As French forces prepare to withdraw, Mali considers reviving negotiations with jihadists

With France expected to announce the withdrawal of troops from Mali on Thursday, Mali’s transitional government will be free to negotiate directly with jihadist groups linked to al-Qaeda, a move that Paris has strongly opposed.

After a French-led military intervention ousted the jihadists who controlled northern Mali in 2013, French forces continued to provide support for counter-terror operations. But deteriorating relations with Mali’s new military leaders, who seized power in a coup in 2020, prompted France to reconsider its role in the country.

At the heart of the dispute between France and the authorities in Bamako is whether Mali should enter into negotiations with the jihadist groups that continue to erupt in the north and center of the country. Bamako supports the opening of talks, while Paris believes that negotiations with the jihadists are a red line that must not be crossed.

Announcing the restructuring of France’s mission in Mali, French President Emmanuel Macron said: “We cannot carry out joint operations with the forces that decide to negotiate with groups that simultaneously shoot our children. No dialogue, no compromise.” Barkhane, last June.

It seems that France’s withdrawal will open a new page in Mali’s negotiations with the jihadists, and some analysts see the negotiations as inevitable.

Wassim Nasr, a specialist in jihadist movements at France 24, noted that “at the moment, there is a consensus of interests between the military council, the jihadists and the Russians, who all want the French to leave.” Nasr headed to a peace conference in Nouakchott, Mauritania, last week, which was attended by a number of senior financial officials, including Minister of National Reconciliation Colonel Ismail Wagwe, Minister of Religious Affairs and Worship Mohamedou Konya, and influential imam Mahmoud Deko.

“Everything leads us to believe that contacts took place in the corridors of this conference to push the negotiations forward,” Nasr said.

Macron’s announcement that France is expected to end its ninety-year mission in Mali coincides with the European Union and African Union summit in Brussels on Thursday and Friday.

Secret negotiations: The idea of ​​engaging in dialogue with jihadist groups is not new at all. “Talking with jihadists and fighting terrorism is not contradictory,” former Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Kitatold told France 24 in an interview in February 2020. “I have a duty and a mission today to create all possible spaces and do everything that is possible, and in one way or another, some kind of calm can be achieved.” It is time to explore certain avenues.”

The 2017 National Conference on Understanding in Mali proposed talks with jihadi leaders Amadou Koufa and Iyad Ag Ghali. Cova leads the Masina Brigade, while Ghali leads the al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamic and Muslim Support Group.

The current Malian Military Council is following in the footsteps of its predecessors, believing that weapons alone are not enough to stop the cycle of jihadist violence. At the end of October, a number of local media announced the start of negotiations under the auspices of the Supreme Islamic Council (HCIM), mandated by the government in Bamako. But the government eventually denied starting any negotiations.

Nasr explained, “The Malian government has always kept secretly negotiating with the GSIM, even if only for the sake of concluding local agreements.”

In March 2021, an inter-communal agreement made headlines in the central Malian municipality of Nyono. In exchange for forcing women to wear headscarves and allowing them to preach in villages, the jihadists agreed to release captives and allow armed soldiers to patrol.

Demonstrating the fragility of this type of agreement, the ceasefire collapsed over the summer. Last week, a large convoy of Malian soldiers was deployed to secure the area and provide humanitarian aid to the residents.

The junta, which controls barely a third of Mali’s territory, is under strong international pressure and saddled with heavy sanctions imposed by the Economic Community of West African States. Its primary goal is to obtain a respite.

The prospect of a ceasefire was already accepted in April 2020 by the local branch of al-Qaeda under the impetus of Mahmoud Dicko, the former head of the Supreme Islamic Council of Mali.

Nasr said, “Negotiations are the straw that broke the camel’s back for France, and in the current context, they are the last card played by the military council.” “Even if negotiations ultimately fail, the military council will be able to boast that it has facilitated the return of the displaced population or that it has enabled a particular village to stop being surrounded by jihadists, and that is what matters to the local population.”

After announcing the departure of France and its allies in the coming days, Mali’s neighboring Niger is expected to move to play a central role in the new military arrangement. It is likely that Paris will then offer its assistance to other West African countries to help them confront the spread of jihad towards the Gulf of Guinea.

This article was translated from the original into French.

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