Just as the last three Malian crises failed to result in any viable settlement, but instead progressively deepened levels of distrust between the country’s various communities, the 2012 conflict is seriously testing the resolve and the creativity of local and international bodies. As is plainly evident from recent history, military solutions and a counter-terrorism commitment in the Sahel are not sufficient in themselves to generate long-term stability in the region. Alongside these security initiatives, political dialogue and economic development need to remain a central part of the Malian normalisation process.
In addition to general efforts that must be made in terms of basic infrastructure (for instance, in social services and transport), youth unemployment, and political representation to foster national ‘reconciliation’, tensions between communities must also be addressed. Since independence in 1960, Mali’s precarious national unity has been built upon conflict and distrust between communities. Even within Tuareg and Arab clans, schisms and rifts have significantly weakened the political impact of rebellions and encouraged a policy of divide-and-rule by the central state.
However, contrary to past crises, the 2012 conflict also introduced deep divisions between secular and separatist movements (such as the MNLA) and radical Islamic groups with strong links to international terrorist coalitions and foreign sponsors (the case of Ansar Dine). This has complicated analysis of the conflict and the search for quick and viable responses.
Featuring two different ‘platforms’ of non-state armed groups and six different ‘representative’ groups (excluding several other terrorist organisations and community militias that are not present), the ongoing Algiers peace talks perfectly illustrate this complexity. Difficulties in addressing all the demands and identifying a common denominator between all participants have led to several delays in the negotiations.
Divisions within the mediation team, largely resulting from Algeria’s dominant role, and, before that, the growth in the number of regional and international initiatives, have also pushed back the start of the negotiation process. This lost time has played a significant role in furthering divisions between armed groups. It has also contributed to radicalising positions on both sides of the table, and giving the ‘most sovereign’, separatist and radicalised factions greater sway at the expense of more moderate positions.
All ‘representative’ actors and donors generally agree on the economic, political and security reforms needed to solve the crisis and address Malian issues over the long term. However, because they are too complex or too local, questions of local (i.e., Malian) ownership and incentives have been regularly sidelined in the stabilisation processes.
How might foreign partners support the Malian stabilisation process by pooling their efforts more effectively? How could Malian history help north and south reach a new form of settlement that is acceptable to all sides and bring about long-term stability in the country?
The Tuareg rebellion in January 2012 and the military coup in March have brought into question not only Malian stability as a whole but also the capacity of international partners and/or regional leaders to manage a major crisis and to address, at one and the same time, a security conflict and a political breakdown.
ECOWAS, the African Union, the United Nations, the European Union and all of Mali’s bilateral partners have not fully succeeded in aligning their views and agreeing on a consensual solution. No fewer than six different mediators, High/Special representatives or Special Envoys have been involved in the Malian crisis, sometimes with no specific knowledge of Malian dynamics or local networks. Some of them have also been ‘bypassed’ by concurrent initiatives, either from their own organisation or by other private actors. None of those divided efforts succeeded either in quickly setting the main priorities or in exerting the necessary pressure on the junta or the northern armed groups, especially the MNLA and Ansar Dine – approaches that might have prevented undesired developments such as the radical Islamist occupation of the northern cities, and divisions between the main groups in the rebellion. The Ouagadougou agreement between the Malian interim government and representatives of the armed groups was only signed in June 2013, a year after the Islamist occupation of the north and several months after the launch of French-African military operations (Serval, MISMA, on 11 January 2013).
During that time, Mali’s interim authorities were weakened: President Traoré fled the country for medical treatment in May 2012 after being lynched by pro-junta members. On the northern front, the MNLA became marginalised by other groups, especially Ansar Dine and its allies from AQIM and MUJAO, which had more resources and were able to poach some low-paid combatants. Disunity inside the international community indirectly helped to change the nature of the Malian conflict.
Moreover, the inappropriate selection of mediators has had profound consequences on local politics. The choice of President Blaise Compaoré as a mediator, for instance, was interpreted as provocative, given the difficult historical relationship between Burkina and Mali (the two wars of 1974 and 1985), and Ouagadougou’s hidden political agenda in the region (support of political opposition, and destabilising interference).
