This is a conflict that Mali would have done well without. Faced with a increase in attacks by jihadist groups in the north of the country, where it is struggling to stem its progress, the Malian army must face an additional adversary. Armed groups, made up of ex-Tuareg rebels, attacked the Malian armed forces (Fama) at the start of the week in the key town of Bourem.
There had not been military clashes of this magnitude since 2015 and the signing of the so-called Algiers peace agreement between the Malian central state and the coalition of armed independence movements, whose entry into rebellion in 2012 had marked the start of the war in Mali. The military junta, which took power after a coup in 2020, fears a resumption of hostilities which could cost it dearly.
Why did they attack the Malian army?
The various predominantly Tuareg armed groups present in northern Mali are united under the Coordination of Azawad Movements (CMA). “Azawad is the Tuareg name for the territory they occupy, in the north of Mali but also in four other neighboring African countries. They consider this territory as a sort of proto-state to which they have always claimed membership,” explains Michel Galy, specialist in sub-Saharan Africa, contacted by Le Parisien.
With the peace agreement that these independence movements signed in 2015, “we admitted that they remained Kidal, a sort of Tuareg city-state in the north of Mali, that they keep their weapons, in exchange for which they had to formally recognize the central government of Bamako,” continues the researcher. But tensions have continued to grow since the coming to power of the putschist junta since his “credo is to recover all the territory and disarm the Tuaregs”.
Dissensions went up a notch this summer. After demanding the withdrawal of foreign anti-jihadist forces, including French, the junta demanded at the end of June before the UN Security Council the withdrawal of Minusma, a UN mission of 12,500 men deployed throughout the country. “The Malian army is supposed to recover the Minusma base in Kidal, which the Tuaregs contest since they consider that it belongs to them. This is what triggered the recent clashes,” explains Michel Galy.
The separatists did not explicitly declare war on central power, but the day before the Bourem attack, the CMA published a press release in which it said it was in “time of war” with the junta. An official declaration of war would make “de facto the peace agreement obsolete and the situation could become very complicated for the government in transition,” warns André Bourgeot, anthropologist and research director at the CNRS.
What is the risk for the government in transition?
“The worst scenario for the government would be for the Tuareg rebels to ally themselves with Islamist terrorist groups,” observes Michel Galy. In the north of the country, the Malian armed forces, supported by members of the Russian Wagner militiaare facing a succession of attacks from the Support Group for Islam and Muslims (GSIM), affiliated with Al-Qaeda, on the one hand and groups affiliated with the Islamic State organization, on the other, which continue to gain ground.
“All these groups are usually opposed, but a temporary alliance already took place in 2012. If that happened, even with Russian reinforcements, the Malian army would be caught in a pincer movement and would have difficulty coping,” believes the specialist in sub-Saharan Africa. This is a hypothesis that “should not be minimized”, André Bourgeot also admits.
In a less catastrophic scenario, there could only be “segmental clashes”, that is to say between the different actors. “In this situation, the Malian army has a chance of achieving victory” against the Tuareg rebels, thinks André Bourgeot.
Proof that the military junta is not calm in the face of this escalation, the Council of Ministers has just adopted a draft decree evoking the mobilization of reservists, who would be called up “in the event of crisis, natural disaster or war”.