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Mali launches negotiations with the jihadists, but at what price?

By Fatoumata Diallo
Posted on Friday, 22 October 2021 17:58

Malian soldiers patrol with soldiers from the new Takuba force near the Niger border in the Dansongo circle, Mali, 23 August 2021. Paul Lorgerie/REUTERS

As Barkhane troops continue to leave the country, Mali’s transitional regime has decided to reopen negotiations with Iyad ag Ghaly and Amadou Koufa, crossing a red line for Paris.

After a long period of reflection and hesitation, the Malian authorities and leaders of the jihadist groups active in the country have finally decided to officially begin negotiations.

Mahamadou Koné, Mali’s minister of religious affairs, worship and customs, has mandated the country’s High Islamic Council (HCI), chaired by Chérif Ousmane Madani Haïdara, to initiate dialogue with Iyad ag Ghaly’s Support Group for Islam and Muslims (GSIM). The nebula is also composed of members from Amadou Koufa’s Macina katiba, Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (Aqmi), Ansar Dine and al-Mourabitoune. This decision was made after a meeting on 12 October, but went unnoticed for several days.

This is the first time that such a task has been entrusted to the Islamic council, a structure that the minister considers well placed to “identify people experienced in negotiation techniques”, that is, “true connoisseurs of the country, familiar with the internal and external stakes and sufficiently pedagogical.”

We cannot carry out joint operations with powers that decide to hold talks with groups that, at the same time are shooting at our children. No dialogue and no compromise.

The choice comes a few months after the HCI successfully completed a reconciliation mission in the central part of the country. In March, the High Council reached a month-long ceasefire agreement between the region’s jihadists affiliated to the Macina katiba, and traditional dozo hunters. The truce was a major achievement for an area that has been the scene of bloody and deadly attacks for several months.

Dicko marginalised?

Therefore, Imam Haïdara, the head of the HCI, is on the front line, whereas Imam Dicko has been relegated to a secondary role. The popular cleric, whom Koulouba used to call upon to open dialogue with jihadist leaders, is still part of the HCI. The imam could retain a major role as he knows Ghali well and also received his training in Saudi Arabia and is Peul like Koufa.

Will his successor, who embodies a traditional Sufi Islam, be able to carry out the mission he has just been entrusted with? Bakary Samb, a researcher and regional director of the Timbuktu Institute, says: “Imam Haïdara’s ideology is different from the one advocated by the Salafists and he has long opposed jihadist dogmas.” A few days after the government’s announcement, many questions remain unanswered.

Discord with Paris

In Bamako, the timing of the government announcement is questionable. “The transitional authorities’ approach is demagogic,” says oppositionist Oumar Mariko. The political leader, who has always been in favour of opening talks with jihadist groups, fears that the Malian transitional government is using this approach to consolidate a popular base. The regime, which was established last June after the country’s second military coup in nine months, has yet to prove itself.

“The Malian authorities are under pressure from the international community and Ecowas to respect the terms of the transition government. They must obtain results quickly so that they can convince Malians of their political choices,” says Samb. “[However], French President Emmanuel Macron feels that this resumption of negotiations with the jihadists is coming at a bad time, as the French presidential election is due to take place in just a few months […].”

The subject of discord between Paris and Bamako has been added to an already long list. On 10 June, on the sidelines of the Nato summit during which the French president announced the imminent end of the Barkhane military operation in its current form, Macron reiterated his opposition to any dialogue with jihadist leaders.

“We cannot carry out joint operations with powers that decide to hold talks with groups that, at the same time are shooting at our children. No dialogue and no compromise.”

Release of fighters

The Malian authorities have been trying to negotiate for several years. Leading political actors, who have been faced with the stalemate from the conflict in Mali and the mixed results of the military method, spoke of the need to change the way in which peace is brought to the country. During the 2017 conference on national understanding, strong voices such as that of Tiébélé Dramé, former minister of foreign affairs and national cooperation, openly said that this step needed to be taken.

The pressure is so strong in the country that in 2019, the then president, Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta (IBK), tasked Dioncounda Traoré – president of the transition government from 2012 to 2013, who has become his high representative for the central part of the country – with finding a political solution to the opening dialogue with the jihadist leaders. A year later, in February 2020, IBK acknowledged for the first time that contact had been established with the two main leaders of the GSIM, the Sahelian jihadist nebula affiliated with al-Qaeda. “I have a duty and mission to create all possible spaces and to do everything possible so that, by one means or another, we can achieve appeasement. It is time for certain paths to be explored […]. We are not stubborn, blocked or obtuse people,” says the former head of state.

In October 2020, two well-known hostages were released: opposition leader Soumaïla Cissé and French humanitarian Sophie Pétronin. It was later revealed that Bamako had exchanged them for 100 jihadists held in Malian prisons.

Will Ghali want to negotiate?

Ghali said he was ready to negotiate when faced with the new Koulouba doctrine in March 2020. However, the jihadist leader had also set several conditions, including a strategic one. “Negotiations won’t be held within the shadow of the occupation, not until all French forces and those who follow them have left Mali,” he said in a statement.

As the last French soldiers prepare to leave Kidal, will Ghali lay down his arms for a while and sit down at the negotiating table? This seems unlikely, as Barkhane force’s withdrawal from Mali seems to have spurred him on.

Last August, he seemed more victorious than ever. “We are winning. The French are leaving. Our perseverance has paid off,” he said in a statement. Ordering his troops not to rely on “Malian democracy” to “liberate themselves”, he told them: “The jihad will liberate you and consider your demands.”

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