Military operations aimed at defeating the Katiba Macina jihadist insurgency in central Mali have reached a stalemate, with the conflict fuelling ever deadlier intercommunal violence. In this light, some Malians call on the government to engage the militants in political dialogue.
Obstacles to such talks are serious: the Katiba Macina’s demands seem to leave little space for accommodation; it has ties to al-Qaeda-linked militants; and the idea of dialogue generates resistance among many Malians and foreign powers. Nonetheless, central Mali residents, aid groups and religious scholars frequently engage the group to discuss local compromises, humanitarian access and religious doctrine, revealing at least some pragmatism among militants. Given the remote prospects for defeating the Katiba Macina militarily, the Malian authorities should empower religious leaders to explore initial talks with its leaders while seeking a wider dialogue among central Malians, including those sympathetic to the insurgency.
Since 2015, the Katiba Macina has established a strong presence in central Mali, capturing vast rural areas and expelling state officials. By framing longstanding socio-economic and political grievances in religious discourse, the movement’s leader Hamadoun Koufa has won support, in particular – though not exclusively – from Quranic school students and ethnic Peul herders. The group has provided basic justice, security and relief from decades of state predation in areas under its control.
Both the Katiba Macina’s violence and military operations against it have widened pre-existing cleavages among ethnic groups, leading self-defence militias to proliferate and intercommunal clashes that now kill more people than fighting between militants and the security forces. Central Mali’s death toll is now the country’s highest, with civilians bearing the brunt. As the war’s costs mount, calls from activists, politicians and religious leaders for dialogue between the government and Katiba Macina leaders are growing louder.
Enormous challenges stand in the way of such dialogue. For now, both Mali’s top officials and jihadist leaders reject it. At first blush, the jihadists’ aspirations – in principle, the overthrow of Mali’s state and democratic institutions, their replacement with a theocratic system inspired by the group’s interpretation of sharia and the severing of relations between Mali and its Western partners – leave little room for conciliation.
The Katiba Macina’s links to the Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin, a jihadist coalition that pledges allegiance to al-Qaeda, likely narrow its leeway to engage officials. Malian secular elites, Sufi Muslim scholars, human rights groups and victims’ associations express disquiet that talks with jihadists could lead to compromises on the role of Islam in public life. Those communities in central Mali that have suffered at its hands would likely resist negotiations. Some Western countries, in particular France and the U.S., expressly oppose the idea. No outside power explicitly backs it.
Despite these challenges, state and non-state actors have regularly engaged the Katiba Macina over the past four years. Malian officials have struck deals over hostage releases. Communal leaders, aid organisations, including Western groups, and religious scholars have discussed with the group its local rule, humanitarian access to areas under its control and the righteousness of its discourse.
One initiative that appears to have shown promise involved the Malian government itself mandating religious and traditional leaders to explore what accommodation with jihadists might entail. Such contacts have mostly been local and limited in their objectives; as yet, they have not sought to introduce ceasefires or other means of reducing violence, let alone achieve peace. But they have revealed a degree of pragmatism among Katiba Macina militants, suggesting that even if the odds are stacked against success, dialogue with the group is worth trying.
The Malian government should consider two ways of engaging central Mali’s jihadists and their supporters:
The first would involve empowering Islamic scholars, including three
religious figures that Katiba Macina leader Koufa himself has said he
would be willing to meet. The scholars could seek to engage Koufa or at
least people close to him, initially perhaps to explore ways of reducing
civilian harm, such as through local ceasefires. They might also
discuss the return of officials, especially those providing services
like education and health that residents want, to areas under jihadist
control. They might subsequently be able to work on proposals for
political and religious reform or open a channel through which officials
could talk with militant leaders.
- The second would entail a more comprehensive dialogue among central Malians aimed at establishing a shared understanding of the causes of violence and how to address them. This dialogue would not necessarily include jihadists themselves, but it should involve groups that have tended to support them, notably Quranic school students and nomadic Peul. Given the state’s chronic weakness in central Mali, the dialogue should examine what its return to the region would entail, particularly in terms of regulating access to natural resources, restoring local security and justice provision, devolving authority, ensuring political representation, and improving both Francophone and Quranic education. A first step would be for Mali’s president to empower an envoy to explore how such a dialogue might be organised in the wake of state institutions’ collapse in parts of central Mali.
Pursuing these options would not mean an end to military operations. Indeed, dialogue should be part of a comprehensive plan for central Mali involving military pressure, development aid and efforts to disarm self-defence militias and militants alike. But such an approach would entail a shift of tack, with force used alongside efforts to bring Katiba Macina leaders to the table, rather than in the likely futile hope of defeating the movement on the battlefield.
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