Algeria, a key player for reconciliation in Mali and sustainable peace in the Sahel

NESA Center Alumni Publication
By Dr. Arslan Chikhaoui**
28 March 2021

Northeast Mali was shaken two weeks ago by a deadly terrorist attack against the Malian security forces. This attack was followed by others in areas in western Niger bordering Mali. It is certainly not insignificant that these Violent Extremist Organization (VEO) operations happens at the announcement of the appointment of Mauritanian diplomat, El-Ghassim Wane, as Special Representative of the UN Secretary General and Head of the UN Mission in Mali (UNMISMA). Furthermore, this act of violence is perpetrated at a time when Algeria reiterates the Algiers Peace Agreement and has the appropriate inclusive framework for the consolidation and lasting return of stability in the country. Mali recognizes the key Algerian role as leader of international mediation and chairperson of the monitoring committee for this agreement. From my perspective, these attacks are yet another attempt to undermine progress in the peace and reconciliation process in Mali and are a way to ignite the ungoverned spaces in the whole Sahel Region.

1. A low intensity conflicts rooted over decades

The Touareg rebellion in northern Mali dates from 1962 to 1964 with what was called the “Fellagha rebellion” in Kidal. This rebellion broke out two years after the independence of Mali, which rejected the authority of President Mobido Keïta and the exclusion of investment or political focus in the north. In a word, it is a rebellion against the capital-focused only efforts and demands equitable re-appropriation of resources across all territories post decolonization.

The emergence of the Touareg rebellion in Libya and northern Niger in the late 1980s recharged the tensions in northern Mali. The protest movements called for greater integration of the Touareg within Malian society and additional efforts by the authorities to fight poverty and promote development in the northern region of the country. The rebellion began with the attack on the Ménaka prison and barracks in June 1990. As a result, the government launched military operations in the north to contain the uprising. The result was population displacement to neighboring countries, specifically to Algeria, which shares 1376 km of Saharan borders.

In an attempt to reestablish stability under the mediation efforts of the Algerian authorities, a Peace Agreement was negotiated in Tamanrasset (South of Algeria) on 6 January 1991 between Colonel Ousmane Coulibaly, Chief of Staff of the Army of Mali and Iyad Ag Ghali, Commander of the Touareg insurgents. This agreement provided for the decentralization of the north and the demilitarization and reintegration of the Touareg rebels into Malian society. It did not, however, prevent the violence from continuing. As a result, a national pact signed in 1992 with the Malian Government provided for initiatives of national reconciliation with the decentralization and integration of the Touareg within the military and civilian structures. Despite efforts to restore peace, tensions and unresolved grievances in the north fueled by the separatist aspirations of the Touareg ultimately worsened the security situation in May 1994.

Despite these efforts, another episode of violent rebellion occurred in May 2006 with attacks carried out by the new rebel movement “Democratic Alliance for Change (ADC)” against the barracks of Kidal and Menaka. This movement was aimed at meeting autonomy demands of the Touareg of northern Mali. It is also reflective of continued dissatisfaction of the population concerning the implementation of the agreements of 1990. This uprising was once again deescalated by an agreement signed in Algiers between the Malian Government and the ADC in July of the same year. However, the “Touareg-Niger-Mali Alliance – TNMA” rejected the Algiers peace agreement signed in 2006 between the Malian Government and the Touareg, rejecting the Touareg claim for more autonomy while demanding increased government action and development efforts in May 2007. The counterinsurgency led by the Government until the beginning of 2009 resulted in attempts by the government to dismantle rebel military bases, to destroy hundreds of weapon caches, to disarm rebels, and to integrate rebel forces into the Malian regular Army. However, TNMA fighters under the command of Bahanga refused to take part or support the government’s efforts. In November 2010, in northern Mali, a new movement made up of Touareg called the “National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad – NMLA” was organized, urging the TNMA and NMLA to merge. This movement was led by Bilal Ag Acherif, a Targi from the Kidal Mountains, who settled in Mali in 2010 after numerous round trips between Kidal and Libya. He became President of the merged organization renamed “Transitional Council of the State of Azawad – TCSA”.

