Earlier this month, the Malian interim Prime Minister declared a willingness to enter into a dialogue with Islamist militants, much to the dissatisfaction of its former colonial power, France. The militants, many of whom posses ties to Al-Qaeda and ISIL, have filled vacuums created by poor regulation and have now rendered many areas of the country ungovernable. The ensuing conflict over territory has resulted in the loss of many lives, including those of civilians. France intervened in 2013 and currently has over 5,000 troops present in the region to fight the influence and spread of jihadists.
Much of the issue stems from the presence of Islam in local affairs and communities, leading many to believe that negotiations and dialogue is needed to end the bloodshed. Speaking about the motivations of Mali in entering these talks, interim Prime Minister Moctar Ouane stated, “We need to see in that an opportunity to engage in far-reaching discussions with the communities in order to redefine the contours of a new governance of the areas that are concerned.” France has opposed any suggestion of starting dialogues, with their Foreign Minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, pointing out that the militant groups had not signed the peace accords France has put forth. The French framework aims to restore peace to Mali and end the conflict. Le Drian additionally claims that France’s position is supported by neighboring countries as well as by the United Nations Security Council.
Despite claims from the French Foreign Minister about the support for his stance, there are other accounts that run contradictory to this. For example, the UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, went on the record stating, “There will be groups with which we can talk, and which will have an interest in engaging in dialogue to become political actors in the future.” This demonstrates a willingness to interact at some of the highest and most influential levels. Additionally, the United Nations has a vested interest in de-escalating the conflict in Mali as doing so not only aligns with their overall mission, but also because at present, there are around 13,000 U.N. peacekeepers stationed in Mali.
After evaluating what is known about the situation in Mali, it can be concluded that no adequate solution has been put forward, and measures taken up until now have been largely ineffective. France intervened militarily nearly seven years ago yet conflict levels are just as problematic as they previously were. Their involvement has not seen Mali regain territorial control, nor has it reduced the influence of the militant groups. The presence of U.N. peacekeepers has also produced minimal change in the aforementioned areas. Perhaps one can give these forces the benefit of the doubt and perhaps infer that they may have kept the situation from becoming much worse. But it is evident that while in the meantime, military presence is a necessary deterrent, it is not sufficient to resolve this issue.
While Mali’s attempts to enter into talks with the militant groups is noble, it is vague and ill-timed. Mali does not currently have a stable government in place; its former Prime Minister was ousted in August’s military coup and is still governed by an interim Prime Minister. Political stability should be achieved before undertaking such serious talks, but it is not clear if this is a priority. Additionally, the Malian government has been reluctant to outline the goals of their proposed negotiations or indicate how much they are willing to compromise. Some have said that the talks will involve carving out a greater role for Islam in public life, but this is speculation. The vague nature of the Malian stance serves to make France wary, which creates an image of allies at odds with each other, and this ultimately serves the interests of the militant groups.
Rather, it is time to explore other options, some of which may be more collaborative in nature.
There are many different actors involved in this conflict. The militant groups are fragmented, at odds with each other, and divided in their allegiance to Al-Qaeda and ISIL. The amount of conflict between the different militant groups indicates a lack of cohesion and structure, with there being no clear leader. However, the willingness to negotiate that Mali has expressed extends only to groups with Al-Qaeda links; this indicates Mali has some notion of hierarchy where these radical groups. Additionally, it may also be the case that members of these militant groups predominantly involve Malians, thus making the government more sympathetic to them.
Mali is the most proactive nation opposing the militant groups in the nation, but it must be acknowledged that there are at least two more African countries involved. The neighboring states of Niger and Burkina Faso are beginning to bear the effects of the conflict, as the militant groups and subsequent bloodshed are migrating into these regions. This is further causing ethnic tensions to be exacerbated and especially impacts poor regions. France’s contribution to the region is negotiable. France can demonstrate that it has an interest in curbing the influence of militant groups, especially since these groups operate on the international level and have been responsible for terrorist attacks within France. However, France does not have an entirely positive history with the Muslim community, and its ties to Mali bare clear remnants of colonialism. In fact, Associated Press found that France’s military presence has led to repeated calls from terrorist groups to retaliate on French soil. Future plans to stabilize Mali should include plans to gradually phase out France’s involvement in an effort to not only increase Mali’s claim to sovereignty and independence, but to also stabilize public opinion.
Going forward, Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso should come together to tackle the crisis, perhaps in collaboration with the African Union or relevant representatives from the United Nations. The possible presence of the latter actors is important, due to the resources and legitimacy they can claim. The purpose of this meeting should be to establish a long-term plan to implement a united effort to curb the influence of militant groups. The United Nations peacekeepers would play a vital role in this, as unfortunately, this conflict has already seen a great deal of bloodshed. The peacekeepers would be essential in protecting civilians and are better trained in tactics that can minimize violent incursions. It is important that the solution be worked out in a way that involves all the concerned parties and leaves them in agreement on how to proceed. The parties should also agree to enter into negotiations with the militant groups, but only if, prior to this, they have worked out objectives and are in agreement as to what can and can’t be compromised. It may, unfortunately, be worth considering supporting the Al-Qaeda groups for a time in their pursuit of the ISIS groups, rather than try to take on both groups at once (i.e. ‘the enemy of my enemy is a friend’).
France should be included in party discussions, but it is important the European state does not dictate the discourse, as it did during the colonial era. Despite their generous efforts, it is not the role of France to stabilize Mali. In any case, seven years has proven that they are not the ones for the job, and their presence has proven to be divisive. France should begin to phase out its military presence in the nation. This is not to say that France cannot serve in an advisory role or give aid in any other way, but to have a military presence in a country and take on the role of stabilizer imposes unwritten conditions upon the receiving country in that they must base their decisions with the sending countries considerations in mind. To that end, the United Nations should also help Mali with part of their ultimate goal being the reduction of peacekeeping troops from the region.
Lastly, improving the overall development of the West African region can help bolster the population’s confidence and participation in government and the economy. Doing so may also reduce the recruitment pool of disenchanted people for militant groups to radicalize, whilst also galvanising public support for the eradication of these groups, as they are then viewed as a threat to progress. Otherwise, the increase of Malian citizens joining these groups will split public opinion and blur the line between enemy and civilian. Mali taking measures to stabilize its government by electing a Prime Minister would represent a significant first step in addressing the needs of the country.
To conclude, the solution that will bring peace to Mali and the neighboring states is not an easy one, nor a readily available one. There are many actors involved and considerations to be observed. A solution will involve collaboration, it may involve some compromise, and above all, it must involve a de-escalation of all the forces that would make this situation into a violent one. Mali needs to establish a stable political context before engaging into talks with its allies. France needs to understand that its presence in Mali should be increasingly minimal as it already oversteps its role and is a divisive force. The United Nations or African Union will likely be involved in an advisory role for some time, though again, military de-escalation should be a goal.
This is a chance for countries to come together and for institutions to work towards their mandate; the developments that are to come will show whether the opportunity is to be realized.