Is it time for the UN to help Malians talk to JNIM?

MINUSMA Transport Company Delivers Water to Airport Guards. Photo Credit: United Nations

In late January 2022, France announced it would “reevaluate” the future of its counterterrorism operations in Mali. This came after France had already downsized Operation Barkhane, and closed bases in Timbuktu, Kidal, and Tessalit. Operation Barkhane led by the French since 2014 aimed to prevent the establishment of a terrorist safe haven and improve governance. However, the 2021 coup in Mali, the eight attempted coups throughout the Sahel in the past year, and the record-high number of terrorist attacks in Mali last year, indicate that Operation Barkhane has failed. French counterterrorism focused on decapitation operations which resulted in increased competition and more violent groups. While efforts to improve governance were trivial in comparison to the resources provided to military operations. Indeed, President Macron stated in February 2021 that governance can only be addressed once terrorist groups have been defeated. This approach almost certainly contributed to increased political instability in turn strengthening the very terrorists the French sought to defeat.

The European Union (EU) and the Economic Community of West Africa States (ECOWAS) placed sanctions on Mali after its transitional government led by Colonel Assimi Goïta announced the delay of elections in December 2021. The United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) was established in 2013 to support stabilization, reconciliation, and political processes in Mali, and has been extended to June 2022. MINUSMA lacks the resources to protect all civilians in Mali, forcing the mission to limit its presence in center regions such as Mopti and Ségou. MINUSMA has not prioritized a civilian-centered approach as it has also dedicated most of its security resources towards fortifying bases and protecting the Malian military, which further delegitimizes its efforts in the eyes of the Malian population.

In light of the end of MINUSMA’s mandate, the United Nations should reallocate MINUSMA’s resources towards mediation assistance and to support preparations for a future dialogue between the Malian government and Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM). JNIM is an-Qaeda linked group formed in 2017 after Ansar Dine, the Macina Liberation Front, Al-Mourabitoun, and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) formed an alliance.

Protection of civilians is the main priority of MINUSMA. Considering the changes outlined above, this goal can be best achieved by supporting dialogues between ethnic groups, armed groups, and the Malian government. The 2015 Algiers accords remain unpopular among Malians which perceive it as forced upon them by the international community, so talks should not be focused thereon. Rather, it is crucial that MINUSMA peacekeepers act as guarantors of dialogue and security, while refraining from influencing community-led solutions. MINUSMA should sponsor, support, and learn from local leaders and groups such as the Community Association Monobèm responsible for mediating three successful agreements between the Fulani and Dogon communities in 2021. By supporting these types of initiatives MINUSMA will improve their effectiveness by providing implementation resources, such as mediators and ceasefire supervisors, while demonstrating to Malian leaders that engagement, instead of playing groups against each other, is in their interest. Moreover, community agreements have proven to be more effective at reducing violence than military operations, as seen in the Kidal regions after agreements between the Tuareg and Ansar Dine. Focusing resources on a specific objective will improve coordination with Malian forces and generate opportunities to articulate a strategic plan to transfer MINUSMA’s responsibilities to the Malian state.

MINUSMA should build upon community-led agreements by allowing the Malian government to reassert its central role in the peace process and begin negotiations with JNIM. JNIM has expressed their willingness to start a dialogue, while the Malian public also supported talks with Ag Ghaly and Amadou Kouffa, JNIM leadership, after a national conference in 2017. Providing the Malian government with negotiating tools, such as a neutral mediator, trained negotiating teams, digital platforms, communication methods, and conference funding, should ensure that they begin negotiations with an even hand and international backing. MINUSMA should sponsor public debates led by Malian civil society and religious leadership, around the role of Islam in government, permitting both parties to negotiate with an understanding of what Malians want. Dialogue should also stabilize the country, preventing the Malian government from using security concerns as a justification for further election delays.

These changes will not come easily. First, stepping back from the military mission may lead to an increase in violence in the short-term. Still, if negotiations are provided with mediators, supervisors, and state support, it may result in a more sustainable peace. Second, an agreement between the Malian government and JNIM may be detrimental for Malian women and minorities, which goes against MINUSMA’s mandate. However, JNIM has been able to compromise with various communities under their control over Shariah law and education. For example, villagers in Kidal were permitted to elect their own qadis ad religious leaders. It is also possible that MINUSMA’s mission is extended past June 2022 and that JNIM and the Malian government would be amenable to having MINUSMA participate as a direct mediator and enforcer of a future agreement. If this is the case, MINUSMA should also aim to increase coordination with a regional institution such as ECOWAS or the African Union. An African third-party will have more legitimacy, regional understanding, and the ability to maintain engagement when MINUSMA’s mandate concludes. Regardless of the success of dialogue today, initiating a community-centered approach will rebuild legitimacy and lead to further discourse. Prioritizing dialogue will also strengthen community engagement vital to the reconciliation process. Finally, the realization of local agreements is fundamental to the creation of resilient provincial governance needed to stabilize Mali in the long-term and implement electoral reforms.

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