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‘We accept to save our lives’: How local dialogues with jihadists took root in Mali
‘Nowhere in the world do wars end without negotiation.’
The New Humanitarian – 04.05.2022
By Philip Kleinfeld et Mamadou Tapily
Aly Ongoiba* keeps meticulous notes on the conflict that consumed his commune – a maze of clay buildings and artfully thatched granaries spread across the top of a sandstone escarpment that cuts through central Mali.
During the peak of the violence, the mayor said dozens of villages in the commune were attacked by jihadist militants. Hundreds of lives were lost and tens of thousands of cattle were stolen before Ongoiba finally stopped counting.
Then came peace – or something of the sort.
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A kidnapped teacher, a fed up farmer, and a push for dialogue with Mali’s militants
The New Humanitarian – 16.05.2022
The five community leaders squeezed into a rattletrap Mercedes-Benz and braced themselves for a daunting mission. They were going to meet the jihadist militants who had made their lives unbearable.
The purpose of the meeting was to secure the release of a well-known teacher, snatched by jihadists in a village beneath the sandstone cliffs that cut through central Mali – the country’s epicentre of violence and displacement. …Read more
Fed up with the violence, Ongoiba asked local leaders to open talks with militants linked to al-Qaeda. A deal was then struck that saw the commune agree to stop resisting the jihadists and follow a strict version of sharia law, according to individuals present at the dialogue.
Some residents objected to the harsh sharia conditions, but security gains soon convinced many of the deal’s benefits. “Until today, there has been no attack,” Ongoiba told The New Humanitarian. “Nowhere in the world do wars end without negotiation.”
Military operations have long been the strategy of choice for international and regional powers fighting jihadist groups in Mali and the wider Sahel region. Rural self-defence militias have mushroomed too, as residents seek to defend themselves against the militants.
But as the decade-long insurgency spreads and humanitarian needs soar, some communities that initially resisted the jihadists’ presence are trying a different approach: dialogue.
Since 2020, dozens of verbal accords between jihadists and communities have been struck in central Mali – the country’s epicentre of violence and displacement in recent years. Ceasefires between militants and opposing militias have been brokered too.
The ability of these talks to help mitigate violence is explored in depth in the following briefing. Observations are based on interviews with 34 local leaders, aid workers, and public officials involved in talks or with close knowledge of them.
Community leaders don’t sugarcoat the accords. They see them as “survival pacts”, necessary because the state is absent and the army is weak. None want to follow oppressive rules, and most worry they will be called jihadists for making agreements.
Yet the leaders say the pacts have saved lives, that enforcement of sharia is often lax, and that jihadists are also making compromises as they seek to avoid community conflicts and focus on their real enemy: the state.
Though limited in scale, the talks carry weight beyond central Mali. They offer insight into how some jihadists approach conflict resolution. And they show a local appetite (though not uniform) for dialogue that may support the case for national negotiations with militants.
The idea for such discussions seem radical, yet many political and religious figures in Mali have expressed support for it, as have militant leaders from the Group to Support Islam and Muslims (JNIM) – an al-Qaeda subsidiary and one of the main jihadist groupings in the Sahel.
A key obstacle to talks had been the War on Terror rhetoric of France, which spearheaded foreign military efforts in Mali since 2013. But the former colonial power is now leaving after relations soured with the ruling junta – and much of the general public.
“The best thing is for the government to stop fighting and start a dialogue,” said a community leader involved in mediation efforts in central Mali. “Officials should involve religious leaders, and of course include us.”
Part one of this story looks at how pacts are negotiated; part two examines how the deals are enforced by jihadists; part three analyses the risks facing community leaders involved in talks; and part four asks whether those leaders support a national dialogue.
Part 1: Hard bargaining – ‘We said we have marabouts more literate than you’
Quick read: Community leaders are on the backfoot during negotiations but that doesn’t mean they have no agency. Some have extracted significant concessions from jihadists, whose willingness to compromise bodes well for any national talks.
Discussions between communities and jihadists aren’t new. They had already been happening quite frequently in northern and central areas of Mali where militants are in firm control. Compromise is often necessary as fighters seek to enforce their ideology without alienating civilians.
However, what is notable is that the recent talks are occurring in some of the more volatile central districts, where jihadists have less of a support base and where they met fierce resistance as they spread from the desert north from 2015 onwards.
Self-defence militias sprung up here among various communities, including the traditionally agricultural Dogon and Bambara groups. These militias then committed atrocities against marginalised Fulani herders who dominate the jihadists’ ranks.
Mass killings and insecurity displaced tens of thousands of people and led to widespread hunger. A UN peacekeeping operation struggled to protect civilians, while military operations and occasional French airstrikes often made matters worse.