While the presidential elections in July and August 2013 were supposed to prevent further destabilisation on the political side and give a new impulse to conflict resolution, they instead encouraged nationalistic postures and the questioning of foreign engagement. President Keita insisted on several occasions on the necessity of a Malian peace process, denouncing external interference and Burkina Faso’s alleged support for rebel armed groups. By openly advocating a greater role for Morocco – for which IBK’s election had constituted a great opportunity after decades of tensions, and the most practical way to counterbalance Algeria’s regional leadership – Bamako disavowed international efforts. By eventually accepting the Algerian mediation proposal a few months later (15 January 2014), the president not only discarded the Moroccan strategy for dealing with the MNLA (a secular separatist group), but also denied the role that international appointed representatives (from the ECOWAS, the AU or the UN) were meant to play in the political process.
The Ouagadougou agreement, the Moroccan meetings, the MINUSMA’s workshops, other bilateral initiatives and private efforts to facilitate crisis resolution paradoxically served to delay political rapprochement between north and south. The Algiers peace process (which started in April 2014) put an end to these poorly coordinated initiatives, but at the same time marginalised the existing mediation mandates. Moreover, with its fourth mediation in a Malian conflict since 1991, Algiers succeeded in imposing its leadership and ‘eliminating’ competition from other regional candidates. Even so, Algeria’s diplomatic comeback is still questioned in light of its general neutrality in the 2012 conflict and its past failure to support a long-term peace in Mali.
Besides the recent efforts undertaken to secure a viable peace agreement, the effectiveness of international long-term strategies in the region could also be questioned, especially regarding the large number of current initiatives and the lack of coordination between them. The French military operation Barkhane, the current updating of international strategies for development and security (French Plan Sahel, US Trans-Saharan Counter-Terrorism Programme, the EU strategy) and new multilateral programmes (such as UN or World Bank global strategies) might well point to the future divisions of labour between international actors in the Sahel. Insufficient synergy and increasing numbers of interlocutors could undermine clear support for stabilisation in Mali, and encourage local divisions over the main priorities to address – whether security, economic development or political reform.
Mistakes, uncoordinated efforts, contradictory messages and blurry priorities have complicated the prospects for dialogue and delayed a general consensus on the viable stabilisation of Mali. The time might have come to encourage endogenous and comprehensive approaches that could sustain long-term peace in Mali and the stabilisation process in the Sahel region.
As a diverse society, Mali has always been confronted with cultural heterogeneity and local conflicts. Even though recent history highlights the tensions that exist within the Malian national community, other examples based on ancient traditions of conflict prevention could, in contrast, serve as way out of the crisis and support dialogue between conflicting communities. In order to maintain political unity, local authorities have historically developed tools of conflict prevention. Mali’s political culture could, as a consequence, be a great addition to international efforts and could help implement local and global stabilisation strategies.
From the constitution of the Malian Empire in 1235 to the post-colonial Tuareg rebellions, the Malian central state has always had to deal with plurality and community tensions. However, in order to put an end to community conflicts and give the Malian state a ‘national’ unity, local authorities have used several methods to neutralise tensions and give to the numerous communities a common ground of understanding of peaceful cohabitation. The ‘joke relationships’ formula (Sinankuya or cousinage à plaisanterie) institutionalised by Soundjata Keita in the 13th century in order to dampen tensions between communities is one of the most symbolic, and still effective, methods.
Cousinage is part of popular culture across the whole of West Africa. Even if the Sinankuya system has been partly perverted by the ‘democratisation’ process (which downplayed the importance of traditional groups and encouraged political use of this banter for electoral purposes), it could still be a useful tool for conflict prevention and inter-community dialogue.
Among other local ‘innovations’ that could fulfil a stabilising role in forthcoming years, the ‘grins’ might be an effective way to foster dialogue and bring the central state and northern communities closer together. Created in the 18th century near Ségou (100km away from Bamako), the grins gather people, most of the time men, from the same age cohort to discuss or share social activities.
