Author (s): International Crisis Group (ICG)
Type of publication: Report
Date of publication: 28 May 2019
THE CRISIS IN CENTRAL MALI
The Limits of Counter-terrorism and Development
The Malian government and its foreign partners, including France, have privileged a military response to address the jihadist insurgency in central – as well as northern – Mali, though they admit that stabilising the country requires more than that.
While military operations have helped return the state’s authority to garrison towns, they thus appear unlikely to defeat the Katiba Macina. Indeed, insurgents have shown considerable agility in the face of pressure, moving into the bush, where they can better hide out, and adopting guerrilla tactics like ambushes, roadside bombs and landmines. While the Malian army controls towns and their immediate vicinity, the jihadists rule the countryside, erecting checkpoints on rural roads and patrolling rivers. In this manner, they have effectively placed garrison towns under siege.
They impose embargoes on villages they accuse of collaborating with security forces, forbidding the movement of people and goods in or out. They have also developed networks that allow them to rule villages without having to maintain a physical presence, limiting their exposure to military crackdowns. They rely on a sophisticated system of intelligence gathering, comprised of sympathisers in the “dormant cells”, to reward villagers who comply with their rules and sanction dissenters.
The development component of the government’s and its international partners’ approach has arguably made even less of a difference than military operations. The Plan de Sécurisation Intégré envisages delivering services as a means to improve communities’ lives, strengthen the state’s legitimacy and thus gradually sap support for the insurgents, as army operations weaken them militarily. In reality, development projects are rare in areas under the Kabita Macina’s control. Militants tend to allow in humanitarian groups but refuse access to development agencies. In the infrequent instances where agencies can deliver services, little suggests that the services boost the Malian state’s legitimacy, even when they benefit the local populations. Overall, prospects appear gloomy for strengthening the weak local governance and
Breaking the Taboo
As the Katiba Macina’s military defeat has come to appear less likely, the idea of engaging it through dialogue has gained traction. An increasing number of outside experts, including Crisis Group, have recommended at least testing the waters to see whether negotiations might complement military action. In Mali itself, several civil society activists, politicians and Islamic scholars, began already in 2012 calling on the authorities to start a dialogue with the jihadists. The April 2017 report of the Conference of National Understanding echoed these pleas.
At the conference, dialogue advocates gave various reasons for their stance. For some, dialogue was the “pragmatic choice” given that military action had yet to end the insurgency. Others cited it as a means for the government to assert its sovereignty in the face of foreign pressure against such initiatives. Still others promoted dialogue with jihadists as a matter of consistency, since Malian governments have talked with leaders of past rebellions.
In Mali itself, several civil society activists, politicians and Islamic scholars, began already in 2012 calling on the authorities to start a dialogue with the jihadists
Those who favour dialogue with jihadists argue that if the government is willing to talk to separatists – particularly separatists who themselves have close links to jihadists – why not talk to jihadists themselves?
Yet both the Malian authorities and jihadist leaders themselves have resisted talking. Many Malian officials view jihadists as nothing but “nihilistic” criminals without an identifiable political agenda. Some insist on “no negotiation with terrorists” as a principle. On the other side, the hardest-line among the jihadists view the Malian government as not only illegitimate but infidel. Many militants, in principle including Hamadoun Koufa himself, demand nothing less than its overthrow and replacement with an “Islamic state”. Between these two extremes lies a spectrum of officials and insurgents who, to one degree or another, are more amenable to dialogue. But thus far the less compromising attitudes have prevailed.
OBSTACLES TO DIALOGUE
Three factors complicate prospects for dialogue with the Katiba Macina: its ideological program and the ambiguous support it enjoys locally; its transnational ties; and strong domestic and foreign opposition to such talks.
Are Jihadist Demands “Exceptional”?
Unlike Mali’s northern separatist movements, the Katiba Macina has no list of political demands. Yet its discourse, disseminated via audio and video recordings, as well as its governance practices in areas it has conquered, reveal that it does want something: namely profound change in Mali’s state institutions and foreign relations.
The gap between the Katiba Macina’s and the state’s respective positions is so wide that many on both sides see little point in talking
The movement’s rhetoric revolves around three ideas, akin to those propagated by jihadists elsewhere. The first is that Malian state institutions and the whole democratic system of government are un-Islamic and illegitimate. It is incumbent upon all Muslims to overthrow the system by force and replace it with theocratic governance based on sharia – as the Katiba Macina interprets it. Secondly, the West and “Westernised” Malian elites, particularly France and Francophone state officials, are enemies of Islam.
