More than pieces of paper

Although the government of Mali signed a truce with rebel insurgents about a month ago, there has been a recent spate of attacks over the last few days. Is it worth signing peace deals when you know they will be broken?

Mali (and its neighbor Niger) is in the midst of what Wikipedia calls the "Second Tuareg Rebellion." It began in Mali in May of 2006, but the main rebel groups agreed on peace the following July. The sole holdout was a group loyal to Ibrahim Bahanga, which kept fighting until a cease fire signed last month under the 'guidance' of the Libyans. This peace deal held up until about a week ago, when there were a number of violent clashes between security forces and insurgents. It is not certain that Bahanga's men are responsible for these attacks, but it is a reasonable assumption.

If we look back to 1990, the government of Mali has signed peace deals in 1991, 1992, 1994, 1996, 2006, and 2008, and none of them have held up. Yet Malian officials and even the Malian military still sees political agreements as vital to solving the "problem of the North." Even those these peace deals keep getting broken, I think they are still beneficial to the government for several reasons:

1) They strengthen Mali's democratic tradition, in which consensus-based decentralized governance plays a key role;
2) They demonstrate to nomadic populations the willingness of the government to engage nomads politically rather than just militarily, as was the case in the past;
3) They emphasize the health of civil-military relations in Mali (especially relative to other countries in the region) which also helps with American military training;
4) They demonstrate to the West that Mali "speaks democracy" and is thus deserving of Western aid;
5) The failure of rebels to adhere to the peace deals delegitimizes them in the eyes of the local population because the rebels either break their word or lack the power to control their fighters.

The danger of all these peace deals is that the government makes promises that it can't deliver on, such as large amounts of development and aid (the mistake of the 1991 and 1992 peace deals), or integrating lots of rebels into Mali's military, which can backfire (as it did last week).

The alternative to signing peace deals and political agreements is to pursue a military solution, like Mali's neighbor Niger is doing. The situation is not strictly analogous, but Niger's military has pressured the president into letting them pursue a military solution to the MNJ problem. The result has been (so far) a military stalemate. Libya might have flipped its policy away from the MNJ and towards the Niger government, so perhaps that stalemate will move in favor of the government soon, but so far the results of a purely military strategy have not been better than Mali's political strategy.

The peace deal a month ago was "preliminary" and provided a cease fire and a framework to hammer out a more conclusive peace deal in the future. Whatever peace deal is signed in the future, it too will probably be broken, maybe by Bahanga, maybe by someone else. But even so, it is still worthwhile to sign these things.

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