Initiatives for Peace in Northern Mali in the 1990’s – Lessons Learned


Mali has emerged out of obscurity since March 2012. Journalists worldwide have reported on the coup d’état and transitional government, capture of the northern half of the country by secular Touaregs, displacement of the Touareg movement by Al Qaeda-affiliated groups, destruction of historic treasures such as Sufi tombs and ancient documents, capture by French troops of the three major cities of the North, and introduction of soldiers from other African countries.  These events parallel those of the early-mid 1990’s, when the Malian army was unable to put down a revolt of Touaregs returning from Libya’s war with Chad or enforce a peace treaty with Touareg and Arab movements. It then fomented a coup d’état.  Consequently, the transitional government negotiated a national pact that guided a wide range of peace-making efforts with the rebel movements, working with civil society, the United Nations and bilateral donors. The mixed results of these initiatives and those implemented over many years by subsequent democratically elected governments provide some lessons for addressing Mali’s problems today.  This post addresses the lack of historical analysis of today’s crisis in Mali.

From 1993-1997, I lived in Mali, working as the Program Officer for the US Agency for International Development (USAID).  Northern Mali was an important geographic focus of USAID.  I oversaw USAID’s $2 million contribution to the United Nations Trust Fund that supported a program of Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration (DDR) Program for ex-combatants in northern Mali. I also defined and led the implementation of a strategy to help civil society increase economic opportunities and improve livelihoods as well as health and education services in areas affected by the fighting. My work enabled me to visit Timbuktu and Gao, the two major urban areas, as well as many villages along the Niger River. My on-the-ground involvement in the peace efforts over four years allows me to bring a different perspective from journalists reporting on today’s events.


Mali is a land-locked country about twice the size of France with seven neighboring West African countries.  Its economic lifeline is the Niger River, which runs through the southern half of the country and enables 80% of the population to engage in farming and fishing. About 65% of the geographic area is within the Sahara desert, which has infrequent and minimal rainfall, allowing herding to sustain 10% of the population.  Mali’s economy is based on agriculture, earning foreign exchange from gold, cotton and other agricultural exports. It is among the 25 poorest countries, with severe educational and health problems, and is highly dependent upon foreign aid.[ii]


About 10% of Mali’s 15.5 million ethnically diverse people are Touareg, a light-skinned Berber people. More than 90% of the population is Muslim, including Touareg. In the North, several clans of Touareg live in a symbiotic but uneasy relationship with other ethnic groups, such as Songhai agriculturists. The Touareg have a caste system, which is reflected in their long dominance over dark-skinned Bella servants.  Touareg are mainly herders, but also engage in agriculture. While they are a peaceful people, the Touareg have a long history of robbing travelers and caravans passing through the desert areas they know so well.


Mali was the center of empires from the 9th through the 16th century, based on its control of caravan trade in gold, salt, slaves and luxury items. During this time, Timbuktu became one of the world’s major centers of Islamic learning. Morocco took control of Timbuktu in the 17th century and sent its Islamic scholars into exile.  By the 19th century, Malian kingdoms gained power over large areas of the Niger River.  In the late 19th century, France eventually gained control of both the Niger River and towns in northern Mali, but never was able to fully pacify the North.  It held Mali until the country became independent in 1960.

Mali’s first President, Modibo Keita, reached out to the Soviet Union for support and broke relations with France.  In 1968, he was overthrown in a coup d’état by Moussa Traoré, who led an authoritarian, corrupt government until he was overthrown by another coup d’état in 1991.  Lieutenant-Colonel Amadou Toumani Touré led a transitional government, which gave up power to an elected government under President Alfa Oumar Konaré in 1992.  Mali remained democratic until the coup d’état of March 2012.

The Touareg

The Touareg have never accepted central authority. They resisted French control for more than 70 years. In 1963, a small Touareg independence movement was quickly put down by the Malian military under President Modibo Keita and the region was placed under military authority. Regional leaders appointed by the Central Government were unresponsive to the needs of the population. They were accused of diverting international food assistance provided in response to the severe droughts of the 1970’s, which displaced many inhabitants. The Keita and Traore governments allocated minimal infrastructure or development funding to the North, which remained isolated due to lack of roads and communications until the paved road to Gao was built in 1985.  Due to their isolation, inhabitants of the North, particularly the Touareg, have had little attachment to the state of Mali. Touareg clan chiefs, interested in asserting their independence, resisted sending children to the few government schools that were built.  Poorly thought-out government initiatives to reform land ownership and modify the relationship between Touaregs and their former Bella slaves increased frustration with the government.