Grins are still one of the most efficient means for political, religious or social leaders to ‘take the temperature’ and communicate their intentions. Every political leader is connected to a specific grin, which he can lead (chef de grin), or not. During Amadou Toumani Touré’s regime (2002-2012), his grin was one of the most popular and prestigious in Bamako: any Malian who wanted to see or talk to the president outside the Koulouba palace tried to attend the grin. During the 2007 general elections, Ibrahim Boubacar Keita was heavily criticised for recurrent absence at his grin. Even today, #grin223 is one of the most popular requests on Twitter for people who want to be informed of the latest news.
Even though the ‘contemporary’ grins can sometimes only be seen as places where young unemployed people kill time by playing cards and drinking tea, or where politicians go to give out bribes, their political influence is still very important, especially in urban areas. They can be the starting point of popular discontent. But, by giving the young, elders and unemployed people a free space to discuss and even criticise the prevailing political, economic or religious powers, they also have a positive effect on the regulation of social tensions. As a consequence, grins are normative and operational reference points for discussion and dialogue, and could be part of the global stabilisation process, especially in terms of a bottom-up approach to the crisis.
Last, but not least, the long tradition of political dialogue and religious tolerance in Mali could encourage endogenous strategies designed to foster community inclusiveness and stabilisation. The collegial formula of power and the principle of political coalition have fed Malian political history for a long time (with varying uccess, despite the poor reputation it gained under the ATT presidency of). Through their association with dignitaries (federated clans, militaries or comrades-in-arms in the case of the Malian Empire, Talibes for the Toucouleur confederation, traders during Samory Touré’s reign, or Marabouts at the time of the Macina Empire), Malian leaders have strengthened the state and reinforced national unity. But religion has also played a very important role in this nation-building process. When 95 percent of the 15 million inhabitants in Mali are Muslims, religious leaders represent an indisputable element of political order and social mobilisation. The 2009 debate on the proposal for a new family code clearly illustrated the strength of religious values in Malian society. It confirmed the need to meet with religious and traditional representatives to consult on changes in state policy and social reforms, and to use them as advocates in support of stability.
The large audiences attracted by religious representatives such as Mohamed Ould Cheickna Hamaoula (Chérif de Nioro), Cheikh Cherif Ousmane Madani Haidara (head of the Malekite movement), Imam Mahmoud Dicko (head of the High Islamic Council) and other popular preachers (Bandiougou Doubia, Soufi Bilali, etc) could encourage a broader dialogue on the main objectives of the stabilisation process and/or the favoured ways out of the 2012 crisis. Considering the absence of true Islamic radicalisation in the country and, in that context, the need to implement more culturally grounded solutions to the crisis, religious and traditional actors could usefully assist Malian authorities.
If political authorities gave religious leaders a symbolic role in future national dialogue, alongside other relevant ‘moral figures’, the Malian government could maximise opportunities for long-term stability or, at the least, prevent any strong opposition in society.
While decentralisation is seen as a panacea and the only viable solution to Mali’s long-term stabilisation, acceptance by local communities remains essential to any effort to strengthen and extend the Malian state. Imposing the central state on peripheral regions, sometimes with military means, has been one of the major causes of northern discontent for decades. While some northern representatives have been co-opted by Bamako in order to enhance Mali’s local legitimacy, they have mostly been heavily criticised and locally disowned. Mohamed ag Erlaf’s appointment as national coordinator of the PSPSDN was a clear illustration of that response. Under these circumstances, how could state presence in desert areas be re-invented, and what would be the best way to represent northern interests in Bamako’s institutions?
Decentralisation instantly appears as one of the most viable solutions. However, since the first post-colonial regime of Modibo Keita, decentralisation programmes have been embezzled by southern and/or some northern elites and never directly benefitted local populations through better infrastructure or public services. Decentralisation remains one of the few options seemingly available to anchor the Malian state in the north and legitimate national identity in the peripheral regions. Other means, however, could provide opportunities to address the general issue of Bamako’s lack of legitimacy and provide effective responses to peripheral frustration and political misunderstandings.
