Mali’s National Conference: A Missed Opportunity for Reconciliation

Participants at the Conference of National Understanding. Bamako, Mali, March 27, 2017. (Haribou Kouyate/AFP/Getty Images)

Mali’s recently concluded Conference of National Understanding was designed as an opportunity to lay foundations for the final settlement of the country’s separatist conflict and foster reconciliation among the many parties involved. Yet a flawed preparation and a general lack of commitment to inclusiveness seem to have merely put off the necessary heavy lifting on addressing the root causes of violence and resolving a number of outstanding issues from a peace agreement signed in Algiers in 2015.

Prior to its commencement, an article in Le Monde had warned that the summit—attended by about 300 representatives of government, the political opposition, armed groups, and civil society—could become the “conference of national misunderstanding” if it were not well-prepared. The event had faced criticisms of this nature from the very beginning. Shortly after its announcement on December 31 last year, the Coordination for Azawad Movements (CMA) and the Platform—the two signatory coalition of armed groups to the peace agreement—as well as several other parties, accused the government of excluding them.

Although the Algiers negotiators initially envisaged the conference as primarily a discussion with the armed groups, many Malians and members of the international community had come to see it as a much-needed opportunity to finally hold an inclusive dialogue with the whole nation. When it became clear that this would not be the case, the CMA and opposition politicians boycotted, also citing the fact that it would be impossible to debate all the country’s problems and find the solutions within a week. Though the dissenting parties eventually agreed to participate, their initial views appear to have been validated; the conference ended up highlighting the complexity of instituting real dialogue between all Malian parties, as well as with the general population.

The Algiers negotiators had agreed to use the national conference to put off discussions on a number of issues that had been blocking a settlement. Among these were the status of the “Azawad”—a disputed northern region for which the CMA wants juridical and political recognition. The government recognizes the region has geographical and historical significance but does not wish to afford it an independent political status. At the end of the conference the question of its future remained unresolved, though there was at least an agreement that a committee of experts and elders be formed to further discuss it.

The same committee was tasked with formulating a “charter for peace, unity and national reconciliation,” as per the Algiers agreement, and the conference final report included a few measures to improve governance, restore security, and better manage cultural diversity. For example, it suggested engaging negotiations with more radical actors in Mali’s ongoing conflict, such as Amadou Koufa, a preacher heading the Macina Katiba armed group, and Iyah Ag Ghaley, the new chief of Jama’a Nusrat al-Islam wal Muslimeen (born of the merger of four al-Qaeda groups, including Macina Katiba).

Yet more meaningful progress could have been achieved had the gathering been preceded by the return of at least a minimal degree of trust between the different peace agreement signatories, and a constructive dialogue within the political class and with civil society. Recent months have seen some progress on elements of the agreement, but in an incomplete manner. Local elections were held in a climate of tension; installation of interim authorities in the north were established in a partial and contested manner; and the commencement of joint security patrols between the state military and armed groups took place in Gao (after delays), but not in other northern areas, such as Kidal, where the government has long lacked a presence.

One of the recurrent points of contestation in Mali is indeed whether the authorities in place are representative of local populations. Regional governors, for instance, are simply designated by the central government and have systematically been military men in northern Mali. Ahead of the conference, the CMA and Platform published a declaration that decisions on the agenda, and even participation, were made without real consultation and without including all stakeholders, such as certain nomadic populations and refugees.

The conference should have attracted extensive preparation, commitment, and awareness along the lines of the 1991 National Dialogue Conference. Unfortunately, these efforts, including selection of participants, were particularly hasty. They largely consisted of a number of consultations in March with stakeholders in the regions—again excluding Kidal—and with the Malian diaspora in neighboring Burkina Faso, Mauritania, and Niger. This geographic spread, and the involvement of local authorities, were preconditions to guarantee genuine national ownership. They were, however, employed on the basis of ensuring minimum inclusiveness only.

Reports suggest that debates ended up being rather open, substantive, and animated, yet the poor preparations still meant that it was not taken as a credible commitment to dialogue by many political actors. The conference was structured with three working groups relating to peace, justice, and reconciliation, and the CMA and Platform were each given the chair of a group. While this was something of a concession to differing viewpoints, the fact that the chair influenced the conclusions of the groups meant that these did not result from true consensus.

In light of these shortcomings, the government’s will to move ahead with the Conference of National Understanding is an indication of its intention to implement concrete commitments from the peace agreement before the end of the document’s 24-month interim period in June this year. The interim period is, however, a concept which the armed groups continue to contest; they argue that progress should not be marked by the conclusion of a period of time but through completion of a number of benchmarks.

It is clear that a truly inclusive reconciliation process—taking in armed groups, civil society members, and opposition politicians—is still required. This is also valid for the communal elections, the joint patrols, and the installation of interim authorities. The results of the recent conference have at least brought forward questions about representation and reiterated the need for political will from all parties to tackle the fundamental issues stopping the country from moving on. It also highlights that getting the process right, i.e. investing in building trust at every step of the way, rather than simply ticking boxes, is key. Without this, the government will only face increasing opposition and mistrust.

Delphine Mechoulan is a Policy Analyst in the Center for Peace Operations at the International Peace Institute.