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After a successful military campaign against terrorist groups, free and fair democratic elections and promising negotiations with most armed groups, it appears that Mali’s demons are resurfacing after last month’s events. On Saturday, September 26, 2013, Al-Qaeda affiliated groups claimed a terrorist attack in Timbuktu. Furthermore, the town of Foita experienced a series of gun battles between elements of the regular army and those of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA),the Tuareg irredentist group; in the same week, military officers attacked a military base in Kati, headquarters of the former leader of the junta, now general Sanogo. These various incidents forced short the visit of the newly elected president Ibrahim Boubabcar Keita (IBK) in France; as he rushed back to Bamako to address the situation. This leaves one wonder: Is Mali back to square one, three months after the Ouagadougou Accord that led to successful democratic elections?

Square One – March 22, 2012, a group of soldiers led by then Captain Amadou Sanogo (now a four-star General) stormed the presidential palace in Koulouba and toppled the democratically elected president Amadou Toumani Touré. The coup constituted a key milestone in the path to instability in Mali. However, it was only an unintended consequence of the protracted irredentist conflict in the North between the central government and the Tuareg groups. Prior to the coup, Tuaregs groups dominated by the MNLA have seized important cities and towns in the Northern region of the country and declared independence. However, their power control was short lasted as they were overpowered by Al-Qaeda affiliated groups; who were in turn driven out by the French led coalition with neighboring countries forces, particularly from Chad. Following intense pressure by countries of the ECOWAS, then Captain Amadou Sanogo ceded power to Dioncounda Traoré as the interim president, through a deal brokered in Burkina Faso by President Blaise Compaoré.

In June 18, 2013, the Malian transitional authorities signed an accord with the armed groups of MNLA, High Council of the Unity of Azawad (HCUA), United Forces of Patriotic Resistance and the Arab Movement of Azawad under the auspices of ECOWAS. On July 1st 2013, 6,000 soldiers from the expected 12,600 UN peacekeeping troops officially took over responsibility for patrolling the country’s Northern region from France and the ECOWAS’ International Support Mission to Mali (AFISMA); with France agreeing to reduce it forces in the country from 2000 to 1000 soldiers to support the fight against terrorist groups. Following the accord, elections were held on July 28, 2013, (first round) followed by a second round on August 11. President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita witnessed a victory of 77.6% votes.

During the 18 months of instability, Mali experienced an occupation by Al-Qaeda affiliated groups who implemented the Sharia law in the North along with stringent practices. The rest of the country dwelled with instability and uncertainties (increased poverty, crimes, lack of public services, etc.). But above all, there was a sense of humiliation among the population and some elite in the region. This feeling of humiliation was compelled by the fact that, the country had to rely on the former colonial power (France) to save it from the Islamist grip. So the president’s campaign slogan: “For Mali’s Honor” could not have been timely and relevant. But will the president, also referred by his supporters as “Kankeletegui,” which means “a man of his word” in the Bambara language, succeed to restore Mali’s honor, dignity and unity, as he promised during the campaign?

It is possible, if President IBK and his government succeed to:

Resist to extremists of all parties and focus on reconciliation – As it stands, there are “hawks” in the government who believe that the government should exercise its authority over the entire country immediately. Hence the September 15, visit by a governmental delegation in Kidal, which remains a key MNLA “controlled” city. Some members of MNLA witnessed this inopportune visit as a provocation. There are equally some extremist among Tuareg groups who use the current stalemate to strengthen their military capabilities by making deals with Al-Qaeda affiliated groups. While these agendas constitute a threat to stability, the Government should not spare any effort to revive and implement the Ouagadougou Accord. The Accord may not be perfect, but it provides a framework to explore long term solutions to the root causes of the problems that have plagued Mali for decades. The president has made reconciliation one of his priorities. The Ouagadougou Accord gives him a sketch of a roadmap.

Build a competent and legitimate military force – For decades, the army has been the orphan and the soft belly of Mali. There has been a climate of suspicion between the executive branch and the army. The first opting for a strategy of divide and rule; hence the tension between the Bérets rouges (the presidential guard) and Bérets verts (supporters of Captain Sanogo and authors of the March 2012 coup). The recent incidents in Kati are symptoms of frustrations and divisions within the Malian army. And the ease with which the jihadists were able to conquer the North exposed the lack of skills and capabilities of the Malian army. Restoring a stable and disciplined chain of command is an outmost priority. The recent move by the President to dissolve the Army Reform Panel headed by General Sanogo should not be the end of the story, rather an important element of a comprehensive approach to more effective army and security sector reforms. In addition, the government should work with international partners to strengthen competencies and capabilities. Also, while efforts are made to strengthen the capacities of the Malian army to defend the country and its institutions, equal efforts should be made to strengthen their capacities to win peace. The Malian army will cooperate with the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission (MINUSMA) to win the peace in the country; this new mission will require a different set of skills, notably the ability to engage with and protect civilian populations. The ability to win peace will more likely reconnect the Malian army with its population and help build its legitimacy.

Stimulate economic development and share peace dividends – The new government should take advantage of the positive momentum inside and within the international community to define clear reconstruction priorities, as well as effective public policies that ensure every Malian feels included and benefits from peace dividends. Consider investment in infrastructures, health and education and agribusiness, particularly in promising value chains such as onions, dairy, meat (beef and mutton). Then work with partners and friends of Mali to leverage funds to support these national priorities.

Mali is moving forward, but it is not yet off the hook. Institutions are still fragile; the next November-December 2013 legislative elections are a critical milestone. The country is at the heart of an arc of terror that stretches from Tunisia, Libya, Niger and ends in Mauritania. Despite these challenges, the successful presidential elections, the positive momentum of support expressed by ECOWAS countries and the rest of the international community provides motives for hope. The honeymoon may be over, but IBK and Malian may succeed to rebuild their household after all. That’s my hope!

First posted in: http://www.internationalpeaceandconflict.org/