Speaking with Jihadists: Mali Weighs Its Options

Ibrahim Boubacar Keita returns to his car after touring the bombed Radisson Blu hotel. Bamako, Mali, November 21, 2015. (Jerome Delay/Associated Press)

Mali’s Conference of National Understanding ran from March 27 to April 2, fulfilling one provision of the country’s 2015 peace agreement. But peace remains elusive, especially in the center and north of the country. Mali is troubled by a host of armed groups, whose agendas range from ethnic self-defense to jihadism. Coming out of the conference, one key recommendation by participants was that Mali’s government should talk to the jihadists, or at least the Malian ones.

That recommendation has occasioned serious debate within Mali’s political class, media, and civil society. Proponents of negotiations focus on two jihadists in particular: Iyad Ag Ghali, an ethnic Tuareg and the leader of a new, al-Qaeda-linked jihadist formation in northern Mali; and Hamadou Kouffa, an ethnic Fulani and the leader of a central Malian jihadist group that is part of Ag Ghali’s coalition. Although there are various al-Qaeda-linked foreigners in the country, proponents of negotiations believe that locally born leaders might be amenable to dialogue.

Initially, the Malian government expressed openness to the idea of these negotiations. Following the conference, Minister of National Reconciliation Mohamed El Moctar said, “Mali is ready to negotiate with all its children. Every child of this country who wants to lay down his weapons or leave this extremist, jihadist mob, they are welcome in their own home.”

But the government soon changed its line. When France’s then-Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault visited Mali in early April, he said categorically, “We are engaged in a fight. It is a fight without ambiguity against terrorism…And so there is only one way, there are not two.” Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta subsequently told Ayrault that there would be no negotiations, and that seemed to settle the question. The debate, however, has continued, perhaps to the chagrin of both France and Keïta (or “IBK,” in the tradition of calling certain Malian politicians by their initials).

There are several reasons why the idea of negotiations still appeals to some Malians, even as France continues to view Mali’s problems in black and white terms.

First, some Malians are desperate for any path to peace. Serious violence has affected the country since 2012, when the civil war began. The violence continued, in a different form, even after French-led military operations toppled a would-be jihadist emirate in the north in early 2013. As one Malian commentator wrote after the conference, “If peace must come through negotiation with these two terrorists, who are, all the same, Malians, why not do it.” Others, including the politician Tiébilé Dramé, put the case a bit differently, arguing that Mali has no reason not to open a dialogue, just to see whether there is a possibility of peace. The logic is the same, though: For over four years, Mali and its outside partners have tried to defeat the jihadists militarily, but jihadist attacks continue. Those in favor of negotiations feel that another approach is sorely needed.

Second, some Malians see the issue of negotiations as a part of a broader question of government accountability. The politician Sy Kadiatou Sow has interpreted IBK’s refusal to negotiate as an insult to the conference participants and to the Malian people: “Mr. President…did you really hear what the participants at the conference of understanding had to say? Do you know what is going on in your country?” For commentators like Sow, the issue highlights a broader ineffectiveness on IBK’s part—an inability to deal with the country’s problems. They see the president as isolated, not just from his countrymen but even from reality.

Third, then, there is a political context to the debate. Mali’s next presidential elections are not scheduled until July 2018, but IBK—who was elected in 2013, in the first elections held after the French-led intervention—has already indicated that he will seek a second term. A proto-campaign is beginning, with security as a key issue. Segments of the opposition, including 2013 runner-up Soumaïla Cissé, have sharply criticized IBK’s management of the peace process. Cissé pronounced the Conference of National Understanding “stillborn,” a hollow exercise with “no real debate” about the country’s future. Cissé has said that he believes a “credible” interlocutor could make headway with Ag Ghali and Kouffa. The question of negotiations will only be one of a host of issues in the 2018 campaign, but it is already emerging as one point of difference between IBK and some of his challengers.

Fourth, some Malians resent the appearance that France is telling their government what it can and cannot do. One commentator lamented, “France is dragging IBK along a slippery slope with no regard for peace in Mali.” The writer took a dark view of France’s intentions in Mali, seeing France as a partisan actor that is too close to (non-jihadist) Tuareg separatists in the north. He added, “It is time that we consider our own approaches for peace and reconciliation to get out of this impasse.” Some Malians, simply put, want Malian solutions.

Are successful negotiations possible? One concern is that Mali could fall into a trap: Ag Ghali and Kouffa might extract concessions from the government, and then either offer little in return, renege on the agreement, or come back later to demand more. Or the jihadists might be completely unreasonable; they might ask for their own territorial enclave, total amnesty, or the imposition of their vision of Islamic law throughout Mali. Another concern is that negotiations could legitimize figures who are now officially part of al-Qaeda. A final obstacle is legal and political: What consequences or censure would the government of Mali face in the international arena if it negotiates with figures who are blacklisted by the United Nations, the United States, and other governments? Although various governments may have made quiet arrangements or truces with jihadists over the years, a public negotiation between a government and elements of al-Qaeda would be somewhat unprecedented, and therefore legally and politically dicey.

At the very least, however, there are reasons to believe that a dialogue could be opened with Ag Ghali and Kouffa. One of Mali’s most prominent Muslim leaders, Mahmoud Dicko, has corresponded periodically with Ag Ghali, although sometimes there have been doubts about the authenticity of Ag Ghali’s purported replies. Additionally, there has been reporting that Ag Ghali, through intermediaries, kept an eye on­—or even a hand in—the peace process in 2015. Ag Ghali is well-connected among Tuareg nobles, and it is likely that some of his former allies and contacts still know how to reach him. What a dialogue would yield is one question, but there is little doubt that the logistical infrastructure is there to get in touch with him. IBK’s government appears unwilling to pursue that option (or to pursue it publicly), but the longer the conflict drags on, the more the pressure on him may grow to give negotiations a try.