While the main rebel groups in northern Mali are consulting their grassroots about whether to sign a peace deal with the central government, Bamako has postponed local and regional elections over insecurity in the north.
Mali's government has postponed local and regional elections, because concerns over the security situation in the north have caused a delay in the revision of voter rolls, a government official said on Thursday (05.03.2015).
A new date for the elections has not yet been set, but according to Alhousseny Toure, a spokesman for the ministry in charge of territorial administration, "it will be October 25 at the latest." The north has seen sporadic attacks by Islamists and separatist groups. It is the second time that local elections have been postponed.
Nevertheless, the country could be close to taking an important step toward peace. An agreement negotiated between the Malian government and rebels in the north has been on the table since Sunday. It was reached through the mediation of Algeria and other international facilitators. Bamako has already signed the agreement.
The main rebel groups, however, want to consult their base first. On Wednesday, the United Nations urged them to accept the deal, calling it an important step towards peace.
If the representatives of the rebels get a green light, the agreement will be formally signed at the end of March. Algeria would then have successfully met its ambitious goal of getting an agreement to be signed within eight months. Calm could gradually return to northern Mali, which has been embroiled in a bloody conflict with the central government that has left thousands dead or displaced.
France said the agreement was "excellent news." In the course of its UN-mandated Operation Serval, France had driven most of the Islamists from the region in 2013. The country has since been exerting pressure on the negotiating partners.
Rebels display optimism
A spokesman for the rebels appeared to be optimistic. "The agreement is very important to us," Mohamed Ousmane Ag Mohamedoun, a spokesman for an alliance of rebel groups told DW. "We will now explain it to the local people. It's a genuine compromise and marks the beginning of a process that is moving ahead."
The main members of the alliance, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) and the Arab Movement of Azawad (MMA) now have a difficult task ahead of them. Azawad is a term that supporters of independence use to refer to the vast expanse of northern Mali, an area three times as big as France. The task will be difficult because their base comprises a variety of ethnic groups and very diverse players. In the eyes of some Tuareg clans and armed groups, the negotiators are returning home empty-handed. In the course of the negotiations, they had to give up their most important demand for broad autonomy or a federal structure.
Instead of having governors appointed by the central government imposed on them, however, the people of northern Mali would now elect their own regional councils. In addition, the North is to be better represented in national institutions, the army and the administration. Money is to be invested in the economic development of Azawad. For the first time, the Malian government at least acknowledges that there is such a thing as Azawad. However, the 30-page agreement only vaguely speaks of a "socio-cultural reality" which it describes as being part of the unitary Malian state and its territorial integrity.
Young people without a perspective
It is very difficult for the rebels to succeed in convincing the majority of the fighters to accept the agreement, Paul Melly of the Chatham House think tank in London told DW. "There are lots of young men, many of whom have taken up arms. There are not really very many job opportunities in the far north - the formal economy is quite limited." In the far north, he said, many rebels made a living smuggling drugs or arms via Algeria. The lucrative business would be jeopardized if the central government regained control over the area.
According to Melly, previous proposals for development in the north had failed to gain traction, which led to frustration in the population. When news of the agreement spread, it did not take long before protests were held in the provincial capital, Kidal. Many of the demonstrators called the agreement the "masquerade of Algiers."
Nevertheless, analyst Paul Melly does think the agreement will eventually be signed, not least because of the political opportunities that would come with the establishment of the regional assemblies. "If in the future the governor is replaced by an elected council leader, that will create opportunities for the traditional political elite in the far north."
Melly sees another powerful argument in favor of the deal. The government has agreed to a commission which would investigate human rights abuses and war crimes committed over the past years.
Fragmentation of the armed groups
Rinaldo Depagne of the International Crisis Group also sees the representatives of rebels in a difficult position. "Either they sign against the will of a major part of the population, or they don't sign and are held responsible by the international community for the failure of the agreement," he told DW. If they refused to sign the agreement, they would also alienate Algeria, the most important regional player.
Depagne is worried about a further fragmentation and radicalization of the armed groups that didn't sign the agreement. The hope being placed in the present agreement was precisely that it would promote unity between the disparate groups.