Guns fall silent in troubled northern Mali town

·3 min read

After years of violence and lawlessness during which the Malian town of Menaka changed hands between rebels and Islamists, a fragile calm has finally returned due to joint patrols by federal troops, militiamen and UN peacekeepers.

Situated in the desert northeast of the vast Sahel state, close to the border with Niger, Menaka is at the heart of a jihadist-infested region and has known little but conflict for years.

Ethnic Tuareg separatists rose up in northern Mali in 2012, seizing control of the town, before jihadists overran their rebellion and imposed sharia law.

French forces then drove the Islamists out after intervening in the country in 2013, later handing Menaka over to a group of former rebels and armed groups who signed a peace deal with the Malian government in 2015.

But these militias squabbled for control of the town of some 20,000 people, and it remained a stronghold for jihadists linked to al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. Shootings and burglaries were rife.

A diplomat in Mali's capital Bamako who declined to be named said that fighting between armed groups in Menaka until recently had "an atmosphere resembling the settling of scores at the OK Corral," referring to the setting of an infamous American Wild West shootout.

However in September Malian forces and UN troops -- of which there are some 13,000 in the country -- deployed to the town, to work with the local militias.

French troops in Mali are also supporting the mission, which is dubbed "Menaka without guns".

The uniting of foreign and local soldiers alongside militiamen is unprecedented in Mali's eight-year conflict -- and it appears to be working in Menaka.

- 'Now we can sleep' -

Menaka resident Alhousseni Aghaly said that the mission had restored "relative peace" to the town.

"Before, people didn't sleep, didn't know where they stood," he said. "Now we can sleep, even if the fear persists".

The mission was launched shortly after the August 18 military coup that toppled president Ibrahim Boubacar Keita.

Frustrations over Mali's long conflict in part contributed to protests against Keita, which culminated in his ouster.

But the turmoil of the transition appears not to have affected the Menaka mission.

Malian and UN troops now patrol the town while Tuareg militiamen and other armed groups that signed the 2015 peace accord man about 10 checkpoints.

"We put a belt around Menaka so that everything that comes in or goes out can be controlled," said Moussa Ag Acharatoumane, the leader of a Tuareg militia known as the MSA.

- 'Converging interests' -

Despite its optimistic name, "Menaka without guns" has far from cleared the town of weapons.

Dozens of MSA fighters and other militiamen perch on rooftops or sit in pick-up trucks brandishing machine guns and rocket launchers.

And the new security cordon is not impenetrable -- motorbikes easily bypass the checkpoints.

Additional barriers the UN pledged to build between the checkpoints to stop this from happening have not yet materialised.

Menaka Mayor Nanoute Koteya said the most important thing is that former rebels of all stripes are starting to work with Malian troops.

"What was missing is starting to happen," he said.

Another local leader, who declined to be named, was more cautious. "We'll have to see what happens in the long term," he said.

The diplomat in Bamako said the rapprochement between the government and the armed groups is happening because of a "convergence of interests".

By putting boots on the ground, Mali's army hopes to gain legitimacy in the restive north, swathes of which remain outside of government control.

The militias meanwhile are not acting just out of "the goodness of their hearts," said Adam Sandor from the Canadian research group Centre FrancoPaix.

"By cooperating with Malian transitional authorities... they hope to increase their communities' financial and symbolic clout in order to sideline rival communities and the armed groups that support them," he said.

Thousands of soldiers have been killed and hundreds of thousands of civilians have had to flee their homes in Mali's conflict, which has also often inflamed ethnic tensions.