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Peace talks for Mali

Katrin Matthaei / aelSeptember 5, 2014

Negotiations between Mali’s government and rebels concerning the status of northern Mali are underway. Both sides seem far from any compromise. The rebels want far-reaching autonomy.

Image: Getty Images/F. Batiche

The Malian central government has to choose between two evils: either it bows to the Tuareg separatists' wish for far-reaching autonomy in the north or it loses the region.

Both sides have been taking part in a second round of negotiations that started on Monday (01.09.2014) in the Algerian capital Algiers.

The talks are planned to last eight weeks - but shortly after they began, the Tuareg rebels' "National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad" (MNLA) walked out. Mali's government now has its back to the wall.

Following the Tuaregs' major offensive on Kidal in May 2014, the rebels now control about three-quarters of the country.

Speaking to DW, MNLA spokesperson Mousa Ag Assarid said he was willing to negotiate. He spoke of some misconceptions that have to be cleared up and emphasized "it should not be forgotten what our main demands are: Azawad wants its own status."

Tuareng rebels at the negotiating table
Many people hope that this time around the negotiations will bring about peace in MaliImage: Getty Images/F. Batiche

Azawad is the name given by the separatists to the region in the north. It is about the size of France and covers more than half of Mali's national territory. The rebels are demanding full autonomy for the region. In an interview with DW, Minister of the Interior General Sada Samake did his best to appear relaxed and insisted that "everything is fine."

Splinter rebel groups

This is contradicted by the fact that one day after the beginning of negotiations, four Chadian peacekeepers of the UN Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) were killed in an attack. Who was behind the attack remains unclear.

More than five major rebel groups are active in the north and each group pursues its own goals. "The more these groups break up into smaller groups, the longer the negotiations will take," says Issa N'Diaye, a political scientist at the University of Bamako. "How can anyone satisfy all these groups? This is an almost impossible task."

At the negotiating table the groups are divided into hardliners - MNLA, the High Council for the Unity of Azawad (HCUA) and the Arab Movement for Azawad (MAA) - and "doves”, consisting of another branch of the MAA, the People's Coalition of Azawad (CPA) which split from the MNLA, and other groups striving for autonomy. The Islamist militias linked to al-Qaeda, such as Ansar Dine, have been excluded from the negotiations.

Men in blue helmet sitting
Four Chadian peacekeepers were killed soon after the talks beganImage: picture-alliance/dpa

'Mali is indivisible'

Some of these groups are not primarily interested in autonomy for the Tuaregs, says Moussa Ould Amar Hemed from the Center for Strategic Studies in neighboring Burkina Faso.

"In northern Mali, drug trafficking is common. The north is composed of a huge area with a small population which is active in smuggling drugs, weapons or gasoline. To the north, Mali borders with Libya and Algeria. The real problem is the weakness of this region," the political scientist says.

The fact that the central government in Bamako has so far remained tough on the question of the far-reaching autonomy of the north is welcomed by many citizens living thousands of kilometers away from the capital, who are suspicious of the Tuaregs.

Many people hope that the new talks in Algiers will lead to a lasting political solution. It's a good sign that the rebels are now sitting at the negotiating table, says a Bamako citizen. "That shows that they are optimistic and are willing to work towards finding a solution to the conflict."

A map of Mali showing the capital city Bamako
Tuareg separatists control about three quarters of the country

Weak military

Northern Mali fell under the control of Tuareg rebels and Islamic militants following a military coup in March 2012.

The Islamists then broke their ties with the Tuareg rebels and advanced further to the south. In January 2013, France decided to intervene militarily in order to halt the separatists' advance on the capital. A first round of negotiations was then held in Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso.

It was agreed that there should be an intra-Malian dialogue, followed by a presidential election. However, since Ibrahim Boubacar Keita became Malian head of state in September 2013, little has happened. Even the truce did not last long. Following this May's major offensive by the Tuaregs, Prime Minister Moussa Mara said Mali was at war again.

"The Tuaregs have moved beyond the northern Malian town of Kidal into some smaller towns nearby. The Malian state is not strong enough to carry out a succesful counterstrike," says French political scientist and Mali expert Michel Gally. "We are dealing with a state that has fewer military means than an independence movement."