On a sandy street in a northern Mali city, armed guards take turns at a checkpoint next to two unmarked pick-up trucks as dusk falls and the sky slowly fills with stars.
The men are not from the army but fighters from the Coordination of Azawad Movements (CMA), a predominantly Tuareg alliance that fought the state for years before signing a peace agreement in 2015.
Since then it has taken over the strategic city of Kidal.
It is this group, and not the government, that maintains security there, runs the prisons and issues pardons, an AFP news agency correspondent found during a rare visit.
The fact that Kidal is still under the control of the ex-rebels continues to pose a problem of sovereignty and continues to be a source of irritation for Bamako, even for the current government.
“In Kidal, armed groups play a bigger role” in the administration than the state, a UN panel of experts said in August.
Kidal, a former French military post dating from the early 20th century, is a patchwork of right-angled streets and flat buildings nestled in the dust of the desert.
It is more than 1,500 kilometers (930 miles) from the capital Bamako and hundreds of kilometers from the cities of Gao and Timbuktu.
It is a crucial stopover between Mali and Algeria.
When an insurrection broke out in 2012, the region was one of the first in Mali to fall to the rebels.
It was taken over by the CMA in 2013 following French military intervention and has remained in its hands despite an attempt by the Malian army to regain control in 2014.
In 2015, the rebels signed the so-called Algiers peace agreement with pro-government armed groups and the state.
Instead of independence, it offered them more local autonomy and the opportunity to integrate their fighters into a “reconstituted” state-run army that would operate throughout the north and maintain security in Kidal.
But the deal has only been implemented in fragments.
About 600 “reintegrated” soldiers were redeployed to Kidal in 2020, but they hardly ever leave their camps, according to the UN.
Today, there is a state governor in Kidal, but there is no national police force or justice system.
Law and Justice
Ibrahim Ag Moustapha, the commander of the detachment deployed at the crossroads, said his men were there to spot “drunk behaviour”, vehicles “without lights” and those “carrying military equipment”.
The former rebels decide whether suspects will be brought to justice under Islamic rather than state law.
On a recent visit to an Islamic court, judges known as “qadis” were ruling on a land dispute, with the Koran laid out on a low table around which judges and defendants sat on mats.
About 130 cases had been seen there over the previous two months, Moulaye Ag Sidi Lola, a member of the judges’ council, told AFP.
He said that the sentences handed down by the judges are “independent” of the CMA.
“In the Tuareg environment, people have always turned to the qadi,” said Ag Moustapha, the commander.
“Even in colonial times, there was the qadi; the system has never changed.”
The convicts are being held in a CMA-secured prison, with 36 people being held there as of early September.
Some may be pardoned, again by former rebels, usually before Eid-al-Adha or Ramadan, Sidi Lola said.
The CMA “did not inherit the previous state media,” said Alghabass Ag Intalla, the group’s president and a central figure in the former rebellion. “We resort to our own means.”
Meanwhile, citizens who come from the same communities as the CMA are committed to the cause of the armed group.
The colors of the old rebellion are painted on the walls that line the streets of Kidal. A skeleton army tank, a reminder of ancient battles, serves as a roundabout.
If there are discordant opinions, they are not expressed publicly.
“The patrols are very effective,” said Hartata Ag Baye, a pharmacist at the center who says he is happy to be able to stay open late, something that would be impossible in many parts of northern Mali.
The situation is “calm” in Kidal, said Attiyoub Ag Intalla, leader of a civil society group, but remains “uncertain”.
Further south, the Gao and Menaka areas have been plagued by clashes between the army, armed groups and jihadists for months, with civilians caught in the crossfire.
The violence could “come here”, worried the leader of civil society. Displaced people are already arriving, he said.
Rebel groups and administration of justice
In other parts of Africa where armed groups dominate, rebels are also increasingly taking over state functions.
In some cities in central and northeastern Nigeria, branches of Boko Haram are collecting taxes from local authorities and providing security for cities from rival armed groups.
In Somalia, there is a widespread belief that the federal and regional governments have failed to deliver justice.
Instead, al-Shabab, which is linked to al-Qaeda and was formed in 2006 to try to overthrow Somalia’s government, has for years been running its own courts, primarily serving residents of areas it controls.
There is no precise data on the number of people who continue to seek sentences from al-Shabab, but it is believed to be in the thousands.
In recent years, more citizens have turned to him, due to his speed in handling cases and delivering verdicts, as well as his perceived high morale.
It has even occasionally reversed official court decisions, according to local reports.
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