At the beginning of 2012, a new rebellion led by the NMLA launched attacks on Meneka, accusing the Government of failing to keep its promises. In an attempt to deescalate tensions, a dialogue was initiated in February 2012 in Algiers between the Malian Government and the Democratic Alliance for Change (DAC), a former Touareg rebel movement founded by Iyad Ag Ghaly. These negotiations calling for peace were rejected by the NMLA. The failure of the peace process led to renewed fighting in other parts of the North and a strategic alliance formed between the NMLA and the Violent Extremist Organization “Al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb – AQIM”. From this alliance emerged the Salafist-jihadi group “Ansar Al Dine” led by Iyad Ag Ghali (one of the main leaders of the rebellion of 1990-1995) having pledged allegiance to AQIM and as an AQIM franchise legitimized its actions from the onset of the war in Mali.. This group was joined by heavily armed Touareg leaving Libya in 2011 after the Arab Spring uprising, the fall of Khadafi and the resulting civil war. With the proliferation of internal and external actors, the low intensity inter-Malian conflict grew. The situation escalated when a group of soldiers commanded by Captain Amadou Sanogo organized the “National Committee for the Recovery of the State and the Restoration of Democracy – NCRSRD, and announced, on 22 March 2012, the overthrow of President Touré, the cancellation of the Constitution, the closure of borders and the establishment of a state of emergency. In response, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), supported by the international community and Algeria, announced an embargo and the application of economic and financial sanctions measures against the putschist military. The following month, a cease-fire was established and a compromise of amnesty for the military was concluded. In May 2012 Mr. Traoré was also confirmed as President of the country. Despite these efforts disorder continues. The NMLA left Timbuktu after the Ansar Al Dine group took control of the city, amid the destruction of cultural and religious monuments. At the same time, the Salafist-jihadi group Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA) resulting from the split of AQMI and founded by Hamada Ould Mohamed Kheirou took control of Gao, following violent fighting with the NMLA.

Under pressure from the international community, the United Nations Security Council adopted, in October 2012, a resolution calling on ECOWAS members to militarily intervene and called on the Malian Government to begin a negotiation process. To that end, the leaders of ECOWAS sent more than 3,000 soldiers to Mali and Ansar Al Dine and the NMLA acquiesced to open a dialogue with the Government. Despite these efforts for a constructive peaceful dialogue and because of the escalating violence, the Malian Government appealed to the international community for assistance. This opened the door to foreign military intervention and enabled France to launch the military operation “Serval” on 11 January 2013. In May of the same year, a cease-fire was concluded and on July 13th, the French military operation officially ended and was replaced by the “Barkhane” operation supported by Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, and Chad to fight terrorism in the Sahel. The foreign military presence was strengthened with the multinational Task Force “Takuba” where Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Germany, Greece, Italy, Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, United Kingdom, and Sweden joined on-going French efforts. Unfortunately, this international military presence in the Sahel had no other goal than to defend the strategic interests and influence of each of the western countries involved in the military task force.

Algeria, faithful to its doctrinal principles of military non-interference which forbids the participation of its Army in any military operations outside its borders, irrevocably refused to get involved in a military operation in Mali. Instead, it has worked to find a political solution to the Malian crisis through dialogue. The inter-Malian negotiations were revived in Ouagadougou in June 2013 and resulted in signing a preliminary agreement to a presidential election and inclusive peace talks in Mali. Afterwards, the Coordination of Patriotic Resistance Movements and Forces (CPRMF) and the Arab Movement of Azawad  (AMA) (an armed group created in April 2012 under the name of National Liberation Front of Azawad ‘NLFA’ made up of Malian Arabs, not Berber Touareg, and active in North of Mali during the 2012 rebellion), were parties to the preliminary agreement. This agreement emphasized the unity and territorial integrity of Mali and identified the themes of the inclusive dialogue:

  • Organization of administrative institutions of Mali, especially in the northern regions
  • Organization of economic and political governance
  • Development of local and regional authorities
  • Reorganization of the defense and security forces
  • Establishment of the Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration (DDR) process of armed groups in northern Mali: collection, registration, control and disposal of small arms, light and heavy weapons, ammunition and explosives held by combatants; the controlled release of members of armed forces and groups; and return of veterans to civilian status and assistance with obtaining regular employment.

This agreement is the result of intense political and diplomatic efforts by Algeria, which has been a key mediator alongside ECOWAS and the African Union (AU). In parallel, on 1 July 2013 the United Nations Security Council, within the framework of the organization of the United Nations Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (UNMISMA), dispatched 12,600 peacekeepers to northern Mali. UNMISMA was theoretically to allow the partial withdrawal of the French Army and ensure peace was maintained for the smooth running of the elections.

The Ouagadougou agreement allowed the organization of presidential elections and a return to constitutional order. On 4 September 2013, Ibrahim Boubaker Keita was elected President of Mali. The general elections were held between November and December 2013, despite resurgence of violence in Kati and Kidal and the announcement of the resumption of conflict by the NMLA in new clashes between Touareg and Malian troops. A few months after the election, President Keita was accused of failing to keep political promises and trying to establish a dynasty with the election of his son as a Member of Parliament. Against this background of renewed tensions, the peace negotiations were delayed and the follow-up committee meeting cancelled. The rocket attacks on Gao, the clashes between the rebels and the Malian regular Army, as well as the killing of the two French journalists kidnapped in Kidal in November 2013, and claimed by AQIM in retaliation for the French military operation Serval (considered to be the “New Crusade of Mali”), sounded the alarm of intensified security issues in northern Mali. The situation between the NMLA and the Government further deteriorated when the latter tried to implement the Ouagadougou agreement. As the populations rejected the return of power by the Malian institutions and Armed Forces, Kidal became the theatre of demonstrations and violent clashes between the Malian Army and the rebels.


