An alleged Islamist militant has become the first person in the International Criminal Court’s history to be charged with the war crime of destruction of cultural property. Ahmad al-Mahdi al-Faqi is charged with taking part in the destruction of 10 historic buildings, including masoleums and a mosque in Timbuktu. Prosecutors claim that Mr. Faqi was a member of Ansar Dine, one of two Islamic extremist groups that in 2012 overran Timbuktu and other towns in northern Mali, an area rebels call Azawad.
The 2012 uprising in Mali was the fourth uprising the country has seen since it won independence from France in 1960. The Tuareg and Arab populations to the north claim the more prosperous south marginalizes them – grievances that date back as far as the 1950s. The Tuareg claim of self-determination, however, reached a turning point in 2011 when approximately 2,500 heavily armed Tuaregs, who fought alongside Gaddafi loyalists in Libya, returned to Mali and formed the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (CMA). They quickly allied themselves with Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and another extremist group, Ansar-Dine. Arab and Tuareg militants declared Azawad an independent state, triggering a military coup that ended 20 years of democracy and relative stability.
By April 2012, the rebels had control of more than two-thirds of the country. Al-Qaeda linked fighters then overpowered the Tuareg, prompting France to intervene. With support from troops from the African Union and the regional Economic Community of West African States, the French-led offensive ousted the Islamic radicals in 2013. But even though the French-led troops successfully expelled the Islamic fighters, north and central Mali remained insecure. Malian authority over the northern regions was never reestablished, and soon it became apparent that negotiations with some of the rebels were necessary to end the stalemate.
After almost a year of talks in Algiers, the CMA finally agreed to sign a peace accord in June, formally ending the 2012 conflict. This is a welcome development for Mali but many remain cautious. Critics argue that the peace accord focuses on short-term security through disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration, and although necessary, does not do enough to ensure a sustainable peace. There is also some doubt about the degree of loyalty commanded by the leaders on both sides. Two years after President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita’s election, where he earned almost 80% of the vote, his government is increasingly unpopular. The Platform, a coalition of several pro-government militia groups, is filling the gaps left by depleted army forces, but their leaders are also acting in their own and their particular community’s interest.
Widespread violence and insecurity also hamper implementation efforts. Hours before the peace deal was to be signed, locals in the northern region of Kidal protested it, hurling stones at U.N. peacekeepers. And despite the success of the French-led forces in 2012, Islamist groups remain active. Scattered all over northern Mali, they now threaten the whole country.
Compounding these challenges, massive population displacement exerted a heavy burden on already strained health and education facilities as well as the water and sanitation infrastructures. U.N. and Malian officials announced in mid-August that more than three million people are suffering from hunger with 715,000 children at risk of acute malnutrition.
Last week the U.N. envoy for Mali, Mongi Hamdi, briefed the Security Council saying, “the peace process is back on track,” but he added that vigilance would be necessary. He noted that after a resurgence of violence in August and September, he met separately with the CMA leadership and the Platform to address the situation. The parties agreed to cease hostilities, return to their positions prior to the June 20th peace accord, and return to the peace process. He also admitted that the difficulties have been “more significant and have emerged more rapidly than what was expected.”
After the rebellions in 1992 and 2006, peace agreements focusing on decentralization rather than addressing Tuareg demands failed to restore peace. Hopefully these past failures will offer ample time and opportunities for the Malian authorities to avoid another.