Calm After a Years-long Storm in the Desert
Situated in the desert northeast of the vast Sahel state Mali, close to the border with Niger, Menaka — a town smack at the heart of a jihadist-plagued region seems to have rediscovered its tranquillity following years of violence and lawlessness during which the town changed hands between rebels and Islamists.
Moussa Ag Acharatoumane, leader of the Movement for the Salvation of Azawad (MSA), outlines the peacekeeping initiative, "On September 24, we launched what is known as the ‘Menaka without Weapons’ operation, whose first objective is to bring peace within the city of Menaka. And to do this, we put a belt around the city of Menaka to ensure that from now on all those who enter and leave the interior of the city can be checked, can be identified, can be counted."
The mission — launched shortly after the August 18 military coup d'état that ousted then-President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, sees patrols by federal troops, militiamen and United Nations peacekeepers in Menaka.
The new calm is attributed to joint patrols by federal troops, militiamen and United Nations peacekeepers.
Alhassene Issouf Maïga, a local vendor, shares the difference he feels about the city, "Before, at 5:00 pm, at 6:00 pm, I had to close the store because of the insecurity. But today, I can go on until 9:00 or 10:00 p.m., I have just closed my store. And all is quiet, I come home quietly, I leave my house quietly. When before, I couldn't do all that here. We used to have fear whenever we went somewhere."
Not Completely Without Weapons Just Yet
Despite the name of the mission with implies that there are weapons in Menaka, dozens of MSA fighters and other militiamen perch on rooftops or sit in pick-up trucks brandishing machine guns and rocket launchers.
Nevertheless, the turmoil of the transition following the coup appears not to have affected the Menaka mission.
The UN has pledged to build additional barriers to further reinforce security to make checkpoints no longer penetrable by motorbikes and Mali's army hopes to gain legitimacy in the restive north.
Sharia law was imposed in Northern Mali in 2012 after jihadists overran Ethnic Tuareg separatists who had seized control of the region following their rebellion.
The Islamists were driven after international intervention in 2013 and Menaka was later handed over to a group of former rebels and armed groups who signed a peace deal with the Malian government in 2015.
However, amid militia squabbled for control over the town of around 20,000 inhabitants, shootings and burglaries were rampant and Menaka remained a stronghold for jihadists linked to al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. Shootings and burglaries were rife.
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.