They are thus legitimate targets, though state officials can spare themselves if they break ties with their Western allies. Thirdly, militants believe that they represent the purest form of Islam and that they must teach local Muslims to adopt their stricter approach. They consider Muslims who collaborate with the Malian government to be apostates (murtaddin), and they apply the same label to some of their local theological rivals and critics.
At first glance, this discourse appears to set aspirations well outside the realm of what the Malian state can offer. The Malian state is ostensibly committed to secularism (understood as the separation of religion and politics), representative democracy based on elections and strong relations with Western countries, particularly France. The gap between the Katiba Macina’s and the state’s respective positions is so wide that many on both sides see little point in talking.
The Katiba Macina’s Outside Connections
The tone of the Katiba Macina’s discourse shifted around the time of its affiliation with JNIM and al-Qaeda. In 2015, when Koufa listed the Katiba Macina’s enemies, he pointed to oppressive Malian state officials, whether military or civilian, and those who collaborate with them. But starting in 2017, anti-French rhetoric and references to Crusaders started to predominate. The shift appears to partly reflect the Katiba Macina’s ties to JNIM, several of whose components are fighting French Barkhane forces. It has created concerns that Koufa may now be less interested in negotiating over local grievances and that, in any case, he could not enter dialogue unless authorised by more transnationally motivated jihadist leaders.
Indeed, Koufa has rejected offers to engage in talks with Peul Francophone elites, arguing that they were part of a French conspiracy to pinpoint the jihadists’ bases and gauge firepower and manpower, and he has declared that all peace talks must go through ag Ghaly. That said, the extent of ag Ghaly’s authority over Koufa and the latter’s commitment to transnational goals are hard to evaluate.
The Katiba Macina has shown some flexibility toward dialogue. In August 2017 Koufa mentioned that he would be ready to speak with religious leaders, in particular three well-known Salafi scholars, including Mahmoud Dicko.
In addition, as recently as early 2019, the Katiba Macina has shown willingness to engage in transactional negotiations with the government, such as to exchange hostages for militants held prisoner. That the militants whom the Katiba Macina wanted released included men from outside central Mali, notably a high-profile fighter and former jihadist police chief from Gao, suggests that the JNIM may have condoned the transactional negotiations.
Domestic and Foreign Pressures
Pressure from both domestic and foreign actors who oppose the idea of dialogue or fear its possible outcomes also militates against talks.
Malian actors including secular elites, Sufi scholars, human rights organisations and victims’ associations voice concerns about dialogue. Secular elites view it as part of a larger threat to the separation of religion and politics in Mali. They point to increasingly assertive attempts by Islamist activists to carve out a place for themselves in the political arena. This concern is all the more resonant given that Mahmoud Dicko, whom many secular leaders regard with suspicion, is a key figure both in promoting the role of Islam in politics and in pushing for dialogue with jihadists.
Many clerics also reject the Katiba Macina and its intolerant tenets – perhaps not surprisingly given that the insurgents oppose the Islamic establishment as much as the state. Sufis from Mopti are particularly hostile to dialogue with jihadists, believing that any compromise struck with them would likely privilege Salafi strands of Islam to the detriment of others.
Opposition is not only domestic. Western countries, in particular France and the U.S., clearly reject dialogue, citing several reasons. Militant groups with which Koufa has ties are designated by the UN and others as terrorists. This classification does not prohibit talking to them but it can complicate doing so.
ENGAGEMENT WITH JIHADISTS IN CENTRAL MALI
Local Bargains The jihadists have chased state authorities out of many rural villages, but they have not exactly taken their place. Rather, they reside in the bush and visit villages only periodically, often in small groups, to preach, settle disputes and police moral conduct. This shadow governance leaves local leaders in charge of managing local affairs, albeit under the Katiba Macina’s watch and according to its rules.
In some instances, village notables have won concessions from militants. For example, in Tenenkou cercle, as elsewhere, the ban on women travelling without a male relative has restricted women’s mobility, in particular that of women traders accustomed to shuttling between weekly rural markets to buy and sell goods. After discussions between notables and local Katiba Macina leaders, the jihadists allowed women to travel as long as the mode of transport, whether donkey cart, boat or car, was segregated by gender.