The Rebellion

The beginning of the 1990-95 rebellion began when Malian Touaregs launched an armed attack to liberate Nigerian Touareg fighters who had fled Niger, only to be arrested by the Malian military in the town of Menaka, east of Gao. As the Touaregs and Arabs established a number of armed movements, they used weapons brought from the 1980’s Libyan conflict with Chad, where a number of Touareg served in the Libyan army. President Moussa Traoré sent a large part of his poorly trained army to the North, where they used repressive tactics to control the region.[iii]

The Tamanrasset Accord

By 1990, Traoré’s authoritarian rule fueled a democratic resistance movement in the capital, Bamako, that threatened his regime.  Recognizing that his military could neither eliminate the Touareg insurgency quickly nor protect him in Bamako from the democratic resistance movement, he sought the assistance of Algeria in negotiating a peace treaty with two major Touareg and Arab movements, the Azaouad Popular Movement (MPA), and the Arabic Islamic Front (FIAA). [iv] The Tamanrasset Accord, named after the southern Algeria town where it was negotiated, was signed in January 1991.  In the Accord, the Malian military agreed to “disengage from the running of the civil administration and … suppress… certain military posts,” “avoid zones of pasture land and densely populated zones,” and to be “confined to their role of defense of the integrity of the territory at the frontiers.” The Accord also affirmed that “combatants may integrate the Malian Armed Forces under conditions defined by the two parties” and called for a ceasefire between the two main Touareg/Arab factions and the government.

The Accord, however, was stillborn, as both sides lacked confidence that it would be implemented. The MPA then split into three movements committed to independence and/or autonomy. Members of the Songhai ethnic group felt that too much control was being offered by the government to the Touareg. Violence escalated.

The National Pact

The failure of the Tamanrasset Accord and expanding unrest by the urban democracy movement gave  Lieutenant-Colonel Amadou Toumani Touré (ATT) the justification for leading a coup d’état to remove the Traoré regime in March 1991. ATT committed himself to establishing a transition government and putting in place the conditions for a stable, democratically elected government by July 1992. In August 1991, he organized a national conference on the future of Mali, but organized it in a way that marginalized the voices of northern peoples. Subsequently, however, ATT invested enormous political capital in moving toward a National Pact that would ensure peace and address holistically the needs of the North.  In December 1991, he called on Algeria to facilitate a meeting that unified all the rebel movements into the Coordinating Body for the Unified Movements and Fronts of Azawad (MFUA).  In several negotiating sessions, again with the facilitation of Algeria, the transitional government and MFUA created the National Pact[v], which was signed in April 1992.

The MFUA acknowledged in the Pact that independence was no longer an option for the North, but that its future must lie within the Malian state. The goal was to restore confidence and eliminate insecurity.  The most urgent objective was to create a permanent cease-fire. Key aspects of the Pact included: 1) the establishment of commissions to investigate abuses, guarantee ceasefire and assure Pact implementation (through the Commissioner of the North and Commission of Supervision). 2) an exchange of prisoners; 3) disarmament and demobilization of combatants; 4) integration of ex-combatants into the Malian armed and civilian forces; 5) the reduction of military presence in the North: 6) the return of refugees; 7) the construction of infrastructure in the North to increase investment and catalyze development; 8) new administrative structures and local, regional and inter-regional assemblies. The Government recognized the “special status of the North” by creating the post of Commissioner for northern Mali in the Office of the President. The Central Government would fund implementation of the Pact, with support from international donors.

President Alpha Oumar Konaré was elected in July 1992. He viewed the National Pact as an essential instrument for putting in place the conditions that would prevent another military coup.  After the Pact’s signature, violence decreased enough for President Konaré to visit Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal regions in December 1992.  However, the new Government had a difficult time implementing the Pact quickly and effectively.


Lack of funding and perhaps commitment prevented the new Government from establishing functional commissions to guarantee the ceasefire and investigate abuses. On the other hand, the Commissioner of the North and Commission of Supervision played important roles in assuring other important components of the Pact.

Disarmament and Demobilization

The Malian Government was financially responsible for disarmament and demobilization. Violence continued through 1994, when it was most intense.  The first round of integration of 640 ex-combatants into the military and civilian services took place in 1993 and was not executed effectively.  The Malian Government could not afford to integrate all ex-combatants at one time, especially when it was being pressured by the International Monetary Fund to cut expenditures and reduce the number of civil servants.[vi] Malian soldiers refused to accept poorly educated rebel soldiers into their units and isolated them. Training was inadequate to create integrated units. In the face of increasing violence and lawlessness, the Malian military lacked discipline, fueling further violence.

In 1994, members of the Songhai ethnic group, frustrated by the slow implementation of the Pact, created their own self-defense organization, Ganda Koy, which the Government was forced to include in the disarmament and demobilization process.  MFUA movements wildly exaggerated the number of combatants to be demobilized and met with the Government at a series of meetings in Tamanrasset in spring 1994. Lack of agreement on numbers of soldiers to integrate in civilian and military services or reinsert into society provoked violence among the movements.