The failing led to different types of accords being struck. In some central regions, religious leaders have mediated ceasefires between militias and militants with Bamako’s blessing. But these agreements (outside the scope of this report) often break down.
In other areas, initiatives have come directly from community leaders, who often pay out of their pockets for meetings and risk being seen as jihadist sympathisers for wanting to engage with the insurgents, who are from a JNIM-affiliated group called Katiba Macina.
Rules stipulated by jihadists during these talks – which mostly occur without state approval – are usually the same, said Amadou Guindo, a Dogon village chief and farmer who has organised dozens of discussions in and around the turbulent Koro district.
Guindo said jihadists in Koro tell communities to lay down their weapons; to stop providing the military with information on the militants’ whereabouts; and to offer forgiveness for any violence they have suffered.
Compliance with the jihadists’ interpretation of sharia is also demanded as fighters have used the talks to consolidate power. Dress codes were set, alcohol consumption was banned, while other cultural customs were also proscribed.
Guindo, who lost family members during the conflict and saw his livelihood stripped away, said people had no choice but to accept. “We are doing it for our survival,” he said. “We can’t [fight] them, so we accept their torture to save our lives.”
Still, Guindo and several other community leaders said the talks are not entirely one-sided. As well as obtaining guarantees that they can farm and travel freely, some leaders extracted significant concessions during and after dialogues.
A teacher from Mondoro district in the central Douentza region said residents successfully pushed back at a late 2020 meeting with jihadists when they requested permission to preach in their communities and preside over legal and social disputes.
“We said, ‘we have highly literate marabouts who are already preaching every Friday’,” recalled the teacher who was present at the meeting. “We said, ‘[they] know the Koran better than you’.”
A community adviser from a different part of Douentza told The New Humanitarian that during a recent round of negotiations he had convinced a group of jihadists to stop attending markets carrying arms – a request raised in other dialogues too.
The adviser said jihadists also permitted the community to keep hold of their weapons – so long as they are stored away – and agreed to move their base further into the bush so that future firefights with the army didn’t spill into town.
“When they have confrontations with the army, they run into villages,” the adviser explained. “[With this agreement], we are protected from stray bullets, and from the army coming to us.”
A Malian aid worker, who regularly consults communities involved in talks, told The New Humanitarian that the reason jihadists are willing to negotiate is because they realise that conflicts with communities have little strategic benefit.
“A jihadist leader explained to us that attacking a village of 1,000 to 2,000 people means losing a lot ammunition,” said the aid worker, who is employed by an international NGO and asked not to be named for security reasons. “Attacking army positions gives them money and cars.”
Guindo said jihadists didn’t compromise much at first but eased up in future talks as trust developed. They pledged to stop damaging telecommunication towers during one recent meeting, he said, and to stop laying mines close to villages in another.
An accommodation on schooling was also discussed on one occasion, Guindo added. The jihadists said public schools could be reopened so long as French and Arabic were both taught and space for a madrassa was found.
Aid workers and analysts said the compromises shows that jihadists – though often framed as religious zealots and little else – do have a pragmatic streak. That’s also demonstrated in humanitarian access negotiations militants often hold with international NGOs.
Still, the agreements being struck are brittle. They usually skirt over the root causes of conflict – from state abuse to governance shortfalls – and are contingent on the daily conduct of local communities, jihadists, and unpredictable militias.
“It is very fragile,” said Ongoiba, the local mayor. “The problems could start again.”
Part 2: Enforcing the accords – ‘Women rush to get coverings, youth rush to switch off radios’
Quick read: Enforcement of sharia seems to vary after agreements are struck. Some communities said they have been left alone by jihadists, while others claimed corporal punishment has been used against women.
Part 3: The risky business of mediation – ‘The army started acting as if we were with the jihadists’
Quick read: Community leaders involved in accords face threats from anti-jihadist militias and are viewed suspiciously by the Malian army. Proper support from the government would help legitimise their work and reduce the risks.
Part 4: A national dialogue – ‘Killing is not the only solution’
Quick read: Community leaders said the government should leverage their contacts and knowledge if it pursues talks. But some worry a national dialogue would give too much power to the jihadists and said the army should keep on fighting.
*All sources in this story are anonymous for security reasons. Pseudonyms are used where interviewees are quoted multiple times. Village and commune names and certain other details are obscured to protect identities.
Illustrations by Dramane Diarra, a Malian artist based in Bamako. The top drawing portrays a dialogue between jihadists and community leaders. The second depicts a typical village in Bandiagara region. The third shows jihadists besieging a village – a common strategy they use against resistant populations. The fourth sketches a patrol by a self-defence militia.
Quote cards by Sara Cuevas.
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