Sufis from Mopti are particularly hostile to dialogue with jihadists, believing that any compromise struck with them would likely privilege Salafi strands of Islam to the detriment of others
Local negotiations still often fail. InToguéré Coumbé, a village in Tenenkou cercle under blockade since March 2018, the residents have appealed several times for the Katiba Macina to lift the blockade – to no avail. Local negotiations take various forms. In most cases, village notables send emissaries to petition the jihadists, usually in forums where delegates from different villages gather. Villages also organise assemblies, knowing that “dormant cell” members are present and will convey discussions to militant leaders. On the jihadists’ side, the amirou markaz usually take charge and report the outcome to the Katiba Macina’s top leadership. The amirou markaz’s personality plays a significant role in determining how much militants compromise.
Though the Katiba Macina speaks in strident anti-Western terms, it has nonetheless allowed humanitarian organisations, including predominantly Western NGOs, to operate in areas it controls. This stance is in keeping with a fatwa (legal ruling) issued in 2018 by a jihadist judicial committee in Timbuktu urging member groups not to attack but rather to facilitate access for humanitarians. Koufa himself has mentioned that his group is not opposed to humanitarian aid, provided that agencies respect certain conditions, among which he cited a prohibition on foreign staff. While not all NGOs that operate in jihadist areas are aware of this announcement, it appears to have made negotiating humanitarian access easier on the ground.
TWO GOVERNMENTS’ DIFFERENT APPROACHES
Over the last two years, the government has taken two markedly different approaches to central Mali’s crisis. Between March and mid-December 2017, then Prime Minister Abdoulaye Idrissa Maïga rolled out his signature program, the missions de bons offices, aimed at advancing peace through dialogue, including with figures close to the Katiba Macina. In December 2017, however, a new prime minister, Soumeylou Boubèye Maïga, came in with an approach relying first and foremost on military action, envisaged intercommunal dialogue in a supplemental role and explicitly excluded jihadists.
On 28 August 2018, following a Center for Humanitarian Dialogue mediation, 34 village chiefs from Mopti met in Sevaré to sign an agreement that aimed to end intercommunal violence. Some militias initially laid down their weapons as a result. But as jihadists attacks continued, the truce fell apart. In some areas, the incidence of assassinations, raids and livestock thefts in the area has since risen. Much as with the disarmament program, such ceasefires appear unlikely to hold if they do not include all those fighting on the ground, including jihadists.
DIALOGUE OPTIONS FOR ENDING THE STALEMATE
Given the limits of the Malian government and its Western partners’ current approach, it could add to the mix dialogue involving – though not limited to – Katiba Macina militants. The government could pursue two channels for such engagement. The first would involve seeking to reinitiate talks with Katiba Macina leaders, by reviving the idea of debate between religious scholars and Hamadoun Koufa, though taking steps to minimise backlash. The second would aim to foster a more inclusive political dialogue involving all central Malian communities, including those who support and sympathise with the jihadists, that aims to reach at a shared understanding of the conflict’s causes, how to tackle them and the state’s role in doing so.
Pursuing these options would entail not an end to military operations, development work and DDR but a shift in tack. If thus far the goal has been to exhaust jihadists to the point where they have no option but to surrender or leave the region, the military instead could maintain a level of pressure but accept temporary and local ceasefires when those leading mediation efforts believe it is time to give more space to dialogue.
Meanwhile, the government’s DDR program should at a minimum continue to leave the door open for jihadists who either joined the insurgency unwillingly or joined by choice but now regret doing so and wish to lay down their guns. Bamako should, however, recognise that few are likely to do so while their leaders are sworn to continue fighting. It should avoid aggressive efforts to prise away militants that are unlikely to work and could undercut efforts to open lines of communication to their leaders.
Obstacles to such a dialogue are serious. The three years of negotiations in Algiers that resulted in the 2015 Bamako accord, which aimed to give different constituencies from Mali’s north a say, and subsequent struggles to implement that deal, show how hard it is to hold inclusive talks, reach agreement and follow through. Much as in the north, the challenge is all the graver given the collapse of central Mali’s political system after years of insurgency.
Most elected officials have fled their constituencies and retain little influence. The legitimacy of traditional authorities who remain is often contested. Nor is it clear that jihadists who control rural areas would allow people to participate, though this might potentially be an area on which the religious scholars seeking to engage Katiba Macina leaders could seek compromise.
One first step the government could take would be to appoint a presidential envoy with a full mandate to explore how such a dialogue might work and then lead it. The envoy should work with local elites and influential figures, such as Quranic school teachers and traditional notables, to reduce the chances that jihadists will stop the process even if they oppose it.
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