DAKAR (Reuters) - Mediators in northern Mali’s conflict underestimated the radicalization of a new generation at the heart of a separatist movement, a misstep that left the peace process in tatters after rebels refused to sign a proposed deal.
Gambling on pushing through an agreement, Algerian mediators organized only a handful of face-to-face meetings between the government and the Tuareg-led insurgents, participants said; too few to overcome the mutual mistrust accumulated by four rebellions in the desert north since independence in 1960.
Western and regional diplomats want a deal that will break the cycle of uprisings, freeing up foreign peacekeepers and Malian troops to tackle Islamist militants and drug traffickers criss-crossing the vast ungoverned spaces of the Sahara desert.
Al Qaeda-linked fighters in northern Mali fought alongside the separatists during their last uprising, launched three years ago in the town of Kidal, before the better-armed militants seized control of the rebellion.
An Islamist advance on Bamako prompted France to intervene in 2013, breaking the militants’ grip on the north but leaving pockets of fighters scattered in desert and mountain redoubts.
While Mali’s government and allied militia initialled a proposed deal this month, the rebels have refused to sign, saying proposals did not go far enough towards recognizing their desert state of Azawad.
With mediators and Mali’s government rejecting rebel demands for further talks, the process appears to have stalled.
“The Algerians thought they were strong enough to push it through but they underestimated the radicalization of the people in Kidal,” said Rinaldo Depagne, West Africa director of the International Crisis Group.
The proposed deal recognizes Azawad as a cultural space and allows for more devolved powers, including the transfer of 30 percent of government revenues to local authorities. However, the rebels insist Azawad must have its own political and legal status. Demands handed to mediators this month included diplomatic posts and control over the composition of security forces in the zone, a document seen by Reuters showed.
They also called for the state to channel 40 percent of the national budget to a fund to develop the north - impossible for President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita’s government, already under fire in the populous south for making too many concessions.
“The three northern regions do not in any way constitute an entity called Azawad,” Foreign Minister Abdoulaye Diop told Malians, stressing the government would not make any commitments that threatened Mali’s sovereignty.
Like previous rebellions, the 2012 uprising was influenced by fighters who returned from Libya - a refuge for many Malian Tuaregs until the fall of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. A flood of arms from Gaddafi’s looted arsenals fueled the conflict.
In the chaos following a March 2012 coup in Bamako, which led to the implosion of Mali’s army, the rebels and their Islamist allies seized the country’s northern three provinces.
Depagne said the hard line taken by Islamists seeking to impose sharia rubbed off on the Tuareg rebels fighting for an independent state.
“The new generation of combatants from Libya are more radicalized than those who came back in the 1990s,” he said, pointing to their frustration at the failure of successive rebellions since 1963 to win autonomy. “In their minds, nationalism didn’t bring them anything.”
Separatist fighters have repeatedly denied links with Islamists and at times they have fought each other. But experts say opportunistic alliances were also struck, sometimes to facilitate the trafficking of drugs and other goods.
After Mali’s government approved the proposed deal, rebels sought time to consult with their supporters in Kidal. Discussions between rebels, tribal chiefs and youth leaders took place against a backdrop of protests by locals, who sent a clear message to their leaders not to sign.
“The elderly leaders are struggling to keep on top of the youth,” said an official directly involved in talks.
Maja Bovcon, senior Africa analyst at risk advisory firm Verisk Maplecroft, said a botched government offensive to retake Kidal in May 2014 led to a de facto partition, emboldening the rebels as government troops were driven from the north.
In the absence of government authority, rebels collect taxes from transporters and have distributed Azawad identity cards while the Azawad flag flies atop public buildings. To many, concessions proposed in the deal look like a step backward.
“Signing this document would mean the end of my people and call into question 50 years of struggle,” said Aboubacrene Ag Zambou, a 29-year-old rebel in Kidal.
Sharing a long desert border with Mali and its own Tuareg population, Algeria has a stake in the north’s stability. Its mediation in previous conflicts had also given it an understanding of the complex dynamics.
But participants said the talks were too centralized around Algerian mediators, allowing government and rebel representatives to negotiate directly only a handful of times.
“Ninety-five percent of the meetings were only with the mediators and about 5 percent with the government as well,” said Mohamed Ousmane, an official in the rebel coalition.
During five rounds of talks the two sides met face to face no more than half a dozen times, the last in November. The two sides were not brought together at all in the last round in February, participants said.
ICG’s Depagne said the lack of direct dialogue may have been a factor in the deadlock: “In many agreements it moves once you have direct dialogue.”
For many at home and abroad, patience is wearing thin.
Diplomats say the southern government needs to do more to develop its northern regions but rebel demands for independence were universally rejected. EU and U.N. envoys have told rebels the current deal is the best they are likely to get.
In the eyes of many southerners, the separatists are as much of a threat as the Islamists. Any concessions at all to the rebels are deeply unpopular, even to many northerners.
Mali’s opposition says the government has already given away too much by initialing the proposed deal without wider consultation. They say it goes against the constitution and risks sowing the seeds of Mali’s disintegration.
Diplomats looking for a breakthrough are selling the deal as the first step in a process that would see rebels sign but also be allowed to flag concerns they have with the agreement.
These complaints would be dealt with as the deal is implemented, they say. However, rebels say too much would be left open to interpretation and are seeking guarantees.
Two diplomats said an idea that has been floated but not yet officially proposed was to identify factions within the rebel alliance that were ready to sign and move forward with them.
Additional reporting by John Irish in Paris and Souleymane Ag Anara in Kidal; Editing by Daniel Flynn