On 26 January 2013, French forces liberated the city of Gao in Mali after it had endured a 10-month-long occupation by Islamic extremists calling themselves the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) and its close ally, Ansar Dine. MUJAO was established as recently as mid-2011 as a Black African offshoot of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) because its fighters thought the parent organisation "too Algeria" focused. In Mali, where the population for the most part practise a more open-minded and tolerant Islam, the French soldiers were greeted as heroes by Gao's inhabitants. The enthusiastic welcome was witnessed throughout most of the rest of the country with many Malians wishing the French to stay on permanently. Mali, where some 90 per cent of the population follow Islam, was overjoyed to see their co-religionists defeated, especially as the Muslim extremists had imposed an excessively harsh interpretation of Sharia law during their unwelcome stay in the bulk of the country they occupied.
Before being forced to retreat after the French offensive, these jihadist groups controlled two-thirds of the country's landmass. One of many enforced cruelties carried out, included (alleged) thieves being tied down and having a hand sawn off in public and the Mayor of Gao, after the city had been liberated by Malian and French soldiers, said that on five occasions victims had had a hand and foot amputated. Such excesses had caused the one-time ally of MUJAO and Ansar Dine, the avowedly secular Tuareg rebel group, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) to change sides and fight alongside the Malian Army and French and allied forces from West Africa - all part of France's Opération Serval.
Although stability has returned to the southern, one-third of Mali where the bulk of it 15+ million inhabitants live, the same cannot yet be said for the rest of the country. Reuters on 09 June quoted UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon describe the situation in Mali as "fluid" due "to continued asymmetric attacks across (all) three regions of the north". Disturbingly, the same UN report highlighted the fact that both sides "have committed abuses against civilians because of their ethnic origins...Soldiers (of the Malian Army) are accused of torturing Tuaregs (whilst advancing on the town of Kidal) while the rebels are said to have rounded up and beaten members of rival, dark-skinned groups".
In an attempt to diffuse the situation and establish a lasting peace, on Saturday, 08 June in Ouagadougou, capital of neighbouring Burkina Faso, talks finally though tentatively, got under way between the Malian authorities represented by Special Adviser for Northern Mali, Tiebele Drame, and Tuareg rebels of the militant Islamist group Ansar Dine. Ansar Dine have between 5,000 and 10,000 active combatants in Northern Mali at present and compose the great majority of those fighting against the Malian Army and the forces of Opération Serval. (AQIM and MUJAO have some 1,500 fighters between them). Representing Ansar Dine was their current leader Alghabass Ag Intalla.
The aim of the conference declared Burkina Faso's President Blaise Compaore: "...is to find a durable solution to the grave crisis engulfing Mali...", which he said was vital to the staging of Mali's Presidential Election which is scheduled for 28 July 2013.
A tall order given the complex nature of the opposing sides and often underlying differences within each faction, let alone the sporadic but intense fighting that continues in Northern Mali. This flared particularly fiercely and most recently on 05 June. Agence France-Presse (AFP) reported on a battle near "the rebel-held city" of Kidal in the town of Anefis. Quoting Malian Army sources, AFP said that the fighting had left 30 rebels dead at the cost of two Malian soldiers wounded and came after the "rebels" had expelled more than 100 "black" inhabitants and had arrested many others. Highlighting the expulsion of "black" Africans indicates that the "rebels" are "white" or fairer skinned Tuaregs and that these rebels have apparently suffered a severe setback should be good news for the Malian Government and its allies.
The problem of course, is that the MNLA are no longer meant to be "rebels" and have for months now fought against the Islamist militants, who of late, have been resorting to using suicide bomber attacks and such like. Yet presently, it is the MNLA who are the ones "defending" their homeland stronghold of Kidal against Government forces from Bamako - a Government that the Tuaregs have long felt has discriminated against them and the other Berber peoples of the north. The town is well defended by the MNLA in this large though sparsely inhabited region where the Tuaregs are in a majority and the Malian Army is advancing slowly, a little reluctant it appears to attack the town head-on.
The French meanwhile, do not appear to be in any hurry to help install Malian forces in this remote corner of the desert and last week this sparked the first anti-French protests to be staged in Mali, as many now of the country's 90 per cent Black African majority, suspect that France might be willing to settle the conflict by making an accommodation with the Tuaregs. Such an understanding, if one is being contemplated, is most unlikely to change Mali's borders but may involve a degree of federation. This is likely to please at least the MNLA. Since December 2012 they have adopted a much less belligerent tone and told a committee from the UN that they would settle for "some form of self-determination", emphasizing that this "...is not the same as secession..." and would still remain part of Mali.
Realistically, this is appears to be a long way off as long as fighting continues between the Malian Army and the MNLA but could prove in the longer term a most practical solution. In the meantime, it is difficult to see how the Tuaregs, split between a secular MNLA and Salafist-jihadist Ansar Dine who betrayed and defeated them only last year in Gao, can be reconciled, or, why France would want to talk to Ansar Dine and be willing to trust their word when their aim is to impose Sharia law over all Mali and neighbouring Niger - Ansar Dine do not recognise secular borders as such and would most likely want the return of a pan-Islamic caliphate. Provided though France remains resolute in crushing this terrorist threat and one which has already attacked it uranium mines in neighbouring Niger, Ansar Dine and its allies have no real long-term future.
There will be no surprise that news of peace proceedings coming out of Burkina Faso is scarce and adding to the difficulty of coming to a swift agreement is the problem that President Compaore is meeting the Malian and (both) Tuareg sides separately. The President's goal was to achieve a comprehensive agreement between the parties by Monday 10 June and although this has passed, Burkina Faso's Foreign Minister, Djibril Bassole announce on the 11th that there is optimism of a peace accord being reached and that Mr Drame had returned to Bamako to brief his Government. Fingers crossed!