Recognizing the precarious of National Pact implementation, from July to September 1994, the Government organized and facilitated 17 regional meetings that gained nationwide citizen support for national initiatives such as the Pact and allowed women and disadvantaged groups to be heard. Based on this experience, President Konaré decided that Malian civil society should be given time to build support for the Pact.  With funding from the UN, donors and NGOs, civil society organizations in the North led 37 discussions of all stakeholders in the Pact in 1995 and 1996. The results of these meetings were localized peace agreements among inter-dependent communities, the resolution of local disputes, and social reconciliation.[vii]

The UN, in cooperation with the Commissioner of the North, provided strong leadership in the next stages of the peace process and established a UN Trust Fund, to be financed by multiple donors. Disarmament and demobilization of the remaining movement combatants began in November 1995, first through cantonment of armed combatants, then closure of movement bases and finally integration of the most capable ex-combatants into the military and civil service. While the Malian Government financed the cantonment process, the UN funded through its Trust Fund a demobilization premium of $200 for each of the 2,681 combatants who turned over one weapon.  By February 2006, about 1,500 ex-combatants were integrated into military service, while 150 were integrated into the civil service.[viii]

To commemorate this historic step forward in disarmament, demobilization and reconciliation, the Malian Government organized the Flame of Peace Ceremony in Timbuktu, in which it burned the weapons received from the ex-combatants. The movements formally announced their dissolution. Ten thousand people participated in the event. The UN facilitated the ceremony, and many high-level UN officials attended. The guest-of-honor was J.J. Rawlings, President of Ghana and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). Today, the Flame of Peace statue is one of the highlights of any visit to Timbuktu.

Reintegration of Ex-Combatants

The National Pact committed the Government to reintegration of ex-combatants into society.  Beyond integrating some of them into the military and civilian services, the Government recognized the need to assist others to restart their lives as civilians.  From 1996-1997, the UN Trust Fund, with support from multiple donors, financed the $10 million Support Program for the Socio-Economic Reintegration of Ex-Combatants in Northern Mali (PAREM), which provided small grants to 9,500 ex-combatants.  Based on a model from Mozambique, PAREM provided $600-$700 per person for 866 projects focusing on livestock, agriculture, commerce, services and other livelihoods. Many of the projects were undertaken by groups of ex-combatants who pooled their money for large initiatives such as creating a rice field or launching a livestock project. NGOs complemented the funds with training on skills such as micro-enterprise management, sorghum production, livestock management, mechanical repairs and handicraft production.  PAREM did a good job of channeling money into the northern economy, easing the transition for ex-combatants and facilitating peace. It was not an easy program for the UN to manage, however.  The movements negotiated hard to gain the maximum number of program participants. The Songhai Ganda Koy movement complained that the Touareg movements were authorized too many participants. The movements also resisted the UN’s requirement to plan projects and submit written proposals. Once PAREM began, some ex-combatants who were frustrated with the waiting time for receiving their money attacked Program Offices. The UN therefore forced donors to expedite transfers to the UN Trust Fund. To assure that the projects were implemented, the UN paid out the grants in multiple sums, which frustrated some of the participants.[ix]

Resettlement of Refugees

The National Pact also called for resettling refugees.  Given that violence continued in the North through 1995, refugee resettlement began in 1996 and continued through 1999. Over that period, the UN High Commission for Refugees worked with Malian authorities to resettle 130,000 refugees from Mauritania, Algeria, Burkina Faso and Niger as well as 175,000 displaced persons. UNHCR made a special effort to assist both refugees and all local people who were equally suffering from the lack of infrastructure in terms of water, health and education [x]


The 1992 National Pact identified a “special status” for the North and promised the establishments of new administrative structures and local, regional and inter-regional assemblies. However, input from the 1994-1996 regional and civil society meetings convinced President Konaré that decentralization of the national government throughout Mali would be a more promising approach to building consensus and delivering appropriate government services at local levels.  Through 2013, the Malian Government has created 761 local collectivities (703 communes, 49 circles, 08 regions and the district of Bamako). The Commission of the North has guided the decentralization process in northern Mali, where the first communal elections did not take place until June 1999.  The delay in establishment of communal assemblies and their lack of funding frustrated many people in the North, but gave new Touareg and Songhai political actors the opportunity to represent all members of their communities. Mahmoud-Alpha Maiga, the former Ganda Koy representative in France stated, “It is thanks to the Touareg rebellion that the central government has accepted decentralization. This represents an important step because now it will be a local person, who knows the people and local customs, who will run the local affairs and no longer a civil servant sent from the South.”[xi]


