Mali’s government said on Tuesday that it asked the country’s main Islamic body to open peace talks with leaders of al Qaeda’s local affiliate in an effort to end a decade of conflict. Malian authorities have previously endorsed the idea of talks and have quietly backed local peace initiatives with the militants as security deteriorates and Islamist groups expand beyond their traditional strongholds. But the latest announcement by the religious affairs ministry marks by far the most concrete step toward negotiations with militant leaders.
Such an approach is vigorously opposed by Mali’s chief military ally, France, whose president, Emmanuel Macron, said in June that French troops would not conduct joint operations with countries that negotiate with Islamist militants. The Minister of Religious Affairs asked the High Islamic Council (HCI) to open negotiations with the leaders of the al Qaeda-linked Jama’a Nusrat ul-Islam wa al-Muslimin (JNIM), ministry spokesperson Khalil Camara told Reuters.
“The minister met the High Islamic Council last week to inform them of the government’s desire to negotiate with all the radical Malian groups, (including) Iyad Ag Ghali and Amadou Koufa,” Camara said. Ag Ghali is JNIM’s chief and Amadou Koufa leads JNIM’s most active affiliate in central Mali. Both are frequently targeted by French bombing campaigns.
Mohamed Kimbiri, a senior HCI official, confirmed the body had been tasked with negotiating with Malian JNIM leaders but was instructed not to negotiate with foreign Islamists. Another HCI official said no talks had yet taken place. The HCI mediated talks in central Mali’s Niono Circle area – quietly backed by national authorities – that led to a peace deal in March between JNIM militants and traditional hunters that oppose them. But the deal broke down in July and violence in the area has since surged.
Mali is fast shaping into an active geopolitical arena. Just this September, there were international concerns over Bamako’s discussions with the Russian private military contractor, The Wagner Group, to provide the country with mercenary support following a deepening security crisis. When that development is assessed along with this move by the government to open negotiations with these Islamist groups, particularly JNIM and its affiliate, it represents a clear admission of its lack of capacity to project force within its own borders.
This problem has become more acute after France withdrew its troops from northern Mali as part of a wider drawdown that will see it reduce its military footprint in the Sahel by about 60%. This leaves an ill-trained and under-resourced Malian security architecture with the task of policing a land area bigger than France and Germany combined that is riddled with other security challenges such as conflicts between herders and sedentary farmers as well as numerous ethnic clashes.
A possible demand by JNIM in the negotiations will be that bombing campaigns against it cease; however, considering that France has criticised the idea of a negotiation, they may not feel bound to abide by such a ceasefire arrangement. Another thing that remains to be seen is if the negotiations will be sustained considering the experience with a similar peace deal between the JNIM and traditional hunters.
What is clear is that whatever peace that emerges from this will be a tenuous one, prone to breaking down. At best, it will buy the Malian government time, in theory, to build up its capacity to be able to take on security threats and reassert control over the country. Such governance issues, however, will need a lot of time to fix and that is one commodity Bamako has very little of.