Demobilising and integrating armed groups in Mali, a difficult process

Most of the leaders of the 2012 armed movements are the same as those of the 2006 revolution and, in some cases, even those of the 1990s revolution
Malian army soldiers patrol the area along the Djenne river in central Mali, 28 February 2020.

AFP/MICHELE CATTANI  -   Malian army soldiers patrol the area along the Djenne river in central Mali, 28 February 2020

In most post-conflict state regeneration processes, one of the main challenges is the integration of armed movements into the army or civil society after years of war. Although this is a common problem in many post-conflict states, the case of Mali exemplifies the risks and challenges of integrating armed groups after the Tuareg revolts. 

Una semana antes, el primer ministro de Mali anunció el desmantelamiento de los controles de seguridad organizados por la milicia tradicional de cazadores Dan Na Ambassagou del país Dogón
AFP/MICHELE CATTANI - A week earlier, Mali's prime minister announced the dismantling of security checkpoints organised by the Dogon country's traditional militia of Dan Na Ambassagou hunters.

The last Tuareg revolution in 2012 led to a large number of people in the northern and central regions of Mali becoming involved in a conflict whose consequences are still present today. Tuareg armed movements, whether for or against independence, multiplied in number compared to previous revolutions. On the other hand, this was the first crisis in northern Mali in which jihadist groups such as MUJAO and Ansar Dine, which confronted both Tuareg groups and the Malian state with the aim of implementing Shari'a in Mali, were actively involved. Meanwhile, armed militias such as Ganda Izo reconstituted themselves in central Mali as a result of violence stemming from the conflict in the north and the disappearance of civil servants who fled the conflict. Despite the signing of the Peace and Reconciliation Agreements in 2015 between armed groups in northern Mali and the state, jihadism continued to spread in central and eastern Mali, reaching as far as Burkina Faso and Niger. Jihadist groups took advantage of the marginalisation of some populations and exploited inter-community conflicts to recruit followers. The formation of new groups in central Mali worsened the social and security crisis, prompting the creation of other ethnic-communal self-defence militias that have been radicalised and have even carried out massacres against civilians. From 2016 to 2020, the situation worsened until, in 2020, instability and insecurity combined with the economic ravages of the coronavirus pandemic provoked a political crisis that culminated in the August coup d'état.  

Mapa que muestra las zonas de influencia de los grupos armados en el Sahel y las bases militares regionales
AFP/AFP - Map showing areas of influence of armed groups in the Sahel and regional military bases

Although this situation is unique due to the particular circumstances of the Tuareg revolution and the spread of jihadism in Mali, the perpetrators of the violence have not changed. The leaders of the armed movements in 2012 are largely the same as in the 2006 revolution and, in some cases, even the revolution of the 1990s. Regardless of which faction they belong to, Dogon self-defence militia leaders such as Dan Na Ambassagou were also present in the militias created in the 1990s and 2000s, Ganda Koy and Ganda Izo, to fight the Tuaregs. This was the case of one of Dan Na Ambassagou's leaders, Youssouf Toloba. Jihadist leaders are not unknown either. Iyad Ag Ghali, leader of the Tuareg revolution of the 1990s and 2006, was the founder of Ansar Dine and the JNIM network, and several leaders of these revolts, from the Ifoghas tribe in the Kidal region, also joined jihadist groups. Almost all of the protagonists of the violence, i.e. the leaders of these groups, had been demobilised beforehand, and had even signed pacts with the state, disassociating themselves from the groups and aiming to integrate into civil society. This fact illustrates how reintegration strategies for members of armed groups have not worked so far. Title III of the Peace and Reconciliation Agreements signed in 2015 contains policies and strategies to demobilise combatants from the 2012 conflict. According to a report of the Carter Centre which serves as the Independent Observer monitoring the implementation of this commitment, there are approximately 84,000 members of armed groups enrolled in Demobilisation, Disarmament and Reintegration (DDR) programmes waiting to be integrated into the army and civil society. To date, fewer than 2,000 have joined the Malian armed forces.  

Un mapa de las ubicaciones del Ejército francés en el Sahel se muestra mientras el presidente francés Emmanuel Macron pronuncia su discurso después de una reunión por videoconferencia con los líderes del G5 del Sahel el martes 16 de febrero de 2021 en París
AP/FRANCOIS MORI - A map of French Army locations in the Sahel is shown as French President Emmanuel Macron delivers his speech after a video conference meeting with Sahel G5 leaders Tuesday, Feb. 16, 2021, in Paris.

Apart from the slow pace of the process, other challenges in integrating ex-combatants from armed groups is the fact that some of them have spent practically their entire existence fighting against the Malian state, under different leaders in their communities. Even if they are properly integrated, there is a high likelihood that their loyalty will remain with their original armed group, and their obedience remains to their leaders and not necessarily to the army commanders with whom they have been fighting for years. Finally, the absorption of armed groups, and especially their leaders into the army and the government, presents major challenges for two main reasons. First, when there is a lack of proper integration, especially for senior members of armed groups into the army, this leads to an inflation of ranks that results in young leaders of armed groups leading Malian army soldiers who would otherwise have been higher in rank. In the case of South Sudan, for example, incorrect absorption of ranks resulted in a large number of generals, even more than in the US, for a population of just 11 million people. In the Malian army, there are also a number of generals and military leaders who come from armed groups, such as Ag Gamou, who was demobilised after the Tuareg revolution in the 1990s. Secondly, in the new transition period in Mali, the new authorities have made an effort to integrate members of the CMA and the Platform, the signatory movements of the 2015 Peace and Reconciliation Agreements, into the government and transitional bodies. However, due to the slow implementation of the agreements and the government's announcement of the new transition roadmap, which is controversial for some Tuareg leaders, members of the various Tuareg communities in northern Mali fear that the leaders of the armed groups integrated into this new government no longer represent their interests.  

Un parche de las Fuerzas Armadas de Mali (FAMa) llevado por un soldado es fotografiado durante la Operación Barkhane en Ndaki, Mali, el 29 de julio de 2019
PHOTO/REUTERS - A Mali Armed Forces (FAMa) patch worn by a soldier is pictured during Operation Barkhane in Ndaki, Mali July 29, 2019.

In conclusion, the new government and the representatives of the interests of the northern Malian communities in Bamako must make an effort in this transitional period to accelerate the reintegration of armed combatants into civil society and to implement the guidelines of the Peace and Reconciliation Agreements as soon as possible.