marked acceleration in tactics.
Ansar Dine, the most active of the groups, released a video in August stating that “traitors” (any Malian who worked with or alongside UN forces, including the Malian armed forces) would be subject to the same attacks foreign actors had been experiencing. The comments came just days after the Macina Liberation Front murdered a Malian Intelligence Officer outside his home in Timbuktu. The death or injury of UN and Malian soldiers has become a weekly occurrence in the country, making it the deadliest peacekeeping mission ever undertaken by the UN, forcing them to adopt counterinsurgency tactics far beyond their formal remit – intelligence gathering, aerial reconnaissance, direct military engagement with Islamist groups, and preemptive strikes. Three more soldiers were killed in ambushes in the town of Boni, central Mali, as recently as September 10th. Several towns near Kidal have also been subjected to temporary sieges by Islamist groups.
The increase in violence directed towards Malian forces seems to have finally provoked wider political dialogue in Mali. The government, whose real influence is limited beyond the capital Bamako and other southern urban centers, had been criticised by UN officials for lackluster, clumsy efforts in supporting the UN’s mission. Analysts noted the regime seemed content to rely on the already stretched MINUSMA operation to dictate wider security and aid coordination, undermining the UN’s fundamental role of ensuring stability and maintaining peace, and risking further destabilization. Recent violence seems to have confirmed these assessments as valid, and the popularity of the government (and indeed all parties) has plummeted in response. Ahead of the planned municipal elections later this year, it became clear government actors needed to take a more proactive, or at least visible, role in reestablishing peace. While the meeting between Keita and Cissé does represent positive developments for the country’s democracy, it remains to be seen if tangible agreements towards peace will be attained.