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How the Touareg Rebellion Came to an End: 
Peacemaking by Consensus in Mali


Let me repeat again today the pride that I feel to be at the head of a nation which has made tolerance and dialogue its cardinal virtues. As a modern state, Mali needs to add to its ancestral heritage of dialogue, a modern institutional infrastructure which demonstrates there is a real democratic process taking place." (...) "With this in mind, I shall ask my government to organize a series of regional Concertations in which every current of opinion will be able to express its views. Each participant will be invited to contribute to the debate, seeking to define solutions for tomorrow's problems. Our purpose will exclude systematic opposition to the ideas of others; nor will there be room for narrow sectoral demands. The government will bring to the discussion both its point of view and its proposals for change and together we shall seek the necessary consensus to achieve the transformations which we have started.

President Alpha Oumar Konaré on 8th June 1994, the second anniversary of his inauguration as Mali's first democratic elected President


The West African Republic of Mali ranks among the world's least developed and poorest countries, and in this vast and impoverished land, its northern regions are by far the least developed. With the exception of the "interior delta" area of the Niger River and a few oases and mountainous areas, the entire zone is an infertile desert covering an area greater than France. Education, health care, water, communications, and transportation infrastructure are almost totally non-existent. In this area lives a ethnically diverse population numbering something less than one million inhabitants, of which the Songhoys and the Touaregs are the most numerous.


Like many of the nations of Africa, Mali has been governed for extended periods of its post-colonial history by non-democratic regimes. From 1968 until 1991, President Moussa Traoré presided over a repressive, corrupt, and incompetent one-party regime. Throughout the Traoré period, very little economic development took place, and that which did was largely restricted to the Bamako region and other regions of the south. The poverty of northern Mali was further aggravated by repeated periods of drought.


Traditionally, the Touaregs and Arabs have looked more to the north for trade relations than to the southern areas around Bamako, the capital of modern Mali. In the late fifties, northern peoples had pushed for the establishment of an independent central Saharan state, and in 1963, a revolt by Touareg supporters of this state was brutally suppressed. During the drought years, many young Touareg refugees ended up in Libya, where Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafy was both able and willing to exploit their alienation from Bamako. The Mouvement Populaire de Libération de l'Azawad (MPLA) was founded in Libya in 1988, by exiled Malian Touaregs who were serving as mercenaries in Libya's Arab Legion. When its leaders returned to Mali in 1990, they launched the rebellion of Mali's northern peoples against 28 years of repressive central government.


General-President Moussa Traoré reinforced his army in the north and launched a brutal and violent campaign to crush this rebellion. Many of the victims of the military's efforts to put down the rebellion were innocent civilians. The inevitable result of the military heavy-handedness was to turn previously uninvolved Touareg youths into rebels, and to antagonise other ethnic groups.

As the violence continued, the Touareg fighters issued a 21-point declaration which included various demands for improved economic development, better social conditions, reduced military presence, multi-party democracy, a greater political role, and amnesty for their rebel activities. The northern rebellion coincided with increasing civil unrest in Bamako and the south, as demands for multi-party democracy and an end to the Traoré regime grew louder. Traoré needed to bring troops back to the capital to prop up his tottering regime, and so, in January 1991, the government of Mali signed a peace agreement with the rebels. 

"The experience shows that not only is peacemaking better than peace-keeping, but that it is much cheaper." 


It made little difference. In March, 1991, Traoré was arrested, and Mali began a transition process to multi-party democracy under the leadership of General Amadou Toumani Touré (known as A.T.T.) And in the north, despite the agreement, which was, in any case, viewed by many in the south as a "capitulation", the violence continued. The MPLA, which had already split into separate Touareg and Arab factions, splintered further, and fighting among the factions was often as intense as battles between rebels and government forces. Military units carried out summary justice, in one case killing a group of rebel leaders who had been imprisoned in Timbuktu. Government officials could no longer safely travel outside of the northern towns. Traditional leaders, who were viewed by the rebel leaders as too closely allied with Bamako, were also perceived as enemies. Anarchy and banditry prevailed throughout the north.


There were continued efforts to put an end to the violence. Algeria, in particular, played a crucial role in promoting efforts to reach a negotiated settlement. The new regime also attempted to bring more northerners into the government. A Peace Agreement was signed in April 1992, a "National Pact" which accorded a "special status" to the north. The Pact also provided for the demobilisation of armed rebels and their integration into the Malian military or police forces or into civilian life, an exchange of prisoners, the return of refugees, economic development for the north (and commitments to seek international funding for that development), local responsibility for law enforcement, and, significantly, the establishment of a commissioner for northern Mali, reporting directly to the President. This pact provided a framework for an end to the violence, but real peace would still prove elusive. 

Conditions improved for short periods, but would then deteriorate. More than two hundred thousand people fled the fighting and banditry, taking refuge in neighbouring countries, or moving southwards. 























March 27, 1996: Attendants at the Flame of Peace ceremony

in Timbuktu. Photo: Henny van der Graaf 


Acts of ethnically motivated violence were also reported in some of the larger cities and towns. As the elected civilian administration headed by President Alpha Oumar Konaré took office, the economy came under severe pressure from the combined effects of years of mismanagement and war. In May 1994, a new element was added to the already highly explosive mix - an armed movement known as Ganda Koy (Masters of the Land) was launched by sedentary peoples who were fed up with the violence and banditry.


Mali was on the verge of civil war. That this did not occur is to the credit of President Konaré and his new Prime Minister, Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, who both understood that they could never impose a military solution on the rebels, as well as a large supporting cast of local and international actors who persisted in working with the warring parties to find a way to re-establish the rule of law.

