So far, northern armed groups have refused to attend these meetings, which they say are government-led initiatives with little room for a true dialogue. Despite the recent announcement of their imminent merger in a bid to strengthen their position vis-à-vis Bamako, they are divided over the opportunity to restore links with the government. For its part, the latter seems to have returned to the old clientelist system used by previous regimes to control the north. In the legislative elections, President IBK's party backed several candidates from or close to the armed groups. The government is rekindling clientelist links with Tuareg and Arab leaders with the aim to divide and gradually weaken the armed groups. This policy is likely to bring short-term stability at the expense of long-term cohesion and inclusiveness, vital for peace and development in the troubled north. In addition, it has deepened tensions between armed groups, thus increasing the risk of new splinter groups taking up arms.
In accordance with the June 2013 preliminary agreement signed in Ouagadougou, inclusive peace talks should take place 60 days after the formation of the new cabinet. This deadline expired at the beginning of November 2013. Contacts between the government and armed groups are still taking place but through informal channels and in an increasingly tense atmosphere. The main bone of contention is the future of combatants. The current uncertainty could threaten the ceasefire. The international community should use its influence and convince the actors that they must respect the provisions of the Ouagadougou agreement. The armed groups must accept disarmament and the full return of the Malian administration in Kidal, which could initially work with MINUSMA to maintain law and order. As for the government, it must show more flexibility and understand that national conferences are not an alternative to truly inclusive talks with all the northern communities, including armed groups.
Finally, the focus on the northern region should not overshadow the need to lay better foundations both for the state and for governance. As Crisis Group previously mentioned, the crisis in the north revealed serious dysfunctions that affect the country as a whole. Malian democracy, hailed as a regional example, collapsed suddenly. The country's new leadership and international partners agree that meaningful reforms are required to break with the past. Some believe that these reforms are too early, too soon for a state still reeling from the crisis. However, it is important not to miss the unique opportunity of implementing an ambitious reform on governance and economic development, supported by a well-coordinated international response. At the very least, bad habits of the past should not resurface.
To ensure security throughout the territory and better protect the populations
To the Malian government:
1. Ensure that the redeployment of the state in the north focuses on resumption and improvement of services (judicial, educational and health) and not only on restoration of the symbols of central authority.
2. Restore trust between state representatives and northern populations, particularly in Kidal, by:
a) investigating all potential abuses committed by armed forces against civilians and trying those individuals involved;
b) setting up the international investigation committee prescribed by Article 18 of the Ouagadougou agreement as soon as possible;
c) ensuring the professionalism and probity of the armed forces deployed in the north, in particular by using trained police forces, rather than the army, to maintain law and order; and