One first line of approach would be to reform some of the existing institutions in order to make them more representative of Malian diversity, or more effective in improving the living conditions of local populations. Since 1992, for instance, the Haut Conseil des Collectivités Territoriales (HCCT) is meant to represent regional interests and Malian communities in the political decision-making process. However, because of its ‘consultative’ status and the indirect election of its members, the HCCT has never succeeded in shifting Bamako’s policy framework towards the north or legitimising the central state among northern groups, especially the Tuareg and Arabs. An electoral reform of the Council and more constitutional responsibilities for its members could improve HCCT efficiency and include regional interests more significantly in national policy. If a proposed ‘second chamber’ in Mali could be mainly regarded an opportunity for local leaders to access new economic rents, it could also be a way for local populations to be better represented and better informed on national policy (and programmes), and/or, more prosaically, to increase their access to some form of state-based income.
Another, and less cumbersome, option could be to give to Malian traditional leaders a legal role and, as already exists in Niger and Burkina Faso, some consultative prerogative on specific and possibly contentious issues. Traditional leaders generally have a moral role that could give them natural authority, and could be used to regulate tensions between communities. In Mali, because of the involvement of some traditional leaders with the dictatorial regime, democratic authorities have never allowed them to play an official role in the political field. Alongside political representatives and other moral authorities (religious leaders mainly), traditional chiefs could nevertheless play a positive role in managing tensions and streamlining relationships between local populations and the central state.
Regional examples could usefully inspire Malian authorities in that sense and help them to implement the current stabilisation process. Sharing a common history and ethnic similarities with Mali, Niger has also experienced several episodes of regional violence but, contrary to Mali, has succeeded in managing these tensions with creative solutions and innovative forms of inclusivity. In 2004, in order to end rebellions and prevent political issues from further destabilising the country, authorities decided, with the help of the United Nations (Agadez forum), to create a national council for political dialogue (CNDP). Jointly led by the majority and the opposition leaders, and placed under the patronage of Grands témoins (religious leaders, traditional chiefs), the council gathers all the existing political parties and relevant organisations to address a specific issue. It may be convened at the request of one of its members and only makes consensual recommendations. However, those recommendations are always proposed to government and then to the National Assembly, which can decide whether or not to legislate. Since its creation, the CNDP has successfully resolved many issues that could have otherwise led to a crisis or an exacerbation of tensions among parties (e.g., on electoral census, political zoning, electoral law, etc). The CNDP has greatly contributed to Niger’s stability and to central state legitimacy across the territory. It has so far facilitated the dialogue between Niamey and peripheral regions, and allowed those regions to draw the attention of the government to specific issues.
Because of similarities between the two countries, the model of the CNDP could be easily reproduced in the Malian context. Moreover, Mali already has similar, though fewer, institutional experiences throughout its recent political history. The Democratic Appeal Spaces (Espaces d’interpellation démocratique), for instance, which were established in 1992, first succeeded in strengthening communication between the government and Malian citizens or civil associations after the first democratic elections. It helped the democratic authorities to familiarise populations with the new constitutional rules. Later, the model of Regional Concertation Spaces (Espaces de concertation régionale) and the Bamako Table Ronde, led in 1998 by Prime Minister Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, also gave the government the opportunity to secure the regime after the litigious elections of 1997 and to prevent any further destabilisation from the radical opposition that boycotted the scrutiny (Coalition of Opposition Political Parties – COPPO). By gathering representatives of the state, political parties, religious bodies, members of civil society and the diplomatic corps (370 participants), those exercises aimed to discuss the constitutional texts and to revise some litigious rules (creation of a parliamentary opposition status, authorisation of independent candidacies, etc) in order to foster political acceptance of the regime.
Those ad hoc or permanent tools could now help make the national authorities accountable to the local populations and develop lines of communications with all interested parties on a given issue. By establishing a new arena of supra-political dialogue, and giving a new responsibility in global stability to historically ignored groups, Malian authorities could foster the stabilisation process and help their own national legitimisation.
Mali’s path to stability calls for innovative solutions and creative ways to re-invent the presence of the state across the territory. Ancient or contemporary endogenous models, examples from neighbouring countries or reform of some existing institutions could lead to peace in the long run and to trust between communities.