Hurry up, or it’ll be too late

The Economist

As Mali’s feuding parties dither, the extremists may get stronger again

IN THE lobby of Bamako’s El-Farouq hotel, Ould Mohamed Ousmane Omar, a middle-aged Malian Arab whose life has been one of exile, rebellion and plot, is gossiping about friends and enemies. Take the Tuareg rebels, whose 2012 rebellion precipitated the fall of northern Mali to al-Qaeda-linked extremists. “They’re only in it for their own gain,” he says, adjusting the white veil of his turban to reveal a wisp of goatee. Or Mali’s new government, which, he grimaces, “knows nothing—not the north, not the Tuareg, not the problems. It’s so easy to fool.” As for his own faction, the Arab Movement of Azawad (as some northern Malians call their homeland), Mr Omar can only lament that an international conspiracy to thwart its potency has cracked it down the middle. But then again, he says, few of his erstwhile colleagues were ever more than “second-class” and “drug dealers”.

Mr Omar is one of dozens of delegates from a mosaic of armed groups meeting in Bamako to thrash out differences with the government and each other. At UN-sponsored workshops on March 13th-14th generals and gendarmes milled about in uniform. Dignitaries in robes and turbans communicated with barely perceptible flickers of the eye. And government ministers made fine promises about bringing services to Mali’s convalescent north. Yet nine months after a preliminary peace accord set out a strict timetable for negotiations, this was only the second occasion that the various sides had sat down together. “It’s taken a long time,” says a European diplomat. But these talks, he hopes, may yet turn out to be “a breakthrough”.

Blame for the slow progress is laid partly on Mali’s president, Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, who came to power with a pledge to unify the country but has since aggressively reinterpreted the original road map. In the place of the confidence-building measures that it stipulated, he has made provocative and impractical demands, such as the complete disarmament of the rebel groups before talks begin. Mr Keita has also done his best to sideline the UN mission to Mali, whose presence he resents.

In the face of his stonewalling, the armed groups have grown increasingly divided. Earlier this month the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, the original instigator of the rebellion of 2012, broke in two. Its leaders refuse to take part in a process which they say the government is sabotaging. But dissenters styling themselves as the Azawadi People’s Coalition want closer relations with the rulers in Bamako, and have castigated their former comrades in the press and on air. Mr Omar’s Arab Movement of Azawad and a clutch of pro-government militias are also racked by internal rows.

All this is manna to the violent extremists of Ansar ed-Dine, al-Mourabitoun and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, who are regrouping, recruiting and re-equipping—even as French forces reduce their presence and UN peacekeepers languish at half-strength. Gunmen flying jihadist flags have been seen in Mali’s distant north, in its farthest east, and in a number of settlements in between. The non-violent factions in Bamako need to hurry up, settle their differences and get moving towards a proper peace deal.

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