2. The Declaration of Algiers

Following President Ibrahim Boubaker Keita’s visit to Algiers in January 2014, a ceasefire was finally negotiated and the NMLA announced its decision to lay down arms, allowing the Malian Army  to take over the city of Kidal. Algeria played a crucial and proactive role leading role in the reopening of the dialogue process between the Malian protagonists. Thus, in June 2014, the representatives of the rebel movements signed the “Declaration of Algiers” in Algiers, to reaffirm their willingness to work for the consolidation of the country, continuing the peacebuilding momentum, and engage in a national dialogue. Several coordination meetings were held prior to organizing this inclusive dialogue. Under the aegis of Algeria and with the bilateral contributions of Burkina Faso, Mauritania, Niger, Chad, and multilateral organizations of ECOWAS, AU, MINUSMA, OIC, and EU partners, the first phase of the inter-regional dialogue of Mali was launched in Algiers from 16 to 24 July 2014. This event resulted in the signing of two agreements: the “roadmap for negotiations in the framework of the Algiers process”, and the “declaration of cessation of hostilities”. The objective of the roadmap was to establish a framework for peace negotiations to enable a comprehensive solution to the problem of the northern regions. The declaration of cessation of hostilities should enable a series of measures to be adopted to create a climate of trust and confidence for smooth running of the peace process. The second phase of the inclusive dialogue took place on 1 September 2014 in Algiers and brought together representatives of the Malian Government and those of the political-military movements in northern Mali who signed the roadmap. A third phase of the inter-national dialogue held on 19 October 2014 and prepared by Algeria as lead mediator, summarized the proposals of the two parties and served as the basis for future negotiations to consolidate the cease-fire and reinforce trust in order to reach as quick as possible a global solution to more permanently end the crisis.

Algeria has agreed to continue to follow-up and lead the inter-Malian dialogue and negotiation process by reinforcing and leveraging:

  • Its neighborhood solidarity
  • Its geographic proximity and historical links
  • Its military doctrine of non-interference
  • The insecurity that threatens the entire North Africa and Sahel region.


3. Conclusion

Algeria has played an historic and decisive political and diplomatic role of mediation in resolving the Malian crisis. Through its lobbying actions, objectively addressing the points of view of the different Malian actors and protagonists, Algeria was able to create the necessary conditions to resolve the Malian crisis and avoid continued violence on its borders.

From my perspective, it is obvious that Algeria will, in accordance with its history, principles and its doctrine, continue to pursue its natural role and actions as regional mediator. It aims to continue to help reconciliation and de-escalation in the countries of its neighborhood, too often characterized by low intensity conflicts, in order to promote and ensure sustained regional and sub-regional peace and stability.

According to recent US official statements,  I expect the Biden’s administration to continue to support  Algeria’s efforts to mediate political solutions and promote peace in the region. This aligns with the Obama administration’s endorsement of Algeria’s proactive role in resolving the crisis in Mali as affirmed during the respective visits to Algiers by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on 29 October 2012 and Secretary of State John Kerry on 3 April 2014. This reflects and highlights the international community view of Algeria’s crucial role and influence in the Sahel region.

While mediating in the region, fighting against Violent Extremist Organizations (VEO) and Transnational Criminal Organizations (TCO) as well as support for the sustainable economic development of border areas continue to remain the priorities of the Algerian Authorities. Regional cooperation and stability strengthen Algeria’s border security and ability to contain transnational crime and terrorism.

Algeria, with its proven experience and available resources, is able to effectively fight against terrorism and continue to play a leading role in CT operations. However, the policies to fight against these various threats as well as the border management policy remain guided by the following five principles:

  • Borders inherited at the time of independence
  • Sovereignty in its land and air spaces referred to both in Algerian and international law
  • Good neighborhood policies
  • Demarcation of borders and sustainable development of border regions
  • Non-interference in accordance with Algerian foreign and defense policy doctrine.

Thus, Algeria is committed and engaged in a relentless fight against the various threats at its borders, and in order to achieve success, favors cooperation and dialogue with its neighbors to combat VEOs and TCOs and to contain low intensity conflicts in the Sahel region.

AC / 28.3.2021

** Dr. Arslan Chikhaoui, is currently Chairman of the Center for Consultancy and Studies (www.nordsudventures.com ). He is a member of the Expert Advisory Council of the World Economic Forum (WEF-Davos), of the Defense and Security Forum Advisory Board (DSF-London), and of the United Nations Civil Forum (UNSCR 1540). He is an Alumnus of the NESA Center for Strategic Studies (NDU-Washington DC). He is also a stakeholder in various ‘Track II’ working groups as SSR in North Africa, Non-Proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction in the MENA region, New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD), and Security in the Mediterranean, North Africa and Sahel.


The views presented in this article are those of the speaker or author and do not necessarily represent the views of DoD or its components.