Close to the Nigerien border, 1,500 km from Bamako, Ménaka fell in 2012, along with the rest of northern Mali, under the thumb of a coalition formed by the predominantly Tuareg rebellion and Islamist movements, the beginning of a spiral of violence in which the immense Sahelian country is still plunged.
The Islamists quickly ousted the rebels and established sharia (Islamic law) in the conquered cities, before being driven out by an international military operation initiated by France in 2013.
Signatories of a 2015 peace agreement with the government, ex-independence rebels and pro-Bamako armed groups have since fought over control of Ménaka, which has changed hands on several occasions.
Despite the peace agreement, until recently there was a “atmosphere worthy of ‘settling scores at OK Corral'” in and around Ménaka, underlines a diplomat stationed in Bamako.
Trafficking of all kinds, shootings and burglaries punctuated the life of some 20,000 inhabitants (2009 census) of the city. The region remains a stronghold of jihadist groups linked to Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State organization.
“We weren’t sleeping”
Since the launch in September of the operation “Menaka without weapons “, a “relative peace” however, settled in Ménaka, believes a representative of local civil society, Alhousseni Aghaly.
“Before, people did not sleep, did not know what to expect or what saint to turn to. Now we can sleep, even if the fear persists”, he told an AFP correspondent.
This operation, launched shortly after the military coup that overthrew President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta in mid-August, brings together all the forces present, with the exception of jihadist groups, to cooperate in an unprecedented manner to secure the city and its surroundings.
Benefiting from the support of the French anti-jihadist force Barkhane and the UN Mission (Minusma), it represents the application of an essential part of the 2015 peace agreements, never really implemented.
This time, a balance seems to have been struck.
The Malian army and UN peacekeepers patrol the city. As for the fighters of the Movement for the Salvation of Azawad (MSA), of the “Gatia”, another pro-government group, and other elements of ex-rebel signatory groups, they hold a dozen checkpoints around Menaka.
“We put a belt all around Ménaka so that everything that comes in or goes out can be controlled”, explains Moussa Ag Acharatoumane, the leader of the MSA.
Yet Ménaka is still far from being “unarmed”.
On their pick-ups or perched by the dozen on the roof of a building on the edge of the city, the MSA fighters, turban on their heads, just like the members of the Gatia, display their machine guns and rocket launchers.
Likewise, do not take too much account of the motorcycles that bypass the checkpoints set up by the operation, nor the trenches announced by Minusma which have not (yet) seen the light of day.
For the mayor of Ménaka, Nanoute Koteya, in a tense climate, the most important thing is this beginning of an understanding between the ex-rebels and the pro-government, and their cohabitation with the Malian Armed Forces.
“What was missing starts to happen”, he rejoices.
“We’ll have to see what happens in the long term”, nuance un notable local.
This apparent cohesion is largely a result of “convergence of interests”, adds the diplomat stationed in Bamako.
By showing itself to its advantage in Ménaka, the Malian army is gaining legitimacy in a region where it has especially experienced severe humiliations.
The leaders of the MSA and Gatia hope, for their part, to assert their weight with the transitional authorities in place in Bamako and to strengthen themselves on the local political scene, underlines Adam Sandor, researcher at the Canadian research organization Center FrancoPaix.