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Mali – Rocky start to Algiers negotiations

Negotiations between Mali’s government and northern separatists kicked off on in Algiers on Wednesday, July 16. There has been no sign that a rapid resolution of the Malian issue can be expected. The talks bring together representatives of the government in Bamako and leaders of the main autonomy movements: the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), the Arab Movement of Azawad (MAA) and the High Council for the Unity of Azawad (HCUA). Also present were Algerian diplomats, representatives of other international governments, and dissidents who had split off from the three main separatist groups. The latter’s presence turned out to be controversial: the vice-president of the MNLA said “there can be no third party in this dialogue – it is us, Bamako and no one else.” In the afternoon, the pressure from the Algerians to come to an agreement prompted the MNLA to walk out.

It is hard to see how the talks can be successful, given the preconditions set by both sides. Bamako won a war (with French help) to keep Mali in one piece, and is standing firm on territorial integrity. Mali’s Foreign Minister Abdoulaye Diop said: “we do not want a federal State, we do not want autonomy [for the north], we do not want independence.” This does not leave much room for discussion, and certainly does not herald a quick resolution of the issue. The pressure that the Algerians especially are putting on the separatists to sign a deal at these talks seems counterproductive, as the latter have a slower process in mind. While the organisers had planned to arrive at some sort of settlement by Thursday, July 17, they did not. Some diplomats involved told RFI that they had already made plans to stay in Algiers until the end of the month.

Why do we care? Bamako is militarily strong thanks to French support, and this support has been confirmed in recent days with the signature of a military co-operation agreement that forms part of a longer-term French engagement in the region under the name Operation Berkhane. Strengthened in this way, the Malians seem to expect that the northern separatists will simply abandon all their demands and give up their armed struggle. They will not. We expect the Algiers talks to fail overall – even if an accord is signed, we do not think the Tuareg and Arab fighters in Mali will keep to it. The issue of separatism will thus fester, keeping insecurity alive in northern Mali, and resulting in occasional terrorist attacks like the suicide bombing that killed a French soldier on Tuesday, July 15. This is regrettable, but we do not expect that the separatist movement will be able to return to its former strength – it will remain a low-level insurgency, affecting the north and the overall political environment in Mali, but not regional stability.

Analyst: François Conradie

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