Long-term development of the North was the unstated goal of the National Pact.  The return to calm and settlement of refugees allowed infrastructure and development programs to begin again.  Donor funding for NGO agriculture, employment, health and education programs increased significantly, but were not large enough to meet the most urgent needs of many communities. In addition, some of the ex-combatants turned to vehicle hijacking and kidnapping, which
slowed down the implementation of development programs.  The reduction in military presence associated with the Pact enabled the ex-combatants to link up with narco-traffickers operating out of Guinea-Bissau.[xii]  Corruption associated with narco-trafficking had a major impact on the Malian Government, which reduced its capacity to provide security and support democratization and decentralization, contributing to the 2012 coup d’état.[xiii]

Small Arms Moratorium

An important outgrowth of the Malian Government’s efforts to seek peace in the North was the 1998 ECOWAS Declaration of a Moratorium on the Importation, Exportation and Manufacture of Small Arms and Light Weapons in West Africa, the related 1999 Code of Conduct[xiv] and the 2006 ECOWAS Convention on Small Arms and Light Weapons, Their Ammunition and other Related Materials.[xv] In 1996, the Malian Government, with support from UN, invited West African countries to participate in a conference on conflict prevention, disarmament and development. Mali called upon its neighbors to move toward a moratorium on small arms trade. The preparatory document explained: “The proposed moratorium is one element of a policy on arms control. It is an act of faith, and a manifestation of the political desire to observe for a definite period, an official ban on the transfer and manufacture of light weapons within the geographic space of interested countries.”[xvi]

Lessons Learned

The peace initiatives in Mali in the 1990’s provide some important lessons for dealing with today’s crisis.  First, security is an essential requirement for long-term development. Second, peace and stability require multiple tracks: 1) promoting national and international mediation; 2) encouraging armed movements to unify to facilitate negotiations; 3) empowering civil society to reconcile all parties; 4) improving civilian-military relations; 5) undertaking disarmament and demobilization; 6) reintegrating ex-combatants into the military and civil service; 7) reintegrating ex-combatants into society through funding of economic projects; 8) facilitating return of refugees and displaced persons by investing in infrastructure and services for all those living in the areas of return; 9) facilitating decentralization of governance; 10) investing in long-term, sustainable development; 11) maintaining development assistance even while addressing security and building peace.

The main difference between the 1990s and today, other than the involvement of Al Qaeda-affiliated groups and the intervention of French and African soldiers, is that the Malian Government requires even more assistance to improve its capacity to govern.  International actors must focus not only on promoting peace and reconciliation, but also on how they can help the Malian Government gain the capacity and legitimacy to lead these efforts.

[i] Rick Gold is an international development and rule of law consultant. He served 29 years in the foreign service of the U.S. Agency for International Development, including 4 years in Mali.

[ii] Central Intelligence Agency, The World Factbook,

[iii] See Lieutenant Colonel Kalifa Keita. Conflict and Conflict Resolution in the Sahel: The Tuareg Insurgency in Mali, US Army War College Strategic Studies Institute 1998,

[iv] Tamanrasset Accord Agreement on Ceasing of Hostilities, 1991,

[v] National Pact Concluded between the Government of Mali and the

Unified Movements and Fronts of Azawad Giving Expression to the

Special Status of Northern Mali, April 1992,

[vi] Carolyin Norris, Mali – Niger: Fragile Stability, UNHCR Centre for Documentation and Research, May 2001, WRITENET Paper No. 14/2000,

[vii] Kare Lode, Mali’s Peace Process: Context, Analysis and Evaluation, Accord: An International Review of Peace Initiatives, 2002,

[viii] R. Poulton & I. Ag Youssouf, A Peace of Timbuktu: Democratic Governance, Development and African Peacemaking, United Nations, March 1998, pp. 115-119,

[ix] Poulton & Ag Youssouf, pp. 123-131

[x] UNHCR Wraps Up Its Mali Repatriation Program,

[xi] Norris, p. 16

[xii] Luís Filipe Madeira, Stéphane Laurent, Sílvia Roque, The international cocaine trade in Guinea-Bissau: current trends and risks, March 2011,

[xiii] Ousmane Sy, La Crise Politico-Institutionnelle au Mali, Comment en Sortir Plus Fort et Plus Uni, October 2012,

[xiv] Economic Community of West African States, Declaration of a Moratorium on the Importation, Exportation and Manufacture of Small Arms and Light Weapons in West Africa, October 1998, and Code of Conduct.pdf

[xv] Economic Community of West African States, Convention On Small Arms And Light Weapons, Their Ammunition And Other Related Materials, June 2006, Convention 2006.pdf

[xvi] Poulton, pp. 227-230