The taking of Kidal: Why the town in north Mali is so important

Mali An aerial view of the desert town of Kidal, taken last year.  By SOULEYMANE AG ANARA (AFP/File)
An aerial view of the desert town of Kidal, taken last year. By SOULEYMANE AG ANARA (AFP/File)

Mali's army has retaken the town of Kidal from Tuareg-dominated rebels. Here we look at the significance of the place which has for years been a northern stronghold for the separatists.

Where and what is Kidal?

Kidal occupies a special place in the geography and consciousness of the Sahel region.

A former French military post from the early 20th century, this right-angled mosaic of streets and flat buildings set in the dust of the desert is a crucial staging post between Mali and Algeria.

Map of Mali showing the strategic town of Kidal, reportedly recaptured by the army.  By Sophie RAMIS, Vincent LEFAI (AFP) Map of Mali showing the strategic town of Kidal, reportedly recaptured by the army. By Sophie RAMIS, Vincent LEFAI (AFP)

Over 1,500 kilometres and 24 hours' drive from the capital Bamako, and hundreds of kilometres from the other major northern towns of Gao and Timbuktu, Kidal is home to a few tens of thousands of people.

The town and its surrounding region have been the hotbed of successive independence uprisings since Mali gained independence from France in 1960.

The head of the current Malian junta, Colonel Assimi Goita, served in Kidal in the past.

What is at stake?

Kidal had been under the control of the Coordination of Azawad Movements (CMA) -- an alliance of predominantly Tuareg groups seeking autonomy or independence -- since 2013.

This rebel stronghold had been a stubborn obstacle in the government's bid to secure control over the entire region and country, even more so for the colonels who seized power by force in Bamako in 2020.

They have made this total sovereignty their mantra.

The Kidal region was one of the first to fall into the hands of rebels, some pro-independence, others Salafist, when the insurrection broke out in 2012, the aftermath of which plunged Mali into the turmoil it is still experiencing today.

It came under the sole control of the Salafists, but was taken over by the separatists in 2013 in the wake of French intervention.

Prior to Tuesday's announcement, the Malian army and the state had barely regained even a foothold in Kidal since May 2014, when its armed forces were driven out after a visit by then-prime minister Moussa Mara led to clashes with the rebels, resulting in heavy losses among the army's ranks.

Since then, a governor has exercised only a symbolic presence.

In June, the rebels prevented a constitutional referendum from being held in the region.

Kidal has also been a focal point for tensions between Bamako and Paris.

For some, such as Prime Minister Choguel Kokalla Maiga, France had created an enclave from which terrorism spread to the rest of the country, by allowing the independence fighters to retake it in 2013 and preventing the Malian army from entering. France refutes these claims.

How did Kidal fall?

In May 2014, the rebels agreed to a ceasefire, after dozens of soldiers were killed or wounded.

The following year they signed a peace agreement with the government, renouncing their independence plans in exchange for greater inclusion in Malian society, including in a so-called reconstituted army, and more autonomy.

For many Malians, this agreement ratified the partition of Mali, and taking back Kidal was seen as the remedy to this.

The agreement was already in bad shape before the colonels came to power in Bamako in 2020.

Tensions continued to grow afterwards and the rebels resumed hostilities in August.

The withdrawal of the UN MINUSMA peacekeeping mission on the orders of the junta triggered a race between the armed actors in the north -- the army, separatists, jihadists -- for control of the territory and the camps left behind by the peacekeepers.

In the rush for control, Kidal was seen as the ultimate prize.

When MINUSMA left its camp in Kidal on October 31, the rebels were quick to take possession, much to the dismay of the junta.

But the army had already prepared a column which was ready to move towards the town.