The construction of a stable peace in Northern Mali did not come about as the result of any one single action, but as the result of a complex of efforts to rebuild trust, to address legitimate grievances, and to reward combatants who chose to give up the fight. Building incentives into the peace process that would assure the continued commitment of people on both sides of the conflict to peace. 


Six essential aspects of the Malian peace process

1) Building civilian-military relations 
2) Discreet mediation by national and international figures 
3) Decentralisation of governance 
4) Promotion of reconciliation through civil society 
5) A process of disarmament and demobilisation 
6) Investment in the re-integration of former rebel combatants



Even while the violence continued, the government convened a series of meetings at the local level beginning in 1994. In convening these meetings, the government was embracing the African tradition (and following the pattern it had already used to effect the transition to democracy following the 1991 popular revolution) which goes beyond the traditional western democratic process where elections are the determining factor in shaping government. In the African tradition, decisions are taken at the village council, where elders preside over a discussion involving the entire community. Participants at the hundreds of meetings that took place from 1994 through 1996 included political parties, the administration, trade unions, religious groups, and NGOs, but subsequently, and more importantly, the local leaders, women¹s organisations, social organisations, economic co-operatives and associations, and other institutional representatives of civil society. All these meetings stressed the inseparable relationship between security and peace.


The administration also undertook to reform the military, improving conditions and training for soldiers, and improving communications both within the military and between the military and civil society. While both security and development were considered to be crucial to achieve stability in the north, the approach adopted by those involved in peacemaking efforts has been described as "security first". This followed from the logic that the armed civilian population would only give up its weapons if they believed that the security forces were capable of defending their families. Also the kind of development required to build trust and improve living standards in the north could only be achieved if donors felt confident that hostilities would not break out again and that development professionals could safely work in the former areas of conflict. Interestingly, one element of the overall peace plan was an attempt (with only limited success) to persuade development agencies to make modest contributions to the implementation of security projects.


Beyond Symbols: Weapons for Development

In "The Weapon Heritage of Mali", authors Van der Graaf and Poulton argue for a programme tying weapons collection to community development assistance. Instead of providing cash payments to individuals who hand in their weapons, development assistance is provided to communities for programmes like improved water systems, health care, and education. While a "Flame of Peace" is in and of itself both practically and symbolically valuable, a development for weapons programme helps not only to reduce the number of weapons in circulation, but it also to bring communities together to provide for both security and development, and quite possibly to prevent those who hand in a weapon from simply going out and acquiring a new one.


As discussed above, Mali's northern peoples felt little connection to Bamako. Part of the wisdom of the reconciliation process pursued by the Konaré administration was to accept this reality and to work with it, by offering to extend more power to local authorities. Decentralisation has been a central plank of Konaré's vision of society. During the many meetings of civil society, one goal was to convince people to support locally elected authorities, consistent with one of the points agreed to in the National Pact, and this is now moving ahead with the establishment of a nearly 700 locally elected "communes" throughout Mali. 

"One of the most important lessons is that even small actions, undertaken at the right moment, can have enormous positive impact in restoring hope among struggling people."  


Robin-Edward Poulton, Senior Research Fellow at the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research, who has worked on conflict resolution for many years in West Africa, describes the Konaré approach as "ambitious" and "visionary". He observes that "most of Africa¹s states will flourish in the 21st century only if they are able to reconcile the need for broader economic or monetary unions with the pressure from local groups to assume their cultural identities." Poulton concludes that "decentralisation is the new framework which will make people responsible for their own lives, for mobilising national resources and using them locally for productive investment."


These activities certainly contributed to reduced tensions between the government, the northern non-combatants, and the rebel fighters. But peace could only be truly secured by a process of demobilisation and re-integration of the rebels into the fabric of Malian society. This was largely accomplished by setting up a programme which provided for the cantonment of former combatants, the turning in of weapons, the closing down of rebel bases, and the integration of some of the former fighters into either the armed forces or the civilian sector. Participants in the programme were paid $200 pocket money, free food and training, uniform and a small monthly payment during the duration of cantonment. Those who came in without a weapon received $100 and were accepted into a UNDP credit programme to help them establish themselves in civilian life. While fewer than 2000 of the ex-combatants were actually integrated into the police, the military, or civilian administration, between November 1995 and January 1996, another 9000 individuals benefitted from the civilian integration programme and nearly 3000 weapons were collected. The cycle of violence had been definitively broken.


On March 27, 1996, President Konaré, Ghanaian President Jerry Rawlings (chairman of the Ecowas at that time), leaders of the Mouvements et Fronts Unifiés de l'Azaouad (the MFUA, uniting the various rebel factions), Ganda Koy, and a large delegation of international observers gathered in Timbuktu for the highly symbolic destruction of all collected weapons in what was called a "Flame of Peace". The weapons were stacked into a giant pyramid, doused with fuel, and then ignited by the presidents of Mali and Ghana. The rival movements issued a joint declaration in which they affirmed the indivisibility of Mali, pledged their support to the Malian constitution, renounced the use of violence, exhorted their fellow African fighters across the continent to "celebrate their own Flame of Peace", and finally, proclaimed the irrevocable dissolution of their respective organisations.



The Weapon Heritage of Mali, Henny van der Graaf and Robin E. Poulton. Chapter in publication of the Bonn International Centre for Conversion: "Weapons Collection and Disposal as an Element of Post-Settlement Peacebuilding." 1998

A Peace of Timbuktu - Democratic Governance, Development and African Peacemaking, Robin E. Poulton and Ibrahim ag Youssouf. United Nations, New York and Geneva, 1998 

Reprinted from People Building Peace: 35 Inspiring Stories from Around the World, published by the European Centre for Conflict Prevention.






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